Reclaim the Night must remain women-only

(originally published in the Morning Star)

The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group organised the first Reclaim the Night march in Britain in response to victim-blaming and poor practice by police officers in Yorkshire following the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe.

The Byford Report into the investigation, released in 2006, made clear the serious failings of West Yorkshire Police which had actually interviewed Sutcliffe nine times during the investigation.

Very little has changed since 1977.

Only this week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has released a damning report on serious failings by the police to report crimes appropriately.

This includes under recording 26 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults reported to them. Considering less than 10 per cent of sexualised violence is reported to the police, this figure is an utter disgrace.

The West Yorkshire Police response to the brutal murders committed by Sutcliffe was to tell women to remain inside at night. This same “safety” advice is repeated by police forces across Britain to this day. Curtailing women’s freedom is a tried and trusted method of blaming women for being victims of a crime.

After all, no safety campaign ever suggests that violent men — and the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men — remain inside in case they are overcome by the urge to commit violence.

Instead, we tell women what to wear, where they can go, and what they are allowed to drink.

If only women stayed inside at night (and if you work shift work, well, that’s your fault too) or wore longer skirts or were more polite to men, then men wouldn’t feel obligated to harm them.

Reclaim the Night is about women standing together and reclaiming public spaces. It is about women supporting women and raising awareness of the reality of male violence and the consequences of it on the bodies of women and children.

They were a reaction to police failures but also about a community of women.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the new Reclaim the Night marches in London. It is the largest march in Britain but also one of the few that remains women-only.

The trend now is to allow men to attend. Supposedly this inclusion is to ensure that men feel involved in the campaign. In reality, the inclusion of men makes a mockery of the spirit of Reclaim the Night.

Reclaim the Night is meant to be a safe space for survivors of male violence. Many of the women marching will have experienced rape, 90 per cent by a man known to them, and then were blamed for that rape.

Focus on male inclusion is at the expense of survivors of sexual violence. The concerns of these women are dismissed by the prioritisation of men’s feelings — and it is very clear that male inclusion is about men’s feelings.

I have attended numerous Reclaim the Night marches over the years. So many have been forced into including men. These men show up at planning meetings demanding the right to attend and silence any woman who objects by insinuating they are hysterical or silly.

They replicate the same male entitlement that results in rape culture and this is without addressing the men who see Reclaim the Night as their own personal dating pool. Nothing quite says sexism like a man propositioning women on a march about sexual violence.

One concession has been the creation of women-only sections at the front of marches. Women are forced to ask permission to walk in public with other women which rather negates the point of women reclaiming the street.

These sections mark survivors out as “other.” If you walk in one, you are the problem — not the men insisting on their right to access all women’s spaces.

At one Edinburgh march, a man following the women’s block kept banging into the women in the “safe space” in the march. He couldn’t understand why women were so angry at being touched, repeatedly, by a man in a march about sexual violence. He clearly thought he was a “feminist ally.”

The women he was touching without permission saw him as the problem. Women had come to march to end male violence but even in this safe space they could not prevent a man from touching them without permission.

Reclaim the Night marches must remain women-only — anything else is the capitulation of the fight for the liberation of women and the continuing violation of women’s boundaries.

Feminism, Men and Women-Only Spaces

The demise of feminism is back in the news again. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Katy Perry have both made public statements about how unnecessary feminism is to their personal lives. Suzanne Venker has not only declared feminism dead but claims that there is now a war on men.   Ironically, this death of feminism has coincided with very public demonstrations of feminist activism, as well as increased public debate on the issue of the inclusion of men within the feminist movement. 


Yet, the debate over the inclusion of men within feminism movement has always been important. It has never stopped being important. It has only re-emerged in the mainstream British press due to the backlashto the women-only RadFem 2012 conference in London in June; as well as the no-platforming on the Manchester Women-Up North Conference who chose to have one session for FAAB-women survivors of sexual violence only.


I support women-only spaces. I think they remain fundamental to the success of feminism as a political movement dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet, no one ever seems to ask feminists why they believe women-only spaces are important or why the exclusion of men from *some* feminist events is necessary for revolution. No one asks why feminists are moving back to women-only organising or why feminists are increasingly identifying as political lesbians or lesbian separatists?  Why are women-only spaces, once again, becoming so important? No one asks why there is such a backlash to thought of women-only organising? When people do ask, they don’t appear to be hearing the answer.


Whilst the inclusion of men within the movement is necessary, they do not need to be involved at every meeting and conference. There are thousands of ways that men can be, and are, involved with feminist activism that doesn’t require them encroaching on women-only spaces. They can help financially support women’s organisations like Rape Crisis, Shakti Women’s AidWomen’s Aid, Nia, or Southall Black Sisters. Men can join activist groups like Object, UK Feminista, Fawcett Society, and Abortion Rights. Men can fundraise by holding car washes and bake sales. They can join the White Ribbon Campaign and help to raise awareness about male violence against women and children.


The most important thing men can do to help the feminist movement is to challenge sexism every time they witness it. They have to challenge every rape joke. They have to challenge every man who minimises domestic violence. They have to step up every time; not just once in a while but every time they witness sexism. Sometimes this means they have to challenge themselves and recognise that their own behaviour is sexist. Sometimes it means accepting that they won’t be allowed into every feminist space. As a white, heterosexual feminist it would be hypocritical of me to demand to be allowed into feminist spaces for Black, Ethnic and Minority Women. It would be equally hypocritical for me to demand entry into a feminist space for lesbians-only, just as it would be hypocritical for me to demand entry into a room of male survivors of sexual violence or testicular cancer. Campaigning for women’s liberation to bring about the destruction of the capitalist-patriarchy and the creation of true equality does not mean every person deserves equal access. It means hearing the specific needs of specific groups and taking those into account. Like kindergarten, it’s about learning fairness.


We need men in the feminist movement. We need men who understand the real long-term effects of male violence. We need men who listen. We need men who support without dominating. Male domination of speech, both in public and private, has been well proven in research for thirty years now. Dale Spender wrote about it in The Writing of the Sex? in 1989. Andrea Dworkin wrote about male silencing tactics in her classic text Intercourse:

“Men often react to women’s words – speaking and writing – as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper, Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men – control, violence, insult, contempt – that no threat seems empty.”

Margaret Atwood wrote about men dominating classrooms in early 1980s. There have been countless studies in education and within the workplace that demonstrate the silencing of women’s voices within the presence of men. The largest global study on violence against women found that it was the feminist movement that had the biggest impact on tackling the issue; much of this was accomplished with women-only spaces. This is what men need to recognise and understand.


The main reason why I believe women-only spaces are integral to the feminist movement is because the silencing of women’s voices never stops. Sometimes the only way to stop the silencing is to uninvite men and that’s the lesson men need to take from this. If they insist on attending, whose voices are they really silencing?

Published in the Huffington Post here.

In Defence of Women-Only Spaces

I’ve been thinking about the issue of women-only spaces recently but two events have crystallized for me just how necessary women-only spaces are and how much the requirement that “everyone” be included simply excludes women. At least, when I first started thinking about writing this blogpost it was based on my feelings of two protest marches that I had just attended. Then, the unnecessary violent response of a group of MRAs towards the women dominated safe space that is Mumsnet made me realise just how frightening some men find women-only spaces. Or, as my dear friend Blackcurrants, once said:

Honestly, I think some men walk into a space where they are not likely to be (1) amongst other men and thereby automatically treated as ‘in the gang’ or (2) fawned over by women who think they exist to make men feel good and have a complete existential crisis. If the world doesn’t revolve around ME, an insecure man thinks, it can’t be working right! PANNIIIIC!

I suspect that for some men, women-dominated spaces are a threat to their perceived sense of entitlement to be the voice that gets heard. And women-only spaces are threatening because, as the oppressing class has always known when they try to restrict the ability of the oppressed class to gather together unmonitored- they must be up to something. Protecting women-only spaces is more and more important as formerly safe places are lost under the guise of being “fair” to all sex/genders, which is a policy that just ignores the political, social and cultural implications of The Patriarchy as it affects and effects all marginalised groups.

I’ve been on lots of protest marches: against the war in Iraq, nuclear weapons, against the current destructive cuts in the Welfare Bill, in support of youth and leisure centers, Reclaim the Night, and Million Women Rise. Of these only the Reclaim the Night and Million Women Rise marches in London have been advertised as women-only. There is a very real difference in being in a woman-only protest march. It simply feels safer because the organisers make the effort to include vulnerable and marginalised women. This starts with allowing disabled women to march at the front in a protected space. It does have secondary impact of slowing down the march and ensuring that the march take up as much space as possible for as long as possible. More importantly, however, it ensures that disabled women are considered an essential part of the protest and not simply an inconvenience.

The two events which crystallised this for me were the Million Women Rise March 2012 and the International Women’s Day: March Against the Cuts. Million Women Rise was inclusive with transport arranged for those who did not feel physically able to complete the march. This included women who were pregnant and had mobility problems as a consequence. This is a group of women normally ignored because pregnancy is a “choice” and it isn’t “permanent.” Both of these theories require a refusal to acknowledge just how much damage pregnancy can do to a woman’s body. More importantly, no one was bumped into or knocked over and children were free to bounce about shouting slogans and dancing because they were safe. They were safe because they were in a protected space where everyone’s particular needs were catered for and attended to. Being knocked and bumped is a very real problem for many women due not only to physical disabilities which make it extremely painful but also the added trauma of women who have experienced sexualised violence. Being knocked into by men does not make these women feel safer or feel like the protest respects their bodily integrity and personal experience. It simply further marginalises already marginalised women.

The International Women’s Day: March Against the Cuts held in Glasgow on the Saturday following Million Women Rise was a very different atmosphere. It was specifically organised to recognise the very deliberate gendered effect of the cuts on women but it was not a women-only space and it showed. Two men holding a large banner kept walking over women in order to get closer to the front of the march. Having a large banner bash you in the back of the head is hardly a pleasant experience. It is also completely defeats the purpose of a march about gendered political experiences when two men decide that their voices must be more visible that women. There was no attempt to make sure that the march was inclusive of marginalised women and resulted in disabled women being left behind and trailing the march whilst the police tried to hurry us on. The police always try to hurry marches up; in a protected march this doesn’t happen because the organisers are aware of the issue. This is not the deliberate fault of the organisers themselves but is what happens when men are involved and women’s [and other marginalised people] needs are not addressed. Men take over the space and make it about them. They marginalise women without even being conscious of doing so because they are so used to being in charge and being heard.

The last two Reclaim The Night marches in Edinburgh resulted in similar behaviour with the distressing addition of the male band conductor repeatedly banging into several disabled women without ever once apologising or making an effort to be more aware of the effects of this behaviour. When men are involved, women’s voices get silenced. We need to stop that. One of the best academic examples of this type of male behaviour is a study of classroom behaviour of men and women undertaken at Harvard. As feminists, we need to stop pandering to these men and make sure that all our sisters are involved and heard.

The second problem with including the men who whine about not being allowed to participate in women-only marches and demonstrations is that they never ever show up nor do they bother to take responsibility for organising their own protests. If they did, I would show up because I truly believe that the Capitalist Patriarchy is harmful for everyone. But, they never do and that is the problem. Women are asked to be “inclusive” which allows men to abdicate responsibility for standing up and being counted. The notable exception to this the White Ribbon Campaign which is organised by men in response to the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989 wherein a male gunman killed 14 women, injured 10 more women before killing himself. However, it is not surprising that when we think of the massacre of these beautiful and talented women, we can immediately name the perpetrator and not his victims. These are the women who paid with their lives for the “privilege” of entering male-space:

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

We need only-women rooms to give us space to breathe, to love and support one another and to hear one another. Unless we start hearing each other, we won’t ever be able to support one another and that is what women-only spaces give us: the opportunity to just be.