The Magic of Feminist Spaces

WomanhousePRFInalLast week, I spent a couple of unexpectedly inspiring days invigilating an exhibition that my work was, somewhat accidentally, featured in. I say that not because I didn’t want to be there or because I don’t appreciate my own work. It’s just that I’d never looked at myself as an artist before that, so this wonderful turn of events came as quite a bit of a surprise to me. An undeniably nice one thought!

The exhibition was feminist, in the best sense of the word – it was top to bottom on a feminist theme, almost exclusively by women, with a nod to our foremothers; which is where I come in. It was dedicated to women who, in 1972, set up the first ever feminist exhibition – WomanHouse. Which, in turn, inspired a wave of similar projects across the world, coming to the UK in 1974, and setting up in south London as A Woman’s Place.
I joined the exhibition to talk about A Woman’s Place, to add a nod to our British second wave sisters (you can read the piece I wrote for the exhibition here).

The latest rendition of WomanHouse in Hackney last week was marvellous – thought-provoking, emotional, honest, bold and inspiring. Our foremothers would have been proud. And somehow, during my time there, something, yet again, unexpectedly amazing happened. Something that often happens when women get together in a physical space with enough time to talk openly and inspire each other. Something that I often witness, because I work at the Feminist Library, but that still takes me by surprise every time – and it does other women even more so, because most are not lucky enough to be working in a feminist space.

A group of us sat on the steps of the House and talked for hours during the exhibition. This group of women did not know each other beforehand – a mix of artists and visitors with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. And yet, somehow in the midst of all this, magic happened: we inspired each other, each of us in different ways, yet we all came away feeling lifted like we haven’t been in a while; some with new inspiring projects to take forwards, others with spontaneous and bold new holiday plans, others still with potentially lifechanging reflections.

I haven’t felt this inspired in ages – I have been writing nearly non-stop for days since! Catching up on months of very rough ideas that never made it onto a page until now, having been missing that final spark of energy and inspiration that manages to get them there.

And this is exactly what happens when women get together and inhibitions are lifted – free to express their thoughts, frustrations and ideas. This is why physical spaces are so important. And that’s why the feminist project continues – until we don’t find those moments so rare… but rather an everyday occurrence.

This also reminded me of consciousness raising – a feminist method of gathering as women popular during the Second Wave of the movement and one that, while focusing on often seemingly simple, mundane even, topics, such as cooking and cleaning, was one of the key sparks that led to the ignition of the women’s movement at the time. The power of women getting together to talk about ‘the personal’ and making the connection to ‘the political’ cannot be overstated.

This is also what my piece for the exhibition was about – the importance of physical feminist spaces allowing women to get together and create something wonderfully unexpected out of nothing, herstories, and the contexts which bring them into existence and ones which facilitate their disappearance…

The almost-disappearance of this installation-exhibition from history is political.

Says Amy Tobin, who did the work of attempting to unearth it for an exhibition celebrating the herstory of A Woman’s Place a couple of years ago. This is a quote that follows me – one of those thoughts that has redirected the course of my life and I will forever be indebted to Amy for doing the work that led me to where I am today – to writing this, to talking about it every chance I get, to thinking about writing so much more on this…

Yet, at the same time, it is a painful realisation that, considering how far we’ve come, feminist spaces are still so rare as to make our encounters with them deeply profound every single time…

I have a love/hate relationship with this state of affairs – I do adore having these life-changing experiences, and sharing them with other women. Those are some of the most beautiful moments of being a feminists. But those same moments also make me realise just how far we still have to go… To get to a world in which those spaces and those experiences are everyday rather than one in a million is the goal – one that does not seem within reach just yet… But at least there are those moments that remind us that it is possible. Or in the words of one of my other favourite feminist thinkers…

Another world is possible, on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy

 

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Feminist Travels… Chapter 1: Paris

As we get well into the Summer, holidays are on everyone’s mind and for a long time I have been thinking about ways of making my travels more feminist. Recently, thinking about my upcoming trip to Paris, I decided to put this into action. Here’s my feminist guide to Paris – or an attempt at it before I go at least! So do send me any suggestions you might have and I might have missed.

The idea of feminist Paris first started germinating in my mind when I heard about the scare to the Marguerite Durand library a couple of years ago – the collection was at risk of being lost, around the same time that the Feminist Library in London was, and that’s how I found out about it, as we signed the letter of support joining in our struggle to save women’s histories (or herstories).  Thanks to international sisterhood and solidarity, both resources were saved in the end! And now that I’m going back to Paris – for my first ever feminist visit! – their feminist library is top of my list of things to do.

While I was exploring what else to put on my list of feminist Paris, I found feminist guided tours around the city – and I will be signing up to one of them! And a feminist Paris guide book (not in English yet, but I hope it will be when I’m there!). Most of them, however, focus on great women of Paris – which is great and, after some digging, does help with my project of trying to find more feminist spaces in Paris. I think it is worth just listing the ones here for any other feminists planning a trip to the city and interested in women’s history:

Women of Paris is run in English, so it will likely be my choice of these, and it also has a new ‘Sugar & Spice’ version – focusing on women writers and pastry shops! 🙂 Run by a Londoner, Heidi Evans, I expect it will be full of fascinating fun facts – and we can exchange tips about feminist London at the end of it! I have just checked their website again and it appears they have a new tour added – a wine tasting tour! I know what I’m booking myself onto. If you’re still not convinced, read this one woman’s entertaining account of the tour in the Independent to get more a feel for it.

On the back of this article, I have found out about Espace des Femmes – a gallery and bookstore started back in 1972, in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, by one Antoinette Fouque, as Bibliotheque des Voix – the first collection of audiobooks in France.

There are some other feminist tours to pick from – on themes from street art to matrimony! You can check them out on Trip Advisor or Feminists of Paris pages – they seem to be the group responsible for most, if not all, of the others.

If you prefer to explore Paris, from a feminist perspective, by yourself, I have also found out about: Musee Curie – a museum based around the lab and office that Marie Curie worked and made her discoveries in. I have also found out about another French feminist bookshop – Violette & Co.

And, last but not least, coming to Paris soon, is COVEN – a feminist (English language!) bookshop and café. I hope it starts by the time I’m there! I’m messaging them now to find out!

I have written this guide for myself, as much as for all of you, to help me get my head around all of my research into feminist Paris and to plan my trip. I’d love it if you got in touch if you wanted to add something, or tell me about any other fabulous feminist spaces to put on my radar!

I will be writing more on the theme of feminist travels, and other places, here soon. Watch this space.

In the meantime, I just found this blog also talking about feminist travel, with a focus on feminist libraries and archives around the world. Also, check out my post on feminist London and the Glorious Return of Feminist Spaces. While blogging, I am also creating an online archive on feminist spaces – please be in touch if you have something interesting to share.    

The Future Will be Feminist of Not at All

Having just returned home from a feminism filled day, I was pleasantly surprised to find an extra unexpected bit of feminism waiting for me: the new – fully feminist – issue of the Red Pepper on my desk. I have just spent a whole day at Lush City, fundraising for the Feminist Library, having been prepping that morning, at the Library, and having seen a feminist window display at a pub on the corner of Southwark station (my usual route to the Library), I thought I’d had my fill of feminism for the day. But evidently not.

But then I am not writing this to tell you about my day, but because I have been noticing a shift – in the general leftist politics towards what seems like more of a seriously feminist approach. And seeing this issue on my desk seemed to be yet another proof that something new was happening. A move in the right direction, finally, I thought. I have opened the issue with anticipation – something I have not actually been able to do for quite a while, since the general left (by which I mean he left outside of feminism) had been generally speaking getting on my nerves for so long by ignoring feminist voices that I’d learned to ignore it back. I had very little patience left for anything outside of feminism.

Until now – over the past month, I felt some change in the left climate. First, I saw Naomi Klein at the Southbank for IWD, and heard her speak with reverence about the women leading the environmental movement – as well as other leftist movements – and about the necessity of a feminist approach to battle the patriarchal attitudes at the heart of planet and climate destruction. On Monday just passed I went to a conference on critical approaches to AI at Goldsmith’s and it was wonderful – most, if not all speakers, openly talking about the core value of feminism in this work, including a man who spoke of it with true reverence…honestly! And now – nearly a month on – this issue just lands on my desk.

I would normally dismiss these happenings as yet another empty attempt by the left to pull in feminists onto their side. But for the first time in years it actually seems genuine. Or at least a bit too much of a coincidence. Or perhaps I’m being naïve again… I guess we’ll see, time will tell.

Hope not. What Naomi Klein was saying really struck me – if we only have 12 years now to sort our s*** out when it comes to climate change, we need to get on with it. And if we need a serious shift away from patriarchy in order for it to happen, then really, there is not a minute to loose! The revolution was not invented yesterday, and yet, there’s so much still to do!

And then again, I read the editorial in the issue of Red Pepper that filled me with so much hope, and it didn’t seem to make the deep connection that Naomi Klein was making between climate change and patriarchy, despite being very much on the subject…

The future of humanity does not look bright without feminism, if we need to sort out patriarchy, and so fast, in order to save ourselves from a climate catastrophe… so it better be true that things are changing. Or else we’re f****d!

 

The Glorious Return of Feminist Spaces

It’s been an incredible few months – pretty much every couple of weeks, I’ve heard about a new feminist space popping up! So many of them by now I needed to write this just to keep track myself! Including, but not limited to, I’m sure:

In London: 

Feminist Library – not new by and large – the Feminist Library was set up in 1975 and has just celebrated its 44th birthday – but it will shortly be opening (this Spring, date tbc) a new, bigger space in Peckham. The space is designed by a feminist designers, architects and makers team, and will be 50% bigger, giving the Feminist Library enough wiggle room to expand both its collections and events programme!

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Designs for the new Feminist Library space in Peckham

Second Shelf – the new feminist bookshop opened its Soho doors in November 2018, and focuses on stocking first editions and rediscovered works by women.

Vagina Museum – it has been going as a pop up for a few years now, but now it finally has a chance to open its physical doors in Camden. The crowdfunding campaign has some 2 weeks and over £100,000 still to go, however, so go and support it now if you want it to happen!

Black Feminist Bookshop – has successfully crowdfunded for its first phase (pop-up) at the beginning of Women’s History Month 2019. Now, if you want to hear about what it’s up to and where the pop ups are coming up, you can sign up to its newsletter via its crowdfunder link here.

East End Women’s Museum – after a long (about 5 years) campaign, last year, the brilliant group behind this project announced that a site has become available. Set to open in Barking and Dagenham in 2020. In the meantime, they run a programme of exhibitions all around East London. Follow them to find out where they can be found next.

Holloway women’s building – remains to be seen what it ends up being exactly, but the people who bought the former Holloway site just a few weeks ago have promised to make space for community/women’s building, as has been demanded by the local campaigners from the beginning. For updates on the campaign, follow Reclaim Holloway.

Pages Cheshire Street – new outlet by the people behind Pages of Hackney – new feminist bookshop, with writing by women and non-binary people, opened up in Brick Lane this May! Their events programme looks ace as well, so do check out their website.

Further out in the UK: 

Brighton feminist bookshop – aiming to open its doors mid to late 2019, in the meantime, running some pop up events. Watch this space to find out more.

Physic garden – the project is working to create a medicine garden (fully by women) in Lancashire. They have already crowdfunded successfully and now they’re looking for votes to support their application to have the project backed by the Lottery Fund.

Nab Cottage, vegan B&B – perhaps not strictly feminist, but created by an awesome feminist friend of a friend. A must-visit for anyone travelling to or past Bexhill.

International: 

Sister Library in Mumbai – has been running as a pop up until now, but in December 2018 has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund its physical home. You can still support it here.

Feminist library in Chiapas, Mexico – work in progress at the moment, and I’m still waiting to receive website details from them. But it sounds amazing – they are working with local indigenous women in the community to make accessibility and inclusion at the heart of the project.

FemHouse – feminist library and queer café recently opened in Yerevan, Armenia – they have just put a callout for solidarity to the Feminist Library, as apparently they face a lot of issues, including gender based hatred, where they are, so if you are a feminist library or café, or another organisation that can help or if you’d like to express support (we are currently waiting for more details ourselves, to link their website, etc.).

Do let me know if you know of any more fabulous feminist spaces popping up where you are! I want to know about them all!

Vagina Museum IS coming to London!

The other day I got the most exciting email. I usually don’t like people asking me for financial pledges of support, because I’m not stable enough, financially, to be able to support them all and I end up feeling guilty. But this one was different. I almost did a little happy dance when I read it – the Vagina Museum is finally looking like it’s going to be opening its physical doors and it’s crowdfunding to make it happen!!

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Vagina Museum is crowdfunding to open its first physical space in Nov 2019!

I first met Florence Schechter, the founder of the Museum, last Spring, in the run up to  an event we collaborated on in June – Vagina Day – at the Feminist Library. It was fun working with Florence, as she’s not just full of ingenious ideas (you have to admit, it’s not every day you meet someone who’s come up with something like the Vagina Museum!), but also incredibly funny. It is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating herstories one can learn about as a feminist – the story of women’s bodies and sexuality.

Just to give you a couple of examples, Florence told us that, apparently, many men still see the vagina as ‘shrouded in mystery’ (Eve Appeal, 2017)! Or did you know that, as VM’s stall that we also had at the V-Day showed, many of us (male or female!) still cannot name all the female sexual organs correctly! Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, really – in a way, the former explains the latter: we are still not honestly taught about vaginas, vulvas or female sexual pleasure in sexual education, despite it being the 21st century. Equally fascinating, although admittedly troubling (and annoying!) is the fact that, throughout centuries, men fought for the right to put their name on the ‘discovery’ of… the clitoris! Yes, the same clitoris that women had known about (and used!) throughout many centuries prior!

If these stories are anything to go by as to what the Vagina Museum is going to be like, it’s going to be the best (and perhaps the most urgently needed!) museum in London, if not the world! Feminists world all over will be making it a destination place and we need to make sure that we make it happen!

If you’re intrigued and want to read more fun, fascinating and absolutely necessary stories like these, go to Vagina Museum’s blog and follow them on Twitter for a daily dose of vagina-themed fun! Fortunately, this topic seems to be opening up a lot more these days, and VM’s blog is not the only place one can read about women’s bodies, pleasure and sexuality. Two of the most recent publications that have come to my attention are Fruit of Knowledge by Liv Strömquist (I read this one in a day, it pulled me in so much! Not to mention, it comes in a form of a comic book, so it is actually possible to read in a couple of hours on the everyday trip to work and back, if you’re a Londoner like I am) and Vagina-nomics magazine (which is also currently crowdfunding for its second issue!).

Find out more and donate here:

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/vaginamuseum

The eternal fear of witches

Recently watching another new show on the theme of witches (not as bad as most of the others, which still very much tend to just perpetuate the old magic/evil myths – there’s quite a few feminist bits), what seems to me like an interesting realisation occurred to me: unlike most other collectively persecuted peoples in history, the witches were never rehabilitated, never (officially) celebrated, never given back their good name by an authority of any kind…

You might think that this is an odd thought to have while watching what’s supposed to be entertainment tv. But, for a while, it seemed to me that it was more or less obvious, in this day and age that, regardless of our definition of exact definition of witches, in historical terms, they were mostly just women persecuted for being rebels, wise women, healers… whatever. And yet, we still seem to suffer from some form of denial: somehow, at the same time, we are capable in not believing in magic and still denying the persecution against those women were simple acts of women hating. If you think about it just for a second – it cannot be both of these things. One either believes in magic – and therefore also the patriarchal definition of witches as evil creatures – or not – and therefore would have to accept that witches, as servants of the devil, were just a concept invented by men and their patriarchal institutions to get rid of ‘inconvenient’ women.

Many studies of the history of witches and the persecutions have by now led to the same – rather obvious – deduction – one that confirms that witches were really just wise women. From a feminist perspective, one could even say the first feminists. And yet… We still love to tell tall tales about witches – which is fine to an extent, I guess: there’s nothing wrong with a bit of imagination and fantasy. Still, it is no excuse for the elephant in the room: why do we allow the continued lack of rehabilitation of the thousands of women who fell pray to the hideous reality of witch hunts and persecutions. The perpetuatiom of the mythology in modern storytelling seems to me a contributing factor.

I guess that would require a degree of soul searching still not commonly known from our establishment – including an admission of guilt from a church already embattled by the ongoing paedophilia scandal… Perhaps that is, unsurprisingly, (another) step too many for them, seeing that they can’t bring themselves even to admit their guilt in the ongoing and well documented, issue of child abuse.

Having been attached to the Feminist Library for a few years now, I have been lucky to discover some very interesting books on the topics. I think that, as much as the connection between wise women/healers and witchy history is probably obvious to most feminists, what many might not know is the active role of the medical establishment in the persecutions of witches. This little book, Witches, Midwives & Nursesis an excellent outline on the topic.

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Cover of Witches, Midwives & Nurses 

Here’s a list of some other interesting reads on the topic of witches.

During last weekend’s celebrations, I was lucky to be able to go to see a talk by Naomi Klein, and I was very pleased that she mentioned witches too. In the context of Naomi’s talk, witches were the holders of ancient knowledge, our connection to the natural world. Through the persecution of witches, we have lost at least some of that connection. One could say that the current state of climate emergency is linked to witch burnings…

This last one is a stark realisation – have we lost this knowledge for good and is it too late or can we reclaim it? Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in Women Who Run with Wolves, convinces me that we can. I surely hope that she’s right – both for us as women and the earth.

Inspired by this work, Lucy North of Lateral Haze, leads her version of Women’s Circles, with the aim of spreading this ancient knowledge back among the women of the world. She uses Pinkola Estes’ writing as the basis of bringing women onto a journey re-discovery of our witchy and goddess-y roots.

Women’s Circles seem to be a popular phenomenon again these days, which is heartening. And at the same time, there appears to be a thin line between those who debunk stereotypes and those who use this as a forum for reinforcing some of the harmful stereotypes of femininity behind the cover of female ’empowerment’.

I believe we need to restore the good memory of witches – they are part of women’s herstory after all, and we cannot really know ourselves without knowing where we come from. But it would mean leaving the associated magical mythology behind us – or at last separating it from the reality, which still seems to be too convoluted in our culture for us to be able to do that…

New year, new witchy dreams

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Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

My thoughts have been veering towards quite negative energy coming to the end of 2018. Thinking about the discords within the feminist movement a lot. Too much. Finding myself lost in these thoughts for weeks on end, without seeing a solution. Even thought I was depressed for a minute.

But, out of every struggle, something positive can emerge.

So things can seem dire at times. So what. I took some time to rest, relax and think in December. And emerged with some new, hopefully bright, ideas. It took weeks, but I did, finally.

In moments like these, I am, again and again, reminded of Garda Lerner’s words:
“The division of women into the good and the bad ones…” is what patriarchy thrives on. And yet, we often forget it. More or less consciously. That’s when it’s good to remember our foremothers’ words. Around the same time of the year, four years ago, I have made a note of Kate Millett’s words, that came up as a timely reminder within my most recent time period:

“The work of enlarging human freedom is good work” even though it may not always be easy.  

And so I have decided to take these reminders as signs and to learn from this experience. To make a positive change in my life and my feminism. To work more towards a more positive vision of the future. And to remind myself of my vision for Angels & Witches. And to focus more on that and less on everything wrong in the patriarchal world around us.

Of course, easier said than done…! A mind shift does not just happen overnight. Looking into the abyss can become a bit of a habit… It takes patience and practice to shift away from it. Mind training, one might even say. But it’s never impossible. Or else I might have had to resolve myself to dropping feminism altogether! And I don’t think I would know what to do with myself then…!

Instead, I have resolved myself to try a different approach. So this year will be dedicated to trying make a start on a location for Angels & Witches a simpler, more affordable way to start with.

Because, like Arundhati Roy said:
“Another world is possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”

And so my new year’s resolutions are to not be so hard on myself and my sisters, to read the words of our foremothers more, to learn from them, and to try and avoid forgetting them again in the future, to worry less, and to reflect more. And to try and not look into the abyss as much… And maybe, just maybe, a solution might appear in my path soon.

I feel like starting 2019 by reading more of Roy might be a good idea… Have a blessed year all!