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.