A place for us

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of women-only spaces. And I still feel that they are important: maybe necessary. But there is another kind of space that I think matters even more, that I think needs to be created and recreated in a multitude of ways until we all have easy access to one. It’s the kind of space I witnessed last weekend, fleetingly, and only through contrived circumstances which unfortunately don’t crop up too often. Not a women-only space, but a women-centring space. A woman-honouring space.

To train to be a counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association you need to have breastfed for at least six months — so we’re all women. The Association centres the lives and needs of families generally and mothers in particular by its very nature. And by its nature, its leadership positions are all held by women, which makes it, unfortunately, quite a rare kind of organisation.

But men matter, too. Most of us have male partners, and so we relied on them to care for infants and children while we studied. And to the Association, men matter: research shows that male partners can have the biggest influence on whether a woman will persist with breastfeeding and so it is vital that we are able to include men in our advocacy work. On the weekend, my husband supported us by staying at home with Bean. Many other partners supported the work of the Association by travelling to the conference venue and engaging in childcare away from home. Our location was cold and devoid of easy distractions: their work was no doubt quite difficult.

At meal times, we’d gather in a central area and talk over our classes. There were lactating breasts everywhere (how lovely to have a space where a feeding toddler is barely noticed, let alone remarked upon) and, although in relatively small numbers, there were men. There were men who were explicitly in support of one woman, an Association of women… of, you know, women. How often do we see that?

A friend told me recently that she’d been to a concert where, partway through, she’d experienced a great feeling of welcome and wellbeing. Upon reflection, she’d realised it was because the artist, through his demeanour as well as his song lyrics, quite obviously appeared to like and respect women. How refreshing, to be standing in a big crowd of people (a majority of them men) to see a male performer, and to feel that kind of safety.

It shouldn’t be refreshing. It should be normal.

I don’t think women-honouring spaces need to be dominated by women (although of course my weekend was.) But they do need to be dominated by respect. And it’s a sobering thing, pondering just how many other spaces I enter don’t have that feeling, don’t engender confidence, don’t make me feel some combination of fear or shame or wariness at least some of the time. We forge out our feminist spaces online, and we advocate for workplaces free of harassment or discrimination and for greater safety from violence against women and for the end of harmful prejudices on the basis of gender or race or disability or sexuality or age or size. Sometimes it seems a cruelly impossible task. But other times, after feeling what existing in a women-honouring space is like even for a short period, there is renewed energy and hope.

What does a safe space feel like, to you? How do we make more of them?


Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism

5 responses to “A place for us

  1. Kelly

    Hmmm, sadly I think my only safe space is my home. I’d love to find a group of women where I felt I could share myself openly and honestly and feel respected for my opinions and choices, but that’s never happened. I often find women-only environments to be competitive and judgemental, but I wonder how much of that comes from my own insecurities?

    On a positive note, today is my son’s half birthday, so I have breastfed for exactly six months! My husband has been the ultimate support for our breastfeeding success and has become an advocate for breastfeeding women in general. Yay for us!

    • G

      “I often find women-only environments to be competitive and judgemental”

      For the sake of balance I just need to point out that most male dominated venues seem this way as well.

      Congratulations on your successes by the way.

  2. This post has really got me thinking. I have found myself in unsafe work environments and socially as well, often unexpectantly. I have also been lucky enough to find and help cultivate lots of safe spaces. It is so important for women to have these spaces. It reminds me of a decade ago having to justify the existence of ‘women’s rooms’ on my University campus. If you can get past the notion that ‘a room’ was enough, it did carve out a space and an awareness of a woman’s vulnerability and hence the need for such a space.

    Also thanks for all the breastfeeding memories that it inspired. I had to do a little bit and a link about it on my blog, hope you don’t mind the sharing.

  3. It is true that some women only places can be competitive and judgemental, but I have been lucky enough to find a mothers group that is anything but. Having formed almost 3 years ago when we were all new mothers our group has stayed together through second (and some third) pregnancies), we rely on each other for comfort and support. Although many of us have different parenting styles, political opinions and religios beliefs we are all there as women and mothers. I have negotiated my work dats around our weekly meeting as I don’t know how I’d survive without them. I think i’m extremely lucky!

  4. Sarah (Maya_Abeille)

    This is a great, thought-provoking post. There are many places that are ostensibly directed at females, but are actually places that endeavour to make us feel insecure so that we buy more of what we don’t need. I’m thinking of things like retail spaces and many women’s magazines here. I know magazines aren’t a ‘space’ as such, but they do create a kind of mental space. I stopped buying women’s magazines when I realised that they were the equivalent to me of a bad meal – I thought I was hungry at the time, but the after-effects just weren’t worth it!

    My home is a safe space for me, and I am also a trainee breastfeeding counsellor and have found that to be a wonderfully supportive environment. I am lucky to have a wonderful group of friends (female and their male partners) who I feel perfectly safe with too. It can take some time to build this environment for yourself, particularly if you are not sure what it actually looks/feels like, and there are not so many examples around you to replicate. Sadly I do know women who have no safe place, (least of all their homes), and who I don’t think really understand the concept that they are entitled to a safe place, and that safe places, women-honouring places, even exist. Perhaps by re-framing the discussion from what they ‘want’ to do, what they ‘feel like’ doing, or what is the ‘right thing’ to do (putting pressure on them to make the right decision, or labelling them weak for staying in a terrible situation, as some people do), to helping them aim for an environment that would make them feel safe, and visualising what that might look like, would be a positive way to start the process of personal emancipation. So by taking part in discussions like this, and endeavouring to provide ever more safe and female-honouring spaces in this world, we are (in some small way at least) not only helping those of us who already have a small, secure foothold, but paving the way for those who still have no idea that the concept even exists. And that is why it’s so important.

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