University of York Students’ Union opens Women’s Committee to men.

// 7 February 2008

A motion put forward by the University of York’s Women’s Officer (no less) to open Women’s Committee to men has sadly been passed today. Opponents, myself included, have been battling against this motion, but unfortunately the vote was open to all students, not just women, and was lost by 886 votes to 361.

The Women’s Officer and her supporters claimed that the committee should be open to all in the interests of equality, arguing that ‘it shouldn’t matter what’s in your pants’. Male supporters in particular accused the committee of being sexist. However, the benefits of a women-only committee are manifold:

1) The women’s liberation campaign must be led by women. Only women can understand what it is to experience oppression and discrimination as a woman in a patriarchy, and therefore only women are fully equipped to best formulate the campaigns and strategies necessary to ending this oppression and discrimination. Men are of course welcome to support this campaign but, as opponents to the motion have pointed out, there is no reason why a feminist or anti-sexist society could not be set up to allow them to do so while retaining female autonomy on the decicion-making committee.

2) Much as we would like to see a society where it doesn’t matter what’s in your pants, right now it does. Oppression of and discrimination against women is a gendered issue and has to be treated as such. This means providing a space in which women are free of the influence of those who belong to the dominant class: men. This is not to say that all men oppress and discriminate against women. However, socialisation into a masculine role, along with the prestige given to people with penises, grants them certain privileges. The way men comunicate and assert themselves, when combined with the self esteem issues and the automatic deference to male viewpoints that are often a part of female socialisation, often means that men dominate mixed discussion forums and discount female opinions.

This came across loud and clear in the comments posted by some male supporters of the motion on the no campaign’s facebook group:

As a male feminist I think that attempts to block male involvement in womens liberation are sexist.

If you’ve got a problem discussing female genital mutilation in front of me then that is your problem.

I am dissapointed at the emotive campaign that has been run on by those supporting this side of the argument that doesn’t present a completely clear picture and in my eyes is tantamount to emptional blackmail for some people…

The arrogance of these men is astounding. Women are the only ones who get to determine what our liberation campaign is and isn’t. If we tell men that we feel uncomfortable discussing certain issues in front of them, a true male supporter would respect this, not tell us that it is ‘our problem’. And the campaign is an “emotive” one precisely because women’s feelings and women’s personal experiences are precisely what feminism is based on. Which brings me to the next point.

3) There are issues women do not feel comfortable talking about in front of men: violence, sexuality, our bodies and health are just some of these issues, and they are issues that dominate the student women’s campaign. Some women’s religion may prevent them discussing certain issues in front of men. Other women may feel uncomfortable in mixed groups because of the abuse they have suffered at the hands of men, abuse that may well be the focus of a campaign or discussion. Women-only space allows these women to feel safe and comfortable participating in a group that is designed to benefit them.The York women and men who campaigned against the motion to allow men on the commitee point out that:

a female student was raped three years ago by a male student. The male student was not convicted, unsurprising given the extremely low conviction rate for rape, so for the next three years this female student had to endure the presence of this man at campus events, in classes, during Union meetings. The ONLY place she could go and not feel threatened by his presence was the Student’s Union women-only Women’s Committee.

I am utterly astounded that a Women’s Officer would put the desires of men – many of whom have shown themselves unable to grasp the most basic tenets of feminism – over the very real needs of women like this. Women grow up learning to put men’s feelings and wishes first, and it’s a habit that is very hard to break, but for me it is an attitude that has no place in the women’s movement.

Women are quite literally being pushed out of York Women’s Committee to make way for men. I’d laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

In other cheery news, the University of Sheffield Students’ Union President and council (most of whom are, interestingly, friends of said President and his supporters) are putting forward a referendum to get rid of our Women’s Officer, replacing the position with an Equality officer, who would be responsible for 9 different student groups including women, disabled, black and LGBT. It’s an unworkable position – those who have done the job in other Unions in the past have said as much – and I’m sure it will come as no great shock to learn that the position has often been filled by a straight, white, able bodied male.

If you have Facebook access, there’s more on the York situation here, and on Sheffield here.

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