After 35 years, the University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS) Women’s Centre is moving to adopt a new name and a new mission, but not everyone is on side. The small office and lounge in the Student Union Building re-opened in June 2016 after a two-week closure; however, the Centre remains unstaffed amid controversy and alleged misconduct involving staff, members, and an ex-coordinator who is transgender.
In November 2015, the UVSS Women’s Centre announced it would be changing its collective name to “Third Space” and expanding to serve not only “self-identified women,” but any “gender variant and gender non-conforming person.” This change appears to be in line with UVic’s updated human rights policy prohibiting discrimination on grounds of “sex (including gender identity).” But the change conflicts with the wishes of some students and with UVSS bylaws that specify the space is for UVic women.
From 1973 to 1981, the University of Victoria Women’s Action Group (one of B.C.’s first organizations for women’s liberation) pressured the UVSS to establish a women-only drop-in, library, and referral service. In the years since, the Women’s Centre collective lobbied for women’s history courses, expanded daycare facilities and campus safety, and held workshops on topics from feminist theory to self-defense.
Back then, women’s studies departments, rape crisis centres, and equal rights in higher education did not exist. There were few tenured women and even fewer supports for female students.
The battles took years, but activists succeeded in establishing the centres and a measure of equal rights on campus, as well as bases of operation to organize more widely against rape, harassment, and discrimination. The UVic collective, described as a “strong, radical, feminist voice on campus,” led and participated in women-only events from Take Back the Night to pro-choice initiatives, and provided a place for women to discuss feminist theory and plan for action without fear of male censorship.
Shelagh Day was on the frontlines with WAG during those years of struggle for crucial rights and resources. She is now president and senior editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter and a member of the Order of Canada. “I do think women’s space is extremely important,” Day says by phone from Vancouver. “It certainly was when women began to be active at UBC and UVic.”
“It remains important to have spaces where women can talk about their lives and their experiences as women and how they analyze that,” Day says.
“I’m always disturbed when women’s spaces are taken away or money is taken away from women’s activities and women’s networking. Of course, other groups also need spaces that are comfortable and appropriate for them. And I think it’s really important that that happens. What I worry about is particularly women’s space being taken away or defunded or turned into something else.”
“Divided and toxic”
Today the Centre is undergoing “turbulence and discomfort,” according to a July 12, 2016 letter to members from Erin Ewart, UVSS executive director,
“[I]ndividuals have not felt safe, have been oppressed, and have been bullied in the space,” Ewart wrote. “All these experiences have culminated in a collective that is divided, a center that is toxic, harassment, and a sense of hopelessness moving forward.”
According to The Martlet, UVic’s student newspaper, the website was closed temporarily and social media accounts were “deactivated” earlier this year. Reached by phone at the UVSS office, Ewart says, “There were concerns about privacy, so the website was temporarily taken down to update the passwords.”
The website was restored in June 2016. Shortly thereafter, a message appeared on the page that Ewart says was “not put up by either of the coordinators.” The post castigated the university for not doing enough to prevent sexual assaults and concluded “UVic is the enemy.”
In June 2016, the collective held a Community Debrief in an attempt to address conflicts at the Centre. A collective member who goes by the name Lexa MacKay* recounts a chaotic scene:
“There was a lot of disruption. [Former coordinator] Daphne Shaed demanded that the hiring committee bypass union rules and hiring rules and get [Shaed] back as a hire. But that wasn’t going to happen. Nadia [Hamdon], the new coordinator, was already hired, and the hiring committee was happy with her. They said she is extremely qualified.”
During the meeting, Shaed, who self-identifies as a “tranny cyborg Hindu woman,” and a “heterosexual lesbian,” accused Centre coordinator Kay Gallivan of “transmisogyny.” A supporter of Shaed asked Gallivan if she was “afraid of transwomen.”
A second meeting was scheduled for July 14, 2016. According to MacKay, a long-time collective member, Hamdon and Gallivan spoke of “continued incidents of harassment since the previous meeting and they said they were afraid to go in [to the Centre] because they felt unsafe.” The Centre is not currently operating, they said.
Jim Dunsdon, Associate VP for Student Affairs, was present to warn the group that the Third Space website may have been hacked and that the Centre could face sanctions for its message.
Discussion focused on moving forward from this turbulent period and completing the transition to Third Space, including changing the Centre’s signage.
“In moving forward, it is also important to recognize the difference between having a voice, advocating for change and calling bodies in when oppression has occurred and engaging in bullying and harassment type behaviors,” Ewart wrote in the July 12 letter. “The focus needs to begin to shift to the bigger picture and away from two individuals. Harassment can take many forms and can be anything from subtle, passive comments, to acts of violence.”
Voting or consultation?
Regarding the change from “Women’s Centre” to “Third Space,” Ewart says no further consultation with students is planned.
“We did a large consultation with surveys and polls that went out,” she says. When asked for details, Ewart referenced a poll that was posted on the Centre’s website. The web poll introduced the subject of a more “inclusive” name and asked respondents what name they would prefer and why. The survey has since been closed and the results have not been made public.
MacKay says a group of feminists on campus provided extensive feedback via the poll. “We felt it was erasing women,” she says. “They just went ahead and [made the changes] anyway without even talking about the criticism.”
Third Space is currently the unofficial name of the Centre, according to policies adopted at its annual meeting in November, and Ewart says the Third Space name will be official once it’s approved by the collective.
The Third Space website suggests the change might still be subject to “a referendum for all undergraduate students to vote on this matter.”
In any case, according to UVSS bylaws, the space is the Women’s Centre, and membership is limited to “all registered undergraduate women students.” Changing UVSS bylaws requires either a two-thirds vote by the directors, a two-thirds vote of members at a general meeting, or a majority vote in a student referendum.
The new Third Space constitution distances feminism from its history as a political movement for women’s liberation and the end of patriarchal oppression, defining it instead as “a mode of analysis that recognizes the right of every self-identified women, non-binary, and gender fluid to develop to their potential free from oppression” [sic].
The Centre and its staff are funded entirely by student fees, and female students make up 60 per cent of the student body.
Controversy has dogged the Centre in the past year. While serving as Finance Coordinator, Shaed attracted negative attention for publishing a full-page, full-frontal nude photo in the June 2015 edition of the Third Space zine produced by the UVSS Women’s Centre. The image was titled “My body is not my shame — Daphne Shaed, Tranny Cyborg.”
Shaed, a political science, linguistics, and computer science student, drew criticism again in February 2016 after tweeting a photo of a student pouring red paint across UVic Pride’s new rainbow crosswalk along with the hashtag, #feelingsilenced. Shaed brushed off accusations of vandalism, tweeting, “the paint washes off, just like your inclusivity.”
“They don’t speak for us,” a Martlet commenter responded at the time. “[Shaed’s] attitude is exclusionary and they are frankly bullies. But any critique of action is shot down – even anonymous concerns are dismissed as ‘cis/straight’ trolls.’”
As of mid-July 2016, Shaed is still listed on the Centre’s website as a coordinator.
Meanwhile, MacKay says feminist literature and discussions that are critical of gender theory, pornography, and prostitution are not permitted at the Centre. After leaving feminist pamphlets at the Centre in January, she received an email from Shaed, explaining that members of the Centre may not challenge certain ideology, including the notion that “sex work is work” and the idea that “woman” is defined based on “a system of self-identification.”
”Is there room for ideological diversity in the Women’s Centre? I would like to run a radical feminist group. Would you find that acceptable?”
“[W]e can not support discourses that inherently erase others. There is room for discussions in the Women’s Centre, but not when it comes at the expense of undermining the legitimacy of other members and their identities.”
Student frustration with the change is evident on a Twitter page called @UVicWomyn, which was started by MacKay and some other anonymous women in an effort to respond to the proposed repurposing of the Centre.
An email to Centre members from Gallivan and Hamdon said the @UVicWomyn account constitutes “a form of bullying and harassment,” adding, “The UVSS and the Third Space coordinators have taken steps to get the page removed.”
— UVic Womyn's Centre (@uvicwomyn) July 15, 2016
@uvicwomyn coordinator speaking: this account is not helping. This is harassment of our previous coordinator. This is violence.
— Kay Gallivan (@kaygallivan) July 15, 2016
Earlier this year, the Centre’s collective apologized for its “deep history of ‘radical feminism’” which they characterized as “exclusionary, racist, and trans exclusive.” The group committed to “unlearning elitist social justice mentalities.”
Safety and equality
The issues confronted by UVic women three decades ago are still on the front pages today. University parents still struggle for adequate childcare services and sexual assault survivors on campus still find their safety is not a priority with administrators (although their silence is).
Meanwhile, the rate of male violence against women is rising in B.C. and across the country. In 2015, 19 B.C. women were murdered by men, two of them in Victoria, and a spate of sexual assaults against women in communities near the University in July 2016 has women on edge.
“A number of women [have been] assaulted on campus,” MacKay says.
“Men target women for assault and it’s not based on how we identify, it’s based on our biology. Women are attacked because we’re female. Being born with a vulva is an automatic target on your back for sexual violence.”
She says women-only spaces protect women by removing the threat of male violence.
@UvicWomyn points out that trans students will benefit from a million-dollar endowment for a Chair of Transgender Studies announced early in 2016.
While the group is in favour of safe space for transgender or “gender fluid” students, they also want space available specifically for women.
We're in favour of safe space for trans, non-binary, genderfluid ppl. But not at the expense of women. #UVicWomen deserve our own space.
— UVic Womyn's Centre (@uvicwomyn) July 16, 2016
@UvicWomyn’s online petition states that “people born male who identify as women have the right to their own space, but not at the expense of women’s space.”
The petition, which gathered over 250 signatures in its first three days, continues:
“Women-born women also have the right to organize on their own terms with others who share the female designation at birth and who were socialized as women, in order to heal from and organize against male exploitation and oppression of women that’s based on our biology and socialization.”
Lee Lakeman, a feminist pioneer and the founder of one of the country’s first safe houses for women, agrees. “My experience is that women-only space is vital to anti-violence work. We seem to think differently, more strategically in that space. It’s easier for women to be bold where we don’t feel censored,” she told me over phone.
“Once you accept that women don’t have equality in society, then it’s fairly obvious that women need to be able to distance themselves from men in order to collectivise.”
“In order for women to have enough room to think, they need some time away from the overpowering presence of men,” she says.
Tara Prema is a former student of journalism and women’s history.
*Lexa MacKay is a pseudonym used at the request of the student, who fears reprisals, including harassment and removal from the collective and the Centre