A ‘Self-Defined’ Mess

Lauren Sutherland ponders the broader issues that have been triggered by the fight for Women’s Officer.

With a voting rate of 17% last year, it can’t be denied that the controversy surrounding 2013’s Women’s Officer Campaign has dusted off the stagnant layer of apathy coating the annual UCLU elections.  With the dispute between Kirk Sneade, Helen-Chandler Wilde and Beth Sutton reaching as far as Warwick University, the debate surrounding the legitimacy of a man running for a position that, arguably, by its very nature, calls for a woman and the limitations set on those eligible to vote, is something that needs to be seriously considered.

What exactly does the role of Women’s Officer entail?  According to UCLU’s 2013 position descriptions, Women’s Officer will: “coordinate and lead projects and campaigns on issues relating to Women students.”  Ah! Of course!  Those issues… women issues… female issues.  This is all starting to sound alarmingly familiar, as I cast my mind back to my 13 year old self listening uncomfortably to my equally uncomfortable father, attempting to discuss periods at the kitchen table.  How is anyone meant to take this role seriously, when the people who created it don’t even explain what it does?  “The Women’s Officer represents the interests of UCL’s women students”.  Right… “The Women’s Officer will represent women students externally”.  Ok, yep, great – anything more specific?  No?  Ok.  No such difficulties were faced by the Black and Minority Ethnic Student’s Officer, whose description states that they must lead the fight against “racism and fascism.” BAM – purpose; no wishy washy ‘issues relating to minorities’; they know exactly what they’re dealing with.

Kirk Sneade argues that the very position of Women’s Officer is counter-productive and, instead, the Union should ensure the “equality of all students irrespective, of race, sexuality, religion or gender”, defending his running for the role.  Others contend that…women’s officer is a vital role …., just as you’d be hard pushed to find many rounded individuals putting up a fight because there’s no White British Student’s Officer, you similarly wouldn’t insist that a white candidate be of superior capability when representing a community of Ethnic Minorities.

Nonetheless, regardless of your position, this argument brings forth the debate surrounding those eligible to vote for Women’s Officer.  Anyone who doesn’t ‘self-define’ as a woman is unentitled to vote for Women’s Officer.

By insisting that those who want to vote, submit a photo and ‘self-define’ as a woman, The Union brands women as ‘The Other’, and by limiting voting rights we have not only successfully reversed civil rights a good few decades, but set the precedent that only women can be concerned with issues such as abuse, abortion, equality and women’s general welfare.  If the Union side-lines these issues, removing them from the public domain, how can we expect the next generation of ‘self-defining’ male politicians to care about women’s rights, when their own University forbade them to.  Furthermore, it derails feminist legitimacy, living up to the stereotype of man-hating nuisances.

This too applies to BME and LGBT+ Officers and thus, we run the risk of segregating these members of society, making homophobia and racism their issue, not society’s.

Whether you deem Sneade a hero for highlighting the Union’s deficiencies, or proclaim him to be “a misogynistic homophobe”, I was under the impression that the Union wanted to increase this 17% voting record.  Alienating half the campus population is not the way to do it.