“Why I Will Not Be Renewing/Extending My Year Membership To Your Society”

[This is an email I sent yesterday to Andrew Chapman, Gerard Tully, Jack Gamble, and Juan Zober de Francisco, respectively the President, Vice-President, Speakers Officer and Ents Officer for The Cambridge Union society, a long-established debating institution. A couple of people suggested I post it on Gender Agenda after having published it as a note on Facebook – hopefully the following will speak for itself and inspire other Union Society members to contact the Union Society exec with the same points in mind!]

Dear Sirs,

I was recently invited by The Union Society to attend an event at which
Ulrika Jonsson will be reportedly speaking about ‘Men, Life, and the Future
of Feminism’. Her credentials, as you obviously know, were listed thus: “An
iconic figure in public life, a winner of Celebrity Big Brother and model
for Playtex lingerie […] In 2002 she famously admitted to having an
affair with the then-England football manager, Sven Goran Eriksson.”

Prior to this invitation, I was also alerted via the CUSU Women’s Officer
to the fact that The Union Society is now offering ‘pole fitness’ classes
to women throughout Easter term, so that they might ‘keep fit on a pole’.
This neutral terminology, as used on your website, did not in any way
obscure the rather stark connection that ‘pole fitness’ has to its more
popular sibling, ‘pole dancing’, though the effort expended in this regard
has been noted.

Interested to know how else women were going to be represented in the
coming weeks, I decided to check out how many female speakers you have
booked for the term. As you know, the number was a resoundingly pathetic
four out of twenty-six.

There is absolutely no way I am paying another hundred quid or so to be a
member of a society that has so little commitment to gender equality or
female representation. I was recently informed by a colleague of mine that
one of your justifications (personally given to her via email) for booking
Ulrika Jonsson to speak on ‘men and feminism’ was her experience of
domestic violence. If this really is the case, why on earth is this not
listed as one of credentials in the event information/advertisement. Do you
think that underwear modelling and having an affair with a football manager
are seriously related to women’s rights? Ulrika Jonsson is no doubt an
intelligent and interesting woman, but the fact that you have chosen to
juxtapose her pursuits in lingerie and extra-marital activity next to her
feminist credentials not only undermines her as a speaker but practically
ridicules your female members, many of whom you know have a real interest
in gender equality. Last term we wrote to you asking you to address the
unacceptable dearth of female speakers in your termcard. After a positive
emergency debate that addressed a real issue regarding gender equality we
were genuinely hopeful that there might be some sort of tangible change in
The Union Society’s attitude to women.

I am beyond disappointed at the outcome. Calling a women-only activity that
directly emulates, and is inspired by, pole-dancing ‘Pole Fitness’ does not
make it a gender neutral and inoffensive thing. Calling a talk by Ulrika
Jonsson, advertised as famous for underwear and sex with Sven, “feminist”
does not make it so. Saying that more women should come forward as
emergency debate speakers does not excuse or diminish the absolutely stark
injustice of having 4 females out of 26 debaters this term. We should not
have to continue being fobbed off by stuff like this. I am almost in
disbelief that I spent so much money on being part of a society that has no
interest in listening to such a significant part of its membership.

I am relatively faithful that the next Union Society president will be more
sensitive to the issues I’ve outlined. I cannot however, be part of a
Society with such a flippant and seemingly indifferent attitude to gender
inequality and women’s issues any longer.

Best wishes

Faith Taylor


  1. John

    Faith you’re my hero!!!!

    I went to see Ulrika this evening, just to see if we’d underestimated her, and it was far worse than I was expecting. I left feeling outraged. She spent 90% of the time talking about her incredibly boring celebrity and family life, and what little she had to say about gender equality was wishy-washy recycled cliche. I asked her what she thought of the case in the Swedish media recently (she mentioned several times that she was a Swede at heart), about the genderless child Pop, and by extension what were her views on the validity of the gender binary (this is explicitly how I phrased it), and she had neither heard of the Pop story nor had formed any thoughts at all on this question of basic feminist theory. She was about as qualified to talk on feminism as my 13-year-old Twilight-reading sister. What was especially galling was that she was introduced as a speaker on “the future of feminism”, yet there were almost no questions on this subject from the interviewer (a former President), and when an audience member asked why feminism had become discredited, she gave an utterly meaningless answer about how it was more fashionable these days to be thin/beautiful and brain-dead than normal and feminist. She decried the state of gender equality in the UK (she claimed in Sweden there is no inequality any more), yet she had no suggestions at all for how up-and-coming feminists should approach the issue or try to change the situation.

    How can the Union treat feminism like this? It’s sickening. I copied your exact same message to them, and added this paragraph at the top:

    Dear Sirs,

    Copied below is a message sent to you recently by Faith Taylor concerning the Union’s approach to gender issues. I would like to register my full solidarity with the sentiments expressed, adding only that I actually attended the Ulrika Jonsson event and was outraged both about how clearly underqualified the speaker was to address “the future of feminism”, and more importantly about how little the interviewer attempted to even raise the issue. For a society that holds talks and discussions about so many interesting and intellectual debates, it is strange and frankly upsetting that the issues that feminism attempts to deal with apparently do not register to any significant degree on the Society’s radar of concern, when they are so central to modern society.

  2. clare mohan

    On the other hand (I was the one behind you who asked the question about pole dancing, and consequently got the personal chat from Juan himself…) whilst what she was saying on feminism was really fairly basic feminist theory, I couldn’t help thinking that she was at least putting the case for feminism clearly to those in the room who might not have thought of it as a valid/attractive way of thought before. Yeah, so it might not have been the most intellectual, intelligent approach; on the other hand she was giving a popular message about certain aspects of modern life. I was prepared for her to be far more vacuous, and more like the ‘dumb blondes’ she referred to than she was, so to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised.

    I would, however, like them maybe next time to invite someone more qualified to speak… but I won’t hold my breath.


  3. John

    Yeah, I mean it was nothing terrible (to be fair she did have a sensible view on pole-dancing, though she behaved as if she was committing a grave sin by holding that view), it’s just the fact that she was billed as the future of feminism that seemed ludicrous. And I think the union members who are supposed to be intellectual and have thought about important issues like this already deserve more than the basic ideas.

  4. ceridwen

    I think it might be quite worrying if we start saying “hey, Ulrika wasn’t as stupid as we assumed!”. I have no opinion on the woman’s knowledge or intelligence.

    The problem was never Ulrika: it was the way the event was advertised, and the fact that we weren’t offered a qualified speaker for such an important topic. If the Union put on an event about black rights, people might be surprised if the Union hired Thierry Henry. No one would say that he didn’t have the right to talk on the topic. But the student population might see it as a rather flippant means of dealing with an important topic – a topic that many an academic/politician/activist could better deliver.

  5. John

    Sorry, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. Ceridwen’s just a lot more articulate than I. Just to clarify, I don’t think Ulrika is stupid in the least, nor does she have any less right than anyone else to talk about feminism.

  6. clare mohan

    Ceridwen, you’re right. It’s a flaw in my approach that I was so quick to leap to a judgement about her, based mainly on the advertising, and the fact she’s a TV personality… I also think it’s a shame that Jon Laurence asked her fairly uninteresting questions; she could have said more, I think.

    I would like to see The Union cease to treat the issue so flippantly though, which doesn’t seem likely to happen for a while…

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