Women-only public transit: Regressive or dreamy?

women only train

In what has shown itself to be a fairly controversial move, British Labour Party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn has proposed women-only carriages on trains in the UK. How utterly regressive! some have shrieked. Others have called the suggestion an insult to men or “draconian”:

My immediate response to this suggestion was Good god at last. I have been using public transit to get around in the city since I was a child. I continue to take the bus almost every day, as an adult, and every single day it is stressful. Not because I am a snob who can’t stand to be around people or babies or because I’m in such a hurry that I can’t handle the slow pace (I don’t know how to drive so the alternative to public transit is walking, which I also do every single day, but is no faster than the bus)… In fact, were I able to actually relax on the bus, I would thoroughly enjoy it — Yet another opportunity to listen to the Swag Triumphant playlist on Songza catch up on my podcasts! Perfect. But the bus is never relaxing and the reason for that is singular: Men.

While the idea of sex-segregated transit might initially bring to mind a culture or period in time that fully bought into gendered stereotypes (commentary involving the Taliban abounds…) in a “men can’t control themselves when in our presence, keep them away lest they accidentally rape us” or a “women are delicate flowers who need protection from the world around them” kind of way, the reality is that the suggestion kind of makes sense…

In a policy consultation document on public transport Corbyn wrote: “Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women-only train carriages.”

Harassment on public transit is so routine there are entire websites devoted to sharing women’s stories. Alternatively, you can just read the news. Sexual assaults on transit are not abnormal. When I get on the bus I choose to stand until a seat in a single seat “row” comes up because if I sit somewhere with an open seat next to me, inevitably some creep sits next to me (despite there being other available seats) and acts creepy until I reach my destination.

This is the reality. Which is not to say I don’t understand opposition to this idea.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted:

Others have noted that this kind of solution could actually provide space for victim blaming if a woman is harassed or assaulted on a mixed carriage:

These are fair points I agree with… But at the same time, if men aren’t going to let up on the lecherous, violent, creepy behaviour, shouldn’t we have the right to stay the fuck away from them? Wouldn’t it be nice if the basic things we do in our day to day lives, like going to school or work, weren’t cause for anxiety simply because men are unwilling to behave like respectful human beings?

I’ll admit I’m torn, despite my excitement at the idea of dick-free public transit (I mean that both literally and figuratively). It is very clearly a band-aid solution that doesn’t actually, truly address the problem of male violence against women. At the same time, there are many situations where “women-only” works…

I love women-only gyms. I wish all gyms had at least a women-only section — it is the section I use every single time, no contest, if there is the option. I refuse to go to male-dominated gyms. My friends all say the same. If there were women-only swims, I would eagerly start swimming again. I stopped swimming laps because stubborn men refuse to move into the slow lane despite being passed over and over again. If you swim laps, surely you understand how stressful and tiring it is to continuously have to find space in the middle and speed up to pass someone, over and over again, because you’re always on their ass. I stopped enjoying and excelling in Phys Ed during high school after they switched us over to a co-ed class in Grade 11. Previous to that, it had been my favorite class.

The benefits of all girl schools are notable. I remember my mother wishing she could send me to one, purely because she’d read studies about the way young women thrived in male-free classrooms (girls schools in Vancouver are all private schools, and therefore not affordable for working class families). Now,  all girls schools don’t work because prudish parents can ensure their daughters remain “pure” for as long as possible (not how that works, nope). They work because girls thrive in classrooms where boys aren’t taking up all the space. All girls schools allow girls to participate in discussions, to gain confidence, to learn freely and without being sexually harassed. Once they graduate, women who attended all girls schools continue to excel. It isn’t about being sheltered from “the real world,” it’s about giving girls a chance.

Sex segregation isn’t always bad for girls and women. In fact, in certain circumstances it can be quite good. While I’m not interested in living entirely separate from men or in building a society that only allows men and women to commingle in the domestic sphere (we’ve seen how that hurts women more than it helps them), it also isn’t true that sex segregation is always a regressive idea. Particularly so long as men continue to make basic tasks like exercising, learning, and traveling hell just because they can.

Some argue it’s an “admission of defeat,” but ending male violence isn’t a “fake it till you make it” type scenario.

Pretending we feel comfortable being on public transit with men doesn’t make it so. Harassment and assault isn’t something women should just power through.

I mean, even if this isn’t the ideal solution, doesn’t it say something that we want it?

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.