For Us: Feminism in Defense of Women-only Spaces
By Laura Kamienski


“Currently feminism seems to be a term without any clear significance…but another prepackaged role…a lifestyle choice…Emphasis on identity and lifestyle is appealing because it creates a false sense that one is engaged in praxis…”
--bell hooks (48, 28)

Lately, when I talk to young women about feminism 1  I very often hear the statement, “For me feminism is…”. Many of them go on to tell me that they are anti-choice, opposed to affirmative action, or that they believe that defending freedom to do “whatever they want” should be the main priority of feminist agenda. The recent trend to include any and all beliefs under the appellation “feminism” has made becoming a “feminist” more attractive to young women who have been reluctant to be associated with a radical movement. One of the most vocal and organized proponents of conservative “feminism” has christened itself “ifeminism” or “individualist feminism”. 2  I would propose a more accurately descriptive neologism: “formēism” (for-′mE-i-z&m.)

While superficially calling for the end of oppression, formēists are replacing conviction and action based on political analysis and class struggle with a focus on the acceptance of any personal opinion or preference. For example, instead of acting from the understanding that to advance the cause of women abortion must be considered expressly as an economic, logistical, practical, and political question, formēists are discussing the morality of abortion and are defending an individual’s right to be anti-choice. This is exactly what those opposed to women’s liberation want and is exactly what those engaged in the women’s movement must argue against. The issue of women’s advancement through reproductive freedom is not, and must not become, a personal moral question about the fetus. Feminists, including those personally opposed to abortion, must fight for reproductive freedom, including access to safe, legal, and when needed free, abortion for all women. This is not a call to divorce morality from political ideology as some contend. On the contrary, consciously subordinating personal concerns to the broader aims of achieving societal morality is a necessary and critical component of feminist, and all progressive political strategy.

More generally, formēist language includes silence about (or subtle denouncements of) lesbianism, and the use of unisex titles instead of “women’s” or “feminist”.  Formēists are engaged in redirecting the feminist movement to include all personal politics, including anti-choice, anti-affirmative action, and heterosexist and class collaborationist stances. And, instead of developing a more accurate analysis of the global oppression of women 3 , they co-opt the concept of diversity to mean the wholesale acceptance of any personal belief system or action.

It is a sign of successful reactionary influence when women feel encouraged by the fact that feminist stereotyping has declined. The reduction of stereotyping is a result of the influence that patriarchy has had on feminism. When stereotyping escalates it is an indication of the success of the movement. Because of their vapid, non-confrontational positions 4 , formēists are often met with less resistance than the “ball-breaking dyke and man-hating neurotic” feminists of the seventies. But let one formēist speak out about exploitation or oppression and she’ll certainly be met with the same disdain and reprisal that the “short-haired”, “unshaven”, “flannel shirt / boot wearing”, “bra burning”, “dyke” has experienced throughout the entire history of the women’s movement (Russ 3). Feminist goals are strategically developed to undermine patriarchy, including the structure of the patriarchal family. Homosexuality also undermines patriarchy by rejecting patriarchal familial relationship. 5  Along with other well-founded fears of reprisal, the aversion to the word “feminism” is deeply connected with the specific fear of reprisal for, or disgust with, the possibility of being mistaken for a lesbian–i.e., homophobia. 6 Since heterosexism and homophobia are both crucial for maintaining patriarchy they are institutionally encouraged and are a prominent ideological force behind the campaign to re-define the word feminism.

What has replaced feminism is a sort of counterculture that bears little resemblance to a political movement (Russ 2). The idea that all women’s ideas, behaviors and experiences are equally valid in relationship to feminist goals has led to the widespread acceptance of the preposterous belief that anything a woman says or does is “feminist” simply because she is a woman. 7  In other words, being a woman has become the equivalent of being a feminist. But not all of a woman’s actions or beliefs necessarily correspond with feminist goals simply because she is a woman. There is clearly a deficiency in the ability of the women’s liberation movement to develop cohesive strategy when a profusion of women are identifying as “feminists” no matter what their political positions are.

Conservative ‘feminists’ are championing short skirts, make-up and high heels under the guise of personal empowerment and a “woman’s right to choose”. Mediated encouragement of personal obsession with appearance, weight and motherhood has impelled women’s centers to implement an increasing number of programs on topics catering to individual concerns such as health, fitness and time management. “Feminists” and “feminist” groups are more frequently using male authority and relationship or collaboration with men in power to gain respectability, to avoid being labeled, to insure job security, or to gain promotion. Similarly, men in power are placing conservative women in positions of prominence and public visibility, in an attempt to increase their support from women (Russ 7). One recent example of this is the extraordinary amount attention and air time (space) given to Anne Coulter, 8  a prominent female lawyer who accuses the “liberal democrats” of causing all of society’s ills under the false premise that democrat and republican interests are somehow distinct. 9

Women’s groups and centers are discussing and adopting mission statements that replace social and political consciousness with personal gain. In their attempt to popularize feminism, especially to men, formēist groups have abandoned authentic or effective political agendas and have reduced feminism to issues of personal lifestyle and opinion and single-issue programs and activities. In effect they have created an ideology devoid of political analysis, agenda and liberatory impact (Russ 7-8). What has been lost is feminism as an impetus to the radical reordering of society through socially conscious political struggle. Collective consciousness and the courage to withdraw support of patriarchy are exactly what are missing in this conservative wave of formēism.

The Psychology Trap

“The only way oppressed people can reclaim their damaged self-esteem is by struggling against those responsible for their actual objective, material oppression.”
Joanna Russ (11)

Some psychologists and theoreticians attempt to incorporate critical social analysis and action into their practices, but psychology by definition is the science of the mind and behavior. As a collection of academic disciplines concerned with how [individual] people work, including their behavior, mental processes, and pathologies it can only function as an attempt to tweak oppressive conditions into something more livable (i.e., reform) within the existing framework of capitalist exploitation.

The attempt to abate the oppression of women through psychological reform is specious because it allows us to stand outside of the political arena in a non-confrontational, “lady-like” manner and still feel like we are engaged in the struggle. But in reality what is being offered to us only serves to reinforce the status quo. According to Russ, “[Psychological theories] function to direct our attention away from the causes of oppression located outside the oppressed individual and toward the inadequacies in personal relationships between oppressed individuals” (Russ 34). Oppression and exploitation then cease to be understood as an outgrowth of historical conditions and come to be considered as entities produced by a “special psychology” (Russ 32). This reactionary stratagem enjoys success because everyone is interested in improving her personal relationships, and it’s dangerous because psychology and social work within the constructs of capitalist ideology are tools of reactionary manipulation. As Selma James, international coordinator of the Global Women's Strike and founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, so adeptly points out:
Psychology itself by its nature is a prime weapon of manipulation, i.e., social control, of men, women, and children. It does not acquire another nature when wielded by women in a movement for liberation. Quite the reverse. To the degree that we permit it, it manipulates the movement and changes the nature of that to suit its needs. And not only psychology. Women’s Liberation needs—
The chicken or the egg?

[U]ltimately this comes down to the key question of whether the struggle is to abolish capitalism as a precondition to women’s liberation or whether the goal is to reform men.
--Mary Alice Waters (1970, 27)

No organization, including the women’s movement is immune to pressures from the society that surrounds them (Waters 1972, 9). Variations of conservative “feminism”, including debates about the need for a new feminism and whether women have all the power and success that they need, have developed during every period of backlash. For example in 1927 Elizabeth Abbot wrote: “The issue is not between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism. There is no such thing as ‘new’ feminism, just as there is no such thing as ‘new’ freedom. There is freedom; and there is tyranny. The issue is between feminism…and that which is not feminism” (Jeffreys 154). And, in 1984 Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan noted that there is a “myth that women today are ‘making it’ in great numbers” (211).

Conservative waves and backlash coincide with the success of the women’s movement to achieve some of its demands (Faludi 46). According to Mary Alice Waters, “This battle has always been one of the dividing lines between revolutionary and reformist currents within the working-class movement; between those who are committed to a class struggle perspective and those following a line of class collaboration” (1972, 3). So a division over the chicken-egg type question of whether women’s oppression can be eradicated within the constructs of capitalist class society (a caste analysis), or whether capitalism must first be destroyed (a class analysis), has perpetually plagued the women’s movement. Formēism is the latest expression of conservative, class- collaborationist “feminism” that gives caste, or reformism, a place of pre-eminence over class, or revolutionary struggle. In light of this, it isn’t surprising that, during capitalism’s recent worldwide economic downturn, and subsequent upsurge of war and reaction, this peculiar reactionary tendency is gaining momentum...and the chicken-egg dispute rages on.

So which came first? If one adopts the untenable position that men and women share an indistinguishable relationship to production and that women’s oppression is a matter of caste and not of class, then formēism seems sensible. For if women and men do, in fact, share the same relationship, then turning to individual psychology, socialization and interpersonal relationships as the source of women’s oppression makes sense. However, women’s relationship to production is not identical with men’s. In fact, it is our unique relationship to production that defines us as a group, and creates the framework for our oppression and exploitation.

In 1969, Margaret Benston wrote an astute article, “The Political Economy of the Women’s Liberation Movement”, detailing women’s special relationship to production. In it she describes the distinct relationships that men and women have to production and some of the social ramifications that result from those differences. She asserts that “household production” 10  is assigned to women and that men have no structural responsibility for it. Moreover, even though women are not entirely excluded from commodity production, their structural responsibility rests solely in household production. Conversely men are structurally responsible for “commodity production”11.  It is this distinction in our relationship with production that defines us economically, socially, politically and personally. This structural framework creates antagonism between the sexes that manifests itself in personal relationships, but it is the material based antagonism between the working and ruling classes (which reveals itself in the oppression of both men and women) that must be overturned in order to achieve women’s liberation. So, the primary difference between men and women rests in our structural responsibilities to production. According to Benston:

“The material basis for the inferior status of women is to be found in just this definition of women. In a society in which money determines value, women are a group who work outside the money economy. Their work is not worth money, is therefore valueless, is therefore not real work. And women themselves, who do valueless work, can hardly be expected to be worth as much as men, who work for money. In structural terms, the closest thing to the condition of women is the condition of others who are also outside of commodity production, i.e., serfs and peasants” (Benston 19).  

But keep in mind that the goal of achieving the same relationship to production as men within the constructs of capitalism is one of liberalism’s 12 slipperiest slopes, as Benston points out:

“[T]he contradictions between these alternatives and the need to keep women in the home will grow…First, the amount of unpaid labor performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum-wage scales would imply a massive redistribution of wealth…And second, there is the problem of whether the economy can expand enough to put all women to work as part of the normally employed labor force” (Benston 22).

Since what defines us as a political group is our relationship to production, it follows that women’s oppression is rooted in the development and needs of class society and not on the physical, sexual, and psychological differences between men and women. Yet the debate continues as to whether feminist struggle should be primarily to abolish capitalism as a precondition to women’s liberation or to reform gender specific roles and behavior within the existing structures of capitalist class society. In order for feminism to advance, reforming social and psychological behavior is necessary, but not sufficient, to end the oppression of women. Nor can fundamental changes in social and psychological conditions be realized under capitalism. Struggling to combat the lack of self-esteem generated by oppression acts as an ephemeral emollient, but women’s emancipation can only be achieved by overturning the economic structures that abet and encourage sexism and misogyny within the framework of institutionalized capitalist patriarchy (Russ 11).

This does not mean, however, that overturning these relations will immediately result in the emancipation of women or the end of misogyny. Misogyny is deeply ingrained in our social structures. Sexism is older than virtually any other form of oppression and exploitation (Waters 1970, 28-29). 13  It is so pervasive in our culture that even those of us who are conscious of it cannot be fully aware of all of its baleful effects. But, the eradication of class society through the destruction of capitalist property relations 14 will eliminate the material basis of women’s oppression. Without the material basis for oppression all “human relationships can themselves be transformed into free relations of free people” (Waters 1972, 4). The scientific methods of Marxism provide a materialist foundation for both socialism and women’s liberation. “It explains the role of the family within class society and the function of the family in perpetuating the oppression of women” (Waters 1972, 4). 15  Only after the abolishment of private property can women escape domestic subjugation and be free to develop fully as equal members of society.

This analysis removes the struggle for women’s liberation from the personal and rightfully assigns it as a social task in the interests of all humanity. In the mean time feminists shouldn’t ignore opportunities to undermine prescribed gender roles. We shouldn’t wait to fight for women’s liberation, but basic feminist strategy for struggle must be determined with the clear discernment that capitalism must be abolished in order to succeed (Waters 1970, 28).

Formēists will often claim that this argument is antiquated, that the victory of the women’s movement 16 has reassigned these structural responsibilities; that men and women now share equally, or at least share equal access to, commodity and household production. Most often this is expressed by pointing to the few examples of token women in positions of “power”, such as professors, business leaders, politicians. But this assertion is plainly false. For example, when examining the current situation of women, statistics show that we are still much less likely to have steady employment than men, and working women are still paid less (UN-HABITAT, URL). Jobs in commodity production which are considered feminine are conceptually and practically related to traditional household production such as teaching, nursing, sewing, cleaning, child care and secretarial work. These jobs are also some of the lowest paid with the most oppressive conditions.  Moreover, when women enter commodity production, in any capacity, it does not alleviate their structural responsibility for household production. Women are considered transitory workers whose need for work is less necessary—after all, men are structurally responsible to care for us. When men perform household tasks it is considered emasculating, or an exceptionally generous act of kindness (Benston 19). Though the women’s movement has succeeded in clearing some obstacles, one need only pick up a magazine or turn on a television to get a glimpse of the effectiveness of culturally mediated gender role assignments as a bulwark for exploitation.

Women-only Spaces – A sagacious tactic

“It is nothing extraordinary for a master to bar his slaves from the manor, but it is a revolutionary act for slaves to bar their master from their hut.”
Marilyn Frye (Johnson URL)

Space is culturally and economically defined. The allocation of space is not gender neutral. It is distributed according to relationships of power. Throughout history spaces have been culturally, religiously and politically marked as either "male" or "female". Even though women won full access to a limited amount of space in the 20th century, both symbolically and structurally, space was and continues to be largely defined as male. The struggle to attain and maintain space is of great concern to the women’s movement globally. The objection to, and disappearance of women-only space is an effect of backlash against women’s attempts to build personal and political autonomy (McFaddon URL).

As a socialist, a feminist and the director of a women-only martial arts studio, I am regularly compelled to specifically examine the value of women-only spaces and initiatives as a means of affirmative action within the context of feminist strategy. Since I believe that violence against women is a result of the institutionalized oppression of women, I maintain that it cannot be eliminated until women are no longer oppressed, which will ultimately require the destruction of capitalism. Marilyn Frye wrote, “The woman-only meeting is a fundamental challenge to the structure of power…When those who control access have made you totally accessible, your first acts of control must be denying access or must have denial of access as one of its aspects” [emphasis in original] (Frye 103). For this primary reason, among others, women-only spaces are a powerful weapon in the destruction of capitalism.

The first and most basic woman-only space is her body. Historically, women’s bodies have belonged to a man or men. (e.g., girls have belonged to their fathers and wives to their husbands.) Complex laws exist for determining to whom a woman should belong, should a husband, father or brother not be available. 17 Thanks to blood, sweat and tears shed by the fighters of the women’s liberation movement, many of these laws have been changed in the United States, some within just the last couple of decades (such as the requirement of parental or spousal permission to obtain an abortion). Yet as a class women are still dependent on men financially, politically and socially.  Our bodies are objectified and presented as simply another thing to be controlled by someone else. They don’t belong to us.  

Over the years that I’ve been a women’s fitness instructor I’ve repeatedly heard from clients, “I don’t want to bulk up! I don’t want to get big!” Interestingly, in this context, bulk refers to muscle which translates to strength yet women feel compelled to avoid it. The encouragement to take up as little space as possible has us dieting to the point of starvation and having dangerous plastic surgery (Faludi 217-219)—not to mention an epidemic of eating disorders. 18 Women are also encouraged to have small posture: legs crossed, lowered heads and eyes, slumped shoulders and closed gates. The deliberate encouragement of unhealthy small bodies and submissive posture renders us weak and vulnerable. We are taught to be soft-spoken and quiet, to be polite, to never make a scene; and heaven help us if we should interrupt. Essentially, we learn that our voices don’t count and should take up as little “space” as possible. Correspondingly, while men are busy throwing their proverbial weight (a measure of space) around we are busy desperately trying to get rid of ours!

According to patriarchal tradition, external spaces allotted to women are “private” spaces characterized by child rearing and family care. Men’s spaces are public spaces where social and political decisions are made. Women's assignment to the home has both economic and social implications. In Benston’s article she discusses some of the ramifications of women’s relegation to domestic space:

“The woman, denied an active place in the market [commodity production], has little control over the conditions that govern her life. Her economic dependence is reflected in emotional dependence, passivity, and other ‘typical’ female personality traits. She is conservative, fearful, supportive of the status quo” (21).

Again, Formēists will often rebut that this polemic is obsolete, that the success of the women’s movement has reassigned these structural responsibilities; that men and women now share equally, or at least share equal access to, commodity and household production. But Benston’s assertions remain vitally relevant today, as is clearly indicated by an article written in 1999 by Caroline Langridge, Independent Consultant and former Head of England’s National Health Service Women’s Unit:

Isn’t the reality that in a world where women still only earn 73% of the average male wage (1) the majority of women have some way to go before they can choose to regard themselves as no longer being economically dependent on men. Whilst I agree that now women can walk away from a marriage or partnership and survive, surely there is a distinct difference between surviving and thriving.

It’s instructive to discover that whilst women are increasingly playing a role in the fast growing small business sector, with 7% of women now described as self employed entrepreneurs, only 16.5% or 396,000 of the 2.4 million higher rate tax payers in the 1998/99 tax year were women. This reinforces the view that we have some way to go before a significant proportion of women are likely to reach the economic position of being able to purchase for themselves unaided the economic necessities of life (URL). 19

It is ironic that even though women have been outwardly allotted household space and responsibility for its care, for all intents and purposes, the notion of the family or household, with or without relationship to a man, is fundamentally male-centered. For example, if a woman steps out to create a family or household without relationship to a man that space is immediately relegated to “Other” status—single headed, female headed, woman headed. When women step outside of their designated roles within the male-centered family they are also relegated to Other status such as working mother or second income (McFaddon URL). In any case, women’s “authentic” work is still in the home whether we are married, single, or heads of households (Benston 19).

The amount of physical property women own is negligible in comparison with men. Women comprise more than fifty percent of the world’s population, yet we own only one percent of he world’s wealth. Women occupy an extremely small percentage of power positions such as corporate boards of trustees or political offices and we are the most impoverished group in the world (UN-HABITAT URL). Those of us who do manage to secure positions of importance are constantly reminded to “shape” up, fly right and play by the (patriarchal) rules. And, even when we do fly “right” we inevitably crash against a glass ceiling. Author Susan Faludi, in her unprecedented feminist work Backlash, talks about the reaction to women’s “success” in the capitalist marketplace:

“Under this backlash, like its predecessors, an often ludicrous overreaction to women’s modest progress has prevailed. ‘The women are taking over’ is again a refrain many working women hear from their male colleagues—after one or two women are promoted in their company, but while top management is still solidly male” (Faludi 64).

Women have historically had (and in many instances still have) limited or no access to many spaces. The fear of rape, stemming from a wide array of sources, results in our limiting our own freedom. In effect this means that men and women do not share the same entitlements. Women are told, and often believe that they should not and cannot go places where men can go. And since a woman is responsible to protect herself and her children, she often confines herself to her home even though, ironically, she is more likely to be victimized there than in public.20

Most forms of oppression have a corresponding expression of violence. For women this violence is manifested as rape and battering but also includes less obvious forms like harassment, catcalls, demeaning and devaluing language, and mediated objectification (Telsey 21). Though seemingly arbitrary and personal, this violence is a socially and politically driven device to control women as a population. But conservative feminist groups miss this point. They are now framing violence against women in terms of personal relationship. Anti-violence work has been removed from the context of social and political oppression. Instead of acting from the understanding that patriarchy in conjunction with capitalism has a huge stake in perpetuating sexist assault, anti-violence work has been reduced to victim advocacy and appeals to the personal humanity of men. Feminist actions such as women-only Take Back the Night marches 21  and women’s self-defense programs are being condemned as separatist examples of reverse discrimination. This pressure has prompted widespread policies of indiscriminate inclusion, and an emphasis on programs directed toward men.

Some Take Back the Night organizers have opted to discontinue the march’s women-only tradition, claiming that to end violence we must change men’s behavior, therefore the march should be open to men who are often reluctant to recognize their role in patriarchy. These organizers have decided to prioritize protesting all forms of sexualized violence and increasing awareness about gender roles in relationship to perpetrators and victims of violence. This decision effectively causes the call to end sexist violence against women to become secondary to, or indistinguishable from, other demands.

Similarly reactionary pressure has encouraged anti-violence activists to adopt taglines such as, “Rape is everybody’s problem!” and “Rape won’t end until men stop raping!” Yes, rape is everybody’s problem. But, even with the best intentions, when used as a slogan this phrase sidesteps the disparate character and effect of violence experienced by various populations, not to mention the root cause of violence against women—our relationship to material production. A better tag line would be, Men won’t stop raping until women are no longer oppressed! Reducing anti-violence work to victim advocacy and appeals to the humanity of men 22 cannot effect the elimination of sexist violence.

Sex-inclusive marches and non-gendered slogans make sense if you believe, first, that violence against all populations, including men and women, is identical, and second, that by reforming men you will achieve women’s emancipation. But by including men, the purpose of Take Back the Night is shifted away from the specific nature of women’s oppression, and the resulting violence against us. This is also true when we focus attention toward men in anti-violence work. This is an error in strategy for building this particular event, for directing anti-violence work, and for building a movement. Feminists must think in terms of the quality of political objectives and strategies and not simply in terms of numbers, mass appeal or short-term personal goals. As Leon Trotsky succinctly asserted:

“Not a single progressive idea has begun with a ‘mass base,’ otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in the last stages that the idea finds its masses – if, of course, it answers the needs of progress…[The pioneers] knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity” (112).

It makes sense that the women’s movement should fight against all other forms of sexualized violence. Feminists should encourage and participate in initiatives to discuss men’s role as perpetrators. We must also acknowledge the role of violence against women in connection with struggles for liberation in a broader sense. But to broaden events and the women’s movement in an attempt to attract and reform men is a grave tactical error. Though there will likely be some short-term benefit such as a few men making better decisions regarding violence, some particular events, and eventually the entire movement, will lose its long-term strategic value and effectiveness. Without deeper analysis and a driven focus on developing autonomy for women as a class, the systematic oppression of women, along with its expression of violence, will continue in spite of a few more “good men”.23

The history of Take Back the Night is an important example of the power of women-only spaces and the double-edged sword of the inclusion of men in anti-violence work. It is our responsibility as feminists to clearly define the roles of men in all of our meetings and activities. We must carefully consider the ramifications of their inclusion and demand and defend the formation of women-only initiatives whenever and wherever possible. We must be open to alliances and coalitions while remaining clearly focussed on a set of well-defined, long-term goals and strategies. Feminists must have well stated and clearly formulated policies about men’s inclusion, or exclusion, for every event and activity we engage in. For example, at my martial arts studio, no men are permitted to attend classes or testing except for fathers and brothers of minor students. Also there have been no male guest instructors at Kicks. However, students are encouraged to participate in mixed-sex classes run by our affiliates. Other examples of such policies include clearly outlining men’s roles in women’s rape crisis centers and abortion clinics, as well as mass actions protesting violence against women or defending abortion rights.

I have deliberately structured Kicks Martial Arts for Women 24 as a consciously organized women-only space to confront and dismantle culturally accepted misogynist norms. Certainly, it is not an end in itself nor, as I have said, do I believe that women-only spaces are the solution to women’s oppression. However, as a type of affirmative action, women-only spaces are an indispensable means for radicalizing and empowering women when organized within the context of a feminist agenda. Forming them and defending them is a sagacious tactic; they are essential for ending the oppression of women.

The Power of Women-only Spaces

[W]e have learnt along the long road of our struggle for freedom, that compromising only takes us back even further than where we started. So we must hold on to our spaces because they are the only living spaces that we have and can own as women in these deeply woman-hating, patriarchal societies we continue to live in at the present time.
Patricia McFaddon (URL)

There are many historical examples of women-only spaces, both real and symbolic, within the women’s movement: consciousness-raising groups. political party caucuses, the original Take Back the Night marches as well as a number of non-fiction and fiction anthologies. 25 Such spaces and actions have an extremely powerful effect on building autonomy for women as a class and changing the cultural view of women as individuals and as a group. It is no wonder that encouraging women-only initiatives and spaces has historically been high among the goals of feminist agenda.

Many who are uncomfortable with the idea of a women-only setting see it as divisive, separatist, or marginalizing women’s issues. Although feminists do need to be cautious, women-only spaces do not lead, as some would argue, to the introversion or narrowing of the concerns of women. In fact women-only spaces are an important vehicle for the politicization and radicalization of women, enabling us to begin to draw connections between women’s struggles and the struggles of other oppressed groups. In such settings, for instance, women often learn that the women’s movement is a natural ally with other movements struggling against the oppression of capitalism. Alliances made through coalitions around related issues are an effective strategy of feminism. There are inexhaustible opportunities for women’s groups to ally with others fighting against the devastation of capitalism. For example the group Men Stopping Violence (MSV) is a co-sex organization which was “founded in 1982 based on the premise that men can work together, in alliance with the battered women's movement, to end men's violence against women” (MSV URL). Another example of a strategic coalition might be the alliance of feminists with co-sex groups organized against homelessness, such as the National Coalition for the Homeless. Since poverty and domestic violence are often related to homelessness, women are natural allies with this group (NHC). A third example might be women’s organizations allying with the struggles of co-sex labor unions. And of course because it stands in opposition to patriarchy, the women’s movement is a natural ally of the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered rights movement. Raising consciousness about the connections between all these struggles is an integral component of ending the subjugation of all those oppressed by capitalism.

The most common objection to women-only spaces is based on men’s personal feelings of exclusion. Just as is true for other forms of affirmative action (which also create feelings of exclusion among those who are privileged), women-only spaces are criticized as examples of reverse discrimination. 26 It is claimed that endorsing women-only spaces means that feminists must then endorse men-only spaces as well, or oppose both. After all, it is argued, it was feminists who protested women’s exclusion from men-only spaces; by excluding men, the women’s movement is committing the same transgression. 27 But the attempt to classify women’s separatism within the same category as sexism or discrimination disregards the reality of male privilege. The exclusion of men by women and the exclusion of women by men are fundamentally different.  Christine Delphy, internationally known radical feminist and editor of France's only Women's Studies Journal, writes, “To accuse women of ‘inverse sexism’ (or Blacks of counter-racism) is not only unfriendly, it is reactionary, because it posits a symmetry between oppressor and oppressed. To decry or exclude those who oppress you is not symmetrical with decrying or excluding those whom you oppress” (Delphy 110).

Accusations of reverse discrimination in relationship to measures of affirmative action are an aspect of formēism which closely resembles the reaction we saw against the civil rights movement, insofar as it selectively used the tactic of white exclusion. 28 At best these allegations ignore or deny the reality of existing relationships of power. At worst they are (consciously or unconsciously) racist, sexist and homophobic attacks against programs of affirmative action that feminists and other civil rights activists fought hard to win. The fact that these allegations are being made by women who call themselves feminists is an indication of the success of feminist opposition in undermining the collective consciousness of the women’s movement. The sabotage of feminism is coming, not as much from feminist opposition, but from the influence that opposition has on the proponents of the movement itself.

The institutions of the prevailing (patriarchal) hierarchy define cultural norms and preferences for behavior and impose restrictions and restraints accordingly. Women’s lives are shaped by and understood according to these standards, leaving us virtually devoid of our own experience unfettered by patriarchal norms. A consciously organized women-only environment reveals these, normally invisible, restrictions. Until they become exposed such restrictions feel ordinary, favorable, and in some instances preferable, because they are familiar (McFaddon URL). Only in the absence of the dominant group (i.e., men) can these constraints begin to be dismantled. Women-only spaces are a mechanism to strategically expose these restraints.

Within mixed-sex groups, women’s issues are usually considered a specialist, secondary, or minority concern, which are almost always forced to compete for consideration. Sometimes they are regarded as less serious and even “silly”. In contrast, women-only groups put women’s perspectives, concerns and interests at the fore. They provide us with opportunities to develop, free from conventional role expectations, and to acquire leadership skills we would otherwise be unable to cultivate. Women’s organizations enable girls and women to feel more confident and to learn more effectively. A 2003 Study by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators regarding women-only universities found that, “[A]ttending a women-only institution appeared to have a significant positive impact on the development of intellectual self-confidence” (NASPA URL).

Suzanne Pinette of Sun Dragon Martial Arts in Austin, Texas, relayed an experience with her younger students who train without boys: “About ten years ago we had an epiphany and realized the young girls would also benefit from the opportunity to train with each other rather than with boys present…When girls go to the mixed class they go from a position of strength and get respect from the boys who usually have trouble keeping up” (e-mail).

Women alone cannot end patriarchy. But fighting for separate women’s organizations poses no contradiction to this verity. Consciously organized women-only spaces do not exist for the purpose of excluding men. They exist to empower women. They are a reflection of the independent character of a movement. By restricting membership, oppressed groups can begin to develop self-confidence and their own identity (Waters 1970, 27).

Women’s Self-defense Training

I experience a sense of freedom from encultured/feminine physical constraint/restraint when I punch, block and kick. I think that if more of us did this (and took off our high heels and danced, etc.) we'd experience more freedom.
--Coralynn Davis, Bucknell University
Women’s Studies professor
and Kicks Martial Arts for Women student

There are few examples of role or design models outside of prescribed patriarchal norms. Organizations in which women occupy equitable leadership positions and power are almost non-existent. This is especially true in martial arts and self-defense. My personal experience as the owner of a women-only martial arts studio and an instructor of women-only self-defense classes has strengthened my conviction that women-only spaces have enormous value, both personally for my students and politically for women as a global population.

Since I started training in martial arts in 1994, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in public wearing a martial arts T-shirt or jacket and a man taunts me with, “Oh, I’m not going to mess with you!” I always reply with a sarcastically coy, “Thank you; but would you if I didn’t practice martial arts?” I’m most often met with a “Hm” followed by a thoughtful stare. One time a young man was washing my hair in a styling salon. He noticed my T-shirt and we had our exchange. He thought for a moment and quite frankly and honestly said, “Yep, I probably would.” His honesty was refreshing! His deep-seated sense of entitlement is ubiquitous among men living in our misogynist culture.

After opening my school, Kicks, I began to experience a wide variety of sexism and sexist violence in various forms ranging from physical threats, personal insults and accusations of being a “man hater” to arrogant dismissals of doing anything of value. I’ve heard reports of friends of students whose male partners won’t permit them to train at Kicks. (The fact that these men wield so much power over their partners is illustrative of how men affect women’s ability to be self-governing.) A number of students have quit because of pressure about spending too much time away from home duties or because of being labeled as “one of those feminists, a lesbian or a man-hater”.

One striking example of how men can unconsciously undermine women’s training is the hackneyed expression; “You hit like a girl!” This statement, even with the best intentions of helping a woman to be more powerful, is disempowering. It contemptuously disregards the fact that girls are taught to hit feebly and not to use their bodies in any powerful way. At Kicks, our slogan “Hit Like A Girl!” encourages pride in our bodies, our capabilities, and ourselves. It is no coincidence that even now, after fighting tooth and nail to get into mixed clubs, only a tiny fraction of martial arts students achieving the rank of black belt are women. One of my students, whose son practices at a mixed sex studio, reported that at the level of white belt the enrollment of boys and girls is about even, but as students progress in rank there are fewer and fewer girls left in the class. I’ve encountered similar reports from mixed sex schools all over the world. It appears that even though women are no longer legally prohibited from training in mixed-sex schools, they infrequently find spaces that are hospitable to, or supportive of women and girls.

“Oh, and you should never hit a woman!” My jaw fell to the floor when I heard a co-instructor at a co-sex martial arts studio declare this rule to a young male student while he was training with a young woman. When I asked why, he replied, “Well, in case she’s pregnant!” Although I wanted to ask him how the young female student was supposed to train effectively if her partner refused to hit her, instead I asked him what the rule would be in my case since I had a hysterectomy some years ago. He didn’t seem to have an answer! In addition to this statement relegating the female student to a position of importance below that of a possible but non-existent fetus, it disregards the fact that a pregnant woman may be called upon to defend herself and that men have even more vulnerable reproductive organs. This is just one mild example of the kind of backhanded sexism I’ve experienced training in co-sex martial arts schools.

Even with the increasing popularity of “kick-butt-woman” images 29, women are told, and often convinced, that we must wait for and encourage the benevolence of men for our personal safety and in order to end violence. This belief means that essentially we are asking our attackers to rescue us from themselves, and until then, the best we can do is to establish survivor resources and focus our attention on making appeals to the good will of men. This strategy is an example of waiting for the knight in shining armor to determine the fate of the damsel. It reinforces the idea of women’s incapability of self-defense and self-determination. Instead of reinforcing the notion of being rescued, women-only spaces foster and encourage self-determination for women, both as an individuals and as a group. They are places where we learn to be our own rescuers, our own heroes, and our own knights in shining armor.

The deep-seated image of man as rescuer and woman as rescuee is a small, but integral, part of the systematic socialization process that defines what it means to be women and men in our society.  This socialization is not accidental or arbitrary. Gender roles serve a specific purpose for the perpetuation of patriarchy. Along with being an effective tool of political oppression and economic exploitation, this gender training leaves women vulnerable to violence and encourages men to seek control and power. I believe it is no coincidence that through all of my martial arts training and teaching experiences I’ve found that the biggest hurdles women face in learning to defend themselves result from this gender training.

Women who have had the opportunity to train at Kicks describe their experiences with words and phrases such as: freedom, our/my own, realizing my/our potential, not measuring myself against men, feelings of independence, confidence, power and strength as a woman and as women. All of these accounts relate to the concept of autonomy. Autonomy is a prerequisite for the social and political equality of an oppressed group. Kicks, along with other women-only ventures, plays a vital role in helping many women begin to recognize and analyze their oppression.

In reporting what they like about training in a women-only space, students make statements such as, “I don’t have to worry about being watched”, “I like it that I don’t have to worry about what I look like”, “I can be myself and not worry about what I say or do”.  These sentiments clearly indicate feelings of freedom from surveillance. Surveillance is a mechanism used to maintain subordination. As a subordinate group, women are under constant surveillance in many ways. Freedom from surveillance by the dominant group establishes an atmosphere ripe for open discussion and the development of leadership skills. African scholar and feminist Patricia McFaddon observes, “Surveillance of women’s political consciousness is a key objective of the patriarchal backlash, which manifests itself through male demands for inclusion into women’s spaces” (McFaddon URL). Free from such surveillance, women at my school enjoy the opportunity to expand their consciousness in a less inhibiting environment.

When in mixed-sex settings, women tend to react in sexually gendered ways. Again, McFaddon has keen insight; “Men tend to intimidate most women; even the wimpiest male has an impact on the confidence of some women, and that is a cost we should not have to incur in our own spaces” (McFaddon URL).

This tendency is prevalent in co-sexed martial arts schools. April Miller, a long time martial artist and member of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, relayed this experience:

“I went to a local women's karate class once, the head instructor was a women, but her two assistants were men. The adult women were more giggly than I have ever seen in women-only classes. Some of the women black belts were sent over to work with us new folks. They were told that they could select a helper to hold the kicking pads. Without exception they chose the male instructors instead of any of the other women black belts in attendance. There seemed to be an undercurrent of trying to impress the male assistants, the head female instructor wasn't all that important. The focus seemed to be external, instead of on one's self. It disturbed me. I felt so bad that these women just weren't getting it” (e-mail).

Kicks Martial Arts for Women does not take away from anybody, including men. The problem is it threatens, deliberately so, the stability and foundations of patriarchy. If I had decided to open a studio that offers only children’s classes, I seriously doubt that anyone would complain that I were discriminating against adults. Kicks is a place where students can freely acknowledge that women are different from men. As a distinctly oppressed class, women train for different reasons. Women have specific self-defense needs and concerns. Women benefit from modeling themselves after female teachers and each other while not being overshadowed by men. Coming in contact with real examples of women in power has an immeasurable effect on a woman’s self-image. It is the beginning of realizing her own possibilities.

Opposition to, and the elimination of, women-only spaces, both real and symbolic, is a self-preserving function of patriarchy. It is a tactic which benefits the status quo whether it is overtly accomplished by men or it is achieved by women who, through the sometimes overpowering effects of backlash, become convinced it is somehow in everyone’s interest to do so. Those in power commonly use tactics of division and surveillance to keep oppressed groups in subordinate positions. These tactics are very successful because they weaken solidarity and obstruct autonomy. The pressure to discourage, or even ban, women-only spaces comes in many forms. Sometimes it takes the form of laws. Sometimes it’s manifested as outright violence or harassment. Other times it takes the form of appeals to women’s sense of justice and fair play, as Joanna Russ eloquently explains…

”[V]ery sexist assumptions lie behind the abandonment of woman-only spaces: that it’s our job to take care of men, that we must accept into our space all who need help, whether their presence serves our ends or not, and that to place our own space and our own desires first is intolerant and unloving—a judgement that assumes our lives and characters have value only if we love and tolerate everybody else, that is, men” (Russ  90).


The Socialist who is not a Feminist lacks breadth. The Feminist who is not a Socialist is lacking in strategy.
Louise W. Kneeland (Waters 1972, 12)

So, should women form separate organizations for struggle, raise our own demands, develop our own leadership, and organize our own actions?

Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, unconditionally, insistently, emphatically, and without hesitation or apology… YES!

Demanding independent space is a key strategy to fight effectively for women’s liberation. That is why the women’s movement, as a political, ideological, activist and structural space must remain just that—a women-only space, both symbolically and substantiality.

Women’s emancipation depends on a clear feminist agenda based on an historical materialist analysis of women’s relationship to production. While developing strategy feminists will find that it makes sense to include actions and tactics designed to break down psychological and social oppression through prescribed gender roles, but we must never lose sight of the fundamental cause of women’s oppression and fall into the specious reactionary traps of individualism and reformism. We must be expressly interested in the quality of our analysis and strategy and refrain from compromising our main objective. This does not mean that we refuse to collaborate or cooperate, or work with men or anyone else. What it does mean is that feminists must refuse to compromise on questions of class principle such as the need for autonomous women’s spaces, abortion rights and affirmative action, among others.

To begin, feminists must develop a concise political analysis stressing that socialist revolution cannot be realized without the support of masses of women, nor can women's liberation be achieved without socialist revolution. We must recognize that the oppression and exploitation of women is an integral part of the broader social questions of vital interest to the revolutionary movement. We must be clear that these concerns are not secondary to the revolution and must not be dismissed as “female concerns”. We must uncompromisingly reject the notion that women’s liberation can be achieved by reforming the capitalist system. We must organize broad-based coalitions while also forming and encouraging autonomous women’s groups. And finally, every progressive co-sex organization we are involved in must encourage the formation of consciously organized women-only commissions within their internal frameworks. 30

Women’s Liberation touches on the most fundamental questions of human existence. When it is attained, it will mean the liberation of men, women, and children from the deepest form of sexual, psychological, social, and economic oppression. It will mean that humanity has reached an entirely new historical level—a classless society.
                                                                          --Mary Alice Waters (1970, 30)

Copyright 2003 Laura Kamienski. All rights reserved.



  1. “The European radical movement has always used the word feminism as synonymous with opposition to materialist analysis of women’s oppression. In this usage, a feminist is someone who consciously rejects the idea that we must abolish private property if we are to achieve women’s liberation. Socialism and feminism are thus mutually exclusive. The American radical movement…has not always used the terms in this way. For us a feminist is any woman who recognizes that women are oppressed as a sex and is willing to carry out an uncompromising struggle to end that oppression.” (Waters 1972, 25)
  2. According to  “The core principle of individualist feminism is that all human beings have a moral and legal claim to their own persons and property.”  Favoring individual property rights over societal need is a fundamental expression of pro-capitalist ideology.\
  3. Waters refers to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern held in 1922: “The Comintern attached great importance to work among the particularly oppressed women of colonial countries. They realized that there was no possibility of transferring power to the working class in an underdeveloped country any more than in advanced capitalist country without mobilizing women in the struggle for their liberation” (Waters 1972, 20).
  4. Some positions, like those of Ann Coulter, aren’t banal or non-controversial, but they are in complete compliance with maintaining the status quo.
  5. This does not mean that gay and lesbians necessarily agree with dismantling patriarchy, nor that they are conscious of the implications of their sexuality on patriarchy.
  6. Castigation for speaking out against sexism includes all forms of social reprisals including being fired from jobs or refused employment, social ostracizing, and violence.
  7. Along with this line of thinking is the increased acceptance that any man claiming to be pro-woman is a feminist.
  8. For more on Ann Coulter,
  9. While Democrats and Republicans do tactically disagree, and represent distinct interests of certain members of the ruling class, (Democrats traditionally ally with industrial capitalists, Republicans with Wall Street capitalists) both parties serve to maintain and protect capitalism.
  10. Household production consists primarily of the reproduction of the labor force but also includes all social and material production related to this primary reproduction, whether one bears children or not.
  11. Commodity production consists of wage labor but also includes the structural financial responsibility for women, children and the elderly.
  12. Another requirement for the success of the women’s movement is autonomy from the Democrat and Republican capitalist parties.
  13. There has been a long and tumultuous debate regarding the origins of women’s oppression. Anthropologist and feminist author Evelyn Reed has contributed a great deal to resolving this debate, especially in her book Problems of Women’s Liberation. 1969. New York, Pathfinder Press.
  14. For a detailed explanation of building a classless society through the eradication of capitalist property relations the see The Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Volumes 1-47. New York. Pathfinder Press.
  15. See Engels, Frederick. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York. Pathfinder Press.
  16. Instead of pointing to the success of the women’s movement, some assert that a shift to “post industrialism” has rendered socialism obsolete. But this is a false analysis as clearly articulated by Aquiles Castro of the Communist Party of Labor in the Dominican Republic: “[Some claim that] we are living in a new post-industrial and post-modern era whose essence [is] fundamentally different from the capitalist mode of production which has dominated during the (last) two centuries. The fact that the bases upon which the system is constructed continue in force is revealed when we take into account the persistence of social calamities historically inherent in capitalism: unemployment, lack of work, poverty, danger of war, etc. In the light of this situation the so-called "new era" only makes sense in the fertile imagination of post-modernist discourse” (
  17. For example, during the middle ages sexual property rights reduced women to chattel. The “droit du seigneur,” the right of the first night, gave each medieval lord the right to take first sexual access to any female serf who married on his land holdings. These laws made raping new brides legal during the middle ages. Our own legal system still favors the perpetrator in many instances. One of the most telling examples of our culture's tolerance of sexual assault was the episode of attacks in Central Park, New York City, during and after the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in June of 2000.
  18. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. 2003:
“Research suggests that about one percent (1%) of female adolescents have anorexia. That means that about one out of every one hundred young women between ten and twenty are starving themselves, sometimes to death. There do not seem to be reliable figures for younger children and older adults, but such cases, while they do occur, are not common.

“Research suggests that about four percent (4%), or four out of one hundred, college-aged women have bulimia. About 50% of people who have been anorexic develop bulimia or bulimic patterns. Because people with bulimia are secretive, it is difficult to know how many older people are affected. Bulimia is rare in children.

“Only about 10% of people with anorexia and bulimia are male. This gender difference may reflect our society's different expectations for men and women. Men are supposed to be strong and powerful. They feel ashamed of skinny bodies and want to be big and powerful. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be tiny, waif-like, and thin. They diet to lose weight, making themselves vulnerable to binge eating. Some develop rigid and compulsive overcontrol. Dieting and the resulting hunger are two of the most powerful eating disorders triggers known” (
  1. Of course this information is primarily relevant to women living in industrialized countries in the west and does not account for the situations of women in other parts of the world and those living in third world countries, which in some instances is far worse.
  2. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, American Medical Association, and other sources, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women and the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone a woman knows, and often trusts. In spite of this information, mediated images of psychotic stranger attacks, and other alarmist mis-information encourages us to erroneously believe that we are in more danger outside of our own homes.
  3. Men can walk the streets without fear of an attack provoked solely by their status as men. Women suffer from sexism and the loss of mobility and freedom because of the threat of rape. This lack of freedom motivated the first Take Back the Night march in Ann Arbor, Michigan almost a quarter century ago.
  4. Some well-intentioned men (and women) even call for the renaissance of male chivalry, an expression of paternal male dominance.
  5. In my experience the genuinely “good” men voluntarily back off and encourage women’s autonomy.
  6. Kicks Martial Arts for Women. Post Office Box 579. Lewisburg, PA 17837
  7. The books That Takes Ovaries (Soloman Rivka ed. 2002) and Her Wits About Her (Caignon, Denise and Groves, Gail eds. 1987), as well as the play The Vagina Monologues (Ensler Eve. 1998) are examples of collections of women’s stories, told by women. To include a male voice in these works would de-politcize them and rob them of their political value and impact.
  8. There is a fundamental difference between not being welcome and discrimination. Discrimination reaches far beyond exclusion, but they are connected and invariably overlap.
  9. We need to address the question of men-only groups organized to end the oppression of women. Should feminists support them? Men should be encouraged to support the struggle for women’s liberation, but groups that explicitly exclude women serve only to reinforce the dominant position of men. For this reason men-only groups are inherently anti-feminist. (The recent coining of the term “Men’s Movement” is a kind of oxymoron since men, as a group, are not oppressed on the basis of their sex.) This certainly doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t spend time together without the presence of women. But men’s anti-violence organizations or those purportedly giving voice to any feminist demand must be in constant communication, cooperation and relationship with women’s groups.
  10. In relationship to supporting autonomous spaces and action, James P. Cannon, in his 1962 study The First Ten Years of American Communism. (Pathfinder Press. New York) explained that Blacks were not only exploited as workers but as Blacks too. Autonomous programs were needed which addressed the special demands of oppressed groups.
  11. Examples include, the Laura Croft character in Tombraider, Xena-Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  12. This “To Do” was inspired by a resolution adopted by the Third Congress of the Cominturn in June 1921 “which dealt with the political and organizational aspects of the International’s orientation,” as is described in Waters .1972. p 18-19.