Student politics is (still) sexist

Sexism remains ingrained in student politics.

Artwork by Brigitte Samaha

Both Syed and Sonnenschein are in Grassroots. Syed ran with SPICE for Honi and Sonnenschein contested the SRC presidency. They are the 2018 co-Wom*n’s and co-Education officers respectively. It is a response to Natalie Buckett’s 2016 article, Women about Campus.

Student politics has a reputation for toxic personal gripes and general acrimony.  For women, this toxicity is deeply gendered.

Political contests can be heated, of course—and sometimes, in a healthy democracy, this can be positive. But instances of sexism appear to be on the rise. Take some examples. At a party, a senior male stupol figure characterises you as a psychopath, just because you’re running for the SRC presidency. Another guy theorises that you were elected to a position because you were sleeping with your co-office bearer. You’re explaining the facts around sexual assault on campus to a student, when a male campaigner interrupts you to the point of physical intimidation, all for a vote. You’re labelled a male candidate’s ‘bitch’ in a WeChat group conversation with over 500 students. Another senior man in student politics hisses at you as you leave the women’s toilets late at night in the Quad. You notice a man breaching electoral regulations. You watch him quietly. He shoves you.

But, more often than not, the sexism we experience is indirect. It’s being the only woman candidate sitting on stage at Hermann’s for the Honi debate, sandwiched between two white men. Their banter-bro mates heckle you and dismiss your answers. It’s being told that your Honi ticket is “not diverse enough”, despite the majority of it being comprised of women, and indeed, women of colour.

It’s the praise heaped on your male negotiating partner, while your contributions are ignored: he is headstrong, they say, he tells it like it is––as if you don’t have a similarly forthright style.

It’s the gendered division of labour obvious in every campaign we’ve been involved in. Women do the Officeworks print runs, the trips to Bunnings, the a-frame painting. Women, for the most part, set up the stall and stay back late to make sure that campaigners are available for the next day’s effort.

And it’s women who usually do damage control for men’s macho behaviour on the campaign trail. Their actions are viewed as funny, or heroic, but often have consequences for the campaign itself and the candidate’s mental health. That candidate is usually a woman.

Even when women hold power in stupol’s institutions, the sexism continues. This year, a diverse and skilled group of women, with robust political beliefs, filled the majority of positions in the SRC. Over this period, the student union sustained unprecedented attacks from right wing populists and so-called progressives alike.

No administration should be exempt from criticism, of course. But it’s telling that many criticisms single out women’s achievements, often understating their work or holding them to unfair moral standards. Take the attacks on the Wom*n’s Officers’ campaign against sexist culture at USyd’s residential colleges. During this year’s SRC elections, Reboot, a Labor grouping, launched criticisms against that campaign, accusing the Wom*n’s Officers of alienating college residents.

It’s no coincidence that the colleges population would make an attractive voter base. So, you wonder whether these critiques are genuine, or just a sexist ploy to delegitimise the campaign against sexual assault on campus, while grabbing some cheap votes along the way.

The sexism doesn’t stop there. It’s the constant internal deliberation about whether you’re good enough for the job. And it’s men’s self-assurance, despite their lack of experience. In this year’s election, Jacky He and Alex Yang postured as qualified SRC presidential candidates; yet both of them had far less involvement in the organisation than either of the two women running.

It’s the artificial creation of competition between women: Honi Soit, for instance, published rumours that Lara Sonnenschein and Nina Dillon Britton were in a power struggle leading up to Grassroots’ pre-selection of its presidential nominee. This power struggle was a total fiction.

We are indignant about this pool of incidents, but we are also concerned our grievances will not be taken seriously. We don’t feel comfortable confronting the men who’ve contributed to this sexist atmosphere. Indeed, we’ve played out scenarios in our heads where we do, but never act on them, afraid that we’ll be typecast as ‘angry feminists’.

And so this article; it’s an indictment on our campus culture that we have to write it at all.