In Defence of Women’s Spaces

Earlier this year, the existence of the Women’s Room at the University of Queensland came under fire. The Women’s Collective wrote this response to the furore. Enjoy.

This piece also appears in the Women’s Issue of Semper Floreat – grab a copy when you’re on campus next! It’s filled with excellent articles all by women.
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In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf makes an impassioned and eloquent case for the need for a woman to have space to herself. This is required, she says, in order that a woman may have a quiet and comfortable place to write, and thus to contribute to the body of literature that has historically been and is still dominated by male voices. Woolf describes the ways in which the history of the subjugation of women has silenced them, has quashed their ability for self-expression, has made them unable to gain fame as authors, and all for the want of a room of one’s own and a small amount of money to live off. Of course, in addition to this is required a family and social structure that allows women to truly be masters of their own destiny, similar opportunities for men and women in education and employment and more, and a society that values the output of women as it does that of men. Writing in 1928, Woolf had a real and vital need to demand both literal and figurative space for women to achieve their full potential in society; reflecting on her work in the present day, we can appreciate the gains that have been made, and those areas in which gender equality remains lacking.

The need for intangible space for women in the world begets the need for physical women’s spaces to be created and maintained. This space may be for creative ends, as Woolf makes the case for; it may be for privacy, or safety, or peace and quiet. It may be for reasons of culturally-informed practices, like the removal of religious head garments. It may be for a breastfeeding mother to have a discreet place to feed a child in a world that simultaneously seeks to normalise breastfeeding but shames women for doing it in public. It may be a place where a transgender person can have a moment of lessened discomfort from being in the public eye. It may be a place for women from demonstrably marginalised groups to meet and and find solidarity. It can be a practical and symbolic space for women to assert their autonomy in a world where sexual assault happens in broad daylight, where people feel comfortable telling rape jokes in a public setting (or at all), where women are repeatedly harassed by men seeking to ask them out or give them unwanted compliments or have their need for attention filled in some other way, where people feel entitled to comment on others’ bodies and clothing and hair and presentation. It’s easy for some of us to brush all this off, to make the decision to give no fucks and just carry on with life. For others, it’s exceedingly difficult.

The UQ Union provides a room for the sole use of cis women and trans, nonbinary, and intersex individuals, and is open to all students and staff who identify as such. It is a small space that contains couches, tables for studying, bookshelves stocked with feminist and general interest books, and two computers. There are no resources or services within this room that aren’t available to all students elsewhere in the University of Queensland.

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In recent years, women have overtaken men in enrolment rates in some areas of tertiary education (gender divides within specific disciplines tend to adhere quite strongly to traditional gender roles, though). Despite the production of more women university graduates, the fields they enter are still plagued with gender-based issues relating to representation, pay, workplace culture, and more. It is vital to continue working towards the creation of confident young women at university and to equip them with skills and a sense of solidarity with other women, and to take these qualities into the workforce and continue to push for change as the women before them have done. The recent revelations of sexual harassment and assault within the medical profession clearly show how deep-seated sexism pervades tertiary education and training. Universities are prime places to foster strength and friendship among women – the women who will most likely be moving into positions of societal and intellectual influence in their future careers. Resources like those provided by the UQ Union contribute to this in crucial ways.

Perhaps this slightly wordy defence of the Women’s Room hasn’t quite convinced you. Let’s go straight to the source: how do UQ women feel about the Women’s Room?

Firstly, we reject the idea that a room for the use of a particular group of people is an inherently discriminatory thing. In society, women generally don’t enjoy particular benefits, tangible or not, because of the simple fact they are women – whereas men often do. Having a small room designated for use only by certain groups is hardly comparable to the systematic discrimination that women do face. We see the Women’s Room as a place to escape from unwanted cat calls and advances by men – a place to exist in peace and quiet that isn’t a toilet cubicle. It certainly isn’t a “a breeding ground of misandry” or whatever other bizarre misconceptions people might have about it (it might be hard to grasp, but not everything women do is centred on men…). It’s a place to chill when you’d prefer to not worry about a picture of you going up on UQ Stalkerspace. It can be the perfect place to have a break when anxiety is getting out of hand. It’s a place where extroverts can find the friends and energy they need, and introverts can relax quietly.

The Women’s Room is an imperfect response to an imbalanced world; the pragmatic aspects of the room may not align with a utopian conception of equality, but we don’t live in a perfect world and so we have to employ workable solutions.

For the final word, over to Patrician McFadden, African sociologist: “When women occupy public spaces as persons who understand that for millennia they have been denied their inalienable rights as human beings, they begin to demand the restitution of those rights through the creation of structures within which they situate financial, technical and intellectual resources.” Having a small space on campus in which to assert the spirit of this sentiment is vital.

By the University of Queensland Women’s Collective

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