Words || Belinda Ramsay
Recently in one of my tutorials, the topic of the Women’s Room on campus came up in discussion. Inevitably, the conversation resulted in one classmate saying the exact line I (and many other women students) have heard before: ‘Isn’t that sort of… reverse sexist? I mean, where’s the men’s room on campus?’
While my immediate response was to guffaw at the use of ‘reverse [insert discrimination of choice]’, the question left me thinking – is women-only ‘turf’ still defensible in an arguably egalitarian environment like Macquarie University?
In short – my answer is a loud and clear ‘yes’. To clarify: when I say ‘women’, I refer to all people who identify as women, including trans and intersex women. Historically, women-only spaces were seen as necessary places to organise privately, however these spaces have developed to provide physically safe spaces for all women to collaborate, speak and express their autonomy freely.
“Many female friends feel unable to contribute in class because the conversation is dominated by louder, often male, classmates.”
Countless studies emphasise the benefits of women-only spaces in boosting individual confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills, as well as the broader collective benefits of collaborating and bonding with a supportive group of like-minded ladies. The enthusiasm toward female-only areas extends beyond the women-only rooms on university campuses, canvassing spaces as diverse as female-only health clinics, gyms, ride-sharing services, and the last remaining women’s-only public pool in Australia, McIver’s Baths.
The existence of a women-only space is particularly relevant on campus, where I’ve often discussed with many female friends how they often feel unheard or unable to contribute in class because of the conversation being dominated by louder, often male, classmates.
The late second-wave feminist Andrea Dworkin once wrote about the broader social phenomena of male silencing, stating, ‘Men often react to women’s words as if they were acts of violence … so we lower our voices. Women whisper, Women apologise. Women shut up. Women trivialise what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back’.
Despite the changing nature of women’s spaces in the time between Dworkin’s words and the present, there’s no reason to think that the evolution of cultural ideas has changed the significance of these spaces. Politically, women-only spaces are just as important as ever, particularly in a society that continually dictates the ways in which women should choose to dress, act, and move through the world.
“Institutionalised privileges continually favour male space in our world.”
However, when women separate themselves from these socially ingrained constraints and meet together in spaces that are defined for and opened only to them, those gendered rules often break down. Free from the male gaze that is so entrenched in our daily experience, in these spaces, women have the freedom of choice: to choose to rally or organise, to express themselves and engage with other women, or to choose to just be.
Keeping cis-men out of women’s safe spaces is in no way the biggest issue in the fight for gender equality, however it is an area where a huge amount of aggression and miscommunication can be erased.
In a world where women are still fighting for economic, political and social equality, the significance of women-only spaces as a place for women to explore, develop, and refine their ideas separate from dominant patriarchal structures is incredibly important. To argue that the existence of a women-only space is inherently discriminatory (or, as my classmate eloquently put it, ‘reverse sexist’) is to completely ignore the gendered power structures and institutionalised privileges that exist to continually favour male space in our world.
While the inclusion of men within the feminist movement is necessary, there are so many other ways that men can be, and are, involved with feminist activism that doesn’t require them encroaching on women-only spaces. Simply put, men can use the space they have in the rest of the world, and help make it more equal.
The Women’s Room is located at Level 3 of the Campus Hub Building, C10A, at the very end of the hallway opposite the Boyd Room. Female identifying staff and students are welcome, as are boys under 12 when accompanied by a woman.