By Jane Barnes
Colette, one of my fave bi writers, wrote a long story called “Le Toutonier,” which is French for a womb, a woman’s place (such as a gym) gynaecium—the women’s quarters, the “only comfortable, comforting place.” Alice, newly divorced, returns to her sisters’ apartment in Paris, where there’s a toutonier—by which they mean a great big old leather couch—upon which they’ve shared secrets and pains their entire lives. To this refuge, Alice returns without having to do anything but be her sad self.
Girl Scouts was all girls, and so was 4-H, where Judy and I stitched in a house with three generations of women. Her father, a quiet man, hardly made a dent in this female household. Then came Home Ec and biscuits and sewed aprons and discussions of periods. Then the girls’ showers at gym, and slumber parties, which weren’t entirely chaste, if you get my drift! Of course, my sister and I occupied adjoining twin beds, and at night we’d whisper all kinds of things. An aside: in the recent California fire, she evacuated, and we texted in the same way, saying “Night, night,” like we had as kids.
At 25, consciousness raising groups had no men! An assortment of women looking out for each other. Their support helped me leave an abusive husband. Later women’s poetry workshops, readings, and magazines gave me the space to write very personal poems. No one there to roll their eyes or refuse to listen. A friend at an all-woman event reports to me that one woman said, “I don’t know how to act; no men are here.”* Oh, my. But I really felt all-women space when I went to my first lesbian bar. Fearing the same kind of harassment I’d get at a mixed bar, I was terrified. Then shocked to see the gentleness of women. Their welcoming. Their sweet cuddling and slow dancing… Not to mention being in bi women space, like here.
How to make the world feel like a toutonier—a worn, leather couch where we can say anything? Some good men have been that for me, and I loved them. But speaking generally? No. The world hasn’t changed. Me Too. Christine Ford. The president, whose name I can’t even type here. So many injustices, and in every country—others much worse than the U.S. We still need refuge, and I find it in New York’s LGBTQ Center, in twelve-step meetings of women, with women friends. We’re still speaking a private language. What a world it would be if more men learned how to speak it.
*Thanks to Cynthia Berkshire
Jane Barnes is completing a new poetry manuscript called “Deceptive Cadence,” cooking pad thai, and wearing her Fall beret.