Don't lecture me! It's Oxford that should on the rack for sexism: A stinging riposte from the student attacked for bragging about her cleavage to get ahead
07:55 GMT, 12 March 2012
No regrets: Madeline Grant, standing outside the Oxford Union, is reeling from the reaction to her risque slogan
With hindsight, Madeline Grant acknowledges that drawing attention to her breasts probably wasn't the most sensible way to try to further her career at the Oxford Union.
Over the past week, the 19-year-old undergraduate reading English at St Hilda's College has been reeling from the shock of what she says was intended as a joke to liven up the historic debating society's notoriously ruthless elections.
Madeline launched her campaign to stand as the Union's librarian — one of four coveted officer posts at the highly prestigious society — with the somewhat risque slogan: 'I don't hack, I just have a great rack.'
After having second thoughts, the second-year student took down her manifesto a day later and replaced it with the rather less controversial: 'I'm just here for the craic' [pronounced 'crack', the Irish word meaning fun or entertainment].
But by then, an eagle-eyed reporter from the university newspaper, Cherwell, had spotted the 'draft' poster and written a story about it.
Within days, Madeline, a former part-time model, who grew up in a 460,000 detached farmhouse in Ashorne, Warwickshire, found her photograph splashed across Britain's national Press.
'Bold university brunette uses boobs to bolster poll,' read one headline in a red-top newspaper. Her image went viral.
'I have a fan club in Turkey now,' she says, rolling her eyes in horror. 'There's a horrible website where they rate my looks with marks out of ten. It's creepy.'
An ill-advised move, then, for a bright young women. But Madeline, who was privately educated at 10,000-a-year King Edward VI High School For Girls in Birmingham and has a galaxy of A* GSCEs and A levels, remains defiant.
'I'm a feminist,' she says, 'and I have no regrets about what I did. I was trying to bill myself as the light-hearted candidate.
'It's so unfair that something that was meant as an Oxford joke has been taken out of context.'
The Oxford Union was founded in 1823 and is one of the oldest debating societies in the world, with membership costing 200 for life. Past presidents include William Gladstone, William Hague, Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine — and everyone from Albert Einstein to Michael Jackson has appeared there.
But Madeline's particular method of poking fun at this august society jars with her complaint that Oxford is beset by endemic 'casual sexism' — which she blames on the fact the university attracts more than its fair share of young men from private boarding schools.
'They either become real lads or they behave like characters from a 19th-century novel,' says Madeline. 'I've attended dinners where men say things like “much obliged, madam” — these are men who are the same age as me.'
Then there are the all-male drinking clubs to which, she says, girls are only ever invited as objects to be ogled. One such drinking society, held at Christ Church College, marks the beginning of each academic year by inviting ten of the best-looking female freshers to join them for the evening. Those 'lucky' enough to be invited are ordered to wear virginal white dresses.
'People can talk about me having a lack of judgment, but this kind of behaviour still goes on unchecked,' she says.
'I have a great rack': Madeline Grant, pictured here with her mother freelance writer Sally Jones, has been accused of damaging the perception of women
Of course, her critics might argue that by making a joke about her own breasts she has only encouraged such misogynists.
'No, no, no. I was laughing at them,' insists Madeline.
So why did she decide to join the Union in the first place
'It provides wonderful opportunities,' she says. 'I've debated on issues as varied as the London Olympics, Israel and Iraq.'
She has also met her fair share of celebrities: actor Sir Ian McKellen, chat-show host Michael Parkinson and Hollywood star Johnny Depp.
It is the Union's bizarre electoral process, she says, which brings out the worst in students. Those students chosen, via fiercely contested termly elections, to be President, Treasurer, Secretary and Librarian, are said to walk into any chosen career.
Indeed, newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky was a 'union hack' in her day (to hack, in Oxford slang, is to engage in blatant careerism — hence Madeline's campaign slogan) as was former MP Ann Widdecombe and former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Louise Mensch, the Tory MP and blockbuster novelist, is a former Union Secretary.
Joke: Madeline said her manifesto was 'only meant to be a light-hearted satire'
'It's generally seen as a ticket for life,' says Madeline. 'Union hacks take it all terribly seriously, especially when elections come around. They think they are so important. They actually refer to themselves as BNOCs — Big Name On Campus. It's all so ceremonious and pompous.'
What makes Oxford Union elections unique is that apart from manifestos and official hustings, canvassing for votes is strictly against the rules. Candidates are meant to be elected on the basis of their debating skills, but in reality the elections amount to little more than a networking competition.
'To get to the top, you need a killer instinct,' says Madeline. 'I hate all that fawning and flirting over people in the college bar and then asking them to vote for you.'
Her last-minute decision to run for the post of Librarian, then, was apparently only ever intended to be a joke. And her slogan, she insists, was a proverbial two-fingered salute to the Union 'hacks' she has come to despise. 'It was like saying: “Don't vote for these ridiculous hacks. You might as well vote for me for having a great rack.” People have accused me of satirising my own sex, but it was the Oxford Union as an institution I was satirising.'
Stinging riposte: Madeline Grant, 19, wrote on her manifesto: 'I don't hack, I just have a great rack.'
She crafted her last-minute manifesto with the help of a male friend. 'He thought the “rack” joke hilarious,' she says. 'So did I, but I knew I probably wouldn't be allowed to keep it in and that it might offend.
'So I drew up a final version with the wording changed. It was absolutely my decision to change it.'
Unfortunately for Madeline, two anonymous comments published in Cherwell suggest her laughter wasn't shared by all. One unnamed source called her tactic 'deeply offensive', saying: 'It is deeply saddening to see women objectifying themselves in manifestos.'
Madeline questions why no one batted an eyelid when male rival Jack Sennett, from Lincoln College, drew attention to his good looks during a previous election campaign. He chose the slogan: 'I'm bringin' sexy Jack' — apparently a play on a Justin Timberlake lyric: 'I'm bringin' sexy back.'
In fact, she now wonders whether one of her opponents deliberately used her manifesto against her to sink her election hopes. As it was, when the ballot papers were counted at the end of last week, Madeline came a close second out of three candidates, winning 400 votes — around 50 less than the winning Librarian candidate from St Anne's College.
'I was very happy with that,' she says. 'I never expected to win.'
Madeline says that her father, 71-year-old retired civil engineer John Grant, has been 'incredibly understanding' and her mother, 57-year-old BBC journalist Sally Jones — who also went to Oxford — was also 'pretty relaxed' about the affair.
'Her attitude was that I'd made my own bed and I needed to sort it out,' she says.
There is little doubt that Madeline knows more than most the pressures on girls — even brainy ones — to look good from her days as a part-time model. She lost drastic amounts of weight as a teenager after being stopped by an agency scout and told to consider modelling as a career.
She recalls: 'I thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me, even coming from an academic school like mine.
'In my year, there were lots of girls with eating problems. You have to be perfect at everything. You can't just be clever.'
Aged 16, she modelled for a couple of designers at London Fashion Week. But a year later, after her concerned mother had encouraged her to eat more, she was told her 9st frame was too large for modelling — despite being 5ft 11in tall.
But Madeline denies that, outside modelling, she has ever used her looks to her advantage. 'I went to a girls' school,' she says. 'At my college, St Hilda's, all my tutors are women. I certainly haven't got anywhere in life by winking and flicking my hair around.'
For now, Madeline is hoping to put the controversy of the past few days behind her and concentrate on her studies.
She may be adamant that she's 'done nothing wrong', but if the last few days have taught her anything, it is perhaps that using her brains is a safer option than drawing unnecessary attention to her looks.