Wednesday, 13 March 2013


In the past week my alma mater has hit the news several times. It's been covered in the local press, national radio, and even on news sites on this side of the pond.

 It didn't make for pleasant reading.

That's disheartening for a proud alumnus because Glasgow University is a fantastic educational institution, with a great culture and campus atmosphere.

Students at Glasgow have since made a protest against sexism, on International Womens' Day, which makes me proud, but also actually a little ashamed.

Just under ten years ago I arrived on campus at Glasgow University for freshers' week, excited about the week and the years ahead of me. Before I'd left home for Glasgow people told me that I would be a 'QM girl'. This apparently meant that I loved 'alternative' music, and that on some level, I was proud to be a woman.

QM stands for Queen Margaret, who is often credited with bringing learning to Scotland. The Queen Margaret Union (QMU) is one of the two student unions on the campus. The other is the Glasgow University Union, although both are equally official and part-funded by the university. The GUU had begun as a male-only institution, so the QMU had started, at the turn of the 20th century, to cater for female students.

To clarify, UK universities don't have sororities (I'm still not entirely sure what a fraternity or sorority is). Instead UK universities have student unions, usually spaces on campus that provide various services to students including advice and support, as well as leisure, cheap food, and drink.

Glasgow is unique in having two unions, a remnant from the days when they were segregated. Although the QMU became co-ed in the 70s, and the GUU in the 80s, both retained distinct characteristics, and students could actively choose one to join. For some, including myself, it was a source of campus identity.

The stereotype of the GUU was rugby, tweed, cheap beer, excellent debating and a hint of chauvinism. The stereotype of the QMU was grunge, goth, lgbt, cheap jack daniels and a historical sense of feminism.

There was an ancient rivalry between the two buildings, sat at opposite sides of the campus. During the freshers' week address representatives from both sides would don colored t-shirts and cheer for their own side. Within a gothic building often said to have been considered as a set for Hogwarts, there was an amazing buzz of excitement not unlike Houses roaring for their Quidditch teams.

During my freshers' week the GUU hit the news for a headline in their daily newsletter, Filth. "No means yes and yes means harder" it said, a phrase that was condemned by rape support groups. I'm not sure it had any effect on my decision to join the QMU, to be honest, because that was going to happen anyway.

The stereotypes of the two unions were well-known. A campus staff-member once told me about a group called the "Freds", who watched Tom and Jerry cartoons (by Fred Quimby) in the GUU during lunchtime, followed by hardcore porn, while feminists known as "The Women's Group" protested outside on the streets.

That happened way before my time on campus, but these feminists were remembered in the QMU's constitution, which recognised continuing  support for "The Women's Group", and even though the group no longer existed, the clause remained just in case it was ever needed again.

After the GUU became co-ed in the 1980s, a men's group known as the 139 was formed. It honored the 139 GUU members who had voted against allowing female members. They were known to have male-only dinners and drinking sessions which were rumored to have elaborate rules. One I heard about was that they'd all stand in silence if a woman entered the room.

I don't have a problem with single-sex groups in principle, as long as their raison d'etre isn't purely to exclude. Oxford University has its notorious Bullingdon Club. St.Andrews University had a male group for a long time, named after a woman, Kate Kennedy (KK). The KK no longer exists though, after male members voted to admit women last year.

Having risen through the ranks of the QMU's board, I once attended a (different) dinner at the GUU, and was seated with some members of the notorious 139. They asked me if I was offended by their 'banter'. I was offended, but I just looked at them blithely, and said "it all just seems a bit homoerotic to me". They laughed.

While the GUU and QMU had had at times a vicious rivalry, that wasn't the case when I was a student. It was a post 9/11 world, the economy was good, but the two unions were both struggling financially and often worked together to achieve goals on campus. I enjoyed the GUU: I ate, drank, danced and socialized there, just not as much as at the QMU.

The unions both had particular cultures which were caricatured by their stereotypes. The GUU has had many female members and board members, though to my knowledge still hasn't had a female president (I'm wrong, see comments below. The GUU has had a handful of female presidents). In my final year I ran for election as QMU President, but lost out to a male friend. Incidentally, since going co-ed, the QMU has had more male presidents than female, although overall it's had far more women leading the Union.

I was disappointed when I read about the sexist comments that the Cambridge students experienced. I admit I don't know exactly what happened beyond what the news reports say, but what strikes me is that incident rings true to a stereotype with which I am familiar.

I was proud to see the protest in response, and the petition. And that's where I feel a bit embarrassed.

You see, I was a proud QMU member and proud female student, but my derision of campus misogyny was never really more than a sense of snobbery. As one friend pointed out to me this week, people who didn't like one union could just join the other, rather than attempting to make positive changes.

I asked another girlfriend and former 'QM girl' what she thought about the sexism accusations, and she replied, "I was smug because I was not one of them…when instead we should have made a stand against it.  In a way our joining the QMU gave us this shield that said 'well obviously I am against sexism, I am in the QMU'. Because others had made a stand in the past, we didn't need to bother because we co-opted their fight through our shared QMU membership."

We were passive feminists. We let boys be boys, maybe expecting that one day their jokes would get tired. I'm sure there wouldn't have been a cultural sea-change had we joined the GUU, but perhaps in an indirect way we perpetuated the GUU's culture.

A recent thread on Reddit asked school bullies why they used to bully. Many of the responses were from people who didn't realize that they were bullying, they thought that they were being funny and didn't realize that others didn't find them funny too.

It took an outsider, a member of neither the GUU or the QMU, a student from Cambridge, another Russell Group University like Glasgow, to point out the jokes are tired and no longer funny.

The incident at Glasgow and the media coverage seems to have resulted in a different kind of debate to the one that sparked the frenzy. I hope that can be a good thing.


  1. Great post Gill. It's been interesting to see the reactions of those outside of the Glasgow University bubble to the incident, and pretty disappointing to see some of the denials, attempts at excusing the behaviour (despite almost universal condemnation) from some acquaintances.

    Incidentally, the GUU has in fact had a number of female presidents: LJ Fleming was president when I started uni in 2000 (and was the subject of a rather unfair article about the whereabouts of her knickers in a campus publication). Before her there was Bernadine Sheridan and the first female GUU president, Sharmilla Shandial - elected in 1996, 16 years after the first male GUU president.

    1. Thanks Laura, and especially for the corrections - rookie mistake for me not to check and my knowledge of GUU history is way patchier than that of the QMU.

    2. My history nerdiness comes in handy sometimes! Have you read 'Conquering by Degrees'? It's pretty interesting, and has a few interesting tidbits about the QM too. Not sure how easily you'll find a copy in Philly though!