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We're More Than Our Appearance: Why Female Student Election Candidates Need to Be Taken More Seriously

17/04/2014 15:06 BST | Updated 16/06/2014 10:59 BST

When many of us think of student elections, we envisage over-zealous, politically forthright kids who spent a little bit too long in finishing school minding their p's and q's. These monoliths of the student experience are part of the untouchable Biggest Names On Campus clique, and have traded in all of their discernibly human qualities for fame and fortune. As is the case with most stereotypes, this is far from true.

Being the face of public scrutiny is far from easy. Recently, I campaigned and won the election to become the editor of Leeds Student newspaper, which consisted of five weeks of grueling work on top of my degree. Although campaigning for a job is a voluntary prospect, for me, putting myself in the firing line was a necessary, rather than desired evil in order for me to run the paper. If it wasn't hard enough to be subject to an interrogation at society Question Time every day of the process, or two wake up at 6am to find a decent place to chalk your name in hope that at someone might remember it once they get to the ballot box. However, what I didn't expect - and perhaps naively - was the amount of sexist behaviour I would encounter during the process.

Doing what every other candidate does, I placed several of my posters in the male and female toilets. 'Interestingly placed posters,' one troll remarked, referring to the posters found in the men's toilets. 'Nearly had to bash the bishop #redlipstick' he added on Twitter. Unsettled and intimidated by the thought that someone thought my posters were a gateway to invasive vitriol, I quickly reported the user. Later on in the week, I went to use a Union cash point and found that someone had altered my poster slogan 'All That Jazz' to 'All That Jizz'. Laced with love hearts, someone had scrawled below 'she is fit though'. Several other posters detailed penises trailing from my mouth. Ashamed and disheartened, it seemed that my campaign had been reduced to an entrance into an involuntary beauty contest, my face nothing more than an illegitimate bastion for a snide joke I certainly wasn't part of.

In contrast to some of my fellow competitors, it seems I got off lightly. Freya Potter, an Equality & Diversity Officer candidate, received and unrelenting barrage of abuse. Approached on campus one day by a male student, Freya was told she 'looked shit in real life' compared to her posters. Nominated as a 'Big Name On Campus' in the Leeds Tab for helping to assist the closure of Tequila, a club night which used the term 'rape' as a casual remark to promote their ngiht, Freya was slated in consequence. One commenter said: 'Freya cheated she kept voting for herself as she wants more people to be the next best thing next to retarded.. feminist'. Another reader added: 'Freya you might be a feminist and I don't mean to upset you but I'd love to wrap thread round my cock till it turned blue to the sound of you speaking'.

Freya said: 'I got mocking tweets about being a feminist, which I wasn't overly fussed about, but people did make some really disgusting misogynistic comments on articles about me.

Experiencing that to my face was far worse than online stuff, and unfortunately I wasn't the only candidate who received verbal sexual harassment on campus'.

Freya is dishearteningly right. There were a number of other candidates who became victim of sexist abuse. Education Officer candidate Gemma Liddle walked down a busy lecture theatre corridor one afternoon, and received the retort: 'you look shite on your posters, but shaggable in real life'. A few days later as she waited outside a lecture theatre, another student remarked 'are you sure you're not running for prostitution rather than education?' because she was wearing a skirt. Union Affairs Officer candidate Alice Smart was lambasted on a student radio show, as one commentator remarked 'she gets her boobs out for votes'.

Current Equality and Diversity Officer Emma Friend said: 'Sexism is extremely common in student elections and is an example of how our society still prejudices women as leaders. The fact that many of the women who experience such discrimination feel the need to remain silent about it is a further indication of how deeply sexism is entrenched.'

Episodes like this should not be written off as jokes. Every candidate in a leadership race should have the right to a fair and democratic process in which the only criticism received is aimed at their policies. Some of us may have secured the jobs of our dreams, but it does not excuse the behaviour we had to endure to get there. The scathing comments are nothing short of assault, and categorise women in positions of power in the only way that a patriarchal society can: through sexual terms.