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The battle for the Hampstead ladies’ pond

Another single-sex sanctuary has been opened up to men.

Lauren Smith

Topics Feminism Identity Politics UK

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An unusual scene erupted in a school hall in Hampstead, north London earlier this month. Around 200 female volunteers from the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA) met to discuss the fate of the women-only natural bathing pond on Hampstead Heath. The meeting was genteel at the start, as one might expect of a group of middle-class women discussing the affairs of a swimming pond. But it soon descended into a ferocious shouting match. The main question on the agenda was whether transwomen – aka men – should be let in.

The Kenwood ladies’ pond is the only women’s natural bathing pond in Europe. When it first opened in 1926, it offered a much-needed sanctuary for London’s women. Until then, women were only permitted to bathe in Hampstead’s pools on Thursdays. Even when the women-only pool was established, female bathers were afforded little privacy at first. Men lined the surrounding lanes to try to catch a glimpse of the women in a state of undress. Since then, as the trees surrounding the pound have grown, it has become much more secluded.

The Kenwood ladies’ pond once represented something vital – a space for women and women only. Meanwhile, men could still bathe in the men’s pond, or both sexes together in the mixed pond. There was something for everyone. Sadly, all that was to change in 2019, when the City of London Corporation, which owns the site, decided to introduce a policy of gender self-identification. And so, what was once a women-only oasis was suddenly thrown open to men who say they are women.

Edward Lord, an officer at the City of London Corporation and one of the key figures behind the self-ID policy, didn’t seem to mind that women would be losing one of the few single-sex spaces they had left. He was far more concerned to ‘ensure our public services do not discriminate against trans people’. Whatever that means.

‘All communities should be fully respected’, Lord said. Although he apparently didn’t deem the female users of the pool worthy of much respect. In fact, the feelings of these women were not even up for discussion, in his view. Letting transwomen into the Kenwood ladies’ pond ‘shouldn’t be controversial’, he said. ‘It shouldn’t be a debate. Transwomen are women, transmen are men.’

Thankfully, there was a small group of women who were willing to have a debate and fight back against the invasion of men in women’s spaces. Shortly after self-ID was introduced, gender-critical campaigners organised a protest. Around 20 women turned up to Hampstead Heath’s male-only bathing pond. They wore fake beards and bermuda shorts and claimed to ‘identify’ as men. To nobody’s great surprise, the police were called and the women were made to leave. The goal of self-ID, after all, is to let men invade women’s spaces, not the other way around.

In 2022, gender-critical campaigner Venice Allan organised another protest. This time, the women met outside the gates of the ladies’ pond. The group, ‘Let Women Swim’, vowed to make the pond a female-only space again by 2025, in time for the pond’s centenary.

This brings us to the KLPA meeting earlier this month. Association members were given the opportunity to vote on a motion to amend the KLPA constitution. This would change the KLPA’s definition of ‘women’ to include the phrase ‘biological female’, thereby excluding transwomen from the ladies’ pond.

Participants at the meeting were told to be ‘kind and inclusive’, Allan tells me. Both sides were respectful at first. But tempers soon frayed. The atmosphere became ‘increasingly hostile’, she says. The meeting quickly devolved into a shouting match between those who wanted to keep men out and those who wanted to allow transwomen in.

When the votes were finally cast, the gender-critical motion failed. Roughly three-quarters of the 200 votes were against changing the constitution, meaning that biological males can continue to use the bathing pond. Understandably, Allan was furious at the result. As she stood on a chair to speak to the hall, she accused the KLPA of turning the pond into a ‘fantasy porn set’ for ‘perverted men’.

The video of Venice’s impassioned speech soon took off on social media and was picked up by various news outlets. In it, she warned about the consequences of destroying yet another single-sex space and admonished those who voted against the motion. ‘When the inevitable happens as a result of your trans-inclusive policy’, she said, ‘and one of these men… attack or rape a woman or girl, I want you to remember that you voted for that’.

Trans-activist fanatics were quick to downplay these concerns. Broadcaster India Willoughby mocked the suggestion that women might be assaulted by men at the ladies’ pond. But such fears are not unfounded. Time and again, we see bad actors exploiting self-ID policies to take advantage of women. Just look at the examples of men assaulting female inmates in women’s prisons, flashing their genitals in women’s spas, or muscling their way into lesbian dating events. Why would a bathing pond be any different? We shouldn’t have to wait until someone is assaulted before we recognise the risk here.

In any case, safety is not the only concern. Women also deserve the right to privacy and to dignity. A place to change or to swim, safe in the knowledge that no men will be allowed in. For many women, the Kenwood ladies’ pond was one such rare place. As Venice Allan puts it: ‘The campaign for the pond has always been about safety, dignity and joy. Because it’s a joyful space. Just one man changes the entire atmosphere.’

When the Kenwood ladies’ pond was opened in the 1920s, it represented a step forward for modernity, progress and female emancipation. Allowing men into this sacred space is clearly a step backwards.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

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Topics Feminism Identity Politics UK

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