Exploring the Value of Women-Only Space

by Kya Ogyn

(Formerly at QuestioningTransgender.org)

The first time I went to Michigan Womyn's Festival was in 1982. One of my work shifts was on the parking crew late in the evening; it was dark when I got off and started to my campsite. The moon was very bright and I didn't need the flashlight I had brought with me. Part way I heard behind me the footsteps of someone walking quickly. I gripped my flashlight and started to turn to see who was coming when I realized that whoever it was, she was a womon. I remember feeling an incredible sense of relief and relaxation but even more than that, I was surprised. I was surprised because I had not known that I was frightened. I had lived both in cities and in the country and I was used to being out at night on my own, going where I wanted, and I would have said I was careful but certainly not afraid. I think my fear and the reasons for it were so constant that I could not be aware of it until it was removed. I was and am afraid of men. I want to be clear that I deal with men on a regular basis and mostly I'm not aware of being afraid.. But I check them out. When I am alone with men I don't know I pay attention to their body language, their tone of voice and the quality of attention they show me. Even with men I know and have not known to be violent I find that if they are angry I focus on them; I go on alert. I have reason for my fear. There is a male pattern of violence towards womyn which is well documented. It is a common, every day occurrence in every country in the world. While it is true that not all men are violent, it is also true that almost all violent acts are done by men. It is also true that this level of violence could not exist without the tacit consent of all men. Even men who are not violent benefit from womyn's fear because most womyn have learned to be wary of angering them. At Michigan Festival and other womyn-only space I have learned what it is like to live without that fear and I want that for all womyn all the time. I think it is difficult to create a new way of living if one has not experienced at least a taste of it, and womyn-only space provides that taste.

Womyn-only space has often been described as safe space and has been criticized when it has not been perceived as such by many womyn. I want first of all to look at what is meant by safe space. The first definition of "safe" in my dictionary is "free from harm or risk." I think these two words have different meanings and that great confusion of purpose has occurred when we conflate them. Harm is usually understood to mean injury. When one is injured one has suffered an injustice or has been made less sound. Creating space where womyn are free from harm is a desirable goal. However, I do not think creating space that is free of risk necessarily is desirable. In order to understand risk we have to know what is being risked and for what purpose. While I usually prefer to avoid risk of physical injury, I will climb on a roof to repair a leak. Or I will if the roof is not too steep and it shelters me or someone I care for or possibly for money. Risk is often perceived as courting danger but it can also mean accepting the possibility of change, with opportunities for gain as well as loss.

Womyn's space has too often been free from risk and not free from harm. We have played out mainstream hierarchies and have lacked respect and compassion for each other. Womyn who are privileged by racism and other hierarchies have too often perceived as threats to our well being opportunities to look at systems of power, to learn where as individuals we are unjustly advantaged. Since womyn who are targets of oppression other than sexism continue that experience in womyn-only space, it has been argued that the exclusion of male-to-constructed-females over concerns of safety is unjust. A message I hear is toughen up and deal with all oppression and privilege.

I agree with the desire that we really do many things about social justice. I disagree that makes exclusion of non-womyn unacceptable. To be central to one's own life, and to be one strand woven in the web of the world, is a circumstance I wish for all humans. In general womyn have been trained to center our lives around men. Male supremacy means that whenever all other class rankings are the same between womyn and men, men will be considered superior. Girls grow into womyn with the experience of being automatically subordinate to men of similar circumstances. While boys grow into men knowing they are privileged in relationship to some men and subordinated to others, they experience being properly superior to girls and womyn. This reality influences every moment of each individual's life. Womyn-only space allows womyn to experience living without that deeply trained deference to men. Womyn only space is something like a science experiment. What happens when only one factor is changed?

A foundation of heteropatriarchy is the male right of access to womyn. Historically, men have sometimes accepted that some womyn are off limits because they belong to other men, but only rarely have womyn claimed the right to exclude all men. While males have reserved to themselves the right to gather in male only spaces they have used rape, physical assault, pornography and economic dependency in a pattern of insistence on access to womyn. As Marilyn Frye wrote in The Politics of Reality, "It is always the privilege of the master to enter the slave's hut. The slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave." When womyn say to men, "no, not now, this time, this space is not about you," we assert the primacy of our own lives. The ability of a class of people who have been the target of oppression to gather together without the presence of those who have benefited from their exploitation is both an important organizing strategy and an expression of material power. Particularly in the case of womyn who have been raised in and taught loyalty to competing male supremacist cultures, womyn-only space allows us to explore the commonality and difference of our experiences. This form of separation is very different from that which is practiced and enforced by those who are privileged by power hierarchies. Male-only and white-only spaces reinforce assumptions of superiority and normality among their participants which adversely affect the excluded. I think exclusion of the targets of oppression by the privileged is always suspect while the reverse is an important method of redressing power imbalance.

A claim has been made by some in the trans community that trans people are oppressed by non-trans people and therefore their exclusion is unacceptable. I said the exclusion of the oppressed by the privileged is always suspect. I know many trans people have suffered difficulties, for example, in employment and social acceptance and I want all individuals to have real access to jobs, food, housing and companionship. This could seem to lead me to agreeing that the exclusion of mtcfs from womyn only space is not justified, but I disagree with the way this argument has been formulated. I think ranking oppressions, trying to determine whether racism or sexism came first or whether old or disabled people suffer more, is simplistic and divisive. However, I also think the sanctions imposed on trans people, like those imposed on lesbians and gay men, serve to reinforce sexism rather than constituting a separate hierarchical branch. Sexism benefits men in many ways. If all the womyn in the world disappeared men would spend a lot more time cooking and cleaning or getting other men to do it for them. There would be a revolutionary reorganization in how the domestic work of the world was accomplished. I suspect those remaining who did not want to clean up after themselves would either have to pay well to have it done or use force. The systematic undervaluing and underrewarding of womyn's work is a massive economic subsidy to men in male supremacist cultures. If, instead, all lesbians, gays and transpeople disappeared, I do not think it would have any impact on how societies are structured economically. Some of those remaining would gain the advantage of reduced competition but there would not be a structural change. The targeting of lesbians in excess of that which is experienced as womyn and the targeting experienced by gay men and transpeople functions as punishment for non-conformity to heterosexual, male supremacist sex roles. To the extent that such punishment reduces sex role non-compliance, sexism is reinforced and the beneficiaries of that are men, not womyn. Therefore, the exclusion of mtcfs from womyn only space is not the exclusion of a targeted group by its oppressor group.

Humans are born, with very few exceptions, female or male, and trained by societies into femininity and masculinity. While there are cultural variations in how these sex roles are expressed, in general certain constellations of characteristics are seen as masculine and certain others as feminine. In almost all societies masculinized males are considered to be properly dominant over feminized females. I think dominance is central to the concept and practice of masculinity as submission is to femininity. Many womyn object both to male supremacy and to the limits placed on the characteristics we are allowed, without sanction, to express. Some men also object to the limits on the characteristics masculinity assigns to them. The limitations on societally approved characteristics embodied in femininity and masculinity function to artificially heighten the differences between womyn and men and reinforce the class structure of male supremacy. Some mtcfs have said that although they were born with male bodies they feel like women. They believe there has been a mistake and sex reassignment surgery is a reasonable way to redress that mistake. I think it probable that when anyone, male or female, says they "feel" like a womon or a man they are actually saying that what they feel corresponds with feminine or masculine sex roles. I think the world and all individuals are better served by the elimination of masculinity and femininity than by the surgical and chemical mutilation of healthy bodies in an attempt to conform to them. Feminism's response to those who find their assigned sex roles limiting or just a bad fit is that all human characteristics are properly available to all individuals regardless of physical sex.

Womyn only space is time and place where the welfare of the class of womyn and its core constituents, females who were raised as girls and perceive themselves as womyn, are the primary concern. In this space the desires of others are secondary. If even one womon's perception of safety from male violence is diminished by the presence of individuals who are or were or claim to be members of the class of men, those individuals should be excluded. If any womyn find it easier to try new things or to explore their lives without the presence of non-womyn, that should be allowed.