No Boys Allowed: Women-Only Writing Spaces

Recently, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin hosted a women-only viewing of Wonder Woman, sparking controversy and causing me to think about the importance of women-only spaces in my life. Last week, a good friend of mine decided to host a women-only karaoke birthday party, and I went home that night feeling better than I’d ever felt after a heterosexual date. Admittedly, I have a lot of great friendships with men, as well as an amazing partner, but there’s something different, something distinct, about bonds with other women. We’ve got an unspoken language, shared experiences, and glances that say, “Hey, I get it, too.”

After the women-only karaoke party, a few of us ladies ended up at Shake Shack, talking about recent singledom for some, and the liberation of just being alone — not in a rush to get on Tinder or get some ‘D — of being unapologetically women. A lot of us have had the same experience: internalized misogyny, internalized competition, but that night, all of that faded. I thought back to the science fiction novel, The Female Man, by Joanna Russ, and more than ever, I felt that I might totally be okay with a women-only society.

When we dress, we dress for men. When we wear make up, we wear it for men. When we cut our hair, we cut it for men. Cook for men. Quiet down for men. Be polite for men. Exist for men. Read things intended for men. Men is the targeted audience, right?   Nope. I dress for the compliments from my ladies. I read things written by women. I intentionally write things for women now. I try to raise my voice above men. But I wasn’t always this way.

I was a creative writing major in undergrad. By the time I completed my degree, my “writing self” had been torn down many, many times. After struggling to write but successfully completing a pretty damn good manuscript of poetry for my honors thesis, I had decided that writing wasn’t my jam anymore. I abandoned my dream of applying for M.F.A. programs and chose a traditionally female role instead: high school teacher. During college, I was writing about “women’s issues”: body image, eating disorders, submissiveness, sexual abuse, and gender performance. But none of that was taken seriously. The most favored writer in my cohort was a white dude who wrote Mary Oliver-inspired poems about nature, while I asked myself “Where the hell is he seeing all these images in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma?” And “Why the hell does this WOMAN professor love him and his dry, boring ass, inauthentic writing but constantly criticize the women in my class?” Maybe it was that internalized misogyny — I don’t know.

Despite this experience which tore at my writing identity, my feminism grew thanks to boss ass women professors who helped me critically view the world from a new lens — a lens that subverted the male gaze, that shouted back, that shifted power back into my own hands. I intentionally avoided male professors (which was hard to do and didn’t always happen). I wanted my literary canon to reflect me. I wanted to be surrounded by women.

I ended up in a Masters of Education program after graduating, and I thought I had said goodbye to my writing life. Luckily, I was wrong. One of the required classes was teaching composition, and our professor required us to keep a writing notebook and to complete a memoir and a writing project. Honestly, I was scared. One year later, and I was forced to get back into writing, my focus still on women’s issues. I still had so much to say. I wrote a series of voyeuristic poems, turning the male gaze.

Initially, I thought this idea was probably stupid. About halfway through the project, I found myself partnered in a revision activity with Nicole (fellow Unapologetic Voices contributor). We shared our poetry, and my heart lit up. She was writing about similar issues. We were both generally quiet in class, but her writing was fierce, powerful, honest, and comforting; it was unapologetically woman. She encouraged me to be less shy with my writing, to be even more voyeuristic. This was the encouragement I needed. I revised the poems a last time, thinking of Nicole’s advice. My professor loved the final project, ironically comparing me to Walt Whitman (GO AWAY, MEN). My confidence started to grow. I continued to write. The pen became my power. And eventually I was able to verbalize what was so often trapped in throat.

Writing hasn’t been my focus since starting teaching, but I got very excited when I was invited to join a feminist writing group. I intentionally volunteered to share my writing very late in our schedule because I wasn’t feeling confident. But from the first meeting with the group to each subsequent meeting excitedly devouring writing by other women, something inside of me felt fulfilled, inspired.

I had a dry spell of writing, but after one of these meetings, decided to write a poem about intimacy issues. The following weekend, I performed it at a friend’s open mic night, along with another poem centered on body image. The group was mostly men, so I found myself apologizing before starting the poem, which involves a secret fantasy of being violent towards men. But my voice had never felt louder, and I’d never felt more like myself.

A few months later, I workshopped this poem with my writing group. I was scared at first — no one had submitted poetry before. But the reaction made me realize that this writing is important. It sparked conversations about insecurity, intimacy, and our experiences as women.

In the past, I used to write to men: subliminal poetry, direct letters, e-mails, love notes, etc., only to be ignored, criticized, and left unsatisfied. I felt alone and crazy.

But writing for women is different. This was the first time I realized my writing had an audience, an important audience. I had a voice, a significant one. These ladies are satisfying my needs, and how good it feels to be heard, listened to, and understood.

Written by Tiffany Lepa, 6/12/17.

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