Heroic Change

5

It has been over a week since all our lives changed dramatically, thanks to the tireless machinations of two Kate Kennedy Club defectors who threw open the guarded doors to the traditions and history of this University. We all woke up last Tuesday morning to find ourselves members of the shiny new Kate Kennedy Fellowship, although it was all too soon to tell what that really meant. The 24 hours following this announcement transpired as something out of a student journalist’s wet dream: first they said, and then the others said, and then the Principal said, and round and round the merry-go-round of rumours went until we were all dizzy and covered in muck.

A recurring theme in the rhetoric concerning this development is that of courage. At the emergency debate on this topic held last week one student went as far as to quote Dumbledore, reminding us all that “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” In the email she sent to the student body Principal Richardson reiterated that sentiment, writing: “It takes real personal courage to stand up among your friends and disagree with them on a point of principle. It takes even more courage to take the next step and walk out of a Club that has been such a large part of your student life. I think that these young men deserve our admiration.”

While it is true that it takes a lot to find the strength to stand up to your friends, I would like to echo the statement made by Patrick O’Hare at the debate: Sunny Moodie and Patrick Matthewson are not the second coming. These two men deserve our admiration? For what exactly? For joining a club that is known for it’s exclusionary practices, staying with it for years, and then one day realizing that female students should be allowed to participate in the history of this town to the same extent that they have already enjoyed the benefits of? Do not expect me to thank them from the bottom of my feeble female heart for throwing off the yoke of oppression I’ve supposedly been living under, after having so gladly embraced it in the first place.

The same, I must say, goes for our Lord Rector Alistair Moffatt. His email to the student body shed light on his own connection to the Club. Saying that he is now going to resign means that up until this point he did not find the membership practices objectionable enough to warrant his resignation. Well congratulations, it’s 2012 and these men have clued into the fact that excluding women from participating in upholding tradition is, well, an archaic tradition. The men at this University who should be commended are the ones that chose, from the start, not to participate and perpetuate these practices of discrimination.

Perhaps that is not the point though, and I realise that it would be regrettable if this opportunity for real change were lost because of arguments like those. However, I think it is important to make this case and put some perspective on their actions. Women have been at this University since the 1890s, women have had the vote since the 1920s, but it still took until 2009 for us to have our first female principal and it then took us until 2012 to really challenge the male dominance of our traditions.

Some might make the case that this is a move that could not come from outside of the Club. That might be true, it might not. Sam Fowles spoke at some length at the debate about how the Union does not have the power to ‘take toys’ away from outside groups, but arguably that is exactly what they have done. Two members of the Club left and started this Fellowship. They are not representing the club, and at this point it does not seem as if they are even representing the majority of its members. These are two individuals who cunningly managed to commit a successful heist. But until the Kate Kennedy Trust weighs in on this whole debacle this Fellowship seems to stand on very fragile ice.

The Kate Kennedy Club has not handled this situation well. Not showing up for the debate highlighted much of what they are being critiqued for. They are not accountable to this student body, yet are the self-appointed guardians of tradition. Their rather transparent attempt to stay out of the limelight and act as business as usual won’t work. We cannot let it work. It would be a grave mistake as a student body to let the Fellowship burn out in the spotlight and allow the Club to win by default. The Fellowship should be held to the fire, but not with the purpose of destroying it, but for the purpose of tempering it and thus making it stronger. The Kate Kennedy Club has always thrived on secrecy, and them trying to win this battle in secret is no different. Their constitution, initiations, and meetings have never been public and yet they commandeered something that should belong to the whole University.

“Ladies and gentlemen – even in those two words I see what a change has come over the Scottish Universities since my days. There were no girl undergraduates then. Ladies, you add to my terror today, but I congratulate and applaud you on winning your scarlet gowns.” As Director of Representation, Sam Fowles, reminded us at the debate on Thursday, those were the opening words of JM Barrie’s rectorial address in 1922. That same speech is the one that inspired two young men to re-establish the Kate Kennedy Procession and found the Kate Kennedy Club.  Read in that context it becomes almost farcical. The legacy of that speech and indeed the name of Kate herself are now being reclaimed on behalf of all students by the Kate Kennedy Fellowship.

The fact that a club, inspired by a speech that noted the importance of women’s progress, felt it prudent to make the resignation clause in their constitution a proposal to admit women shows the true colours of the sad little boys who want to play at being gentlemen. Having personally seen a recent version of the constitution, it is clear that this is a central aspect of the club; so important  that they mention it twice in the article regarding their membership procedures.

The statement released by the Club is a joke. It claims that they “have always been open to discussing our membership practices and will continue to consider these proposals within the Club in the future.” As recently as last spring I conducted interviews with several members of the Club for a feature in The Saint. The membership practices were one of the main things that they would not discuss in any depth. President at that time, Christopher Murphy, said that the all-male camaraderie was key to the Club. While most of the conversation was phrased in innocuous language that made it seem like it should not even be a big deal, underneath it all lie darker assumptions. Muprhy said: “That camaraderie doesn’t only bring a greater sense of belonging or a greater sense of achievement but I also believe that it allows us to achieve what we achieve better than it would otherwise.” I don’t know who the Club thinks it is fooling, but we should not let them get away with it. Not any more.

For a club that is so adamant in excluding women, it’s strange that every member has to pledge an oath to one. “I do pledge myself to render such service and allegiance as lies in my power unto the mystical Lady Katharine, the ever young in spirit, and to respect the council of the company of her followers. I make this pledge, knowing well that the Lady Katharine bids us uphold the honour and heritage of this ancient seat of learning established by her uncle, Bishop James Kennedy: also knowing that still the Lady holds in high regard the festival by which we, her followers, do her honour in the springtime of each year.” They are honouring a woman by making sure that no women can be a part of it.

Members of the club that I spoke to argued that they were not monopolizing the history of the town, that they were not stopping others from simply going to the library and doing the research themselves. I take issue with that statement. The virtue of the club, as presented by many speakers at the debate, is the way that it allows members to actively engage with the history of this town. Doing that in a communal setting is an important aspect of what makes it enjoyable.

This conversation is not about being for or against the existence of single-sex clubs, at least it shouldn’t be. There is a reason why it is the Kate Kennedy Club and not the Lumsden Club or the Kensington Club that is at the centre of this controversy. Neither of the latter clubs make any claims to be protectors of the cultural heritage of this institution.

When the Kate Kennedy Club was founded there were already women studying at this University, so there was no reason then and there certainly is no reason now to exclude women from the rich history of this town. Perhaps one of the things that this new entity can do, that the old one never seemed too keen on, is recover and share the history of women at this institution. Let’s honour Kate by actually including her, and the other members of her sex.

While we are all riding an ideological high right now, the crucial crossroad will come when we have to look at the practicalities of reform. At the debate on Thursday this was not the tone, most of the comments felt that it was more important to cherish the idea rather than the reality of the situation. I disagree.

The practicalities of this will have a huge impact on what it all really means. The motion debated, “This house would pledge allegiance to the Kate Kennedy Fellowship” was grossly premature. Ever the sceptic I would like to again invoke JM Barrie’s ghost. In his speech he said, “Beware your betters bringing presents. What is wanted is something run by yourselves.” That is what this should be; something fully, and accountably, run by all of us.

The true test will come, as it does for every interim government, when it is time for Pat and Sunny to stand aside and allow this to become a movement for the whole student body. The practicalities of how members become fellows and the running of the Fellowship are as important as the ideals it is founded on, because these are the issues many of us had with the Kate Kennedy Club. These are the questions we all need to be asking, and continue to do so long after we have gotten tired of the constant chatter about all things KK. We cannot let the Kate Kennedy Club win on the technicalities, but don’t let the Fellowship win without addressing them.

Being sceptical towards the Kate Kennedy Fellowship does not make you automatically in favour of the Kate Kennedy Club, and it would be dangerous for us to fall into the Bush-era logic of ‘either you’re with us or against us’. The problem with jumping on bandwagons is that you quite often find yourself going somewhere you never intended to go in the first place. I am not advocating a boycott of all things Kate Kennedy. The history and traditions of this town and University are central to the student experience and should be kept alive and well in the twenty first century. This new Fellowship was born in secrecy, rumours, and betrayal as so many revolutions are.

The real challenge will be to see if it can rise above those origins and become something that this University and all its students can be proud of. This change is long overdue, and at least this has brought the debate back to the top of our collective minds. And for that, and that alone, I will applaud the two boys who have wizened up. They are not heroes. But this change is heroic.

5 COMMENTS

  1. As always enjoyed the JHR column.

    I have always thought the KK club was ridiculous. For one I can’t imagine wanting to be in a single sex anything, having been to standard state school, it seems weird beyond belief.Secondly, my experience is people who wear jacket and tie, mustard cords as casual wear are deeply suspect, ditto referring to oneself as a gentleman. Finally, taking the oath outlined above confirms (in my book) you as a figure of fun. Overall I imagine a root canal to be more fun than an average KK meeting. (never went to a KK function either)

    All that said, for the most part figures of fun are all they are, strange boys. I do not see them as representative of anyone but themselves. I was happy the Principal pulled official recognition away from them for this reason. That done, I ceased to care about what they do or don’t do, they represent zero cost to my happiness. It is hard to argue that with the proposition that if you are all fired up about gown history etc, start your own club with that aim.

    As a volunteer myself (for something completely different) finding people to do anything for anyone is very hard. The KK club have done things to benefit wider society. Sure some of us do a pretty good speech about social justice or write a comment or cast a vote or make a donation for a sponsored something but really what proportion of students actually spend time doing something for others?

    To me the real test of the new Fellowship is will they achieve the same good things that KK club did? If not all this hoo ha will turn out to be equally as self regarding, equally as posturing and equally as ridiculous as the KK. In facts its worse since it would ended good activities for the cynicism of a self aggrandising headline. The history and tradition should not be used as a shield.

  2. Thanks Jim! But how did you feel about Hillevi’s article, in particular? Was it a fair analysis, in your opinion?

  3. I thought Hillevi’s article was the best piece I have read about the KKC / KKF. My only slight issue is the seriousness with which the whole thing is dealt with. I find the KKC laughable, when the Principal removed their official position I stopped bothering. I think local children care more about the procession than most students.
    I do not want to put words in Hillevi’s mouth but I think we are on a similar wavelength, its what the KKF do that matters. For me if all the KKF do is run the procession for a couple of years and as a result destroy KKC, then its not worth the loss of the good charity and other work done by KKC .

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