Pop theory: We Still Need Feminist Spaces

There have been some pretty asinine responses to the Aurora massacre (not to mention the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin) — because, clearly, costumes, and not guns, kill people. But one of the most sophisticated responses to the event was penned by Hugo Schwyzer, entitled “Why Most Mass Murderers Are Privileged White Men,” in which he argues that the location and scale of the attack as causal factors attributable to Holmes’ race and the innate feelings of privilege associated with being white:

Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you. If you are — like James Holmes last week, or Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the University of Texas, Austin campus in 1966 — an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don’t have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. When that sense of entitlement gets frustrated, as it can for a host of complex psychological reasons, it is those same hyper-privileged men who are the most likely to react with violent, rage-filled indignation. For white male murderers from “nice” families, the fact that they chose public spaces like schools, university campuses, or movie theaters as their targets suggests that they saw these places as legitimately theirs.

White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect politicians and professors to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We expect public solutions to our problems. And when we’re hurting, the discrepancy between what we’ve been led to believe is our birthright and what we feel we’re receiving in terms of attention can be bewildering and infuriating. Every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal. This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.

Schwyzer, a straight white guy, gets it — probably because of his training in gender studies. He understands the extent to which white male privilege is inherently assumed and goes unacknowledged — and unchecked.

It is in no way a generalization for me to say that this has been my experience, and the experience of most of my female friends (genderqueer or not), as we have made our way throughout the world. From sitting nearly spread eagle on subway seats to refusing to walk anywhere but the very center of the sidewalk, from unapologetically walking into people to ceaseless catcalls and whistles, men assume that everything is their property. That space itself is their own, which renders them both clueless about and indignant to the needs of anyone other than the (white) male for wanting a space of their own.

photo from Getty

I read Schwyzer’s piece less than a week after I returned from my travels in Spain and Turkey. In regard to the latter country, while similar to American society whereby men and women have had for the most part equal status under the law since the 1920s, culturally Turkey has operated under shari’a, Islamic religious law (also known as Sharia Law), which, in the context of this discussion, translates into a substantive and noticeable difference between men and women in terms of space, spatial recognition and spatial respect for the (gendered/sexed) other.

Specifically, whether it be in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Istanbul or the more conservative, spiritual center of Konya, it was rare to see a woman walking about in the city. It was even more rare to see a woman outside on her own, without the accompaniment of a man. Usually, I found the most sizeable collection of women either working back in the kitchens in restaurants or weaving kilim carpets (the latter of which were typically young girls, as they had the “best” — ie, the smallest—hands to work the fabric). Only twice, in the Mediterranean town of Selçuk, did I come across women who ran businesses—one a jewelry and textiles shop, the other a small restaurant that was essentially the kitchen to her house. I patronized both businesses not only out of a feminist consciousness but because these women sold the best, most durable, most stylish, and most delicious items.

I adored Turkey’s cities and sites — the land’s rich cultural and religious history spans Hellenistic to Ottoman times. The overlay of Paganism, Christianity (both Roman and Greek Orthodox), and Islamic religions is astounding and, as evinced in the monuments and ancient ruins, visually stunning. But Turkey left a bad taste in my mouth; my experience was tainted by overt displays of misogyny and patriarchal power. If you think being harassed as you walk down the street, say, in NYC is bad, then let me tell you it is quadruply as bad in Turkey. Why? I think it boils down to the fact that men dominate public spaces, so that the moment they see a woman walking freely down the street they go batshit crazy. Especially a white, foreign woman who they do not read as one of their own; not their sister, not their mother, not their wife — so why not “take advantage”?

I was assaulted twice in Turkey: the first time a man ground his fist into my lady-region (and made a mocking and disturbing “c’est la vie” gesture to my girlfriend as she proceeded to tell him off); the second time a salesman decided to grab my breast in his shop. The details are inconsequential beyond my psychological well-being; the point is that I was perceived as a thing that men could easily possess because I was in their space. They own the space and everything within it. Period.

Whether from misogynists on the right or post-feminist “radicals” on the left, the argument for women’s spaces has been dismissed as “irrelevant” in this “Age of Gender Fluidity.” And, sure, gender is fluid and malleable and can be played with. But sex cannot. And the primary material with which we establish our gender or genders is our biologically determined sexed body. This is not to say that women’s spaces should be determined by biology alone, rather that women’s spaces should be created by those who identify as women and who value the particular cultural and sociological matrix that is “woman.”

And I realize that for all queer women — femme or butch or trans identified — the notion of “woman” is complicated. It speaks to our intelligence and our civic-minded nature that we persistently question every element of our self-fashioned identity.

But, in a way, making space for women, doesn’t have to be that difficult. Or, rather, I want to emphasize that women need to start claiming spaces, from their vaginas to the boardroom and beyond.

Perhaps as a way to steer clear of accusations of biological determinism (because being “woman” is more than just biology), and as a way to reclaim the “F” word, I should propose that we make feminist spaces.

And so I want to ask you, what are the values associated with these spaces?

For starters, how about:

spaces that can be sexually and erotically charged without being dehumanizing but are empowering;


spaces that are never deemed property of the individual but all always shared, egalitarian spaces, where there is both an acknowledgement of and a respect for the other bodies that inhabit those spaces;

What other values would constitute feminist space?