The Women’s Room, Redux
The topic of women-only space, who belongs in it, and what kinds of safety it makes possible is a hot one in feminist communities, provoking vigorous debates and protests, particularly with regard to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and its controversial "womyn-born-womyn only" admissions policy. We asked a wide variety of folks—all with significant experience with different kinds of women-only space—to share their opinions on the value of women-only space, how to define it, and what kinds of risks it involves.
—compiled by Lisa Jervis (gender identification: cisgendered woman, occupation: writer/editor)
name: Michelle Tea
gender identification: cisgendered female
occupation: author (Rose of No Man's Land, Valencia, and others)
I think periodic women-only spaces are really fantastic. I've organized a lot of women-only artistic events and performance tours, as well as spent some time at women-only events like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.
Any women who identify as women in the present moment is my current preferred definition of female-only space. Trans women need to be allowed in on the basis of their being women, period, without regard for what physical changes they may or may not have made. If places such as Michigan don't make these changes soon, time will pass them by, and they will be seen as relics of an ignorant time, rather than the extremely powerful and inspiring places they have the potential to be.
What one person believes they need in order to feel safe will inevitably oppress someone else. It is true that I do assume a certain level of physical safety in women-only space, but this is a result of the privilege that comes with being cisgendered.
name: Heather Corinna
gender identification: woman
occupation: artist, sexuality educator, and author (S.E.X.: Spelling Out All You Need to Know About Your Sexuality)
For a while I had this idea that women's communities would be like living inside of a marshmallow: all soft and mushy and cozy. Instead, they usually challenge me more than other environments do.
I don't see the big problem with drawing whatever lines one wants to with community in private spaces—whose aim is to provide community, rather than keep others from it—when we're not talking about civil/human rights infringements in some way. I used to sign petitions to include trans people at Michfest, but then I realized I couldn't do that in good conscience. I don't have a problem with trans-only spaces (or men-only spaces, or of-color-only spaces), and so it didn't seem sensible for me to have a problem with a cisgender-only space. Since I couldn't think of a practical way Michfest could even enact a more inclusive space that wasn't insulting and dehumanizing to everyone and kept women in those spaces feeling free and safe—what's to stop men with an eye towards violence from saying they're mtf?—it felt pretty unfair to protest a policy that I couldn't even think of a solution to myself.
name: Dani Eurynome
gender identification: female
occupation: parrot professional
I have worked in women's groups, bookstores, sex parties, and spaces. I love the energy that women's spaces have. That said, the battle going on right now regarding trans people in women-only spaces has kept me from going to many of these spaces in the past 10 years.
I believe policing the borders to keep certain types of women out is antifeminist, bigoted, and just plain wrong. While I have heard many of my "sisters" talk about supporting the institutions and changing from within, as a political person, I know that is a bunch of crap. It is up to me, a person who is not being discriminated against, to put up a huge fuss and boycott. Anyone who currently identifies and lives as a woman [should be included]—no inspections, oaths, or harassment.
"Safe space" means naiveté at best or falsehood at worst. If women actually believe that they cannot be harmed by other women, then they are naive. A penis is not inherently dangerous—a brain is.
name: Danya Ruttenberg
gender identification: female
occupation: rabbinical student, writer, and editor (Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism and several forthcoming books)
As a religious Jew, [women-only space] has a very different set of connotations for me. A divider separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues because a visible female presence is considered a sexual threat at a time when the (male) Jewish subject should be focusing on his prayers. There is, obviously, a world of theoretical difference between gendered segregation as part of institutionalized oppression and the creation of "safe space"—but on the ground, the differences aren't always so clear. Lots of religious women exprience same-sex space as liberating, and lots of secular feminists experience it as problematic. There are times and places for "us" space; in general, though, I think we do ourselves and feminism a disservice by working too hard, at this late date, to keep out feminist male-shaped or male-identified folk.
name: Jennifer Wildflower
gender identification: female
Cisgendered women-only space proponents and the spaces they have worked a lifetime to create should be respected and supported on principle. All groups, especially those who are devalued and marginalized, need private space to work out their identity as a group; to examine, define, analyze, and look deep into themselves; to become aware of their shared history; and to stay informed and then to take action. [These spaces can be made] not perfectly safe, but safer [by establishing] a value system within the group that says that all members are valuable, unique, and offer needed insights.
name: Emi Koyama
gender identification: whatever
occupation: buttonmeister (eminism.org)
There was a time in my life when women-only space seemed like a great place to be, not necessarily because it was women-only, but because it was a space to be with the kind of women who needed and appreciated it (the presence of Condi Rice or Laura Bush or probably even Hillary Clinton would ruin it for me).
My preference is to not have a definition as a matter of principle: For most people, "women-only" would be sufficient to determine whether or not they should be part of it; for people [for whom] things are more complicated, no single set of criteria would do it justice. "Safe space" is often a place in which others' safety is sacrificed to make it safe for you. Women-only space is sometimes more dangerous for many women, including of course trans women. The idea that safety is about removing people or things that threaten them is criminally immoral when our government invades and occupies other countries, detains residents of these countries without due process, strips them naked, and tortures them, in order to protect, supposedly, "our" "safety." Safety should not be about the absence of the perceived threat, but about building structures that ensure fairness, accountability, and justice.