All entries for Monday 14 May 2012

May 14, 2012

How hard is it to support pregnant students?

I don't think I've ever been as disgusted with Warwick SU's Union Council as I am now. And I've been a student politic hack of some stripe or another for quite some time now.

The matter at hand was the renewal of a somewhat innocuous policy calling upon the Students' Union to support pregnant students in terms of advising on options, finances etc. The original policy also called for the creation of a pregnant students' fund - the renewal asks student representatives to lobby the University for such a fund.

It's the kind of policy that normally breezes through Council. We'd already had an inevitably heated discussion over whether or not to express solidarity with Balfour Bettie workers on campus (due to the company's rather nasty habit of blacklisting employees involved in Union activities or legal action over health and safety) and over the best way to support Leamington's Community Centre (incidentally, you can petition to save Bath Place here!)

But what could possibly be problematic about supporting pregnant students?

Everything, apparently. A fierce debate erupted as various men (and yes, they were all men, and included several sabbatical officers who I thought knew better) came up with the most bizarre problems with the motion. They argued that the motion contained too many wishy-washy statements of belief rather than actual content. Then they went for the content. They claimed it might detract from the student hardship fund. They imagined it might catalyse a chain reaction in which the student hardship fund was eventually scrapped entirely.

The Union's only female sabbatical officer pointed out the gendered nature of the debate, arguing that men shouldn't necessarily be making these decisions for women. Cue a series of "hilarious" comments along the lines of "I may be a man, and know nothing about women, but I do know about finance. Don't worry, it's a joke".

Funnily enough, there may well have been as many women speaking on this issue as had spoken on anything else all night.

The travesty ended in a tightly contested vote in which the vast majority of women on Council voted for the motion and the vast majority of men voted against. The result was a tie, in part because another body of men abstained (there were more men than women in the room). In a tight re-vote, 17 councillors voted in favour of the motion, and 15 against.

I don't see how anyone can possibly claim that this wasn't a gendered issue. It predominantly affects women. It divided the room on gendered lines in a way I've rarely seen. And if the Union can so easily "find money" for supporting the national demonstration against fees and cuts later this year - as it should! - then it can surely find the resources necessary to lobby the University in support of some of the most vulnerable students.

I simply don't understand how people could regard this as a purely "financial" issue. It's not: it's about supporting vulnerable students in a society centred around the structural oppression of women: a society that moreover diminishes the cultural capital and importance of parenthood. And it clearly impacts women disproportionately because the vast amount of people who get pregnant are women.

Now, I don't mean to say pregnancy directly affects all women. I don't have a womb. I will never be able to get pregnant. And yet it was pretty damn clear to me that my vote as a councillor should be made in solidarity with my sisters. And if the men in the room who regarded the issue as relatively unimportant couldn't bring themselves to vote for the motion in solidarity with the women, they could have at least had the decency to abstain.

Following the vote, a male sabbatical officer asked why the men in the room were being discriminated against. I'm sorry, but - no wait, I'm not freakin' sorry. I don't see how it could be any more obvious that this is a gendered issue. The motion almost fell because more men get elected to democratic bodies than women. Under such circumstance, isn't it about time that most the guys present checked their male privilege and shut up for a change?

Edit: A response from a number of sabbatical officers is available in the comments section below. Minutes of the meeting are available here. There is an audio recording here. The debate begins at around ‎2:23:20.


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