What’s in a name?

Aine Palmer, former Chair of DUGES, reflects on the the society’s struggle to change their name to DU Feminist Society

Photo credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

This week, at the Central Societies Committee (CSC) Term General Meeting (TGM), some closure was reached when Dublin University Gender Equality Society (DUGES) were unable to change the society name to FemSoc. As previous chairperson of the society (and a proud feminist), many people have greeted me, since hearing the news, with condolences.

Yet I’m personally not disappointed, and I don’t think the current committee are either. Rather, I’m proud of them for carrying this issue out to the end, and finally bringing a sense of closure to what was often a messy affair.

Why change the name?

Many have asked, “why the name change”? Last year, after our first term, and with a sense of success over the year thus far, at a committee meeting we asked ourselves what we could do better.

“The name’s pretty shit, isn’t it?”

It was true—we were constantly plagued with questions and suspicious gazes from members and other feminist societies. Did we reject the label of feminists ourselves? What was the difference between gender equality and feminism? Did you pronounce it “doogs” or “du-jay”? (“Doo-jes”, for those out there wondering.) We would all be more comfortable with the name FemSoc, so we decided, let’s just ask and see if we can, little knowing the massive can of worms that we were about to crack open.

We’ve outlined plenty of times why we would choose to be called the Feminist Society rather than the Gender Equality Society, but it’s worth recapping briefly. Of course, reasons are varied, and unique to each individual. We were concerned that ‘Gender Equality’ does not represent the sort of trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism we seek to represent.  We wanted to reclaim the oft-maligned word ‘feminist’, continue to normalise it and destigmatise a position which some still see as extremist.

If you think we are all crazy, aggressive misandrists, by the by, I urge you to attend the society’s weekly coffee morning. Somehow I doubt that you could leave still afraid of any of the kind, warm and open hearted committee members pushing tea and custard creams upon anyone who enters the door. A name change would reflect our identities more accurately; we call ourselves feminists, as do our many members who come into college seeking a social space to meet like-minded folk. Who the heck identifies as a ‘gender egalitarian’? We want a name that reflects the identities we embody, not the policies we espouse.

Most importantly, in an internal EGM held specifically on this issue, our members unanimously voted in favour of changing the name. 40 people attended this EGM. Anyone with any experience running a small society will know that this is no mean feat, and shows how important this issue was to our members.

As much as I respect the opinions of those who say that they prefer the name DUGES to FemSoc, it seems that to the people who actually give enough of a hoot about gender equality to join and be an active member, ‘feminist’ would be preferred, please and thank you.

Jumping though hoops

Which brings me neatly into one of the oddest parts of this whole debacle. On Tuesday, the treasurers of each society, who represent their bodies on the CSC, voted on the issue.  When we first brought this issue to a vote at the AGM a few months back, this was the most confusing to people. “Why do I even get a say in this?” treasurers from societies ranging from Circus and Juggling to Orchestra would say.

It’s a reasonable question. Most people didn’t really care what we called ourselves. Yet, as a previous CSC Executive Committee had specifically approved the current society name, its decision could only be overturned by a vote on a motion brought to the entire CSC.

It’s worth noting here that the motion we put forward was the first one that had been brought forward in years. Decisions made by the CSC Executive committee are rarely overturned it seems.

This meant that we had few clear guidelines of how to propose a motion, who could speak, or how things would work. The CSC Executive Committee advises societies on how to do this sort of bureaucratic stuff correctly, but they had made it very clear several times over that they did not want to see a name change happen and would obliged to speak against the motion.

For the entire process we were told which bureaucratic hoops to jump through by a body that appeared to want to see us trip up. Is it any wonder we howled in protest when told at the last hurdle at the AGM last year that quorum wasn’t met?

I don’t mean to denigrate the CSC completely here. After all, they are, at the end of the day, a group of very hard working students who manage to ensure the Trinity Societies can run as smoothly as possible, and, let’s be honest, receive generous funding that enables students to do incredible things. I can only applaud their tireless passion for financial administration and bureaucracy.

Yet I do seriously question the existence of an ostensibly student-led capitated body, that receives its funding from student contributions, that is so resistant to change that it has hardly seen a motion take place in the last ten years—and when does turn up, it blocks it.

Student-led bodies (and indeed, any body that exists to help and facilitate students) should surely listen to the needs and desires of students, take them into serious consideration, and adapt if necessary in order to facilitate them. Following policy blindly for the sake of policy simply results in a stubborn stagnation that serves few. If TCD always stuck so firmly to its guns, women wouldn’t even be allowed in the college, after all.

When the motion was proposed again this year, the current DUGES committee met with members of the CSC Executive Committee. They were asked to reconsider putting the issue to a vote, and told unequivocally that if the motion did pass, the CSC would be forced to dissolve the society, as it would no longer align with the CSC constitution.

As the CSC secretary, Fiona May, said on Tuesday; “It would be unconstitutional for any society to include the name feminist”. The CSC constitution is, by the by, the vaguest document I have ever seen in my life, and I openly welcome anyone to glance through it and find a line that irrefutably confirms this.

Additionally, on this point, Fiona is one of the nicest people I have ever dealt with. She’s relatively new to her job, but I am sure she will do a fantastic job. I wouldn’t ever want to critique her, or CSC chairperson Benn Hogan—rather I call into question to integrity of the policies and structures that they feel mandated to uphold.

It was claimed on Tuesday, amongst other things, that allowing such a name change would open the floodgate to a host of other, less savoury societies, to propose an existence. Yet the CSC regularly rejects society applications, and if, for example, someone did put in an application to set up DU Fascist Society, surely the college wide Dignity and Respect policy, if anything, would provide sufficient reasons to reject their application.

It was similarly argued that a name change to FemSoc would confuse the role with that of the SU Gender Equality Officer. As current SU Gender Equality Officer, and former chairperson of the society, I took this one quite personally. Having had the absolute privilege of occupying the two roles, I can say from personal experience that this is rubbish. Obviously, there is a degree of overlap—I will probably continue to work to an extent with DUGES, just as the Environmental Officer collaborates with EnviroSoc, the LGBTRO works with Q Soc, and the Oifigeach na Gaeilge works with Cumann na Gaeilge.

Yet while the society provides a social space in which people can discuss issues of gender equality, I more specifically work alongside other SU officers and students to advocate for gender equality. Plus, surely a name change would more clearly differentiate between these two functions by giving us different names, rather than further muddy the issue? If the CSC is seeking to separate the society and SU roles, a name change would work in its favour.

Yet, nevertheless, it seems that there cannot be a Feminist Society in Trinity (although there is in just about every other college in the country, and with very little issue). A name change would not be possible.

Thus, backed into a corner, DUGES asked the treasurers present to spoil their votes in protest of the whole situation on Tuesday evening. As was inevitable, the motion failed to pass. Although the event was, in many ways, futile, at least they gained a platform to express their opinion to the treasurers of the CSC, and put the whole thing to rest.

I have questioned many times over why we ever bothered pushing so far. In a year where a referendum on the 8th amendment looms over us, where there are surely more pressing issues of gender equality to be tackled, it has felt in some sense like a colossal waste of energy. Why expend so much time on small-scale CSC politics when there is a whole world of real inequalities out there?

Well, frankly, I don’t know. Maybe we’re just too darned stubborn for our own good. But names and language are important, and, as students, if we cannot affect change in the issues that affect us within our college bubble, how can we be expected to affect change once we leave these hallowed halls?

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the society name will be changed while I am still in Trinity.  I say not impossible because policies can and should be mutable. Once a model is shown not to fit, it should be adjusted and adapted, not simply dissolved. Members of DUGES have made it clear that they would be happiest under the banner of DU FemSoc. If the CSC wants to truly help student societies, perhaps, if this issue does arise again in future, they should think about how they can help, rather than hinder, such a change.