Identity Politics, Self-Organisation and SUs

27 November 2009


Chris Addison wrote a column in the Evening Standard this week about the bizarre phenomenon of men’s groups popping up on campus – I’m reminded to post about it by Reuben’s piece at the Third Estate.

Addison basically takes issue with the feminist derision of, and hostility to, the men’s society movement on the grounds that these groups aim to “explore what it means to be a man in the modern world”. Reuben takes the same statement from the Oxford Men’s Society and wonders whether it’s not a step forward for men to be questioning masculinity, and how gendered roles adversely affect them.

So far, so reasonable. But all this relies on the assumption that this is really what these groups are about, and on forgetting (or never knowing, Chris Addison) the history of attacks on women’s self-organisation in student unions.

So, an elucidation for those who’ve spent less time in the wonderful world of student politics. Men’s groups or societies have a less than proud history of being set up by reactionaries to undermine women’s groups. The public logic goes something like this: there’s a women’s group that’s women-only! That’s sexist! We should have a men’s group! Cue confused reaction from sabbatical officers who’ve forgotten why the women’s group exists in the first place. Pointless debate at student council. Repeat ad nauseum. And of course the private logic is often “feminazis! attack!”

To put a group (men’s) that’s formed to discuss a perceived identity crisis on an equal pegging in terms of political importance with a group (women’s) that exists to fight for liberation is patently ridiculous. It’d probably be quite interesting to discuss what it means to be straight with a bunch of straight students. Student Unions would not, and should not, create a ‘straight’ group in the stable of liberation campaign groups (LGBT, Women, Black, Disabled Students are the standard set). If these lads want to create their own club outside the democratic structures of the union, they can go ahead (and they’ve been doing this for years at Oxbridge, they’re called drinking societies).

Lurking underneath this whingeing at SUs to create men’s groups (almost always spearheaded by right-wingers hostile to feminism) is a threat to women’s officers. Not that there are many left to threaten – when I was on the NUS exec it was around 5 in terms of full-time sabbatical officers, and part-time women’s officers were being shunted off exec teams constantly. Logic, again: the women’s group has a full time officer! The men’s group doesn’t! That’s sexist! Reaction from sabb teams: we can’t afford another full-time officer. But hmm, maybe it is sexist. Let’s have a general equality sabb, or even better, bump the women’s officer to part-time exec.

On the flipside, of course, any good women’s group ought to be organising events men can participate in; after all, we want them on our team, right? But however much Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, there simply isn’t a single campaiging issue that a men’s group could take up that wouldn’t either already be covered by Welfare and charities work (testicular cancer is often cited), or already be covered under working with the women’s group (I can’t think of a single childcare campaign that wouldn’t welcome input from single fathers, for example). There was a great pamphlet on this doing the rounds when I was at Cambridge that expanded on this in the form of FAQs, which I think is still being used by NUS, but doesn’t seem to be on the web.

Fundamentally, denying men a self-organised group within a student union structure is not discriminatory; self-organised groups exist to fight systematic oppression, and there simply isn’t systematic gender discrimination against men. On the other hand, even having the debate at union meetings puts women’s groups/officers in the position of constantly having to defend themselves against accusations of sexism or illegitimacy; really, we’ve got enough to do without all this bollocks to counteract too.

Underneath it all, I can’t help thinking the depoliticisation of students’ unions and of feminism might have a part to play in the birthing of men’s group proponents. When the arguments for women’s groups were fresh in student officers’ minds, this shit wouldn’t have got so far. But identity politics has got a firm hold on liberation campaigns in student unions; they’re forgetting that campaigns groups should be about campaigns and be active, political, democratic space, and instead many are turning into vague support groups. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been invited to a showing of the Vagina Monologues or a photo exhibition about violence for International Women’s Day, organised by the women’s group. “Diversity” campaigns “celebrate” Black History Month whilst failing to get on the streets against the fascists, or to protest racist attacks (see this week’s Education Guardian here). In this context, it’s no wonder men’s group proponents can make themselves sound reasonable; if the self-organised campaigns are just a space for reflecting on a shared identity, why shouldn’t men have one?

Of course, they’re not, and they shouldn’t be, and even when liberation campaigns are strongly political and active right-wing students will attack them. And Reuben and Mr Addison are playing a naive game countenancing men’s groups outside the context of the day-to-day reality of SU politics. And I’ve got a lot more to say on identity politics that should probably form the content of a more coherent post. But maybe, if we got our house in order in the student feminist movement a little more, we’d be better placed to fight this rubbish.