As years go, 2016 was the most bizarre one in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderfully educational and exceptionally surprising, but it was still pretty eye-popping-bizarre. And I’m not even talking about the Trump vs Clinton fiasco, Brexit, or the Polish government blatantly trying to push women’s rights in the country back to the middle ages. Yes, the political climate is at its most curious in my living memory. But I mean personally here. Obviously, as a feminist, the personal is forever political in my world, so read on.
I have started out this year with a dream of making a feminist coffee shop in London happen. It seemed, at the time, like a total no-brainer. I am a feminist. I have tried and don’t want to work in the corporate world a minute longer. Feminism has been at the centre of my life for a long time, and it’s not going anywhere. I have this wonderful idea. So why the heck not?! And then the reality hit me. I was going against not just the hyper-capitalist environment of London, but often times the feminists themselves! Not that any of my sisters said to me it was a bad idea, they just raised a LOT of questions…
Of all the places in the world, 21st century UK must be one of the most oddly challenging places to be a feminist. Not because feminism is not popular at all. The UK is one of the most interesting, and sometimes mind-boggling, countries for a feminist. With its rich history of the women’s movement, it has been an inspiration to many others. And yet… Many people were surprised when the UN report on the levels of sexism across the world came out a couple of years ago, slamming Britain… Many feminists in the UK saw it coming. But there are things that many feminist in this country fail to agree on.
What is recognised in the UK as feminism is in no way easy to define. In fact, I have been told recently, in no unclear terms, that to say ‘feminism’ rather than ‘feminisms’ is simply wrong, because there are so many versions! I, personally, like to keep things simple and tend to use the ‘feminism is the radical notion that women are human’ definition (Cheris Kramarae) because, whatever background theory you subscribe to as a feminist, this is hard to disagree with. Plus, it really seems that straightforward to me!
As a London feminist who grew up in Poland, and has recently joined the women’s movement in my home country, I can see stark differences between the state of feminism here and there. Poland, with its relative lack of feminist herstory, is now dealing with the same issues that British women were dealing with in the 70s and 60s (Polish women have largely missed out on the second wave because of the restrictive impact of the Soviet Union at the time, and western feminism was then gradually ‘imported’ into Poland after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989). And therefore, there is less talk about which wave of feminism we have in Poland right now, and more debate about ways of overthrowing the extremely misogynistic Polish government…
British feminists, by contrast, consider it quite important to define themselves, many see themselves as third/fourth wave, some still see second wave as closest to their hearts (the debate rages on). Historically, the waves were something that had only been decided upon with the perspective of time. But British feminism has now gotten to a point where it has decided to reclaim the notion of waves for itself. It is an interesting process to watch, since very few feminists seem to agree on which wave we are in right now.
Which brings me to my main point. British feminism is going through a post-modernist high at the moment. In many ways, it is an expression and a celebration of diversity. But in more ways than one, it can become confusing. And so my first year on the feminist coffee shop journey has been bumpy and challenging. And not just because of capitalism and the heartless market forces that go with it…
I have had to explain my idea to many people over the past year. When I first started out, obviously, I knew I would have to spell out the ins and out of what a feminist coffee shop would be to the different business, marketing and other people unfamiliar with the ideas of feminism. But it hadn’t initially occurred to me that I would have to have explanations ready for the feminists too!
It was initially to my shock and horror that I was explaining myself to ‘my people’. I mean, isn’t a feminist coffee shop simply a no-brainer to any woman who considers herself part of the movement?! But gradually, I started to take a more nuanced approach. I started asking people questions, rather than just throwing out those same prepared answers at them.
So, what makes a feminist space? I have to say, by the end of this year, I have learned to spell it out to people in a number of concise and more or less convincing ways. I even pitched my idea to a panel of professional investors, somewhat, successfully. But I have to admit, I am ending the year with more questions than answers. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – the ability to ask the right kind of questions is very important, often crucial, in any line of work, I think.
But the main thing is that the ideas behind Angels & Witches have developed enormously because of all the surprising, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre conversations that I’ve had with people. Some of those who’ve challenged my ways of thinking were feminists, others were not. But they have all added something valuable to the creative chaos of a social business idea that I’d set out with.
At the beginning it seemed like madness to me. So many ideas. What seemed like a simple idea to start with, became gradually more and more complicated as I went on. But there is a method to this madness. Every time I ‘sense dissonance in the present moment and see the potential for change’ (Brian J. Robertson) rather than dismissing the discrepancy right away, I make space for improvements in my initial concept. Ego has to be dealt with in order for this process to work, but once that’s done, it opens up a world of possibilities.
So, let me end on this. The feminist coffee shop is still happening. Not as fast as I had initially hoped for, but it is. And this year has been an uphill struggle but it has helped me realise that the idea has so much more potential than I originally thought. It will be a space where feminists can read, relax, eat, listen to good music, marvel at beautiful, woman-loving art, just as I’d originally planned. But it will also be a space where stereotypes can be challenged and all the questions that I’ve battled with can be raised and debated: what is feminist music and art?; is feminism strictly compatible with veganism?; what makes a feminist space? The space will aim to be a safe haven for women but also to be a space that invites the wider public to challenge their misconceptions of feminism.
And hopefully that brings the day of the death of patriarchy one step closer to reality!
Have a good festive break all!