Woroni’s sister publication Togatus reports that cis-male* student and Young Liberal James Ritchie became Women’s Officer of the Tasmania University Union (TUU) Northern SRC, only to resign days later. The Northern board would have been entirely male. Woroni asked for the views of ANU students including ANUSA Women’s Officer Loren Ovens.

Mr Ritchie was controversially elected with a total of 112 votes, 20 votes ahead of a female opponent. However, a petition supported by over 1000 people stated Mr Ritchie was allowed to nominate only due to an administrative error and that for a series of practical and ethical reasons he could not represent the women of UTas. These reasons included Mr Ritchie’s factual inability to engage in autonomous (women only) activities.

A TUU media release confirmed the error, as have communications between Ms Ovens and TUU President Heidi La Paglia.

In a resignation letter, Mr Ritchie explained he was “genuinely saddened that some people can spend so much time and effort arguing about who should hold a certain position, yet fail to recognise the ability of that person to break down barriers and use solidarity to enact positive change”. Mr Ritchie insisted he was not “bowing to public pressure,” but acting in a “mature and rational manner”.

Female students detected a particular irony in his resignation letter. Ms Ovens explained:

“I feel the most important part of being an advocate for women, is listening to their concerns and engaging with them in a meaningful way. Accordingly, I was disappointed with Ritchie’s resignation letter.”

“His letter signaled (sic) a lack of engagement with the reasons given by the UTas women who put up the petition and who in his role, he was elected to represent.”

ANUSA General Secretary Megan Lane believes that ideally men should be able to advocate for women. However, she added that the specialised post of Women’s Officer exists because of an overall power imbalance between genders. “As long as this imbalance continues to exist, I believe it is important that women’s interests continue to be advocated for by female identifying students,” said Ms Lane.

In reaction to the debacle, the UTas state council passed a motion allowing only female-identifying students to nominate for Women’s Officer. Cis-male students cannot nominate. Nor can biological females who identify as male at the time of nomination. When asked whether a similar policy was in place at the ANU, Ms Ovens said:

“The council’s motion was merely bringing UTas’ provisions into line with what is commonplace across Australian universities. At [the] ANU, a candidate for the role of ANU Women’s Officer must be woman-identifying.”

“I often hear queries from people about whether this includes transwomen, it absolutely does”

Ms Lane reiterated this comment, noting that section 8 of the ANUSA Constitution allows only female-identifying members of the Women’s Department to nominate. Section 8 sets out similar requirements for the Queer*, Indigenous, Disability and International Students’ Officers.

While acknowledging that Mr Ritchie may have meant well, a minority of students claimed he was acting in pure self-interest or attempting to add a safe Liberal vote to the TUU board. But Ms Ovens summed up a feeling expressed almost unanimously across the spectrum of commentators:

“There are many opportunities for men to get involved in the fight for gender equality but the role of a Women’s Officer shouldn’t be one of them.”

“For me, this just seems common sense.”

*Cis- means that the gender one identifies with aligns with their biological gender at birth.

Woroni thanks Togatus for their investigation into this story. Megan Lane is a member of the Australian Labor Party.