I’m going to attempt to preemptively answer some questions that come up time and time again. These are often the questions that come from men who encounter the wom*n’s edition of a journal, a feminist-themed talk, or anything that is discussing things that are branded as “wom*n’s issues”. In a university specific setting such questions include: Who is the Men’s Officer? Where is the Men’s Room? And sometimes ‘I’m a Feminist Guy, let me in Your Freakin’ Wom*n’s Room Already’.
Why do we have a Wom*n’s Room?
Wom*n’s Rooms are safe places for those who are female-identifying to escape the daily grind of living in a sexist society, a place to chill out and a place to access resources, and to talk to and connect with other wom*n on campus. For wom*n students, there are lots of subtle (and often not so subtle) reminders that the university (and uhh the world) can be a bit of a boys club. Female students experience sexism and in their daily lives and this impacts on their work and study. Wom*n still make up the vast majority of violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence victims. On average, wom*n earn less than men. We also still don’t have full reproductive freedoms or accessible abortion.
Dale Spencer did an experiment on what happens when men enter what is designated as a wom*n’s feminist space as research for her PhD thesis. She writes:
“Present at the discussion, which was a workshop on sexism and education in London, were thirty-two women and five men. Apart from the fact that the tape revealed that the men talked for over 50 per cent of the time, it also revealed that what the men wanted to talk about – and the way in which they wanted to talk – was given precedence.
There is no doubt in my mind that in this context at least (and I do not think it was an atypical one) it was the five males and not the thirty-two females who were defining the parameters of the talk. I suspect that neither the women nor the men were conscious of this. There was no overt hostility displayed towards the females who ‘strayed from the point’, but considerable pressure was applied by the males – and accepted without comment from the females – to confine the discussion to the male definition of the topic.”
Wom*n’s Rooms aren’t perfect. I’m not here to tell you that. They aren’t a solution to the problem — but they’re a start to redressing those problems by giving wom*n a forum where men do not verbally and intellectually dominate conversational space.
When wom*n call a space or event ‘autonomous’ what does that mean?
The word autonomy has been dissected and re-evaluated numerous times in academic literature. In terms of feminist and oppression politics, the term autonomy has a fairly unique meaning. Autonomy is by no means a simple concept and it means different things to different wom*n in the feminist movement. But, simply put it’s about reclamation of personhood and agency by being free to organise and collaborate exclusively with other wom*n, without the immediate influence of men. It also means decisions affecting wom*n should be made exclusively by wom*n.
And I can hear you now with ‘men are important, too!’ and ‘the patriarchy hurts men as well!’ or ‘you’re being a “feminist elitist”. I agree with most of those statements, actually. But here’s why autonomy, wom*n’s only spaces and wom*n’s only protests and events are still totally fucking necessary.
Here’s the thing: feminists don’t necessarily want your help. Sometimes we would prefer to be only in the company of other wom*n. Sometimes we want to feel that our voices are truly our own. The truth is those male feminists are often seen as being way more brave, and way more valuable than female feminists. I’m kind of tired of that. Because the truth is that as a woman, being a feminist is much more difficult. You’re accused of being crazy. People might even stop being friends with you if you speak out too much. You’re told you should be an “equalist” instead. Because ‘liberation’ is a dirty word (like feminism); it has to about ‘equality’ rather, because men feel threatened by the word ‘liberation’. For many wom*n their feminism aligns with their subjective lived experiences, such as sexual assault and the different ways that their race, sexuality, (dis)ability, gender identity and class intersect with their status as a woman. For most men (and especially those whose gender aligns with their sex assigned at birth) their ‘feminist’ beliefs don’t have the lived experiences like these, which directly inform their feminism. However there are ways you can be constructive (and I’m getting to that, I promise).
This is why it may be requested that you do not attend certain events. Most wom*n who seek out wom*n’s only spaces might get a small amount of enjoyment out of feeling safe for half an hour or so. I’m not suggesting that all wom*n who desire this have had horrific experiences with men, but it might be helpful to think about what might cause someone to do that if you’re considering getting into to a heated argument with them. Topics discussed in what are designated as autonomous, wom*n-only spaces are often highly sensitive, and many wom*n who have experiences with these issues don’t feel comfortable discussing them in front of men.
I’m tired of trying to get men on side with feminism, tip toeing around and sugar-coating things, which might alienate male allies. I’m tired of self-professed feminist men thinking they are entitled to criticise wom*n’s approaches to feminism. I’m even getting tired of the numerous hours spent on articles rallying men to the cause with ‘The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too’ thing because yes, of course it does but, overall it is actually overwhelming good for men. That’s why it exists in the first place. Because the majority of men are invested in its continuation. The more time spent on men’s issues as feminist issues, the less space and time exists for issues, which directly affect wom*n in feminism and go to heart of how we can restructure our oppressive environments. Men who can appreciate the importance of feminism, because they understand decent human behaviour don’t deserve more room in feminism than currently exists.
Men who call themselves feminists are often looking to be part of your circle, in my view. They’re looking for a feminist card that gives them an equal voice in feminist circles, they’re looking for a feminist card when they screw up and get called out on being sexist. They have no role in feminism in my view aside from being pro-feminist or a feminist ally and getting the spaces they dominate and making them feminist. Ask how you can help out instead. Can you put up some posters for a feminist group on campus when they’re campaigning? I’m sure there’s not going to be a problem with that. Offer to help set up the Wom*n’s Collective’s stall. Have meaningful conversations with the other men around you about gender roles. Speak up when you hear something sexist happening or being said. Listen if someone is telling you about an experience they’ve had that they said was sexist. Listen and act if someone is telling you that something they think you said was sexist.
And after all this if you still feel threatened (albeit even slightly) by the idea of wom*n exclusively meeting in public for some purpose, feminist or not, then ask yourself why. You might be part of the problem.
 Results were published in Man Made Language, 1981.