Spanning throughout the network of modern women’s media you will find a substantial amount of perspective on the concept of “female space.” You’ll see a lot of harsh commentary from women who feel female space has been encroached upon by gender ideologues who believe that female occupied space is inherently dangerous to men.
This certainly would appear to be the case when you consider many traditionally female institutions that have been forced through legal channels or bad publicity to relent and include men in whatever they are doing. This even includes what some might consider privacy violations, such as male reporters being allowed into the locker rooms of professional athletes while they are in various stages of undress.
Some women point, and rightfully so, to the hypocrisy of this happening in a society which has had an explosion in men’s organizations that routinely exclude women. Needless to say, female reporters won’t be finding their way into the dressing rooms of male athletes unless they want to be arrested.
Sadly, this is usually where the conversation stops. There is little explanation to be found of what female space actually is, or why it is so important. With all respect to those writing on this subject, it too often falls short and lends itself to victim mentality. It’s understandable. The hypocrisy is real, as is the dearth of female space. Still, I want to attempt to take a deeper look at what is happening. As always, you will stand as judge and jury on this particular take.
In the mid-1990s I worked at a residential treatment facility for women, men and young adults with alcohol and substance abuse problems. The campus was nestled in a locally iconic pre-midcentury residential area surrounded by sprawling oaks that were planted when the homes were built.
In addition to a nursing station and an administration building there were three homes, two for women and men respectively and one for young adults.
The women’s home had a covered back porch with ample seating. During good weather (and sometimes bad) the women occupied that area, working on written assignments, reading or just talking with each other.
It was probably no coincidence that they chose this particular area to congregate. Just outside the porch railing was an outside stairway that led up to where the men were quartered, on the second story of the house next door. Every man coming or going from there had to pass by within just a few feet of the women’s porch. That often resulted in the men stopping to chat with the women. Sometimes briefly, sometimes longer.
I spent time observing their interactions. When men were not present, the women remained focused on what they were doing. They were generally loose and comfortable. Most importantly, they appeared comfortable in each other’s company.
When male clients came by, particular the attractive ones, everything changed. Reading and writing ceased. The women’s posture immediately improved. Occasionally chests puffed out, and some women stood upright, as if to take a more visible position among their peers.
What was really remarkable is that in most cases the women who were sitting and talking with each other disengaged and put their focus on the man in their proximity. In more fundamental terms, when the men showed up, the women stopped whatever they were doing and focused their attention on them.
The competition was evident.
The more sexually attractive the man was, the more the impact on the group of women; the more competition. Those occasions were sometimes marked by conflict and arguing among the women.
This was not an invasion of female space. The women were, instinctively perhaps, competing with each other, even undermining each other and betraying friendships in order to take the lead in drawing those men into that space.
It happened over and over again.
I decided to use this as an opportunity for an experiential exercise for the women, starting in the weekly women’s group I facilitated. In that group I recited some of my observations to the women about what I saw. The anxiety level in the room immediately went up. Clients fidgeted, shifted their weight around in their chairs and stared at the floor.
We were already in uncharted territory for most in the group.
I gave them an assignment to carry out until the following week’s group. I told them that when on the porch the objective was to remain focused on whatever they were doing and not interact with the men who came by; to be polite but explain to the men that they were busy at the moment and did not have time to socialize, and then to go back with whatever they were doing.
The anxiety level in the group spiked again.
I inquired about that and the responses I got were mostly an acknowledgment that the women feared their actions would be interpreted as rude and the men would be angry. I interpreted this, and still do, as meaning what the women actually feared was being rejected; that is was not about offending the men so much as losing their attention and approval. That fear is a topic for another article, by the way, in due course.
I sent the women off, some of them looking sheepish, to tackle this assignment. I was not convinced that they could or would go through with it.
I came to work the following Monday and the first thing I was greeted with was another staff member telling me that the men were complaining that the women had been rude to them over the weekend. I regarded that with some suspicion. That suspicion was later confirmed by talking to the women in the community. To a woman they maintained that everyone had been polite but had followed through with the assignment.
They also confirmed that the men had become angry. In fact, a couple of them had tested the limits by dressing suggestively and lingering near the women’s porch. When that failed the anger bubbled to the surface. Interestingly, and to my surprise, the women reacted to this by firming their resolve. Eventually they moved back into the house, where the men were not allowed.
The exercise yielded some interesting results. One, I did not anticipate the men’s anger, though in hindsight I probably should have. The other is that not only did the women follow the instructions, they became determined not to be defeated. They grew closer to each other and for at least that weekend the arguments and conflict that typically happen between women in those settings dropped to near zero. They had congealed as a group and were working together, arguably on the problems that brought them to treatment to begin with.
Instead of surrendering their space, they created it, and built a fence around it as sisters.
Another interesting effect was the one this experiment had on the clinical and administrative staff. Some of the men who worked there were offended. They thought that the exercise I gave the women had nothing to do with their treatment for addiction and that it was hurtful to male clients. As I recall the word “abusive” even came up. Some of the female staff felt the same way, though female and male staff alike were unable to articulate any form of reasoning about it that made sense.
Their inability to do that was understandable. They were trying to express emotionally driven objections; an irrational rationale. The attitude was the same brand of obtuse that we find in people who think it was men’s oppression that kept male reporters out of women’s locker rooms and that women banding together, focusing on their own needs and the needs of their female peers was harmful to men.
Frankly, at that point, the staff was lagging behind the female clients on emotional health and insight alike. The women, with few exceptions, gained from it. Several of them described the experience as “empowering,” an interesting word from the mouths of women.
I could see it in their demeanor as well. I found it intriguing that it expressed itself in some of the same ways that I saw in the women when they were posturing to draw masculine attention. Their posture was better. They walked more upright with an air of confidence atypical to women in that setting. They exchanged knowing glances and smiles with me for quite some time.
They felt better about themselves, something pretty important for people who have wrecked their self-respect with alcohol and drugs. They learned about themselves and about women.
Women change when you bring a man into the picture. They change in very drastic ways. You can have a group of happily married, committed women in a group; women with no intention at all of infidelity, and when you introduce an attractive man in the picture they change. They lose focus on whatever they are doing. They compete. It is instinctive, it is nature. And it affects all women. At least one of the women in that particular group was gay and she reported the same benefit as the others, plus she felt more included as a fellow woman than she had before.
Is this a suggestion that women should avoid men? Hardly. Human beings pair bond. It is not nearly always for life but they still overwhelmingly tend not to fly solo in life. Their healthy, normal needs include intimate connection.
For women, just as it does for men, it also means a time and place for space of their own.
We may not be able to control whether men are allowed entrance to a women’s country club, or into women’s locker rooms or any number of other places. Each woman and each group of women can, however, take the space they need to connect to themselves and to each other. Those who are offended by that are just those who want irrational, exploitive control.
That is what the majority of staff at a treatment facility found offensive. Women turning inward and doing the very work they were there to do; connecting to each other supportively in the process. They were concerned that women doing this was an affront to men. For them, the women’s actions on that porch was a problem to be fixed rather than what it was, women in trouble supporting each other and restoring some of their dignity. They were isolated, disaffected women finding connection and a sense of community.
Women’s challenge is not to defend female space, but to create it. Female space, the kind that matters, is not on golf courses or locker rooms. It is within the sanctity of their own minds and hearts. It is in the ability to tend to their own needs rather than blindly surrender to reproductive instinct, laying waste to their dignity and leaving their sisters under the bus along the way.
It cannot be taken. It cannot be encroached upon. It can only be surrendered.
Bemoaning the lack of female space is not an act of dissent. It is not activism. It is simply an acknowledgment of personal and collective failure.
When women value themselves and sisterhood more than an approving smile from a pretty face, they will have all the space they need.