Swimming with no men– McIver’s Baths and single-sex spaces

Since I’ve been in Sydney on sabbatical, I’ve had the chance to go to a few of the incredibly beautiful rock tidal pools here that are built on the ocean in a protected area for swimming. One of the most famous, Wylie’s Baths caters to serious swimmers, people with kids, and anyone who wants to enjoy sun, surf and sea in a pool where the waves wash over you. Here is a picture from my visit there.

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Right next to Wyle’s baths, in Coogee beach in Sydney, is another pool—McIver’s Baths. What makes McIver’s Baths special is that it is a women-only space (young male children are allowed, as well as female children of any age).

McIver’s is also special in that it has been a women-only bathing space for well over 100 years. It is reputed to have been a historical location where Aboriginal women bathed, and was formally constructed with changing rooms in 1886. The McIver family took over running it until it was taken over by the Randwick Ladies Amateur Swimming Club, which has held the lease on the place ever since.

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There have been objections to the exclusion of males from the pool throughout the history of McIver’s. Most recently, in 1995, a man complained to the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board that he was barred from the baths on account of his sex. The city council responded that there had been no complaints of this nature, and the lessee stated that they couldn’t afford to build changing rooms for men. (It is also true that Wylie’s baths, which admits everyone, is 450 meters away).

A blogger writing about the history of McIver’s added this about the case:

The women’s pool was traditionally used by older women, women with disabilities, nuns and others who preferred privacy as well as pregnant women and older people with arthritis who enjoyed the pool’s private sunbaking area and didn’t want to go to the beach, indulge in mixed bathing, or be bothered by men. Thursday was traditionally married ladies day. Girls’ schools held water safety classes at the baths, which were popular amongst the Islamic community. The club’s free lessons had helped Islamic women and children gain confidence in the water and some Islamic women contended that it was the only place their faith permitted them to swim. The medical profession argued that Coogee’s women’s baths were the only place where women who had suffered disfiguring operations could comfortably bathe.

As I was going in on Saturday I saw some Muslim women in hijabs and tunics, with their full-length swimsuits underneath. They were leaving the bath, carrying inflatable pool toys with their kids in tow. As I changed I saw women of all ages, sizes, and nationalities hanging out on the rocks (some sunbathing topless, some reading), swimming, wading at the edge, and chatting with other women. A bunch of the women were swimming topless, some in their underwear—as if they had decided impulsively to stop by for a swim, but hadn’t brought a bathing suit with them. No suit? No problem! Others (like me), were in bathing suits, long-sleeve rash guard shirts, with goggles and cap, doing laps.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in women-only activities—I play on a women’s squash team, I’ve road and mountain bike raced in women’s fields and I’ve taken a zillion dance classes that were almost entirely women. And I’ve enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie you get in a women’s locker room. Tracy has blogged eloquently about that experience here .

But I really really like this space. I like the friendly vibe, the feelings of safety and relaxation that other women told me they felt here, and the freedom to swim or read or sunbathe unfettered by suits or judgment. In particular, I saw several larger women swimming, hanging out, smiling, and walking around with none of the self-consciousness that I’ve witnessed (in myself and others) countless times at public pools, gyms, and beaches. This is not to say that women are uniformly non-judgmental, but rather than this place—a place for women-only—seems to dictate a congeniality and solidarity in attitude which I wish existed at every swimming pool on the planet. Tracy has blogged here about women-only races and offered some responses to those who think they are unjustly exclusionary.

If readers have qualms about dedicated women-only spaces, let me know—I’d like to hear them. I’ve not offered any arguments here, just said that my experiences and observations were overwhelmingly positive.  But if you’re ever in Sydney you should go. Among other reasons, the entrance fee is only 20 cents!

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About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

10 thoughts on “Swimming with no men– McIver’s Baths and single-sex spaces

  1. typhaine says:

    I am a supporter of women-only spaces for many of the reasons you mention. But I think the sense of comfort we may feel in such places should not blind is to the fact that they often remain exclusionary. In the case of the McIver’s baths, I suspect that their existence is an obstacle to the aboriginal women who swam there historically… Are they also welcome there? Can they afford it? (I do not know the situation at all, I just wonder and make assumptions.)

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    • catherine womack says:

      Hi– luckily, cost is not an issue at all. They charge 20 cents for entry, which absolutely anyone can afford. And they don’t even police it– sometimes no one is there to see you throw change in the bin. re welcome: your question is a good one, and I don’t know the answer. I’ve done some digging around, and here is some interesting info about the history of bathing on the Sydney coast that includes info about aboriginal women.
      http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5055930

      As a non-Australian, I don’t know much detail about Aboriginal forced relocation from the Sydney coast in the 19th century, but I am guessing from what I have heard that this did happen, so this site would be less used because these women had been forcibly relocated. I will post another reply when I get more information.

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  2. Net says:

    I love love this pool. I have many fond memories of swimming there when I lived around Randwick whilst studying Uni in the late 80’s – 90’s. I always referred to it as Coogee Women’s Pool. I’m so glad to see that it is still only 20c! How amazing! For the person who asked if it is affordable for Aboriginal women – 20c is nothing in Australia. I can’t even think what you could buy for 20c now – absolutely nothing comes to mind! As for cultural inclusion, I can’t remember swimming with Aboriginal women there, but I hope that these women feel included. It is probably the first place I interacted in any way with women of Islamic faith. It has such a welcoming atmosphere there. Whe it’s busy, you just see so many women of all shapes and sizes lying over the rocks, catching the sun. You’ve made me all nostalgic for it!

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    • catherine womack says:

      Hi– hope you get a chance to get back there sometime. It was lovely and fun and relaxing and bracing (even now, the water is a bit on the coolish side). And I loved the friendly interaction among all sorts of women there.

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  3. Jean says:

    I’m trying to square the image of hijab wearing, full clothed Muslim women along with topless women in that same swimming area. The topless debate is….a First World small matter of feminism. We have to get over this… It is truly a small matter except for matters of breast-feeding in public.

    I know I’m expressing a minority opinion.

    We have to truly appreciate definitions of feminism vary widely even in a women-female only pool.

    Thx for the historic background.

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    • catherine womack says:

      Hi Jean– you are absolutely right; definitions of feminisms vary greatly, as do cultural tolerances of ways of displaying or covering women’s bodies. Take a look at the link I posted in the reply at the top, that mentions issues of nude bathing (the norm in the 19th century) and swimming as a way of concealing athletic movement on the part of women. It is a great illustration of that complexity.

      Thanks as always for your comments!

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  4. Jean says:

    May I add: what does an aboriginal woman look like? We would be sooooo surprised.

    Note: A sister of mine, was mistaken for being aboriginal.

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    • catherine womack says:

      Oh yes, you are right again! There are more than 500 aboriginal nations here, all over Australia, and their appearances, customs, needs are all different.

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  5. […] Womack swam at McIver’s Baths in Sydney; a women-and-children […]

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