I went to Oxford on a so-called liberal arts course… only to be fined 120 when I joked about my 'great rack'
02:29 GMT, 6 May 2012
Humiliated: Madeline Grant has resigned from the Oxford Union
It was perhaps ironic that the interrogation should take place under the stern gaze of former president William Gladstone, a judgmental politician with a liking for ‘rescuing’ fallen women.
Last week, in the claustrophobic confines of a committee room at the Victorian Gothic buildings of the Oxford Union, a young undergraduate was subjected to a four-and-a-half- hour ordeal in which she was accused, cross-examined and, she claims, humiliated.
Madeline Grant, a 19-year-old who is reading English, was forced to defend herself in front of a grim-faced panel of three, with her accuser – the current president, Isabel Ernst – at her side.
Her ‘crime’ When writing her election manifesto for the position of librarian of the Oxford Union, Madeline and a friend came up with the now infamous slogan: ‘I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.’
As a result, the tribunal she endured on Wednesday evening fined her 120 for ‘bringing the Union into disrepute’.
With her brazenly politically incorrect mission statement, Madeline had hoped to puncture the self-importance of the 189-year-old debating society.
She had watched its student officers run their campaigns with all the desperate ruthlessness of the Prime Ministers many hope to become, using whatever weapons – mental and physical – they have at their disposal.
But the fallout from Madeline’s campaign has left her angry and bewildered. She has been labelled sexist, a claim she dismisses as ludicrous. She has fallen behind in her work because of the stress and has been placed on academic probation.
Yet despite it all, she does not regret the manifesto. ‘It’s been an interesting experience – a learning experience,’ she says, smiling ruefully.
‘I wanted to make a point about the people who run the Union taking themselves far too seriously, and their response has proved that point.
‘I’ve also found it very interesting that I was being accused of sexism, but they went to great lengths to punish a woman for making a joke about her body. I can’t help thinking that seems strange.
Accuser: Oxford Union president Isabel Ernst with Katie Price at a debate
’Bright, articulate, polite and, yes, pretty, Madeline, a former part-time model, is an unlikely poster girl for rebellion. But the controversy that has engulfed her since that manifesto went public in March has opened her eyes to the archaic attitudes towards women in the elite world the Oxford Union represents – particularly towards women who are independent-minded and, heaven forbid, funny.
The august debating society was founded in 1823 and counts many past and present members of the political establishment – from Gladstone through to Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath and Boris Johnson – among its former presidents.
In recent years, women have played a more prominent role, but the Union still retains the air of a gentlemen’s club, in which women are permitted to participate but are tacitly expected not to draw attention to themselves, and especially not to their sexuality.
It is a world in which glamour model Katie Price was recently booked to speak, ostensibly to reflect the different viewpoints of modern women – but was the real reason, ask cynics, to give her the chance to be patronised by the politicians of the future and to generate controversy in a carefully controlled environment
Prestigious: The Oxford Union (above) was founded in 1823 and is one of the oldest debating societies in the world. Past presidents include William Gladstone, William Hague, Boris Johnson
And it is one in which, when a young woman shows a sense of humour, she is punished. Indeed, Madeline’s humourless treatment over the past few weeks calls to mind The Scarlet Letter, the 19th Century novel in which a woman is forced to wear a symbol of her sin.
According to Madeline, she was referred to as ‘the defendant’ throughout the disciplinary hearing, during which she was grilled forensically by the panel.
‘It felt exactly like a trial,’ she says. ‘It was ridiculous. They were treating it as though it was a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird; some sort of moral crusade.
‘They read out about four pages of charges, referring to all the parts of the Union rulebook I’d contravened with my manifesto and when I’d later tried to defend myself.
‘It just went on and on with them clearly relishing the chance to show off their legal skills. ‘They were relentless and totally unsympathetic – in fact, quite cruel.
'I tried to explain how stressful the entire thing has been, but someone said I was clearly enjoying all the attention.
‘They wanted to make an example of me because I was honest about the way the Union works and expressed my views about it – which is ironic for a society that constantly cranks out a Harold Macmillan quote about being a “last bastion of free speech”.’
Throwing herself into university life: Madeline achieved her dream of a place to study English at St Hilda's College in Oxford (pictured)
The day after the tribunal, Madeline resigned her membership. The daughter of John Grant, a retired civil engineer, and Sally Jones, a BBC journalist and former world champion in real tennis, she was a straight A student at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham before winning a place at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
In her first year, she juggled her studies with playing netball and real tennis for the university.
She paid the 200 for voluntary lifelong membership to the Union, which has attracted speakers from Albert Einstein to Michael Jackson, because, she says: ‘I just wanted to see famous people speak there.’
It allowed her the chance to debate on issues including the London Olympics and Israel, and to meet celebrities including actor Johnny Depp.
It was when a friend of a friend ran for president that she became interested in the Union’s election process. The four officer roles – president, treasurer, secretary and librarian – attract the most ambitious students who hope that securing one of the posts will make them more attractive to future employers.
'It's hurtful that people think I'm anti-feminist'
Former Union ‘hacks’ – so called in Oxford slang for their confidence and ambition – include newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky and Tory MP Louise Mensch.
Of course, Madeline has been witness to what she calls ‘casual sexism’ several times since she has been at Oxford, which attracts more than its share of overly confident public-school-educated men.
All-male drinking societies go hand in hand with condescending attitudes towards women. Madeline had hoped the Union, which claims to be all-inclusive, would be different, but has been badly let down.
Having won a position on the Standing Committee, the first rung on the ladder, Madeline quickly grew to despise the archaic rules and the traits it encouraged in those at the top.
‘The system has barely evolved since 1823,’ she says. ‘There is an enormous book of rules which everyone is aware are being broken, but never change. It’s all so pompous.
‘For some reason, it’s strictly forbidden to canvass for votes, aside from writing a manifesto and at the official hustings – but everybody does it.
‘Hacks often spend all day hanging around outside colleges or in bars, desperately flirting with people to get votes for themselves and for other people on their team, which is called “lining” and is also banned.
‘It’s all so they can put it on their CV and get an internship with a bank. I think it’s awful and there are a lot of students who feel the same way.’
Breached protocol: According to the Union, the 19-year-old former model (pictured) broke the rules by speaking to the national press while a member of the committee without seeking prior permission from the president
She says she didn’t even particularly enjoy her time on the Standing Committee, which involved long weekly meetings about the administration of the Union. But a week before the applications had to be submitted, she decided to run for librarian as a joke at the expense of the whole pretentious system.
She says: ‘I wanted to do something to show how I felt about all the hacks, and a couple of friends from my college were also running – so I thought if I campaigned I could help them, too.’
Her last-minute manifesto was written with the help of a male friend.
‘He actually came up with the “rack” slogan. We wanted something that rhymed with “hack”, and when he suggested it we thought it was hilarious,’ she says.
‘I didn’t think anybody would look at it and think I was a serious candidate. I was saying, look at the lengths the hacks will go to for votes – they might as well say, “Vote for me because of my breasts.”
’Prior to the manifesto being printed, she took it to be approved by a team of Union officers, who listened solemnly to her as she read a letter from the St Hilda’s drinking society explaining how her breasts met all the criteria of a ‘great rack’.
‘They didn’t crack a smile,’ she says. ‘I did wonder if I’d gone a bit too far with it, so I changed the final wording to “I’m just here for the craic.” ’ It was too late.
An earlier version of her manifesto was posted on a wall and spotted by a journalist for the Cherwell student newspaper, who ran an article quoting unnamed sources as finding her tactic ‘deeply offensive’, adding that it was ‘saddening to see women objectifying themselves’.
The story hit the national press, and Madeline was devastated. Not only was her joke being treated seriously, but she now had to suffer her body being scrutinised to see if it was worthy of her claim.
‘There have been so many comments about my breasts on websites, which is creepy and horrible,’ she says.
‘On one, they ranked my looks with marks out of ten. I found it disturbing how casually a young woman is dissected.
Backing: Her mother, BBC presenter and former world champion in real tennis, Sally Jones, has been supportive of her daughter's plight
‘One paper ran a picture of me in a bikini, which was taken when I was 16 and had been snatched from my Facebook page.
'At the time, I was modelling and I was very skinny, so it became, “Oh, the joke is that she’s saying she has a great rack but she actually doesn’t have one at all.”
‘In the week the story broke I found it hard to leave the house. I was scared. It affected my work. I’ve been late with two essays so the college put me on academic probation.’
Madeline insists it was never her intention to draw attention to her figure, and that, having attended one of the country’s leading girls’ schools followed by the last Oxford college to open its doors to men, she is a feminist.
‘Everything I’ve achieved has been through hard work rather than my looks,’ she says.
‘My mum also had a fantastic career and taught me the importance of women working. It’s hurtful that anyone could really believe I’m this reactionary anti-feminist, when the opposite is true.’
In the end, Madeline came a close second out of three candidates, winning 400 votes, which she says proves how sick other students are of the hack mentality. However, her troubles were far from over.
When approached by a newspaper, she defended herself against the charge of sexism, which is when the Union president, Isabel Ernst, issued a formal complaint about her behaviour. Madeline says it is only within the Union that her manifesto has been deemed offensive.
‘Everyone else said they find it funny, thankfully.’
Interestingly, some of the fiercest criticism of her campaign has come from other women in the society – not because they loathe sexism, Madeline says, but because her manifesto was ‘too close to home’.
‘It’s well known that some of the women in the Union flirt and sleep their way to the top, basically doing exactly what I was sending up with the slogan,’ she says.
She questions why nobody even commented when a candidate from a previous election, Jack Sennett from Lincoln College, used his own looks as part of his campaign, vowing that he was ‘bringing sexy Jack’ – a reference to the Justin Timberlake lyric, ‘I’m bringing sexy back’.
‘I think it’s sad that men can say what they like, but a woman joking about her body is now seen as the worst thing imaginable,’ she says.
She now intends to concentrate on her studies and is contemplating joining the International Relations Society.
‘They get a lot of heavyweight political names, but without any of the outdated pomposity.’
Ms Ernst said Madeline had broken the Union’s rules by speaking about the controversy.
She said: ‘It is the president’s task to make sure the rules are upheld and the president is thus obliged to bring action against her.’
How dare this coterie of self-important political wannabes attack my daughter
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Proud: Sally and Madeline at St Hilda's
I was exploring the southernmost tip of the Cape of Good Hope with my husband John on holiday when my mobile rang. It was our usually cheerful daughter Madeline, in tears and sounding utterly unnerved.
‘It’s dreadful,’ she said. ‘Reporters swarming all over St Hilda’s, trying to interview me – and all because I came up with a jokey slogan for the Oxford Union Librarian election.
‘Some student journalist actually took it seriously and said I was using my body to buy votes.’
‘How ridiculous,’ I sympathised. ‘What was your slogan’
‘I don’t hack, I just have a great rack.’ I collapsed into giggles and fell about laughing along with John.
Madeline had always been teased for being flat-chested. After she achieved her dream of a place to study English at St Hilda’s, John and I were proud of how she threw herself into university life.
After joining the Union, she gradually conquered her shyness to speak in this daunting, tradition-laden debating chamber.
But last week she was carpeted by student officials claiming she had brought the Union into disrepute.
This little coterie of humourless, self-important embryo politicos had ganged up on an inexperienced 19-year-old who found herself in the eye of a media storm for a jokey comment.
It chimes with my impressions of the Union when I studied English at St Hugh’s College in the Seventies. Many of the officials appeared pompous stuffed-shirts or supercilious bluestockings in posh frocks.
We sports-mad party animals dismissed them as careerist hacks, although it bred some remarkable characters (such as Benazir Bhutto, future Prime Minister of Pakistan).
So, how is Madeline bearing her Union exile Still fuming but grateful for some extraordinary experiences.
Like the ‘rack’ row itself, hugely character-building – and providing useful skills for life after Oxford.