Laura Payne and Marie-Anne Rogers were elected to the post of YUSU Women’s Officer, after a divisive election focused on the issue of whether men should be allowed to attend Women’s Committee meetings. Payne and Rogers defeated opponents Amy Burge and Ruth MacMullen by a landslide margin of 163 to 27.
The campaign saw two different approaches to the controversial position. Payne and Rogers promised a Women’s Committee that would be “visible, inclusive and active”, whereas their opponents emphasised their wish for a “strong feminist presence on campus. MacMullen and Burge used classic feminist iconography in their campaign materials.
The issue of whether men should be allowed to attend Women’s Committee meetings or whether they should remain exclusive to women divided the two sets of candidates. The Women’s Committee is currently the only union committee not open to all members of the union. Payne said, “Excluding men from Womens’ Comittee is counterproductive in some ways, as it prevents them from having a forum in which they can express the concerns that they have over liberation and welfare issues for women and denies the Committee of the contribution they may make. By having a closed committee, you assume that all feminists are female. We want to change to be in line with the rest of YUSU.”
Burge said an exclusively female committee was crucial if it was to continue to play a role in liberation issues. She said, “Women need a space where we can discuss our campaigns, our politics, our hopes, our fears without the discriminating presence of men. I am not saying every male actively discriminates against women, but our patriarchal society means that women are disadvantaged in favour of men.”
The main policies of the two candidates could be seen as practical representations of their ideologies. Payne and Rogers proposed a larger campaign at the Freshers’ Fair, including giving out the Women’s Handbook, free condoms and an attack alarm to any Fresher passing the stall. Payne said that if elected, Women’s Committee would have a “standard time and place for meetings and you won’t be able to get away from our posters”.
Burge and MacMullen wanted to publicise and support the Right to Choose Fund, a £10,000 sum available to women who cannot acquire an abortion on the NHS or for women with children on campus who need help with childcare costs. Other initiatives included a campaign on sex trafficking and sex workers and supporting the NUS Reclaim the Night March in the North, designed to raise awareness of domestic violence. They also wanted to make Women’s Committee more overtly political, including a campaign to fight tuition fees.
The two sets of candidates were divided in terms of experience. Burge is a member of the NUS Women’s Committee and held the post of YUSU Women’s Office last year. MacMullen is the Woman with Disabilities Representative on the Women’s Committee. Payne and Rogers, both of whom are first-years, have no previous experience of responsibility at a union level, although Rogers is currently Women’s Officer for Halifax. Payne questioned whether Burge’s commitment to the NUS would hinder her ability to be YUSU Women’s Officer, saying, “NUS is incredibly time-consuming… I would worry that [the YUSU position] would not be her first priority.”
The by-election comes days before an important UGM vote on the future of the Right to Choose Fund. The fund is designed to “provide financial help to students who have families, or find themselves pregnant”. £10,500 is designated for supporting student families and helping to cover the costs of childcare. £1,500 is ring-fenced to provide financial support to students who have been unable to obtain an abortion on the NHS.
Speaking for the motion, Academic and Welfare Officer Amy Foxton, who will be responsible for administering the fund if passed, said, “I have seen the difference the Right to Choose Fund has made to students. Students have huge financial pressures and many students parents struggle to pay for a students child care. Having children should not prevent access to education. We should ensure that students make decisions which are based on what is best for them and not on the financial basis. We should not allow students education to be affected by their reproductive choices. Please vote for this motion and continue to support the right to chose.”
It is expected that the motion will face opposition from religious groups who object to abortion on moral grounds.