A defence of female-only spaces
Earlier this year, I went out with a man who wasn’t very good for me. He required careful handling and a lot of ‘space’. I’d never really understood before the idea of people needing ‘space’, not having felt the need for much myself, other than the occasional solo stroll or a Sunday evening in with a bath and a book. I like the space I inhabit but I don’t feel the need to inhabit it completely independently too often – even though I live alone, I’m rarely in for long periods of time, and when I am, ten to one I’ll be on the phone or sending my loved ones gurning selfies and indulgently-long voicenotes (Sanya knows both of these well). And yet, I had entered into a relationship with the most emotionally unavailable kind of introvert. Our views of ‘space’, I realised one day, were incompatible on not just a physical but an emotional level.
We were having dinner after a period of a couple of weeks in which he’d been bogged down with work and beyond distant, a dinner I’d made in the vain hope that it might be restorative. We’d had a conversation earlier that day around my need for communication and insecurity with his distance, after which he’d promptly withdrawn further and gone home to watch the World Cup final on his own – despite me suggesting we watch it round mine together (he didn’t even have a TV! This, dear reader, is what we call a ‘red flag’) – before agreeing to come back round for dinner later.
Our dinnertime conversation turned to a presentation he’d delivered recently about his misgivings over single-sex education. As a happy product of a girls’ school and college and a teacher at one myself, I was of course on the opposing side. He argued that single-sex education was akin to segregation; that it was, in our co-educational society, unnatural and unnecessary; that it implied boys and girls couldn’t control themselves around one another. I argued back that in those formative years, my schooling had afforded me a confidence circa 16 years old that I’m not sure I would have developed otherwise; that the school I currently work at is one in which I highly value the empathy and emotional availability of the students and staff as we navigate the trials and tribulations of puberty and young adulthood together. At every turn, he uttered the same retort, along the lines of, “But can’t you do that for boys and girls?” After a while, I realised he fundamentally didn’t understand the emotionality behind my argument. Yes, of course we can share feminism and the need for equality with boys and girls. Yes, of course we can teach empathy to boys and girls. Yes, of course we can teach the same PSHE around consent and mutually respectful relationships to boys and girls. But that wasn’t what I was arguing. I was arguing that, sometimes, we just need some respite, we just need to feel a sense of shared experience and belonging. Sometimes (and this is what he ironically could not seem to compute), we just need ‘space’.
Last year, I found myself surrounded by close male friends, after a lifetime of close female friendships. They were the ones I found myself spending a large chunk of my time with, the ones I was turning to in the moment. But every so often, I would have this innate, visceral need to just be with ‘the girls’, almost like I needed that emotional energy topped up in me. Sometimes I would just need to complain about cramps, cry about some tiny thing a stupid boy had said, bemoan a terrible bikini wax, or just have someone say, “Yes, me too,” listen, and understand. There’s something about shared experience that is life-enhancing, and sometimes even life-saving.
And yet, when we ask for time and ‘space’, as women, to be alone, together, we are met with outrage. The ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ school of thought thrusts upon us the idea that men need space – and our society legitimises this, saying, “That’s just how they are,” making jokes about man caves and bachelor pads, away from needy, space-hungry women. And yet when we request the same space, we get accused of that same old chestnut with which feminism is attacked: why do we want to separate ourselves from men? If gender is a social construct, why do we want to highlight it? Do we want to put ourselves above men?
It’s not just single-sex schools that come under fire. Cast your mind back to last year, when then Shadow Fire and Emergency Services Minister Chris Williamson suggested the idea of women-only train carriages. He was instantly shot down with cries of normalisation of sexual assault and (that old buzzword) segregation. And on a local level, I’ve had the same ex from above question my local swimming pool’s Saturday night ‘women’s swim’ hour-long session. How dare we have an hour to ourselves?!
‘Women’s swim’ is, for me and many others, a sacrosanct part of our Saturday – and one, of course, due to life’s many pulls, that we don’t get round to attending as much as we’d like. When I go to the pool any other time, I’m a mindful bullet speeding up the lane (or, at least, a rounded little cannonball counting her strokes): solo, undesirous of conversation or contact, trying to retain a sense of purpose amidst the noise, splashing, and overtaking, occasionally batting off the older men trying to talk to me as my slightly-too-small swimming costume rides down to reveal more of my natural buoyancy aids than I’d desire. I sit in the sauna afterwards and close my eyes, breathing, perched self-consciously, hoiking up the slightly-too-small swimming costume between the large man manspreading and the larger man mansplaining (this week, one such large man was actually telling two Latvian men everything he knew about Latvia, including how beautiful his Latvian friend’s sister Svetlana was).
But it’s not like that on Saturdays. As soon as you enter the pool, there is a sense of calm. We are not there for vigorous exercise or to show off to our mates. We are there for some me-time, for an aquatic breather in which we can be alone with our thoughts, serving noone but ourselves for half an hour. The whole environment feels tranquil, supportive, communal. We talk; we enjoy the company of other women there for the same shared experience as we are. One week, the lifeguard’s choice of background music had been electronic club music (presumably in anticipation of his post-shift Saturday night out), and one fellow swimmer mentioned how he didn’t seem to understand that, for some women, this was the truest expression of peace they got in the week, and the music wasn’t appropriate for that.
This Saturday, after a leisurely and undisturbed 40 lengths, I had the sauna to myself for five minutes and was able to spread out, to sit in the lotus position without fear of having my chlorinated minge fully on display. When a woman came in to join me, we were able to flow comfortably between chat and peaceful solitude – I never strike up conversation in the sauna for fear of men a) clocking my hot bod, and b) thinking I’m coming on to them. We talked about how different it felt to be in there just the two of us, no burly blokes taking up the confined space; how we felt we could stay as long as we wanted; how nice it was to own the space temporarily. It made me realise how little I feel I own that space normally, even though I count swimming as one of the things that make me ‘me’.
The feeling of ownership and shared warmth permeates the whole building during women’s swim, and it leaks through to conversations in the showers that I just wouldn’t have off the back of my other swims, so self-protected as I make myself in my own bubble. This Saturday, an older woman help me understand the ins and out of my starsign as we simultaneously shampooed (Scorpio – mysterious, with a sting in my tail, always on a straight line either towards sanity or towards madness), before laughing about how awkward getting dressed after a swim is when you’ve got to deal with bras and tights and all manner of winter layers. One woman, she said, often doesn’t bother getting dressed after a Saturday swim, but instead just dries off a bit and then sticks a housecoat on over the top of her cozzie. As my sauna buddy came to join our soapy stories, we chuckled about what might happen if she got pulled over by a policeman on the way home. The spectre of male intrusion lurking behind our laughter, we grabbed those final centring moments of our women’s swim, knowing that hour would propel us through the next part of our weekend.
Female-only spaces – be they schools, train carriages, or an hour slot in a swimming pool – need our defending. They will be questioned and queried, accused and slandered, belittled and historicised. Opponents will suggest we are regressing, segregating ourselves and implying we need protecting. But these spaces are rarely about who we keep out; they are more intrinsically about giving us the time to let ourselves in. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, these spaces are for us to explore, to create, to understand: ‘No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.’
Until next month,