By Jeanne F. Neath
My Dad traveled for his job throughout the ’50s and ’60s, so I grew up experiencing women and girl only space – me and my Mom – several days of the week. My friends were mostly girls so the time I spent with them was usually girl only space. What I remember most from those years were the feelings of camaraderie, fun, comfort, relaxation, safety, and ease I felt when there were no boys or men around. I liked it a lot when my Dad was home too. He was a kind-hearted man who loved kids and I was his only child. When he was home he liked to spend time just with me, gardening or taking me bowling or ice skating or having me help him wash the car. But, still everything changed in how it felt at our apartment as he left and returned each week.
I have a very clear memory of the first time I experienced feminist women only space. I was in my twenties, married (to a man), but beginning to realize how strongly drawn I felt toward women. At the time a woman in Lawrence, Kansas was letting the women’s community there use a house she had for women’s events. I think they called it Womanhouse. I had become friends with a lesbian couple and they invited me to go with them one night to see some homegrown women’s entertainment. The fourth woman who went with us was a friend and former lover of my two lesbian friends. I was starting to have a crush on her.
The room they were having the show in was packed with women. I don’t think I knew any of them, as I’d never been in that (or any) women’s community before. I was just about knocked over by my own feelings and all the vibrant energy I experienced in that room. The entertainment was not all that memorable – I can’t remember any of it now – but I felt possibilities opening up before me and a thrill I had never felt before.
Looking back on this event, I imagine that 90 or 95% of the women there were probably lesbians and even I, from my then very limited and heterosexual perspective, could see all the closeness and intimacy shared among the women. I had spent quite a bit of time with my two lesbian friends, but they were a tight knit couple. I’d been reading Colette’s Claudine novels and was intrigued by their bisexual/lesbian content. I even thought of myself as bisexual. But, suddenly, in that room full of lesbians I think I came to know in some deep parts of myself that I could be a lesbian and that it wouldn’t be lonely and frightening, but exciting and fun and intriguing and feminist.
When I think of those girls and young women who are choosing to transition to so-called “transmen” today, I feel terribly sad that they are not being able to walk into Womanhouse and come out understanding in their deepest selves that they are lesbians and that they can join a lesbian feminist revolution. When I fight now for women only space I am fighting, in part, for this lost generation of young dykes.
Women only space allowed me, enticed me into becoming a lesbian, but it also enabled me to become a lesbian feminist revolutionary. Gerda Lerner, in her extensive history on The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, explains that women are only able to form an organized feminist movement when they can meet together with no men present. Women only space is a requirement for women to be able to share our own female experiences, find our commonalities, locate the source of our common problems in patriarchal society, and organize a resistance movement. Women will never again be able to recognize the ways that patriarchy oppresses us based on our reproductive capacities if we allow male to transgender persons to prevent us from meeting in women only groups. It’s becoming more and more evident that transactivists don’t want women to be able to talk in public about our own biology (or even wear “pussyhats”) because it makes them feel left out.
I have been able to spend over forty years now developing my lesbian feminist consciousness, thanks to the access I’ve had to meetings and conversations in women only and lesbian only spaces and to feminist writing (which is a form of women only space between the female author and reader). It is hard to allow oneself to see all the damage caused by this patriarchy to the earth, to wildlife, to women, people of color, people throughout the global South, even to the rich white men who suffer the loss of their humanity as they steal from the rest of us. Yet, life is far easier when you can see the root causes of all the damage and work to change society at its roots. Many women who have not found their way to women only space and radical feminist consciousness see some of the damage, but cannot see a path out of patriarchy.
One of the worst parts of living in this capitalist patriarchy is the way it destroys people’s feelings of self worth, as everyone constantly ranks everyone else (and themselves) and no one is ever good enough. Years ago some lesbians I knew started a lesbian only “self-hate” group. I told one of my professors at the time about the group and she expressed her disdain by saying, “I hope they aren’t meeting to sit around hating themselves.” Not at all. These women were working to understand the ways that patriarchal society was making it hard to love themselves and supporting each other in overcoming the self-hatred. I don’t think it is even possible for women to learn to love ourselves or to find our authentic selves without access to women only spaces and the opportunities they provide for developing feminist consciousness.
I am so grateful for the gifts I’ve received from being with women in women only spaces – from my Mom, to my childhood girlfriends, to my lesbian girlfriends, my life partner Paula, all the feminist and lesbian-feminist political groups, and my feminist, lesbian and lesbian separatist friends. I’m not sure at all that I would have stayed sane without you. I certainly would not have the vision I have now for building the female-centered societies we need to restore the earth and all of us.