No Boys Allowed

Women-only spaces: Do we need them? Starting at what age?

This week, my parents are in town, and I’ve been having grown-up fun all over town: poker night, date night, Dungeons and Dragons night, radical book club, grown-up clothing exchange slumber party!

And a luxuriously relaxing Saturday with an old friend at a Korean-style spa.

My mom and my 4-year-old both wanted to hear all about it.

I explained the tubs of different temperatures, the tea room, the Korean restaurant, the robes, and the naked time. It really is an awesome place. So of course my kiddo asked if she could come.

I explained a few of the reasons kids weren’t allowed there, and then she asked,

“Can Granddaddy come?”

Let’s put aside how much I don’t want my father coming to the naked spa with me all day (Sorry dad). If a dude was gonna come along with me, I’d really rather it be my husband (who would be in there today if he could).

“Actually, I guess I didn’t mention it, but the spa is just for women.”

My little cutie got a pained look on her face.


I gave her space to say her thoughts, but she just sat with her confused scowl.

Yeah, that look.

“Are you thinking that’s not fair?” I asked, “that not everyone’s allowed in?”

Just this week, we were reading an African American history children’s book. I explained about sit-ins at lunch counters and all the brave people who didn’t care what the rules were, because the rules were unfair.

And just this summer, we parents stepped in, shocked and indignant, when our 3- and 4-year-old daughters declared “No boys allowed!” in the kids’ tent at a birthday campout.

“Yeah, it’s not fair,” she said. “Everyone should be allowed at the spa.”

Honestly, I was super-proud of her. I immediately commended her on her thoughtfulness and kindness, told her she was being a great ally. And I encouraged her to keep questioning things if they didn’t sound right.

But then I told her why I think it’s okay to have women-only spaces sometimes, that perhaps someday there won’t be a need for them anymore, but right now, I’m glad they exist.

And I’m curious to hear if others think this is a compelling reason:

“Everyone deserves to feel safe and powerful.”
“Remember we’ve talked about patriarchy,” I continued, “about a long, long time of people with he pronouns making up rules, and it not being fair for people with she and they pronouns? And about racism: how many people with light skin have been mean for a long time to people with darker skin. All of this is getting better; it’s not as bad as it was. But it’s still not fair. So sometimes women, and also sometimes people who aren’t white, can’t feel safe and powerful unless they have a special place just for them for a while, to really relax.”

It was an amazing conversation. Usually it’s just me saying these things to my kid, but this time my mom joined in. Three generations of females, discussing patriarchy. We talked about how all the presidents were men, how unbelievable that was, but how clear it made it that our culture has not been fair to women.

Three generations: my baby, me, my mom.

So, for the reason of everyone deserving to feel safe and empowered, I think women-only spas are all right.

What about the No Boys Allowed kids’ tent?

Well, after we mamas spent too much time trying to figure out which of our daughters heard that phrase from which kid-who-watches-too-much-TV at which preschool, one of the dads sheepishly admitted that he started it. He saw three little girls in the tent and gave them that phrase, which they immediately used to try to exclude his sweet 4-year-old son.

In the weeks that followed that incident, my kid and I talked about it a lot. She wanted me to list, over and over, every friend she had with he pronouns, because up until then, she would often mix them up. She was appalled to consider excluding some of her friends, hence the obvious inference that a women-only spa was unfair.

So are gender-segregated spaces necessary (or at least ethical)? Will they be forever? If we agree they are a good thing for adults, then at what age does that really start?

Because at my daughter’s age, I feel strongly that segregating the kids based on sex (or on gender, which my kid is only recently beginning to explore and identify with) would be harmful.

My solution for the kids’ tent was to tell them all kids were allowed in the kids’ tent, BUT they could make up rules. Like No Kicking. No boys kicking, no girls kicking, no kids kicking.

So why not do that with the spa? Everyone’s allowed, but there are rules (that apply to all, even if we expect men are more likely to need them)?

One of the problems is that in almost all spaces, men have written the rules. They’ve been the lawmakers, the CEOs, the clergy. If (when) women write more of the rules, will we no longer need gender-segregated spaces?

Can we imagine a level of equity where people of color make the rules enough to feel safe and empowered without needing special spaces sometimes?

I don’t have answers, but I have lots of questions.

My kid asks great questions too. I hope she never stops asking them.