By Zanny Begg
SYDNEY — During the Students and Sustainability Conference, held at Hawkesbury campus of the University of Western Sydney, July 12-16, there was debate over the decision by some men to form a "pro-feminist" men-only space at the conference.
Griffith University women's collective members called a meeting at the beginning of the conference at which a resolution was passed calling on the men's space organisers to open the space to both women and men to discuss feminism. Women's collective representatives decided to attend the men's space to argue why it should be gender non-specific. After an involved debate, the men-only space was disbanded for the rest of the conference.
Some of those involved in the men-only space argued that men also "suffer from patriarchy", that they should discuss feminism without women present, and that men need "space to reconnect with their emotions" and women's presence "intimidates" and "inhibits" them from doing this.
Resistance wrote a resolution during the conference to explain why feminists should oppose men-only organising. It explained that men-only space is anti-feminist because women suffer oppression on the basis of their sex but men do not.
Our society is based on the exploitation of women's unpaid labour within the home. This oppression gives rise to sexist ideology which perpetuates the myth that women are inferior, passive, weak and sex objects for men's pleasure.
The result is that women are the main targets of violence, sexual harassment, abuse and rape. Women find it harder to gain economic independence or have real control over their lives.
The women's liberation movement fights against this oppression. Women-only spaces, such as women's rooms on campuses, can help women develop the confidence to fight against their oppression.
While many men suffer oppression on the basis of their class, skin colour, sexual preference, etc., they do not suffer systematic oppression on the basis of their sex, so there is no need for men-only space to help the fight against "men's oppression". Indeed, it could be argued that all of this sexist society is "men-only" space; men dominate the pages of history books and newspapers, parliament, economic power centres and society at large.
Any problems that men experience because of their gender (i.e., because of their socialisation as men) are a direct result of society's sexism, which is hinged on women's oppression. That is, men may find it harder to express emotion or connect with other people, but this is a product of men being socialised to be the oppressor, or dominant sex.
Men cannot overcome these problems in isolation from women; that requires eliminating sexism. This means that men should support the fight against sexism (attending International Women's Day marches, fighting for women's right to choose abortion, challenging sexist assumptions, etc.).
Men-only organising, whatever the intentions of the men involved, is anti-feminist because it groups together those who are dominant in gender relations. It would be like white people organising against racism in spaces which exclude people of colour.
Creating opportunities for men and women to discuss feminism together is important. Resistance welcomed the decision to make the "men's space" at the Students and Sustainability Conference gender non-specific because it is important for men to participate in the fight against sexism and to discuss how they can do this.
The long-term interests of both men and women will be served by creating a world free from sexism. It is only in such a world that human beings will be able to interact with each other free from the distortions imposed by sexism.