What I know about women only spaces

Protecting single-sex, and specifically women only, spaces is a major concern for 21st century feminists. The threat comes from campaigns to introduce self-identification of ‘gender’, coupled with denials of the immutable and binary nature of sex in humans (Said binary being the foundation of reproduction and commonly known as the ‘facts of life’.)

If you read about women only spaces in this context you might notice that very often the examples given are domestic violence and rape crisis services, where women are fleeing male violence, or women’s prisons. Even though it’s vital such spaces remain women only, it’s probably all too easy for many to think ‘I’m never going to be in that situation’ and therefore to dismiss the issue. So I thought I’d share some other examples of women only spaces from my own experience.

Volunteer work

Not long after I discovered feminism, when I was about 18 or 19, I decided to volunteer at the Feminist Library. At the time it was at the far end of Westminster Bridge Road (London SE1), on perhaps the first or second floor of a fairly grotty building. I remember it as a lot of books crammed into a few rooms, along with an office and a small meeting room. It was a women only space, open three days a week for a total of about 15 hours. It was run by a feminist collective, which I joined, even becoming a key-holder of the library for a while.

Although I felt myself a genuine feminist, I was also a callow young woman. I was at that age of being self-absorbed and convinced that because I read The Guardian I knew it all. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember much about my fellow volunteers or the women who came to the library. What I do remember though is arguing with members of the collective about our equal opportunities policy. (This was the 1990s by the way, before the current Equality Act of 2010.)

Being pretty green, owing to my young age, I had the idea we were discriminating against men by making the library women only. I think I was also afraid the library would be penalised – and lose funding – for not letting men in. (Ah, the irony.) I think I also thought we should be encouraging male feminists (I know!) by enabling their access to the library.

Of course, with hindsight and nearly three more decades of life under my belt, I am exasperated and annoyed with my younger self for being so naive and/or ignorant. But I was just that – ignorant of what so many women suffer at the hands of men or via patriarchy and why that means women only spaces are essential.

Beer tasting

I’ve had the good fortune to do a lot of work involving beer. There’s still a perception from many quarters that it’s ‘a man’s drink’ and the brewing industry remains pretty male dominated. There are many more women in the business now than 10 years ago, when I trained and qualified as a Beer Sommelier. But back then I was able to make much of being the first woman to become one. I was even on Woman’s Hour and did a beer tasting with Jenni Murray!

I imagine my first female beer sommelier claim to fame was why I was asked to run some women only tastings at a beer festival in Birmingham. I feel rather ‘back in the day’ about it now. I can only recall one slightly antagonistic tweet demanding to know why such an event was needed. I replied that I’d been asked to do it, rather than having organised it, and said I’d ask the women who attended what they thought. That was that. No pile on, no death threats and no one brought up self-ID.

I must admit the tastings weren’t very full. There was just a handful of women in each, but I did ask them what they thought about it and if they’d deliberately attended because it was women only. It was so uncontentious that most had no strong feelings about it. But the reply I remember sums it up nicely – and could equally apply to any other stereotypically male or male-dominated area of life. The woman said she wanted to be able to ask what she felt might be derided as ‘stupid’ questions, without her boyfriend, or other men, making fun of her.

Youth hostel

When I was in my twenties I went to Germany for an inter-railing trip with my best female friend. We’d booked a hostel in Munich for the first night of our holiday. It never occurred to me that a dorm could be mixed sex. It simply didn’t enter my head that communal overnight accommodation for young travellers wouldn’t be sex-segregated, like toilets or changing rooms.

That it could became clear when an older man showed up in the dorm at bedtime. He did nothing untoward, but I remember my discomfort at his presence given that I was only wearing my nightclothes. I also recall thinking ‘why on earth have they let him in here?’ and not wanting to fall asleep while there was a man in the room.

I understand that mixed dorm policies are now widespread and commonplace and it’s a typical example of where people could find themselves accused of ‘transphobia’ for asking about or requesting single-sex facilities.

Intimate medical examination

I once had eczema on my vulva. I’ll spare you the details, but it was very uncomfortable. I asked to see a consultant and, naturally, requested a female doctor. She was an older woman. Slim and smartly dressed. I had no qualms about showing her my undercarriage. Not least because I knew she had the same anatomy as me. She also had many years experience helping other women with downstairs dermatitis.

The examination was brief and gentle. She wore gloves. She simply needed to see what I’d been describing with her own eyes. I was calm and relaxed and unfazed by the whole thing. She prescribed some cream and said I should call for a ‘see at once’ appointment if it got any worse. But if a female consultant hadn’t been available, I would have gone without treatment.

These are the very ordinary things that spring to mind when I think of women only spaces. One day any of us women might need, or simply want, a place where no man can go. I think we need to come together and make sure we always have that option and that no one can take it away from us.