Over fifteen years ago, when I was an awkward year seven student, I was elected to be the gold faction sports captain. This wasn’t a result that went unquestioned: I wasn’t remotely sporty (one of the less-charitable mothers had even commented on my awkward ‘ballerina-esque’ running style) and the girl I had beaten was undeniably far more athletic. But despite the odd looks and the suggestion from some that maybe the other girl would’ve been a more appropriate choice, I never considered standing down. I believed that I was the best person for the job: I was organised, knew how to use a clipboard, could purchase lollies and had a voice loud enough to cheer a team on single handedly. And, importantly, I was the one who was elected for the position, proving that the majority of my peers believed that I could do the job well.
While insignificant in the scheme of things, I was recently reminded of this period while reading articles about James Ritchie, the male student elected to be the Women’s Officer for the University of Tasmania. The headline that particularly caught my attention was one in Daily Life: ‘Update on the election of a male Women’s Officer at UTAS: James Ritchie has done the right thing and resigned.’
But was resigning the right thing for James Ritchie to do? And should he have been pressured to do so?
I have had trouble deciding which side of this debate to support, which I think reveals something about its complexity. Yes, in a perfect world a Women’s Officer would be a woman, just like a sports captain should ideally be good at sport. However, a female Women’s Officer should be elected because she is the best candidate for the job, not simply because of her sex. Voting a woman into a position on the basis of her sex alone seems to me like positive discrimination gone mad.
In the case of James Ritchie, it appears that he was an appropriate (if not the best) candidate for the job. In his own words, running for Women’s Officer was ‘not a publicity stunt and I’m genuinely interested in helping women whatever issues or feedback they give me, I want to help them do that and I think that’s good for women and good for men and that’s good for the community.’ He also had reasonable policies, including consulting with women about their concerns, addressing campus safety at night and the raising awareness of the HeForShe campaign. And, tellingly, he had the support of his peers, winning the election 112 votes to 88. If James Ritchie was the best candidate who put his hand up for the job, why shouldn’t he be allowed to fill the position? Don’t feminists like myself strive for equal rights for both men and women?
Interestingly, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks was of a similar opinion. While acknowledging the existence of cases where a man would have difficulties providing adequate representation for women (such as when it may be culturally inappropriate), she also stated that ‘I think it’s potentially really exciting that a man is concerned about women’s issues and wants to help women to represent those issues to the powers that be.’
I can certainly understand why a fuss was made. Historically it has been the patriarchy that have decided what was best for women, and for many women having a male Women’s Officer alludes to that time. But, once again, assuming that a person will be good at that role simply because they are a woman (or conversely, that a person is inappropriate for that position because they are a man) is ridiculous. The ideal Women’s Officer candidate (while preferably female) is someone who would do the best job possible, and in the absence of a suitable female candidate why shouldn’t a man fill the position? James Ritchie may never truly understand what it is to be a woman, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in gender equality or have good ideas to help promote it.
The story of James Ritchie has drawn parallels with that of Tony Abbott electing himself Minister for Women, but I believe there are some key differences. Firstly, Tony Abbott has no qualifications or beliefs that would make him the most appropriate choice, and secondly, our community did not elect him for this role. James Ritchie may have been able to make a positive difference if given the chance. Tony Abbott simply cannot. It was Abbott who once famously said that
I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.
He could never be considered the best choice as Minister for Women.
I realise as I’m writing this piece that I perhaps have double standards. I don’t believe having a non-indigenous student as Indigenous Officer would necessarily be appropriate, and I’m not sure how I would feel about a non-queer person representing the queer community, or people without disabilities representing those with them. Perhaps this is because I am a woman that I feel free to comment on who can represent women’s issues. People generally want to be represented by those with a similar lived experience as them, and on the whole I agree with this. However, if there is a candidate who can do the best for a group, even if they are not a part of that group themselves, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to try and do their part.
An example of this is at my university, where the doctor who teaches us the Aboriginal Health Curriculum is a non-Indigenous person. However, as a doctor who has worked with Indigenous communities for decades, he may in fact be more qualified to teach us about this field than an Indigenous person who has not worked in medicine. Ideally the best candidate for this position would be an Indigenous doctor who has worked in Indigenous communities, but in the absence of such a candidate what choice do we have?
The world can be a very difficult place for women, and there is still abundant sexism experienced by women on a daily basis. But I think it’s time that we accept that men should also be part of the solution, and that maybe, if there are times where men are the best candidates, they could represent women in an effective way.