A very warm welcome
This will be where all the stories of our journey of getting a feminist café in London will be archived in the coming weeks and months. We want this journey to be documented for all the other women who might want to set up a feminist business to be able to read and learn from.
Please be patient with us! Setting up a business is proving to a be a bit of a challenge. But a fun one at that! What else can I say – it is a feminist coffee shop after all!
I get a lot of joy out of talking to different kinds of people about the project and watching their reactions. I have seen everything from genuine excitement rivaling my own to expressions of disbelief and shock! But beyond all, the messages of support have been what has kept me going on the difficult days. Some of them including offers of hands-on help, with anything from design to DIY! Let me give you a sample of some of the most encouraging ones here just to celebrate the people who showed me their love on my way to achieving my dream:
“Oh my days! A feminist cafe in London?!?!?! Yes please”
“This is incredibly exciting, I’m still really happy to help with anything that needs to be done!”
“Indeed – very exciting… I have often dreamt of such a place… with a feminist space to speak our words, listen to our sisters, talk out talk, read our literature, discuss our theories, sing our songs, play our instruments, discuss our politics, dance our rhythms, and walk our walk and plan for the impending overthrow of patriarchy in all it’s forms”
“This is so exciting!! I will definitely need to visit with my girlfriends when you’re up and running smile emoticon”
“Haha, a physical manifestation of the women’s movement!”
I still can’t help but smile when I look at these. But the main thing for me is that all the exclamation marks and the smiley faces have pushed me through the most difficult moments of this project. So do keep them coming if you can and make sure you tell your friends about the feminist coffee shop! Let’s make it a success together! In your face, patriarchy!!
Living against the grain…
This is for those struggling with the concept of a feminist café. For those thinking that it’s too much of a radical concept. For those thinking that it won’t succeed because it dares to call itself a feminist café.
Consider this: there is a coffee shop in Bermondsey, in SE London, called ‘F*ck Off’. And it’s extremely popular! Needless to say, I think, it is actually one of the ‘coolest’ cafés in the area and it is constantly swamped by local artists and hipsters.
Now consider this: for every coffee shop or trendy bar in London called [Someone] & Sons – have you ever seen one called [Someone] & Daughters. Not that I have any daughters in my life. But you get the idea. Why is it that a café run by men only and celebrating men’s names gets no special (negative) attention, but a feminist one does?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the free publicity. After all, no such thing as bad publicity, right? Not sure about that. After all, I have not yet started my café properly to be able to confirm or deny it either way.
But it does mean that I have been spending a disproportionate amount of my time on this project just pondering this question. Ironically, I have written my undergraduate dissertation on the public perceptions of feminism. It was backed by in-depth research I had carried out myself. My finding were somewhat shocking to me – young women were largely convinced that feminism was a thing of the past and no longer needed.
Now, that was in 2010 and the world has seen a groundswell of feminism since then. So, my sincere hope is that the general public would be more intrigued than scared off by the concept of the feminist café. But just writing this makes me realize that perhaps I need to do a follow up study to find out if this my suspicions are in fact true. So far, I have had largely positive feedback. But perhaps, there is a case for formalizing it a little bit.
So, watch this space for updates…! In the meantime, share the website and my social media with your friends, even the non-feminist ones, and let me know if you get any interesting feedback to this question on your end.
Waking the demons…
Starting your first business is, in many ways, a baptism of fire. For anyone who thrives on constant excitement and/or uncertainty, I highly recommend it…
It’s hard to explain to anyone who has not gone through the experience, but it is like free psychoanalysis that you have not signed up for, like being dragged to one of those ‘how to be a winner’ inspirational days and realising that – without planning or wanting to – you are actually starting to believe that what’s being said to you is true. Not at all what I’d planned but I have to admit, it’s really been an interesting experience – probably one of the most fascinating ones in my life!
How do I put this better for those who have not been through this mind boggling process themselves? It’s like going through an “eat, pray, love” experience without buying a ticket, or at least realising what you were buying a ticket for! It’s like going on a retreat, without realising that it’s really a massive boot camp.
The experience is all about going into something that you think of as a fairly well planned task – especially with every expert you meet along the way telling you that you need to write it down in a neat business plan, which then turns out it was just a major exercise in futility, with everything that you have put down on paper not going as planned. I have 5 versions of my business plan now! And that’s just the phases that I’ve written down!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining at all! It has been absolutely fascinating. I have discovered a lot about myself and I have managed to get over some of my major fears which were blocking my progress, so I’ve nothing to complain about. It’s just not what I was expecting when I first set out to start my own business. I thought I was just starting a business!
To the contrary, I found out that starting a business is about so much more than just a business! It is all about developing skills and personality. And you need a lot of skills to make a business happen from scratch.
The rollercoaster started in January but March has been a real ground breaker. I had never really thought about my communication skills in terms of a psychological limitation prior to this experience. And then a couple of weeks ago I realised that it was a major hurdle that I had to get over, as I was pitching my café idea to a small group of entrepreneurs and I almost passed out I got so stressed! The whole experience got me thinking – why was I stressing out so much about something that was just a practice pitch really (I was speaking in front of a group of people who were just like me, new to starting a business and all pitching too). I took me about a week to finally admit to myself that I was internalising my fear of being judged by others and letting it stop me from communicating with a passion.
Once I realised that, I was on a journey to a consciously good pitch. I had another chance to pitch my idea last week and the psychoanalysis I performed on myself worked! I was still stressed before getting up to do my pitch but once I got up in front of the people and I knew what I wanted to say, the words just came to me. And since I was talking about my ‘baby’ there was no reason to be stressed about it – there’s just no way to talk about your own baby without passion! And passion is what makes a good speaker, really. There isn’t that much more to it.
I got some amazing feedback that night. About both my idea and the enthusiasm I conveyed in my speech. But most importantly, I learned an important life lesson in communication.
No one ever said it was gonna be easy… But where’s the fun in easy?!
A friend of mine yesterday asked me to join a Polish blogging collective. I have to admit, I have not been using proper written Polish over ten years now, which meant that my initial reaction was ‘NO!’. Obviously, I did not say that. Instead, I decided to put on a brave face and take up the challenge.
Now, do not get me wrong. I AM Polish and I live with my family, which means that I can still speak Polish fluently (or fairly so..). However, I have been writing in English since I moved to the UK well over 10 years ago now, so my written Polish needs more than a little refreshing! And if you’ve heard that Polish is one of the most difficult languages in the world before, it is because it is! But I do like a challenge. What would life be without a good brain exercise every so often?
And so I started on my first piece of writing in my native tongue in more than a decade, on my laptop with an English keyboard… As I got more and more into it, I forgot myself a little. The next day when I read the draft, I found that I had decidedly spelled some of the words in English!
Now the fun little challenge that I have taken up has turned into an important life lesson. I NEED to be writing in Polish. And I MUST be doing it regularly! It was one thing assuming that I could just pick up my writing skills where I left them 10 years ago. It was a completely different story to find that even though Polish is my native tongue, I could no longer use it correctly in writing!
It is time to do a little work on my Polish writing skills. And then to make sure that I never forget this lesson ever again!
By the way, the piece I am writing in Polish is on setting up a feminist business. So once I have written it, I will translate it into English, so that I can share it with you. And so that I can make sure that my English does not become rusty either! 😉
Another day, another challenge!
Today has NOT been a good day. I was just starting to get back into the work on A&W after a couple of months’ break to sort out a bit of a personal crisis that life threw me into, and this morning a letter from the bank arrived, letting me know that I was not going to be given a business bank account…
Just another bump on the road! Don’t worry, A&W keeps going! But I cannot hide that it is frustrating to find that as soon as you think you have dealt with the big challenge in your life another one is just round the corner!
I am not sure what the reason was exactly, as the letter I got from the bank was a bit vague. I already have the funds I need to set up the café set aside – I did not ask them for a loan! I just need the bank account to be able to secure a home for A&W. And I have been refused that! How does that make sense?!
I have never run a business before, so I understand I might be seen as increased risk by a bank. But surely they should be able to see that it makes all the sense in the world to open a bank account for somebody starting out with a new business, especially if they need no funding from the bank!
Obviously, I will be contacting the bank to find out exactly what happened but it feels to me like my life is being made needlessly difficult by the banking system right now…
Let me know if you know of any ethical, user friendly banks, that would be more willing to help (this was Co-op, so I thought I went with a good one!) Otherwise, do follow my Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates. I will be sure to post something in a suitably excited tone if this whole thing turns out to be just a misunderstanding once I have spoken to the bank!
On inspiration, anger and motivation…
I feel like I owe some of you an apology… Those of you who know me personally, will know all about my inspiration by now. Those of you who just try to get to know my reasons for this project through following the page or the social media, I realise now, will know very little about the inspiration for the feminist coffee shop through reading this blog. And you should probably know by now!
So, now I would like you to invite you all to let your imagination go a little bit… Imagine a space that as you walk in you are welcomed by portraits of women who have made the world a better place and have dedicated their lives to feminism, like Andrea Dworkin, Simone De Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Nawal El Saadawi, and many more who have given me so many ‘aha’ moments in my life, creating my activist awakening, and who have gone through extreme discrimination just because they lived given their lives to the cause of betterment of humanity, and have been so vilified for it and often forgotten…
Now imagine next that, as you walk in closer to the counter, you start to then notice bookcases in the far corner. Shelves are filled with books of all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they are ALL feminist books, authored by those women I mention above but also by women who are less well known, some of them more purposefully ignored by history than others…
Now, as you stare at the books, trying to figure out how many of the names on the covers you don’t know, you start to notice the music in the background. And to your pleasant surprise not a single sexist tune to be found… All feminist music and otherwise political music by women (I know the definition of feminist music is somewhat problematic but I am working on it to the best of my abilities!)!
I hope this gives you a bit of a better idea of what I have in mind! Now to the anger part (I am sure you’re wondering about this). As I first set out on this, I was really expecting to find another feminist cafe in London… Perhaps I was naive but I was saddened to find that there isn’t one. Then I got involved with the Feminist Library, as soon as I found out that it was at risk of eviction. And then I found out about all the other women’s spaces that have been taken away from us in the recent past. And I got angry. And the creative force behind the feminist coffee shop grew… And it is a big part of what drives me these days.
I wrote more about austerity and the erosion of women’s spaces for a recent event about community architecture organised by the awesome people behind Old Kent Road Studios and it was published on the Feminist Library Anti-gentrification blog here: https://antigentrification.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/speech-given-by-a-feminist-library-volunteer-at-knock-em-in-old-kent-road-event-on-28th-june-2016/
If you would like to more about the Feminist Library project or erosion of women’s spaces, or get involved in any of the above, please get in touch!
On making a feminist business happen
I am angry…
In my years working in the feminist movement, I have learned not to be ashamed of my anger. Growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society, you are taught to deny yourself the right to be angry. Anger is not ladylike, it is not an emotion that the society allows women to explore, as it is seen as a decidedly male. What usually happens if you do show anger, as a woman, is that your emotions are, at best, dismissed as evidence of you being hormonal, at worst, your whole person is seen as crazy or temporarily insane. Women’s anger is rarely seen as worth further investigation as something that could have a real, important roots in the social reality that we live in. And so, it is easy to dismiss feminists as mad women, as we tend to be less afraid to say when we are angry, and state the reasons for our anger.
I am sure that this does not sound like a revolutionary thought to most of you who might be reading this, as this is a feminist blog, so I think it is safe to assume that most of you already know this. I have personally read a whole load of articles in the recent years on the power of anger and on learning to embrace it, by various amazing female writers. Although, I do have to admit that reading them every time makes me smile a genuine smile, as I have to frequently remind myself this mantra about not fearing my anger, as I know I have not yet managed to fully cleanse my brain of the patriarchal propaganda laboriously installed there over 20 or so years by the lovely society that brought me up.
Now, to the meritum of why I’m writing this today. I am angry because I thought that setting up a feminist business would be easy. Perhaps I was naive to start with. But what I came up against in my search for a space for the feminist coffee shop is a whole lot of scaremongering, from other feminists asking me if I had experience of running a business like that (no… hence the start-up label) to marketing graduates telling me I was going wrong about my promotional strategy (before I really got started on it). But that part was actually fine. I took the criticisms on, where I thought I could learn from them. And I constantly worked on my business plan. Most of that part was a good learning experience. And it meant that I honed my business skills as I went.
But now I came up against a much bigger wall. Capitalist bureaucracy. And it seems to be saying that I cannot have a business because of something I forgot to pay on time 4 years ago! Obviously, I am not backing down, and I will be fighting this. That’s pretty much a given. Part of me even thinks that the bank is just saying that but what they really mean is that they looked at my business plan and got scared of the word ‘feminist’ in it. Obviously, they can’t say that. That could come across as discrimination. So they have instead picked on something in my distant past. Not that it makes much sense! I mean, 4 years ago… Come on! That was just after I started my first graduate job, and so I was just finding out what it feels like to actually have money to be able to afford thing other than rent and bills! My record has been clean since!
And so, I am angry. You might think, this has nothing to do with feminism, so why are you saying this here? But, personally, I think it does! I see capitalist bureaucracy as a symptom of an oppressive society, the same way like patriarchy is. And so, it is really frustrating to me to think that 8 months of my hard work could go to waste just because of something like that! So trivial, and yet so telling…
And so watch this space. I will keep you posted once I figure out a way round this latest hurdle. And I will! Because, the thing with anger is that it can be very useful to us, once we get rid of the stigma attached to it as women. It can be a driving force, something that drives our passion and motivates us. And reminds us why we do what we do as feminists. And so, the more hurdles I come against on my journey to this idyllic space I call a feminist coffee shop, the more determined I become!
On Witches, the origins…
I have been meaning to write about this for a very long time. Finally got a minute when my internet wasn’t working the other day, so I suddenly found a bit of time and I thought I should use it to tell you about my inspiration for the café name!
Let me just start by saying that it was originally supposed to be called the Witches Hut. But that got scrapped. My mum (aka my best business advisor) wasn’t too keen. She is generally more at home with the idea of angels rather than witches, and so we arrived at a compromise that everyone was happy with. I thought it was one worth going for, since the highlights something important that the café is setting out to break: stereotypes. And the name, I think, manages to do that by highlighting the artificial dichotomy between the concepts of angels and witches, which is akin to the separation between ‘good’ (e.g. housewives, mothers) and ‘bad’ (e.g. feminists) women that our patriarchal society is founded upon. The separation of women, which manufactures hierarchy within our sex class and conflict pretty much out of thin air, is one of the key principles which supports patriarchy, if you believe Gerda Lerner (one of the most brilliant women of all times, in my humble opinion, and the founder of the academic subject of women’s history in the USA).
Now, back to witches! My original inspiration and fascination with witches stems from my love of women’s history. I strongly believe that spreading of knowledge of women’s history should be one of the most fundamental rules and aims of the feminist movement. Knowing our own history is one of the most important grounding tools in life, and, perhaps most importantly, without it we keep repeating the mistakes of the past without even realising it!
Witches, according to my theory, were the first feminists. Now, you might think, hang on, how did you come to this conclusion?! The idea first occurred to me fairly recently, a couple of years ago, when I listened to an interview with Gerda Lerner, in which she talked about the history of feminism. There are many reasons I love Gerda but one of the main ones is that as an expert in women’s history – going back to times before civilisation as we know it began – she has knowledge of things that I had never heard of in school, and as far as I can tell, you would still be extremely lucky if you do these days. What she said in that interview was that the history of feminism goes back 700 years or so. At that point, my jaw dropped and my eyes teared up. Yes, literally, I teared up at that one sentence. It is a well-known fact among my friends that I do cry a lot at films, but that does not normally apply to interviews… The reason that sentence made me tear up is that it made me realise how far we still have to go! Our history is being stolen from us, and we are told that we have already achieved our feminist goals and we should get over ourselves! Most schools will teach you about the Suffragettes and perhaps the waves, and that is it! There is no notion in those history books whatsoever that the feminist movement existed before then! Let alone for hundreds of years!
Now, I am by no means an expert on history but I know that much: every time I learn about the amazing forgotten women from history I feel taller, stronger and freshly inspired, as much as it frustrates me that I did not know those stories from school! And then I get angry as I imagine all the lost potential – all the young girls who grew up loving sciences and decided not to go for the degree they wanted because that’s just not what women do (wrong!)… All the budding female engineers who went through their degrees trying to be better than all the men on their courses, as they thought they were all alone in doing what they’re doing… All the amazing young feminists who go into fighting to change the world without the women’s history knowledge that they need not to repeat the same mistakes again and again… If only they knew! If only they had the knowledge of their own history passed to them in schools… How much taller would they have walked? How much stronger would they have felt? How much amazing inspiration have they missed in their lives at all those times they needed just that to keep them going in the ‘non-feminine’ path they’d chosen?!
And so, to me, witches are a symbol of women’s history. The forgotten, stolen or skewed herstory. They are my feminist foremothers. They were not wicked but brave, just as feminists are. But they were pictured as bad and mad. Just as we are these days. They were not dangerous, unless you consider independent, strong women, at ease with themselves, as a danger. In which case you might be part of the problem. It is for the same reasons feminists are demonised these days. We have minds of our own and the courage to say what we think, and to do what we want. And if we’re denied that right, we like to protest the injustice. And if you are afraid of that, perhaps you should be, because the change that we’re bringing is making the world a better place for women, and it is going to change the world for everyone by extension. If you don’t see why we’re doing it, or why this change is good, perhaps you should read some women’s history – the distant and the more recent, as the picture becomes much clearer when you learn about where we’ve come from and what we had to fight for to get where we are – and you might just see some sense in the idea that women too are fully human… Which is all that feminism is really saying!
On frustration, failure and keeping on going…
I have already written about the frustrations of setting a first business and a feminist business, it worth adding – because as much as I might hate to admit it, I did not make my job any easier by making the business about women! But as everybody I meet seems to think that I have given up already, since Angels & Witches has not happened yet, I have decided to fill you in on all the latest when it comes to the frustrations of the venture…
When I was first getting started, I have set myself a VERY ambitious goal of setting up the business in 3 months! Obviously, I was ill prepared and a little bit naive at that point, as many people did point out to me at that stage, but I just decided to ignore them and do my my thing at first… Not a wise move. But we live and we learn, as they say.
Over the next 8 months, I have learnt a lot about the tricks of the commercial property trade, about business, about how long it takes to startup… The list goes on. But the main lesson for me was humility. The first couple of months of starting out with the project, I had an extremely naive faith in my own abilities. This is not to say that I have lost the belief in myself! Not at all. I just know now just how much reality I have to face to make this thing happen, and that helps. The knowledge grounded me, as much as it frustrated and even infuriated me at various points too…
First, I had to learn a few hard lessons about the commercial property market in London… London property is hot. Everybody knows it. That wasn’t the surprise. The tricky part was that, even though, every time I found a space that I liked and I bid on it right away because I knew the property wouldn’t stand empty for long, somebody outbid me. It is not very shocking, again, I know… I am sure everybody who goes into business for the first time experiences that. And still, after a few times this happens to you, you get a little bit frustrated. It’s inevitable. Unless you were working in property before that…
Second, I learned how long it takes to get a good strong team around you. I have that now. And I feel blessed. And I have my hands in several different pots as a result, and so I am not betting on just one strategy working anymore! But it took months to get that together. And to understand that, even though you have a very exciting project on your hands, and people absolutely love the idea, they don’t want to jump on board as soon as you meet them. Trust takes time. And not everybody has to want to get on board of a project just because it sounds exciting to them – people have their own lives and dreams to get on with! Again, seems kinda obvious, but again, you live and you learn… When I started I thought that since so many people where so excited about the project, there would be a lot of women’s groups jumping right on board to collaborate with me on the space. But no, it doesn’t just happen like that. It is a big leap from being excited to getting on board.
Third, probably the most precious one of them all, as it was a lesson for life, which I have already mentioned in one of my previous posts (Waking the demons…), was about learning to expose my own hidden stereotypes and fears. Because, back in 2010, I wrote my dissertation on the attitudes of young women to feminism, and the results were a shock to me… I started the research project with an assumption: I was comparing British and Polish women, and I expected that the UK ones were going to be cool with the concept because of their history, at least… I found that it wasn’t the case. Both groups were similarly dismayed with the idea. And the general feel was that feminism has now gone too far and was demanding too much! The bottom line is that I carried this idea over into Angels & Witches! And I had this internalised fear that the whole world was going to be against me, since my idea was a feminist one! I needed a wake up call – the research that I did was 6 years ago, feminism has had a new awakening since then, people (at least some) have moved on in their thinking since – and perhaps so should I! The irony of it all was that I did not realise just how stuck this idea was in my head until a few people I met on the Angels & Witches journey have pointed out to me that there were some flaws in my marketing… Now I can laugh at the fact that I did that but, frankly, I got quite annoyed when they first told me that!
My latest source of frustration has been the banking system. It is probably the least of my worries, to be honest, as I have very good sources of business advice, and they all told me this should not be too much of a problem, and that it is very common to be made to jump through hoops by the system when first starting out. But I was very frustrated by it at first. It was the thought that something that seemed so trivial and straightforward on the face of it, turned out to be a hurdle at all that annoyed me! But I think I have figured out a way around the problem now. Fingers crossed! We’ll find out very shortly.
The bottom line is that I am not giving up! Yes, it has been frustrating that it is taking so long! And yes, I cannot hide that it has not been easy learning all these lessons, but now that I have gone through this life education the hard way, I have high hopes for the future. I am trying new ways to tackle the property problem and new approaches to problem solving. I have built up a strong support network, and I know where to go with pretty much anything that comes my way. Watch this space for more on the developments and the frustrations – no doubt – of setting up a feminist business.
“It took me a little while to discover…”
Was just sitting and trying to figure out how to put my thoughts about what’s been happening here lately into words, and in the background Lauryn Hill was playing, one of my all-time greatest musical heroes. And inspiration struck – the quote above is from a Hill song. In fact, I have not listened to her in a very long while and just happened to come across the suggestion a bit randomly this morning, when searching for something to listen to online. And it made complete sense, the quote! It pretty much covers how the process of setting up a first business feels.
But it also reminded me a little piece of my personal history. A massive piece actually, come to think of it. The origins of the process of my self-discovery. Lauryn’s music was one of the inspirations that first made me political, in a very broad sense, way before I knew what the word feminist meant! It might have just been one of the first impulses that made me feel like something was not quite right with the world, but still – takes me back to my origins.
For most part of my life I used to always have a diary but it is not like we can always remember those tiny little moments that made us who we are. In fact, I doubt if that would be something I would have written about in early teenage age. Back then life was mostly about friends, periods, parties and first romantic relationships. I think most often than not it takes the perspective of time to realise that those were the moments that made us who we are today. I don’t exactly remember, but I really doubt that it occurred to me that I could be a full-time feminist when I was 13 or 14! To tell the truth, it is rather unlikely, considering I only learned what the concept meant at university! In fact, it is a little bit ironic, now that I think of it, as went to uni to learn about (my) psychology (as I wanted to know why my memory was so bad!) and I found feminism there, and never looked back! I remember pretty much nothing from my Psychology course – apart from the social parts, which were to a large extent invented by feminists!
Well, come to think of it now, I did learn something about memory in the Psychology course – the reason I could not remember much from my education up to the point when feminism came in was because nothing really seemed highly relevant to my life up until then – and then feminist theory came in and I was like, snap! And all the frozen brain connections started firing up all of a sudden! So my memory question – literally the only reason I went into Psychology – did get solved, admittedly not the way I expected! To put it simply: patriarchal education did literally nothing to stimulate my brain cells into a state of alertness! And memory is funny like that – it is kinda hard to create memories of things that do not seem worthy of our attention!
From that point on, almost 10 years ago, I have never looked back at my education before feminism – unless it was to critique it! to be completely honest, I think that the whole education system needs a thorough makeover! It is not like women’s history is the only part of our education that gets buried systematically – unless you are a white male, the likelihood is that 99 per cent of your heritage will not be conveyed to you by the system! And so, for those of us who were ‘lucky’ enough to go to school for approximately 15-20 years of our early lives, and graduate with good or great results – but are not white men – the burden of history education still rests on our own shoulders! So when people ask me why I do the feminist work that I do I can pick many reasons, as I face all the different issues on a daily basis, but on a personal level it seems really obvious to me: nearly 20 years of my life have been stolen from me, since until university I learned nothing that seemed to really wake up my brain into much excitement – and I had no idea until I found feminism, but I found it a little bit accidentally in my Psychology course. More to the point, if you take this thinking one step further, you might discover that this lack of proper education almost drove me insane – I mean, I did go into Psychology thinking I would basically discover that there was something seriously wrong with my brain! So it seems hardly surprising to me that I am a full-time feminist now! I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if that little accident of discovery had not happened! But I rarely think about it now – it seems like the most obvious thing in the world that I’m a feminist, almost like the life before that never happened!
And yet, the education system still steals women’s history from us, while pretending that men and women are now equal, and feminists have nothing to be upset about any longer! And so, apart from all the other – business – lessons I have learned when setting up my feminist coffee shop, I have managed to find my true calling! On my feminist journey, I have tried many things and worked on many issues, but the thing that always kept propping up is history, or herstory, as I like to call it sometimes to highlight the act of reclaiming it from patriarchy. And every time it comes up, I get inspired by all the ‘new’ women I learn about but then I get even more angry! I shouldn’t be on this journey of obvious discovery when I am nearing 30! I should have learnt these things when I was in school! I could have known what I wanted to do for the rest of my life right after leaving formal education – if only that education had not been so white, male and boring!
And then – if that realisation was not frustrating enough – I also get questioned, on a daily basis, about why I think that it makes sense for me to do this work – in the sense that the people who ask this seem to assume it makes squat all difference! I partly blame the education system for that too. I mean, it takes away our history if we are women, people of colour, but also, let’s not forget, if we dare to be working class or activists. If we all learned about the history of social justice movements, we would not have to ask questions like that – as implying that nothing ever makes a difference would be like implying that the sun does not rise every day! Gloria Steinem knows that, Rosa Parks knows that, Ghandi knows that, MLK knows that, Gerda Lerner knows that… I could keep going but really what is the point – simply put, we should all know that! It should be the role of the education system to instill that knowledge in us all. In the words of Heraclitus: “Everything changes, nothing ever stands still”. Or in the words of Lauryn Hill: “Change comes eventually” even though it usually takes more time than we would like…
And so I learn to be patient – with pain, as it never used to seem to be my nature. Everything seems to take longer than it should do! But the journey of discovery is worth the time! I learn a lot about myself on this journey of feminism and social business. Some lessons are small, like that I can actually do financial forecasting and basic accounting; and some things that cannot be overrated, like learning the the mission of my life! I still get frustrated, as everything takes so much time, and I still don’t know how to fix the education system for all those of us who have left it knowing nothing about anything of note. But at least I now know what my path is. And I am making Angels & Witches the start of that path – with a space for workshops, consciousness raising and books, I am sure we can gradually figure out how to give women back what is rightfully ours!
On man hating…
According to popular mythology, most feminists hate men… Now, I don’t know any other stereotype that has so little basis in reality and yet still sticks. And so I am not going to try and repeat the same old arguments here, as there is absolutely no need for that. As Gail Dines once said at a conference I helped bring her to, feminists are actually the only people who believe in the humanity of men, and work to restore it. Anyone who is interested in any of the arguments that have been made to debunk this myth can find plentiful reading on this. What I am going to focus on here one of the reasons why some of us actually might be driven to, sometimes, justifiably… I know what I just said might be controversial to some but it can be quite difficult to be a woman in a patriarchal world, a woman who is aware of misogyny and faces it every single day, often as soon as one steps out of the house, and not resent men at least some of the time… So before you come to any conclusions, keep reading…
I have now been an active feminist quite a few years now, and I have heard of many perhaps more obvious reasons, like male violence, but on so many occasions I have heard from women how men steal their ideas and sell them as their own that the last one just pushed me over the edge. Now it’s not that I don’t care about the outright violence and sexism that happens to women on daily basis, trust me, I do, it has happened to me and that was the issue that got me into feminism in the first place! But actually, if you look at history from women’s perspective for a while, as I have done, as it’s one of my passions and main driving forces, the hijacking of herstory becomes a bit of a painful theme… genius women throughout ages wiped out from history books, unwillingly making space for the men who worked with them and took ownership of their ideas – as it was the male who had the RIGHT to become a great scientist, hero, change maker (whatever the field, you name it!) And the woman is just supposed to be pleased simply by the virtue of being an important person – in the man’s life… And the issue for me is a fundamental one to feminism, and the creation of women’s consciousness as a class, but it often becomes buried among all those everyday urgent problems of violence and misogyny that we face.
But, as much as I have been angered by this shameful trend in the past, the truth has never hit home as much as when I read the Guardian last night! It appears that there is a MALE researcher at UCL, named Mark Dyble, who thinks he has discovered the proverbial America! Now, his ‘discovery’, that the pre-agrarian societies were egalitarian, has been made by a number of female historians in the past… One of them was actually one of my personal sheroes, the woman who inspired me and made me realise just how important herstory is to our breaking out of patriarchy – Gerda Lerner. And yet the Guardian has picked it up as a news story for a reason – as this is news to them! Because, like most of the rest of our wondrous society, it thinks that it is! That would not be news to them if they knew much about women’s history and my fabulous historian sheroes – alas, it appears they don’t bother to do much of their own research on the topic that they publish articles on… In fact, this is not to blame the Guardian specifically for this specific phenomenon – this type of journalistic practice is very common everywhere nowadays, which is kind of self-explanatory: our world is so fast paced and news stories have to be turned around at such speed that the profession literally leaves no space for proper investigative journalism (with a few notable exceptions). Many journalists who have a couple of decades of experience talk about this. News was once different, back in the day before social media, as journalists had the time to investigate their stories before they published them. It is more surprising, and in fact I will be investigating Mr Dyble’s sources more closely after writing this, that the UCL academic would make any sort of claim to this ‘discovery’. As a former PhD student, I know, just as well as any academic should do, that in order to make claims to any original piece of research you have to first make sure that this kind of work had not been done before! It is one the very basic rules of academic research.
But back to the meritum; this is not a post about the good old days of the journalistic profession. The stealing of women’s work, genius and originality has been a common practice throughout history, as I have already mentioned before, but it becomes (or should in theory do) much more shameful nowadays – that women actually have reclaimed their spaces in politics, academia and beyond. A man would have to be willfully ignorant to be doing this type of research and just dismiss the kind of obvious possibility that a woman might have thought of it before, it seems to me!
But this trend is also a proof of another sad truth about our society. I am currently reading a lot of Polish feminist literature, as I have missed out on any kind of education of this kind when I was in school back home. The most recent book I have read is by Paulina Mlynarska, and it makes a brilliant (and infuriating) reading on the topic on the different ways misogyny is exhibited in 21st century Poland, and one of the curious phenomenons that she describes is how men throughout recent history have taken already established (by women, obviously) FEMINIST ideas, and made them accessible… It is blatantly obvious, she says, to anyone familiar with feminist literature, that the ideas they were spreading were not original, and were already brilliantly described by women before them. But for some reason – and that is the curious and infuriating part – as soon as they were written by a male of our odd species, they became more accessible and acceptable to the general public!
Now, I would be absolutely fascinated to meet one man who would, finding himself on the receiving end of this kind of treatment, would be thankful to a woman stealing his ideas! And yet – that is what we are expected to do, for most part, as women… We get frustrated, and than we, most often than not, thank the men who do that for helping us spread our ideas!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that all men who participate in this bizarre practice are out there to consciously steal women’s ideas, some of it ‘just happens’, because our society is such that women’s ideas are devalued and often times even dismissed as not serious enough, and therefore aren’t passed on or considered ‘real’ knowledge. Many of the men might even have good intentions. But the reality is that men’s ideas remain seen as more valuable than women’s, if we consider the fact that this trend has not stopped yet, as proven by the above mentioned Guardian article. In the 21st century! When a lot of people would claim that feminism is a thing of the past and those of us who remain in the struggle get told that we are asking for too much now and we should stop shouting already, because equality’s been achieved, apparently! That is despite obvious evidence to the contrary: women still get paid approximately 75 per cent of what men do, men still occupy most influential positions, and our little girls are still being taught that they inherently love pink more than any other colour!
In fact, this is part of a wider societal issue, not just with writing or scientific discovery. It is a very common everyday phenomenon – which I have experienced myself and heard of many stories from other feminists reporting the same thing – some like to call it mansplaining or ‘anything a woman can say, a man can say better’, even when it comes to feminism, apparently! It is often the case that women who go into debates and discussions do not think about the fact that their voice is seen as less valuable than that of a man at first. Nowadays, after having been to many meetings like that, I brace myself for the inevitable fact that I am just about to meet another ‘genius’ man who is going to explain to me what feminists have failed to notice about patriarchy thus far… over the hundreds of years that we have been experiencing and fighting it on daily basis! On various occasions, I have also witnessed men being patted on the back for simply expressing ideas that support equality, that women never congratulate themselves or other women on having – because they are kind of obvious for us to have!
Unfortunately, most men remain oblivious to what seems like a fact of life to us as women – that this is a phenomenon in the first place! Rebecca Solnit, a brilliant writer and journalist, laid out some of the reasons why in one of my all-time favourite articles. From a writer’s perspective, she describes the bizarre patriarchal reality of life: men are brought up to think that the whole world revolves around them, and thus they often simply fail to develop the basic empathy where women have no choice but to. This is most common in white men, as they are least likely to be ‘othered’ in either literature or real life. Such is the nature of patriarchy, that growing up as a white man you rarely get to have female or black heroes, and so you get accustomed to simply seeing yourself as the main protagonist in every story you read – everyone is always just a sidekick (best case scenario, that is; as a woman you might be very familiar with the role of a tool for male pleasure or even just a body…) Which is not the case for women. Most of us grow up seeing very few female role models, literary or otherwise, and therefore most heroes of the stories that we grow up with are nothing like us! And so we have to develop a very good imagination and an ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to enjoy those stories!
Now, again, don’t get me wrong, reading this you might get the impression that I have something against empathy! To the contrary, I think that it is a wonderful thing being able to empathise with other human beings. But in some cases, and particularly when it comes to dealing with men, it does not help us deal with life in a productive way. If we, by some random luck, learn to be more assertive than one ‘should’ be as a woman, we get told we are too bossy/bitchy. Often times, we will hear the truism about how women are NATURALLY more sensitive to other people’s feelings and better listeners. But try to argue that position with Rebecca Solnit or any other well-read feminist! And you might end up being on the receiving end of some assertive attitude. One barely needs to be any kind of expert to notice the simple facts of life though. Nearly every woman knows from first hand experience that growing up her male peers were encouraged to be assertive – even being bossy is not a crime if one is a boy – play sports and build dreams of financial emporiums, while we were often just praised for being caring, well-behaved and pretty…
In the words of Gerda Lerner – who I will forever carry a debt of gratitude for teaching me about how important all this is – men have for too long fostered delusions of grandeur, and that surely cannot be good for their ability to relate to other people who are different from them, and much less for women! Her words always give me the courage to carry on with my feminist work. She said many brilliant things that I refer back to again and again, but this one – one her most powerful quotes – is a good way to end my message today: “Men have been given the impression that they’re much more important in the world than they actually are—and that’s not a good way to become a human being.”
On witchy London…
Today was an amazing day! Finally, after months of frustrations after the Angels & Witches project seemed to have come to a bit of a dead end, I was given a massive boost of positive energy today! It was thanks to a friend at the Rooms of Our Own project, who has been doing her best to make both of the projects work – and work together – for months now.
And so this morning I went for my meeting with Rooms in Seven Sisters, not really prepared to be amazed by a feminist guided tour of the area! Now, Wendy, who organised the meetup thought that it would be a good idea to introduce me to a local community activist, who, in the process of doing her work to try and save a local gem of a market, has managed to also become an expert on all the community spaces in the area! And so she gave us a guided tour, including the history of many parts of the town, all the best spaces to hang out as a feminist and the latest area development plans. As for the past eight months, apart from looking for a space for A&W, I have been been involved in the campaign to save The Feminist Library, this was all fascinating to me!
Then, walking up the High Road in Seven Sisters, on our little private tour, we bumped into a local councilor responsible for culture, who seemed to be in a hurry, and did not really want to speak to us at first. But when we told her about the plans for a feminist coffee shop in the area, she suddenly had enough time to exchange contact details to set up a meeting, and to tell us about how retired women in the area could really use a space like that, as there isn’t enough happening in the are for that demographic! So we will be meeting with the Council soon to see if we can get a cheap space off them! 🙂 And I will be adding another thing to the to-do list for A&W – events for older women! I have to say, this has not occurred to me before, which is a bit odd, since I am all about women’s history and reconnecting feminists across generations. But it doesn’t have to be strictly feminist – something like inter-generational story telling evenings would fit in quite nicely, I think.
Still, it wasn’t until the very end of the tour that I found out the really ground-breaking piece of information about Seven Sisters, that put a bit of a new spin on the project… I have been to Seven Sisters a number of times before, as the area is very well-covered by feminist friends living there, so I knew that before I went there looking for a space for my little coffee shop project. I even spent one evening there, late last year, celebrating solstice with a small group of feminist friends, and we sang songs to the goddesses by the river! Now, that might sound a little bit bonkers to some, but whether one believes in gods or goddesses, or not, I believe that it was a nice way to celebrate the changing seasons and our witchy ancestors – whatever one wants to call them 😉
But the story only really came a full circle for me today. At the end of the tour, Pam, the wonderful local woman, whom I have met for the first time today, gave me the history of the name of the area. And, as it turns out, although there is a lot of local mythology around this and the exact etymology is not clear, that the tiny little park right outside of the tube station exit on the east side of High Road, Page Green, holds seven trees that represent the sisters who planted them. Beyond that, historians and local history enthusiasts are not clear what actually was the reason that the tradition started, but it appears that it is still upheld to this day, by families of seven sisters planting new trees when needed. Personally, I like the version of the history or mythology that goes beyond that which Pam told me. It is to do with witches and the area being quite popular with their lot back in pagan days! You can read more about the history, or herstory, of Seven Sister and the name in the Londonist article here and in a local Tottenham blog here.
As much as knowing the ‘witchy’ side of the story’s made me feel like I would really love A&W to be in that area, it has also made me feel a little bit sad about the history of the Seven Sisters women, and herstory in general. As in pretty much every other area of women’s lives, a lot of our history is not known to us, as for the most part of the story of ‘civilisation’ women were not recognised as doing things that were historically important… And that is one of the reasons I have started my latest project, Herstory Diary, which I am now planning to turn into a blog, and then a course on the topic… I have touched on the importance of women’s history in feminism a number of times in this blog, so I will try not to repeat myself too much. But I will just say one thing – I believe that until we have achieved the goal of having women’s heritage being treated as just as valuable as men’s, I don’t think feminism will achieve its goals… And so I have now added this little project of reclaiming herstory to my very long to-do list! 😉