The last four Presidents of the National Union of Students (NUS) have been women – but it took over 55 years to elect the first one. How much has really changed?
“This conference believes that it is the right of all women to organise autonomously, define their oppressions and decide on strategies to combat that oppression”.
The year prior to the passing of motion 134 at the 1986 NUS conference saw women take to the conference floor to campaign: “We weren’t all delegates,” says the union’s very first national women’s officer Julie Grant, “we came to protest.”
Julie was reminiscing about busy weeks in seaside towns – juggling multiple tasks and attempting to corral the young into an organised state. Yet 33 years on, she tells me she’s just had the most hectic week of her life. She jokes: “I can tell you, being NUS women’s officer is nothing on being a grandmother”.
In 1987, Julie began her term as NUS women’s officer, a year after becoming the country’s first full-time women’s sabbatical officer at Manchester Students’ Union, and 65 years after the national union was formed. Just a decade earlier, Sue Slipman had served her term as the first female NUS president.
The motion that established the elected role of national women’s officer and the funding of an annual women’s conference grew out of grassroots movements within individual university students’ unions. Women came together at informal and often unfunded women’s conferences from the early 1980s when, in Julie’s words, women’s issues finally came to the fore in student politics.
The idea of a women’s conference was not palatable to a lot of people in students’ unions at the time,” she explains, “they saw it as separatist.”
These views were not to be left in the 1980s. Despite serving decades apart, what unites Julie with Siobhan Endean, national women’s officer in 1993/4, and Estelle Hart, who held the post in 2011/2, is that all three women characterised their tenure partly as a fight to justify both their seat at the table, and the need for a separate, women’s-only table. Julie puts this down to a fundamental distrust – here, on the part of men – of what happens in spaces that one cannot access.
Siobhan Endean was explaining the “Winning the argument” campaign, which supported women working in students’ unions to make the case for women-only spaces for policymaking in the early 1990’s. Making the case for being at the table, it seems, can be distracting:
Park the arguments and get on with the business. Quite often, when you get on with the business, all that other stuff goes away.”
Siobhan came into office at a time when student debt and finances were the main priority – maintenance loans were phased in during the early 1990’s, joined by the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. When Siobhan began her term at NUS, industry was in severe decline, accompanied by rising unemployment, poverty, and a widening gender pay gap. “We were concerned with how labour market precarity affected women – so there are a lot of echoes from then to now.”
Looking back at the evolution of the women’s movement in student politics, Julie says: “The most striking thing to me is how little has changed – in a good way and in a bad way.”
The establishment of women’s-only roles and spaces as a route to furthering the interests of women students has stood the test of time: “The same strategy is being used for other liberation campaigns – like those organised by black students or disabled students – to get their voices heard. It has made NUS more democratic.” That’s the upside.
But, when I look at the issues they campaign on today, I just think we weren’t radical enough.” In Julie’s view, when it comes to the broader issues dominating the women’s agenda, not a great deal has changed.
Debates around sexual harassment and reproductive rights have been on the agenda for a good quarter of a century. As Estelle Hart explains, you cannot look at the women’s movement among student unions without looking more broadly at the state of mainstream feminism. Public campaigns with tremendous reach, like the #MeToo movement targeting sexual violence and harassment, have moved feminist ideas into mainstream thinking in recent years.
Social media is, indisputably, one of the biggest factors: Estelle Hart describes how the very structure of influence within student politics has changed as a result of social media use.
There used to be a feeling of exclusivity in the women’s movement, whereby people were more focused on your knowledge of particular thinkers etc – but in recent years it’s been more open.”
In Julie’s view, persistent issues have become easier to talk about as public awareness has improved over the years. But both Estelle and Julie argue there is a particular risk involved with a growing vocabulary to discuss social issues: “It is easier for people to say the “correct things” without a deeper understanding of what that means and without a focus on the structural problems at hand,” says Estelle.
There’s an idea that we have ‘solved’ discrimination – but people still struggle to conceptualise sexism as anything broader than open slurs against women.”
Julie feels that changes in language over the years can facilitate more depth and focus in discussions of policy surrounding women’s issues while at the same time opening up the debate. Take the term ‘lad culture’ – it might better communicate an issue to people who otherwise might not have listened or engaged with a debate that instead used a word like “misogyny” in its place. Nonetheless, to Julie, the source of these new terms is just as important:
It can be really positive to have different ways of talking about things, but it depends who coins the phrase. If someone is coining the phrase in order to defend their own bad behaviour, then we have to look at that really carefully.”
When I ask Julie whether she believes that “identity politics” – the term often used to critique groups of people with a shared identity who promote their own shared interests rather than those of a wider population – is a problem, she recalls having this faced this criticism herself.
We were always accused of playing ‘identity politics’ and this was used as a criticism of us by the prevailing elites. People used to say that we would consider anything a woman said to be right and anything anyone else said to be wrong. Often it’s fear. People in the traditional power structures are afraid of change, rightly, because often it challenges their own power.
Even within the women’s campaign there were women with different, sometimes it felt to them conflicting, priorities. In every space and discourse you have to be careful to not get into any hierarchy of oppression. This takes constant vigilance and communication between different groups and structures if things are to move forward.
Free speech vs liberation
The row around identity politics is about contested versions of freedom – for advocates, it highlights the way the way in which structural oppression works and aims to secure the freedoms of marginalised groups – for others the drive for ‘autonomous spaces’ sacrifices the freedoms of those who do not have a place in those spaces. Is there an inherent conflict between protecting freedom of speech and furthering the interests of liberation campaigns for marginalised groups? Julie thinks not.
Liberation campaigns are one of the best ways for us to reach those complicated decisions on the limits of free speech. If you never had a black students conference, how would you know what black students think of issues affecting them?
That’s not to say they’re the only ones who can engage in the dialogue, but they are the ones whose views you definitely cannot do without.”
For Julie, there is a difference between feeling able to engage in dialogue and having the power to set policy and priorities affecting groups you do not belong to – and there is a tendency to assume that if you cannot do the latter, you cannot engage in conversations either. Julie suggests that this often comes from a place of fear.
People feel very threatened by catering to the needs of lots of different groups and feel if they don’t identify with these groups that they have nothing worth saying, when they do.
For example, I’m not black or jewish, but that doesn’t stop me engaging with issues affecting those who are – I have to be part of the dialogue at some point because I am part of the problem. But why would I want to challenge their right to an autonomous space to discuss and debate how the world affects them and the changes they need to see? That space is surely crucial to us all having a better idea of what racism and anti-semitism is and how to challenge it.”
Today, the expansion of these “liberation campaigns” both within NUS and inside local students’ unions has led to a proliferation of positions and structures – sometimes created without the grassroots support characteristic in the origins. Where do they go from here? For Julie, the way forward comes from maintaining the structures of democracy at a national union level.
The main thing to me is to keep the democracy element, extend and enrich it by creating spaces for people of marginalised groups. This is one of the huge strengths of NUS.”
The debate about the place of liberation campaigns in the structure of student politics can often boil down to a tension between efficiency and clarity in the policymaking process within students’ unions and, on the other hand, the complexity these campaigns add to the policymaking structure and the toxicity that can arise when navigating issues like hierarchies of oppression.
All three former women’s officers – Julie, Siobhan and Estelle – agreed that students must appreciate the complexities of the issues at hand and avoid the risk of seeing them as binary options, but that it’s not for them to offer advice: the students of today are best placed to work through these challenges themselves. On the topic of the way forward for the NUS women’s movement, Julie says:
It is a question for the women in NUS today to decide, not for others outside NUS to dictate. And it is for those women to carve out the ground they need to take the campaign forward. When I look at what the women’s campaign is doing currently I know that, whatever the obstacles, they are more than equal to the task. I salute them.”