Last year I served as president of the Oxford student union. One of the things I did during my time was run a consultation on how we could change the union to better represent students. After discussions with hundreds of students and going through several committees, the changes were made. The biggest transformation, which was finalised in June this year, was expanding the vice-president for women role to a broader vice-president for liberation and equality. The role would still include wholly or partially identifying women, of course, but was widened because there was no role to cover other protected characteristics, such as race and disability, at vice-president level. It would also include LGBTQ+ people, including those who identify as trans and non-binary.
The present vice-president for women made some fairly innocuous comments in Cherwell, the student newspaper, about how she wanted to make sure women were still given a platform, saying: “I think there’s a risk that the removal of [the post] will send the message that ‘sexism is solved’, when it really isn’t.”
Her quotes, which were actually pretty nuanced, had two effects. A few of her specific lines, such as referring to women as “people with uteruses”, were not received well by some groups of students, which meant she had to apologise for contributing to a “trans exclusionary narrative”.
Many on the right, though, made it sound as though she was not only gender-critical but being forced to kowtow to trans people because of the woke brigade, feeding into modern “cancel culture” rhetoric. The issue was reported on twice in the Times, and in a Spectator article headlined “Why is this student official apologising for being bio-essentialist?” The story is now circulating around Twitter. The Free Speech Union has come out in support of the vice-president for women, as well as several other big names including the writer and campaigner Sophie Walker, the columnist Hadley Freeman and the former No 10 chief of staff Nick Timothy.
To me this is the epitome of how a culture war can be stoked in the present climate. Changing the position in the students’ union was a nine-month, arduous process, including a consultation with hundreds of students, with the change passing through multiple committees before it had final approval – including, notably, through the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for education. It was the most bureaucratic of procedures, it did not take place overnight. Most of all, it was about something far broader than trans people: it was largely meant to address the fact there was no role at that level of the union to represent ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and disabled people.
Yet the whole episode has been spun by the right as a sudden silencing of women, even though all the union officers in my term were women, and five out of six this year are women. On the left, subsequent events have been sold as selling trans people down the river even though the LGBTQ+ campaign has a loud voice in Oxford and this role change amplifies it. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is with regards to trans people that a culture war has been stoked, and that it occurred with Oxford students – perfect fodder for the press. But what hope is there for the wider world if culture wars can be spun out of university bureaucracy?