By Ellyn Ruthstrom
For me, women’s space has always meant feminist space; it’s
not just having other women around. In fact, some all-female
spaces feel incredibly unsafe and uncomfortable to me, such
as the mega-hetero-normative ritual spaces like wedding or
baby showers or how about a Tupperware party? Not my idea
of women’s space. Women’s space to me is about connecting
about our strengths and resilience. A place to acknowledge the
repression and barriers we’ve experienced due to our identities
as women and our other intersecting identities. It is a space that
is all about being gender non-conforming because there is no
one way to be a woman.
From the time I went to my first Women’s Collective meeting at
Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, back in 1977, I was hooked
on women’s space. There I was, a freshman, first year away from
home, talking about feminism with classmates, women professors,
and members of the administration. We would have deep
conversations about the inequalities we all experienced in our
varied lives, and I learned so much from those who were older
than me who were finally speaking up because they wanted more
for themselves and more for younger generations of women.
The Collective brought feminist speakers and performers to campus
for the first Women’s Week, including the groundbreaking
Sweet Honey in the Rock, an African-American performance
ensemble that sang of resistance, women’s strength, and Black
history. I also remember hearing an amazing lesbian folk singer/
songwriter from Cleveland who taught me that every movement
needs its radicals. The radicals have to run out front and cause
trouble while proposing things that seem crazy to average people,
thus making things slightly less radical appear more reasonable.
Every centrist needs a radical to achieve anything at all.
By my senior year, my commitment to building women’s communities
was just a part of my everyday life. That year I directed
and produced Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and
Others with a cast of all senior women. The play centers around
a group of white women who attend Mount Holyoke together
and then reunite five years after graduation. It delves into the varied experiences of young college-educated women during
the second wave of feminism, including sex, careers, intellectual
challenges, relationship pressures, marriage, and babies.
As a young actor on my campus, I had been frustrated by the
choices of the top director who often selected works with very
few female roles. My choice of an all-female cast was intentional,
and I not only cast other women like myself who had found it
hard to get one of the few stage roles, I also cast women who
had not acted before. Originally, I was not going to be in the
play, but one of the actors had to drop out, and I took on her
role, something I cherished.
Some of the cast were already close friends of mine, some had
been feminist comrades from the Women’s Collective, and some
became new friends, but the production bonded us together in a
most unique sisterhood for many years. We only performed the
play one night on a makeshift stage in the student center dining
hall, and we all cried when the packed room gave us a standing
ovation. At our 20th class reunion, the whole cast came back
together, and we did a dramatic reading of the play on the main
stage of the campus that had felt unwelcoming to us decades
before. Still to this day, we cheer each other on with one of the
play’s recurring lines: “When we’re 40 (or 45 or 50 or…), we’re
going to be fucking amazing!” And we are!
Wherever I have lived over my lifetime—D.C., England,
Northampton, Boston, Columbus—I have established a women’s
space for personal sustenance. When I was living in England
with my boyfriend/husband, I sought out a women’s group
that was a multi-generational and multi-cultural feminist space
that connected me to the women who were demonstrating at
Greenham Common in the south of England against the presence
of U.S. cruise missiles. Talk about women’s space! These
anti-nuke activists created women’s encampments outside the
U.S. base in protest and intersected their anti-war message with
an anti-patriarchal one. Women maintained camps at Greenham
from 1981 until 1987, and this woman-centered activism
inspired many other women’s actions throughout England,
Europe, and beyond.
Moving to Boston with my husband, I ended up working for
a quarterly feminist spirituality and politics magazine,
Woman of Power. During that time, led by the incredible
Starhawk, I danced the spiral dance with a roomful
of women yearning for a connection to goddess energy.
I was also part of a reproductive rights group in Cambridge that included women of all sexual orientations, and I volunteered at Sojourner magazine, a national feminist monthly. I was a part of all of these spaces as
a straight woman, ostensibly.
I didn’t come out as bisexual until I parted ways with my husband,
and once I was out, my need was not just for women’s
space, but for queer women’s space. And, more specifically,
bisexual women’s space. One of the first things I did when I
moved back to Boston in 1994 was to visit the Women’s Center
in Cambridge to look for a place to live, to find a job, and find
bi women. I found the Bi Women’s Rap Group, a weekly, peerled,
two-hour meeting that centered around a different theme or
question each time. Often, every seat would be full, and people
would be sitting on the floor, 15-20 bi women soaking up a safe
space, talking to each other about issues they’d never spoken to
anyone about. I met women in that room who are still close
friends to this day. And from there I joined the Boston Bisexual
Women’s Network (BBWN), which is still my community
touchstone after 25 years.
The concept of women’s space has never been uncomplicated,
and my nostalgic retelling hasn’t yet included any of those ripples.
What about spaces that women of color didn’t feel welcomed
into? What about the spaces where middle-class women didn’t
open themselves to working-class or poor women? What about
when cisgender women didn’t want to include transgender
women in their spaces? What about when lesbians didn’t want
to include bisexual women? Or when straight women didn’t feel
comfortable with queer women?
All of those things have happened within spaces that I participated
in or heard about. And though some of these clashes
were absolutely wrenching experiences to live through, those
reckonings are so important for movements to come to terms
with in order to grow, become more inclusive, and to deepen
the connections between women of differing identities and
experiences. Feminist communities are not the only ones that
have been pushed to do this, but in some ways, they are more
likely to lay bare these conflicts.
Queer women’s space constantly goes through these growing
pains and so does the larger feminist movement. But I’d rather
be a part of a community that wrestles with these complexities
instead of trying to ignore them. I am also not naïve enough
to believe all feminists hold the same values of inclusivity that
I do or even have the same understanding of what feminism is.
Despite all its faults, I still turn to women’s space, to feminist
space, still believing that there is no one way to be a woman.
Ellyn Ruthstrom is not letting the bastards grind her down, even
when it seems like we’re surrounded by them. She feels so lucky to
be a part of the vibrant bi+ community of Boston.