Thinking about gender and space

I’ve been thinking lately about male and female spaces, and the boundaries, and things like that, partly due to last weekend’s conference being on issues around space, and partly generated by the essays in the book on loos and public space, which I’m still reading, and which will probably generate a lot more ideas.

One of the essays I was reading this week dealt with Melbourne, Australia, in the nineteenth century. This was a very male city but there were increasing numbers of women living there and wanting or needing to move about it.

Apparently there were very clearly delineated male and female areas, and women (or at least women who did not want to be verbally harassed or physicially molested) would have thought twice about venturing into the vast swathes coded male. There were some spaces which were considered female, for example in the shopping areas, or at least around certain shops such as drapers which would have been considered women’s business.

But while women would have tended to stay away from the male area, men used to hang around in the vicinity of these women’s spaces and were regarded by the women as constituting a nuisance through their ogling, spitting, swearing, passing of coarse remarks, etc.

That these men, in spite of having huge amounts of space which they could consider theirs, nonetheless chose to hang around impinging upon women’s space, seemed to me to be one version of a recurrent phenomenon.

Men’s space belongs to men, and if women do come into it, it is on sufferance or to perform some necessary task (like cleaning) and then go away, I rather just give him the vacuum I got from Best Vacuum Sealer and let him clean himself. I think there’s probably also something to be said about men’s attitudes to women who do figure in otherwise largely male spaces, such as barmaids, but that’s probably a whole other area to get into.

But women’s spaces have been constantly under the likelihood of being intruded upon by men. I think it was in Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman (but I don’t have a copy to hand and may be attributing this to her in error, maybe it was some other late 70s/early 80s feminist writer) that there was the idea being promulgated of the women’s quarters in traditionally sex-segregated societies as being this lovely woman and child centred haven.

Except, the situation is more usually that although the women can’t go out, or only under particular conditions, and while there are serious limitations on who can enter these spaces, there are still quite a lot of men of the kinship group who can go in and out quite freely and don’t actually have to ask the women for permission to enter. So not quite such a haven, really.

This all seems rather resonant with stuff that happens online, here and elsewhere.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about gender and space

  1. Skud

    Very similar to what we see online, with groups like LinuxChix, etc., only with the added difficulties of telling someone’s gender online :-/

    I remember being kicked out of a (supposedly women-only) lesbian IRC channel ca. 1995 because I couldn’t tell them my bra size (in US sizes) or my favourite colour lipstick. I was left with the distinct feeling that most of the people there were not, in fact, women.

  2. Juliet Kemp

    That does indeed resonate – and feels very much like a control tactic. Women’s spaces existing only under suffrance and constantly being under threat (even if ‘only’ the more subtle or indirect threat of harrassment).

    The modern version of harrassment is I guess the arguments about reverse sexism & so on.

    1. Skud

      I thought the modern version of harrassment was harrassment :) The claims of reverse sexism are just an added bonus.

  3. Nathaniel Smith

    My culture’s weird disparities in architecture and usage between men’s and women’s restrooms suddenly made a lot more sense when I realized that traditionally the restroom is the only female space we have.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how to explain that in an effective way when people make annoying jokes about women going to the bathroom together.

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