Open Letter to the Cambridge Union

Open letter to the Cambridge Union

Why the CUSU Women’s Campaign is no longer participating in the Cambridge Union’s discussion on sexism

It is with disappointment that the CUSU Women’s Campaign is pulling out of the public forum intended to discuss institutional sexism and the Cambridge Union Society. As the CUSU Women’s Officer, I have made this decision in consultation with the Women’s Campaign Committee, because I am no longer confident that the event will serve the original purpose of discussing the concerns that have been raised about the Cambridge Union Society, such as why there are so few female speakers, are pole dancing classes good exercise or objectification, and whether the Union takes sexism and feminism seriously. Ironically, we are pulling out of the event because the Union entirely failed to take the event seriously.

The CUSU Women’s Campaign voted to hold the discussion in conjunction with the Union on the understanding that it was willing to critically examine and discuss ways in which it could improve. This was seen as a meaningful and constructive way in which the Union could engage with issues of sexism and the Women’s Campaign could feed in concrete suggestions and ideas. However, the way that the Union participated in the organisation of the event suggests that the Union is unwilling to engage with these issues. The diversity of views within both the Women’s Campaign and the Cambridge Union Society would have made this event not only useful, but also dynamic and exciting event, and it is a shame that due to the actions of the Union, I feel it is no longer appropriate for the Women’s Campaign to participate.

Representatives from the CUSU Women’s Campaign and the Cambridge Union had devoted effort towards planning the event, including meticulously drafting a description of the event which was acceptable to both parties. However, the Union’s reluctance to publicise the event meant that it never appeared on the online Union termcard or any emails. The Facebook group, set up by the Union, used intentionally misleading information which described the event as “a discussion on women, sexism and society”, and not about the Cambridge Union specifically.

Although it is a step in the right direction that the Cambridge Union is holding a discussion on issues of sexism in wider society, this ignores the original subject of the event. Despite being willing to address institutional sexism in wider society and in Cambridge University (through the vastly popular “Is Cambridge University institutionally sexist” debate last academic year), the Union is unwilling to subject its own practices to such scrutiny.  The CUSU Women’s Campaign is still committed to proactively tackling institutional sexism within the Cambridge Union, and we will be holding a public discussion, “Is the Cambridge Union Society institutionally sexist?”, on Wednesday 12th May 8:30-9:30pm in Keynes Hall, King’s College.

All are welcome to what promises to be an engaging and productive forum on gender equality at the Cambridge Union.


  1. Jonathan Laurence

    Dear all,

    Did you give the Union Society an opportunity to change the advertising?

    I’m aware that in the past blurbs for events are often written fairly hastily – and that the omission was almost certainly not intentional.

    Certainly everyone I’ve spoken to inside the Society seems committed to engaging in productive dialogue – so I really can’t see why they’d sabotage an event in that way…

    Jonathan Laurence

    • natalieszarek

      Hi Jonathan-

      I know that there are plenty of people within the Union who want to work for change- in fact, some of these people were involved in trying to put together this event! I hope all of those people come to the Wednesday night event, they will certainly be listened to and respected!

      We had already decided on the wording and agreed to not use any other wording for publicity (because it can be a sensitive issue!) days before the facebook group was created. In fact, a previous facebook group had included the original title, but then was shut down. Therefore, it would have actually taken more effort to write the blurb they ended up using than if they had just used the original blurb.

      Again, I really want to keep on engaging with the Union. The original event, however, was clearly not the best way of doing it. I do hope you spread the word about Wednesday, and invite people to come along (and come along yourself!)!/event.php?eid=114291381943855&ref=ts

  2. Vicky Woolley

    I am disappointed by both the Union and the Women’s Union. I’ve no doubt that Natalie’s comments are entirely justified, but I was looking forward to this event and believe it would have been better balanced, informed and representative with the WU invovled in some capacity than without it involved at all.

  3. Sidgewick

    I notice that Natalie is now using the Union event’s Facebook group to advertise her own event at King’s. I personally find this off-putting, after CUSU women’s campaign deserted (at the last minute I might add) an event which was to be a really opportunity to discuss feminism at the Union. I’m all for debating the Union’s role in promoting feminism but doesn’t Ms Szarek realise her actions are permanently damaging relations with CUS, and validating the opinions of more reactionary elements within the society?

    • igoodman

      I don’t think this decision can be deemed uncooperative or unfair; in fact, Natalie’s letter makes it clear that she has worked very hard to organise an event which is constructive for both the Women’s Union and Union Society. What it comes down to, however, is what will be most productive in helpful to address gender inequality for the sake of the University at large. The discussion which was meant to take place at the Union was heavily misrepresented, in spite of a blurb which had been previously agreed upon. It was intended as a purposeful debate about the issues within the Union, not a directionless ramble around the immensely broad subject of ‘women’ and ‘sexism’. Changing the location of the discussion simply allows the Women’s Union an opportunity to make the discussion a more pointed, and hence a more fruitful one.

      The Union Society, of course, are still welcome to hold an informal chat about ‘feminism’, and anyone affiliated with the Union Society (in fact, anyone at all) is encouraged to come along to the talk at King’s, which sounds like it will be a productive start in working with the Union to address any gender inequality inherent in their practices.

  4. incognito

    May I ask why Ms Szarek did not ask the Union society to change the wording? It seems reasonable to suppose that there was a possibility of a breakdown in communications along the chain of people involved in publicity, rather than deliberate sabotage. This level of willingness to disregard the “meticulous” planning of the event seems to be somewhat fishy.

    • natalieszarek

      I have never said that there was deliberate sabotage on the part of the Union. The main difficulty was what appeared to be a lack of commitment to making the event happen as planned from the Union. I had already informed the Union that I was on the verge of pulling out of the event due to the lack of any publicity whatsoever on the part of the Union, and the only publicity that was put out before the deadlines set by Union representatives was the farcical FB group. Yes, I could have called up the Union and begged them to change back the wording to what it was meant to be, and once again beg them to put it on the termcard and emails. But co-organising an event means that both parties show commitment and respect to each other and the event. So, my response, after consulting with several people, was to reschedule to event to a framework where it was more clear what the event was meant to discuss, and would ultimately result in a more productive discussion.

      Far more important than the politics of organising the event is the politics of identifying and challenging institutional sexism within the Union if it exists. I warmly welcome everyone to come to the Wednesday event, especially Union Committee and members! I think that the best way forward is to publicly and openly discuss these issues without obscuring our intentions. This is why I wanted to be clear about my reasons for withdrawing from the event, because I think it will actually create a better forum for discussion.

      • incognito

        Isn’t Union publicity sent out on a weekly basis? I always thought that they tried to only send out 2 e-mails per week – the main weekly one and a mid-week reminder. Maybe publicity would have been in the weekly e-mail?

  5. John

    Very pleased to see in this weeks mail-out that the Union committee intend to attend this meet. I think it will be really interesting. I just pray to God that we can talk about whether the Union is sexist and not about the politics of arranging the discussion! Everyone needs to stay on topic. Should be good.

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