On Tuesday 24th March, four UEA delegates attended the National Union of Students (NUS) Women’s Conference in Solihull. The conference happens annually, and goes alongside many others such as the LGBT+ Conference, the Disabilities Conference and the overall NUS Conference, where motions are passed that affect all students nationally. It works like student council, but specifically working for the rights of students who are women or who have a complex gender identity that includes woman.
At the Women’s Conference over 200 different faculties were represented, from both higher education and further education institutions. On the first day of the conference, however, the proceedings were somewhat derailed by a Twitter storm. The conference hashtag was trending, which was a testament to how many people were getting involved, and the official Twitter account for the conference tweeted to ask the delegates if they could use jazz hands rather than clap, as it was causing anxiety for a lot of attendants.
Using jazz hands instead of clapping has been common NUS practice for years, as it is a much more inclusive alternative. Students with Asperger’s, anxiety or speaking difficulties can find it hard when making a statement and being interrupted by clapping during it. Jazz hands work better as they are the international sign language alternative to clapping, as well as being a fun way to show your appreciation for what someone has said. Using them is actually more practical, and because it is quieter it can help the conference flow better, as well as not interrupting the speaker.
The tweet about jazz hands attracted attention from a lot of Twitter trolls, who attacked the NUS account in droves, making fun of people with disabilities and the concept of accessibility. This spread to anyone using the hashtag, and by day three became more and more personal, with trolls sharing pictures of and misgendering delegates.
However nasty the environment on Twitter, the conference continued undeterred. Many important motions were successfully passed, for example Oxford University’s motion to promote women’s leadership in STEM subjects, and UEA’s own #freeperiods motion, which aims to abolish tax on sanitary products to do with menstruation. The ‘Time To Talk About Women’ motion, which aims to conduct a survey about the mental health of Women students, was also passed unanimously.
Some more controversial motions included the ‘Dear Gay White Men: Stop Appropriating Black Women’ motion, which passed efficiently at conference but created some backlash in the media and in internet forums. The motion was primarily aimed at a popular trend within white gay male circles to appropriate Black women’s culture, for example, adopting terms such as ‘on fleek’ ‘shade’ and ‘bae’, as well as twerking and referring to their ‘inner black woman’.
Many people who are not black women also use and abuse these parts of black culture, however this particular motion is aimed at gay white men specifically, as it’s become such common practice within the communities that gay men are credited with ‘inventing’ the words. The aim of the motion is to educate gay white men (and I hope, everyone else appropriating black female culture) around the politics of appropriation and to discourage this behaviour where possible.
Many other motions were successfully passed, however a motion to create a position for a trans-representative in the NUS did not make it to conference floor due to time running out. There were many similar controversial moments during the conference, for example many delegates walking out of the NEC elections due to a candidate being told they couldn’t run under unfair circumstances.
While there were a fair share of controversies during the conference, overall the NUS Women’s committee have been making positive steps towards making the conference accessible and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. However, there are many ways that the NUS could improve the conference for next year, including trying to create a more private space for delegates to communicate over the internet rather than Twitter.