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


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 the 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 have since been and come back from Paris. The Feminists of Paris tour I went to was the rebellious women one, and I can definitely recommend it – I have never been at a tour where so much engaging discussion was had, and it culminated in a very welcome and unexpected surprise – we visited 59 Rivoli: Aftersquat, an art space in the centre of Paris occupied by small, independent, activist artists, including – the reason for our visit – Vic-Oh, an artist inspired by women’s bodies and the vulva in particular.

We have also visited Espace des Femmes – the bookshop was all French language, so I couldn’t get reading, but the space itself was worth seeing (the shop is spacious and full of info about what’s going on in Parisian feminism), and I left with a gorgeous new tote to add to my collection 🙂 The gallery space in the back was through a really lovely small garden and in it we found an exhibition inspired by matriarchal totems – what’s not to love! On the way there, we also discovered it was based in a district that was absolutely full of small, independent art galleries, so well worth having a stroll around there if you’re into art.

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.