The University of Sussex Womenʼs Group
Sophie van der Ham writes about the important role the University of Sussex Women’s Group plays on campus.
The University of Sussex Womenʼs Group was created as part of the Universityʼs Studentsʼ Union to communicate with liberation groups. Along with LGBTQ students and until recently, Black students, women students have their own room in the union. The room is a recluse for self-identifying women where they can read the stack of magazines next to the sofa, borrow feminist books, chat with other women students and drink some hot chocolate. The room also offers free tampons and information about feminist groups and helplines in Brighton.
This year, the group has mostly been focused on discussion. The groupʼs values are mostly determined by whomever is at the helm each year, and with the creation of the Feminist Society, which is mostly focused on activism, Womenʼs Group has taken on the role of providing an intersectional and pro-sex worker discussion space. We meet for two hours every week. The first hour is a themed discussion that is open to self-identifying women. We want to provide a safe space where women can share their lived experiences. We have had sessions about womenʼs relationships to food, sex work, intersectionality, media and representation and reclaiming words. Sometimes the stories women share are confessional, sometimes they are developing their thinking through discussion with others and sometimes the discussion is light and funny.
The second hour is reserved for an activity that is open to all genders. We feel it is important to have this distinction because we donʼt want to exclude feminist men and those masculine of centre. In the past, we have run workshops during this hour on women and life-writing, representation of rape in the media, and a feminist reading circle. We also use this hour as a place where members can unleash their creative energy on a project like painting, collage and zine making and chat and get to know each other.
The Pro-Choice Project
Womenʼs Group has put on a lot of other activities alongside these two hours. After the pro-life group Abort67 picketed our campus, we set up a photo project in response. We organised a stall in the main square of our campus and photographed each other and interested passers by with banners explaining why weʼre pro-choice. The response from the student body was overwhelmingly positive. We later collated the pictures and presented them to the local BPASʼ clinic in Brighton to show that we fully support their work. We feel itʼs important to show our support to them because they have been targeted by pro-choice groups during Lent as part of the pro-choice groupsʼ Forty Days for Life campaign. We have also marched in Brighton local Reclaim the Night march, which was organised by the Brighton Feminist Collective and had a picture of us at that march on the front page in the local newspaper, the Argus. One of the committee members, Cha, has put a lot of effort into producing our own zine, Harpy. The first issue was published at the start of our term and and second issue is on the way. We distribute the black and white issue for free and sell the colour ones to raise money to go towards printing costs. Another member of the committee, Kesiena, is working with Sussex Universityʼs careers services to put on an event for our members about issues women face in the workplace.
International Women’s Day Event
We have had a lot of support from our Studentsʼ Union thanks to a couple of feminist sabbatical officers. Thanks to the union, we were able to offer cover membersʼ transport to and from the student feminist conference in London in February, so that our members were able to go with incurring any costs themselves. The co-chairs have also organised International Womenʼs Day festivities with the current Welfare Officer. We took over the reception area of the union and several stalls with information about groups in Brighton and contraception (thanks to CASH) amongst other things. Other societies have also been interested in collaborating with us, as we have debated the Debate society on the motion “Women have achieved equality” as the opposition. (and won, might I add, as well as being voted best speakers unanimously). Next week, weʼll hopefully be holding our weekly discussion at the occupation of the conference room, which is being occupied to demand the halt of the privatisation of services at the expense of 235 staff membersʼ livelihoods. Weʼll be discussing structural inequality and hopefully reach out to new, potential members in this way, as well as familiarising our existing members with the goals of the occupation.
In my personal experience, Womenʼs Group has been crucial in terms of forming a feminist community on campus. Members have told me they are thrilled to find feminist friends and like-minded people through the group. Others have discovered new ideas and ways of thinking through discussion and have become more interested in feminism. For me personally, the group has been valuable because it has reminded me that “womenʼs experiences” are hugely varied and shaped by cultural backgrounds, sexuality, class and ethnicity. This is an idea that is often expressed in current feminist literature and often almost an obligatory statement, but to hear personal experiences and anecdotes about living as a working class woman in Essex, or how a Brazillian woman thinks about abortion has made the idea of intersectionality a lot more tangible and useful to me. It has made me think about the link between theory and practice and encouraged me to take lived experiences as a focal point. Womenʼs Group has created friendship circles, activist networks and encouraged activism in the wider community. Iʼm honoured to be leading it.
Sophie van der Ham is a postgraduate Gender Studies student at the University of Sussex, and will graduate in September. She studied English literature and language at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate student. She will be the Sussex Studentsʼ Union Welfare Officer for the next academic year (June 2013 – June 2014). Sussex Womenʼs Group can be contacted through email, at USwomensgroup@gmail.com, followed on Twitter at twitter.com/USwomensgroup and Tumblr : sussexwomensgroup.tumblr.com. She can be contacted personally at firstname.lastname@example.org