Why We Need More (And More Inclusive) Women-Only Spaces

The very presence of men calls attention to the various kinds of vulnerability women carry with them—in their bodies, their careers, and their relationships.

There’s a section midway through Claire Vaye Watkins’ seminal Tin House essay “On Pandering” that always opens a cache of memories from my own adolescence:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.

Watkins enumerates the many activities she’s watched boys do, from playing sports to practicing yoga, writing novels to winning video games. This section of the essay—a piece that ultimately explores the internalized sexism Watkins has felt as a fiction writer in a publishing culture that still largely recognizes and rewards male writing—instantly transported me back to a pot smoke-filled dorm where my roommate and I squeezed ourselves among the bodies of our guy friends, who were sprawled across the too-small dorm furniture, taking turns playing Fifa soccer on an Xbox. It wasn’t uncommon for my roommate and me to be the only girls in the room, a fact we prided ourselves on, how easily we fit with male company (well, not really—sometimes, we had to shoehorn ourselves in among the manspreading), how un-girly we were to be so accepted at the sausage party, to be able to just “chill.”

For me, the pattern of having more male friends than female began in high school, watching boys play guitar and football, ride four-wheelers and dirt bikes, and continued through graduate school, watching boys smoke cigarettes and throw darts and argue about books, empty bottles of Bud Light accumulating on the coffee tables of various dude apartments.

But after graduate school, when I was teaching full-time in academic departments still dominated, either in numbers or in leadership or both, by men, I read this piece by Roxane Gay, and had a “come to Jesus” moment about the fact that I was nearing 30 and still struggling to be friends with women, to install women as my topmost mentors, to embrace my own womanhood in the classroom where I was stuck on cultivating a certain kind of authority I learned from the men who taught it to me. It’s not that I didn’t have any women friends—I did, several of them, in fact. But I still defined myself, in Gay’s words, as the kind of woman whose friendships with men made her feel more like a man, “as if a woman is a bad thing.”

Then I got pregnant, and all of this changed.

It’s hard to claim masculinity in a pregnant body. It’s hard to have any privacy at all in a pregnant body. The public nature of motherhood split open for me the world in which I once thought I moved pretty freely, equally or nearly equally with men. Now, far away from the cloister of co-ed dorms and small, intimate writing programs, I felt the full weight of being a woman in the world, with all its attendant liabilities at the workplace, at the doctor’s office, on the train, at the playground.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I joined an online mothers’ group that was one of my first experiences in an all-women space. There were 200 of us, and though there were problems of demographics (largely white and largely middle class), the experience revolutionized my thinking about the political act of women gathering together to discuss anything—breastfeeding issues, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, body acceptance, partnership, professional fulfillment, work-life balance, money, reading, activism. The complex, but ubiquitously feminine lens applied to these discussions instantly diminished the isolation I’d been feeling as a new, working mother operating under expectations that felt different from those of my husband as a new, working father.

How else to explain it except that I felt heard by those women, whereas my husband, a self-proclaimed feminist, could often only listen?

I can’t quite say if my joining the mothers’ group was catalyst or coincidence, but suddenly, I began to recognize sexism everywhere I looked, and not just the glaring incidents of rape and wage disparity and the current right-wing fanaticism for rolling back the progress of women’s rights, but also encoded sexism—the subtle word choices, the attitudes, the tones of gender discrimination.

Raising a girl has no doubt raised my awareness of what’s always been, but with a presidential candidate who openly makes menstruation jokes about the women who challenge him, it’s hard not to feel like America’s hostility toward women has been undergoing an insidious uptick. And that uptick has sent me searching for more all-women spaces, and to contemplate their value and role in the conversation about gender equality and inclusion.

For example, I now have membership at a private, all-women gym. The experience has been leagues better than when I used a co-ed gym, not because I was ever accosted or catcalled or even approached by the men at my old gym, but because of what the owner at my new gym calls the “non-intimidating” atmosphere of a single-gender facility. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the locker room. Though my old co-ed gym had separate changing and shower areas, most of the women kept themselves as covered as possible, even in their own locker room. We changed quickly, used towels, and all did that trick where we took off our bras from under our shirts, the sounds of men mid-workout—grunts, growls, shouts of encouragement—audible beyond the wall.

Yes, the very presence of men can change the behavior of women. That’s because the very presence of men calls attention to the various kinds of vulnerability women carry with them—in their bodies, their careers, and their relationships.

At my new gym, however, where women teach the group fitness classes and sit at the front desk, everyone walks the locker room in all states of nakedness, sometimes languishing in conversation with one another half-dressed. (I’ve noticed something else about these bodies: a healthy number of them are pregnant or postpartum, two particular states of bodily vulnerability for many women.)

But are these spaces employing the very gender discrimination they’re responding to? There are some who think so. In a recent article for the Australian site Daily Life, Clementine Ford claims that it’s all the double talk about women’s safety that makes all-women spaces necessary and effective for allowing women total autonomy. “Then there’s the issue of who gets to control the dialogue,” Ford says. “Despite being force-fed the narrative of danger that, for example, warns us against speaking to strange men lest we somehow give them the ‘wrong impression,’ women are also demonised whenever we express concern or caution about being alone with men we don’t know.”

At The Guardian, Naomi Wolf explores the “room of one’s own” philosophies that empower women, especially in educational settings where women’s experiences are specifically foregrounded. “There are still breakthroughs in skills acquisition, learning and leadership that happen most easily in women-only settings,” Wolf writes, and then lists several successful programs worldwide that train women in fields where the glass of the ceiling is often at its thickest: business and entrepreneurship, engineering, and technology.

But questions of legality, lawful interpretation, and rhetoric abound. The Federal Civil Rights Acts forbids hiring that’s dependent on gender except under circumstances of necessity. Defining necessity, though, is tricky in a patriarchal culture that cries #notallmen when women discuss their safety concerns. And as Slate writer Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart points out, woman-to-woman violence is not uncommon in relationships between women, making the notion of safety among one’s own gender a privileged, heteronormative one.

Private same-sex businesses like my gym are also now at the front lines of trans inclusion. With states like North Carolina trying to use women’s safety as justification for the exclusion of and discrimination against trans women, it’s imperative that we discuss safety with great nuance. Lindsay King-Miller addresses the misappropriation of the safety conversation with righteous outrage in this must-read piece:

Trans women in the bathrooms that match their gender do not threaten women’s safety. Lack of access to birth control threatens women’s safety. Abortion restrictions so labyrinthine as to be nearly insurmountable threaten women’s safety. Limited space in shelters threatens women’s safety (including trans women’s). Poverty threatens women’s safety (including trans women’s). Male violence and entitlement threaten women’s safety (including trans women’s). Police brutality threatens women’s safety (especially trans women’s). Lack of workplace protections for LGBTQ people—you know, the exact protections North Caroline just outlawed—threatens women’s safety.

Women-only spaces and their advocates have an important role to play in the furthering of progress and justice for trans and genderqueer people. While women consider the ways in which we can help each other (check out Emily Heist Moss’s piece on women-only professional networks) by forming closed-circuit conversations, we must also take seriously the opportunity to address gender as a construction by including voices that represent gender fluidity and the intersectionality of gender and race, class, religion, and other identities. These spaces and their membership should represent the incredible range of women’s experiences. They should open infinitely more possibilities of sisterhood.

But personally, I like the way Claire Watkins puts it:

Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth. 

Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.

Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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