One of the areas of discussion that has come up in a few times in the festival is the importance of ‘women-only spaces’, whether they still serve a purpose and the place of transwomen within them. Much of this discussion has surrounded real-life (not just theoretical) demands by men and transpeople to enter women-only spaces. A number of bloggers have defended the right to have women-only spaces and, although not exclusively, are defining those spaces as ‘women-born women’ spaces. I have a number of problems with this discussion, but I would like to preface it by saying that I think that there is a place for women-only spaces.
Because as Michelle at Lonergrrrl, says:
Because it is in women-only space that a woman’s voice can be heard on her own terms. In women-only space she is free of the ‘male gaze’, free of the spectre of patriarchal judgement, that in mixed space- aka the ‘real world’- threatens to denounce, silence, talk over, appropriate, or ridicule her voice.
But I have few issues with this debate. First, I take issue that the questioning of women-only spaces from a post-modernist perspective is anti-revolutionary, as is noted by Michelle:
But this doesn’t relate to most women’s reality. And getting bogged down in these academic arguments, accounting for every subversion/fragmentation, as postmodernists like to do, prevents ACTION. It prevents women from organising because we’ve been curtailed and distracted by academics/postmodernists, who would rather sit there and denounce and ridicule feminist women for giving a shit and wanting to DO something, stalling the very revolution they purport to be striving for.
I take issue with the idea that third-wave feminists within academia are not interested in revolutionary change, as is noted by Dis-Senter:
Allecto’s answer was: that feminism has been leached of power by universities which have made feminism into an academic abstraction, and that feminism has to get back to being a real, grass-roots movement about real women’s lives and experiences, not academics sitting around in grand isolation spouting theories without knowing what the majority of women’s lived realities are.
And I would like to question the notion that I was born a woman, because as that famous second-wave feminist Simone de Beauvoir: ‘One is not born, but becomes a woman’.
I see postmodernism as potentially revolutionary, although just like not all people are feminists, neither are all postmodernists. But post-modernists feminists are feminist and they are revolutionary. For me being post-modernist is about recognising that all experience is viewed through a lens that shapes how we interpret it. It does not deny physical experience. It does not deny that women are raped; that their bodies bleed; that the live in a world where they suffer pain and horror. It says that the meaning placed on that experience is entirely socially-constructed. It says there is no ’truth’ or ‘nature’ that defines who you are or what you will become. It says that who you are is a product of your society and culture and that even your physical experience is given meaning by the social.
This is not stifling, but liberating. Postmodernist feminism says that, if we could destroy patriarchal society, you could become somebody different, somebody who is not oppressed because of a socially constructed gender assignment, somebody with choice. It says that there is no structure restricting our potential. It says that the way the world is, in all its unfairness and inequality, is not inevitable. It is able to change, because what we are and how we view ourselves and the rest of the world is learned. It also says that how we construct our world is through language. That how we define terms and the meaning we give to words, things and people in our language is recreated in society and in the way we behave. It says that we need to think about ideology or discourse, which is also created through language, but which is much larger and is the over-arching theories, or systems of logic, that help us make sense of the world. Patriarchy is a great example of an ideology or discourse that shapes how we see the world.
Postmodernism can be seen as stifling because it points out that patriarchy is not a thing, but a way of looking at the world. It points out that there are no easy choices, because in almost all situations you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The pro/anti porn debate which I discussed below is a case in point. BUT postmodernist feminism does not have to stop there. Postmodernist feminism says you need to recognise that ‘you’re damned if you do’, but that if it makes women’s lives better then it is for the good. It recognises that there are differences between the long-term, when we will transform how we understand the world through removing gender distinctions and all forms of privilege, and the short-term where we live in a state of war and have to do the best under the circumstances.
Women-only spaces have to be seen in this light. Women-only spaces reinforce gender distinctions by their very nature. For the postmodernist in me, this is problematic. We need to work towards a world where gender distinctions are removed and so we need to be very careful of how and why we use such spaces. But, we do live in a world where women are hurt and abused and need to regroup and plan for change. In this time of war, we need women-only spaces.
However, as a post-modernist feminist, I think we need to be very careful how we use them. Women-only spaces not only reinforce gender distinctions, that we are trying to overcome, but can act to privilege certain groups and exclude others, and, by doing so, they are re-enacting the same male behaviour that has been happening for hundreds of years. Defining women by their genitals is essentialist and it is what men do to us every day when they treat us badly and exclude us. There has to be a place within the feminist movement for transwomen, because otherwise we are just another privileged group telling other women what they are or are not.
Now I have to say that I sympathise with Charliegrrrl’s protest against certain individuals, in the name of trans* politics, who insist on entering women-only spaces:
The very reason why they force themselves into our women only spaces is indicative of their political aims, not for the liberation of trans and queer people under patriarchy, but for the colonisation of women only spaces [...].
The purpose of women-only spaces is to allow women to regroup and feel safe in a space where male domination is limited, and such behavior, whether by a man or a woman, removes their purpose. This is about power and domination, but so is excluding women who do not meet an arbitrary definition of womanhood that was a creation of patriarchal culture. Every time we create a woman-only space, we need to question its purpose, who it includes and who it excludes and seriously consider the political consequences of our actions. We need to ask whether the needs of the women in that group at that moment are bigger than the needs and aims of the movement as a whole. This may well be the case, but we should be careful that such rules and definitions should not be arbitrary or for all time. Furthermore, we need to be very careful of what groups have a narrow definition of women-only. The feminist movement has came a long way and certain groups, especially those that organise large events and have political clout, can be influential in wider society and impact on government policy. Excluding women, and perhaps even occasionally men, from the right to have a voice in that political process is highly problematic and needs to be carefully considered.
Feminism does not need to have absolutes, rights or wrongs in all and every circumstances. That is a lie fed to us by philosophy that relies on essentialist notions of gender; that sees a ‘true’ and a ‘false’, a weak and a strong, a powerful and a powerless. Context is everything.