The Blog

Feminism, Men and Women-Only Spaces

No one asks why feminists are moving back to women-only organising or why feminists are increasingly identifying as political lesbians or lesbian separatists? Why are women-only spaces, once again, becoming so important?

The demise of feminism is back in the news again. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Katy Perry have both made public statements about how unnecessary feminism is to their personal lives. Suzanne Venker has not only declared feminism dead but claims that there is now a war on men. Ironically, this death of feminism has coincided with very public demonstrations of feminist activism, as well as increased public debate on the issue of the inclusion of men within the feminist movement.

Yet, the debate over the inclusion of men within feminism movement has always been important. It has never stopped being important. It has only re-emerged in the mainstream British press due to the backlash to the women-only RadFem 2012 conference in London in June; as well as the no-platforming on the Manchester Women-Up North Conference who chose to have one session for FAAB-women survivors of sexual violence only. The inclusion of men within the feminist movement has been debated for 40 years now. It never stopped being debated.

I support women-only spaces. I think they remain fundamental to the success of feminism as a political movement dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet, no one ever seems to ask feminists why they believe women-only spaces are important or why the exclusion of men from *some* feminist events is necessary for revolution. No one asks why feminists are moving back to women-only organising or why feminists are increasingly identifying as political lesbians or lesbian separatists? Why are women-only spaces, once again, becoming so important? No one asks why there is such a backlash to the thought of women-only organising? When people do ask, they don't appear to be hearing the answer.

Whilst the inclusion of men within the movement is necessary, they do not need to be involved at every meeting and conference. There are thousands of ways that men can be, and are, involved with feminist activism that doesn't require them encroaching on women-only spaces. They can help financially support women's organisations like Rape Crisis, Shakti Women's Aid, Women's Aid, Nia, or Southall Black Sisters. Men can join activist groups like Object, UK Feminista, Fawcett Society, and Abortion Rights. Men can fundraise by holding car washes and bake sales. They can join the White Ribbon Campaign and help to raise awareness about male violence against women and children.

The most important thing men can do to help the feminist movement is to challenge sexism every time they witness it. They have to challenge every rape joke. They have to challenge every man who minimises domestic violence. They have to step up every time; not just once in a while but every time they witness sexism. Sometimes this means they have to challenge themselves and recognise that their own behaviour is sexist. Sometimes it means accepting that they won't be allowed into every feminist space. As a white, heterosexual feminist it would be hypocritical of me to demand to be allowed into feminist spaces for Black, Ethnic and Minority Women. It would be equally hypocritical for me to demand entry into a feminist space for lesbians-only, just as it would be hypocritical for me to demand entry into a room of male survivors of sexual violence or testicular cancer. Campaigning for women's liberation to bring about the destruction of the capitalist-patriarchy and the creation of true equality does not mean every person deserves equal access. It means hearing the specific needs of specific groups and taking those into account. Like kindergarten, it's about learning fairness.

We need men in the feminist movement. We need men who understand the real long-term effects of male violence. We need men who listen. We need men who support without dominating. Male domination of speech, both in public and private, has been well proven in research for thirty years now. Dale Spender wrote about it in The Writing of the Sex? in 1989. Andrea Dworkin wrote about male silencing tactics in her classic text Intercourse:

"Men often react to women's words - speaking and writing - as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper, Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men - control, violence, insult, contempt - that no threat seems empty."

Margaret Atwood wrote about men dominating classrooms in early 1980s. There have been countless studies in education and within the workplace that demonstrate the silencing of women's voices within the presence of men. The largest global study on violence against women found that it was the feminist movement that had the biggest impact on tackling the issue; much of this was accomplished with women-only spaces. This is what men need to recognise and understand.

The main reason why I believe women-only spaces are integral to the feminist movement is because the silencing of women's voices never stops. Sometimes the only way to stop the silencing is to uninvite men and that's the lesson men need to take from this. If they insist on attending, whose voices are they really silencing?