End of year ramblings: The State of the Union

Michelle Nuttall, 2005-6

Out of nowhere the year has come to an end; the garden party invites are in the post and motions are being written for the very last council of the year. Of course there’s another few weeks to go before Michelle wanders off into the sunset and Harriet takes the helm, but the end of the year seems like a good time to take stock and assess what has been achieved, what mistakes have been made and what issues will be taken from this year and into the next.

Aims of the year

With each Women’s Sabb the personality of the Women’s Union as a whole shifts a little. I stood on a manifesto of making the Women’s Union more approachable and visible, of making the Women’s Union a vibrant and active union, without watering down its more political side. I aimed to do this partly through the arts and duly organised the ‘Women in Cinema’ series with Trinity Films, the Rethinking the Female Image exhibition with PhoCUS and the ‘Vagina Monologues’. Events like the SVAW Vigil in King’s Chapel were also intended as new initiatives to bring women into the union who would never come to council, and to raise the profile of the Women’s Union whilst successfully campaigning. Hopefully that has all been done with some success.

Almost as a bi-product, the Women’s Union has also raised a substantial amount of money for local and national organisations, with just over £1300 being raised through SVAW for Amnesty International, Cambridge Rape Crisis and Cambridge Women’s Aid and a further £136 being raised for the Eating Disorder’s Association through the No Diet Day cake sales. The Women’s Union obviously isn’t intended to be a fundraising organisation, but if it raises funds whilst also raising political awareness and the profile of the union, then that seems to be a good way for us to make difference to women in the wider world.

CUSU

As is historically the case for the Women’s Sabb and for the union as a whole, the vast majority of problems have come from CUSU as an institution and not as a result of problems with the Women’s campaign. The attack on the Women’s Sabb early in Lent came from other sabbatical officers and individual members of the Development and Planning Committee rather than individual women, college women’s officers or Women’s Council as a whole. Problems also arise year in and year out because the Women’s Sabb is the only Sabbatical Officer whose primary responsibility is to an autonomous campaign and not to CUSU as a whole. Unfortunately the Women’s Sabb can end up rather defensive as a result, and I’m sure there are a few people on the CUSU Exec, and perhaps on DPC in particular who think I am a bit of an ogre/dragon/ cauldron wielding witch (with three nipples), but it’s always been more important that the Women’s Union survives and progresses than it is for the Women’s Sabb to be loved by all who meet her. I hope we can cautiously say that the sabbatical team 2006-7 will be broadly more supportive of the Women’s Union than this year’s team have been. I doubt there will be an attempt to scrap the Women’s Sabb and if so I doubt it will come from the sabbs themselves.

The other autonomous campaigns

However, although the relationship with CUSU could be better, the Women’s Union has further developed its relationship with the other autonomous campaigns this year and was given a glorious thumbs up by those campaigns when DPC again asked just a few weeks ago if they would prefer the Women’s Sabb to be replaced. The resounding message was ‘no’. The Women’s Sabbatical job description was also changed to reflect the non-representational work that she does for the part-time officers of the other autonomous campaigns as and when needed, which is also no bad thing.

Moving forward

Of course, regardless of out many successes this year there remains plenty of room for improvement. In particular, the need to improve representation for Graduate women, Black and Asian women and International women is paramount. Women’s Council as a body remains a largely white body of undergraduate women. More work needs to be done to encourage Graduate women and Graduate Women’s Officers to get involved with the work of the Women’s Union especially because the Graduate Union no longer has a women’s officer. Likewise, the Women’s Union needs to work in conjunction with the Black Student’s campaign on the best way to encourage participation by Black and Asian women and to enhance our provision for International Women students. In addition to all of this, many women of all backgrounds continue to feel that the Women’s Union is not something that they want to get involved in. There will obviously be women who don’t want to get involved, especially given the backlash against feminism but the Women’s Union needs to continue to move in the right direction as a representative body for all women, regardless of their politics and background.

As part of this the Women’s Union needs to work more closely with college Women’s Officers, so that women’s officers get involved with the work of the union beyond attending council once a fortnight. The socials that started in Lent term got us off to a positive start and will hopefully continue, and hopefully college women’s officers will feel that they can participate in debate at council and bring motions of their own, whilst also feeling that action is taken on the decisions that we do make.

Final remarks

But regardless of all of this, the Women’s Union in Cambridge remains the largest and strongest women’s campaign in any UK university. By having an autonomous policy making body, our own constitution, a good budget and a Women’s Sabb we remain a strong and active union and I wish Harriet, the women’s exec and women’s council the very best of luck and good wishes for the year ahead. I for one will remember the year nostalgically; bury the memories of those days when the job nearly drove to be to religion or drink, take with me the many skills and lessons that I learnt along the way and walk into the world a stronger woman and most probably more of an ardent supporter of feminism and the women’s struggle than I have ever been.

Highlights

  • The haunting sound of the women from King’s Voices singing South African freedom songs at the first SVAW Vigil on November 25th.
  • The cast of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ pulling it all together and having to tell people there was standing room only.
  • The hilarity of the women from Labour Students singing ‘Keep the Red Flag Flying’ at NUS Women’s Conference and the subsequent laughter.
  • Counting £1300 in cash on the office floor and sending it off to local organisations who desperately need the money and will be spending it long after this year has passed.
  • Receiving over 300 entries for our International Women’s Week exhibition.
  • Being inspired by Diana Lipton at the first meeting of the Graduate Women’s Network.
  • Drinking tea for hours with individual women who need someone to talk to and the feeling that some small difference has been made.