I stayed behind at the resource centre* for an extra hour this evening while C and I debated the merits of women-only spaces. Our library is not strictly a women-only space, in that we allow men to become members and borrow, but we don’t have male staff members or volunteers. Someone questioned the validity of this recently, and I’m not sure I disagree with him – which has left me feeling kind of weird about things at work.

So anyway, it came up this evening, and C and I had an incredibly lengthy debate about it. It was kind of great, and kind of awful. I mean, I have never had so heated a debate with someone I consider a good friend before, so that was the great part (in that I vehemently disagree with her, but we’ll be okay outside of the confines of our disagreement and I felt comfortable arguing with her). But it was really intense, and my hands and voice had started to shake by the end just from all the pent-up energy.

It’s not so much that I can’t see myself ever being persuaded of the benefits of women-only spaces – I can see why you might want a women-only rape crisis centre, and there’s a local swimming pool that holds a women-only afternoon once a week so that Muslim (and other) women can swim, which I think is kind of brilliant, and I’m intrigued by our tiny selection of lesbian separatist literature – but C took this bizarrely essentialist line that really got my back up. Where I was arguing “feminists”, she was arguing “women”, i.e. things are the way they are because of vaginas and penises, not because of political structures. I was arguing that we should be trying to change the world (we are a library full of information on gender and discrimination; we should be doing everything we can to spread that information far and wide, and it doesn’t matter who’s behind the desk), and she was arguing that the world is so full of hostile forces that we, as women, should just retreat to our own spaces, because they are the only safe spaces. She kept saying that if we ever employed a man, he would end up taking over the place and subverting the good work we do, and our library would become just like any other library.

My argument is that, as a feminist library, we are guided by feminist principles and, like any organisation, we have all sorts of screening processes when hiring new employees (job interviews, reference checks). These things should be protection enough. By suggesting that we shouldn’t exclude men as a rule from our staff or volunteer pool, I’m not saying that we should invite the cast of The Footy Show to rewrite our mission statement, I’m just saying that people with penises are as capable of advocating and supporting feminism as we are. I don’t see the point of a society where there is no way forward; where we sit around doing our own thing and having our consciousnesses raised, but have to forever buck against the same system because we don’t want to risk sharing that consciousness and changing the system. The suggestion that gender (or class, or ethnic) barriers are so hard and fast that no identity group will ever really understand another is so limiting – if we could only understand people whose life experiences were exactly like our own, where would we be? And we’re talking about political ideology, not biology. Education can only be a positive thing; and you have to be able to do something with that education, right? I am upset that there are misogynists in the world, but isn’t the ideal solution to change their minds? As far as I can tell, C thinks that some level of misogyny is the inevitable consequence of being male.

I guess the real argument against my position is that we are a potential source of information for women looking to get out of situations of domestic violence, or for women who are survivors of sexual abuse or assault, who might feel uncomfortable asking for help from a male librarian. And I’m not sure where I stand on that. On the one hand, I would hate for anything to make life more difficult for those women. But on the other hand, they do not make up the bulk of our patrons, most of whom are are Women’s Studies students or people looking for lesbian resources. And we are not a counselling service. There are a number of women’s crisis and counselling services around town, to whom we refer clients when necessary. The other issue is that we get very few patrons at all these days, because schools are discontinuing their Women’s Studies programs and we are becoming something of an anachronism because our collection is not very up-to-date. We have to really grovel for funding. I kind of feel that if we shifted our focus to “gender” rather than “women”, we might become more relevant again.

Another thing C was saying was that, by employing a man, we would be taking a job away from a woman – is there some missing link in my thinking? Because that doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not that I don’t believe in affirmative action – I do – but I just don’t see that the feminist thing to do is to only ever hire women, even as volunteers. Am I so set in my own side of the debate, after so forcefully trying to put forward my case for an hour, that I’m starting to contradict my own principles?

Anyway, after that little diatribe – what do you think about women-only spaces? Are they a good idea? Are they a necessary idea? Are they only a good idea in certain arenas (health services, for example)? Do they make you feel safer? If so, how do you feel outside of those spaces?

Thank you for letting me rant.

* A feminist special library, for anyone not clear on that.