Food, Spaces & Feminist Places Herstories

As herstory goes, food has not been on the top of feminist agenda for the most part. Not surprisingly, one might say. Women in the past had much more important issues to deal with.

However, in more recent years, it has become a feminist issue. And so, this Broadly article was a wonderful find, as it looks back at the history of feminist food outlets in the US and Canada back in the 70s. But it was painful to read at the same time. Despite many amazing parts on the herstory of feminist restaurants, the author appears to conclude that these kinds of spaces are no longer needed. And this coming from a feminist magazine!

Considering the 6 ways that men dominate space article from Everyday Feminism, as well as this piece in the Feminist Wire, or this great blog post from Geek Feminism, which all talk about men taking over spaces in one at or another, it seems odd to me that anyone would claim that feminist spaces are no longer in need. Much less a feminist! But that seems to be the case…

Frankly, the controversy over women-only space I can understand, just about (despite potentially serious implications for women – this article explores those – most feminists these days agree that women-only spaces are too exclusive). But this, to me was a step too far. How is it that women still don’t feel safe in most spaces preoccupied by men, but we no longer need feminist spaces?!

There is obviously a debate to be had about what makes a feminist space, which I’ve explored elsewhere in my blog (and this book of abstracts, although somewhat academic, gives a good overview of the different discussion points). And I have faced this question many, many times, and perfected the answer over time, having started working on the café project quite a while back. But the bottom line is, whatever goes into it, it would be a space that does not make women feel ‘othered’ – like most public places still frequently do these days.

The 105 Women project, based in Leeds, is a case in point. The women set out on this project in search of a space where they would feel comfortable being women and doing what they do – creative stuff. It’s still not easy for women to find these elusive spaces.

Admittedly, it’s much easier today than it’s been throughout most of herstory, especially in places like London, where many creative institutions tend to welcome feminists. Many feminist meetings happen in places like the Southbank Centre, where abundance of open space makes it easy for women to ‘squeeze’ themselves in. But should it really be about making do with spaces like that, rather than having ‘go to’ feminist destinations, like the Feminist Library where we can really feel at home? The Library has been described as a haven for feminists in London. Not surprising, considering it’s the only space of its kind in the city of 8 million people! And one of just a handful in the UK today.

These Polish authors caught my attention by introducing “the notion of the ‘politics of squatting’ which serves as a metaphor for a feminist quest for space and time” – which seem to me to perfectly encapsulate what it feels like to be a feminist looking for a space to organise or even just talk freely. I cannot count the number of times I have struggled, with different feminist groups, to find a meeting space in London where we could comfortable enough to discuss our ideas without having to shout over ourselves in a noisy pub or a public space, like the Southbank Centre, facing the possibility of not even being able to find a seat! Time and time again, the Feminist Library has been the one go to space for feminist activity in London. Yet, because it is underfunded and volunteer-run, it can only be used at certain limited times.

Yes, admittedly, there are other spaces, similar in ethos to the Library, that are not feminist per se but do welcome us with open arms, like the DIY Space for London and LARC. In fact, there is a whole map of those places in London, which comes at an extravagant cost of 22 pence – and yet has been one of my most prized possessions for a quite some time! But these tend to suffer from similar issues that the Feminist Library does (constant shortage of money), and as such don’t have employed staff, and so can hardly provide regular opening hours.

And that’s why I thought that a feminist café would be a no-brainer! The income from the food and drink would make regular opening hours possible, which would inevitably make it a go-to space for feminists, whether they want to have meetings or simply just relax somewhere they can feel at home. And yet, it does not seem to be such an obvious idea to other feminists, as it was to me…

I keep pressing on with the mission to find a home for Angels & Witches, but the journey has been frustrating as much as it has been fascinating. The questions about what a feminist café would look like have helped me really think about the concept, and expand it to include a bookshop, a space for older women and children, but the feminists challenging the viability of the idea altogether, like the author of the Broadly article that inspired this post, have made me sad.

In a city like London with an anarchist café, and at least one anarchist bookshop, and a series other independent bookstores, defining themselves as broadly radical, surely there should be a space for a feminist café and book seller! Not to say that I forget about the beautiful Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, but their agenda is more about publishing women’s writing, rather than feminist books per se.

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