Women-only space

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A women-only space is an area where only women are allowed, thus providing a place where they do not have to interact with men. Historically and globally, many cultures had, and many still have, some form of female seclusion.

Purpose and background

Women-only spaces are a form of sex segregation, and practices such as women-only public toilets, women-only passenger cars on public transport or women's parking spaces may be described using both terms.[1] They are sometimes referred to as "safe space". The goal is to provide women an area to work, free of male judgment or harassment.[2]

These spaces do not go without challenge. Men's rights activists have launched lawsuits to gain access to female-only spaces, as for example Stopps v Just Ladies Fitness (Metrotown) Ltd, regarding a gym in Canada. The access of trans women, with or without legal recognition of their acquired gender, is also sometimes contentious, both from an ethical and from a legal perspective.[3][4][5] In some cases questions have been raised about the value and legitimacy of particular spaces being reserved for women.[6]

Women's quarters and segregated societies

Many cultures have had a tradition of separate living space for the women of a household ("women's quarters"); this becomes more elaborate the larger the house is, reaching its peak in royal palaces. The best known example is probably the harem, a Turkish word, but similar systems existed elsewhere, and still do, in some places.

Some societies segregate most public facilities by sex, according to their interpretation of Islam and gender segregation; critics calls this gender apartheid after the former South African system of racial division. The best known examples are Saudi Arabia (Women's rights in Saudi Arabia#Sex segregation) and Iran (Sex segregation in Iran, Women's rights in Iran). More disputed regimes include Afghanistan (Taliban treatment of women) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.


In English-speaking societies, the rise of first wave feminism, including the long struggles for the vote (suffrage) and for access to education and the professions, led to various initiatives to widen women's possibilities.

  • A ladies' ordinary was a women-only dining space which started to appear in North American hotels and restaurants from 1830, when it was socially unacceptable for women to dine in public without a male escort.[7]
  • In the 1910s and 1920s, there was widespread encouragement in the United States for the establishment of ladies' lounges and rest rooms to accommodate rural women who traveled into county seats and market towns to conduct business. The Ladies Rest Room in Lewisburg, Tennessee, may be the last free-standing one in that state still in use.[8]
  • In 1929 Virginia Woolf published an influential essay entitled "A Room of One's Own".[9]


Some of these allow men at certain times of the day, week, or year, for example as guests. Other establishments allow men and women into physically separate areas. Others exist only temporarily, renting space for a few hours or days. Some of these allow children, either only girls or both sexes.


In almost all countries, public toilets are segregated by sex.

Places to wash

A restored lavoir in Belgium

Public nudity is in many cultures restricted to single-sex groups. So public baths may separate men and women by time or by space.

Specific examples include:

In many cultures, laundry was seen as "women's work", so the village wash-house (lavoir) acted as a space for women to gather and talk together as they washed clothes.

Changing rooms

Places to change one's clothes, for example for leisure (at the gym, swimming pool, or beach), or for work (locker rooms at factories and hospitals), or while shopping (department store fitting rooms), are usually single-sex. Some have individual cubicles, while others provide only communal facilities, e.g. an open space with benches and lockers.


Some menstrual taboos require a woman to stay at home, or avoid certain places such as temples, but other cultures assign a particular place to segregate herself from her community, for example the chhaupadi (menstrual huts) of Nepal today, or The Red Tent, a fictionalised version of Old Testament-era customs. The anthropologist Wynne Maggi describes the communal bashali (large menstrual house) of women in the Kalasha Valley (northwestern Pakistan) as their 'most holy place', respected by men and serving as women's all-female organizing centre for establishing and maintaining gender solidarity and power.[10]

The seclusion of girls at puberty (i.e. menarche) is another such custom.

Motherhood and lactation

The lactation room is a modern, mostly American phenomenon, designed for using electric breast pumps and refrigerating the expressed milk. In many countries, spaces for women to nurse their babies can be known as breastfeeding rooms or nursing areas. The period of postpartum confinement was traditionally a time for new mothers to learn to care for their infant from older and more experienced women.

Land and shelter

A family outside their hut in Umoja village


When formal education was banned by the Taliban, underground schools sprung up, such as the Golden Needle Sewing School for writers to secretly discuss their work.

Religious places

Health care

Historically, some health care services for women (particularly around childbirth) were staffed by women. As women gained increased access to education in the late nineteenth century, hospitals hired female physicians for female patients; nurses by this point were almost exclusively female.

During second-wave feminism, health activists set up feminist health centers, particularly in the United States. Some places are for women from one background, such as the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. Some holistic care centres are for mothers and their children, such as Nkosi's Haven in South Africa.

Businesses and services

Lesbian services

Military, policing, and prisons

Cultural events

There are many other festivals, conferences, etc. that focus on women's achievements and women's issues, but allow anyone to attend, from the Rochester Women's Rights Convention of 1848 to today's Women of the World Festival.

Religious festivals


Many celebrations, especially around rites of passage, are marked by a girl or woman and her female relatives and friends. For example, many cultures have a party before the wedding for the bride, in Western culture known as a hen or bachelorette party.


Many amateur and most professional sports are segregated by sex.

See also


  1. ^ Browne, Kath (Sep 2004). "Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (re)materialising sexed sites, (re)creating sexed bodies". Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. 11 (3): 331–346. doi:10.1080/0966369042000258668. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  2. ^ "Gale - Enter Product Login". go.galegroup.com. Retrieved 2016-10-24.
  3. ^ Julia Serano. "On the Outside Looking In". Retrieved 2013-01-08.
  4. ^ Julian Norman (22 May 2012). "Legalities of excluding trans women from women only spaces". Retrieved 2013-01-08.
  5. ^ Murphy, Mary (2014). "FEMINIST SPIRITUALITY AND GENDER Lessons From Beyond Women-Only Space". Communities. 162: 38–72. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  6. ^ Julia Long (2012-12-07). "So I'm a feminist troublemaker for requesting some women-only space?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-01-08.
  7. ^ Freedman, Paul (2014-09-01). "Women and Restaurants in the Nineteenth-Century United States". Journal of Social History. 48 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1093/jsh/shu042. ISSN 0022-4529.
  8. ^ "Ladies Rest Room: correspondence 2 :: Southern Places". digital.mtsu.edu. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  9. ^ "Because They're Worth It! Making Room for Female Students and Thealogy in Higher Education Contexts". fth.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2016-10-24.
  10. ^ W. Maggi, 2001. Our Women are Free. Gender and Ethnicity in the Hindukush. Michigan: University of Michigan Press
  11. ^ Williams, Zoe (4 January 2013). "No boys allowed: the rise of single-sex clubs and societies". the Guardian. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  12. ^ Walker, Tom (26 February 2018). "Town Sports International acquires Total Woman Gym and Spa chain". Health Club Management. Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  13. ^ "Travel: In L.A., spa days can stretch into night". Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  14. ^ "How smart hotels are catering to women and small business travellers". www.intheblack.com. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  15. ^ "Singapore hotel dedicates floor to women". Stuff. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  16. ^ "No men allowed!". The Economist. 26 February 2015. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  17. ^ "Women-only Capsule Hotels sprout in Tokyo". Medill Reports Chicago. 23 February 2018. Retrieved 4 March 2018.

Further reading

External links

  • Women-only space
  • Respect women's-only space
  • Exploring the Value of Women-Only Space
  • Women-Only Spaces: An Alternative To Patriarchy

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