When James Ritchie, a Young Liberal at University of Tasmania (UTAS) announced his resignation as the Launceston Campus’ Women’s Officer he wrote, “How can we as a society expect men to stand up for women if they’re mocked and insulted for trying to help the cause?”
This question was part of a blunt letter detailing his resignation from the Tasmania University Union position and criticising society’s response to “good-intentioned” men wanting to address women’s issues. Ritchie tendered the letter on April 8, a week after he had won the position in a student by-election.
Before his resignation, female UTAS students had started a petition on change.org calling for his resignation and Ritchie received widespread public backlash and comparisons with PM and Minister for Women Tony Abbott when the story circulated in the mainstream media. Ritchie felt he couldn’t be effective in the role.
In an exclusive interview with Catalyst on Monday, Ritchie said his experience is an example of the obstacles men face in expressing support for women’s rights.
“I think that’s a critical thing that needs addressing if you want to improve women’s rights, and that’s where I thought I had a real opportunity as women’s officer,” Ritchie said.
“I recognize a man would have a different impact in the role, but it shouldn’t really matter if it’s a man or a woman. The thing that matters most, ultimately, is achieving equality.”
Ritchie said he found the saga “disappointing” and believes it had sent the cause for female students “backwards rather than forwards”.
“Before I went into the role, the position had been vacant since October I think, and it’s been vacant ever since I resigned and might continue to be until this October,” Ritchie said. “So at the moment there’s no student representation for women at all on the Tasmanian University Union.”
RMIT University Student Union’s Women’s Officer Abena Dove said she was surprised when she found out a man had been allowed to contest the role.
Dove doesn’t question Ritchie’s intentions but said women are the only people who should ever be in leadership positions when it comes to women’s rights.
“It’s important for women to be the leaders of women’s rights movements and positions,” Dove said.
“For girls, it’s important to see women in a position of leadership or authority, especially if it pertains to you, because when you see that it makes you think it’s something you can achieve, and that’s really important in helping empower women.”
Ritchie rejects the argument he couldn’t represent female students not being one himself, saying he already had plans for how to improve female student life. “No I don’t agree with that, and really I think that’s the heart of the matter,” Ritchie said.
“First and foremost what I wanted to achieve was improving safety on campus – one of the main concerns I’d heard from female students was they felt afraid walking to their cars at night-time.
“I also thought the position gave me a sort of platform to really push through awareness campaigns on domestic and sexual violence, issues I felt were important.”
Dove said there are specific things women must inherently deal with a male officer would never be able to understand.
“Dealing with women who feel uncomfortable around men due to attacks, dealing with abortion, dealing with any kind of reproductive or contraceptive things,” Dove said.
“If you haven’t personally experienced these things it’s very hard to assist a student in that area. Not just advocating, but actually empathizing with female students. Like female students might not feel comfortable if they’ve just been attacked telling that to another man.”
The events in Tasmania are a departure from the positivity and optimism of recent gender equality campaigns emphasizing the importance of men supporting the women’s rights movement.
The most famous of these came from September last year when actress and UN goodwill ambassador Emma Watson made a famous speech launching the UN’s HeforShe campaign – an “online solidarity movement” encouraging men to be advocates of women’s rights and the fight to end gender inequality.
“How can we effect change in a world where only half of i […] feels welcome to participate in the conversation?” said Watson as she prescribed efforts to make men feel more comfortable in calling themselves feminists.
Might negative experiences in supporting women’s rights, such as Ritchie felt he had, be a setback to attempts to involve men in the cause? Dove doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think men should feel deterred from involving themselves in campaigns by this, I do think they should be deterred from taking leadership positions,” Dove said.
“I think when a man tries to support feminism but doesn’t do it in the right way, the best to respond is not by denigrating them and calling them a bad feminist, but by saying ‘it’s good that you tried, but here’s what you should have done’.”
“And I think what he should have done is like I said, be involved in the campaigns without leading them. Men who think they can do this are overplaying their role in the women’s rights movement.”
So what is this role? How should men be expected to stand up for women’s issues?
“Issues relating to gender equality and discrimination have a lot to do with men.” says Ritchie. “Men overwhelmingly commit domestic violence acts and sexual assault, so we need to raise a society where men respect, appreciate and support women.”
Dove agrees, particularly with the “support” aspect.
“Men’s role in the women’s empowerment movement is to assist women in their cause. Things like pay equality, campaigns for more female candidates in politics. I think their role is to fight for these things alongside women, but not to fight in their place.”