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“A slap in the face”: Replacement of SU VP Women sparks fury

The OUSU’s sabbatical officer role reshuffle will see the role of VP Women replaced with VP Liberation and Equalities next academic year. This decision aims to improve inclusivity at the SU, making the role “broad and timeless”. However, many students feel that VP Women is still an important and relevant position in 2022.

This year’s VP Women, Ellie Greaves, currently works with a number of committees across Oxford, including those dedicated to welfare, equality, and tackling sexual violence. She is also a key point of contact for Oxford students with issues relating to women’s health, sexual consent, and night safety. 

Having been in the role since July 2022, Greaves said one of her biggest achievements so far has been the organisation of a women’s and non-binary club night at Oxford’s nightclub Plush. She also plans to organise events around International Women’s Day in 2023 to promote female solidarity.

However, Greaves has concerns about the decision to remove the role of VP Women going forward. After being elected to the position in Hilary Term 2022, she only found out that she would be the last person to hold this role after taking it up in July.

The role review, spearheaded by the SU President for 2021-2022, Anvee Bhutani, was carried out because sabbatical positions had not been scrutinised since the 1990s.  The role review proposal document set out the reasons for replacing VP Women, stating: “The VP Women role was created at a time when women couldn’t get full degrees and colleges were segregated” and “VP Women prioritises one minority / protected group over others”.

The changes were adopted after a six-month scrutiny period, which included a vote in Student Council in Week 7 of Hilary Term. A total of 11 students voted, with 9 in favour and 2 against. A current sabbatical officer described these numbers as “startlingly low” and indicative of poor engagement with issues that stand to affect the whole student body.

Now, however, several students have raised concerns about the role change after knowledge of the decision was made widely available.

Speaking about the SU’s decision, a female student said, “I fail to see how replacing the women’s officer with a ‘liberation and equalities’ officer provides adequate representation for students from all minorities … This just feels like a slap in the face, not only for women, but all minority groups for lack of proper representation in the SU.”

The SU explained that the role of VP Women has “not been replaced but augmented to include more underrepresented and marginalised communities who currently do not have sufficient representation”. A spokesperson also said that “the current officer team fully supports the outcomes of the role review and are looking forward to launching them for the 2023 sabbatical officer elections.” 

However, this does not align with Greaves’ interpretation of the situation. While the new VP Liberation and Equalities will still be responsible for issues concerning women, she said it would be up to the new officer to choose where their main focus will lie, telling Cherwell, “I really hope the issues I’ve been talking about this year don’t fall into the background,” before adding that she is “unsure what handover will look like.”

She also shared her worries about the future of women’s representation in Oxford, telling Cherwell, “I think there’s a risk that the removal of VP Women will send the message that “sexism is solved”, when it really isn’t”. 

Oxford University still has an academic attainment gap between men and women. Greaves also noted that the health of people with uteruses is not always understood by the university, saying “provision for conditions such as endometriosis and PCOS are not accommodated in the way I would like to see.”

A female student at Exeter College: “As a female student, it feels like we’re taking a step backwards in focusing on women’s issues in the university. Things like sexual assault, harassment and rape still occur here, the change away from Women’s Rep suggest that these are no longer issues that need addressing which is simply not true. An equalities and liberations officer would not be able to represent women’s issues adequately, the name itself is vague and lacks focus on a particular group or issue.”

Incidents of spiking are a concern in Oxford too, with over 500 students taking to the streets last year to boycott nightclubs in response to the national spiking epidemic. Greaves said this protest was a significant factor in motivating her to run for the position of VP Women. “We’re not where we need to be in terms of women’s representation and I think there’s a risk of moves to tackle sexual violence being left behind”, she said, adding “There’s a reason that the role [VP Women] has been around for so long and I think it’s as relevant today as it was in the 1990s”.

A female student at St Hilda’s College: “In general removing the position of VP Women is huge step back and dangerously overestimates how far we’ve come in tackling gender-based inequality. Of course it is necessary for the SU to be as reflective of its student body and the minority groups within it as possible, but the rightful increase in concern for their representation should not be enacted by cutting support for those who identify specifically as women.”

Attempts to remove the role of VP Women have been a challenge in Oxford for many years. Indeed, former British Prime Minister Liz Truss spoke in favour of abolishing the position when she was a student in the 1990s, calling the role “completely undemocratic”. She also criticised the position of a college Women’s Officer, although the VP Women for 1994 described this attitude as “very short-sighted and a huge step backwards”.

Today, however, the SU’s eventual decision to change VP Women is reflective of other student unions across the UK. Cambridge University is now the only SU which still has a designated Women’s Officer. 

Despite this, Greaves said her beliefs about the role’s importance should be evident from the fact that she campaigned for it last year, adding, “I will continue to prioritise women for as long as I’m in Oxford.”

A female student at Oriel College: “Following the news on the scrapping of the VP Women’s role at the SU I would ask for further transparency as to this decision. This will help all women*’s officers and gender reps feel more comfortable with the direction of the SU that we all rely on and work with so much.”

WomCam, It Happens Here, and The Oxford Period have all been contacted for comment, which may be provided pending approval by SU Communications. This article will be updated to reflect any responses received.

Image credit: Nils Linder

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