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Rewriting Academia

The Development of the Anglicist Women’s and Gender Studies of Continental Europe

Edited By Renate Haas

From a historical perspective, the full academic establishment of Women’s and Gender Studies is a radical and far-reaching innovation. Decisive impulses have come from the United States, the European unification and globalization. European Women’s and Gender Studies are therefore intimately linked to the English language and Anglophone cultures, as the near untranslatability of «gender» shows. In this volume 25 experts present surveys for their countries with a historical and European contextualization and offer fundamental insights not only for English Studies but also various other disciplines.
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Women’s Studies in Belgium: Through the Gate of English Literature

Marysa Demoor

Women’s Studies in Belgium: Through the Gate of English Literature

1.  Introduction

As in other European countries Belgium (re-)discovered the urgent need to redress the balance between men and women in the last decades of the twentieth century, starting in the 1970s. This happened on two fronts: there were the ideologically motivated women who wanted to see societal and political changes and organised themselves as pressure groups (such as VOK, Vrouwen Overleg Komitee, since 1972), and alongside those there were vocal politicians who worked to have women’s issues on the agenda (e.g. Miet Smet became Minister of Emancipation in 1985 and Minister of Equal Opportunities in 1991), and then there was academia where women researchers joined forces to ensure that women too could aim for some of the most coveted jobs available and where research started to explore new avenues uncovering the achievements of women in the past and the present. The present overview aims to focus on what happened in academia.

2.  National Context

Belgium is not a particularly remarkable country in the history of feminism and women’s studies. Even so, it did have its own exceptional women in the late nineteenth century when the woman’s cause was happening elsewhere or had happened; it too had women who made a mark for themselves in the fight for equal rights.

2.1  General Situation and Glimpses from History

Marie Popelin (1846–1913), the first Belgian woman to obtain a Law degree, joined forces with Isabelle Gatti de Gamond (1839–1905) in a sustained and noted attempt to establish schools for girls and women. A third woman who is consistently named in this context is Isala Van Diest (1842–1916), the first female physician. Yet changes in the law that ← 133 | 134 → gave women career opportunities were introduced very slowly. And Belgian women were only to obtain the vote in 1948.

Curiously enough it was within the traditional parties that women first began to make some leeway in their struggle for equal opportunities and of those parties it seems the Flemish Catholic Party (CVP now CD&V) was to give them most opportunities. This paradox is easy to explain if one understands the socialists’ conviction that women were bound to vote for the Catholic Party since they were considered to be the more church-going of the two sexes. The result was that societal changes benefiting women were often developed among Catholic women’s organisations: the well-developed child care and crèches, for instance, are a boon to working women for which the Catholic Women’s Society (KAV, Katholieke Arbeidersvrouwen, now renamed as Femma) is responsible. Apart from the consolidation of political efforts in the form of a federal minister for equal opportunities there was the establishment in 2002 of a federal Institute for the equality of women and men.

2.2  The Women’s and Gender Studies of Belgium in General − Stages and Forms of Institutionalisation

The academic centres for women’s studies started to pop up in Belgium in the late 1980s. The first one was the centre at the Free University of Brussels founded by the politician and professor in art history Lydia De Pauw-de Veen in 1988. After that auspicious start a whole series of centres popped up at the Universities of Brussels (ULB, 1989), Ghent (UGent, 1990), Antwerp (1980s) and this continued until well into the 21st century. The more recent centres were usually better institutionalised and funded by the respective university. Also, the absence of a centre at a university does not mean that there was no individual research on the subject with strongly motivated supervisors and young students who believed they had for themselves discovered the subject they cared most about.

All of the ongoing academic research as well as the finished research is archived, informed and supported by the umbrella organisation called Sophia established in 1990. Sophia was founded by a group of Dutch (Flemish) and French speaking academics, it therefore sports a double label ‘Bicommunautair coördinatienetwerk vrouwenstudies − Réseau bicommunautaire ← 134 | 135 → de coordination des études-femmes’. The activities of Sophia were strengthened in 1995 by the establishment of a resource centre called Amazone, headed by Bieke van Nuland. This was a resource and documentation centre of women’s studies with its own meeting rooms.

In the meantime female academics started meeting in the context of co-teaching and co-supervising research. The University of Antwerp started teaching modules on ‘women and society’ from 1987 onwards. From 1994 this was transformed into a full-blown postgraduate women’s studies with the collaboration of the other Flemish universities (with the exception of the Free University of Brussels). The dynamic coordinators of this programme were Mieke Van Haegendoorn (Hasselt) and Magda Michielsens (Antwerp). The women’s studies programme was a great success with many of its alumnae still working on gender right now.

In the mid-1990s women academics also joined forces to launch research projects funded by an impulse programme earmarked for the humanities. This was to initiate a four-year long collaboration between the Universities of Leuven (Lieve Vandemeulebroek and Agnes De Munter), Ghent (Frieda Saeys and Marysa Demoor), Antwerp (Magda Michielsens) and Hasselt (Mieke van Haegendoorn) leading to seminal research results and consolidating the partnership between universities. Unfortunately and ironically, these excellent and fruitful collaborative efforts were broken off with the launch of a new research programme set up expressly to stimulate collaboration but with a very political imprint. The expensive programme was divided over the universities in a more or less arbitrary fashion and for the axis of women’s and diversity studies the subsidy went in its entirety to the University of Antwerp. This effectively ended the collaboration between the university centres. Only with the new and younger generation of academics did collaboration start again, in a different form.

3.  Anglicist Women’s and Gender Studies of Ghent University

At Ghent University, the initiative to improve the situation for women researchers and for research on women was taken by Myriam De Pauw, then a part-time assistant lecturer of pedagogy, who in 1990 invited all women colleagues to meet and talk about equality issues at the University and to ← 135 | 136 → discuss their ongoing research. The meeting led to the organisation in 1991 of an international conference on women’s studies, the success of which was such that it was decided to publish the proceedings and to organise an annual event of lectures presenting ongoing research focussing on gender at Ghent University. In the mid-1990s the name of the Centre of Women’s Studies was changed into Centre of Gender Studies.

From the very start I was a member of the centre, a founding member if you will. I was then a young but tenured researcher in English literature specialised in nineteenth-century literature. After a PhD on a Victorian literary critic I had re-directed my research towards women novelists of the 1890s. Women and the role of gender in the literature of the late nineteenth century were to remain my main research interest in the course of the next thirty years. The academic context was very congenial to the kind of research I wanted to promote. My colleagues Gert Buelens and Bart Eeckhout were interested in similar subjects, though perhaps leaning a bit more towards queer studies. Under the umbrella of the Centre of Gender Studies I was given the opportunity to supervise a project on ‘Gender and Insanity’ in the Middle Ages (researcher Dr. Katrien Heene), followed by a large project on women journalists in Flanders at the turn of the nineteenth century (researchers Liselotte Vandenbussche and Geraldine Reymenants). These first projects were financed by the Ghent Research Council, since the National Science Foundation had indirectly expressed a bias against women’s studies at the time. A few years later, however, I was granted the supervision of a project on the clash between feminism and Darwinism (researcher: Griet Vandermassen) and thus the Centre of Gender Studies got off on a flying start. In 2000 I published a monograph on women reviewers in the nineteenth century (Ashgate), in 2002 the first PhD with gender as its focus (Chia Longman) was defended with me as co-supervisor, and since then the production of PhDs has been continuous. There have been successful PhDs on women journalists in Flanders, on performativity in Edith Wharton and Djuna Barnes, on performativity and masculinity in Hemingway and Lawrence, on Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell and Amy Lowell, on women’s periodicals in the nineteenth century and on gender in nineteenth-century sonnet cycles. And there are ongoing doctorates on the influence of the representation of Celtic women on the women’s movement ← 136 | 137 → in the nineteenth century, and a study of authorship and early modern scientific women writers.

There were similar developments in the literature departments at the Universities of Leuven and Antwerp. In Leuven, however, there were no women professors of English literature in the 1990s and the speciality in gender studies went to a young male colleague. Only recently and with a newly tenured female colleague, Prof. Elke D’hoker, did gender studies truly take off in the literature department of that ancient university. In Antwerp the appreciation of gender studies happened earlier. Classes on gender and literature were organised by the colleagues Dr Wim Neetens and Dr Vivian Liska in the 1980s. But this particular team was brought to a stop by the untimely death of Wim in 1996 and the fact that Vivian’s tenure took a very long time to materialise. In Wallonia, the efforts to set up a gender studies avenue did not cross the language borders. With the start of the new millennium, however, it is known that new initiatives were launched at those Walloon universities with new courses on gender in Liège and the Université Catholique de Louvain.

Most members of the first generation of women fighting for equal opportunities have now left academia or have retired. As a result I sometimes feel a bit like a dinosaur, especially when one’s young female colleagues proclaim that they’ve invented equal opportunities and ignore the work done by the older generations. Others seem to think gender studies are unnecessary and patronising to women. The work of a lifetime is not always appreciated as it should and without women to support it, it is doomed to die a certain death.

3.1  Institutionalisation (in Comparison with 2.2)

The successful development at Ghent University was moved forward with a leap under Vice-Chancellor Professor André De Leenheer when, in 2004, he decided to grant the money for a researcher who was to focus solely on the equality issues of the students and staff at the University. Statistics were compiled and a questionnaire was created and distributed amongst members of staff. The results of the statistics were baffling. The number of women academics was seen to be astronomically low and the lopsided distribution of responsibilities was shown to start at the level of the ← 137 | 138 → students already. The questionnaire indicated that a majority of male and female faculty supported the implementation of a policy in favour of equal opportunities.

3.2  Main Lines of Development, Important Achievements

The results of the questionnaire and the overview of the statistics were presented to the board of directors of the University and to the faculty councils of every faculty at the University. Then a new team of vice-chancellor and deputy-vice-chancellor (Prof. P. Van Cauwenberghe and Prof. L. Moens) were elected and they decided that the University needed a team of policy officers who would make sure that the University’s disgraceful record would be improved in the short term. With the financial help of Flemish community money the new centre was officially launched in October 2008. The centre set up several projects that were especially meant to lead a larger number of students of minority ethnic background to and through the University, to provide facilitating programmes to students with a handicap and to make sure more women reached top positions at the University.

I was appointed as the head of this team with the new title Advisor to the Rector on Gender and Diversity. Apart from myself, the team proper consisted of three tenured policy officers, two of which had to take on the gender issues and one who had to tackle diversity. Then four more officers were selected and appointed on a temporary basis. These had to take on specific issues related to students of minority ethnic backgrounds. The problems they addressed were language issues (academic Dutch), the low numbers of students from other ethnic background and their poor chances at passing the exams, as well as the adaptation problems of educated asylum seekers and refugees. Thus the centre’s main interest was in diversity and not gender. But the policy centre did run a number of successful programmes that improved the situation of female academics. With the establishment of MENZA, for instance, a project was launched by which young academics were mentored by settled academics. Mentees were assigned a mentor of another faculty because the help to be provided was an attitude to the job rather than the specifics of their discipline. The mentees were taught the ropes, shown how to network, given advice as to how to combine work and family. The policy centre also created more crèches for children of ← 138 | 139 → academics and an ironing service for all personnel of the University. In the summer of 2011 then, two of the tenured members declared their unwillingness to continue to organise the annual lectures on gender research (the Genderforum) and the annual publication it provided for. In that summer of discontent also the University chancellors appointed a male member of the board of directors to survey the implementation of the equality criteria among faculty. As a result of these actions which seemed very much counterproductive, I resigned as advisor to the Rector. I did remain the president of the centre for gender studies and as such coordinated the launch of a new scholarly journal entitled DiGeSt (Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies). This bi-annual journal is to start publication in 2014. The Centre of Gender Studies is reinforced through the appointment in 2013 of a Professor of Gender Studies (Dr Chia Longman) who is also the force behind a new inter-university Master in Gender Studies.

In the course of 2013 a new vice-chancellor was to be elected. To make sure that female faculty would stand an equal chance a woman politician, Fientje Moerman, actively lobbied for the law to be changed in such a way that either the deputy-vice-chancellor or the vice-chancellor had to be of the female sex. Prior to the elections I organised several meetings with the women full professors who could theoretically stand as candidates. These meetings served to set up a network of female full professors; they were a forum for debate and occasions at which the women could gather information about the opportunity now opening up for them. The meetings also created a real support group for whichever woman was to be in the head seat. Eventually we had two good candidates for the coming election in May 2013 and, better still, one of them, Prof. Ann De Paepe, a specialist in genetics was chosen to be the next vice-chancellor. In October 2013 the academic year will be opened by the first female vice-chancellor of the University. 2013 was a good year for women’s equality.


‘Interview met Eliane Gubin’, Sophia Nieuwsbrief, no. 21–22 (maart-mei 2000), 88–92.

‘Interview met Marysa Demoor en Chia Longman’, Sophia Nieuwsbrief, no. 23 (september 2000), 44–50. ← 139 | 140 →

Verstappen, Lut, ‘Wijven met Complimenten’, EOS Wetenschap (Memo geschiedenis no. 4), december 2012, 44–49.


DiGeSt / Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies <>.

Sophia. Réseau belge des études de genre / Belgisch netwerk voor genderstudies <>.

[Received August 27, 2013] ← 140 | 141 →