Women take up centre stage in student politics
Trinity’s all-female students’ union team a shift towards greater visibility in third level
The seven elected female members of Trinity College’s students’ union: Shaz Oye, president of graduate students’ union; Gisèle Scanlon, vice-president of the graduate students’ union; Laura Beston, president of Trinity students’ union; Niamh McCay, education officer; Aisling Leen, welfare and equality officer; Muireann Kane, communications and marketing officer; Judith Robinson, entertainment officer. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Just over a century ago, Trinity College Dublin admitted its first female student.
This year, the 400-year-old university reached another milestone: it has elected its first ever all-female line-up of officers across both the students’ and graduate students’ unions.
“I think for a long time women have been doing the emotional labour and volunteering in campaigns, but didn’t feel confident enough to go for the top positions ...” says Laura Beston, president of Trinity’s students’ union.
“Politics can be daunting, messy and scary, but I think the Repeal campaign, and also marriage equality, have had a huge impact ... it has inspired many of us to stand up for what we believe in.”
What is happening in Trinity seems to be part of a much broader shift in Irish third-level institutions.
While women have traditionally been under-represented in senior roles in student politics, this year a majority of students’ union presidents are women. In addition, the head of the national student body, the Union of Students of Ireland (USI), is female.
Many of this year’s elected student officers see this as a sign of change which, in time, will feed into national politics.
“There is definitely a shift, not just in female representation but also in terms of LGBT representation as well,” says Lorna Fitzpatrick, USI president.
“A lot of that comes from the social justice campaigns in recent years, massively so.”
In her previous role as students’ union president at IT Carlow, she also led an all-female team.
The big challenge, she says, is for it to follow through into other areas of leadership beyond student politics.
“In the 60 years of USI, there have been massive gaps where there was no female presidents... in the last six or seven years, I’m the fourth female president. I think a lot has to do with social justice campaigns and encouraging under-representative groups.
“It is changing. There are a number networks now to support women and ethnic minorities through networking and training ... the old saying it true: ‘You can’t be it, if you can’t see it.’”
Back at Trinity, the university’s seven female sabbatical officers posed for a photograph by The Irish Times in front of the imposing statue of former provost George Salmon.
He famously resisted the admittance of women into Trinity for years and is reputed – apocryphally – to have said a woman would only enter the university “across my dead body”. Coincidentally, he died in 1904 – the same year the first female was admitted.
Shaz Oye, president of Trinity’s graduate students’ union, is an example of the new and diverse face of student politics.
She believes her ethnicity and sexuality will help minority groups to feel better represented.
“We know that successful diversity and inclusion policies empower people to fulfil their potential,” she says.
“I want people to see a black, queer woman as the president of the graduate students’ union. I want minorities on campus to find their tribe, to see, and know themselves to be represented.”
While women are rising to the top of student politics, the spotlight has focused on the under-representation of women in senior academic roles.
Women account for about half of lecturers in third level, and they account for just under a quarter of professors. There has never been a female university president in more than 400 years of higher education. Oye feels the visibility of women in student politics will help.
“In my case, as someone who has returned to education later in life following careers in the arts and NGO sectors, I am aware that visibility is critical to promoting diversity and inclusion, and combatting discrimination,” she says.
“Policies set the tone in a university, but ultimately people need to see themselves positively reflected.”
Gisèle Scanlon, vice-president of Trinity’s graduate students’ union, agrees.
“We need to create an environment where no one feels isolated. We need to ensure that everyone feels heard and valued, and we want to create platforms and opportunities for that to happen, where students can achieve the highest standards of excellence,” she says.
While Trinity is often depicted as a mostly white, middle-class bastion of privilege, Oye says she has felt welcome.
“I’ve been treated respectfully, and I’ve experienced campus as a moderately liberal space espousing pluralist values,” says Oye.
Laura Beston feels that while it is a mostly welcoming space, she has experienced sexism first-hand during her campaigning.
“You get scrutinised far more or you get dismissed as an ‘angry feminist’. There’s this negative association with feminism ... For some, it is this demonised word which they don’t want to engage women...”
However, she says the union will represent all students and its equality campaigns will benefit everyone, including men.
“We’re representing the entire student body... we’re for everyone – disabled, students of colour, international students... I won’t stand for sexism. If you think you can do this job better, then run for election.”