What is a TERF? Or Sex Segregated Spaces: Where and Why

[Edit 2/24/2015: I originally made this chart as a means of parsing what the ‘E’ in TERF actually means. So I have changed the title to include the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist). The central question is: what exactly are transwomen being excluded from (where)? And what is the purpose of that exclusion (why)? The following post is a basic analysis of various spaces from which females might reasonably desire the complete exclusion of male bodied and male socialized people. Alternatively, we might enforce conditions on the inclusion of male bodied or male socialized people. Bathrooms and locker rooms are examples of spaces where conditional inclusion is possible, such as for for fully transitioned transwomen. On the other hand, a private gathering might not make any exceptions for transwomen. It depends! There are many factors to consider. #nuance]

Women’s-only spaces serve a multitude of purposes depending on the context.

For example, [public] women’s BATHROOMS AND LOCKER ROOMS are not a space for women’s healing or bonding– they are merely temporary sanctuaries from male view/attention while completing specific tasks: namely, voiding one’s bodily waste or changing clothing. The sex-segregated space is not a means to a larger social end, it is a solution/end to a problem (male voyeurism and sexual predation) in itself. That is the segregated space’s *purpose.* No one spends all of their time in these spaces or invests energy in improving the space beyond pragmatic function, as if they were a hang-out space (maybe except nursing lounges).

A women’s-only [private] FEMINIST POLITICAL MEETING, on the other hand, has a whole different purpose. It is, again, a temporary time/place set up within integrated society for a specific intent. In this case, the respite may intentionally lead to healing or bonding between women in that space. There is a specific desire to interact with the other women and to find shared interests and experiences on which to build ideas, understanding, and to find common ground. Further, political meetings seek to leverage that common ground to organize and plan for future actions that likely involve some kind of political confrontation in the “integrated” world. Political meetings are a MEANS to an end.

Similarly, women’s-only [private] EVENTS LIKE MICHFEST also provide healing and bonding spaces along shared experiences of womanhood. In this case, however, the temporarily set up time/space is not necessarily a means to a political end. The togetherness created by the women’s only event is an end in itself. The activities that occur during the event are the event’s purpose. Women leave the land at the conclusion of the event or festival and return to integrated society without plans to confront or change the larger society and its structures. The purpose of [public or private] women’s-only SCHOOLS is mixed in the sense that they act as long-term, but ultimately temporary, respites from integrated society: the women or girls always graduate back into integrated society. At the same time, these institutions seek to mold the individuals they purport to educate in ways that enable the individuals– as representatives of their class (women)– to be more impactful in integrated society. There is, however, no group action or prescribed means of effectuating social change after concluding participation in the school.

At the far end of sex-segregation are women’s-only [private] COMMUNITIES or LAND where women live full-time in isolation from integrated society. They are permanent sanctuaries where women can fully escape from hostile social environments created by androcentrism and patriarchy. Communes are ends in themselves, for some. Others argue that these enclaves are politically effective means to some greater end. I would beg to differ with such an assessment, but that is not the point of this post or chart.

The diversity of women’s-only spaces and purposes defies simplistic condemnation of sex-segregation. When women are accused of being TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) or of being transphobic merely for valuing sex-segregated spaces in some contexts, or in some circumstances, their critics fail to comprehend the complexity of women’s reasons for sex-segregation. What is acceptable for a bathroom setting is not acceptable in other settings. There is nuance! Here it is in a chart format.

SEX-SEGREGATION PURPOSE Respite or sanctuary from male view & presence? Participants return to integrated society? Interaction and social bonding with other women in the space? Healing from trauma related to unequal male/female power dynamics? Planning for future group action outside of the space?
PUBLIC SPACE Public= entities that may receive federal funding in order to exist Bathrooms* Y   N    
Locker rooms*          
Schools/Colleges          
Housing Shelter          
DV Shelter          
PRIVATE SPACE Private= no federal funding in order to exist Political Meeting         Y!
Consciousness Raising/ Therapeutic Setting          
Private Event (ex: MichFest)          
Communes          
* Not all bathrooms and locker rooms are subject to federal funding requirements. Bathrooms and locker rooms may be inclusive of both public places such as government operated swimming pools and “private” businesses such as shopping centers and restaurants; they are also found in employment situations.

Picture format: Sex Segregation WHERE and WHY_coral   And in green/grey: Sex Segregation WHERE and WHY_gray

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31 comments

  1. Hi Elizabeth – I like your charts, although I think some of the spaces you list as “no” for social bonding I would put a “yes-sometimes” – women sometimes DO bond in bathrooms, public and private; and in locker rooms….they could also spontaneously be planning for future action…I think there are some gray areas…but I like your breakdown of the different situations….definitely a good graphic for classroom discussion – or at a conference.

  2. Yes, I understand what you’re saying: I have certainly bonded with other women in certain bathroom or locker room situations. The chart is meant to indicate whether a particular space is INTENDED to accommodate/is designed FOR certain functions or purposes. It all started with a question in our Gender Discussion Facebook group about the *purpose* of womens-only spaces. I was writing the following comment and I realized that a chart format was appropriate for that level of complexity:

    “I consider womens-only space to have multiple purposes depending on the context.

    For example, [public, inc. schools and employment] womens BATHROOMS AND LOCKER ROOMS are not a space for healing or bonding– they are merely temporary sanctuaries from male view/attention while completing specific tasks such as voiding one’s bodily waste or changing clothes. The segregated space is not a means to a larger social end, it is a solution/end to a problem (male voyeurism and sexual predation) in itself. That is the segregated space’s *purpose.* No one spends all of their time in these spaces or invests in them beyond pragmatic function, as if they were a hang-out space (nursing lounges excepted).

    A womens-only [private] FEMINIST POLITICAL MEETING has a whole different purpose. It is, again, a temporary time/place set up within integrated society for a specific intent. In this case the respite may intentionally lead to healing or bonding between women in that space. There is a specific desire to interact with the other women in the space and to find shared interests and experiences on which to build ideas, understanding, and to find common ground. Further, political meetings seek to USE that common ground in order to organize and plan for future actions that likely involve some kind of political confrontation in the “integrated” world. It is a MEANS to an end. Or, as Tamara said, where “women could meet without the oppressor in the room so that women could speak freely about what their problems were, and could plan action.”

    Similarly, womens-only [private] EVENTS LIKE MICHFEST also provide healing and bonding spaces along shared experiences of womanhood. In this case, however, the temporarily set-up time/space is not necessarily a means to a political end. The togetherness created by the womens only space and event is, for most, an end in itself. That is the event’s *purpose.* The women leave the land at the conclusion of the festival and return to integrated society without plans to confront or change the larger society and its structures.

    I think the purposes of [public or private] womens-only SCHOOLS/COLLEGES are mixed in the sense that they act as a long-term but ultimately temporary respite from integrated society; the women or girls always graduate back into integrated society. At the same time, these institutions seek to MOLD the individuals they purport to educate in ways that will enable the individuals to be more *impactful* in integrated society as representatives of their class (women).

    At the far extreme, are womens-only [private] COMMUNITIES or LAND where women live full-time in isolation from integrated society. I think women have every *right* to do this, and even to set up their own nation-state! Violent realities of patriarchy notwithstanding, you know? But this is also an end in itself, for some. I don’t consider isolation to be politically effective, though it may be preferred for other reasons.”

    FB group discussion: https://www.facebook.com/groups/genderdiscusssion/permalink/482971598473300/

  3. Oh, and maybe relatedly, I personally do not have ANY desire to mix healing and organizing for political purposes. I have had disagreements about this with other feminists, actually.

    I think that a political meeting CAN be designed/intended to both plan action and also enable healing, but it does not NEED to (and it can be VERY complicated to mix the two…even counter-productive and emotionally dangerous).

    But in short, YES, the “purpose” designations are definitely more complicated than a simple Y/N can actually convey…the limitations of information expediency inherent to a CHART format, huh? 🙂

  4. blackmetalvalkyrie · ·

    I hate Canada because there is only one female only university here but its only small and connected to a larger one and male professors are allowed to teach yet America has all these female only schools.

  5. Well, there are MANY male professors at all women’s colleges in the US. I believe males represent about 50% of faculty at women’s colleges here. 😦

  6. hearthrising · ·

    I think women’s religious space deserves a line of it’s own. It is therapeutic, but that is not the primary reason for it. And it’s different from Michfest–it also includes spaces that are Christian/Muslim or otherwise not normally considered feminist or lesbian. Also, such groups are often ongoing and not “events.” Opposition to women’s spiritual spaces doesn’t get a lot of attention from feminists, and yet religious groups are responsible for a great deal of women’s oppression. Dianc witches have gotten intense criticism over the past 40 some years, criticism that appears to be increasing, and there’s a reason for that.

  7. hearthrising, thank you for the suggestion! It has me thinking…I would generally consider women’s religious spaces as analogous to “private events” even though they may be “ongoing” in the sense that they regularly re-occur. Or are you talking about spaces that are always sex-segregated? Like a room, floor, or building that is 24/7/366 set aside for women-only? And are there any other differences that would separate religious spaces from “private events?”

  8. hearthrising · ·

    I would agree that religious space should be in the “private” category even though the line sometimes gets blurred with churches getting grants for many of their social projects. As for being “events”—you’ve pretty much answered the question, because women’s religious space can be an event or something else. I guess a weekly women’s Bible study could be called an event. There are physical women’s spaces in some of the mainline Christian churches, and I am guessing that would be true for Muslims also. I believe there is a Jewish women’s group on the East Coast that has a women-only religious school, something like a seminary but I don’t think they call it that. Then there is the Dianic religion and Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess, which is not only about women-only religious events but about women-only leadership. There are also indigenous women’s societies that perform ceremonies but cannot strictly be categorized as either physical space or events.

  9. blackmetalvalkyrie · ·

    That is so baloney! Its not really a women’s college if the authority figure is male! But at least there are lots of women’s colleges there, even if they do pull that kind of baloney.

  10. Interesting analysis. However, one thing I have been struck with by my study of womyn’s space is how the purposes evolve and subvert over time. A hotel (like Hotel Rideau in Canada) may set up a ladies salon in the early 20th century. All very proper, don’t you know. Keeps mashers away from our young women! Fifty years later, it’s a lesbian meeting place. A girls school or women’s college may be very religious and traditional, and yet you find the graduates forming life-long relationships and doing very daring things as adults. So something was going on there that the founders didn’t intend!

  11. Thanks for preparing your table, which I found very interesting.

    I can’t quite speak for the US, but in the UK, women-only tertiary educational establishments were originally established because women were not permitted access to universities. I don’t doubt that women found that they had other, unexpected benefits, including an environment where women could prosper educationally and emotionally away from men. Now that women can universally attend tertiary education in the UK and the US, the reason that they continue to exist (other than just “tradition”, which I quite admire) must have changed into the reasons which you describe.

    In a similar vein, I believe that segregated public bathrooms first gained prominence in Victorian times, out of a sense of personal modesty. At that time, public bathing-houses were also segregated by sex, such that women and men were not allowed to swim at the same time. (There may also have been a rationale that women were shy and fragile creatures who deserved to be protected from the coarseness of men). In modern times, our society is perfectly comfortable for women to (for example) swim, play sports, use exercise equipment, and otherwise exert themselves in mixed-sex spaces.

    The point I am making is that the reason that we have women-only educational establishments, and women-only public bathrooms and changing rooms, is that they were originally set up for reasons which are now obsolete, because women have achieved the equality to which they ought originally to have been entitled.

    I am troubled by phrases like “the problem of male voyeurism and sexual predation” and “meet without the oppressor in the room”. They carry an accusation levelled at every male which I don’t think is warranted. All men are not the same, and not all men are “sexual predators”. Some men are fair, just, balanced and right-thinking.

    Vivienne.

  12. Thanks for your comment.

    It is WILD that you think “women have achieved the equality to which [womens only spaces] ought originally to have been established!” Wow. I don’t know what world you are living in, but in mine:
    http://usa.everydaysexism.com/

    I could provide much more information disproving your statement, but I sense that would be a waste of my time since your opinion on women’s “equality” is in conflict with nearly all available evidence.

    Oh fine, one more: http://www.thewire.com/culture/2014/04/professors-are-less-likely-to-mentor-female-and-minority-students-especially-in-business-school/361047/

    NAMALT is not the point. Exceptions are merely exceptions. They don’t disprove the rule of patriarchy nor the historical and current effects of androcentrism on women.

    You also don’t have to participate in women’s only spaces, but this does not require you to be opposed to them or to tell other women who find them valuable that there is no “need” for them.

    Please note that any more comments denying the reality of women’s oppression or the ubiquitous influence of structural sexism and male sexual aggression towards women will not be published.

  13. OK. This is my world. I have lived in two countries where a woman remains the monarch, where a woman has been the de-facto head of state (prime minister), where women are fully entitled by law to education, to own property, to conduct business, to universal suffrage, to hold public office, to compete in (all) sports, or to serve in the armed forces in frontline combat. That’s the “equality” I was talking about. (You slightly misquoted me. The phrase was: “women have achieved the equality to which they [women] ought originally to have been entitled”).

    Is there still a glass ceiling? Sure. Is there still sexism? Of course. Are there still patriarchy and androcentrism? Without doubt. In other words, are men and women still treated differently in a thousand ways? Yes. Is that all OK? Certainly not.

    But what I see is a historical trend towards equality. We are not there yet, but we are a lot further forward than some countries where women are not entitled to vote or hold a driving licence.

    I am not opposed to women’s only spaces; I am certainly not suggesting there is no “need” for them now, only that the reasons for them have evolved with time (and are continuing to evolve). In fact, I found your table to be quite thought-provoking.

    It’s one thing to accuse all men of deliberate patriarchy and androcentrism. I don’t agree, but I can see your point. On the other hand, it’s much more corrosive to accuse all men of sexual predation.

    I am disappointed in your last paragraph. Of course this is your blog, but I don’t see how you can hold a discussion of any kind unless you are prepared to permit viewpoints at odds with your own.

    Vivienne.

  14. Vivienne, I don’t have time to explain the obvious: that sexism is an epidemic. Even where formal legal “equality” has been achieved, the lived experiences of women continue to be saturated with sexism. #yesallwomen This is not a 101 space and I don’t indulge MRA ideology.

    I am not accusing ALL men of sexual predation; I am accusing men as a CLASS. It’s a critical distinction. Structural power analysis and resulting inequality between the *sexes* is the concern here; not the guilt or innocence of exceptional individuals. And in that vein, I give a hat tip to my wonder father. But no, he’s not allowed in women’s spaces.

  15. Recent research shows that women’s colleges serve a significantly different population niche than they used to. In 1970, incoming students were overwhelmingly of upper-class, white background. Now it’s the opposite. Relative to students attending coed institutions, women going to women’s colleges tend to be first-generation college students, non-white, and low income. They perceive–rightly so–that a women’s college is more emotionally supportive in helping them achieve their goals. Also notice that when the Department of Ed released its list of colleges who had failed to deal with rape and sexual assault in a competent way, there was not one women’s college listed. I sent my daughter to a women’s college, and I wish I had been to one myself. She got a great education, learned a great deal of self-confidence, and developed tremendous leadership skills. The alternative to all this in the US is the same old frat and football team dominated big university, where men are still catered to both inside the classroom (called on more, contributions valued more) and outside, where their attacks on women are basically winked at.

  16. Thanks, silverside! I also went to a women’s college. My father actually encouraged me to do so and bought me this book to read as I was considering my future options:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/068480073X?pc_redir=1407185498&robot_redir=1

    It kind of changed me life.

    Btw, I would never ask or expect other women to like my father or trust him just because *I* said so. In fact, it would never even occur to me to expect such *faith* from women about ANY man.

  17. Looks like it. I heard an early preliminary presentation of the results when I was working at a women’s college, which has now decided to go coed–much to the fury of the students and alumnae.

  18. Tobysgirl · ·

    Note to Vivienne: “[P]ublic bathing-houses” were not for swimming. They were for baths and showers. Most people’s flats did not have bathing facilities or even hot water; they went to public baths for basic hygiene purposes. When I lived in NYC, there was a façade on Houston Street of what had once been a public bathhouse. Our one-room fifth-floor walkup would have been a cold-water flat.

  19. Thanks Tobysgirl. I am sure you are right in large cities. However, in Victorian Britain bathing houses served both purposes. I grew up in a town which had once been a mining town, and the building which is now the municipal swimming pool used to have facilities for large groups of miners to have hot baths or showers at the end of the week (!). There was, however, also a swimming pool, which still exists. The pool was part of that curious Victorian fascination with fresh air and cold water (and there are many lovely Victorian bathing-houses in the UK). Charles Darwin used to douse himself with jugs of cold water each morning because he thought it was healthy. Brrr!

  20. Tobysgirl · ·

    I still doubt those were swimming pools, though they may now serve that function. They may have been cold-water pools for dunking oneself after bathing in warm or hot water. This is supposed to stimulate the immune system; people cured themselves of TB by swimming in cold rivers. It’s too easy to look at things with modern eyes and not see how they were used in the past. Do you have photographs of people swimming in the “pool”? Written evidence?

  21. Hi Tobysgirl. You’ve attempted to shift the burden of proof onto me, which I don’t accept. You can take my word that it was a swimming pool, or find your own evidence, or reject my viewpoint. It’s all good.

    People who immersed themselves in cold water to cure TB or other ailments didn’t do anything except chill themselves, otherwise we would still be dunking TB victims in cold water. (Mind you, this recent internet craze of pouring buckets of iced water over people may represent a resurgence of this notion!).

  22. Tobysgirl · ·

    Shift the burden of proof? I am simply interested and wanted to know where you got your information. And I don’t have time right now but will try to find the information about people curing themselves of TB this way. See Fred Klenner’s work if you think that doctors and Big Pharma have any interest in actual cures of anything.

  23. Hi Tobysgirl.

    Burden of proof. (Why didn’t you just say: That’s interesting. Where did you get your information?)

    OK. I’ve had a look around. This website for example (http://www.seasidehistory.co.uk/lidos.html) gives an interesting history of outdoor saltwater swimming pools (lidos) in the UK. They seemed to get going in the 1920s, which is obviously a bit later than the Victorian era. But this isn’t the type of pool I had in mind (an indoor, freshwater pool). My own town’s pool was built in 1934 (so much for my thinking it was Victorian!), and an early photograph shows a diving board and lanes for swimming (it also had “a lounge, a committee room, an office, three slipper baths, lavatories, stores and a laundry”), but it was built with some funding from the Miners’ Welfare Fund. What strikes me is how much smaller it looks now than it did when I was a child, when the Victorians and the dinosaurs co-existed in that mysterious realm known as “the past”.

    I am, however, going to put my professional hat firmly on. I am pretty sceptical about Big Pharma (Ben Goldacre is my hero in this area) and I do my utmost to evaluate scientific and medical evidence extremely thoroughly. It is what I do for a living. I’ve heard of Fred Klenner, but I’m afraid his notions just don’t hold much weight.

    So for myself, I would be very interested in curing TB with cold water, or vitamin C, or infusions of common herbs. But it won’t work. I think doctors are interested in curing their patients (rather than just making money) but I think we would agree that it’s easy for them to be swayed by unhelpful incentives. You can bet I warn my students all about that.

    Vivienne.

  24. Fred Klenner’s notions just don’t hold much weight. That’s fascinating, considering how many lives he saved. I’m familiar with those, such as yourself, who “evaluate scientific and medical evidence extremely thoroughly.” Who do you do for a living for, may I ask?

    Doctors interested in curing their patients? That is extremely funny. Quoting two male nurses: Doctors WANT their patients to develop diabetes. Yes, that seems an outrageous statement, but diabetes is a significant industry in these United States and lots of people make lots of money supplying diabetics with tools and drugs, then caring for their many complications (see Dr Broda Barnes; HIS diabetic patients had NO complications). We have a cancer industry here that constantly yaks about “raising awareness of cancer” (only someone living in a bunker could not be aware of cancer), yet never challenges the poisoned environment we have created. I have yet to meet a doctor genuinely interested in curing anything; they only treat symptoms at best (at worst, they dismiss women’s symptoms as being mental). As far as the UK goes, if there was any interest in health and in reducing costs, genuine thyroid supplementation would not be the basis for striking a doctor off the register. I speak as someone whose life has been ruined by having my glaring hypothyroidism ignored for decades.

    I see from Sheila Jeffreys’ paper on degendering bathrooms that your position is not uncommon. “Activists argue that sex segregation of toilets is the result of nineteenth century moralism and is a discriminatory practice.” Were there even public toilets prior to the nineteenth century? Most women probably did what a friend’s elderly aunt did from necessity: spread her skirts and squatted in the street. I do not find sex-segregated toilets to have anything to do with morality, they have to do with my safety and comfort.

  25. Hey, I just wanted to drop in and say something about the quote you have at the top of the page:

    “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

    This is a misquote often attributed to Voltaire. It’s actually a quote from a former Neo-Nazi leader Kevin Alfred Strom. He was the managing director of National Vanguard and a white separatist. The direct quote is below.

    “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?”

  26. I do not care WHO said the words; I care about what the words MEAN.

    Focusing on the speaker of words rather than the content of the words is a form of identity politics that I do not find compelling or interesting.

  27. Tobysgirl · ·

    Whoops, I just saw I made a typo above. Meant to ask Vivienne WHAT she (?) does for a living, not who.

  28. Truth Sets Us Free · ·

    “…The point I am making is that the reason that we have women-only educational establishments, and women-only public bathrooms and changing rooms, is that they were originally set up for reasons which are now obsolete, because women have achieved the equality to which they ought originally to have been entitled…”

    Vivienne, I disagree that we have “achieved the equality” which ends the necessity of having sex-segregated restrooms. Rape and sexual predation in the U.S. are still major issues for women and girls, and according to the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, 95% of rape victims are female and 98% of rapists are male. As long as there is such a serious issue with male-on-female predation, it is not safe for us to throw open the doors of our showers, restrooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, etc. to males, regardless of the feelings these males have about their “gender identity”.

    No female should be forced to choose between undressing with male strangers in the room and being home-bound. Any female who wishes to participate in public life – swimming, shopping, visiting a theater or museum, working place of business, etc. – should be free to do so without risking being compromised by a male stranger in a public facility. It’s appalling that it even needs to be said, much less that women and girls are now under relentless attack and risk losing our hard-won human right to privacy and safety.

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