Herstory, precarity and women’s spaces

History is a fascinating thing, full of contradictions – set out to preserve memory, yet quite prone to forgetfulness… especially when it comes to women’s side of the story!

This year, admittedly, has been unusually amazing for women and herstory. With the suffrage centenary in the UK, expense has not been spared to make women feel celebrated. Some women anyhow…

However, that is all about to change. With less than two months left until the end of the centenary year, most, if not all, of the major sources of funding that had been added this year, helping the feminist movement finance some really wonderful activities, are due to magically disappear, and women’s history is at risk of becoming a distant and rather foggy memory yet again…!

And things will revert back to ‘normal’. Patriarchal version of normal that is – a version of reality where women’s activities, just like ‘women’s work’ are mostly free and easily forgettable, and nothing seems too strange about that to most people.

Something that has been celebrated so loudly and proudly, coupled with a recent big resurgence in the feminist movement, is not likely to just go away quietly, however. It feels like the women’s movement has gained so much momentum this year that much noise will be made about the injustice of it all.

Admittedly, we, women, have not perhaps been used to this year’s kind treatment long enough. Perhaps, if we knew our history, or herstory, rather, we would be more likely to riot arm in arm about all the injustices perpetrated to us, as women and as a movement, more coherently. And instead, we focus on single issue campaigns – this is not to blame women for the state of affairs; patriarchy is, of course, responsible for keeping us as busy as ever – often forgetting our own herstory and the power of solidarity.

Once upon a time… London was a true haven for feminists. It provided many spaces for feminists of various persuasions. Many of them funded by the GLC – a statutory body for London – Greater London Council. Now, 32 years after its abolishion, the story of feminist London is barely lodged in most young feminists’ memory.

Most of the time, when London feminists find the Feminist Library for the first time, they are quite surprised that such a thing exists at all! True, in some ways it’s almost a miracle that it has survived so many years – 43 and counting – without much funding at all. But if one looks at it knowing the wider historical context of feminist spaces in London at the time when the it first opened, a different picture altogether emerges.

The Feminist Library used to share its previous three spaces with other feminist organisations – the Spare Rib, Sisterwrite and A Woman’s Place. All of these and nearly all of the other spaces like that, have gone now, leaving the Library to hold the fort alone – still underfunded, still undervalued, struggling away…

The Library’s struggle is emblematic of where the feminist movement is today – still struggling against most of the same issues. We have won certain battles, but the war against patriarchy is still very much alive, and in some cases it has gotten worse, with the capitalism paradigm taking over our lives so much, and normalising economic violence against people, especially women and children…

The Feminist Library’s home of 32 years has yet again become non-viable. It has to move and yet again start over in a new space. The good news is that the new space is looking promising. With a 25-year lease, the Library will be able to flourish in its new, secure home, for at least a quarter of a century. But it needs your help!

Help it protect its precious herstories and obtain a stable and sustainable home for future generations of feminists, so that they can have easier access to the stories they need to read in order to avoid having to reinvent the wheel yet again… Support the Feminist Library crowdfunding campaign now!

brown book page

Open book photo – Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

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One woman’s alternative guide to feminist London

I decided to write this guide to feminist spots in London, as I found it incredibly frustrating trying to find one myself! This one from London Calling was actually quite interesting and gave me a couple of extra ideas, but it’s far from comprehensive.

What I set out to do is to highlight the lesser known spaces which are run by and for feminists, and often missed by mainstream guides, even those on feminist spaces.

So I hope you enjoy it and find it useful (and please do send me other ideas if you think I’d missed something important!):

  1. Feminist Library – I thought it deserved the number one spot, as I spend a ton of my time there, and as I’ve heard it described to me recently, it’s an absolute haven for feminists in London, and I personally couldn’t agree more – it’s so much more than a library: with bookshop, events, and a hub for feminist meetings by other groups, it ‘has it all’. Even though it remains to struggle financially, a dedicated group of volunteers make ends meet every year, as if by magic. It is a large collection of feminist literature – and the largest independent one in London – its origins dating back to 1975, the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement, commonly known as the second wave in the UK. As it grew over the years, the Feminist Library collections became too big for its own premises to house everything, and Bishopsgate Institute now holds most of the Feminist Library archival and ephemeral collections, while the Wellcome Library is home to the Women’s Health Library, originally given to the FL after its closure. You can get a taste of what’s in store by visiting this recent digital exhibit (which only shows a very small part of the collections!), or signing up to the newsletter here. The Feminist Library also organises feminist tours of the local area.

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    Theory and fiction rooms at the Feminist Library

  2. Holloway prison – the recently shut prison, which used to house many famous suffragettes back in the day, is in the process of being repurposed. An amazing group of local community activists, Reclaim Holloway, came together following the closure, with a mission to transform the land into a space that would be worthy of its herstorical heritage, including a space for a women’s building – with services, meeting space, a museum, and more. Aside from their incredibly inspiring, ongoing, campaign, they also organise community events, transforming the open section of the space into a community gathering hub.
  3. ROOMs or Rooms of Our Own – neighbouring with Holloway, in Walthamstow, an amazing woman, Wendy, has been trying to set up a women’s building – with services, housing, co-working space, and more – in the area for a number of years. The search for a plot continues. If you know of any opportunities in the area, get in touch with Wendy. She will love you until the end of her days!
  4. East End Women’s Museum – a feminist-led alternative to more mainstream, institutional women-focused exhibitions, like the suffrage section of the Museum of London, LSE’s Women’s Library and its centenary exhibition (open throughout 2018, in celebration of #vote100), or the Florence Nightingale Museum; coming to London as a permanent space in 2019. Even though the museum is not yet officially open, it was a massive success story celebrated by feminists in London when we heard that they have actually found a space, after a very long search campaign. Though the physical museum is still in the making, the group behind it is very busy organising exhibitions around London and community events locally in Barking & Dagenham, so check out their events page for info on all the latest.
  5. Luminary Bakery – a feminist project as much as it is a bakery. Set up with a mission to empower disadvantaged women, it provides skills and training to women affected by domestic violence, the criminal system, poverty and homelessness. Very inspiring – I hope to be able to work with them when Angels & Witches finally finds a home!
  6. Tonight Josephine – a cocktail bar for women, inspired by Joséphine de Beauharnais, an infamous French party girl (Napoleon, her husband, often gets a mention in her story, but I was in two minds about giving him any space here), which was seen as very outrageous in her time. It just so happens that it’s also based down the road from the Feminist Library, so you can visit them both on the same day, and maybe even squeeze in a trip down the LSE Women’s Library’s suffrage exhibit or to…
  7. Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths University – part of the academic collection, but staffed by the incredibly knowledgeable and helpful special collections curator, Althea Greenan. If you give her a call and make an appointment ahead of going, you should be able to get your own private tour of the collection. Also recently partly digitised – you can now download an app to browse parts of the collections and stories of selected artists.
  8. Her Noise archive – this one is part of the special collections at the University of Arts. So another one just down the road from the Feminist Library (it seems all the feminist roads lead to it, what can I say!). You can arrange a visit  by getting in touch by phone or email. But you can also browse their extensive online collections if you’re not in London.
  9. She Soho – if you fancy continuing your feminist day into the night, a short bus ride away is She bar and club night in Soho. Open to women and their male guests.
  10. 2 Girls’ Café – lovely vegan food and zero waste. Set up and run by two women on a mission to promote vegan food and local art. And available for events hire too. I hesitate to mention this again, but it is only a short bus ride away from the Feminist Library, as well as the Women’s Art Library and Her Noise archive, and, if you still have time to do the short walk across the river, The Women’s Library at LSE! By now, hopefully you’re starting to picture a map in your head, plotting your journey.
  11. Persephone Books – a hidden gem in the heart of London. This bookstore brings you a range of literature classics written by women. Beautifully packaged too – Persephone has its own, unique, signature style, and you can get some gorgeous wrapping paper to take your haul away in, making it the perfect gift shopping destination for feminists.
  12. Chickpea Sisters – an amazing restaurant and inspiring project, run by women for women. Eat and support empowerment of vulnerable women while you’re at it. What’s not to love!
  13. Coming to London soon is a new feminist bookshop! Exact location still to be announced, but it sounds like it will become another destinations spot for London feminists.

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The witches circle

Photo by Allef Vinicius - wild woman in the forest

Photo by Allef Vinicius – Wild Woman – Courtesy of Unsplash

I recently, a bit accidentally, attended a goddess circle event. I had heard of them, but I never really paid any attention before. I do believe that knowing the stories of matriarchal religions is important, but I had never before ventured into exploring this world with other women for some reason.

So you could say that it was a cosmic coincidence that I was at the Feminist Library last Friday, where Lucy North decided to hold the latest of her Lateral Haze events.  Lucy writes for The Numinous, so you can find out more about her take on the topic on their website.

But what I personally found really illuminating is the connections that Lucy made between goddesses, fairytales and witches, and the awakened woman today. What I often thought myself, and has been the inspiration for the name of Angels & Witches, is that witches were the first feminists, as women who lived their own truth, despite, or even against, all the conventions of their times. But one could argue that the connections go far beyond the first (known to us) witches. You could link, as Lucy does, the concept of the wild, or awakened, woman with matriarchal goddess cultures and fairytales.

For example, the Norse goddess, Freya, is a an archetype of the sexually liberated woman, before any notions of feminism or women’s liberation were ever explicitly conceptualised. Lucy links Freya to the, still deeply buried, concept of the wild, or, one could say, liberated, woman – one who is not afraid of her own sexuality and lives freely, in agreement with herself and does not deny her own needs. One could say, and in fact people often make that argument against feminism, that women are now liberated and free to do whatever they want, but that is a gross underestimation of the patriarchal hold on women’s sexuality. Any woman who is unashamed and unafraid to apply the pleasure principle to herself as it is standardly applied by the 21st century man, faces much harsher judgement than any men ever do, and the threat of being dubbed a slut or a slag for many years to come. So much for women’s liberation…

Next on our list of fabulous goddesses to discuss was Lilith – Eve’s predecessor. She is the symbol of power and knowledge. In fact, in some versions of the story, she is the snake offering Eve access to knowledge. Yet, her story still remains largely unknown, and twisted and demonised when told. I had heard of Lilith before. But none of the other women in the room that night had.

There were many more stories in Lucy’s impressive arsenal, and I highly recommend anyone interested in the topic to check out her website and make their way to one of her events. The one story that I will probably never forget was the one about the origins of witches’ brooms, which Lucy told us on our walk home. Apparently, according to one version of the story, rarely told, back in the day, some enlightened women were using psychedelics and trees to pleasure themselves… You might call them witches, or whatever you like, but it sounds to me like they were much more sexually liberated then than we are now!

Many of Lucy’s stories were based on the book Women Who Run with the Wolves by  Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which I have to admit I haven’t read before, but it is definitely on my reading list now. All the stories in the book are an attempt at taking back for women the fairytales that are generally well known to us as stories told in their patriarchal version, always conforming to the same structure and reinforcing the stereotype of fragile femininity and heroic masculinity: a princess needing to be rescued, a prince doing the rescuing, a marriage which is supposed to symbolise the happy ever after… Pinkola Estes puts the heroine back into the woman. The wild woman is the (s)hero of her own story and does not need a man to rescue her.

I intend to go back to explore goddess/women’s circles again. The stories, whether you decide to believe in them or not, are very powerful and should be known by all women. They are part of women’s history or herstories. Matriarchal religions existed well before feminism and women’s history, well before the Suffragettes, well before the patriarchal ones in many cases. But to me, these stories have very little to do with religion and everything to do with our general belief systems – the values we share culturally. Just imagine the world we would live in if all our girls grew up with those versions of fairytales…

 

 

Welcome to Herstory café! A tribute to 43 years of the Feminist Library

The Feminist Library in London is, in and of itself, a tribute to women’s history, as well as an incredible statement to the dedication of women, having been volunteer run throughout its history. It is one of the biggest collections of feminist literature in London and the UK, and one of only 3 independent ones in the country, with the largest collection of feminist fiction.

In 2018, the Library is celebrating its 43rd birthday as well as five decades since the start of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the UK, on which the bulk of its collection is based. The latter has caused some debate, as many date it back to a 1970 national women’s conference in Oxford, but in fact by that time the movement was in a pretty decent swing; leading up to this event were countless meetings of Consciousness Raising (CR) groups, which have given birth to one of the most famous mottos of the movement: ‘personal is political’; as well as a number of other relevant developments, not least the 1968 Dagenham equal pay strike. The conference, therefore, was an important and memorable development, but can hardly be argued to be the birthplace. Another way one could look at this is that 1968 was an important year for activists around the UK and beyond, and one of the key impulses for the WLM was the unequal treatment of women in activist circles, which were supposed to be non-hierarchical. After a short while, women came to the realisation that even the spaces which they assumed to feel comfortable in were patriarchal. And that was one of the key, if not the key, birthing impulses for WLM CR. An interesting read on the topic is ’68 ’78 ’88 – a compendium of women’s stories from the time, in which many of the women highlight 1968 as an important wakeup call for the women’s movement for precisely this reason.

Either way, debate on this will carry on, I’m sure, but personally I do not think that there is a date that can definitively be set, once and for all, as the WLM birthday – with several key developments leading up to the eventual eruption of the movement. And in any case, I believe that the more we celebrate and highlight women’s history the better.

Hence Herstory café – the subject of women’s history has been close to my heart for a very long time, but the realisation that it is so often not just forgotten but unwritten, because women are so busy getting on with the work, has been the final impulse, along with my desire to get the Angels & Witches project back on track. The idea is to highlight women’s history, especially the herstories more likely to be forgotten, and particularly in the context of women’s spaces, like the Feminist Library, linking it to the idea of Angels & Witches – a feminist space in the making.

For the longest time, I just thought about finding the perfect space for Angels & Witches, that I rejected the idea of doing pop up café events – the point of the project was to provide a space! A space that would be feminist… and just there as and when needed! But the success of the East End Women’s Museum to find a space after years of campaigning, provided me with renewed energy and enthusiasm to look at my project with a fresh pair of eyes. Not to mention that was the strategy that worked for them!

And so going back to the Feminist Library in this context, its own herstory is fascinating and comforting, as much as it is a story of frustration and struggle against a capitalist patriarchal system, in which the odds are stacked against women’s / feminist organisations. The Feminist Library, over its 43-year history, has moved a number of times, faced numerous space and financial crises, while always striving to remain independent against all this and additional pressures from academic institutions keen on ‘looking after’ its collections. What the academic librarians failed, and still largely fail, to understand is that an absolutely key part of the Library’s ethos is provision of meeting and community space for feminists and activists – something that is unlikely to be transferrable to the academic library environment. Not to mention the fact that within the academia a feminist library becomes a ‘special interest’ section suggesting that women are somehow a minority, rather than more than half the population! And this is just in a range of preconceptions and attitudes that adds on to the problem of feminism seeming inaccessible to many women outside of academia.

The Feminist Library has been a shining beacon of hope for community and activist organisations, managing to prove that persisting in the face of multiple and mounting crises is possible. And that is an invaluable position to be in. There’s no way the Library team is giving this up to become just another ‘special’ buried part of another huge academic institution, inaccessible to all but the most specialised librarians and persistent researchers!

 

Archive space at WoW2018

Feminist Library at the Archive Space @WoWLdn 2018 festival

 

 

Thank you Ms DeSuze!

Just as you are in most need of inspiration, a woman like Kalima DeSuze pops up in the news and seriously cheers you up. Now, I don’t know this woman personally, but she definitely sounds like my soul sister – she’s just opened up a new feminist café and bookshop in Brooklyn! Whoop, whoop! And, I swear, as the goddess is my witness, this news is exactly I needed to hear! It’s possible! It is especially encouraging considering the wider context of this unique development: I just re-read this article about the overall status of feminist cafes and restaurants in the US and Canada. And let’s just say, if you don’t want to read it – it didn’t put me in a great mood, all things considered.

Yes, I know, Brooklyn is not London. But from what I hear, it’s not that far from it. The rumour (or the news, to be more precise) has it, Brooklyn is pretty much like the Shoreditch of New York these days. In most recent news, Brooklyn activists protest local planning and redevelopment meeting, and officials try to move ‘garment city’ there against community pressure and all reason, it seems.

So if a feminist café is possible in Brooklyn of the gentrification era, it is bound to be possible in London!

And in more encouraging news, this time from London itself, the East End Women’s Museum has also finally found a home after a hell of a long search!

Reading DeSuze’s and Café Con Libros’ story is a bit like reading my own – at least the bit before the opening – the journey hasn’t been easy, but she persisted. And she got there in the end – becoming my light at the end of the tunnel in the process!

In fact, I have just reached out on Twitter, on the back of the article about Café Con Libro, and it seems I’ve got a new volunteer to help me out on the journey!

A beautifully shaped heart of milk steam in a coffee mug

‘For the love of coffee’ Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

 

Feminist Spaces in Crisis

bookshopLast week, I found out that the Parisian feminist library has been saved. Which is excellent news and I am overjoyed for them. But thinking about it still makes me sad, because of the context of it all: feminist spaces all over the world are diminishing and those that are still around are under threat from more than just gentrification.

It’s as though the whole society has slowly and somewhat unwittingly turned against us. When the London Feminist Library was in space crisis it got an offer from the South Bank University to house its collection. I’m sure the intentions were good, but it would have been just another London Women’s Library story – from accessibility to academia. LSE’s promises to keep the Library open to all have faded with time and the resource has gradually turned into just another ‘special collection’ of an academic library.

I believe it does not all happen out of ill will. The Feminist Library had a lot of kind offers to house its collections – including from the Marx Memorial Library, Union Chapel and Newington Green Unitarian Chapel – most of them unsuitable for the size of the Library and its purpose, but all well meaning. The last particularly put smiles on the Library team’s faces as it’s also know as ‘the birthplace of feminism’ – until it turned out they could only offer us a little bit of exhibition space…

But the Feminist Library is so much more than just a pile of books. It’s an activist space, a community centre and a safe space for feminists to talk about the issues that often can still make us very uncomfortable to raise in the outside world. And so it particularly hurts to think that people see it as just a collection of books when one realises just how rare spaces like that are. There are only 3 autonomous feminist libraries in the UK – the Nottingham Women’s Centre one, the Women’s Library in Glasgow and the Feminist one in London. The remaining ones are all now a part of larger, academic, institutions, with varying levels of accessibility limitations that go with it.  

And what really struck me as part of the save the Feminist Library campaign is that even some feminists were suggesting that we should try and move into a university. Even the feminist designers team, now responsible for creating the new space for the Feminist Library in Peckham, thought that was a good idea at one point. It seems to me that it would be a great loss to lose the only remaining independent feminist library in London to a university. Regardless of how friendly and welcoming the university seems, it would still mean a loss of independence.

Feminist libraries, and spaces in general, are neither ‘special interest’ nor simply libraries, and so should not be closed off to the public as an academic resource, as if feminism is now just a piece of history, no longer relevant to us presently. FGM is still very much an issue, as is child marriage, rape, not to mention the pay gap or the glass ceiling. Feminism has made great strides already but still has a long way to go. Nobody can tell me that feminism is a thing of the past.

“The woman question is answered. It is now understood that women can do anything that men can do (…) The future is female, we are told. Feminism has served its purpose and should now eff off (…) Though parliament is unconcerned about women’s issues, universities appear obsessed by them (…) As far as the intellectual establishment is concerned there is still a profound and ramified women question, which has still to be correctly asked, let alone answered.”

Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman

Greer wrote these words 20 years ago, but the mentality rings just as true now. Feminism has been relegated into the academia, and there seems to be a tendency to try and brush all feminist spaces into the academic world too.

But I believe that as long as we don’t have universally accessible feminist education, issues like that will keep being perpetuated. Academia is not for everyone. There is a massive gap between academic thinking and language, and the rest of us, including not just activists and the wider community. Academic language can be massively inaccessible and detached from the outside world. So we need more autonomous, open to all feminist spaces, not fewer!

Photo courtesy of Feminist Library Bookshop

‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’

I have heard ‘I am not a feminist but…’ so many times in my life, I have stopped counting a long time ago. It almost sounds like a mantra from some women, as if they’re trying to convince themselves. I think it basically boils down to women misunderstanding what feminism means, because of all the stereotyping still commonly permeating our culture. Women grow up hearing jokes about hairy feminists all the time, and they resolve not to be pegged as something that they’ve only ever heard as the butt of somebody’s joke. In most cases they wouldn’t have even ‘wasted’ time to look up the actual definition of feminism before coming to that conclusion (more often than not subconsciously).

But last weekend I was doing some outreach on behalf of the Feminist Library and I heard something new: ‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’ and it really struck me. I have never heard a woman say something like that before.

One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s basically one and the same. Yes, the bottom line is that in both of those cases the women have been put off feminism by bogus claims they heard made about it over and over again, by people who are not feminists themselves, and most often than not have no clue what it really means. But as much as in the former case, a conversation about what feminism ACTUALLY means often times ends in a fairly quick and painless realisation that the woman is a feminist after all (it was basically all a big misunderstanding); in the latter, there is no convincing anyone – not easily anyway. The woman who made the proclamation on Sat was well aware of what feminism is and has made a conscious decision not to call herself a feminist. Yes, she cited all the same stereotypes that women in the first group normally would, but she knew all too well that the charges were fake. She just knew she couldn’t take the stigma of it all.

‘Feminism has a branding problem’ is a mansplaining solution to the problem, which I have also heard more than my share of times… Sure, I say, try telling that to Beyoncé! If branding was the issue, she would have solved this problem by now. Since high profile stars like Beyoncé have decided to rebrand feminism, not much has changed, in fact… The main outcome of it all has been a mass of accusations against people like Beyoncé that they are coopting feminism for their own needs. Which, considering everything said above, must be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard – why would anyone coopt something that had such a bad name to boost their own (already successful) brand?! I believe the fact that Beyoncé’s attempts at rebranding the dirty ‘f’ word have backfired is further evidence of the deeper, underlying issues, and of the fact that we cannot think of feminism as a brand!

Feminism is not a brand! It is a movement, a belief in the full humanity of women, a way of living that defies stereotypes, expectations and excuses that society has used for centuries to make women’s lives harder. And what we need is not a new brand, or a new marketing campaign to make feminism more palatable to the average person. We need to roll out proper feminist education, in schools, universities, and beyond, from the earliest ages, which would include women in history and the present fully. It can’t be just a dedicated selective college module, or a single lesson on Suffragettes at A-levels. It has to be comprehensive, bringing women back into history, sciences and politics – at all levels.

As a feminist, I love women’s history. I find it incredibly inspiring and empowering to learn about women who’ve done it all before, in much tougher circumstances in most cases. Makes me feel like I can really do anything. But it often times also makes me sad, as I wonder how much stronger and more self-confident I would have been had I grown up knowing their stories from an earlier age. And I believe that the same applies to women and girls around the world.

And to the woman I met on Saturday I would like to say if she ever reads this: don’t be afraid, join your local feminist group and see how it feels. You might feel like you can’t possibly claim feminism for yourself when you’re surrounded by people who don’t know what it means and yet have the audacity to make incessant jokes about it, but trust me, you will not feel like that once you have found your sisterhood. Perhaps it’s time to change your friends. Or at least get some new, feminist ones, and educate your old ones 😉 Hope to see you around!