Monday, April 23, 2007

Women-Only Spaces

Winter at Desperate Kingdoms has a great post about women-only spaces and the lies we women tell in order to preserve the illusion that we have a happy, unified community - you know, the sisterhood and all that:
Now I have barred myself from these events. No one would tell me not to go, although it would be a lot more honest if they did, but we are predominantly white middle-class women and we are not raised to be honest with each other. It’s incredibly difficult for us to enter conflict and express anger and hurt in constructive ways. There are always more devious ways of excluding people, and if those don’t work we can all pretend to be nice to each other publicly while we bitch behind people’s backs. I know I perpetuate the problems by telling more lies myself. When other lesbians ask if I’m going to an event (which they do even when they know I can’t because we have to maintain the pretense), I say “No, I’m ill,” or “No, the toilet needs unblocking [or preferably a less obviously aggressive excuse].” What would happen if I told the truth for a second? The real answer is, “No, of course I can’t fucking go. I used to be in love with you know who and we had a hideously messed up hurtful relationship, and she’ll be there with her girlfriend and we’ll all be uncomfortable all day.” But I can’t say any of that because it kinda spoils the narrative by bringing past anger, hurt and desire into the story and drawing attention to the fact that women often treat each other badly. I’ve moved on in my life, but I still won’t go to the events because even more lying and pretense would be necessary to my attendance. I would have to refuse the past and ignore pain and anger in the aim of maintaining the illusion of happy lesbian-only space and the political fantasy demands more than I can give in this instance.

I've been thinking a lot about community lately, and about confrontation, and about how we talk to each other about difficult things. When it comes to women-only spaces, I've found myself at different times in my life feeling more or less included, depending on the company. "Women-only" means different things to different people. Some people interpret this as "lesbian only." Others take it at face value. Some others have very narrow definitions for what "women" can mean, not just with regard to gender, but also to race and other categories of difference (I've never heard of anyone using race as a reason to keep someone out of a women-only group, but I have heard of people being told that their concerns about racism, disability issues, classism, etc. were not "women's issues" - we saw some of that a while back right here).

I keep thinking about Bernice Johnson Reagon's writing about home v. coalition. "Home" is the place where people are like you, and because of this, you feel safe there. "Coalition" is the place where people are not like you, and coalition isn't home. As a friend of mine who has trained young activists for some time told me, in coalitions, you should expect there to be disagreements, even really big uncomfortable ones, and this is healthy - it means that people are challenging themselves and each other, and as a result, growing. Anyway, as Reagon says, we often confuse the two, and think we are home when we are really in coalition. Women-only spaces are a perfect example of this. They feel like home to many people - and we often expect them to be home because we assume that women share many things simply by nature of being female. But really, women-only spaces are still coalition spaces, spaces where we have different identities and experiences and assumptions and politics. And Winter's piece does a nice job of beginning to draw this out.

1 comment:

Winter said...

Thanks. You’ve managed to articulate something I couldn’t quite pin down. Part of the problem does seem to be the fact that the difficult uncomfortable reality of women-only coalition rarely meets up to the fantasy of woman-only space as “home,” a space of safety and sameness. This would be ok if it were more widely acknowledged and talked about, but I get very uncomfortable when I feel that maintaining the ideal leads us to sweep disagreements under the carpet or find subtle ways of excluding women who might bring challenges into the space. That’s not healthy.