Respect women's-only space -

There will be times in feminist activism when you are not wanted. Women's-only space - whether at Take Back the Night marches, consciousness- raising sessions, NOW chapter meetings, or University classes, is often one the hardest parts of feminist action for male feminists to accept. At the extreme, lesbian separatist feminists call for more or less complete separations from men, economically, politically, and sexually. Certainly if one has taken the painstaking effort to separate himself from the psychological and social structures of patriarchy, it is hard to accept being put back into the class of Men and excluded. Many male feminists experience it as a sort of reverse discrimination and feel that that sort of exclusion is just what feminists ought to be fighting against.

However, the exclusion of men by women and the exclusion of women by men are certainly not the same thing in the first place. In an excellent analogy that I owe to Marilyn Frye, 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. The attempt to classify women's separatism under the same rubric of "sexism" or "discrimination" neglects the reality of power differences between the sexes as classes. In short, it ignores the reality of male privilege.

The male feminist, of course, is not - or ought not to be - himself a "master," and feminist women are certainly not "slaves." But despite all of their politics, they are still operating within a culture pervaded with patriarchy and misogyny, and necessarily are put into those positions to some degree, both when taking public action and even when interacting in private. When the Womyn's Equity Coalition here in Kalamazoo was planning the Take Back the Night march this year, one of the decisions we faced was whether to make the march portion of the event women-only. Certainly there are lots of men who have suffered sexual abuse (about one in thirty-three adult men has suffered violent rape; many more are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), and many more who support the survivors of sexual violence. However, we decided to make the march women-only. It is a far more powerful statement for women to be marching, without any men to "protect" them, through the streets at night. And it is more powerful not only for those who see the march from the outside, but also for those who are in it, the women who take back a power that they have been denied, without any need for men or male privilege. That assumption of power without the need for men also lies behind the women-only space in "private" speak-outs, consciousness-raising, and so on. Again, the problems caused by men's presence - as a class, not just as individual men - can only be missed by ignoring the very reality of male privilege.


Beyond the politics, there is also simply a practical element: speak-outs and consciousness- raising simply do not work in the presence of men. No matter how committed the men may be to feminism, no matter how much the women may accept them as feminists, decades of pervasive psychological conditioning will still cause women to react defensively to the presence of men. It is well-known that women will not speak about their experiences of sexual and physical violation with anywhere near the honesty that they do in women's-only groups, as in groups with both women and men (the same is true of men speaking about how they interact with women, in men's-only and mixed groups).


What all this means is that there are times for feminist activism in which it is absolutely crucial to maintain women's-only spaces. Committed male feminists must learn to overcome the personal feeling of rejection or "discrimination" that may come along with women's-only spaces, and they must learn to respect women's decisions to create those spaces where necessary. It also means calling out other men who do not respect these spaces (a perpetual problem with women's-only meetings is that whenever they are advertised, men invariably try to sneak in or find a way to gain access), and making a committed public stand in favor of women's right to create women's-only spaces. They are profoundly not sexist; they are a radical strategy in the fight for justice.