Picture credit: H. F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Let women swim!

Single sex swimming is essential for many

Artillery Row

Recently, I saw an old friend after several years. While catching up on all our news, she told me a story which involved an experience she had had at her local swimming pool in Leicester. Sylvia (not her real name) had been swimming regularly at her local pool since she was in her thirties. In her fifties, after breast cancer left her with a mastectomy, she was less keen to be in a public swimming environment. As she explained to me, although mastectomies are remarkably common, they are not actually seen very often, and so they provoke more interest than is comfortable, especially from children. The general public swim became impossible for her, but an answer lay in the weekly hour-long women-only swimming session, which she began to attend regularly. 

Most of the group consisted of Muslim women who relied on a female-only space to be able to swim at all, and the group was comfortable, friendly and felt safe. It is not always visibly obvious why individual women need or value a woman-only space in which to swim or undress, but in single-sex groups there can be a sensitivity to others, and a mutual respect, which is not always found in public mixed-sex groups. It was important to Sylvia to feel safe in the pool, but also in the changing rooms, where the atmosphere was now comfortable enough for her to have a proper shower after her swim without having to contort herself or try and hide anything.

Then one day a man appeared on the poolside. He was clearly a man. He wore swimming trunks and there was no attempt to disguise his sex. The pool was divided into two designated swimming lanes and one large free-swimming area, and the man entered one of the swimming lanes and swam up and down for half an hour. All the women stayed in the pool for some time after he had left, not wishing to bump into him in the changing room. There was some anxiety and confusion expressed by the women whilst talking after their swim and they decided to report the matter to the front desk. Two of the Muslim women went to the desk but eventually came back with little reassurance to offer. The overall impression was that nothing could be done, that this situation was somehow “alright” and could not be challenged. The women were left with the impression that the law allowed men into their spaces and that it was not polite to even question whether this particular man actually “claimed” to be a woman. 

The staff in this situation clearly had no knowledge of the law. Nor did they have a written policy from management or the council from which to quote, and it was way above their pay grade to risk a confrontation with a strange male, so there was nothing they could do except allow a man into a woman-only swimming session. 

Sylvia stopped going for her weekly swim

Sylvia stopped going for her weekly swim as she could no longer feel reassured of a safe and private space. She didn’t know if the Muslim women continued to attend or not, but clearly they would have been compromised by the presence of a man. For all she knows, the man could now have the pool to himself once a week, and there is no simple way of measuring how many women are self-excluding. 

This all happened in the autumn of 2019, so within six months all the public pools were closed anyway due to the Covid lockdown. In the meantime there has been more and more publicity given to the feminist fight-back against the loss of women’s single-sex spaces, including a recent update to the Equality Act from the EHRC and a speech from Attorney General Suella Braverman for the Policy Exchange in her section on the Equality Act and single-sex spaces. It is to be hoped that public bodies and councils will be up to date on these developments and that things might have changed at this Leicester pool since 2019.

Since writing a tweet thread on this story, I have been asked by many people for more details on the pool involved, but have decided not to name and shame it while its current policy remains unknown. Fair Play for Women, who have campaigned so successfully for women’s sport, is on the case, and further action will depend on what current information is gathered.

If you’re looking for action though, there will definitely be some this weekend at Highgate Ponds. On Saturday August 27th, several feminist groups are meeting at the Kenwood Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath to protest the removal of single-sex swimming. In 2018, the Corporation of the City of London adopted a new “gender self-ID” policy which allowed any male to access the ladies’ pond merely on his claim to be a woman, despite the nearby provision of both a mixed-sex pond and a male-only pond to cater for all needs. The ladies’ pond has been in existence for nearly a hundred years and a new campaign called Let Women Swim has begun, with the aim of reclaiming the pond as a female-only space by the centenary in 2025. 

This is not the first protest at this location. In 2018, a feminist group called Man Friday infiltrated the men’s pond, claiming to identify as men, in order to draw attention to the unfairness of making women’s facilities mixed-sex. The men didn’t like it, but they got the point and were overwhelmingly supportive. 

This time it’s the turn of the women’s groups Standing for Women, the Women’s Rights Network and the new group LOSS: Let Our Sisters Swim, who will all be attending and speaking at the event to start the campaign to win back the Ladies Pond. A spokeswoman for the event says: “This is only the beginning. Let Women Swim will continue to put pressure on the Corporation of the City of London until it restores the original purpose of this historic place, protects its unique legacy — and upholds the Equality Act and women’s rights.”

The reasons for needing a woman-only space…are varied

The reasons for needing a woman-only space for swimming, sunbathing and changing are varied. Some women just prefer the freedom of being away from the male gaze for a short period of time in their lives, some have reasons of religion or belief, others are the survivors of male sexual violence and yet others, like my friend Sylvia, have scars or surgery which they would rather not expose to public view. No woman should have to repeat her sexual trauma or expose her confidential medical history in order to claim the right to the privacy, safety and dignity already afforded her by the single-sex exceptions in the Equality Act. 

The reason for single-sex provision in the first place is often the very thing which can prevent a woman challenging its removal. My friend understandably doesn’t want her private medical history splashed all over the press, and a woman with a history of sexual trauma is less likely to be willing to become a test case for the law. We shouldn’t need to do this to defend our rights, but here we are.

For more information, follow the hashtag #LetWomenSwim on Twitter this weekend and keep an eye out for further action to come.

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