"Murray Edwards argues that all-female spaces in Cambridge must continue to exist because 'there is much gender inequality still in the world.'"Hassan Raja

During the ongoing divestment debate at Cambridge, it must be recognised that unethical investment in fossil fuel companies is, above all, a feminist issue. It is imperative that Cambridge’s women’s colleges rethink their investments to reflect this. The three female-only colleges – Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish – are institutions with long histories of fighting for gender justice. In 2019, climate justice is gender justice. With pressure from divestment campaigns increasing, these colleges, along with their co-ed counterparts, have the opportunity to recognise and act on the undeniable fact that climate change is a women’s issue.

Figures released by the United Nations earlier this year revealed that women are more likely than men to be affected by climate change, stating that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. The position of women as primary caregivers and providers of food makes them more vulnerable in the event of natural catastrophes, such as the increasing number of floods and droughts associated with climate change. Statistics from non-profit environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defence Council reveal that two-thirds of the jobs lost after Hurricane Katrina had belonged to women. In cases where gender intersects with race, the severity of the impact increases: the BBC reported that after Hurricane Katrina, African-American women were among the worst affected by the flooding in Louisiana.

Given that the number of natural disasters caused by climate change is increasing rapidly, the world’s most vulnerable women will continue to bear the brunt of the fallout of these environmental catastrophes if no action is taken.

An article published by European Parliament News states that “when women and girls are displaced, they are much more exposed to sexual violence and have other needs, such as sanitary ones, that are often not met.” Sexual violence and period poverty are both ongoing issues of debate in Cambridge, but discussions are at risk of becoming insular, forgetting those who suffer the aftermath of climate crises. This insularity, should we not turn our gaze outward as well as inward, risks creating tension between the feminist theory taught at our University and how we put this feminism into practice. It simply is not enough for an institution to teach feminism in an academic context without practical application. As institutions dedicated to providing opportunities for women to succeed, women’s colleges should play an active role in countering this inward-looking perspective.

“Female-only colleges should not limit their efforts to the women who walk their corridors”

Cambridge’s all-female colleges are the only institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom that remain single-sex, on the basis of providing a safe and empowering space for women. Newnham asserts they are a college that “gives priority to the achievement, needs and potential of women”, while Murray Edwards argues that all-female spaces in Cambridge must continue to exist because “there is much gender inequality still in the world.” These statements demonstrate an interest in the fates of women in the global community, which should be matched by pushing for University-wide divestment.

Claims by these colleges to support the protection and enhancement of women risk coming under scrutiny in light of their lack of commitment to divestment. Figures requested under the Freedom of Information Act, and published in a Varsity and Cherwell investigation last term, reveal the extent of the all-female colleges’ investments. Most notably, Lucy Cavendish was found to have direct investments in oil and gas companies, including BP and Shell, totaling £450,293. Investments in fossil fuel companies whose practices serve to exploit and further disadvantage the world’s most vulnerable women are unethical. Research published in 2016 detailing the long term detriment to the health of women in Louisiana health as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revealed that both direct exposure to the oil spill and indirect effects of the spill had an impact on the physical health of adult women residing in southeastern Louisiana.

Lucy Cavendish’s website states the college is as “radical” as they were in the 1960s when it was founded. Divesting from companies like BP, whose practices endanger women, and pushing for University-wide divestment, are obvious next steps for the college’s efforts in fighting gender inequalities. Women’s colleges are faced with the opportunity to make substantive change to the lives of women globally by committing to divestment.


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The three women’s colleges are already facing pressure to divest, with climate justice college groups at Newnham and Murray Edwards organising banner drops and letter writing sessions last term calling for their respective colleges to divest. It seems likely to intensify in Lent Term: over the Christmas holiday, the Zero Carbon campaign highlighted the crucial link between climate change and women’s livelihoods, stating in a Facebook post that “[t]here are multiple ways in which the climate crisis intersects with feminism, something which Zero Carbon will be exploring in the coming term. One thing, however, is for certain: there will be no solution to the ecological crisis without women’s liberation and gender equality.”

Female-only colleges should not limit their efforts to support and nurture women’s growth and education to the women who walk their corridors. They must act for the protection and care of women worldwide. Managing their investments in an ethical way that reflects support of all women, everywhere, would be a point at which the rationale for these institutions becomes praxis. Women’s colleges must recognise this and take their place at the forefront of the divestment movement.

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