By Catherine Connors

If you ask women what it is that they value about women-centered communities and spaces, you’ll get a lot of answers, but those answers will skew in some pretty consistent directions. We asked the question in the global Facebook group, and our sisters at TueNight asked it in their group, in service of a panel discussion on women and community building. The answers fell almost universally along these four lines:

  • Freedom to pursue ‘taboo’ topics
  • Commiseration over shared experience
  • No mansplaining
  • Safety

(There was also a beautiful and very accurate remark to the effect that in our own communities, we can talk about the unique challenge of finding clothing with functional pockets. As it happens, we have a badass in our community — Sarah Greisdorf — who works on exactly this problem, which effectively proves the point. In addition to everything else, we need more pocket space.)

Safety was, not surprisingly, the most cited answer. Indrani Sigamany put it most succinctly: “I feel safer with women,” she said. “(I) can have deeper, more meaningful discussions. There’s a shared solidarity that’s missing when men enter the equation.” She noted, however, that this isn’t necessarily because women are essentially safer — lateral aggression, she said, has been a real lived experience for her.

This became core to the conversation that we participated in the other evening — not so much the dynamic of lateral aggression, or women-driven misogyny, but the circumstances under which even the most skillfully curated and moderated affinity communities can feel unsafe. Some of that is absolutely a symptom of internalized misogyny — that’s a conversation in itself — but some of it has more to do with the influence of unexamined social norms and values. Even communities that are super well-intentioned about inclusivity can carry unspoken norms and values that make some members feel that they don’t entirely belong, and in some cases, make them feel unsafe.

This is, of course, the longstanding problem with supposedly ‘neutral’ public spaces that are actually designed for a pretty specific set of participants. We think of those spaces as designed for everybody, but it doesn’t require a particularly close look to discover how built-in assumptions about who uses those spaces can exclude or make uncomfortable anyone who falls outside of those assumptions. Nursing rooms (or the lack thereof) in the workplace are one example — the default assumption about who occupies the workplace is male, and so there has, until relatively recently, been little or no workplace design that accommodates working mothers.

But don’t women-centered (and women-designed) spaces and communities solve for that? Sure — to some extent. But we still build according to our own assumptions, and we have our own blindspots. We might use language and cultural references in our community that assume more nuanced affinities based on race, class, age, or ability; we might forget, for example, that not everyone in our community is a white able-bodied Gen X American woman. This isn’t necessarily intentional or even conscious: it’s very human to assume affinity based on our own identities. We are most comfortable in situations and spaces where our identities are affirmed through the coding of language and other, more subtle forms of communication.

Which is precisely the problem: in situations where we’re most comfortable, it’s almost certain that someone else is uncomfortable, because the conditions that are most conducive to our sense of inclusion, and therefore to our social comfort, are the very things that often signal exclusion, and therefore create social discomfort (and even unsafety) for others.

Latoya Peterson made this point on the panel and it landed powerfully. If we want safer and more inclusive communities, she said, we need to ask hard questions about our own comfort. We need to ask ourselves, if we’re comfortable in a given space or community, who is not? Does our comfort (do the norms that make us comfortable) displace anyone? Who, why, how?

If we want safe and inclusive communities, we need to interrogate our comfort.

That’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. As Margit Detweiler said in that same conversation, if inclusion feels easy to you, you’re doing it wrong. You should feel uncomfortable. You should be asking yourself — we should be asking ourselves — hard questions about the assumptions and biases that shape the spaces and communities in which we are most comfortable. And then be willing to compromise comfort for inclusion.

That doesn’t mean that we compromise safety. Safety doesn’t need to feel fully comfortable — we create more robust safety when we remain uncomfortably aware of how fragile and inequitable it can often be.

This might feel particularly challenging in the current moment, when we crave comfortable safety more than ever. We just need to remember that in this community, we’re not creating a space to retreat, but to empower. And the exercise of our collective power is going to feel uncomfortable, as it pushes against a world that wasn’t built for us.

Let’s get comfortable with that discomfort. Because we have to.

Sometimes, empowerment isn’t totally uncomfortable.

Our badass sisters behind Women For The Win just launched a merch store, the proceeds from which go directly to the female candidates in the WFTW portfolio. Every nickel dime and dollar goes toward making real systemic change and getting more badass women into office. Like Dana Cottrell, a teacher, mom, and wife bravely taking on a self-styled misogynist, Daniel Webster, in Florida’s 11th congressional district who believes “a woman has to realize that God accomplishes his ultimate will through the decisions of the husband, even when the husband is wrong.” Buying a cozy sweatshirt will support Dana, and other women who are taking action on the political stage.

LEAGUE OF BADASS WOMEN POWERUPS THIS WEEK: No PowerUps this week! We’ll kick-off a new schedule of PowerUps and other events after Labor Day.

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