On the Design of Women’s Spaces

First of all: I’m a non-binary woman. That means “woman” is a label that is significant to me, that I hold on to, and that I identify strongly with in a number of ways. I’m also a non-binary person, because “woman” doesn’t feel like the whole story of my current identity to me, and because I’ve found a lot of common ground with other non-binary folk about how we see ourselves and the world.

But not every non-binary person, regardless of their birth assignment, is comfortable using that “woman” label on themselves.

When I say “exclusion” below, I mean “fully exclusive” (meaning, no outsiders allowed), or “allies welcome” (meaning, ‘not for you’, but you won’t be turned away). It’s about who the group is for, and who gets a voice, not necessarily about who’s allowed in the door.

So let’s talk a bit about women’s spaces and the rules of exclusion they develop to create value for themselves, what they usually intend, and explore ways in which some spaces might become more inclusive of “enbies” and/or folks of various trans categories.

A Hierarchy of Exclusivity

Recently, while speaking with a group of non-binary folks, a discussion came up about how many of us are uncomfortable in “women’s spaces”. We talked about what these spaces usually intend, how they word things, and how they could align what they want with what they say, in order to get more of us to feel comfortable.

Feminism, for a long time, has carried the standard of addressing gendered oppression in our society. It has also historically been led largely by cis women (which I believe to be true, regardless of the fact of all the trans women that have been there for a very long time and adding incredible value to the discourse). These days, though, feminism has expanded beyond “women’s rights” and into the territory of the general fight for gender equality, as well as incorporating the concept of intersectionality from the womanist/woc parts of it. That’s important to note — because the issues that concern us are no longer discussed in terms of clear-cut gender identities.

One of my friends came up with a hierarchy for what “women’s spaces” want when they say “This space is for women”, and the rest of us hashed it out a bit more, and it looks something like this:

  1. TERFSpace: When explicitly stated, this tends to be fairly rare in practice, but is worth mentioning because many people assume a space to actually be this, if things are worded wrong. Most of the time, though, it’s a result of naïveté on the part of organizers about trans and other identities. “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, and is a label applied to feminists who believe that only cis women are “really” women. These spaces do exist, but my experience has been that most women’s spaces actually care about welcoming and including trans women in their ranks. When looking out for them, one might look for mentions of “biological women”, “real women”, or “socialized women”, which are all dogwhistles for TERFs. Some “women’s colleges” might be the most prominent examples of this. Smith College existed in this space until recently, for example.
  2. JustUsGirls: You could see this as the next step after the above. Organizers have learned about trans folks, care about trans issues, and explicitly want to be inclusive. They still label their spaces as “women’s spaces”, they still regularly say things like “hi ladies”, “hey gals”, and such which are strongly identified with “woman”, but they make damn sure that their trans (binary) sisters feel welcome in that space. I would say that the majority of “women’s spaces” I’ve ever been in fall into this category — not because they’re being exclusive of non-binary folks, but because they want a space like they’re used to having (and find camaraderie among other (though often femme) women), but don’t wanna be big jerks about it. There’s hints of non-binary inclusion in these, but they come with a caveat that the “woman” label must be a thing you use. You can usually spot these places by looking for things like “for women, including trans women” or “for women, or anyone who identifies as such in a significant way” or even “for women (or people who identify as such some or all of the time!)”. An example of this sort of space is the Women in Tech Chat (aka “WITChat”), which accepts non-binary people who do not identify as women, but is fundamentally a space designed for connection under the “women” label — it’s not a space that will necessarily fulfill non-binary folks’ needs. Smith College also famously transitioned (pun intended) from a TERFSpace to this sort of space after updating their admission policy.
  3. NoBoyzAllowed: Some spaces decide that “women” isn’t quite what they’re looking for (I’ll talk about this more below), and they decide that the rubric they really want is anyone except people who identify as men. This is a type of feminist space that achieves a large chunk of the sense of support and protection from men, but makes damn sure that folks who don’t lie on either side can join in — because they are still harmed by patriarchy in similar ways to binary women. A shorthand I’ve seen (and used) is to simply call these spaces as “not-men spaces”, or in longer (and clearer?) form: “women and non-binary individuals”. One example of this space might be the 🔒not-men channel in WeAllJS, or the same in lgbtq.technology, which are explicitly framed as spaces for anyone who does not identify as a man, and were created with non-binary folks in mind from the get-go. Additionally, Bryn Mawr’s admissions policy, although it’s a #2 on this scale if you’re AMAB.
  4. NoCisGuys: Finally there can be spaces that decide that the rule should be “people who have lived gendered oppression in a significant way”, at least according to the concept that cis men tend to enjoy the most privilege (and perhaps inflict the most violence) in the gender spectrum. I don’t see a lot of these spaces explicitly described, but I’ve seen some #2 and #3 spaces be implicitly expected to be like this. This is a tricky one: trans men are men, even though they have very likely lived gendered oppression, and have a fantastic, unique perspective on sexism. Labeling spaces like this one wrong (specially using any wording that implies it’s a “women’s space”), turns into a rather uncomfortable case of possible trans exclusion. If this is the sort of space you want, don’t call it a women’s space anywhere. Sticking with the “women’s colleges” theme, Mt Holyoke College’s admissions policy works like this, though the wording could use some work.
  5. Whatever: mostly included for the sake of completion, this sort of space, whether it’s directed mainly at inviting women and non-binary people or otherwise, has no actual restrictions on attendance/speaking/participation, etc. They can still possibly be labeled “women’s spaces” or “for women and non-binary people”, but they often explicitly say “allies are welcome”.

Picking One and Making it Clear

I believe all of the above, except #1, can be useful for different kinds of communities. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting any of #2, #3, or #4. The problem comes, though, when you intend to do one, but you communicate another through your community rules, descriptions, and general messaging. This happens a lot! Usually when leadership doesn’t include folks who exist beyond the binary, or at least not far enough from “women” where it would matter.

So just make it clear: If you want a space that explicitly excludes nonbinary people who are not women, because you want to celebrate womanhood in particular, use “for women, or anyone who identifies as such in a significant way” — that’ll cover you for both trans women, and for non-binary women. I, for example, would feel welcome in a space labeled as such.

If what you want is a space away from patriarchy in general, then don’t call it a “women’s space”. Don’t call it a “women’s conference”. Don’t call it “Women in Technology”. Yes. I know that word carries a lot of weight for you. Yes, I know you’re not trying to be exclusionary here. Yes, I know it’s a convenient shorthand. But that’s not good enough. Don’t do it. You are actually making a lot of non-binary people who very explicitly aren’t comfortable with the term “woman” (even if they share literally all the concerns that the space was made for, including being femme (“feminine” but not necessarily “woman”), being AFAB, etc). Words matter, and they’re particularly strong in the queer/trans/non-binary community. The blunt truth is this: you have to let go of the label for the sake of the group you’re trying to serve. It’s okay to say “women and non-binary people”. But you have to say both of those word. Every. Time. It’s not good enough to say “woman is a shorthand”. It’s not. I promise you that’s not how it reads to many, many non-binary people I know. That’s just a pill you’ll have to swallow.

And finally, the same thing applies to any space that you want as #4: For the love of everything that is good, don’t call that a women’s space. Trans men are not women. Don’t even say “used to be women”, because that is very much not the case for many trans men. Use other words: “anyone who has lived gendered oppression in a significant way”, or “anyone with a strong voice regarding feminist issues”. Or, frankly, don’t even bother with excluding cis men: just call the space feminist and open to any and all genders, and be done with it.

Conclusion

Labels are tremendously important to the queer community in particular. We’re sensitive to them. We use them to filter out things that might actually be dangerous to us. It’s your responsibility, as community organizers, to put serious effort into the structure of your community, the words you use, the rules you place on it, and the resources you provide. And besides reading medium thinkpieces like these, which might help a little, there’s no replacement for simply taking people who are not like you, who exist on these intersections, and bringing them into leadership. Most non-binary individuals that have some kind of footing in the community would be able to help you do any of the above without even having to refer to external sources. We know what our needs are.