On the Design of Women’s Spaces

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.

  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.

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.

 by the author.

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npm CLI team’s green-haired digital dryad. Boricua. Queer af. @wealljs admin. http://pronoun.is/they?or=she

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Kat Marchán

Kat Marchán

npm CLI team’s green-haired digital dryad. Boricua. Queer af. @wealljs admin. http://pronoun.is/they?or=she