Daniel Thomas examines the debate raised by Kirk Sneade running for Women’s Officer
As one of the candidates for the role of women’s officer at UCLU next year, Kirk Sneade has prompted an impassioned debate in UCL circles. That a straight white man should run for this position may be distressing to many women, who will worry that he will not properly represent their interests if elected. Kirk insists that he does not differentiate between men and women, and rejects the notion that he cannot properly represent women. He also pledged to dissolve the position, citing its divisive potential and the existence of a non-sabbatical equalities officer already.
Kirk and his campaign organiser Mark Stander admit that the campaign began as a joke; the original manifesto can be found here. But after being rebuked for their sexist election literature the pair have come out fighting, cleansing their Facebook page of all such material and posting serious political messages about the union and the sexual politics that goes on within its walls. Mark Stander said it was the messages of support for Kirk that turned the campaign into a serious one. He also said they had received more messages of support than outrage. While admitting he is not technically a woman, Mark argued that Kirk would be a better representative of UCL’s female population than the ‘radical feminists’ that would otherwise be elected. This is a point to be taken seriously by political hopefuls and the union, as it illustrates the lack of faith in student politics at the moment.
Despite his opposition to the role, Kirk could find himself forced to do the job. Democracy and Communications Officer Sam Gaus said that only the Union Council could abolish the position (which they created after a referendum suggested student approval) and that there was no guarantee Kirk’s election would prompt this abolition.
It is possible that Kirk will be UCLU’s first women’s officer, in the job for a year and tasked to represent women’s interests. It will be a position involving stress and meetings, dealing with complex issues on a daily basis; in other words, a proper job, but one he says he is ready for. But by making his campaign into a ‘political statement’ and challenging student politics as a whole, Kirk has changed the nature of the debate and tapped into apathy about student politics in general. He said: “We feel that the voting student population has polarised views compared to the majority.” Many might feel that a vote for Kirk is a protest vote, one that expresses dissatisfaction with what they perceive as a cliquey and selfish union, especially after the recent furore over Varsity.
Another reason people might vote for Kirk is the idealistic notion that anyone can represent anyone in this empathetic, post-prejudicial age. As Kirk and Mark put it: “We did not initially envisage [Kirk’s white, straight manhood] being an issue as we assumed a sabbatical officer campaigning for equality wouldn’t be discriminated against due to his or her gender, race or sexual preference”. The irony here is not lost on anyone, but nor does it win the argument. Even if Kirk is capable of carrying out the office, it does not mean he is better than the other candidates. Feeling outrage or sympathy on someone’s behalf is entirely unrelated to their ability to do a job.
But protest votes are difficult to interpret, and if Kirk wins it would be unclear how the union should respond. Should they abolish the post of women’s officer, and if so, what about those who voted for Kirk simply because they felt he should be allowed to run in the first place? And what about those whose vote was motivated by apathy with student politics in general? Because his candidacy has changed the rules and thrown up a variety of different debates, how to move forward would be a confused discussion.
Many people have criticised the campaign, and for many different reasons. Gaus said it was: “Horrible…It makes the election inaccessible to women [according to female friends of his] and highlights why the position is needed”. One English undergraduate wrote: “The post is titled Women’s Officer, not Woman’s Liberation Officer, and the post is here to offer support to women. Someone should point this out to Kirk Sneade, who apparently thinks it’s titled ‘Womans Officer’, such is his interest in the role. Women still do have a number of issues to face which men just don’t. Kirk Sneade is never going to have people whispering about him because some guy is spreading rumours they shagged round the back of Moonies.” She added: “Men can and should be feminists in whatever form, but they will never have quite the same perspective as a woman, and they’re not suitable for a post in advising them.”
But much of what Kirk says carries a freshness many people will find attractive. Minutes of the Women’s Forum back in October recorded the proposal that Chris Brown’s music be banned from the union because he was found guilty of offences relating to domestic violence. Chair of the forum and candidate for the role of women’s officer Beth Sutton has since accused Kirk of making a mockery of the position, an accusation Kirk argued should be levelled at her. The proposition is similar to LSE’s recent ban of The Sun on campus; both are symbolic gestures made for their own sake, but have little relevance to many people beyond that.
This debate is made complicated by two factors. Firstly, feminism is far from a united movement; while one student argues that the post is “not Woman’s Liberation Officer”, another argues it is “a liberation position”. The divided and contradictory objections confuse the sides of the debate, but reflect the nature of feminism as a political movement. Secondly, student politics is overwhelmingly characterised by apathy, meaning a candidate standing against the status quo is bound to be given a lot of attention. Standing for the apathetic majority is one thing, but expressing that apathy and formulating a coherent and popular response is another.
Kirk and Mark’s campaign does have a refreshing air to some, coming at a time when many feel the union is drifting away from representing its students. There can be no doubt that interest in union politics is difficult to find among the student electorate, and perhaps Kirk’s campaign is symptomatic of a system that fails to make students feel represented. But while the campaign is one thing, it remains to be seen how women would feel going to Kirk Sneade about a sensitive, gender-related matter. When a debate gets complicated, pictures often say a lot.
It is currently possible to vote for Kirk, Bethany Sutton or Helen Chandler-Wilde, until voting closes on Friday 8 March.