Union Responds to Women's Day Complaints


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.

Dear all,

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.


Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    While I appreciate the time Sophie has spent writing this response, and I am happy that there are those in the students union who took people’s concerns seriously, I do feel this fails to answer most of the points Azeezat originally raised.
    The fact that it was not intended to have anything to do with International Women’s Day seems slightly ridiculous. It seems like having a ‘mid-winter celebration’ on December 25th and being surprised that people associate it with Christmas.
    But even putting the date to one side, the real issue was the content of the poster. The timing just created an irony which increased the resentment people felt.
    As Azeezat said, the constant use of stereotypical, sexualised images of women is demoralizing, particularly when, as was the case with the poster, men are represented differently, and fully dressed. This sets the wrong standards for women and young girls and propogates a view of the position of women in society which harms and degarades all females.
    Women, as we all know, come in all shapes and sizes and should be free to express themselves by dressing in anything, from a bikini to a nun’s habit. The media at large doesn’t really recognise this. But a poster aimed at women, feminist or otherwise, should.
    This was the real cause for concern with the poster. The clash with a feminist event fuelled the fire, but didn’t start it.
    I also find the attitude that you are more likely to attract women to an event with pictures of models than ‘serious issues’ worrying. And given that the day passed largely unnoticed, maybe promoting the serious issues would have been a better way to go.
    Still, the apology is welcome, as is the fact that the voices of those concerned were clearly noticed. Well done for expressing them.

    • avatar

      “The fact that it was not intended to have anything to do with International Women’s Day seems slightly ridiculous.”

      It seems a little like you’re flogging a dead horse to me, Peter. Sophie clearly explains that the date the event was held was a result of the slot offered by the University. This was an invitation to cooperation that, bearing in mind the inevitable tension that will result between the two institutions as a result of cuts et al, it was wise of the Union to accept.

      Sophie also apologises for any confusion that may have been created by the event’s coinciding with other events promoted as part of International Women’s Day. The Union can hardly be blamed for this, and in my opinion should be praised for offering an alternative. There was nothing on the advertising material that associated the SUSU event with any other movement or organisation, nor was there anything to suggest an opposition to feminist values. Indeed, Third Wave Feminism (I simplify of course) promotes the use of such material many found so offensive, agree with it or not.

      The Union itself was not directly responsible for the advertising, which was designed in consideration of the advertising strategies of other organisations involved. If the poster was so offensive, why don’t people have such a problem with the Moonwalk, which raises thousands of pounds for women’s cancer charities every year?

      The alternative was to decline an outreached hand from the University, and not hold an event which caused justifiable concerns in some, which have been addressed with care and eloquence, and increased understanding of sexual and personal health in others. Surely this is better than nothing?

      I fail to see what more explanation Sophie could give, and in light of the new information she has provided, if people are still not satisfied I suggest they take their concerns to the University, rather than continuing to lambaste the Sabs and Officers, whose work is largely under-appreciated, and as fellow students (or very recent graduates) seem to be easy targets.

      In fact, I place a direct challenge to the Wessex Scene to balance its reporting, such critical and in depth reporting is to be applauded Peter, but it would be nice to see such relentless pursuit and argument when dealing with organisations other than SUSU, rather than a simple summarising of the issue.

      • avatar

        I don’t think you are being entirely fair here James.
        By publishing the complaint, I felt it was only fair to publish the response. And given that Azeezat’s original comment was met with such intense scrutiny, isn’t it also fair that the reply is treated in the same way?
        My point is just that the response doesn’t really address many of the original concerns raised, only the date clash. Like I said, that was part of the issue, but not the whole thing. I think you’ll also notice that I reserved that opinion to the comments box, so I don’t think you can call it over critical reporting.
        In answer to your direct challenge: I’ve never written about SUSU before, much less relentlessly persued arguments with them. I also feel its unfair to say that I simply summarise the issues when talking about other institutions. As far as I can remember, the words angry and opinionated are more usually used to describe what I write.
        The implication in your last two paragraphs is that we victimise Sabs and SUSU in general. Thats a pretty serious thing to accuse us of without giving examples. As far as I’m concerned, this and the previous article are legitimate reporting of something that is both controversial and hotly discussed amongst students. And isn’t that exactly the kind of thing student media should cover?

      • avatar

        I think the reason the Sabbs come under scrutiny is because of the nature of the roles. When 7000 students vote a new sabbatical in they are putting a lot of faith behind them. Once elected they’re in the spotlight and are seen as the face of SUSU.

      • avatar
        Azeezat Johnson

        People don’t have problems with the moonwalk because it shows various women of different sizes showing their support for a larger cause. It does not employ any stereotypes about women to support some greater cause. This was not the case with regards to the poster.

        I don’t understand why this should be seen as any personal attack on the Sabbatical Officers. This was a concern which students had, and surely their job is to respond to the concerns which student had. That’s like saying if something happens in your local constituency, you should avoid raising the issue with your local representative out of fear that the individual will take it personal. That’s illogical. The reason why this was brought to the Sabbatical Offices attention was that it was a poster designed by their office and so they should be the ones to take responsibility for it.

        And ok, maybe the day was supposed to be about women’s health rather than one explaining the social and political history of feminism. Does that mean that feminism has nothing to do with this day? How is the problem regarding anorexia and body shapes not overlapping in both feminism and women’s health? Or the ongoing fight that feminism has had to raise awareness for breast and cervical cancer? To suggest that you can separate the two into different categories shows a lack of an understanding of what feminism stands for.

        Like Pete said, it’s great that they have responded and admitted that their may have been some crossed ideas about what the day was about, but by no means is this “flogging a dead horse”. Although the day has passed, the problems presented with regards to the poster presents a much larger issue. To say that the discussion ends with an apology isn’t enough. There needs to be an understanding of how we can affect change in the future at this university, and for us as students to stop and think about whether or not this culture of accepting the current over-sexualisation of women is something we want to accept in general.

      • avatar

        I’d have to agree – it seems like flogging a dead horse. We can constantly argue over the use of images in the media, yet what azeezat asked for was an apology, and one has been given and a very detailed response at that, so what is it that is being asked for here? There really is nothing more Sophie could now do and to pick holes is not constructive – perhaps there is room in another place about the sexualisation and the media, but why attack the response, if the issue is that we need to ‘affect change in the future at this university, and for us as students to stop and think about whether or not this culture of accepting the current over-sexualisation of women is something we want to accept in general.’ If this is the issue, I don’t think this is something that is entirely down to the women’s day. Yes women’s day may have brought it to the fore, but Sophie apologised for that, she is not responsible for the whole sexualisation of women in the media, so stop picking holes in her response and concentrate your efforts on solving the problem rather than going on at someone who has apologised for mistakes.

        • avatar

          I would completely agree that this is something that isn’t entirely down to women’s day. It just happens that, as you say, the poster brought it to the fore, and became the springboard for people to debate and express opinions , not just on here, but in conversations all over the University, about something that is a very important but largely ignored issue. And in my opinion, that is the best way to start solving the problem, to get people talking about it.

          So I would like to say, once again, please don’t consider this a personal attack on sabbatical officers. Me and the others who have commented think its a relevant enough debate in itself to carry on even after an apology has been given. We’re not intending to ‘go on at’ sophie or ask her to do anymore, we’re just interested in furthering the debate and the conversation on an important subject. Which involves questioning the explanation given, rather than accepting that the issue is finished.

          The comments about the response are no more a personal attack on Sophie than the comments on the original complaint were a personal attack on Azeezat. It’s just a matter of people expressing opinions, which I’m sure most sabbatical officers would be happy to see.

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