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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