What's the deal with the Wom*n's Room and why's it so important?

September 23, 2015
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You might be wondering, just what is the Wom*n’s Room and what goes on behind its doors? They exist on many campuses to provide a welcoming place for all female-identifying students to enjoy, but it’s worth noting their existence does not condone the rabid rejection of all men. They’re simply spaces for women.

One of two Wom*n’s Officers at the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), 21-year-old Allison Ballantyne recognises women sometimes feel vulnerable or victimised in public places, so the function of the Wom*n’s Room at the University of Melbourne is to “provide a safe space”.

Allison discovered the Wom*n’s Room in her third year of a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne Uni. “I started going to the Wom*n’s Room - and to some of the events that were being run in there - as a way to sort of fill my time while hanging out on campus,” she says. “Once I turned up, I realised that it was quite a friendly, welcoming space, and I kept coming back.”

Now, in her role as Wom*n’s Officer, Allison is proud to be involved in providing such an importance service to students. The room is often home to meetings and events for women run by the Wom*n’s Department, as well as being used by aligned autonomous groups including the Wom*n of Colour Collective and the “Queer and Questioning QTs”.

In the room are comfy couches, kitchen facilities, a library of feminist books and free sexual and women’s health paraphernalia such as condoms, dams, lube, pads and tampons. Students can study, nap, use the computer, read, eat lunch and relax.

But apart from the cosy comfort of the retreat, the room’s importance stems from its protective ethos. The room adheres to a safe space policy, which condemns transphobia, racism, ableism, classism, fatphobia and misogyny. “There’s a sense of being free to be yourself,” Allison says.

Having moved to Australia from Hong Kong a year ago, 20-year-old arts student Lotus Ye started using the space was a way of making new friends. “The Wom*n’s Room is a really good place to meet people of similar interests,” she says.

I think to have a space like the Wom*n’s Room - where you can simply be yourself and nobody will question it - it’s really important.

Lotus now volunteers for the Wom*n of Colour Collective, helping to organise weekly meet-ups and special events. This semester the group is planning a series of anti-racism workshops. “We’re hoping to raise awareness and combat the growing racism happening in Australia right now,” she says.

But what’s with the asterisk in “wom*n”?

Allison explains many women-only spaces are embracing an altered version of the word by replacing “e” with either an asterisk or a “y”. The move is a statement that seeks to redefine women as separate to men, so that they’re recognised as people in and of themselves. “It symbolically removes the notion of ‘woman’ from a patriarchal context,” Allison says.

The concept of a women-only space occasionally provokes sceptics, who question why there’s no equivalent men’s space on site. UMSU’s website links to a frank article by Kate James of the National Union of Students Women’s Departments in response to this challenge.

Kate writes: “We exist in a social climate that promotes the idea that sexism is over, that men and women are on an equal footing (or even that women have gotten greedy and now men are the ones in trouble). This is, frankly, a load of shit.”

With Wom*n’s Rooms embraced at numerous other Australian unis – including RMIT and Monash in Victoria, the University of Sydney, UTS and Macquarie Uni in NSW, and QUT up north – Allison is confident the future of UMSU’s Wom*n’s Room looks rosy: “I definitely think it will continue to operate in the future.”

Lotus sums up why having a safe space for women on campus is imperative: “I think to have a space like the Wom*n’s Room - where you can simply be yourself and nobody will question it - it’s really important.”

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: Allison Ballantyne