On the Need for Women Only Spaces

Living female is a way of life.

The first pronouncement of the midwife is the sex of the child and from there on in, sex and gender provide a context to human experience.  Female life experience is gendered and the behaviour that is socially accepted as a gendered being differs from that of males.   Our society is set up for the ungendered.  Male experience is taken as the norm  - while women’s experiences are the deviation and the gender-specific.  Throughout their lives, from toddlers to old age, men take up more time and attention in public spaces.  In the upper echelons of politics, business, law, medicine and academia men proliferate while female presence is worth note only as a oddity.

It is in this context that women seek to claim space.  In a society where men are socialised for aggression, for domination and to exert control – whether that be within the contexts of the battlefield or the violence of the boardroom – women demand an area where they are free from those influences.  There are a variety of reasons for this, each one insufficient on its own, but put together they form the demand for a space free from patriarchal oppression.  An area where the dominant hegemony is broken and consciousness can be raised in an alternative environment.

Women demand a space where we set the agenda untrammelled by either the agendas of men, or their expectations of what our agenda should be.  We demand a space where not only our voices are heard, but where we are able to listen to other women.   We demand a space where women can speak to an audience of women, knowing of the shared experiences of a gendered life.  Above all we demand a space where the habitus of a gendered existence can be broken, where gender differences are irrelevant and gender can be set to one side as we contemplate the issues that face us.  In such a space women talk about different things, from different perspectives, coloured by different experiences, in a different way, united by their overarching experience of being a gendered being in a gender oppressive world.

This demand for space is often dismissed, trivialised or aggressively threatened.  The counter demand for males to enter female designated space, often couched in terms of “equal rights” is frequently vociferously expressed, with a shrug of the shoulders and an innocent question of “Whats the problem?”.  Oftentimes these male demands are acceded to, and men are indeed allowed to enter what was designed to be a female designated space.  But as with any consent, consideration has to be given to the circumstances under which the consent was granted.   Frequently these demands fall into the realms of coercion, and the consent is not freely given, but women feel they do not have the right to say no.  Consent is only valid when it is genuine and freely given and when the action is desired.  Unwanted penetration of female designated space is unacceptable, even if superficial consent is in place.

The framing of these demands within an “equal rights” agenda belies a darker truth of male limits being placed on our liberation.  Although at times women have chosen to fight for equal rights with men – such as the right to vote, equal rights is frequently sets the bar too low.  There are contexts in which demands for equal rights are insufficient – such as the demand for support when incapacitated or burdened with responsibilities.  Demanding equal rights for parenting leave for example, ignores the specifity of female experience of what it means for a woman to become a parent, rather than a man.  Allowing females to join the golf club, may superficially look like progress however for as long as structural social barriers, such as the gendered inequality of access to leisure time and disposable income remain in place, that “right” is only a paper gain as it cannot be exercised.    In such a case we need to look at a more revolutionary perspective, examining the structuring and resources required to access leisure facilities.  At other times, a supremacist agenda may be a productive form of resistance – for example highlighting women’s abilities and highlighting their value, while a separatist agenda is of value at other times.

The demand for a women only space is often positioned within the discourse of radical separatist feminism.  A strand prominent in the 70s, this ideology sought to nurture and protect female self-sufficiency; to create spaces exclusive of men in the pursuit of a utopic space free from oppression.  Political lesbianism, women only communes and the rise of the “woman identified woman” saw women retreat into female spaces as a means of combatting the patriarchy by eliminating it from their lives.   The realities of such experiments frequently showed their naivety, as issues of class and race raised their heads along with a myriad of other issues.  While it is true that women promoting such ideals do seek a female only space, it is quite possible to appreciate within a wider realm of discourse, as a strategy of differential ideology challenging the dominant hegemony, rather than an aim in its own right.

A difficult issue for the feminist movement and the demand for women only spaces has been the inclusion of transwomen within the space.    This issue has caused considerable difficulty for the feminist movement, with a variety of positions being taken.  There are feminists who suggest that the male socialisation and experience of male privilage that transwomen have experienced prior to transition cannot be negated; there are others who seek an inclusive agenda who fully welcome transwomen as one of their own, appreciating the particular difficulties and discriminations that transwomen face.  Most lurk in the middle, ambivalent, but not hostile.

Some aspects of gender are very obviously socially constructed – such as the wearing of skirts and make up and the preference for longer hair.  These clearly give out signals of the user as a gendered being, excercising that choice self-acknowledges the choosers status as a “woman”, and it is in appearance that most transwomen seek acceptance and approval – “passing” to the world as a female.  Within a feminist women only space, where quite often those gendered choices are rejected, “passing” takes on a new meaning.  While androgynous appearance is welcome, there is an expectation that women within the space identify as women.  To identify as a trans-woman within such a space is problematic in as much as it violates the woman defined space, by bringing in a male presence, however historic and rejected.  While some feminists may welcome that, others reject it – and a more generalised compromised reached is a “dont ask, dont tell” policy – where those who identify as women are welcomed on the basis of their primary identity as the gendered, rather than as someone who made an active choice to become so.   As such it asserts the primary identity of “woman” in those who enter the space.

This stance has been criticised by some, on the basis that unless spaces are specifically designated “trans-friendly” they are unwelcoming.  There is no need however to make such an assertion.  While most (M2F) transgender individuals do identify as women, not all do – some identifying as being male, some as being in transition and some reject the concept of gender.  As such a women only space is not universally welcoming: it welcomes only women.  Feminists must however be wary of attempting to police gender conformitivity, such policing not only alienates transwomen from the struggle, but also women who do not conform to traditional notions of gendered behaviour, dress or appearance – assumptions that feminists should be trying to overthrow rather than shore up.

Women, regardless of the sex to which they are born, are not a homogenous mass.  Subjective differences of experiences, of age, of life stage and of culture intertwine with more universal schisms of class, sexuality and race.  Gendered experiences – such as childbirth, vaginal penetration, menses, miscarriage, vaginal rape, pregnancy and menopause are not universal experiences that all women have.   Moreover the above differences intersect with gendered experience to create different meanings and realities of these experiences within each individual woman.  Particular gendered experiences do have commonalities – the childbirth experience of a poor teenage single mother may be very different from that of a married white professional, but many of the needs and demands are the same regardless while the way in which that gendered experience is played out and the meanings made from it are unique within the particular circumstances of the individual.     Moreover, the inferences made of gender – of availability for male sexual pleasure, of incapacity through pregnancy and disappearance to the private realm through childrearing – are imposed regardless of the actual sexual, fertility or child-raising status of the individual woman concerned.

Within a woman only space, women can identify their experiences and find affinity with those aspects of being a gendered individual which affects them most deeply.  Some are external impositions on their expected behaviour, such as the expectation to be well groomed; some are rooted in specific experiences which are necessarily gendered, such as the cultural expectations and discourses surrounding menses.  While universal experiences touch all women it is within the specific and the personal where women feel their oppression most keenly.

The demand of a woman only space runs the risk of “ranking the oppressions” – that it privileges female oppression above that of class, race or sexuality as well as a myriad of other factors which intersect.  A woman only space should therefore not be seen as an achievement or a first step on the way to utopia, but as a tactic on the way to identifying subordination within the context of existence as a gendered being.  It should be used as a method of seeking affinity in the diversity of experiences.  Less as an acknowledgement of our similarity, but as a method of exploring our differences and on that basis using the strategy of separatism to identify the new tactics which will be required for consistent active opposition not only to subjection on the basis of gender, but to more universal subjugations from a female perspective.

Updated version (which addresses some of the latent cissexism in the above) published on Socialist Resistance on 23rd April 1013

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6 comments
Cathy Brennan
Cathy Brennan

"As such a women only space is not universally welcoming: it welcomes only women." Um, yeah.

mhairi
mhairi

Thanks for your comment. I understand the issue - I suppose to my mind the reason for women only spaces is to get rid of gender privilage and organise without it being present. As far as I can make out most of the hostility to explicit trans inclusion stems from the issue not that transwomen are not women, but that by identifying as transwomen they themselves are not identifying as women.

Lisa Millbank
Lisa Millbank

Most transsexual women identify as women who are transsexual, not transwomen - the space is important not just for style, but for meaning. There are some women who describe themselves as women with a transsexual history, but I suspect the full freedom to identify simply as "women" tends to come with the freedom to experience cis privilege - a freedom few (no?) transsexual women consistently have. Cissexism probably has to be destroyed before most transsexual women stop experiencing ourselves as both transsexual and women - a little like how we need to destroy patriarchy before the gendered (not sexed) identification of "woman" becomes redundant, no?

mhairi
mhairi

Interesting. I think its a real difficulty within the women's movement - which has fought so hard for seperate spaces and defended them vigerously, so there is a defensiveness around the issue because so many battles have been fought to obtain women-only spaces.

Lisa Millbank
Lisa Millbank

My answer to this tricky area is that "women-only" is as unclear as "woman". There are spaces which are for political organising against patriarchy - so let the only women there be those who patriarchy treats politically as women, i.e. those who face misogyny, rape and who are made the subjects of pornography. There are spaces for women who are survivors of male abuse and need space away from people who they feel unsafe around - so let there be enough refuge space both for cis women who missex trans women as men, and for the trans women who wouldn't feel safe around those cis women either, so that they can both be accommodated in a way which is safe for them. Also, I'd like to disagree with one point here by rearranging your words: unless spaces are specifically designated “trans-friendly” they are unwelcoming because there are feminists who suggest that the male socialisation and experience of male privilage that transwomen have experienced prior to transition cannot be negated; there are others who seek an inclusive agenda who fully welcome transwomen as one of their own, appreciating the particular difficulties and discriminations that transwomen face. Most lurk in the middle, ambivalent, but not hostile. It's not fun to cycle across town to go to a woman-only event and to be turned away at the door, or to be admitted but treated passive-aggressively. Because some women-only spaces do not admit trans women (and don't say so), spaces which want to welcome trans women do need to say so. In effect, they need to say, "No, really."

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