by Tory S
When I received my syllabus for my first course at Simmons, there was one line printed in bold under participation; “Dominating class discussion is just as bad as preserving a perfect silence all term.” I thought it was kind of ironic seeing as this was to be a class of all women and in my past experience the only people who “dominated” classroom discussions were men. However, as the semester progressed I found my assumption proven wrong, as I observed women did dominate classroom discussions, to the point where the professor stopped calling on them completely. Simmons is one of the few colleges in Boston, which does not enroll cis-men (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). While at enrolled in courses at Simmons without cis-male students, I became more at ease speaking in class (even when I gave the wrong answer), a better listener to the other students, and just more confident in my abilities to express my opinion. In a recent New York Times article titled, “How to Explain Mansplaining,” quoted a study that found when women spoke for up to a quarter less of the time then men when they were outnumber. The reasons women participate less often because they are often “talked over, cut off, interrupted,” by men or are they are concern over being deemed too “aggressive” by the men in the group. Two factors that are attributed to enabling women to participate are when “more women are present, and that women are leading.” The NYT article also cites a Harvard study that found that women talked more in a classroom setting when the teacher was also a woman. (Baird) I believe my experience at Simmons highlights how important women’s only spaces, because their ability to enable women to participate in classroom discussions without self- editing themselves, which not only builds self-confidence, but can also lead to individual led activism outside the the space.
When I say women only, I mean spaces where only cis-males are not admitted, but allow for trans-men and trans-women to participate if they wish. Simmons has a progressive transgender acceptance policy, so they do let trans-male students to stay and earn their Simmons degree regardless of their gender identity. Trans-women identify as women, thus must be welcome in women’s only spaces, because just like any group of individual women, their experiences may differ, but will help to expand the notions of “womanhood” and as well as destruct the boundaries of gender society beyond the binary. Additionally, the space deemed women’s only, does not have to a physical space, but can be online, in print/artistic expression, or even in a public place.
Women only spaces also can build invaluable relationships between women, who are often told or made to feel they are in completion with. Virginia Woolf argued about the lack of friendships between women in literature in a “Room of One’s Own,” that what is known about women is all in relation to men as she argued, “And how small a part of a woman’s life is that…”. (Woolf, 81) Woolf argued that if women worked together in friendship and had a space which allowed them to express their thoughts not in relation to men, “she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.” (Woolf, 83) The “vast chamber” Woolf wrote of is a space where women’s experiences, knowledge, and ideas can be shared with other women in relation to other women, without the male voice overpowering their own.
A big part of feminist activism is sharing and listening to the stories of other women, as many issues that effect a large population of women such as abortion and sexual assault are not spoken about in the public realm, because as women we are made to feel shame about those experiences. Recently, the Center for Reproductive Rights released a YouTube Campaign called “Draw the Line,” where famous female actresses share the abortion stories of other women, which aims to highlight the diverse amount of circumstances many women face, when they choose to get an abortion. This represents activism against the shame women feel about not only having an abortion, but also against the silence that shame perpetuates. When women feel shame for talking openly or sharing their personal experiences, especially with other women, a void of valuable information is created for the women currently struggling with any one of those issues, including abortion. The personal experiences of women still serve as an important resource of information especially in the “age of google,” where women are targeted with misinformation provided by anti-women groups,and by companies who profit on women as consumers. For example many methods of birth control have been advertised and sold to women only to be discovered to be dangerous to their health at a later date. Women’s only space not only encourages women to speak more freely and instill confidence, but could also serve as activism by encourage women to share experiences/knowledge, which are taboo in our male dominated society.
In addition to my experiences at Simmons College, another women’s only space that has influenced my own daily life online is a private Facebook group, which was initially founded by my friends when they were students at HWS. The group spawned from a party where the majority of the women attending ended up in the kitchen, while the men were congregated in another area watching TV. The women bonded by talking about their periods or what now has come to be known as “their uterus stories.” Clichéd as that may sound, as a “women’s only” Facebook group, the topics of discussion have expanded beyond the physical nature of the female body. Women in the group now post about their experiences involving relationships (family, marriage, friends, dating), feminist related issues, the workplace, having/raising children, or just a space to rant about that one thing that ruined your day. The women in the group range in age from about 25-60 give or take, so not only is it a space to share one’s own story, but also an opportunity to listen and learn about the stories (positive/negative) of other women. Without the overwhelming nature of the male presence interrupting our discussion with their opinions, judgments, questions, or misgauged humor. The women’s only group on Facebook for me, has been a truly supportive and engaging environment, even though it does not any particular purpose other to just exist as a space for the women in the group, it has inspired me to become more involved in women’s activism as an individual.
Looking back at that line in my first syllabus, I think that is what women’s only groups to strive to create, a space where women engaged in topical discussions of their choosing with other women, without fear of being dismissed or domination of the space by the male voice. I believe women’s only spaces are undervalued and have taken a backseat to the effort among feminist to include men as a way to promote the idea of equality between the genders and to counter the construct the of “male-hating’ feminist. However, women have a right to establish their own spaces apart from men without the accusation that doing so goes against the mission of equality between men and women, as there are still plenty of spaces dominated by men where women (or anyone who cannot identify as cis-male) are not welcome. Gloria Steinem in her memoir, “My life on the Road,” spoke about her tours on college campuses and the roots of consciousness raising groups in the women’s movement stretching back to the days of Seneca Falls. While Steinem believes the internet will never “replace being in the same space,” she stresses the importance of women’s talking groups, “ In them, we discover we’re not alone, we learn from one another, and so we keep going toward shared goals.”(Steinem, 123) Not every women’s only group must work towards a single goal or accomplishment, instead the activism comes about through the solidarity between women and their experiences; when they realizes they are the only one, but rather have a shared story to united them against or for a larger cause.
The women’s only spaces I have been a part of whether in a classroom or socially, have also shown me that women do not have to compete against one another to be successful nor do we have to accomplish a goal or final objective when we do come together. Women can be activist simple by creating a space, speaking and listening to one another in efforts to dissolve the isolating shame society has created to silence the voices of all women.
Baird, Julia. “How to Explain Mansplaining.” The New York Times 20 04 2016: 2-3.
Steinem, Gloria. My Life on the Road. New York: Random House, 2015.
The Center for Reproductive Rights. Draw The Line. 21 01 2015. 20 04 2016 <www.drawtheline.org>.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. orlando: Harcourt, 2005.