Some weeks ago we published a letter from Azeezat Johnson complaining about the Union’s Women’s Day poster. This triggered one of the most intense debates we’ve had on this blog, which can be viewed here. Current VP Welfare and Societies, Sophie Paterson, forwarded this response and apology to us. Given the interest generated by the first article, we feel it is only fair to also publicise the explanation.
I should like to start with a personal apology for any offence caused by the poster concerned. I hope that in this response I can outline the reasons for its ill advised publication and distribution.
For many years SUSU has had both a Women’s and a Men’s Officer whose remit is as follows: responsible for the development and implementation of Union policy on women, to liaise with women’s groups and to report on items of concern to women students. The Officer will also be responsible for publicising and convening a working group to organize the Women’s Week and present the budget to Welfare Committee, and work within the Equal Opportunities Department. (The men’s officer role corresponds to this.)
The officer is an admin position and therefore receives no training (this will change as of the next academic year) and balances SUSU activities with study. Due to the huge commitment it takes to organise a week of activities previous incumbents of both Mens’ and Womens’ Officer roles have been unable to organise a day let alone an entire week for either Women’s or Men’s events. It was therefore decided that this year we would aim to organise two days rather than weeks of activities. It is important to note that traditionally both SUSU events have focused around health and wellbeing rather than the social, political or historical aspects of the female experience. This is reflected in the correlation with Men’s day, if we were focusing on culture and feminism particularly then it might be inappropriate to have a men’s day, however on the subject of health and wellbeing there are many issues which affect either men or women and thus it makes sense for the binary format, and to hold separate days for each sex.
Bearing in mind the mindset of promoting health and wellbeing and looking at the events calendar we set the dates for two days. The University had asked SUSU if we wanted to be involved in their International Women’s Day activities on the 8th and 9th of March, and upon agreeing that this would be an exciting opportunity we were offered a slot to run a workshop on the 9th. It therefore made sense to hold our other activities on the 9th to coincide with this workshop. In retrospect holding the SUSU Women’s day next to International Women’s Day created a confused message between the intentions of specific heath promotion and the promotion of the International Women’s movement. I believe this was the key error which led to your concerns about the way in which the day was marketed and this is a confusion we shall be avoiding in future years.
In regard to the specific content of the poster the idea was to run a ‘tongue in cheek’ campaign to publicise the day, to use gimmicks such as the doughnut stall, male eye-candy on the poster and sing-star to encourage female students, who would be put off by using the serious messages of women’s issues in our promotion, to attend the day, I’m sure we’ve all come across many women who regularly start sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”. The idea of promoting a ‘Macho’ day for Men’s day was highly effective and the union was filled with male and female students who were drawn in by the gimmicks of the day and left with valuable information on sexual health and cancer awareness. Unfortunately in attempting the same thing for Women’s Day we encountered a number of problems. We had great difficulty getting relevant women’s organisations to attend as most were busy running their own women’s day events as there were various events going on that week due to International Women’s Day. We did manage to get Southampton Women’s Aid to attend, but unfortunately they were unable to be there for the whole day. We invited the Southampton based Ethical Cooperative ‘Who made your pants?’ as well as various cancer charities (who regularly use women’s underwear to promote their cause), who had indicated they would be able to attend, this is why the designer in question chose to use women in their underwear on the poster. As there was no reference to International Women’s Day in the brief the poster was created to parallel the Men’s Day one with the idea that the two events would work in synergy to promote each other. Once again, in retrospect this was unfortunate and the design was inappropriate, however it was not done in malice or in contempt of the events for International Women’s Day.
As the workshop session was part of the University’s programme of events for the day, the university was expected to create the signage and publicity to help people find the Hartley Suite where the session was located. I apologise on behalf of the University and will feed back to them to ensure that this kind of information is available at future events.
I should like to thank you for bringing this issue to our attention, and to the attention of your fellow students via the Wessex Blog (I believe it is one of the most hotly discussed issues there, which is fantastic). We were aware that there were many improvements to be made on the way we approach the SUSU women’s day event and having student feedback is very helpful in shaping this for future years.
Once again I would like to apologise for offence caused by the poster and I hope I have made you aware of the difficulties of organising this kind of event to as high standard as we should like. As I have stated the problems have arisen through a lack of clarity of purpose and not through any malice or complacency on the part of the Students’ Union.
I would encourage you to considering running for the position of Women’s Officer at Union council this term, there are also many other positions which would give you more opportunity to direct the policy and activity of the Union coming up at Union Council.
Apologies for the delay in my response, I wanted to give your letter the considered reply it deserves.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss this issue further or with any other feedback on the Union.
What do you think of Sophie’s response? Comments are welcome below.