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?