Women’s issues are at the forefront of our political society. Women hold up half the sky, after all. From the decriminalisationof abortion in October 2019 to the newly restored Stormont with our female first and deputy first Ministers early this year, us girls have had a lot to show for ourselves. Why, then, are we so underrepresented and so silent on the student stage?
Here in Lancaster, I am co-chair of our Universities’ Labour Society. The Society is the largest on campus political society, and each week its meetings attract around forty students, from all ages, backgrounds and genders. Though they are still dominated by the male voice.
Katie Whearty, former Women’s officer of the society and City Councillor, said;
‘I think the fact I’m a noticeably working-class woman is definitely the biggest issue I face in that it’s automatically assumed I know less because of my accent. The fact I’m quite feminine is literally seen as proof that their first assumption that I am less intelligent is correct. I’ve had people question if I’m sleeping with other people to get ahead or if I only wore makeup to meetings to impress people.’
This points to a number of significant problems in student politics, and in political society as a whole. Classism is undoubtedly a factor in our University’s politics; Katie's scouse accent and my rural Northern Irish accent provoke similar faces of disgust and confusion on some of our peers. The reality is, however, that society at large does not speak in the masculine BBC English of political societies. It is high time politics acknowledged that.
What's more, the obsession of some with strong female’s sexuality is strange at best, and at worst it is simply dangerous. How can we expect women to feel welcomed in politics when we attribute their successes to their partners? To their personal appearance?
Within my own society, I also spoke to Fabiha Askari. Fabiha is a first-year student of Pakistani descent. When asked to describe what her experience of being a politics student is like, she responded;
‘[It’s] very chaotic. Especially in seminars. This is because people say controversial things that can be pro-British Empire. Politics is a very ‘white’ subject.’
The idea of using imperialism to provoke a response in students of minority ethnicities in an academic setting is abhorrent. The experiences Fabiha has are even more extreme than those which provoked me to write this piece. In the year 2020, we should not be allowed to let these outdated and deeply offensive attitudes impact on those members of our society who are more vulnerable, especially our women of colour.
In my own experience, certain ‘left wing’ men do not always have the most progressive views of women. On a night out at University I was told I was ‘too intimidating.’ You need only click onto any vaguely controversial tweet of mine to find such slurs as ‘boot’, or to find my appearance compared to that of a ‘middle aged man.’ Carrying my accent and speaking conversational Gaeilge in certain circles of English University life is seen all too often as an invitation to be called a terrorist, or to have jokes made about the famine to you.
I struggled to believe that these experiences were isolated to the mainly left-wing circles I find myself in, so I reached out to girls in the other political societies on campus to see what they thought of political life.
Laura da Costa, a third-year politics and international relations student, and the LGBTQ+ Officer of the Liberal Democrats on campus, said;
‘I’ve personally always felt like a bit of an outsider in the political field, and I think that’s because it’s always dominated by men. I have always been interested in politics, but before coming to Lancaster I never felt comfortable enough to fully engage with it personally. Despite joining the society at the beginning of my third year, I felt instantly welcomed when I joined the Liberal Democrats on Campus and running for the LGBTQ+ officer position really helped me build my confidence.’
‘I think a huge problem with campus politics, broadly, is that the relative lack of female representation puts other women off joining. But I think it’s so important that women take the plunge and participate, because this will always be more rewarding and fruitful than just sitting back and watching. It is only by doing this that women can feel more comfortable in the political field.’
Philippa Cawdell, a first-year politics, philosophy and economics student and member of the Conservative Society, said of her activism;
‘There are many more male voices than female, and sometimes it feels like female voices aren’t listened to as much. This is sort of what drove me into politics, trying to get more women involved and to try to get my voice heard.’
She echoed Fabiha’s experience of studying politics as a woman, stating that;
‘Studying politics is learning a lot about what men do for the country, but not that many women are mentioned.’
This is the most cross-party consensus I have come across in all my time at University. It has become abundantly clear to me that women in student politics are still very much facing an uphill battle for equality and recognition of their work and their voices, across all political societies. However, it is clearly also something we women in politics feel very passionate about… Those who have come before us have undoubtedly been incredibly successful, we need only look at the Labour leadership candidates for proof of this in my own party, at the two female Conservative Prime Ministers, or at First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Women are capable, intelligent, resilient. Women in politics are incredibly so. But it is not an easy environment to be in. So, I decided to explore more deeply why we still partake in it.
For a view closer to home, and for a broader view of experiences, I spoke to some off- campus activists. As we know all too well, Northern Ireland is not renowned for its friendly politics, and throughout my time at school, feminism was almost seen as a dirty word. While my own activism only really took off when I left home, I have many friends from home who were, and continue to be heavily involved in activism there.
Anna McAree is a 21-year old student from Derry. She was involved in the assembly campaign for People Before Profit in 2016, as well as the fight for Marriage Equality in NI and for abortion rights north and south of the border. She told me;
‘I met countless numbers of inspirational women who lead the fight everyday for rights such as these, and they are among the toughest fighters there are. Women have always been seen as the minority in politics, breaking through in a man’s world. However, I think it is easy to see that women have always been the backbone of social movements and campaigns, [the] heart and soul of politics.’
‘Being a woman in politics is not necessarily an easy thing to be involved in. Women are often overlooked as serious political figures and often seen as tokens to make political parties look good. However, being a woman in politics can also be rewarding, with the platform growing and new opportunities being presented to women now to take control of a platform they were always in the background of.’
Anna’s message is a very important one; a reflection of why so many of us across all places and parties have taken such an interest in politics, despite all the backlash. Taking our future into our own hands and doing the most for our fellow females is truly the most rewarding.
Here in Northern Ireland, we have a strong history of female voices paving the way for politics. One simply cannot negate the instrumental role of the Women’s Coalition, a party founded by and led by women, in the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement. We’ve recently seen the rise of Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and Naomi Long as the leaders of their respective political parties, with other prominent voices being seen in the smaller parties. This is perhaps personified by Claire Hanna, the recently elected MP for Belfast South. I asked Ms Hanna about her own experiences as a woman in student politics. Like Katie Whearty in Lancaster, Claire served as a councillor while studying part time in her 20s and 30s. This points to how wide and varied women’s political careers can be; especially when these women are not “career politicians.”
I found through my own lived experiences and through discussions with women from all political persuasions and geographical backgrounds that we do indeed have more in common than that which divides us. We are all working against hundreds of years of people’s preconceptions against women, in a field largely dominated by men. We all want to do what we believe is best for the world we live in, we may just differ in how we wish to achieve that. I believe the future of women on campus politics is bright and growing, and we need to do all we can to make political spaces accessible and welcoming for all women, regardless of their backgrounds, beliefs, orientations and identities.
‘We are far more united and have far more in common than things which divide us’ – Jo Cox MP