Women-Only Spaces and Why I Love the Locker Room

women_symbol_200Last Tuesday after a swim I was in the locker room at the Y. I glanced behind me to see a colleague from another department just arriving for her workout.

We don’t see a lot of each other and we’re not super close or anything, but before long she and I and a third woman who is a stranger to us both started chatting about poor sleep, hot flashes, and night sweats.  My colleague is a bit younger than I am. The stranger a bit older. So between the three of us we represented three generations of menopause — the prospect of it, the reality of it, and the well and truly over it.

As I gathered up my things and wished them both a good day, I felt grateful for the opportunity to have a spontaneous and casual conversation about something sort of personal.  And that’s why I love the locker room. This same conversation would never have taken place in a space that wasn’t a women-only space.

Feminists have been thinking about women-only spaces for decades.  We value them for all kinds of reasons.  As I experienced in the locker room, there are some conversations that just wouldn’t start up in the company of men.

People are okay with separate locker rooms. But the idea of women-only spaces is actually controversial. Some people even think they’re sexist. And that prompts others to defend them as not sexist. Consider this post on Role Reboot by a women who found a job through a women’s only Facebook group for women in IT:

While there is a small part of me that squirms at the exclusivity of an invite-only circle, there’s a much louder voice that remembers that “old boys clubs” have run the world forever. For men who work in business and tech, the industry is the men-only space. It may not be a backroom cloudy with cigar smoke anymore, but you can still see it in the inner workings if you look close enough. Every lineup of executives that all went to the same three colleges and pull each other between the same three companies and promote each other’s people is the new version of an old phenomenon.

Now we’re creating our own opportunities to help, hire, and promote each other. Is it overcompensation to insist on women-only spaces? Sure, but we’re nowhere near the point where it’s unnecessary. When people start ranting about the “sexism” of all-female spaces, I’m reminded of the West Wing bit about White House bathrobes:

Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?

CJ: In the women’s locker room.

Sam: But not the men’s.

CJ: Yeah.

Sam: Now, that’s outrageous. There’s a thousand men working here and 50 women.

CJ: Yeah, and it’s the bathrobes that’s outrageous.

There’s been a lot of news lately about female-only spaces, from the woman-to-woman cab service SheRides, to the feminist-hacker space Double Union in San Francisco, to the new policies on transgender students put forth by women’s college Mt. Holyoke

When people point at these and rave about reverse-sexism, it means they’re too focused on the White House bathrobes when the real problems—only 2% of drivers are women and female passengers feel unsafe; and women in tech industries are woefully underrepresented—are staring them in the face.

Do I dream of a world in which I don’t feel like I need the safe space of an all-women community? Sure, but in the meantime, I’m going to work my Old Girl’s Club until the playing field is less bumpy.

The blogger at ITISIWHOWILLIT has a great defence of women-only spaces against common objections.  For example, she says:

“It’s sexist- you wouldn’t want a men-only space”.
The first flaw in this argument is that it refuses to accept that the rest of the world is exclusive of women- that though they may be physically present (they aren’t “banned” from the room as men and self-identifying men are in a women’s only space), they are not intellectually or politically present. The world makes us the Other, and if the only time when some women feel that they can be honest and productive is in the company of fellow “Others” (I use the term begrudgingly), then that space must exist.


“Well, I don’t feel threatened by men, so I don’t see what the problem is”.
This kind of experience denying is incredibly problematic. It’s so problematic because it’s such an easy thing to do- we are empirical creatures, and we construct our lives around our experience, so it makes sense to base our view of others on our experience. Yet, an abstraction from our own experience is essential if we are to understand any kind of struggle. As a white british I have never experienced racism/xenophobia- but I could never deny its existence, nor would most people who deny the feminist’s struggle. Yet they still use this very argument against feminism. Baffling. I imagine the main reason that this isn’t seen as 1) logically flawed, 2) fucking stupid, 3) outright offensive is because woman’s struggle isn’t as felt as racism is. I mean, women aren’t killed/raped/beaten/fired because they’re women, right? There is always another reason- walking alone at night, a short skirt, not listening, being physically weak, having children… is my point evident? Women are almost always abused for the reason that they are a woman, anything else is an excuse for what is nothing less than sexism. You are privileged if you don’t feel threatened by men, other people are not so privileged.


“I’m not intimidating/offensive/dominating”.
Yes, you are. Even in saying that you are being intimidating, marginalising/guilt-tripping women for wanting to be alone with people they feel more connected to and safer around. It is very hard for many women to feel secure talking about their experience with men present, particularly when issues such as rape/sexual assault are on the table. It is very difficult, if not impossible for men to even empathise with women when they’re talking about these issues, and that is fine, we do not expect you to understand, but we do expect you to understand  our need for a sisterly community and a comfortable space in which to talk about very personal, very real, very emotional experiences.

And then finally:

“Women-only spaces are just women sitting around man-hating”.
Wrong. Wrong in so many ways.

You can go here to read all the different ways in which that’s wrong.

But one way it’s wrong is that, as my locker room example shows, women-only spaces give rise to different kinds of conversations. And as much as some men would like to think that when there are no men around, women just want to talk about men, it doesn’t happen quite as much as they might hope.

And remember, just because there’s value in women-only spaces doesn’t mean that integrated spaces don’t also have value.  I’ve posted before about women-only gyms. I’m not a big fan. See that conversation here.

But I love women-only races like the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon. And I posted about why women-only events are not sexist and are a good thing for women.

The Facebook IT group for women-only made me think of something else that I’m quite enjoying lately. I joined a Facebook group for women who sail. It’s a closed group. You need to request membership and be approved.

I’ve been sailing for almost two decades, but never have I belonged to a group of sailors who are all women.  It’s got a totally different quality and character than any of the other forums or groups. There is a lot of encouragement and support going on, a lot of empathizing and reassuring, information-sharing about everything from routes to electronics to cleaning products to the quickest drying fabric.

And that’s why I love the locker room.



14 thoughts on “Women-Only Spaces and Why I Love the Locker Room

  1. Sometimes and in some places it feels that way. I like the Y change rooms too. But not always. For me “women only” hasn’t always equaled welcoming. Such spaces, in some places, can be welcoming to some sorts of bodies and not others. You can be too fat, too inked, not able bodied….None of this is a complaint against gender segregated change rooms but a reminder that the virtues you point out aren’t universally experienced.

    1. That’s true. Women aren’t saints, so women-only isn’t always going to be perfect. I think age has a lot to do with it, too. No offense to younger women, but a locker room filled with twenty-somethings wouldn’t be my first choice.

      1. Not just the body image issues. I’m thinking too of the fuss over who belongs there. The times my daughter has been challenged about whether she was in the right room were older women doing the challenging. I fit most of the normative expectations and even i approach change rooms with some apprehension at first. But yes, like you, i like the Y and feel comfortable there.

  2. I simply view the women’s only locker rm. like any other personal hygiene/cleaning rm.: I don’t spend much time chatting there nor bonding with other women.

    It’s not worth a lot of energy and time on arguing whether or not women only space for clothes changing, showering should exist. But definitely I wouldn’t any other way for these functions.

    Weird that a young woman would be challenged by older women for her presence. Very strange…and doesn’t reflect patience /tolerance that should come with life experience. 🙂

      1. Will take time.
        We use our brain during our waking moments, for moving every limb, turning our head, even looking at things and naming things in 1 coordinated scene in front of our eyes. It’s a lot of automatic information processing by the brain, which I’m rebuilding brain stamina. Sometimes I just feel tired afterwards…and I know my body is more fit than my brain at this time.

        A head injury is a hidden temporary disability which makes it difficult for others to understand since I look and speak normal.

  3. I liked this post, mostly because I found myself thinking about it hours later after I had read it. Even as I worked out this morning, I found myself weighing my own thoughts on whether “women-only spaces” were sexist. To be honest, in the end, I think I mostly align with Jean’s thoughts but I do appreciate hearing the feminist perspective – so to me, this post is bang on with respect to the theme of your blog. I can read about training schedules and personal victories at a lot of other fitness blogs and sites. Posts like these make yours stand out. Thank you.

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