Being an Angus loon, I'm always interested to learn about educational developments in my home county. I was intrigued when I heard about an initiative from Angus College to promote love of roses. Poets often seem to be inspired by roses. Burns compared one (or several) of his loves to a red, red rose and Juliet told Romeo that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
So, I imagined that it might be something to do with National Poetry Day. It proved to be distinctly unpoetic. Somebody with managerial responsibility had decided that the distribution of roses would be a memorable way to mark International Women's Day (IWD). That particular numpty clearly did not realise, or did not care, that IWD is an opportunity to celebrate the lives and struggles of women and to express solidarity with women anywhere in the world whose emancipation is a long time in coming. Their plan was for a 'man in a grey suit' to present all the women in the college with red roses on the grounds that women 'like a bit of romance'. Patronising and demeaning on so many levels it takes the breath away.
It gets worse. When Cherry Hopton, a member of the teaching staff, objected to this institutional hijacking of feminism, she was summoned to see a man (doubtless attired in a grey suit) from the human resources department and when she refused to go without her union representative, she was suspended. Someone really hasn't got the message about respect for the emancipation of women here. A council of religious leaders in Afghanistan recently declared that 'men are fundamental and women are secondary'. Obviously, I don't need to explain to SR readers that there are major differences between Afghanistan and Arbroath but the message about the secondary role of women is coming across loud and clear.
Women go to Angus College to work, to study and to socialise with people of their choice; whether or not they receive flowers there is a matter for them. When a man in a grey suit, who is probably their manager or their course supervisor, thrusts flowers in their face, what freedom do they really have to reject them? Gifts in the context of such a power relationship are usually expected to merit some reward in return. In a climate of education cuts and job insecurity, can the women rejecting the roses be really sure that they will keep their jobs or progress to their next level of study? Such 'gifts' are not so much about affectionate reciprocity as about reminding women of their secondary status.
There are over 1,000 women in the college on any one day and if the roses really were to be distributed to all of them, that's hardly a sum that could
be smuggled unnoticed out of petty cash.
There are so many things that this college could have done in the spirit of IWD. They could have discussed why no political party in Angus has ever sent a female parliamentary representative to either Westminster or Holyrood. They could have celebrated the achievements of women architects such as Zaha Hadid, working-class women activists such as Margaret Bondfield, women entrepreneurs such as Michelle Mone or women writers such as AL Kennedy. They could have explored the reasons why Angus Violence Against Women Partnership (AVAWP) gets more calls from women at Christmas and New Year than at any other time of the year. There's no end to the topics they could have pursued and all of them without giving centre stage to men in grey suits.
There is also the question of cost. Locally-grown roses cannot be found for love or money in Brechin in March. Imported flowers from across the world do not come cheap. The principal of Angus College recently went public about the impact of spending cuts on his college's survival and he was concerned that the college might lose as many as 2,000 student places. Under these circumstances, which funding stream was he planning to access to pay for his little celebration? Surely not the equality budget.
Angus College has five sites and it's not clear if there was to be one man in a grey suit on each site to distribute the roses or whether one man would drive across the county at taxpayer's expense with a sackful of roses and a spare grey suit in the boot of his car. There are over 1,000 women in the college on any one day and if the roses really were to be distributed to all of them, that's hardly a sum that could be smuggled unnoticed out of petty cash. When will we see the minutes of the management meetings which agreed these particular budgetary decisions?
The annual gender equality report of Angus College came out in June 2011. It contains phrases such as: 'Feedback from the vast majority of student interviews and surveys has provided strong evidence that staff demonstrate positive and professional values and approaches in supporting and promoting gender equality'. The quality of its language fairly has Angus folk in stitches and Lewis Grassic Gibbon can be presumed to be birling in his grave.
There is a rumour that the entire report is to be set to music by the Friockheim Lesbian Orchestra (FLO); it will be sung as a Gregorian chant by the Kinnettles ladies curling team with grey suited urchins from the Carmyllie Boys Brigade throwing rose petals at their feet. It's a daft rumour, of course, but in comparison with suspending a lecturer for standing up for women's rights, it's positively sane.
Angus College could have got good publicity for itself on International Women's Day by asking Annie Lennox (who was born just up the road) to come and perform her great feminist classic, 'Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves'. Maybe next year.
Bob Cant is editor of 'Footsteps and Witnesses: Lesbian and gay lifestories