There have been many recent attacks on women-only space and there is a real threat to its very existence.
The right to women-only space is however fundamental to feminism and to all women.
Women-only space has been utilised historically as a direct response to and consequence of the cultural, political and economic exclusion of women within wider society and culture.
It was also a space where women could meet and define themselves, to bond together, to feel safe, to gain strength and build confidence and in turn could become more political – from which subsequent action our generation is hugely benefiting in terms of our present gained freedoms.
There are many historical examples of women-only spaces which have had an extremely powerful effect on building autonomy for women as a class and changing the cultural view of women as individuals…..
The struggle against sexism, sexual oppression and sexual violence however, is still ongoing…..
The allocation of space is not ‘gender neutral’ as it is. Throughout history spaces have been culturally, religiously, racially and politically marked. Even though women won access to a limited amount of space in the 20th century, both symbolically and structurally, space continues to be largely defined as male (and likewise…as heterosexual, able-bodied, white …..).
Women have been traditionally allotted to “private” spaces characterised by child rearing and family care. Men’s spaces are public spaces where social and political decisions are made. Women’s assignment to the home had and still has both economic and social implications.
The first and most basic woman-only space is her body. Historically, women’s bodies have belonged to a man or men (e.g. daughters to fathers, wives to husbands, and within the history of WOC the ownership of female bodies has a particular and horrific meaning to acknowledge). Issues surrounding women’s bodies, health and well being have also been controlled by the male controlled state.
Such oppression has allowed many gendered abuses to persist – rape within marriage was only criminalised in the UK in the 1990’s for example.
”….When those who control access have made you totally accessible, your first acts of control must be denying access” Marilyn Frye
A cultural landscape of sexual violence, structural oppression (etc) still denies women’s access to equitable, safe space.
Despite being representative of over fifty percent of the global population, within mixed-sex groups, women’s issues are often considered a specialist, secondary, or minority concern, which are almost always forced to compete for consideration.
Women–only space challenges the damage of such culturally deep rooted and institutionalised misogyny, allowing women the autonomy they have been systematically denied.
Consciously organized space is a tool to confront and dismantle culturally accepted misogynist norms…. not an end in itself nor are women-only spaces the solution to all women’s oppression. However, as one tool of affirmative action, women-only spaces are an indispensable means of empowering women.
However, women-only spaces are often criticised as examples of reverse discrimination. This, for example, closely resembles the reaction against the civil rights movement, as it too selectively used the tactic of white exclusion at times. This criticism ignores or denies the reality of existing relationships of power. Understanding the need for women-only space means educating ourselves about the nature of sexual oppression and gendered privilege.
Women-only space has always been and continues to be an important vehicle for the politicisation and radicalisation of women, enabling our voices, skills and talents in a world where, through sexist socialisation coupled with gendered oppression, women still face many difficulties being heard, valued or recognised in mixed space.
Women-only space is not about men or those socialized as male, which in itself is perceived as a subversive act. If men are not included and prioritised, both sexes are made to feel uncomfortable and wrong, which is part of how sexism works.
Women-only space is not intended for anyone socialised as male and for good reasons. For example, there is an absolute and clear connection between male socialization and violence towards women. Therefore any space that includes those socailaised as male cannot be regarded as providing safe space for women. Anyone promoting the idea of this form of inclusion is doing so at the expense of the many, many women who (perfectly rationally) fear and/or have been the victim of male violence. In women-only space their rights should be prioritised. In a wider culture which often treats female victims of male violence so poorly, this is fundamental.
“The issue is not between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism..The issue is between feminism…and that which is not feminism” Elizabeth Abbot (1927)
On this and many other grounds……
women-only space should make no apology for existing for women.
Opposition to women-only space is nothing new for feminists, emerging in different guises over the ages. In recent times the inclusion of transwomen has become a major issue.
No matter where you stand on ‘the trans issue’, the experience of being a transwoman is very different from that of women born women (…..biology, socialisation, health, social and political history etc, etc)
This simply cannot be ignored or denied…..
…..and for this reason many women both support and acknowledge the idea of transwomen-only space. Many also recognise transwomen face particular and (importantly) different forms of oppression.
This needs to be reciprocated…….
Of course there are differences between women (born women), such as ethnicity, class and sexuality and the need for women to define themselves on these terms is both necessary and logical. Oppression of women (born women) as a class, however, is universal. Female gender socialisation, for example, is fundamental to what shapes female identity and the oppression women face. This is just one of many experiences unique to all women (born women) .
In an ideal world there would be no barriers between people, no oppression would exist – and therefore no need for the strength and autonomy defined space helps to create.
Until then, women-only space remains vital for feminism and all women.
“It is nothing extraordinary for a master to bar his slaves from the manor………..but it is a revolutionary act for slaves to bar their master from their hut.”
Marilyn Frye (Johnson URL)
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