single-sex spaces

Why It’s Worth Banishing Men Once in a While

Photo: Harold M. Lambert

It all started with a vision I had for my 30th birthday a few years ago. Never one to sit around and wait for someone else to throw me a party, I decided to create the most wonderful thing I could imagine: all of my ladyfriends, from all parts of my life and all parts of the country, together in the desert, just hanging out. I rented a cabin in Joshua Tree and made it happen. The weekend was so wonderful that I’ve done it every year since, with a few tweaks to the invite list and location.

Which is how I came to spend last week in a resort in the desert outside Palm Springs with a group of 45 women, no agenda, and no men. It’s nothing salacious: We wear muumuus. We eat a lot of cheese. We take a lot of naps. We invent cocktails. We dance.

This annual gathering has been met with a surprising amount of confusion and a bit of hostility from men — especially the gay men in my life. “Considering wearing drag to your retreat this weekend,” one texted me. When I informed him that even the most luxurious wig and caftan couldn’t get him in, he replied, “#shade.” My straight, male friends were a little prickly, too. “Let the Instagram flood begin,” one commented, sounding almost annoyed at the prospect of dozens of photos of women in bikinis.

Exclusivity usually means inequality, and it became clear that some people perceived the women-only desert weekend as a gender-reversed version of boys’ clubs, like the Augusta National Golf Club. It’s true that, these days, even the most hardcore feminist groups tend to be inclusive of everyone who shares a belief in gender equality. Any feminist will tell you that the movement has to include men in order to succeed. We also live in a gender-fluid age when many, many people don’t identify with either “man” or “woman,” and in order to segregate by gender, you need to force people to choose one. (For the record, my rule is that no matter how you were born or how you like to dress, if you consider yourself a woman, you’re eligible to attend.)

For all of these reasons, at first it was hard to articulate exactly why I felt the need to invite only women. Or, put another way, what I thought men would ruin. There was the fact that I didn’t want it to turn into a weekend of hookups and sexual tension — but that explanation goes out the window when you account for the many lesbians in attendance. There was the fact that I wanted it to feel like a safe space — but it’s not like any of my male friends are the hyper-macho, mansplaining type. I eventually settled on freedom as the operating principle. Women spend their entire lives surrounded by and looked at by men. This isn’t always a bad thing. But there is an undeniable feeling of relief and lightness I associate with being in an all-women space.

Of course, certain types of women-only gatherings — sewing circles, finishing schools, bridal showers — have long been understood and accepted, probably because they have stated goals and purposes, usually well-aligned with feminine stereotypes. In the sixties and seventies, newly radicalized women used gender-segregated gatherings to discuss the intersection of the personal and the political. These consciousness-raising groups of the feminist second wave have given way to marketing-friendly heirs like girls’ night out (or girls’ night in) that are more associated with kids-free relaxation or you-go-girl platitudes than political revolt. Those of us who were sitting around the pool last week talked about how the bachelorette party is really the closest analogue for the kind of women-only gathering we were experiencing — and that’s really not similar at all. A bachelorette party is about celebrating one woman, rather than reveling in a group dynamic with no agenda.

The lack of agenda, I came to realize, is key. My annual desert retreat is not an exercise in personal-is-political consciousness-raising. It’s not a women’s networking group where the goal is professional advancement. (Definitely not. I heard one woman ask another what she did for a living on the last day of the trip.) It’s not a bridal shower or bachelorette that celebrates one woman’s achievement of a traditional life milestone. It’s just a women-only space.

Good, strange things happen when you get a group of women together with no itinerary and no pressure. Man Repeller-type fashions flourished — from weird cat T-shirts to a baggy nightgown my friend referred to as “the boner-killer.” Other women wore their sexiest bathing suits and brightest lipstick. I saw a lot of body hair, and I’m talking less about on-trend bush than I am about furry calves. The kitchens, bathrooms, and other common areas were always clean and tidy because every woman pulled her own weight. (Anyone who has taken a mixed-gender ski trip with knows who’s most likely to be found cleaning up after dinner and who’s already in the hot tub with a cocktail.) We could do all of these things without wondering if we’d be perceived as sexless matrons or attention whores, without worrying if we were succumbing to stereotype, without harping on others to pitch in and do their part for the group.

Later, many of the women who attended told me they’d initially been skeptical. “I hang out with dudes all day long — women are not part of my everyday,” said one friend who works in a male-dominated industry, “so I wasn’t sure how I would mingle.” Could a large women-only group really not devolve into Mean Girls cliquishness? Would we just sit around and talk about men the whole time anyway? There were also fears on the other end of the spectrum: Would this be some weird cult where we’d be pressured to sit around and braid each others’ pubic hair while listening to Joni Mitchell? All fears unfounded. Admittedly, there were some stereotypical conversations — the Diva Cup advocates said their piece, the mothers warned the pregnant women about what was about to happen to their vaginas. And it’s also true that women often judge each other as harshly as men do. But all in all, the weekend had surprisingly little in common with stereotypes of what happens when you get a women-only group together.

With the professional and political world still rife with men-only spaces, it’s no wonder that being in an all-woman environment is such a relief. Sure, part of it is that warm desert sun, but it’s also the feeling of certain social pressures lifting. When everyone’s a woman, your actions aren’t even remotely associated with your gender, but rather, with you as a person. That, I think, is a feeling even men could benefit from once in awhile. Which is why I encourage my male friends who feel left out to start their own annual holiday. They’ll never be invited to mine.

Why It’s Worth Banishing Men Once in a While