Women have been carving out spaces for themselves for centuries. Sometimes, this means taking a spot where our participation has previously been denied, from parliament and the judiciary to social clubs and sports. Other times, it means making a space just for us.
But in a world where we use anti-discrimination laws to gain access to formerly male spaces, what does the law say about providing services just to women and genderqueer folk?
Most of us have some experience with single-gender or queer spaces—maybe your spa, your support group or your all-girls high school. You might also be familiar with women-in-business/medicine/law/etc. networking events or co-working spaces like Toronto’s Make Lemonade, for women-identified co-workers.
Are Women-Only Spaces Legal?
South of the border, Men’s Rights Activists or MRAs have been using laws designed to achieve equality for women to target these organizations. American online networking organization Ladies Get Paid hosts live events for women and non-binary people. Last year, it was sued under the California Unruh Civil Rights Act after denying a man entrance (and a drink discount) at an event.
This spring The Wing, a women-only co-working space with locations across the United States, found itself under investigation by the New York City Commission for Human Rights. Comedian Iliza Shlesinger faced a lawsuit after holding a No Boys Allowed comedy show.
Similar claims haven't been very successful in Canada. In 2016, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a man's complaint that women-only hours in his gym’s weight room constituted illegal discrimination based on sex. A decade earlier, the same tribunal dismissed a claim that a women-only gym illegally discriminated against men. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal declined to put an end to Ladies' Night cover charge discounts on the basis of a man’s sex discrimination claim.
These decisions are based on a legal approach that accepts distinctions if they promote equality or counter historical disadvantage, and on exceptions built in to Canadian human rights laws. For example, most provinces permit discrimination on the basis of sex on the grounds of “public decency” or privacy. This exception protects spaces where people may be in a state of undress or receive personal care (think: spas, women’s detention facilities, or personal support workers).
Other exceptions permit governments and organizations to rely on the principle of affirmative action or “special programs” for disadvantaged groups when responding to certain discrimination claims. Likewise, religious, philanthropic, fraternal or social organizations may be able to serve a specific identifiable group without violating the law.
That doesn’t mean that some of these spaces are without their issues for feminists. Women-only spaces often engage in problematic gender-essentialism and trans-exclusion that do little to advance the feminist cause. Toronto spa Body Blitz came under fire last year when it told a prospective guest that trans women were welcome only if they'd undergone "bottom" surgery.
Vancouver Rape Relief Society likewise faced a lengthy legal battle when it was sued for discrimination against a prospective volunteer because she “was not born a woman". While the Centre won its case and maintains its policy of excluding trans women, it continues to face criticism for its narrow definition of womanhood.
While there's still work to be done to make sure that our feminism embraces inclusivity and gender diversity, these spaces are valuable. As a woman working in a male-dominated profession, I have benefited first-hand from women-only spaces. I found mentorship and the emotional support of people who share my experiences. I've found the supportive community that women and other marginalized folks need to continue to fight for change.
Sure, there might be some time in the future when these groups are no longer needed. But for now, we need to push back against men who shout about equality but are more upset about Ladies’ Night than they are about domestic violence or the wage gap.
These lawsuits aren’t about equality, they're a backlash against women's progress.