A young woman who presented at one of my lifetime learning classes on gender roles said, “Men-only spaces are for the exclusion of women, while women-only spaces are for the empowerment of women.”
From the perspective of a woman who has seen multiple sexist barriers fall and most “men-only” spaces open (willingly or unwillingly) to women, I think the historic perspective is important. When I was growing up, segregation by gender was both a cause and an affect. Since the roles and spheres of men and women were so separate, they convened in separate spaces. But when women started to demand access to opportunities in education, business, government, athletics and other arenas, it became apparent that men-only spaces created and sustained a pattern of discrimination. Important decisions were being made on the golf course and in smoke filled rooms from which women were deliberately excluded.
The process of opening these spaces often involved litigation, and only guaranteed access, not welcome. In the 1980’s I was invited to a press launch being held at a men’s club in London. When I arrived, I was told with considerable disdain by the doorman that “there was already a woman upstairs.” He made me feel as though we were polluting a sacred space.
A decade later I belonged to a Rotary Club that had finally allowed women, but where leadership consistently told sexist jokes from the podium. I was a strong, public figure. Membership was important to my position and my ability to accomplish the goals of my organization. But I felt uncomfortable being there.
Until 2018, when Senator Tammy Duckworth demanded a rule change after giving birth while serving as a US Senator, children under one year old were not allowed on the floor of the Senate, effectively insuring that nursing mothers could not vote.
In 2019, the Boy Scouts of America will change its name in keeping with its decision to admit girls. Like many women, I do not applaud this decision. A friend who is very active in the Boy Scouts said that this historic move would give girls access to becoming Eagle Scouts, a recognizable honor that opens education and career opportunities. While this may be true, it overlooks the fact that there is a comparable rank in Girl Scouting, the Gold Award, that is also achieved after significant learning and service. I would much prefer that this accomplishment gain equal currency. If there are girls who would like to belong to the new organization, I am glad they now have access. But they will not be in a space dedicated to empowering girls, to “building girls of courage, confidence and character.”
I just attended the American Association for Women in Community Colleges National Conference, an event explicitly for the empowerment of women. It has been a while since I have been in a women-only space and I was invigorated by the energy and moved by the open dialog. One of the former presidents of the Association reminded us that a few years ago women leaders were asked if there was still a need for a women’s organization. The answer was a resounding yes. I agree.