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empowerment by default

I recently attended the first meeting of the South Australian Feminist Collective, formed after Adelaide’s ‘Slutwalk’ took place. Just under twenty-five people attended, with four of this number being men (and I say this in the strictly biological sense of the word, as one of the men identified as gender-neutral). Being the first gathering of the group, there was of course no manifesto, but I think it can be said that the group’s general aim will be to act as a forum for feminists to express the issues that are important to them and to further the progress of the women’s movement through means of direct action and education.

So far, so good. However, early on there arose an ‘issue’ that was debated far longer than the two-hour parameter set for the meeting would suggest as prudent.

Perhaps sensibly enough, the first thing to be decided was a matter of organization. How would the group be run?

Democratically was the general consensus.  So, naturally, the question arose: Who would be allowed to vote on the matters requiring a group decision?

On the surface, this would seem to be a bit of a silly thing to ask – if this was to be a democracy, meaning ‘rule of the people’ after all, shouldn’t everyone be allowed to vote?

If we look back to the ancient Athenians, who are lauded as the originators of modern democracy, we can see that this was certainly not the assumption they operated by. It was only the adult, male citizens who were able to participate in the decisions of the city – a demographic, by the way, that made up far less than fifty percent of the population as whole. So, for the ancient Greeks, at least, democracy was not a system ‘for the people’. And neither, it would seem, is it necessarily so for feminists.

Many of the attendees (including the majority of the men there) believed that only the female members of the group should be entitled to the vote. One of the men there explained his reasoning by saying that, while he believed the male members should be able to express their opinions, in the end it is women who should be leading their own empowerment, with men as their supporters and aids (as an aside, it seems rather ironic that it was this very man who had organised the meeting in the first place).

This is certainly, in many ways, an admirable viewpoint. Chivalrous, even. But wait – isn’t it chivalry, and other manifestations of sexual inequality (be they of a more unpleasant nature than chivalry) that we’re trying to eradicate here?

Yes, if you believe that women are inherently superior to men, then fine, deny men the vote. But I believe, and I honestly believe that the belief of most people who attended the group is, that feminism is about achieving equality between the sexes.

The view expressed by some there must be mentioned, namely, that at the end of the day, women’s issues are affecting women, not men. Therefore, to allow men to have any deterministic power over the outcome of such issues, and of all places, in a feminist group that is supposed to be a platform for empowering women, is inappropriate.

These views must not be disregarded, as they are coming from a deeply personal place and have arisen from long, frustrating and painful years of women’s collective oppression.

But we should not be blinded by emotion into accepting them.

By granting women the privilege here of being the only ones able to vote, isn’t this really just empowering them by default? In the big, wide world outside the S.A. Feminist Collective and other feminist groups, women will never be given this sexist privilege – and why should they want it? For women to have any meaningful power in society, their agency must be respected by and equal to that of men. And in any case, if certain people – men – are not permitted to fully participate in the processes of decision making, whether it be regarding ‘women’s issues’ or any other matter, then they will not feel completely bound and connected to outcomes of these processes.

Denying men the vote on ‘women’s issues’ seems analogous to denying women the political vote in past times. The reasoning then was that as women weren’t meaningful participants in political society, they shouldn’t be granted rights equal to men in the political arena (the dreadful circularity cannot escape anyone who realises that women weren’t meaningful participants because they weren’t permitted to be). ‘Women’s issues’ will always be irrelevant and uninteresting to men if they are excluded from involvement in them.

The issue was finally decided by a slim margin in favour of male members being able to vote. Though in all likelihood, it seems that most of the men of the group will, in the event of any future decision to be made, exercise their right to abstain. Their sense of consideration is frustrating, because really, they’re not doing women any favours.

The second meeting of the South Australian Feminist Collective will be taking place on July 16, 2pm-4pm, at the Adelaide Activist Centre, Room 205, Level 2, 95 Currie Street. For more information, visit the facebook page.

5 thoughts on “empowerment by default

  1. With you 100% on this- producing dichotomies about what issues are for “women only” is unhelpful and perpetuates the boundaries between the sexes. This kind of thing is supremely frustrating- not least of because of how ironic it is.

  2. I also agree. I found the discussion and its length offputting. The men at these meetings aren’t going to hamper any decisions because of their gender; it’d be because we are all people, and people’s opinions differ. Exclusion is antithetical to equality. I also have doubts about how seriously people such as myself will be able to take groups which exclude men from the voting process, and how seriously the public will be able to take them as well.
    Discussions like these just reinforce the stereotype or feminists being angry man haters.

  3. Its a good idea to exclude men. Most women dont know how to do it.
    Its a good idea for all oppressed groups to organise together. Why would you want a white person at an aboriginal meeting, a man at a women’s meeting, a table tennis player at a footballer meeting, a straight person at a gay meeting??
    They will just get in the road, spoil the fun, etc etc.
    Women have been trained from day one to be inclusive all the time. We will never be free if we dont learn how to exclude others.

  4. While I agree this discussion went on for too long, and it was too early to even make a decision. Since this time there has been a number of problems of having men in the collective. And these include:

    - Men telling women how to run meetings
    -Men dominating the conversation and speaking for really long periods of time.
    - A reluctance in the women to share personal stories because of men’s presence.
    - A tendency to be patronising by repeating things women have already said

    I agreed with you absolutely in the first meeting, but since seeing these kind of behaviours I recognise why women would want autonomous organising. i’m not saying men should be excluded from meetings – but it is worth recognising that we can’t aim for gender equality if the men in the collective are dismissing the things women say and not challenging their own behaviour (which happens so much in other situations). I think this can be challenged by letting men know when they are overstepping boundaries – and letting women run the show.

  5. Catherine, I would like to respond to the four points you have made.

    - Men telling women how to run meetings

    A lot of the men who have been going to these meetings (as far as I’m aware – I will readily admit that I am not sure) are very experienced activists. As such, it’s understandable that they would want to share their knowledge so that the campaigns and meetings can be more effective. If it was that there were women with the same experience giving such advice, would it be as much of an issue?

    -Men dominating the conversation and speaking for really long periods of time

    This is something the facilitator of the meeting needs to control. No-one, woman or man, should be allowed to dominate the conversation. If it was deemed necessary, then perhaps a time limit should be put in place.

    - A reluctance in the women to share personal stories because of men’s presence.

    This is a tough one, but I honestly believe that women should start to share ‘women’s’ issues with men. If there are sensitive anecdotes that women in the group want to share, I don’t see why it couldn’t be shared with the entire group. If it’s too uncomfortable to share with some people in the group, then why should it be shared at all? Everyone attending those meetings, as well as everyone who identifies as a feminist in general, shares a common goal. We can’t properly work together to achieve this if some of us are left out in the dark.

    - A tendency to be patronising by repeating things women have already said

    This is not an innate quality of men. My memory of the meeting that I attended was that there were several women present who were also patronising. If someone is wasting time by repeating what has been said, that, again, is a problem for the facilitator to deal with.

    Thank you for sharing your opinions with me, it’s really appreciated. See you at the Feminist Forum tomorrow!

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