A FEW THOUGHTS ON “SINGLE SEX SPACES”

In my last post on the ever-wearying trans debate I said I would return to the issue of single sex spaces. Here goes:

I am going to start with Blackpool Football Club and an apology to any Seasiders fans who may be reading this as I am going back to a time in their club’s history that they do not remember fondly. That is the time when Owen Oyston owned the club. Oyston, you may remember, was disgraced and was sent to prison for 6 years for rape. He did not relinquish control of the club and appointed his wife Vicki as Chairman.  She made the headlines one day when, at a Blackpool away game at Tranmere Rovers, she was refused admission to the boardroom, because she was a woman.

It was not only football boardrooms that excluded women. There were golf club bars, men only rooms in working men’s’ clubs, there was the Fleet Street pub where women were required to sit in a back room with table service, a rule successfully challenged in court by the journalist Anna Coote and the barrister Ann Mallalieu. This is interesting as a case of women fighting for the abolition of a women’s single sex space, (such as , there was the Conservative Carlton Club (whose ban had to be lifted when Margaret Thatcher become party leader as the leader is ex officio a member of the club).

There were once a lot of single sex spaces, and these were single sex spaces for men. Men, it was argued, needed places to themselves. This was not, of course, for reasons of physical safety but rather because, an unspoken assumption this, men had important things to talk about and didn’t want the distraction of women. Men are important, the things thy discuss are important. Women, and their conversations, are unimportant. Men talk business. Women talk clothes and make up.

Single sex spaces are not, on the whole, things that feminists have supported. They are rather an aspect of patriarchal society that feminists have challenged, often successfully. For the trivialisation of women goes hand in hand with their infantilisation. For the creation of single sex spaces for women has been part of their exclusion from spaces for men. It has also been predicated on their vulnerability and need to be protected. An example of this is the women only carriages on the railways that run until 1972.In some cultures women spend much of their loves in enforced single sex spaces, and this is not generally seen as an advance in women’s rights. Implicit in these is the idea that women either need protection, or, that men need to be sheltered from women they are not married to, that is the idea of woman as harlot, woman who cannot be trusted.

Singe sex spaces have served, historically, to marginalise and infantilise women and feminists have fought for their abolition, that is for an end to the exclusion of women that single sex spaces represented.

And yet, that is not the whole picture. For there are spaces that most women would want to see maintained. Gender neutral toilets are not universally popular. There are good reasons for this. Many venues have taken the cost cutting route to setting up gender neutral facilities by simply relabelling  existing facilities, which, in practice creates even more provision for men at the expense of women.

There are cultural connotations to the ladies too. Where do you go for a cry when a date night turns sour, where do you go to touch up your make up? The ladies is, in a sense, a refuge. But it is no less a refuge if trans women are admitted. For one thing, there aren’t that many transwomen, and the statistical likelihood of encountering a transwoman is probably no more than once every 20 visits and transwomen will get the cultural significance. Gender critical arguments for the exclusion of transwomen assume that they are sexual predators, as if sexually predatory men will really be put off by a sign on the door. The kind of bans on transpeople that some argue for have a number of averse consequences for women. If you have a gatekeeping requirement for some users you effectively have a gatekeeping requirement for everyone. This causes difficulties for butch and masc presenting women. It would also lead to transmen having to use the ladies, bearded and deep voiced as some of them are.   

So let’s call them women’s spaces and make them a welcoming place to all who need to use them. Men, too, will have their spaces, but, above all, we need spaces that welcome everyone. And we are still a long way from that. Even without the bans on women of the past, the navigation of public space for women remains problematic, and much needs to change here. And this has nothing to do with transwomen either.             

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