Art: Brigitte Samaha
In 2015 I campaigned on the Redfern run and a potential voter told me if I bothered him again he would lock me in a dungeon, and that I wouldn’t enjoy what he would do to me down there. Some older campaigners told me this shit happened to everyone, I just needed to move past it and keep fighting the good fight.
The only thing was, this shit didn’t happen to everyone. Whilst people in student politics are fairly equitable about being rude to each other, there were and are obstacles on the way to student office that men simply don’t face.
Student politics at Sydney University is dominated by progressives, and increasingly, an emphasis on female representation has seen women elected to positions of power and authority on campus. This year, the President of the University of Sydney Union (USU) and the President of the Student’s Representative Council (SRC) are both women.
Yet, the prevalence of women in student politics doesn’t automatically translate to progress. Our student politicians rightfully and tirelessly fight for women’s rights, and yet the women leading these campaigns face their own fights against sexism and misogyny every day.
It often started from the moment a woman expressed political aspirations. USU President Alisha Aitken-Radburn says, “At the USU soapbox when I ran for board in 2013… someone yelled out ‘I’m voting for the hot one’.” USU Board Director Atia Rahim recalls a male voter who said “I’m not going to vote for your friend but I’d vote for an arse like that.”
When approaching female student politicians for this story, many of them referenced a bastion of “war stories” from campaigns gone by. USU Vice President Olivia Ronan says that during campaigns women experienced “disproportionately brutal rebuffs, maybe because men are seen as more inherently worthy of a person’s time”. Multiple women I spoke to had been called a bitch or slut, or witnessed the insult being hurled at other women on the campaign trail.
The difficulties for women campaigning in student political elections do not stop at sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Member of Labor right faction Student Unity Justine Amin says “there’s a pressure for you to basically not be an introvert, it’s interesting that the nature of what is prescribed as being an introvert is implicitly tied to the notion of being a woman”.
Ronan discussed the factional strategy of sending “less experienced belligerent men after other campaigners”, often “shadowing” women pursuing votes.
Former Honi editor Rebecca Wong observes, “Obviously elections are about contesting physical space. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving between campaigners… being blind (as well as small and female), I found that logistically virtually impossible.”
Amin notes that “campaigning has shown me my own prejudices… when I’m not feeling too confident I would go for women I think are meek and smaller…I think there are layers of being taken seriously and with every sort of visible oppression you have you’re slowly chipped away.” Every student election, campaigners swarm international students, particularly women, in a cruel and dismissive strategy to win vulnerable votes.
Feeling like you are being targeted as a woman is exhausting, particularly when intersectional identities are being targeted on multiple fronts. Former University of Technology Student’s Association President and current University of Sydney student Andy Zephyr says, “The amount of energy it takes to be a trans woman in student politics is like… it doesn’t matter if you’re in a faction, you’re on your own, you don’t have a large number of constituents that understand the perspective that you do.”
Once attaining a student representative position, many women felt instances of overt and physical discrimination turned to more insidious sexism surrounding their legitimacy or intelligence. Rahim says, “Being a woman of colour as well, I feel like if I’m speaking in a meeting I need to know what I’m going to say before it goes to the table.” SRC President Chloe Smith notes, “Women…often couch what they’re saying in passive, apologetic language like ‘this might be better if ’… or ‘sorry, can I just say’”.
“The fact that I’m Indigenous as well… I need to be clear, because as soon as I don’t do that… it’s like ‘she’s getting too emotional’,” says SRC co-General Secretary Georgia Mantle.
Some women found that pursuing beliefs or ideologies outside of a traditionally left wing, feminist mould produced immediate and automatic criticism. Amin speaks about her struggle to “assert…legitimacy as a centrist woman” when left-wing groups said “well you have these intersections of oppression so how could you not identify with us?” Zephyr said if perceptions of illegitimacy were not based “on my gendered identity as a trans woman…[it’s] in regards to my disability… people look at me and they go you’re not even in touch with reality in several aspects of your life, of course I can’t trust you”.
As their rationality and legitimacy is questioned, women in student politics also faced the undue burden to represent every other member of their identity group when making political decisions. Amin explains the pressure “to be the race activist or the activist woman of colour whereas sometimes…maybe I just want to talk about penalty rates”. “Men,” she continues, “white men in particular, are never told their [political] position is harming their community group because their community group is never seen as some homogenous identity based grouping that needs protecting or saving”.
Aitken-Radburn says the rationales provided by women for specific policies were more likely to be critiqued, “if you’re a guy it’s much more black and white, it’s like they look at the [regulations] and here is the end product, whereas as a woman it’s like what groups does she dislike? Who is influencing [her] decision?”
Sexism is not just on the campaign trail or from those in rival factions, women noted it was often men in their immediate circles who perpetuated this inequality. SRC Wom*n’s Officer Anna Hush notes the subtle way “administrative or more menial labour often falls to women… things like organising meetings, taking minutes… those kind of things are just often done by women and men assume leadership positions”. Frequently, men might not even notice women had assumed these roles. Mantle discusses the small, nagging expectation for women to fulfil domestic tasks in political offices. “Once I came into the Office Bearers’ room and there were all these plates and cups. I picked them all up… and started washing up, then a man came in and said ‘why are you doing this, it’s not your job?’ and I had to… say it’s because no one else will. This doesn’t get done by no one, this gets done behind the scenes and it’s usually a woman.”
One problem seems to be, in the words of Mantle, progressive men’s “ability to think they’re better than other men”. Co-Education Officer Blythe Worthy says these men pursue activism when women are “working with them or under them, but they don’t like it when that activism targets their own propagation of what I like to call ‘soft-boy sexism'”. Zephyr notes that political positions are “spaces for power… things like misogyny are really good at dividing and conquering people”. Sexism therefore becomes another mechanism of politically edging ahead of your rivals.
A single article could never do justice to the multitude of blatant and insidious experiences of sexism women in student politics face every day. Many of the women I spoke to stressed, importantly, that these experiences shouldn’t be a warning against pursuing campus political positions. Instead, their stories are a reminder of how far we have to go before student politics practices the progressive policies it preaches.