I read Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider to find some wisdom regarding women-only spaces, and of course I found both support and suspicion. Many of the essays and speeches in this collection are focused on the constructive power of difference. Women in a space of their own can explore the differences between them, but also must remain in conversation with men in order to make the most of the differences among all, as well.
Lorde does identify many, many aspects of patriarchy that keep women from their full potential. A women-only space would allow women to be interested in their own fullness and destiny, allowing them to explore what they are capable of. Men’s presence is a necessary limitation on women, given patriarchy’s hold on society, expecting women’s energy to be used in the service of men before themselves.
“As women, we have come to distrust that [erotic] power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.” (53-54 – Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power)
Women-only spaces allow women to explore the possibilities of their own voices, as well. Women are increasingly speaking for themselves, but in a women-only space women must speak for themselves. Some of the obstacles they encounter will arise from patriarchy, but a women-only space will allow women to work together, on behalf of themselves and each other, without the obvious option of the traditional male-centered model. “Black feminists speak as women because we are women and do not need others to speak for us.” (60 – Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface)
Lorde directly addresses women-only spaces, saying,
“The question of separatism is by no means simple. I am thankful that one of my children is male, since that helps to keep me honest. Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.
I grew up in largely female environments, and I know how crucial that has been to my own development. I feel the want and need often for the society of women, exclusively. I recognize that our own spaces are essential for developing and recharging.
As a Black woman, I find it necessary to withdraw into all-Black groups at times for exactly the same reasons – differences in stages of development and differences in levels of interaction. Frequently, when speaking with men and white women, I am reminded of how difficult and time-consuming it is to have to reinvent the pencil every time you want to send a message.” (78 – Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response)
Lorde acknowledges the freedom, energy and life that women-only spaces afford her. As a lesbian she could routinely move in women-only spaces, relishing the understanding she might find there. Yet she has a son, making her life permanently intertwined with a man’s. (It’s unclear in Sister Outsider if she has any ongoing relationship with her former husband, the father of her children.) Saying that this keeps her “honest” implies that without the existence of her son, she might naturally move in women-only (or at least women-dominated) spaces, that these spaces are most appealing to her. Of course she also names all-Black spaces as essential as well, for she experiences oppression from multiple identities. Denying any aspects of herself is dangerous, and would perhaps counteract the benefits of a permanent retreat to a women-only or Black-only space.
“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition.” (121 – Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference)
Yet Lorde’s call to constructive awareness of difference must grow within equality. Women will not be subjects, equal to men rather than subordinate objects, without developing spaces (even if they are not physical) that are women-centered and women-only. “Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.” (111 – The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House) Developing an individual identity as a woman, and solidarity with other women, enable women to approach difference constructively. They also offer women a space outside the master’s house, that they may learn the truth – that they are not dependent on patriarchy for security, happiness or meaning.
“It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” (112 – The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House)
Women-only spaces should not be romanticized. When women get together, oppressions of racism, classism, homophobia, ageism, etc., still exist. “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” (119 – Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference) While Lorde is clear that white women must do “their own work” (42 – Transformation of Silence into Language and Action) of confronting their racism, she does not turn her back on their struggle, but urges it forward with astute criticisms (e.g., calling attention to racism and white privilege within the Second Sex Conference, New York, September 29, 1979 in her speech “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”).
Lorde’s focus on difference is in service to wholeness. While women, Black people, lesbians, and all marginalized groups must find their own spaces to develop and recharge, this growth should benefit a future that glorifies all.
“You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.” (142 – Learning from the 60s)
Filed under: books on November 23rd, 2010 by Anna Lisa