Candidates in this year’s Undergraduate Students Association Council elections have made feminism a focal point.
That is, if you think spouting vague quotes about standing up for women is feminism.
Many of this year’s candidates will tell you that they do have specific, tangible platforms intended to address gender discrimination on campus. But when you analyze these platforms more critically, it’s hard to deny that candidates are just throwing around a lot of buzzwords about empowering women and protecting women’s rights. Terms like “advocacy,” “empowerment,” “leadership” and “reform” all seem to have hollowed out and lost their meaning.
Historically, USAC offices have done little to address the institutions allowing gender discrimination to continue. To tackle gender- and sex-based issues on campus, such as sexual assault and harassment, candidates and elected officials need to address the roots of such discrimination – such as through lobbying the administration – rather than organize uplifting panels and making menial changes to sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention trainings.
USAC’s female empowerment programming has tended to be underwhelming in the past. For example, Ashly Mohankumar, the 2016-2017 USAC Academic Affairs commissioner, collaborated with HerStory, a social media campaign which shared UCLA students’ stories on Facebook, and hosted a women empowerment dinner to satisfy her feminist-oriented platforms. These two efforts resulted in feel-good events and programs, but did little to address the issues women on campus face in a sustainable, long-term way.
Current USAC President Arielle Yael Mokhtarzadeh ran on a platform to create a team to reform UC policy to better meet students’ needs when dealing with sexual assault and harassment. Her Title IX Advocacy team, however, has done little to clarify to the student population how the Title IX office operates, which had been one of the goals driving the formation of the team in the first place.
Claire Fieldman, Mokhtarzadeh’s chief of staff and a candidate for USAC president this year, said the team advocated for rape treatment kits at Ashe Center, but there has been no visible progress on this. Fieldman added Mokhtarzadeh’s office has also been in contact with the Title IX Office and the Campus Assault Resources & Education program, which provides counseling for survivors of sexual assault. But being in contact is only useful if it leads to meaningful programming – especially considering Mokhtarzadeh’s term as president is nearing its conclusion.
This year’s campaigning does not look promising either. From many Facebook posts about women empowering women, to campaign platforms about helping connect female UCLA students to alumnae in related fields, none of these platforms address real institutional issues.
Actually addressing gender-based issues on campus requires programming that focuses on the roots of the problems and institutional barriers within the university structure – but many of this year’s candidates seem to have refused to face that fact. For example, Fieldman and Victoria Solkovits, a candidate for USAC external vice president, have both focused on reforming trainings for students and proposed working with the Title IX office.
But both candidates seem to overlook the fact that the Title IX office has an obscure means of handling cases filed against faculty and doling out disciplinary measures to sexual harassers on campus – things that are far more important than helping female students network with alumnae and a couple of Facebook posts about women’s rights.
Increasing “student facilitation” at student trainings does not get at the root of rape or sexual harassment culture on campus, nor does it address institutional barriers that prevent victims from getting help or seeking justice. Neither does it put pressure on the administration to improve its Title IX investigations and punishments for violators. Fieldman said that trainings have the potential to confront toxic sexual harassment and assault culture head-on, but that overlooks the fact that trainings can be a triggering place for survivors, and can perpetuate the very gender norms that allow for sexual harassment to fester.
Programs such as panels to discuss women empowerment, vaguely updated sexual harassment trainings and dinners to connect female students to successful alumnae ring hollow. Without addressing the root issues that contribute to a culture of sexual and gender discrimination on campus, USAC programs will be just political talking points. And as long as councilmembers continue to host events about “women in leadership,” they’ll remain second-wave feminists – or like those part of a movement in the 1960s that focused on women’s liberation in the workplace and reproductive rights primarily – who can do little to address the issues that many women in 2018 at UCLA experience.
Advocacy may seem compelling, and it wouldn’t be fair to say that these programs don’t have any value. But if you scratch the surface, previous councilmembers’ advocacy frequently has done nothing to change campus culture. Workshops, coalitions and programs only discuss issues in insulated spaces – workshops that most students don’t even attend in the first place. While this year’s candidates could claim to be different than the norm, vague platforms about women’s empowerment are not setting them up to enact meaningful change if elected.
It’s time to hold USAC officials and candidates accountable. With voting underway this week, students should think about whether the candidates they are selecting will follow through on their claims to help women on campus – or if they’ll host a few panels and “advocate” without affecting real change.
Feminism is made up of more than buzzwords, and it’s more than a campaign platform. It’s more than a trendy Gloria Steinem quote. There are real issues that women of all sexualities, races, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds experience. And these deep-seeded issues won’t be solved with just a handful of networking nights and minor training updates.