When I was little we went on a seaside holiday. The cove where we stayed in a shabby but friendly C19th hotel was calm and safe. One day, we went to a different beach where there were waves. There was a section for swimming and I begged to be able to swim there. I was allowed and was doing OK, enjoying riding the waves to the shore, until a boy, older than me, strayed into the area on a surfboard. I didn’t see him but apparently, I was in his way and he shouted at me, I floundered and got hit by a wave I wasn’t expecting. A member of the beach patrol called me to come out of the water and he and my parents told me off for trying to swim at a beach where I wasn’t strong enough. The older boy went on his merry way unchastised.
No one cared that I was doing OK until he got in my way and he was to blame for starling me and for having a craft in an area meant for swimmers.
I then went to get changed, by myself, crying, in the women’s change rooms - a crude brick structure on that beach with a cornered entryway for privacy. I was very angry that, once again, I, as a girl, was the one blamed when I didn’t feel it was my fault. I was at that time of life when having some independence and freedom was important and I was confident going into the change rooms alone. I sensed something while I was getting changed and I looked up. A man was standing in the doorway, staring. I went to scream - he fled. I got changed as quickly as I could and left - frightened. But I didn’t scream and nor did I tell anyone because I knew that it would be me who was blamed - for wanting freedom, to do things, to swim, to be independent. I’d figured out by then that it was girls who were to blame for the actions of men and boys and who needed to get out of the way and be sure that we did not stop men and boys from doing what they wanted to do.
Around the same time, a friend of my mother’s was ‘bashed’ (as we used to say then) by her husband. The women wondered what she had done to deserve it. A male relative said he was ‘being kind’ by telling her what she had done wrong. Another friend sat as a member of the jury on a rape trial. It was her fault she said after - because she knew him. All that didn’t make sense at the time and I remember a feeling of burning, red anger with the rising realisation that the world was unfair to girls and that this was not something that would change when I became a woman.
I am now old and the unfairness persists. Women still have compromised access to public spaces. We are still blamed for men’s violence whilst men’s violence is often not named (he is ‘the perpetrator’ or ‘attacker’) and the media write long eulogies for him, describing him as a ‘good man’ who ‘snapped’ (and killed his female partner and children).
This is why women-only spaces matter. Women do not have the same access to public space as men. In some societies, we are banned from public spaces. In others, where we have access, we know, deep down, that this is compromised - it’s men’s space really and we need to watch out, be careful, move out of the way, don’t incite his rage, don’t look at him, don’t give the impression of ‘asking for it’, watch what we wear, be alert - and we know we will be blamed if anything happens to us by some, if not the majority - or we will have to prove our innocence more so than his guilt.
Now some men want access to women’s spaces and/or women’s spaces are being eroded. Little girls on the beaches in brick changing rooms, proud of their newfound independence, will not be able to threaten to scream when men enter because either the room will be unisex or they will be taught that whereas they need to be careful of men, a man can still look like every other man, but be entitled to women’s spaces. And the culture of blame will continue because this never has been challenged. If assaulted, filmed, scared, or intimidated it will always be ‘her fault’. Funny how we know who the women are when it comes to apportioning blame.
We must save women-only spaces as part of the ongoing struggle to challenge men's privilege and power and to claim our rightful share of and access to public places. This is not transphobic. This is about challenging patriarchy and misogyny.