At what point is a figure too political to be celebrated? I am a second-year geography student, and I’m undecided as to whether I support the display of the now-infamous portrait of Theresa May on the School of Geography and Environment’s walls – and this question sums up my internal debate.
Geography as a discipline is unusually self-reflective in that it constantly questions its own past and its current production of knowledge.
This is something that our degree encourages from students – critical analysis is a necessary element in all geographical thought and underpins our academic work.
The protest from ‘NotAllGeographers’ and academics within the department is laudable, but in ignoring the other female alumnae on that wall, these critics have only done half of their job.
The selection of each individual on that wall was in itself a political act, yet remains unquestioned.
For example, the progressive Doreen Massey, who sat below May before the portrait’s removal, was extremely politically active in her lifetime, including her contentious influence over Hugo Chavez’s political strategies in his Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
Yet politics isn’t necessarily just what’s played out at the international level – the deliberate repre- sentation of any of these women is putting across a point.
As a crude example, choosing an Olympian over a musician might suggest that sporting success is more impressive than music for Oxford’s alumnae.
Each of these women are influential in different ways, so just because Theresa May is highly visible in the public realm doesn’t mean that Susan Smith’s contribution to economic geography won’t have had impacts on the production of knowledge which will impact the worldviews of her students and the field as a whole.
Either think about the selection of each woman, or accept that this is a non-political display charting the success of female alumnae of the department regardless of their views.
The academics, in their letter, point out that Theresa May’s policies as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister don’t align with the typically left-leaning tendencies of contemporary Geography.
It is worth remembering that Theresa May’s geographical education in the mid-1970s would have been drastically different to that of today’s students, which now incorporates a much more radical approach where activism and social justice are increasingly a primary goal for geographical scholars.
The point to be made here is that Geography is a subject in a state of flux, with constantly moving views and positions.
Oxford students may champion postcolonial perspectives in our studies of development and moder- nity, but we do this while sitting in the Halford Mackinder Lecture Theatre, named after a colonialist who disrespected and phsyically abused his black porters.
On our way to the lecture theatre, we peacefully make our way past Rhodes House, representing the infamous British imperialist.
Where do we draw the line between who is appropriate to represent the discipline, or even who is sufficiently inoffensive to be publicly celebrated?
It’s true that portraying an incumbent head of government is an unusual practice in any higher education institution.
It’s also true that is could be construed as the School of Geography and the Environment taking an active political stance in favour of one party, and academics’ concern at this is logical.
However, the School was trying to highlight through this display that its female graduates can go on to do exciting and interesting things with their degree.
The variety of successful women on show from a range of political backgrounds should serve to inspire the next generation of Oxford Geography students, rather than divide them.