Herland: Feminist Utopias, Women-Only Spaces, and the Men Who Want to Conquer Them, Part 2

charlotteperkinsgilman_herlandIn my post from July, I discussed the three archetypes that the three men who entered Herland exemplified: the philanderer, the woman-worshiper, and the observer. In this post, I’ll draw parallels between those three types and the reasons men often give for wanting to enter women-only spaces. Again, in this post, I do want to be careful to note that “women-only” is often used as a term for spaces for not only women but also for those who are trans women and non-binary as well. To clarify, I’m using the term “women-only” to signify those spaces set aside for those who don’t identify exclusively as cisgender men.

As an organizer of and participant in women-only groups, I’ve seen a number of men try to infiltrate the safe spaces we attempt to provide. Each man has his own reason, but roughly, we can group them in the same way that Charlotte Perkins Gilman characterizes the men who enter Herland (Terry Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings). Terry, the Philanderer, wants the women to love him; Jeff, the Woman-Worshiper, wants to adore them; and Van, the Observer, wants to learn more about them. Though some motivations may seem more noble than the others, all are problematic. And they all point to a couple of very disturbing conclusions.

The Philanderer: Where Else Will I Meet Women?

We’ll start with the obvious one first. The Philanderer wants to meet women, because, naturally, they all want to meet him. Don’t they? Of course they do. And he’s going to want to charm his was in as a favor to all us ladies.

Though, really, it’s the case that women-only spaces just look like the best or only option for finding us.

Often, the men who use this reason to justify entering women-only spaces are part of the larger communities to which the women-only spaces belong. That said, the reasons they can’t meet women in these larger groups are the very reasons that women need their own spaces. Maybe they don’t feel welcome in the first place. Maybe they’re spoken over, dismissed, or outright harassed. And maybe they’ve been the target of too many philanderers in the larger community to feel comfortable.

The Woman-Worshiper: Can’t I Just Enjoy Women’s Company?

While it’s easy to see why philanderers harm communities that want to welcome more women, it’s not as obvious to see why those who just want to enjoy the company of women—often without any of the romantic or prurient intent of the philanderer—would be harmful as well.

I think this is about being a good ally. Good allies work alongside, not simply on behalf of—the difference being in one’s presumed relationship with the group one allies oneself with. Jeff adores women, to the point of annoying even Van: “Jeff idealized women in the best Southern style. He was full of chivalry and sentiment, and all that. […] But I got out of patience with Jeff, too. He had such rose-colored halos on his womenfolks.” He can’t see women as equals, but only as inferiors to be protected.

Should the woman-worshiper respect women-only spaces, then he’d subvert his own desires to spend time with the women in those spaces and instead work toward being a better ally. Which, in the context of larger communities, means honoring the need for the women-only spaces while making the larger communities better places for women to participate in. If an ally wants to enjoy women’s company, he should make them feel more welcome as the equal participants they are.

The Observer: What Do Women Really Want?

Another reason I’ve heard for men wanting to enter women-only spaces is that they want to find out what we want, what makes us tick. Again this is a case of attempted alliance gone awry. Instead of wanting to protect “weak but virtuous” women, these men want to find out what makes us “tick” in order to better help us and the communities we belong to as a whole.

Except women aren’t extraterrestrial beings. We’re part of the same societies as men, subject to the same cultural forces as men. By viewing women as so dramatically different from men, the observer reinforces the cis-man as norm that makes women feel alienated, though we’re not alien.

Often, I’ve heard men want to attend women-only groups to hear what we think about feminism, for example. While it’s commendable that these men want to know more about this subject, their insistence places the burden of education on the women in these groups. That burden does not belong on the participants in women-only spaces.

And again, I think this is a matter of being a good ally. If men in the larger groups want to know more about feminism, for example, they could invite a speaker or panel from the subgroup to talk to the larger group instead of entering the women-only space. This has the double benefit of both honoring boundaries as well as getting the message about feminist issues out to not only observers, but woman-worshipers and philanderers as well.

It’s Not Fair. It’s Not. Let Us In!

One problematic upshot is that a number of men, including those who don’t necessarily fall into one of these three broad groups, protest having an exclusive group. I grappled with this myself in recommending women-only spaces in larger groups I’ve been in. Is it fair to exclude men from these spaces? I can answer yes because of the pervasiveness of the problems these spaces try to address.

The purpose of a safe space is not to detract from the larger group, but instead to allow those within the safe space to find support where they may be undervalued in the larger group, even when that undervaluing is not consciously done.

By and large, the vast majority of men in the larger communities to which the women-only spaces I’ve participated in have been good allies. They do value women as equals. Being a good ally does mean speaking out when it’s appropriate (while not acting the role of the white knight) and listening and directing others to listen when it’s appropriate to do that. And respecting safe spaces is an important part of that.

We can hope that one day, the need for woman-only spaces will become rarer and rarer, as society progresses. We won’t evolve exactly along the lines Gilman suggests, given the complexity of the problems she tackles and what we know about gender now, but we can take from her utopia some hope that we can address these issues and make positive steps now and in the future.

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