Living as a woman is a way of life

Women set the agenda

Women set the agenda

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.

Gendered inequality

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.


[i] Mhairi blogs at Second Council House of Virgo




  1. Jodley
    April 23, 2013 at 10:28 am · Reply

    Marxists, historically, have understood women to be oppressed, at base, due to our particular reproductive capacity. The perpetuation over time of socio-economic classes with different, hierarchical, relationships to the means of production requires all female-sexed bodies to perform a particular social role (reproductive labour) in the reproduction of those classes. That is what marxism has understood ‘the family’ (in its different iterations in different types of class society) to be *for*. Reproductive labour by female-sexed bodies is rooted in pregnancy, childbirth and lactation and by extension primary childcare responsibilities. It is the need to control this aspect of reproductive labour (ultimately by ruling classes, Marxists would say; by men as a sex-class, radical feminists would say) that is at the root of all women’s oppression, regardless of the particular experiences of individual women in relation to reproduction. Thus reproductive rights are central to all forms of materialist feminism, both marxist and radical.

    In this view, gender is not an ‘identity’ but rather the highly elaborated (and often arbitrary – ‘pink for girls’) mechanism imposed on sexed bodies in order to produce this domination or control of female-sexed bodies. The assertion that there are innate or essential ‘female behaviours, thoughts, feelings, acts, appearances” and “male behaviours, thoughts, feelings, acts, appearances beyond those narrowly dictated by our material sexed-bodies supports this mechanism.

    Gender is a very punishing regime for very many people: for all people who don’t conform to gender roles, all people who feel alienated from or dysphoric about their sexed body, and all people who inhabit female-sexed bodies. Incredibly spiteful, hurtful and obnxious things are said about and to trans people. Transphobia, like sexism and racism, is ultimately a murderous ideology. It may be understood to operate as one part of the gender regime described above. Transphobia exists amongst feminists and should always be opposed, regardless of their underlying motive.

    Gender is a somewhat rewarding regime for male-sexed people who conform to their gender role (the extent of the reward, and one’s analysis of whether it is ‘real’ or merely ‘false consciousness’, depends a bit on one’s political perspective – marxists and radical feminists have differed on this).

    Now, all of the above analysis above about reproductive capacity and the relationship of sexed bodies to the elaboration of gender regimes designed to control and harness reproductive labour may be complete bunk. But chucking it all out, as a feminism based on the gendered category ‘woman’ without regarded to female-sexed bodies demands, has certain political consequences that should be clearly recognised.

    1) If cis-trans is an axis of oppression, it follows that meetings of privileged groups along that axis of oppression (i.e. cis women, excluding trans women) should not be accepted under any circumstances in progressive movements, just as we would not tolerate male-only meetings or whites-only meetings.

    2) If feminism is the movement to liberate the gender “woman” from ‘sexism’ of which people with female-sexed bodies form only a subset with no analytic priority, it follows that (control of) reproduction cannot be central to either feminist activity or analysis. Indeed the historic marxist analysis of women’s oppression necessarily marginalises the experiences and identities of trans women who, in theories that utilise cis-trans binaries, are more oppressed than (some would say oppressed by) cis women.

    Points 1 & 2 create a double-bind for any female-sexed/woman-gendered person who wishes to organize in her own interests against oppression rooted in her reproductive capacity and the complex elaboration of gender that exists to control it. She can no longer recognise herself as a member of an oppressed group, making solidarity with others of that group, since that group is no longer capable of political articulation except as an oppressor or privileged category (cis woman on a cis-trans axis).

    Mhairi’s article raises incredibly important points, and restates important principles with regard to women’s spaces. It does not however resolve the ‘difficult issue’ of how trans theory and activism are reconciled with activism and analysis that understands reproduction (of classes) and the female-sexed body (with the family and gender as mechanisms of control) as central. In place of an unhappy ‘marriage’ of marxism and feminism, have we merely expanded our relationships to create an unhappy polyamorous triad of marxism, feminism and trans theory?

    • April 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm · Reply

      hi jodley,

      thank you for your comment – some really interesting points there.

      the article wasn’t really long enough to go into the nuances of the intersection between trans* theory and feminism, but i think the key is to consider sex, gender and cis-normativity as seperate oppressions.

      females are oppressed
      women are oppressed
      trans* people are oppressed.

      these are three different things. the article was specifically addressing women (gender) only spaces, but I think there is a case for spaces which also address the intersections of all of the above.

      trans women only spaces (cisnormativity and gender)
      Cis women only spaces (sex and gender)
      trans men only spaces (sex and cisnormativity)

      There is a lot of controversy over cis women only spaces (see RadFem 2012/3), but IMHO thats because it is frequently justified using transphobia which trans* activists rightly object to, and shores up essentialism (ie female=woman).

      You might like a couple of posts that I’ve written on gender and sex, looking at each in isolation from the other. I’ve also got another half written one looking at the intersections above, (and one day I will finish it!!)

      • Jodley
        April 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm · Reply

        Thanks Mhairi, food for thought. The notion of three relatively free-floating separate varieties of intersecting oppression doesn’t seem like good analysis to me.

        Firstly, simply to have a female-sexed body is not oppression, it is just a biological consequence (like having a male-sexed body) of belonging to a sexually dimorphic species that produces offspring by sexual reproduction. The existence of a small percentage of people with intersexed bodies is a biological consequence of the way in which sexual dimorphism is produced. I have made some further comments directly on your blog so as not to derail here, I simply state that it does not make sense to think of any of these biological states as inherently oppressive, unless one thinks there is an authoritarian God imposing the cruel burden of our material sexed bodies upon us. I trust that is not the audience of socialist resistance. [Note, belief that the sexed-body is a material fact does not imply ‘immutability’ of the body. We use our big brains and opposable thumbs to modify both ourselves and our environment all the time, for good and ill, that’s also in our nature as humans].

        Secondly, people with female-sexed bodies are oppressed in a society that moulds us to be women and then punishes us in different and equally harsh ways whether we fit that mould perfectly, imperfectly or break it. It seems to me there is no ‘sex-based oppression’ in the absence of ‘gender’ (meaning the elaborated hierarchical regime of behaviours, feelings, appearances, thoughts deemed appropriate to our sex) therefore it’s not clear that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are intersecting oppressions, but rather aspects of a single oppression (strictly speaking – a group to be subordinated (female-sexed) and a mechanism for subordination (gender).

  2. Jodley
    April 23, 2013 at 10:53 am · Reply

    Crikey, I’ve written almost an article up there, and – typos, typos – there are a few things that I’ve expressed poorly.

    “The perpetuation over time of socio-economic classes with different, hierarchical, relationships to the means of production requires all female-sexed bodies to perform a particular social role (reproductive labour) in the reproduction of those classes.” would be a more precise phrasing of the second sentence, which gets at what I really mean.

    In the preamble to point 1, there’s a missing word ‘demands’. “But chucking it all out, as a feminism based on the gendered category ‘woman’ without regarded to female-sexed bodies *demands*, has certain political consequences that should be clearly recognised.

    “Points 1 & 2 create a double-bind for any female-sexed/woman-gendered person who wishes to organize in her own interests against oppression rooted in her reproductive capacity and the complex elaboration of gender that exists to control it.” (redundant words from poor editing)

    Hopefully a kind editor can either fix the above comment, or readers can read it as amended.

    • April 23, 2013 at 5:02 pm · Reply

      Those edits have been made.

    • terry conway
      April 24, 2013 at 5:16 am · Reply

      I think tentatively that there is a difference between refusing hierarchies of oppression and embracing intersectionality on the one hand and where one understands the importance of reproduction and the family. It seems to me that the family as the primary site of gendering affects us all whatever the relationship for each of us between sex and gender – though I like and agree with Jodleys ” Gender is a somewhat rewarding regime for male-sexed people who conform to their gender role…”. A number marxist feminists have started to work on the way reproduction has been downplayed in relation to production and at least the radical wing of the LGBT movement has always understood (including trans people and gay and bi men not just lesbians and bi women ) the importance of fighting for abortion rights and reproductive rights for all more generally…
      But its underexplored…

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