Laurie Clarke considers 85 years of gender and sexuality discourse on campus
This week the Glasgow Guardian celebrates its 85th year. A lot has changed since its inception in 1932, when female readers were warned of a “maleish viewpoint on matters erotic, political, scholastic.”
One column, aptly named “Women’s Notes”, went so far as to claim that “the corporate life of Varsity brings immediately to the feminine mind the eternal question of clothes.”
Today, the archives serve as a time capsule for an evolving student experience. Of course, there is no singular experience, as historically divisive gender politics testify. Although – in the Western world – attitudes towards gender and sexuality have radically transformed, the sentiments of 1932 aren’t as outdated as an antiquated writing style might suggest.
In 1981, student Marie Kelly took to the Glasgow University Guardian to discuss her skepticism regarding contemporary feminism: “I though [sic] we had equality … I hated seeing the ‘Women say no to male violence’ graffiti daubed in red paint around the university. Surely if you had to vandalise ‘people say no to violence’ would be more balanced.” Kelly, however, went on to describe her humiliation and bewilderment upon further exploration into the social climate: “It prods the reader into identifying his or her own unconscious attitudes to male chauvinism, which must be a step in the right direction.”
36 years later, Kelly’s idea of “equality” hasn’t aged a day. In 1981, gender “equality” had been reached before same-sex marriage, in a time when marital rape and discrimination against transgender people were still legal, and when Kelly believed her own experience of sexism began and ended with the question of a mixed union.
Certainly, the fate of the GUU was much discussed in the preceding years. In 1970, a newly elected Union Board Member told the paper he believed that female students feared “potential Beer Bar rapists”, which could be countered through mixed facilities, though he “wouldn’t like to see an entirely mixed Union just yet.” Apparently undeterred, in 1971, one writer disguised herself in “tattie denims, boots and combat jacket” to fulfil her ambition of drinking a pint in the Beer Bar. She succeeded, though “one doubtful specimen threatened to strip me and hang my clothes on the wall”, before being discovered and ejected, and concluding “the Beer Bar is as dull as its name.”
Just two years later, the Glasgow University Guardian reported a majority vote in favour of a mixed union which nonetheless failed to meet the 2/3 majority necessary to amend union policy. The announcement shared the page with an open letter to students, titled “Gays in GU”, which urged the student body to acknowledge and respect the presence of homosexual students on campus. The three individuals, represented by their initials, concluded: “We just want to point out that gays are perfectly ordinary human beings – like yourself. Maybe the person you were sitting beside in lectures today, or in the Ref., was gay. You wouldn’t have noticed.”
The letter was written while the Scottish Minorities Group was campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Scotland, a fight they wouldn’t win until 1980. The year also saw the long-anticipated referendum on allowing women into the GUU. Then SRC president, Tim Heath, told the paper: “After three months of delay the GUU Board have finally recognised hard facts: they can never again use public money to discriminate against female students.” Money was certainly a key motive in the decision. According to the GUU president: “If the Union does not accept women as members, then it will become a Private Club with all the inherent difficulties associated with this.”
Scarcely one year later, in 1982, the Glasgow University Guardian surveyed students in response to “renewed debate on sexism in the GUU”. The results found that 58% of female GUU members felt it was a “men-only club” and 56% of students would like to see more women on the GUU board. SRC president Patricia Bell concluded: “It is clear […] that women do not feel comfortable in the GUU and the majority of women object to the showing of pornographic films.”
In the same issue, one member of the SRC, AM Russell, criticised the committee’s censure of the GUU for refusing affiliation with the Gay Society. In a letter to the editor, Russell wrote: “Personally I regret that the GUU is no longer the bastion of male chauvinism that it once was, and wish the Board of Management every success in retaining it as a bastion of heterosexuality.” Squeezed alongside Russell’s rant, a female student wrote that despite the “legal arm-twisting” which precipitated a mixed union, “it does not follow that they [women] will be accepted as having that right, nor that they will even take up the opportunity.” According to the student, Susan MacDonald: “the Union hacks should stop bewailing the invasion of their splendid anachronistic solitude and trying to preserve a past that had little to commend it.”
This is not an attempt to preserve the past, but to orient ourselves in our history. A lot has changed since 1932. This year, the University celebrated the first all-female executive of a student representative council in Scotland, and all students have the opportunity of admittance or election in our two unions.
With hindsight comes the certainty that we are on the right side of history, but students 85 years time into the future may very well think differently.