Women-only spaces are certainly a bone of contention and plenty of men and women are opposed to their presence in feminism. After all, if feminism is pro-equality and anti-gender stereotyping, surely it's a little hypocritical to introduce gender segregation? Female-only spaces can be alienating to men and women alike who consequently shy away from a feminism that seems unwelcoming and uncompromising. In making use of women-only spaces is feminism shooting itself in the foot by falling into all the negative stereotypes surrounding it? Perhaps. Women-only spaces are pretty much catnip to those who want to paint feminism as a selfish, obstinate dogma. So, when it comes to women-only spaces, does feminism finally reveal its true nature as an insidious plot to establish a global gynocratic supremacy? Or are there legitimate reasons which might necessitate their use?
Advocates of women-only spaces often cite an atmosphere of "warmth" and "support" in defence of their position. It can be exhausting, this being a feminist business. There might be a certain chicken-soup effect of having a group of women around you who are like-minded and supportive, to have a space in which you don't feel harassed and harangued. But to advocate women's only spaces under the banner of "warmth" and "support" is to tar all men as cold and unsupportive. Are we guilty of the same gender stereotyping we seek to overcome?
So if in theory feminists oppose gender stereotyping which works to the disadvantage of both sexes, how do we rationalise this seemingly natural predisposition to view women-only spaces as somehow more nurturing and warmer than mixed spaces? Natasha Walker delves into this excellently in Living Dolls, but to capitulate: society's expectations breed women to demure, to keep quiet, and to defer to male exhibitions of power. She mentions studies in which women are shown to be disliked the more power and authority they display, whilst society reacts to men conversely. Perhaps then, once free from such gender power-politics, women are free to more confidently express themselves, and it's that freedom and confidence which we pick up on as warmth and safety.
The question then becomes: if we insist on mixed-gender spaces, do we run the risk of silencing women? I'd argue that the issue can therefore be understood in terms of positive discrimination (AKA affirmative action). Perhaps women only spaces don't keep men out to discriminate against men, but in order not to discriminate against women. If we were coming at this from a position of equality, then it certainly would be wilful and needless discrimination against men to exclude them. But we categorically do not come from a position of equality. We live in a world where women's voices simply aren't heard as loudly as men's.
This point becomes even more vital when we look at the cross-section of women who exist in our society. Now, I'm no advocate of cultural relativism and in an ideal world all women would be equally able to express their opinions. But in order to compensate for existing inequalities in our society, we must recognise that women from different ethnic backgrounds often have varying attitudes towards speaking publicly with and in front of men. There are large communities of women who we risk excluding from the conversation, and whose experiences of womanhood may be overlooked, if we don't protect the right to women-only spaces. Of course, many would no doubt see this as pandering to the requirements of inherently sexist patriarchal cultures. But I believe this is a small price to pay if it means that as many women are heard as possible.
In that women-only spaces are about encouraging as many women as possible to be heard, they are invaluable to survivors of male violence. For survivors of male violence, female-only spaces aren't just about being able to confidently raise your voice - they're about genuinely not fearing for your safety. A lot of survivors turn to the feminist movement for solace and safety. We have a responsibility to make those women feel safe, and often after extreme violence, knowing you're in a male-free environment can help avoid painful triggers. If we don't respect survivors' right to a safe environment in which to voice their opinions, we risk silencing them by proxy. And in a world in which one in three women will suffer violence in her lifetime, that's a hell of a lot of vulnerable women excluded from debate.
It's important, I think, to consider the purpose of women only spaces. If you're promoting women in business, women in media, or women in science, for example, these events will understandably be for women by women as their aim is aspirational. The LFN has a women only policy, which extends to its Reclaim the Night march. I think the message of the march justifies the use of a woman's only space: Reclaim the Night is about women taking back the streets at night, as women. On a march where women are exercising their right to walk the streets safely at night without a male chaperone, the inclusion of men would undeniably dilute the message.
The problem is, if we continue to keep women-only spaces as the arena in which we discuss women's issues, we run the risk of continuing to keep women's issues as just that - issues for women. By closing off women's issues from male debate, aren't we perpetuating the marginalisation of issues which should be high on the political agenda? And aren't we complicit in the side-stepping of male culpability? Violence against women is male violence against women. We might discuss it in a women-only space but it requires more than a woman-only solution. If we're to shift the emphasis from the victim to the perpetrator, and thus tackle the root of the problem rather than the effects, we need more demonstrations of male feminism, not less.
I also feel hopeful that male inclusion may help to debunk myths surrounding both parties. We all know ignorance breeds prejudice and it's a blatant lack of understanding and fear of the unknown that leads to the assumptions that all feminists are man-hating sad acts, and that all men are unsympathetic to the cause. Male silence can be seen as assent and agreement, leading female feminists to feel utterly depressed about the future of women's rights.
The fact that we need women-only spaces in the first place shows how far we have to go in winning the fight against male violence and achieving gender equality. Whilst they may play an important role in feminism at the moment, the real question is, what can we do to outgrow them?