By Kate Harris
A few weeks ago, University of London Union President Michael Chessum (who also happens to be my housemate) asked me what I thought of gender quotas at the National Union of Students.(1) He seemed to be rather surprised by my answer, a swear-free version of which would be, “I don’t care”.
This isn’t because I don’t care that women are underrepresented in the student movement — far from it. I was shocked that the left at NUS National Conference hadn’t asked more women comrades to take “big speeches” on controversial issues such as the Free Education amendment. It is something I think we need to address immediately, especially as we were not short of militant, fantastic women at that conference.
My apathy towards gender quotas in NUS is not because I don’t care that only 30% of conference delegates are women. I think that’s really crap. And it isn’t because I’m scared, as Socialist Appeal are, that “class fighters” will be left out because of their gender – because the best class fighters I know are women.(2)
There are two reasons why my response to gender quotas in NUS was a hefty “meh”.
Firstly, it’s about the political direction of NUS. The NUS President, Toni Pearce, who was re-elected at conference, is a woman — but I don’t like her “leadership”, policies or way of operating. She is probably a lovely person, I have no idea — this is purely my political feeling. I’m a revolutionary socialist, in fact I would say a third camp Trotskyist, and she is on the right of the Labour Party.
I also can’t really say that the NUS Women’s Campaign is politically any better. The NUS Women’s Campaign has just elected, by a narrow margin, ultra-bureaucrat Susuana Antubam: the sort of person who tells you she has misgivings about “Marxism” or “Trots” but is unable to explain any further what this means. She also objected to NCAFC Women’s pamphlet on the basis that we were asking people to have honest and open debates, I believe because she thinks that is not women-friendly.
So I don’t think that having more women delegates or more women on the National Executive Committee, as an end in itself, is a very good one. It depends what those women stand for and how you treat the women you don’t agree with. It seems women with a socialist perspective aren’t very welcome in the Women’s Campaign, and it would seem that we also aren’t made very welcome at national conference, and are forgotten about even by our own comrades sometimes.
So, what will this do to help socialist women get our voices heard in a bureaucratic and right-wing union? Probably not very much.
The second reason I’m apathetic towards gender quotas in NUS is that it’s a bureaucratic solution to a deep-rooted, societal problem, and doesn’t really address that deep-rooted problem (societal sexism). I’m not against the quotas, and no NUS policy is ever going to get rid of societal sexism altogether, I just think they’re rather depressing. Manchester SU’s Women’s Officer, Tabz O’Brien Butcher, said during her speech, “we don’t live in a meritocracy, we live in a misogyny”. We do live in a deeply sexist and misogynistic society, in which respected actresses like Joanna Lumley minimise and dismiss sexual assault and around 95% of rape cases do not result in prosecution.
But I’m not sure how gender quotas address this. It’s a coup for a small number women at different institutions around the UK who may be elected more easily, or may feel encouraged to run, but it’s only for them — there are millions more student women who have no contact with NUS. Again, that’s not really an argument against it, it’s just another reason why I don’t really care about them.
There needs to be a deep shift in the thinking of people in the student movement, across the political spectrum. Instead of men assigning work and leadership activities to do amongst themselves, but being simultaneously terrified of being accused of sexism, we all need to have a long, hard look at ourselves, and start by getting women to do these things, not because they’re women, but because they’re bloody good.
• Kate is Women’s Officer of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
Originally published in Solidarity 321, 23 April 2014