Mhairi McAlpine[i] makes the case for women only spaces.
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. Life experience is gendered and the behaviour that is socially accepted as a being gendered as a woman differs from that of men. Our society is set up for the ungendered. Men’s 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 a woman’s 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 men to enter women designated space, often couched in terms of “equal rights” is frequently vociferously expressed, with a shrug of the shoulders and an innocent question of “What’s the problem?”. Oftentimes these demands are acceded to, and men are indeed allowed to enter what was designed to be a women only 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 women only 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 specificity of female experience of what it means for a woman to become a parent, rather than a man. Allowing women 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 exclusive 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 women 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 increasing radicalisation of trans women, and their involvement in feminism. A variety of positions being taken on this. There are a small number of feminists known as “trans-exclusive radical feminists” who suggest that the male socialisation and experience of male privilege that trans women have experienced prior to transition cannot be negated and seek to exclude them from women only spaces while the majority seek an inclusive agenda, but with varying levels of appreciation of the particular difficulties and discriminations that trans women face.
To identify as a trans woman within such a space is seen by some as problematic in as much as it violates the woman defined space, by bringing in a male presence, however historic and rejected, while others welcome the opportunity to explore the challenges that transfeminism and the more fluid nature of gender brings. This has led to a divide within the concept of women only spaces, with some accepting only cis-women, while others welcome all. A women only space is not universally welcoming: it welcomes only women – however the term “woman” may be qualified – and assertions of “trans-friendly” although seeking to be inclusive to trans women, risks othering them.
Given the transphobia inherent in society, many trans women seek to conform to gender based norms to gain acceptance and approval – “passing” to the world as a cis woman – to avoid transphobia and transmisogyny. Within a feminist women only space, where quite often those gendered choices are rejected, disdain can be shown for overt expressions of femininity and gender conformance which are so heavily praised in the outside world. Further issues arise with the inclusion of genderqueer individuals who either reject the concept of gender or who vary their gender identity over time, and with women who reject the label “cis” on the basis that their sex and gender do not align however much others may ascribe that alignment to them. Feminists must be wary of attempting to police gender and sex identity, acknowledging that neither is lifelong, and that both may vary over time.
Such policing not only alienates trans women 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. The only sensible way for this situation to be resolved is to clarify when establishing a women only space whether it welcomes all women, or is exclusive to cis-women, and to allow potential participants themselves to decide whether they themselves fit into those categories.
Women, regardless of the sex to which they are assigned at birth, 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. Sexed 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 child-rearing – 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 external impositions around in specific and highly gendered experiences, such as the cultural expectations and discourses surrounding menses. While there are universal experiences of patriarchy which touch all women it is within the specific and the personal where women feel their oppression most keenly and it is here where these which are intersected with other oppressions.
The demand of a woman only space runs the risk of “ranking the oppressions” – that it privileges the oppression of women 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.