The Women’s Rights Network grew from the germ of an idea; that women who see the clear and present threat to our rights should gather in local groups and make our opposition heard. And from that idea the organisation spontaneously erupted.
We want women to have the opportunity to participate fully in society without being constrained by our sex. To participate in exactly the same way that men can. We want women to be treated as complete human beings in our own right, not support humans for men. This is what Mary Wollstonecraft was arguing for, and what the suffragettes were so passionate about.
Until very recently – and certainly in my lifetime – there were a great many customs and regulations that prevented women doing many of the things that men were free to do. Regulations and customs that seem incredible to us in the 21st century, and an awful lot of what we now take for granted has been permitted only in the last 50 years.
Examples of the recent regulations and conventions that explicitly prevented women from having the freedoms and opportunities afforded to men include
Women were unable to vote in the UK until 1928 (France 1945, Spain 1977)
Until 1975 women could be excluded from employment on the basis of our sex
Prior to the 1970s, women could not borrow from the bank or get a mortgage without the permission of a male relative or guarantor
Until 1944, the “marriage bar” was used to prevent women from continuing to work in professions like teaching & nursing after they married
Until 1994, a man was entitled to rape his wife
Statutory maternity pay was not introduced until 1986
Until 1990, the income of a married couple was added together for tax purposes and treated as if it were the income of the husband (so a married woman was legally obliged to fully declare her earnings to her husband)
The Equality Act 2010 finally made it illegal to discriminate anywhere on the basis of sex so that legally, financially, and politically, women finally have the same opportunities and constraints as men. In principle.
In practice, discrimination is still tolerated – for instance there are fewer sporting opportunities for women, and our prize money is typically less than for men which is usually justified by the claim that fewer people are willing to pay to watch women’s sport. This is hard to disprove when sponsorship, resources and marketing is directed overwhelmingly towards men’s sports, but in 2018, more people watched the women’s Wimbledon final than the men’s. And women’s football and cricket attract excellent viewing figures.
Socially, we want women to have the right to be considered of equal value to men, and for the physical and behavioural differences between us and the consequences of childbearing to be recognised and mitigated for.
Of course, not all men and not all women, but on average:
Women are physically vulnerable to men – we need single sex spaces for those times when this is relevant (changing rooms, toilets, hospitals, crisis centres, prisons)
Men are more violent, and some men attack women in a way that women do not attack each other – that’s just a fact – but we don’t know which ones. So those single sex spaces can have no exceptions.
Women have babies. The consequences of sex for women can be very different than for men. If people are to have families, then women must bear a physical cost not required of men.
Physically, men are bigger, stronger, faster across every metric. So equal sporting opportunity requires separate sporting categories.
Women’s single sex spaces are therefore something of a proxy for the wider struggle for the right of women to fully participate in the world of work, sports and in society generally because these spaces are what allow us to do this.
Without single sex changing rooms, participation in sports becomes an issue for women who need to shower and change at a sports facility. If men – however they identify – have access to the spaces where women are undressed, at least some women will self-exclude, and most women will feel uncomfortable.
Without single sex toilets being generally available, women are less likely to go to theatres, clubs, and other venues, or we change our behaviour to avoid using the toilets – we don’t have a drink in the interval, or we leave early. These are constraints applied to women that men do not have to consider.
Hospitals become more dangerous for women if we must share wards with men, and our outcomes are worse if we discharge ourselves early. The shocking case that Baroness Nicholson recently shared of a rape on a hospital ward is an extreme outcome, but if women can’t feel confident and secure when at our most vulnerable in hospital it’s unlikely that our treatment will be as effective even if nothing serious happens to us.
And the punishment endured by those women in a mixed sex prison is much more severe than for men. It is inhumane to incarcerate a vulnerable woman, who is more likely than not to have experienced sexual trauma or male violence, in a facility that is not single sex.
When commentators (and politicians) suggest that women are being prudish, hoarding rights and so on for refusing to give up our single sex spaces, they are being disingenuous. These single sex spaces were carved out for very specific needs. They are the mitigations that enable us to live a life of full participation. And that is the right we are fighting for.