Thursday, May 31, 2007

Some thoughts about women-only spaces and what they mean to feminism.

I’m sort of thinking aloud here, so bear with me if I ramble and feel free to interrupt me and ask for clarification.
I’ve been reading a lot about women-only spaces lately. (I refuse to use the term “womyns” or any other similar linguistic conceits because, call me crazy, but I kind of like being able to communicate with the entire population, not just that percentage of it who are liberal arts grads. Also, I already suffered through Lacan at university, and once was enough.)

This seems to have become a nexus of conflict among feminist, this concept of women-only space, in part because of the issue of whether or not mtf transwomen count as sufficiently womanly to be allowed entry into such spaces. I have mixed feelings about that issue which can’t really be explained in yes/no terms. I also have mixed feeling about the idea of women-only space in general. So, at the risk of saying something offensive and having everyone think I’m a giant asshole, I’m going to try to write my way out of my confusion.

On a gut level I’ve never understood the need for women-only spaces. I think that part of the reason is that, through no choice of my own, I spent the majority of my adolescence in one.
I went to an all-girls boarding school. We were of course allowed out occasionally to go shopping or to visit our families, but for the majority of the time we were confined to the school grounds. My alma mater sits within the grounds of a former abbey. The actual place is gorgeous – old buildings, carefully manicured grounds, green and full of flowers in the spring and summer and picturesquely snowy in the winter.

I fucking hated that place. As pretty as it was on a superficial level, from a social perspective it was Lord of the Flies with snow and tennis courts. This is no surprise, really – it was after all full of teenagers, who tend to be rather unpleasant creatures regardless of their gender. It also featured a staff nurse with alarmingly Nurse Ratchett-like tendencies (I remain to this day convinced that she hurt the kids on purpose as often as she could – Pink Floyd anyone?), bizarre and inexplicable rules, an overly regimented schedule that would surely have been excellent preparation for anyone considering a career in the armed forces, and copious quantities of brainwashing in the art of being a proper young lady with all the obnoxiously classist implications one might expect. Oh, and windows that didn’t close properly combined with non-functioning central heating – in the winter, in Scotland. Apparently pneumonia is supposed to build character. I’m not kidding – I once spent an entire term being forced to play sports outside in the snow while I had bronchitis. See what I mean about Nurse Ratchett?

I’m fairly certain that my distinct lack of rose colored glasses when contemplating the idea of women-only space can be attributed to my attendance at that school. It was there that I learned that the concept of sisterhood as a thing that one can rely on is nonsense – women are people, and people are selfish, arrogant and cruel. Some people are wonderful creatures, of course, but the majority? Selfish, arrogant and cruel. Even if they have vaginas.

There were less than 10 men ever allowed within the grounds of that school, except on the couple of days per term that parents showed up to drop off or pick up their kids. There were 3 male teachers, 3 gardeners, a groundskeeper cum janitor, and a doctor who showed up for an hour or two about once a month. That was it, and two of the gardeners were teenage boys, not men. As far as men who could have represented a threat to the safety of the female students – please! Two of the teachers were married to other teachers and watched like hawks by their wives, and the other one was almost fired when he started a (completely consensual and non-sexual) relationship with one of the students – and before anyone starts freaking out, note that he was 22 and she was 17. Those men were no threat to us. The gardeners were scared to death of the students, unsurprisingly given the massive difference in class – if any of them had so much as winked at one of us he would have been out on his ass with no references immediately. The doctor was forbidden to see any of the students without a female nurse present. The janitor we had more contact with, since he was always puttering about fixing things – those were some old buildings and there was a lot of maintenance to be done. He was a lovely old man – I remember going back to visit a couple of years after graduating and running into him walking his dogs, two giant Irish Setters. He gave me a hug and asked me how things were going in London – it’s a small school, news travels fast about what alumni are up to, plus one of my friends who was still there liked to play with the dogs.

So, from the point of view of those who think that women-only spaces are valuable and necessary I experienced exactly what they want for girls. I spent my teens in an environment where I could have wandered around in my underwear in the middle of the night without any fear of male violence whatsoever, although the janitor would have scolded me and made me go fetch a scarf lest I catch a cold if he had caught me.

And yet…that place caused me more psychological trauma than any other situation I have ever experienced. Like I said, my strongest association with the place is Lord of the Flies. It was horrible. Hazing was standard, bullying was commonplace and the staff made no attempt to keep it in check, it was so looks-obsessed that I knew multiple people with eating disorders by the time I was 12, the academic competition was insane BUT everyone was required to pretend they weren’t actually trying lest they face the mockery of their classmates for being a geek. Yet, those who were naturally academic to the point of not needing to study who nonetheless made great grades (like me) were still harassed because our not having to study just wasn’t fair! The class dynamics were insane – I once witnessed a girl being bullied and told that she was a “plebian” who was destined to be a complete social reject because she was using the wrong brand of hairbrush. Hers was insufficiently expensive. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Anyone without a pedigree was guaranteed to be treated with contempt. The few students who were not white were treated like shit. Imagine the situation when they put one student who was from Nigeria in a dorm with another student who was white South African…yeah, that was fun. And not a single other student defended the Nigerian girl, because nobody’s mother knew her mother and besides her parents were vulgar new money so who cared how she felt? I’m not even going to repeat some of the comments made to my friend Yvette, who was Taiwanese.

Then there were the female teachers who actively abused the students. One of my first experiences of sexual harassment was at that school – my housemistress used to pat me on the ass and give me this horrible, creepily salacious wink. She was in her fifties and I was 12. She also once walked in on one of my friends when she was in the shower, pulled the shower curtain open and stood there talking to her. She refused to allow my friend to put on a towel even when she started crying. When my friend got back to the dorm she sat down on my bed shaking so badly I thought she was having some sort of seizure. As soon as I hugged her she started sobbing. The last time I heard anything about that girl she was in her twenties and still having flashbacks. And that teacher was far from the only staff member who pulled shit like that.

That place taught me that women are every bit as capable of being crappy excuses for human beings as men. There was no male influence making those girls or the female staff act the way they did – that stuff came from their own hearts.

For a significant percentage of the students, that women-only space was an extremely hostile environment. Those girls didn’t come together and celebrate their innate womanly empathy, they ripped each other to pieces like a pack of wild dogs, and some of the staff circled the fight and picked off the weak members of the group any chance they got. The only way to survive was to form your own pack and protect each other.

So, when I hear people glorifying woman-only space as somehow safe, my immediate reaction is – what the Hell have you been smoking? How little knowledge of human nature do you need to have to think that, when put in a group, women will automatically be kind to each other? Women are people, and people kind of suck. Also, have you never studied group psychology?


I did feel safe from male violence there, though. Which was good, since I had quite enough to worry about with the teacher who kept grabbing my ass.

The thing is, even before I got there I rarely felt at risk from male violence. I spent most of my childhood in Libya and Saudi Arabia. There were multiple occasions on which I was targeted as a result of my race – kids threw rocks, yelled taunts, beat me with sticks, one once hit me hard enough to knock me right off my bike – but most of it really was about race and not gender, at least in Libya. Saudi Arabia – now that was where gender started to enter the equation. But the interesting thing was…race was still part of the issue.

I can clearly remember the first time I heard the phrase “All Western women are whores”. I was about 11 or 12. It was sneered at me by a man in his twenties who was backing me against a wall and trying to grab my boobs, and it was in response to my “I’m just a kid, please leave me alone”. Lovely, eh? That was definitely male on female bullshit, but there’s no doubt that race was a part of it too.

Similar things happened intermittently throughout the time I was in Saudi. Creepy behavior from guards at the airport or random men in stores, muttered obscenities (I’m pretty sure that the fact that I completely forgot how to speak Arabic while I was there was in part the result of my subconscious wish to not be able to understand what those men were saying to me) – yep, happened all the time.

And yet…I never actually felt like I was in danger other than that one time. Pissed off, sure, but endangered? Nope.

I used to go out and run around in the middle of the night with my friend who lived a few doors down. We would sneak out the window and shimmy over the walls after our parents went to bed. There was a sports complex being built across the street and we would go and play football there, or just hang out on the bleachers and talk. The desert is lovely at night, we enjoyed being outdoors. When she left to go back to America I used to go outside by myself. 15 year old Cassandra used to go sit on the swings in the playground alone and count stars at 3 in the morning, climb the monkey bars, walk along the walls.

I felt completely safe doing that, even with the harassment (important point to note, that one - feeling aggravated, annoyed, pissed off etc is no the same as feeling physically threatened). Why? Well, for a start there’s almost no street crime in Saudi outside of the major cities. Everyone knew that. Parents let their kids play outside all day with no supervision. Your chance of getting attacked by a stranger if you didn’t live in Jeddah or Riyadh? Close to zero. And, with all the things I resented about being there, that part I loved. In fact, I never even questioned my ability to move around safely – I took it as a given.

And then there’s the other side of the race issue. As a rich foreign kid with white skin I was pretty much immune to any kind of retribution for my behavior. No Saudi girl would have been allowed to wander around like that, but me?

Twice I was picked up by the police on my late-night rambles. The first time I was 10 and my friend was with me. The cops asked us where we lived and we pointed across the street, and they gave us a lecture and told us to go home. The subject of violence was never even raised – they were more worried about us hurting ourselves by falling off the bleachers or misusing the sports equipment. There was sexism there, sure – what do girls know about sports? – but in terms of the threat of male violence? There was none at all. The second time I was 14. The cops found me lying on top of a platform in the playground, listening to music. That time I was about 10 blocks or so from home. They scolded me and insisted on driving me home, and waited outside for a few minutes to make sure that I really stayed inside. One of them saw me peeking out the window and wagged his finger at me. Again, my fear of male violence during this encounter? Zero.

Now, can anyone tell me what the elephant in the room is, here? Race. Class, too. What do you think would happen if a Saudi policeman in any way harmed a young ex-pat kid? Very Bad Things. It would be an international incident. Not only would my parents be furious, so would the British Embassy. No cop in his right mind would do something so likely to fuck up his career.

This is why I have so many problems accepting the idea of sex as the only or primary axis of oppression, by the way. I was the classic colonial kid. Of course I was disciplined by my parents and the teachers at my special ex-pats-only schools, but as far as the locals were concerned? I was untouchable and I knew it, and so did all the other ex-pat kids. Most of those kids grew up to be horrible little brats precisely because of that – we could be rude to adults and get away with it as long as those adults were locals. That’s not a good lesson for a kid to learn. By the time I was about 4 or 5 I knew that I could get away with just about anything as long as my parents didn’t catch me. That sense of untouchability, which is strikingly common amongst ex-pat kids, is all about race and class. Even though I was female, my race and my class insulated me and I was always very much aware of that fact.


And yet…that wouldn’t have made much difference if we had been in another country, one that wasn’t as “safe”, one with more street crime. The kids I knew who grew up in Malaysia or Lebanon or Pakistan or Thailand or Haiti were obnoxious little brats who ordered adults around, but they would never have run around alone in the middle of the night, because even with the insulation of their race and their class it would still have been too dangerous.



What am I getting at with all of this? I guess I’m trying to figure out why, even though I was raised as a girl, I still grew up without the sense of fear of male violence that seems to be standard in most other women. The assumption that most people would probably make is that it’s because of my all-girls school, but I’m not sure about that. I think I was pretty much fearless long before I got there. There were very few other girls there who felt comfortable wandering around alone at night the way I did (and still do). I don’t think it’s purely being a privileged colonial kid, either, although I’m sure that’s part of it – like I said, I have friends who grew up as colonial kids in other parts of the world who never had that innate sense of safety.

Part of it is probably personality, but I don’t think that’s the whole story either. Personality isn’t entirely innate, after all.

You know what I think a big part of it is? Having parents who raised me to think I had the right to go anywhere I wanted and expect to be treated fairly (and yes, I’m aware that the fact that they were able to teach me that without lying through their teeth is the result of white privilege). They taught me that the fact that I was female did not mean that I should expect to be harassed in any way, and that if I did encounter harassment I was in no way required or expected to tolerate it. They also taught me that I had the right to fight back if anyone threatened me – the first time I was bullied in kindergarden my Dad taught me how to adopt a fighting stance and throw a punch. I tried it out the very next day – I decked the evil little brat who had been bullying me. That boy never gave me shit again. That was a VERY important lesson, and one that most girls are never taught.

Did I mention that I love my Dad?

Being taught that I had a right to defend myself helped give me a sense of boundaries, no doubt about that, but I still think that the fact that I grew up in places with almost no street crime is key to the way I turned out.. My parents never taught me to fear strangers or to be constantly looking over my shoulder because it wasn’t necessary. That’s a gift that not many kids get, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. Then again, without the lessons I got about defending myself would it have made any difference?



So, how does all this tie in the concept of women-only spaces? I’ve lived in one, and it didn’t help me at all. What creates a feeling of safety is living in an environment that’s, you know, SAFE. There’s a lot more to that than just eliminating men from the picture. I felt safe as a child and a teenager in two of the most male-dominated places in the world, and that carried over into the way that I relate to the world as an adult. I felt profoundly unsafe in my women-only environment – I was sexually harassed by the person most directly responsible for my wellbeing for fuck’s sake! I’m pretty sure that the fact that I constantly threatened to tell my parents was the only reason she never took things any further.

This is part of what bugs me about the idea of women-only space. It’s based on the idea that men are often violent – which is true, that I acknowledge, although I have issues with the assumption that ALL men are not to be trusted – but it’s also based on the idea that women are not violent, or inclined to abuse power, and that’s just not true. I know that first hand.

The more I think about it the more I think that a more effective strategy in terms of giving women the feeling of security that some seek in women-only spaces is the thing my parents gave me – the idea that they have the right to expect decent treatment, and the idea that if they are treated badly they have the right to fight back. The external stuff we can’t control, but the lessons we teach our daughters? That we can control.

The problem with women-only spaces is that they’re temporary. Unless we all plan to live on communes, we have to deal with men all the time – at work, in public spaces, in most cases in our own homes. Wouldn’t if be more effective to teach women how to create safe spaces for themselves even when men are around? Wouldn’t that be a far more radical notion – not that male violence is so inevitable that retreat is the only solution, but that male violence is simply unacceptable and should be treated as such? Wouldn’t we serve our daughters and younger sisters better by teaching them to expect better treatment and how to fight for it? Do we really need women-only spaces for that, or would it be far, far more effective to seek the changes we want in the everyday world? Isn’t the very idea of women-only spaces admitting defeat in a certain sense?

I don’t like the idea of accepting defeat. The idea that women don’t feel safe in their everyday environments pisses me off, and I don’t think it’s acceptable. I don’t want to retreat, I want to fight, and I want to give younger women the tools they need to fight, too. Most importantly, I want to give them the message that they are ALLOWED to fight back. I just don’t think that retreating to women-only enclaves sends that message at all.


Readers – I’m curious. How many of you had parents who sent the message that you were entitled to expect not to be harassed and that you had the right to fight back if your boundaries were overstepped? I really wonder how many girls ever got that message, and if it’s in any way tied in to which women become feminists and which women don’t. The first few years of life are key from a developmental point of view – what effects does it have on a girl to be told that she had the right to have boundaries and defend them even when it pisses other people off, as opposed to being taught that her entire purpose in life is to please others?

70 comments:

Saorla said...

Well Cassandra, I've been scrappy since before I can remember. For me it was parents and my older brother who taught me to stand up for myself. In primary school I would hold my brother's bag and coat while he had a scrap with a classmate and I remember seeing this and deciding that no one was going to push me around. I was going to be just like my brother. And from that time I do stand up for myself and I was in scraps when I was younger and maybe I got a bloody nose but I would give as good as I got. It came in very useful the time I pulled a rapist off my friend or when I got punched in a club.

My feminist awakening came from that attitude. My dad was cooking because my uncle and aunt had come to visit. I must have been 6 or 7. My uncle said that if he cooked he would have to have two women behind him to clean up. That rankled. That wasn't fair so I asked him why two women. My mother and aunt clapped and cheered me. I was standing up for my gender because it was not fair.

Both my parents are feminist and I do remember being told to stand up for myself and it's a necessary lesson for all children.

I wasn't in boarding school but I did go to an all girls Catholic school and I had similar experiences to you. The girls were vicious and the cliques were all powerful. The thing I remember most about school, apart from the learning, is the bitchiness of the "hockey" girls and getting kicked out of religion class for insubordination! Leaving school was such a relief.

Cassandra Says said...

I'll be really interested to see how many of us had both parents who inculcated in us the idea that we had the RIGHT to defend ourselves and either supportive brothers or close male friends during childhood and adolescence who helped to reinforce the idea that submission was neither expected nor required. I'm an only child, but my best friend when I was little was a boy and I've had brother/sister-type relationships throughout my life.
I'd also be interested to see if there's a general profile here and, if so, if it's similar to or different than the profile for radfems of the sort that all of our lot keep getting into arguments with. Are those two groups more like each other, or is either more like the standard model for women (who probably got little to no support for the idea that they had the right to have boundaries as kids).


I think I was ALWAYS a feminist, but the one moment I remember as a watershed was being in Saudi and realising that girls my age (9) were being forced to marry adult men. That was an eye-opener.

Heh. I was politely informed that my presence in Scripture classes was no longer required, too.

Arwen said...

To be fair, I doubt any feminist constructing a woman-only space is talking about anything that looks like your all-girl school, especially if you were learning to be "little ladies". Pretty sure anything shoving women into a little ladies box, (*especially* without men there as a reinforcer) has to obviously chop off bits of the women to make it stick, whereas with guys around it's all flirting and gifts.

Even Daly wasn't talking about male violence and the threat there-in. She was talking about a particular way girls learn to hold themselves around boys, and women around men; and that wouldn't have been going on as much in your school, even if Melissa was savaging little Jeanne in the corner with a pile-driver. The point of women-only space, as far as I understand it, is that in this drama of Melissa and Jeanne, neither is trying to perform the acts of homocide or death in that particular way of women performing for men. The point being that Melissa and Jeanne need a place to be full homocidal evil humans who are punished as homocidal evil humans in a society of humans, as opposed to these nice little consumable puff pastries whose WOMANNESS prevents them from being anything more than harmless decoration.

Also, that you've not experienced much male violence doesn't mean that's not the going show. I also have experienced the cruelty of women, and yes, people with vaginas suck too. I believe the question is systemic, not personal.

I have a question for you that I don't want you to reject right away, but roll around for awhile.

I AM intimidated by asshole male threats. I deal with it, and I don't fall over, nor do I let it stop my life, but they scare hurt and intimidate me, and I have to revisit everything I think I know. I never was well tested in open woman-on-woman warfare. I don't know how far my ability to defend myself goes.

All that said, and I'm for emotional women-only spaces, but not educational ones. Mary Daly's all female class: in error because it's too caretaking. If a woman cannot learn to resist her impulse to ingratiate with men more than with other women, by observing herself around men when it is being specifically interrogated, she's either not doing the ingratiation game, or the teacher sucks, or the woman is a simpering dumbass, or she has a different view of gender relations. Women do need to learn how to cope with men around, obviously, and feminists ought to be assuming women as strong intellectually. If there's an emotional reaction, that's not for examination in the classroom, because a classroom doesn't have the resources for it.

Mentoring, one-on-one, counselling, and organizational spaces: I understand the reasons for having those. And having worked in a sexual trauma centre, with one of the nicest guys in the known universe, it is absolutely true that his presence would scare women, shut them down, and change the way they spoke to one another. Not, at all, his fault.

Renegade Evolution said...

CS:

Excellent post, I will be linking it. And I will answer your question in just a sec...but...

My experience with women-only spaces....um...competitive gymnastics and a womens only dorm in college. The gymnastics? Well, brutal. ED's, a hyper sense of competition on everything from back flips to body...yeah, lord of the flies in pigtails. College? Not so bad, because we all had the freedom to come and go as we pleased and were older.

Now, for the question. Yes, my parents absolutely raised me to stand my ground and although they did not approve of fighting and I did way too much of it, they did teach me to stand up for myself. And I didn't have the class privlege, but hell, while caution was advised, if I wanted to walk down to the lot to play football or take the mile or so trek (through our neighborhood....yesh) to the store, I did. Truth is, often times, in lower class areas, people do not mess with or even look out for their own. I remember one time my brother and myself were headed some where (he was about 14, I was 10 or so) and an older kid, late teens, maybe early 20's, was giving us a hard time and the elderly woman who lived in the house we happened to be infront of (sort of the neighborhood grandma) came out and just railed on this guy until he was so red in the face and embarassed...it was great. I guess I was lucky in that while lacking in the class, I did grow up around a lot of people, women especially, who were pretty tough.

Arwen said...

Sorry, but the question was:
how much of living through warfare didn't-kill-you and made-you-stronger? Warfare when you were expected to be an opponent, as opposed to "I don't hit gurlz", (but I certainly do date rape them? But since I don't hit 'em, it's not bad?)

Byrdeye said...

I guess I’m trying to figure out why, even though I was raised as a girl, I still grew up without the sense of fear of male violence that seems to be standard in most other women.

You were raised outside of the US/London fematrix and stronghold of feminist paranoid propaganda.

Bear with me...

The history of "male-violence-phobia" can be traced back to the 70s when a small legit movement to address domestic violence quickly got exploited by feminists as a tool to bash men and raise funds. FEAR SELLS (just ask Christianity).

We were astonished and frightened that many of the radical lesbian and feminist activists that I had seen in the collectives attended. They began to vote themselves into a national movement across the country.

In a matter of months, the feminist movement hijacked the domestic violence movement, not just in Britain, but internationally.

Our grant was given to them and they had a legitimate reason to hate and blame all men. They came out with sweeping statements which were as biased as they were ignorant. "All women are innocent victims of men's violence," they declared.

Yet the feminist refuges continued to create training programmes that described only male violence against women. Slowly, the police and other organisations were brainwashed into ignoring the research that was proving men could also be victims.

When, in the mid-Eighties, I published Prone To Violence, about my work with violence-prone women and their children, I was picketed by hundreds of women from feminist refuges, holding placards which read: "All men are bastards" and "All men are rapists".

Because of violent threats, I had to have a police escort around the country.

It was bad enough that this relatively small group of women was influencing social workers and police. But I became aware of a far more insidious development in the form of public policy-making by powerful women, which was creating a poisonous attitude towards men.

"It cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life, or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social harmony and cohesion."


For nearly four decades, these pernicious attitudes towards family life, fathers and boys have permeated the thinking of our society to such an extent that male teachers and carers are now afraid to touch or cuddle children.

I believe that vision was hijacked by vengeful women who have ghetto-ised the refuge movement and used it to persecute men. - Erin Pizzey - author of "Scream Quietly Or The Neighbours Will Hear" (first book on DV) and "feminist" ex-pat


So, the "male fear factor" you find in "normal" women was no coincidence and was a deliberate meme spread by 2nd wave fems. The real question should not be why YOU DON'T fear men, but why most normal American women DO???

So, it's exactly axe-grinding, scapegoating, stereotyping BS like this that negatively impacts ALL our lives and really infuriates me. THIS is what I fight against. Because it is a deliberate unjust misconstruction of reality that only increases social malfunction and misery everywhere.

I believe that 50 years from now, people will look back at misandrism today like we look back on Nazism or Jim Crow racism - and wonder why it was all so commonly-acceptable at the time?

SallySunshine said...

I'm totally linking..awesome post.

Amber said...

Readers – I’m curious. How many of you had parents who sent the message that you were entitled to expect not to be harassed and that you had the right to fight back if your boundaries were overstepped?

Unfortunately, I did not get that message.

And I think that was tied as much to class as it was to gender. I can't really separate the two out, bc I think it was intertwined.

Also... amazing post.

Rootietoot said...

My father taught me how to throw a 900 lb steer, and use a lariat and a bullwhip, and guns. Those things translated into a confidence that I would have no trouble throwing a 200 lb man and hogtying him. I've never had to, but just owning the ability comes across as something another person wouldn't want to mess with. The one time I was threatened, in college, I grinned at the guy and and said "c'mon baby...". Later I realized what almost happened and was horrified.

As for women's spaces...phooey. Women can be so nasty. I would not want to be alone with a bunch of them. I am totally with you on that.

Diana said...

Your post echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the matter. I, too, have experienced more negative behavior towards myself by women than I ever have from men. And honestly, I did not grow up fearing men or being told that they would harm me in any way which is why I always feel I am at a loss when I am reading feminist blogs because most of those women have the exact opposite experience with men than I did and I do not hate men or fear men or think of them as my enemy. In fact, men have always treated me better than women have and so I would say I'm more leery of women than men. Seriously. Your post is the first post that spoke to ME and my experience and why I don't feel like I fit in with most women. It's like I cannot relate to them or their intensely strong feelings against men. I am white and I did grow up in a place where I felt safe and where I was taught to expect to be treated well and to fight back if I was not. I feel infinitely more comfortable in the presence of men than I feel with women.

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen - I agree that no feminist would contruct a space that looked like my high school on purpose, BUT I think part of what I'm trying to say is that they might do so by accident because they're not allowing for the possibility of Lord of the Flies-type behaviour from women. I really think that Daly, for example, thinks that if we could somehow just remove male influence everything would be hunky-dory and women would never act like that. I know that they can and do. That's the point. When we say that women are people - well, you have the Buddha/Siddharta and you also have Stalin, or Mao. You see what I'm saying? The whole point I'm trying to make is that Daly's utopia would never work because she's forgetting that women are people.
(And then there's the whole genocide part, and I'm not cool with that either and don't really understand why it just doesn't seem to bother some people.)

As far as your question and the whole issue of the way women learn to hold themselves around men...well, there she has a point. There really is something that happens to girls in their teens where they get programmed, and I think schools do play a big part in it. Hell, even my all-girls school tried to instill some of those lessons...I remember when we were taking dancing lessons at one point and someone asked about the etiquette for refusing to dance with someone when they ask. What she was looking for was the polite way to refuse and give as little offence as possible. The teacher's response was "You never say no to a boy".
All of us sort of looked at each other in astonishment and started muttering protests, so clearly the attempts at social programming weren't entirely successful, BUT when I actually confronted the teacher and asked her if she really thought that was a good lesson to be teaching teenage girls she got very angry and flustered and tried to backtrack. So, it was wierd...the assumption that we were supposed to be strong and intelligent and have lives was there, but the programming still sneaked in.

As far as whether it made me stronger, trial by fire as it were...in my case, sure it did. However, I was already prepped to feel confident in my boundaries and ready to defend them thanks to my parents. What about a kid who was meeker, less confident, less strong-willed? Some of them just crumbled under the onslaught and never recovered.

Basically British girls boarding schools operate on the same principle as the boys schools - trauma builds character, so does physical hardship. If you don't break you get stronger. The problem is, some people DO break, among both the boys and the girls, and I'm not sure that throwing a bunch of kids into a controlled version of The Art of War is such a great idea.
Having said that, most of Britain's leaders in every field went through that environment. It does tend to produce great military leaders. I just question whether what it does to the weak ones is an acceptable price to pay.

Cassandra Says said...

Another thought...maybe that school's why I loved Battle Royale so much. It's the same idea, just with no guns.

I always wondered why they never taught us to shoot, actually - all the other traditionally upper crust sports were avaliable (riding, fencing, archery), so why not shooting? I think they knew that if they gave us guns someone really would have gotten killed.

Cassandra Says said...

Also...I can hardly ever remember getting the "girls shouldn't be too smart or too dominant" message when I was in elementary school. I can remember a bunch of boys trying, like the one I decked, but it never took because I would go home and tell my parents about it and get the "don't ever listen to those idiots, because they're wrong and you know better" speech.

I also have a hard time remembering teachers who went along with the "girls should be pretty, dumb and silent" idea. Usually the teachers tried to step in when the boys started throwing their weight around. Is that something that changes in middle school and high school?

Cassandra Says said...

Ren - I did competative gymnastics too, so I know what you mean. Nasty environment, isn't it? Have you read the "Little girls in pretty boxes" book?

I think the growing up around tough, outspoken women part is really key, too. My mother raised me the way she did very deliberately - she was sexually abused as a child, she was REALLY determined to make sure that nothing ever happened to me. Luckily for me, she decided to do that by giving me the tools to protect myself rather than keeping me under lock and key.

I guess that's part of what I'm getting at. I feel like that's something genuinely useful that we as grown-up feminists could do - reach out to younger women and try to instill some of that same sense of boundaries and the RIGHT to stand one's ground into them.

I'm just not sure how to do it, other than on the haphazard level I already do.

Cassandra Says said...

Byrd - I'm a Brit, and the majority of the people I was around as a kid were either British or American. So, the idea that I was "outside the matrix" - wrong.

You're missing the point again, by the way. I wonder if you realise how much you sound like the very radfems that you love to hate, the really extreme hate-filled ones? You both share the same single-minded focus on a narrow range of issues and the wierd belief that everything in the world grows out of those issues. And you're both wrong.

Geez, you're like Mary Daly with a dick, though in your favour at least you haven't suggested killing us all off (yet).

Also, for the purposes of this discussion in general (not just aimed at Byrd), can we please not pretend that America is the whole world? The same dynamics exist everywhere. I'd like to hear what Saorla has to say about the way this issue plays out in Cambodia, fr example - I'd be willing to bet women there are scared of men they don't know, too. I've known enough Japanese women to know that this dynamic definately exists there, and they have one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Cassandra Says said...

Amber - When you say that the messages you got were tied to class, what do you mean?
Full disclosure - my parents were both working class, so I don't think anything about how they raised me was upper-class-based. They were the lucky products of a British school system that identified and fast-tracked really smart kids, even if those kids were poor, which is why I ended up at the fancy borading school.

Speaking of...there's a very interesting discussion going on over at IBTP about "gifted" kids (I don't like that term for all kinds of reasons) and education which overlaps with the stuff we're talking about here a bit.


http://blog.iblamethepatriarchy.com/2007/05/25/lord-of-the-flies/

thene said...

Great post - I'll probably wind up linking it. I think this line was vital; important point to note, that one - feeling aggravated, annoyed, pissed off etc is no the same as feeling physically threatened. Methinks a lot of people readily get these two things mixed up.

I share your scepticism for the sisterhood; I've always found women and girls far less forgiving than boys and men when it comes to refusing to conform to female physical and social stereotypes (which isn't to say that men and boys don't do it; I've just found they're less ruthless about enforcing social conformity than women).

How many of you had parents who sent the message that you were entitled to expect not to be harassed and that you had the right to fight back if your boundaries were overstepped? I kinda bypassed that one entirely by being too readily violent as a child; people were falling over themselves to tell me that I shouldn't let myself be provoked to violence even when I was being treated like shit, and I never really bought it, especially not because I saw boys do the same things I did and get away with it because they were boys and there was some big social agreement that boys had consented to be exchangers of aggression and girls couldn't possibly consent to express aggression and fury in the same way, ever.

byrdeye said...

Well, your key formative years (see Erickson's stage 5 here) were spent in a Scottish boarding school, no?

There is still a HUGE difference between Scotland and the Anglo superstate (former British empire). Tony Blair is pretty much his jockstrap.

Remember, pretty much all of the world thinks Bush is a warmonger except for the US, England and AUS - the former British empire.

The Scots successfully repelled both the Romans and English invaders. And I would assume feminists to a lesser degree too. At least that was the feeling I got when I was there. Scottish women - very friendly, non-hostile, no axe to grind or chip on shoulder. More independent and tolerant. NOT AFRAID OF MEN. Radically different than US women.

Cassandra Says said...

Rootie - Interesting how the concept of Dads who taught us to feel confident in our phsyical abilities keeps cropping up, isn't it? I always wondered how many of the women who seem to feel that they have no right to defend their boundaries had fathers who taught them that they weren't supposed to or that doing so was unladylike. Parental dissaproval is a pretty potent force in forming behavior.
Were you a tomboyish kid, or was it just a growing up on a farm/ranch, everyone's expected to help out kind of thing?

Cassandra Says said...

Diana - I don't feel negative about or uncomfortable around women any more than I do around men. I really didn't care for the group of girls I went to school with, but I've never extrapolated that to mean that all women are unpleasant or not to be trusted.
I agree with you on not getting the pervasive fear of men thing. If anything, I think that that fear exists precisely to keep women quiet and docile and trapped in their homes (which ironically is where they're most likely to face violence). That's why I don't like seeing that fear reinforced by feminists - I think it's a trap and we should be smart enough not to fall into it.

As far as enforcing gender norms, I tend to think that each gender mostly polices it's own. Women are on the lookout for deviations from the feminine ideal and punish women for them, and men are on the lookout from deviations from the masculine ideal and punish other men for them. There's some crossover, but most of the day to day "this is what a man/woman should be" stuff is intra-gender rather than inter-gender.

I do sort of empathise with your feeling of discomfort with the "all men are awful" tone on some feminist blogs, but it's not because I don't feel comfortable around women, I just find the exaggerated vehemence of the whole thing baffling.

Cassandra Says said...

Byrd - Are you under the impression that Scotland is no longer part of the British Empire? Because that is not the case. Scotland has its own Parliament now, but it's still very much part of the UK. The ties haven't been severed.

I sort of see what you mean about your visit to Scotland, but what you experienced has nothing to do with gender or feminism or whatever - Scottish people are just friendlier in general. We're an outgoing, talkative, in-your-face lot, really. It's cultural, and it applies to both genders. Scottish men are friendlier than in most other places, too.

As far as the other stuff...you really need to read some history. Scotland WAS eventually taken over by the English. Google "highland clearances" for a good look at what eventually happened. We were so thoroughly colonised that our native language was banned in schools and now hardly anyone can speak it.

Also...there are LOTS of feminists in Scotland. You're just not seeing them because your idea of what the word "feminist" means is so narrow.

I must admit I'm rather surprised that you responded so favorably to Scottish women - we're a pretty bolshy lot and not very inclined to submit to men or think they are our superiors in any way. Remember that the person who repelled the Romans was a queen.

Cassandra Says said...

One thing we agree on - look, finally we agree on something! - the rest of the world does think that Bush is a warmongering monster. So does most of the British population - that's why Blair has become so unpopular.

baby221 said...

Eh, I went to private Catholic institutions throughout my formative years. The message I got about bullying was to ignore it because bullies thrived on attention. I became a reclusive antisocial geek.

I didn't grow up with a fear of male violence, though, because most of the other antisocial recluses were male geeks, and I got on quite well with them.

That worked until sex started to enter the picture. In between abstinence-only education and my father's ubiquitous "don't wear that, it'll attract the wrong kind of attention" concerns ... yeah, I did start to believe that men were generally untrustworthy beings.

And byrdeye, I didn't learn that from hairy-legged second wavers. I learned that from my priest ("boys can't be expected to control their sexual urges so it's up to you, ladies, to keep them in line) and my father ("well what else do you expect them to do when you dress/talk/act like that?"). There is very much a cultural investment in equating masculinity with violence, mostly from other males from whom third wavers take their cues, and I for one will work alongside anyone willing to dismantle that.

Marti said...

"This seems to have become a nexus of conflict among feminist, this concept of women-only space, in part because of the issue of whether or not mtf transwomen count as sufficiently womanly to be allowed entry into such spaces. I have mixed feelings about that issue which can’t really be explained in yes/no terms."

I'm curious what your mixed feelings are. I'm a M2f transwoman, and I while I mainly have been with women (both trans and natal females) I don't label myself as lesbian, and I'd never claim "women's only" space (other than a restroom, and ultimately that's about safety more than identification). Why? I don't need the headache and I don't want the drama. My life has been hard enough... I have other goals that are important to me.

Kinda odd, I've come from the other side. I've always grown up in fear. And the obliviousness I had very early in my transition cost me... with being sexually assaualted waiting for a bus.

I'm going to dwell on your words for a bit before I comment anymore.

Cassandra Says said...

Marti - I have mixed feelings in the sense of, which space are we talking about? Bathrooms are an issue where the answer is so obvious I'm not sure why it's even an issue - of course mtf transwomen should be able to use the women's bathrooms. I'd be scared for them if they even tried to use the men's rooms - like you said, it's a safety issue. I actually had to fight this one out at an old job when we had a transwoman start working there - some of the female employees threw a fit over the bathroom issue and I pretty much had to force them to accept that the transwoman WAS going to use the women's bathroom whether they liked it or not. Interestingly enough after a few weeks all the women who had been complaining calmed down and realised that there never was anything to get upset about in the first place.

The only "women's spaces" that I have serious concerns about are rape crisis centers, really. If you see Arwen's comment upthread, that's basically my worry, that some clients will see a transwoman and think "man" and feel threatened. I know that it's not a logical response and that there's really no actual threat to those women, but if they feel threatened then the agency can't provide effective counselling. My concerns aren't so much philosophical as they are practical. If having people who on any level the clients are going to read as "men" around impedes the ability to counsel the clients, then that's a problem, but it's also not an adequate excuse to just automatically exclude transwomen.

Which of course leaves the question of how to provide rape crisis services for transwomen, for which a need surely exists. Maybe the agencies could do the same thing that some already do for male rape victims and offer services but in a different area/part of the building.

I think that's a huge issue, actually, how to provide rape crisis services to people who are not cisgendered women. Clearly there is a need for such services, and I don't think that need is being met well at all at the moment.

The only other women-only space I can think of that seems relevant is the Michigan music festival. On the one hand I can see why transwomen would resent being excluded, and on the other hand I can see why women there freaked out the one year that a transwoman got undressed in the shower area and the women also showering realised that the person in question still had a penis. I get why those women freaked out, but surely there's a way to tweak the shower arrangements to get around that issue rather than just excluding transwomen completely.

See what I mean? Practical stuff again. I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask about this since I really have very little investment in the idea of women-only spaces (I can't see the need for them other than to provide rape counselling). If we're talking about encounter groups where people are just sitting around talking about books etc then I really don't see what the problem is, but then I never understood why people felt the need to have those groups be women-only in the first place.

Actually, one other potential area of conflict that I can see is homeless shelters. Which shelter do transwomen end up in? I don't think it would be safe for them to be in the men's shelter. I'm not sure that it would be safe for FTMs to be in the men's shelter, either. It seems unlikely that a separate shelter for transpeople is an option, given how limited funding is, so what to do there? I'm not sure. I'm leaning towards "everyone who isn't a cisgender man goes in the women's shelter", but again I'm not really well versed enough on how shelters run to know if that would be a workable solution.

Cassandra Says said...

"I don't need the headache and I don't want the drama. My life has been hard enough... I have other goals that are important to me.

Kinda odd, I've come from the other side. I've always grown up in fear. And the obliviousness I had very early in my transition cost me... with being sexually assaualted waiting for a bus. "

I'm so sorry to hear that this happened to you. Nobody should have to grow up in fear.

That's part of why this particular issue is one where I part company with a lot of feminists. I just don't see how anyone who calls herself a feminist can justify discriminating against and piling on transwomen the way some people do. Any movement that stigmatises people who are already vulnerable and makes their lives harder isn't a movement that I want to be a part of, and the refusal of some feminists to deal with just how vulnerable to sexual assault transpeople are is unforgiveable.

Cassandra Says said...

thene - I agree that women enforce social conformity on other women (let's talk about my stepmother some time...), but do you really think that men don't do the same to each other? What do you think happens to men who don't "measure up"? Gaybashing even if they're not gay, taunts, harrassment...it's not pretty.

Arwen said...

In regards to the transwomen in women-only spaces issue, I'm extremely annoyed by the "OMG! BUT THEY HAVE HAD THE TAINT OF PENISES!" thing that occasionally pops up. No pun intended.

I think it's fair to say that no transwoman has shared some biological growing up cultural touchstones of femalehood (that perhaps even the undiagnosed intersexed with the expectation of getting a period would have), and I also think it's fair to say that no woman has shared the growing up cultural touchstones of being penis-enabled but female-identified; similar gulfs seperate women of colour and caucasian women, and women of different classes.

And I am seperated from Cassandra by having very very crazy males in my life at home, but I came from a very nurturing school, and I had a very open and thoughtful mom

So each woman here had a different experiences in a common gender narrative.

In the narrative, we share a lot, and our positioning is similar. Women and intersexed women-identified and transwomen have all been at risk for certain types of violence; each of these groups have dealt with certain sorts of ill fitting gender messages which vary over experience but share some themes - usually that femme sucks, in one way or 't'other - and what's even cooler is we can share that shit and maybe learn a thing or two.

So, fuck. Bring in the transwomen. I think even rape crisis centres can schedule sensitively and be in- and ex-clusive as might be necessary for reasons of triggering.

As to Daly: I don't know. I haven't read her in a long time, and now I'm going to have to. If she did think that women were somehow essentially sweet and nice and nurturing, she'd bought the Angel in the House myth. Women are, in fact, human, and suck as radically as men do. However, we have often been taught to hide our lights and our shadows under a bushel - in mixed company.

Cassandra Says said...

Arwen - Agreed. There has to be a workaround for rape crisis centers that meets everyone's needs.How can anyone justify just leaving some rape victims out in the cold?

Rachel said...

Women should under no circumstances ever be allowed to meet in groups on their own. Women should not even think about meeting on their own without any men around.

Cassandra Says said...

"Women should under no circumstances ever be allowed to meet in groups on their own. Women should not even think about meeting on their own without any men around. "

Yeah, and clearly that's EXACTLY what I meant.

There really should be a way to institute some kind of reading comprehension test that people have to pass before they can comment on blogs.

verte said...

What a wonderful post. Women only spaces make me uncomfortable in many ways, and I only touched on the subject, like thene, regarding Ladyfest Leeds.

I went to an all-girl day school in London from the age of 5 to 18, mainly because when I went to my local primary I was teaching the other kids to read. It wasn't a public school in the way my brother's school was, but it was incredibly competitive and very academic (about a third of my year of 70 went to Oxbridge and got straight As all the way through). I think it was my school that instilled a zero-tolerance approach to any kind of prejudice based bulliying in me, despite it being a predominantly female-only space (we still had a load of male teachers, though a couple were properly pervy, and, well, I met one of these two in a very, very unexpected context a year ago.. about which no more in a public space). Even though there were next to no men around, I think being a Londoner, even in a relatively privileged, cosy middle-class corner of London, and also the fact that my school was at least half ethnic minorities, was secular, had muslim prayer rooms, and was part of a trust that gave out a large number of full scholarships and assisted places for girls from less privileged backgrounds, we learnt that non-PCness - sexism, class snobbery, racism - was all pretty shitty and should be targeted head on, not from behind the closed doors of working-class-only/asian only/women only spaces.

We also had an overtly-feminist sociologist for a deputy head who ticked people off for wearing skirts that were too short, and was always having a go at me about wearing fishnets. She wasn't a bra burner, and she wore make up and had a male partner, but used to snatch women's mags out of classrooms and introduced me to feminist politics when she taught me as a sixth former, mainly just thrilled that she had an interested student... I owe her a huge amount. She got me reading Dworkin - which I think was the moment I realised that women only spaces COULD be a bloody nightmare. We have a female-only Big Brother reality show of horror that's just begun in the UK - they've put a radical feminist in with a lap dancer, for a start - and the nightmare is already well under way.

One thing that HAS interested me is the way men behave in predominantly female-only spaces, and that's the reaction I've found isn't true in England, anyway. Taking an English degree, being in those Ladyfest workshops and at feminist events and conferences, where every single man attending felt the need to assert himself, or sometimes interrupt, somehow dominate the space, even my own feminist, queer identified boyfriend, while many of the women who'd been hostile to the idea of including men in the organisation of Ladyfests, or being in feminist spaces at all, didn't combat it or assert themselves with them.

If women only spaces are useful, and I think they sometimes can be, it shouldn't be about protecting ourselves and hiding away, but asserting ourselves in, y'know, the REAL WORLD, a world where the genders have to and should be able to co-exist, and that if you experience sexism, don't put up with it! Argue it out. Most men aren't violent monsters, nor do they have inherent privilege in many instances, and they deserve to be allowed to accept gender equality, not constantly told they're a danger women need to be protected from.

Bah.. sorry this is so almightily long. I'm going to write about female-only spaces in the SM community, as I think it's interesting that many SM women desire those spaces because they want to be protected from potential male dominance and predatory male behaviour, which is, well, quite nuts if they're heterosexual and sub.. And there's the trans issue, too, whom a depressingly huge number of BDSMers are intolerent of.

byrdeye said...

Oops, you may be right, I was thinking of the Romans, not English...

However, many Scots still resent their English colonizers and are not united with Tony Blair and Britain on politics. So, they are still quite different.

And I was only in Scotland for a few days but I did really like the women there right off the bat. They had a very independent-thinking spirit combined with a friendliness and matter-of-factness. There was no default fear or underlying resentment against men. So yes, I would put them at the top of my mental list.

I only talk about American/Anglo-feminism because that is what I know here. I am not going to discuss it in other countries because that is out of my knowledge.

Tokah said...

The morning of my first day of school with other kids (was home-schooled for 2 years), my dad said the most empowering thing to me:

"You know how to defend yourself, I taught you. If anyone gives you trouble, you take care of yourself, I have your back with the adults."

To this day, I have never feared violence. Even now, as a wheelchair user, I'm confident I can handle myself should the need arise.

Rachel said...

'Women should under no circumstances ever be allowed to meet in groups on their own. Women should not even think about meeting on their own without any men around.'

If this is not what you meant then why think up so many reasons why women should not meet in groups on their own?

belledame222 said...

*headdesk*

Cassandra Says said...

Rachel - Where did I say that women should never meet in groups without men present? I said that I'm not sure why people feel such groups are vitally necessary, and that I don't feel that way, but at no point did I say "I forbid women from meeting in groups!".
My main concern here (which should be obvious since it was stated right at the beginning, and everyone else picked up on it except Byrd, and he's an MRA so that's not hugely surprising) is the idea of transwomen being banned from feminist women's groups - whether that's appropriate, whether it's fair, whether it's a good idea.
I also said that assuming such groups are automatically safe spaces is unwise, for the reasons I outlined. Not all women are kind to each other.

Cassandra Says said...

Belle - Yeah, trust me, I feel the same way.
Was my point really so hard to grasp? Should I have written "This does not mean that I'm saying women should never do anything without men unless it's knitting!" in huge neon letters at the top?

Saorla said...

Hey Cassandra et al,

Women are definitely scared of men they don't know in Cambodia but they are also terrified of men they do know. Cambodia has a very high incidence of gender based violence. I'll look up some stats later but basically girls are indoctrinated to submit in every situation. There is the madonna/whore complex too. It is expected and accepted that men go to prostitutes, have mistresses and then have unprotected sex with their wives. Women remain pure and untouched and if get get HIV they are whores and unCambodian. In addition, the party line is that no Cambodian girl would ever be a prostitute so logically all the prostitutes are Vietnamese.

Prostitution, rape and human trafficking are very high. Women do not fight back whether in a social or professional capacity. One example that sticks in my mind is that a male HR officer at my organisation scolded his female manager, lecturing her on not following the rules. Later she tried to gently change his mind but he maintained the rightness of his cause. In theory this woman has hiring and firing power over him but everyday she takes his abuse. She has no tools to stand up for herself.

I gave a presentation on sexual harassment and the zero tolerance policy in my organisation. But the Cambodian men while listening to the presentation said that no woman would report sexual harassment because that is not done in Cambodia. I asked the Cambodian women in the room to clarify the situation but they just looked down at the desk. It didn't matter what I said, they would not accept that women could report harassment.

A girl who stands up for herself here gets a slap across the face. There is little conception of sisterhood here. A former prostitute that I know runs a bar where she's a pimp for her nieces and young cousins. The girls go quietly - there is no protest they can make.

DBB said...

Great and fascinating post.

It also helps me - I have a 21 month old daughter and I'd like to try and raise her to be the best she can be - I hope teaching her she can defend her boundaries can help her turn out as self-reliant and fearless as you are, Cassandra.

belledame222 said...

I think women-only groups can be useful depending on what the purpose is. Certainly in the context of a particular discussion group--hey, it's your party, you set it up how you want to. I do not, and never will, understand how excluding transwomen from any such gathering makes it "safer," though.

The only place I ever go where there's even a little bit of limitation on that is this particular womens' play party setup; they go by an honor code, MTF's (and FTM's who still identify with the lesbian/womens' community) are welcome as long as they're fulltime; the occasional crossdresser is not; and no male genitalia on display in the public areas, por favor. Given the specificity of the event, and also given that there is also a pangendered play party hosted by the same people with roughly the same frequency of occurence, it doesn't seem to be unreasonable enough to provoke complaints.

The womens' theatre collective i belonged to, that was more rancorous, and i fully disagreed with the protests about including TG folk. It was...contentious.
But ultimately in this case, the reason for having a separate space wasn't about "safety" or erotic/aesthetic preference so much as "this is a venue for people who don't get a voice in mainstream theatre, because of male privilege." Since that's even more true for transfolk than for women qua women, it seemed particularly cruel and unreasonable to exclude transfolk. (Eventually they did change the policy to meet the changing times).

but yeah, safety--y'know, especially when you have a group like that, where the focus is something -else-, an activity, a goal, I think it's just not reasonable to -also- expect it to be, like, Insta-Sisterhood, you know. I think honestly that maybe that is the biggest problem with a lot of women-only spaces--the expectations placed on it. If you just started off with "look, this is a group without men in the room for x purpose, let's see what happens," i think that relieves some of the "but but but we're all WOMEN, we're supposed to be so much more SUPPORTIVE or at least UNDERSTAND each other..."

not so much.

I do think the how you say "energy" is different, and for that alone it's worth doing. And if someone feels she wants to do that 24/7, bully for her. It ain't for me, though.

Zan said...

I have to say, I've only occassionally been physically afraid of a man. And it's always been a specific man, not men in general. And those have been situations where said Man made threatening suggestions to me. In otherwords, it was situational. Otherwise? No, men don't feel physically threatening to me. Insulting, aggrivating, discriminating, maybe. But not physically threatening.

And I don't fear men. That's a stupid thing to do and it's unfair to say that American women or feminists fear men. Just because we're unwilling to put up with shit does not mean we're afraid.

And I think I came out being pretty insistant on my own boundaries. My parents, thank gods, respected that. What I mean is, they didn't necessarily set out to teach me that to set boundaries and to be assertive, but when they saw that I was assertive naturally, they didn't try to squish that out of me. And they never made me feel that I was in any way inferior to boys or that there were things I couldn't do because I was a girl. Which was good, because I really don't think it would have worked if they'd tried. They also never tried to tell me not to defend myself. Of course, given that my brother is only 15 months or so younger than me and we fought ALL.THE.TIME. that was a good thing. And when I say fight, I mean literally fists-to-faces, etc. I had a wicked, wicked temper when I was younger and my brother liked nothing better than to provoke me. And so, my parents let me beat the snot out of him. :) Add in the fact that all my close cousins were boys, as were all my best friends and it really never occured to me that I wasn't supposed to defend myself. In fact, being raised with boys really taught me /how/ to defend myself. So when I got to school and all those boys tried to pick on me they got a big surprise when I punched 'em in the face. Unsurprisingly, I quickly got the reputation of being one of the girls you did not mess with. I also earned the respect and friendship of lots and lots of the boys too. Go figure. Until very recently, my best friends have always been male. I don't understand hating or fearing men, in general.

However, that doesn't mean I'm going out walking alone at night. Because no matter how strong you are, someone is always stronger. Which sucks, but there are people out there that would hurt ya as soon as look at you.

So far, my niece seems to have adopted my philosophy. She doesn't care who you are, she knows what she wants and she's going to let you know. Boys? Ha. They just have different body parts, is all. She's not afraid and she's not submissive. In fact, she's one tough little thing. So, I'm hopeful.

Cassandra Says said...

Verte..."If women only spaces are useful, and I think they sometimes can be, it shouldn't be about protecting ourselves and hiding away, but asserting ourselves in, y'know, the REAL WORLD, a world where the genders have to and should be able to co-exist, and that if you experience sexism, don't put up with it! Argue it out. Most men aren't violent monsters, nor do they have inherent privilege in many instances, and they deserve to be allowed to accept gender equality, not constantly told they're a danger women need to be protected from. "

Precisely. Women-only spaces as a training ground in which women can learn to assert themselves? Great idea. Women-only spaces specifically created to encourage or facilitate certain experiences...sounds good to me. But women-only spaces because we feel too scared of men to confront them? I don't think that's helpful. And women-only spaces as the eventual goal...I'm not down with that. Like death and taxes, men will always be with us. We have to learn to deal with them. Permanent retreat is not the answer.
So, I suppose my point was not that I think individual instances of women-only space aren't valid and useful, but that I think the idea of SEPERATISM is misguided. How does that help us in the long run? What does it accomplish? Does anyone really think that's a valid option for women as a whole?

PS In what context did you meet your former teacher? That might be an interesting story. Belle has my e-mail if you feel like telling it.

Cassandra Says said...

Also, Verte, you said that at Ladyfest the women just sort of sat there and let them men take over the discussion...why? Why didn't anyone tell them to STFU and let someone else speak? THAT is the missing piece that I think we need to focus on teaching girls.

Cassandra Says said...

Saorla - Depressing as hell, and a good counterpoint to my post. Those women NEED women-only spaces, because the men around them won't let them talk and they don't have to confidence to shout them down. In a situation like that, women-only spaces are a GREAT idea.

Zan - I'm scared of certain specific men, too, usually because they are actively threatening me or I already know that they would if given the chance. Men in general, though? Nope.

I walk alone at night all the time, even now. I'm a little wary in some places, sure, but it's not gender based - there are certain places in which everyone should be on their guard. I refuse to allow any wierd ideas about gender to limit my mobility, though, which was part of my point - any neighborhood which isn't safe for a woman to walk in in the USA probably wouldn't be safe for men to walk in either. A big part of this is psychological and I don't think it's an accident - I think women are taught to be afraid ON PURPOSE so that they'll be nice little ladies and not cause any trouble. It so happens that I like causing trouble.

The niece sounds like she's on the right track.

Cassandra Says said...

Tokah - Go Tokah's dad! Now if only more men would teach their daughters to defend themselves instead of teaching them to whimper and wave hankies until some knight comes along to rescue them, we'd be in business.

(Watch Rachel misinterpret that, too)

Saorla said...

I agree Cassandra, safe women-only spaces are necessary in the Cambodian context. Unfortunately the only such spaces that exist are battered women shelters/NGOs under constant financial strain or funded by rightwing nutjobs that demand religious conversions in exchange for a safe space. And these spaces are not women-only.

One of the "good" Cambodian men - one who works on gender equality - has told his wife that despite her giving birth two weeks ago she has to have sex with him or he is going to a prostitute - post natal depression be damned.

There is no concept of sister hood here, which makes the notion of safe women-only spaces difficult to understand. This is the country where some girls' virginity is sold to the highest bidder but there is no conception of rape in this.

There is no equality here to the point that I cheered when a girl in my office told me that she occasionally will not sit side saddle on a motorbike. Sounds weird but here women are always supposed to ride side saddle, regardless that one is 10 more likely to fall off. That one unmarried girl would take such an action, in defiance of the damage to her reputation, warms my heart. Baby steps

Octogalore said...

Cassandra, great post.

I like the training ground aspect for women only spaces. Beyond that, I don't think they're helpful in the main. Some women have found that they've prospered in women-only schools, others haven't. I think schools and events should be available for when they're needed.

But I don't understand separatism. Men are part of the world. I think you express it wonderfully here:

"The problem with women-only spaces is that they’re temporary. Unless we all plan to live on communes, we have to deal with men all the time – at work, in public spaces, in most cases in our own homes. Wouldn’t if be more effective to teach women how to create safe spaces for themselves even when men are around? Wouldn’t that be a far more radical notion – not that male violence is so inevitable that retreat is the only solution, but that male violence is simply unacceptable and should be treated as such?"

That's why, personally, I will encourage my daughter to attend a coed school. Although I do think YMMV. I was brought up to believe that I was as smart as any boy, with the same intellectual limits. Having boys in the classroom seemed a natural kind of interaction, and proved the point that boys don't have any kind of scholastic superiority. I'm concerned that the message conveyed in cloistering girls is that they need it to learn or to compete in the world. Or that coed classrooms would be a distraction. But all those issues are present in the real world.

As to the issue of violence, I did not have such great training there. My dad, a lit professor, is the kind of guy who has no problem asking for directions, or crying if he gets a speeding ticket, especially if it's a female cop (and it works). Neither he, nor my mom, encouraged me to fight back physically, or equipped me with any kind of training to do so. And being a nerdy Jewish overprotected kid in a public school with very few Jews and where nerds were distinctly uncool, there were plenty of times some more encouragement about stepping up might have helped.

But I have to say, the worst problems I had in school came from girls. I still remember one of them, named Katie, who would not let up on me, and it only got worse because I let it happen.

There are certainly the unavoidable facts that it's hard to physically defend against a rapist, and that men are physically larger, so even the scrappiest woman may be at a physical disadvantage. That said, I don't think WOS are the answer to this issue, because as you say, they are only temporary. Working to make neighborhoods safer seems more productive. This is a huge goal, but you are right that a truly radical solution has to get to the root -- and a bandaid doesn't do that.

Cassandra Says said...

Saorla - I saw the sidesaddle thing in Thailand. Incredibly dangerous. I would have been cheering for the girl in your office, too. Yeah, it's a baby step, but change has to start somewhere.


I'm not sure if we've ever discussed this, but...what kind of work are you doing there?

Saorla said...

I'm a volunteer, Cassandra, for a human rights organisation. I'm doing information management which can be a mite harrowing when I read the older torture-related documents and see frame by frame photographs of people being kicked to death for allegedly stealing a motobike. Mainly though it's a desk job in an air conditioned office. And I'm very grateful for the air con!

verte said...

I think the idea of SEPERATISM is misguided. How does that help us in the long run? What does it accomplish? Does anyone really think that's a valid option for women as a whole?

I take objection to the idea that anyone knows what's best for women as a (w)hole. Separatism really does seem to stem from the idea that women ARE just holes. As long as we have a hole, we need protecting from the big, bad, wicked world. When I've heard women speaking positively about women only spaces they always use words like 'protected', 'safe' and 'secure'. When it's those kinds of spaces, when it's about saying 'no men allowed so we can feel safe', I think women's spaces become a pretty misguided way of achieving gender equality. My school wasn't about the absence of men, but the presence of women. And I think a lot of radfem type women's spaces are more about ensuring and demonstrating that absence, which seems pretty pointless.

At Ladyfest? When we got into the shared space after the separate 'men and feminism' discussions, one of the first things said was all 'MEN! Acknowledge thy inherent privilege and thy inability to empathise!' which I took major issue with given that she was clearly middle-class, straight and blonde, and the guy she was having a go at was black, gay and working-class. I suppose it harks back to the whole 'I art more oppressed than thou' and holding onto that oppression to stop oneself being assertive. I think that's seriously nuts.

Oh, and the teacher - fuck it.. Went to a femdom friend's birthday party and he was not only there, but turned out to be her ex-slave, and had been so most of the time he'd taught me (age 11 - 17). Awkward, very!

Cassandra Says said...

Verte - You know, men do have privilege in many ways, and I can see asking them to acknowledge that BUT I'd think one would ask them to acknowledge their privilige if/when they start waving it around in an annoying way rather than as a pre-emptive strike. What's the point of that? What does it accomplish other than putting people on the defensive?

The story about your former teacher is funny. If only you'd known while you were still in school, you could have used his sub-ness against him to get out of turning in your homework on time!
Or maybe that's just the way I would do things.

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