The witches circle

Photo by Allef Vinicius - wild woman in the forest

Photo by Allef Vinicius – Wild Woman – Courtesy of Unsplash

I recently, a bit accidentally, attended a goddess circle event. I had heard of them, but I never really paid any attention before. I do believe that knowing the stories of matriarchal religions is important, but I had never before ventured into exploring this world with other women for some reason.

So you could say that it was a cosmic coincidence that I was at the Feminist Library last Friday, where Lucy North decided to hold the latest of her Lateral Haze events.  Lucy writes for The Numinous, so you can find out more about her take on the topic on their website.

But what I personally found really illuminating is the connections that Lucy made between goddesses, fairytales and witches, and the awakened woman today. What I often thought myself, and has been the inspiration for the name of Angels & Witches, is that witches were the first feminists, as women who lived their own truth, despite, or even against, all the conventions of their times. But one could argue that the connections go far beyond the first (known to us) witches. You could link, as Lucy does, the concept of the wild, or awakened, woman with matriarchal goddess cultures and fairytales.

For example, the Norse goddess, Freya, is a an archetype of the sexually liberated woman, before any notions of feminism or women’s liberation were ever explicitly conceptualised. Lucy links Freya to the, still deeply buried, concept of the wild, or, one could say, liberated, woman – one who is not afraid of her own sexuality and lives freely, in agreement with herself and does not deny her own needs. One could say, and in fact people often make that argument against feminism, that women are now liberated and free to do whatever they want, but that is a gross underestimation of the patriarchal hold on women’s sexuality. Any woman who is unashamed and unafraid to apply the pleasure principle to herself as it is standardly applied by the 21st century man, faces much harsher judgement than any men ever do, and the threat of being dubbed a slut or a slag for many years to come. So much for women’s liberation…

Next on our list of fabulous goddesses to discuss was Lilith – Eve’s predecessor. She is the symbol of power and knowledge. In fact, in some versions of the story, she is the snake offering Eve access to knowledge. Yet, her story still remains largely unknown, and twisted and demonised when told. I had heard of Lilith before. But none of the other women in the room that night had.

There were many more stories in Lucy’s impressive arsenal, and I highly recommend anyone interested in the topic to check out her website and make their way to one of her events. The one story that I will probably never forget was the one about the origins of witches’ brooms, which Lucy told us on our walk home. Apparently, according to one version of the story, rarely told, back in the day, some enlightened women were using psychedelics and trees to pleasure themselves… You might call them witches, or whatever you like, but it sounds to me like they were much more sexually liberated then than we are now!

Many of Lucy’s stories were based on the book Women Who Run with the Wolves by  Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which I have to admit I haven’t read before, but it is definitely on my reading list now. All the stories in the book are an attempt at taking back for women the fairytales that are generally well known to us as stories told in their patriarchal version, always conforming to the same structure and reinforcing the stereotype of fragile femininity and heroic masculinity: a princess needing to be rescued, a prince doing the rescuing, a marriage which is supposed to symbolise the happy ever after… Pinkola Estes puts the heroine back into the woman. The wild woman is the (s)hero of her own story and does not need a man to rescue her.

I intend to go back to explore goddess/women’s circles again. The stories, whether you decide to believe in them or not, are very powerful and should be known by all women. They are part of women’s history or herstories. Matriarchal religions existed well before feminism and women’s history, well before the Suffragettes, well before the patriarchal ones in many cases. But to me, these stories have very little to do with religion and everything to do with our general belief systems – the values we share culturally. Just imagine the world we would live in if all our girls grew up with those versions of fairytales…

 

 

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Welcome to Herstory café! A tribute to 43 years of the Feminist Library

The Feminist Library in London is, in and of itself, a tribute to women’s history, as well as an incredible statement to the dedication of women, having been volunteer run throughout its history. It is one of the biggest collections of feminist literature in London and the UK, and one of only 3 independent ones in the country, with the largest collection of feminist fiction.

In 2018, the Library is celebrating its 43rd birthday as well as five decades since the start of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the UK, on which the bulk of its collection is based. The latter has caused some debate, as many date it back to a 1970 national women’s conference in Oxford, but in fact by that time the movement was in a pretty decent swing; leading up to this event were countless meetings of Consciousness Raising (CR) groups, which have given birth to one of the most famous mottos of the movement: ‘personal is political’; as well as a number of other relevant developments, not least the 1968 Dagenham equal pay strike. The conference, therefore, was an important and memorable development, but can hardly be argued to be the birthplace. Another way one could look at this is that 1968 was an important year for activists around the UK and beyond, and one of the key impulses for the WLM was the unequal treatment of women in activist circles, which were supposed to be non-hierarchical. After a short while, women came to the realisation that even the spaces which they assumed to feel comfortable in were patriarchal. And that was one of the key, if not the key, birthing impulses for WLM CR. An interesting read on the topic is ’68 ’78 ’88 – a compendium of women’s stories from the time, in which many of the women highlight 1968 as an important wakeup call for the women’s movement for precisely this reason.

Either way, debate on this will carry on, I’m sure, but personally I do not think that there is a date that can definitively be set, once and for all, as the WLM birthday – with several key developments leading up to the eventual eruption of the movement. And in any case, I believe that the more we celebrate and highlight women’s history the better.

Hence Herstory café – the subject of women’s history has been close to my heart for a very long time, but the realisation that it is so often not just forgotten but unwritten, because women are so busy getting on with the work, has been the final impulse, along with my desire to get the Angels & Witches project back on track. The idea is to highlight women’s history, especially the herstories more likely to be forgotten, and particularly in the context of women’s spaces, like the Feminist Library, linking it to the idea of Angels & Witches – a feminist space in the making.

For the longest time, I just thought about finding the perfect space for Angels & Witches, that I rejected the idea of doing pop up café events – the point of the project was to provide a space! A space that would be feminist… and just there as and when needed! But the success of the East End Women’s Museum to find a space after years of campaigning, provided me with renewed energy and enthusiasm to look at my project with a fresh pair of eyes. Not to mention that was the strategy that worked for them!

And so going back to the Feminist Library in this context, its own herstory is fascinating and comforting, as much as it is a story of frustration and struggle against a capitalist patriarchal system, in which the odds are stacked against women’s / feminist organisations. The Feminist Library, over its 43-year history, has moved a number of times, faced numerous space and financial crises, while always striving to remain independent against all this and additional pressures from academic institutions keen on ‘looking after’ its collections. What the academic librarians failed, and still largely fail, to understand is that an absolutely key part of the Library’s ethos is provision of meeting and community space for feminists and activists – something that is unlikely to be transferrable to the academic library environment. Not to mention the fact that within the academia a feminist library becomes a ‘special interest’ section suggesting that women are somehow a minority, rather than more than half the population! And this is just in a range of preconceptions and attitudes that adds on to the problem of feminism seeming inaccessible to many women outside of academia.

The Feminist Library has been a shining beacon of hope for community and activist organisations, managing to prove that persisting in the face of multiple and mounting crises is possible. And that is an invaluable position to be in. There’s no way the Library team is giving this up to become just another ‘special’ buried part of another huge academic institution, inaccessible to all but the most specialised librarians and persistent researchers!

 

Archive space at WoW2018

Feminist Library at the Archive Space @WoWLdn 2018 festival

 

 

Thank you Ms DeSuze!

Just as you are in most need of inspiration, a woman like Kalima DeSuze pops up in the news and seriously cheers you up. Now, I don’t know this woman personally, but she definitely sounds like my soul sister – she’s just opened up a new feminist café and bookshop in Brooklyn! Whoop, whoop! And, I swear, as the goddess is my witness, this news is exactly I needed to hear! It’s possible! It is especially encouraging considering the wider context of this unique development: I just re-read this article about the overall status of feminist cafes and restaurants in the US and Canada. And let’s just say, if you don’t want to read it – it didn’t put me in a great mood, all things considered.

Yes, I know, Brooklyn is not London. But from what I hear, it’s not that far from it. The rumour (or the news, to be more precise) has it, Brooklyn is pretty much like the Shoreditch of New York these days. In most recent news, Brooklyn activists protest local planning and redevelopment meeting, and officials try to move ‘garment city’ there against community pressure and all reason, it seems.

So if a feminist café is possible in Brooklyn of the gentrification era, it is bound to be possible in London!

And in more encouraging news, this time from London itself, the East End Women’s Museum has also finally found a home after a hell of a long search!

Reading DeSuze’s and Café Con Libros’ story is a bit like reading my own – at least the bit before the opening – the journey hasn’t been easy, but she persisted. And she got there in the end – becoming my light at the end of the tunnel in the process!

In fact, I have just reached out on Twitter, on the back of the article about Café Con Libro, and it seems I’ve got a new volunteer to help me out on the journey!

A beautifully shaped heart of milk steam in a coffee mug

‘For the love of coffee’ Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

 

Feminist Spaces in Crisis

bookshopLast week, I found out that the Parisian feminist library has been saved. Which is excellent news and I am overjoyed for them. But thinking about it still makes me sad, because of the context of it all: feminist spaces all over the world are diminishing and those that are still around are under threat from more than just gentrification.

It’s as though the whole society has slowly and somewhat unwittingly turned against us. When the London Feminist Library was in space crisis it got an offer from the South Bank University to house its collection. I’m sure the intentions were good, but it would have been just another London Women’s Library story – from accessibility to academia. LSE’s promises to keep the Library open to all have faded with time and the resource has gradually turned into just another ‘special collection’ of an academic library.

I believe it does not all happen out of ill will. The Feminist Library had a lot of kind offers to house its collections – including from the Marx Memorial Library, Union Chapel and Newington Green Unitarian Chapel – most of them unsuitable for the size of the Library and its purpose, but all well meaning. The last particularly put smiles on the Library team’s faces as it’s also know as ‘the birthplace of feminism’ – until it turned out they could only offer us a little bit of exhibition space…

But the Feminist Library is so much more than just a pile of books. It’s an activist space, a community centre and a safe space for feminists to talk about the issues that often can still make us very uncomfortable to raise in the outside world. And so it particularly hurts to think that people see it as just a collection of books when one realises just how rare spaces like that are. There are only 3 autonomous feminist libraries in the UK – the Nottingham Women’s Centre one, the Women’s Library in Glasgow and the Feminist one in London. The remaining ones are all now a part of larger, academic, institutions, with varying levels of accessibility limitations that go with it.  

And what really struck me as part of the save the Feminist Library campaign is that even some feminists were suggesting that we should try and move into a university. Even the feminist designers team, now responsible for creating the new space for the Feminist Library in Peckham, thought that was a good idea at one point. It seems to me that it would be a great loss to lose the only remaining independent feminist library in London to a university. Regardless of how friendly and welcoming the university seems, it would still mean a loss of independence.

Feminist libraries, and spaces in general, are neither ‘special interest’ nor simply libraries, and so should not be closed off to the public as an academic resource, as if feminism is now just a piece of history, no longer relevant to us presently. FGM is still very much an issue, as is child marriage, rape, not to mention the pay gap or the glass ceiling. Feminism has made great strides already but still has a long way to go. Nobody can tell me that feminism is a thing of the past.

“The woman question is answered. It is now understood that women can do anything that men can do (…) The future is female, we are told. Feminism has served its purpose and should now eff off (…) Though parliament is unconcerned about women’s issues, universities appear obsessed by them (…) As far as the intellectual establishment is concerned there is still a profound and ramified women question, which has still to be correctly asked, let alone answered.”

Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman

Greer wrote these words 20 years ago, but the mentality rings just as true now. Feminism has been relegated into the academia, and there seems to be a tendency to try and brush all feminist spaces into the academic world too.

But I believe that as long as we don’t have universally accessible feminist education, issues like that will keep being perpetuated. Academia is not for everyone. There is a massive gap between academic thinking and language, and the rest of us, including not just activists and the wider community. Academic language can be massively inaccessible and detached from the outside world. So we need more autonomous, open to all feminist spaces, not fewer!

Photo courtesy of Feminist Library Bookshop

‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’

I have heard ‘I am not a feminist but…’ so many times in my life, I have stopped counting a long time ago. It almost sounds like a mantra from some women, as if they’re trying to convince themselves. I think it basically boils down to women misunderstanding what feminism means, because of all the stereotyping still commonly permeating our culture. Women grow up hearing jokes about hairy feminists all the time, and they resolve not to be pegged as something that they’ve only ever heard as the butt of somebody’s joke. In most cases they wouldn’t have even ‘wasted’ time to look up the actual definition of feminism before coming to that conclusion (more often than not subconsciously).

But last weekend I was doing some outreach on behalf of the Feminist Library and I heard something new: ‘I would like to call myself a feminist but…’ and it really struck me. I have never heard a woman say something like that before.

One might be forgiven for thinking that it’s basically one and the same. Yes, the bottom line is that in both of those cases the women have been put off feminism by bogus claims they heard made about it over and over again, by people who are not feminists themselves, and most often than not have no clue what it really means. But as much as in the former case, a conversation about what feminism ACTUALLY means often times ends in a fairly quick and painless realisation that the woman is a feminist after all (it was basically all a big misunderstanding); in the latter, there is no convincing anyone – not easily anyway. The woman who made the proclamation on Sat was well aware of what feminism is and has made a conscious decision not to call herself a feminist. Yes, she cited all the same stereotypes that women in the first group normally would, but she knew all too well that the charges were fake. She just knew she couldn’t take the stigma of it all.

‘Feminism has a branding problem’ is a mansplaining solution to the problem, which I have also heard more than my share of times… Sure, I say, try telling that to Beyoncé! If branding was the issue, she would have solved this problem by now. Since high profile stars like Beyoncé have decided to rebrand feminism, not much has changed, in fact… The main outcome of it all has been a mass of accusations against people like Beyoncé that they are coopting feminism for their own needs. Which, considering everything said above, must be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard – why would anyone coopt something that had such a bad name to boost their own (already successful) brand?! I believe the fact that Beyoncé’s attempts at rebranding the dirty ‘f’ word have backfired is further evidence of the deeper, underlying issues, and of the fact that we cannot think of feminism as a brand!

Feminism is not a brand! It is a movement, a belief in the full humanity of women, a way of living that defies stereotypes, expectations and excuses that society has used for centuries to make women’s lives harder. And what we need is not a new brand, or a new marketing campaign to make feminism more palatable to the average person. We need to roll out proper feminist education, in schools, universities, and beyond, from the earliest ages, which would include women in history and the present fully. It can’t be just a dedicated selective college module, or a single lesson on Suffragettes at A-levels. It has to be comprehensive, bringing women back into history, sciences and politics – at all levels.

As a feminist, I love women’s history. I find it incredibly inspiring and empowering to learn about women who’ve done it all before, in much tougher circumstances in most cases. Makes me feel like I can really do anything. But it often times also makes me sad, as I wonder how much stronger and more self-confident I would have been had I grown up knowing their stories from an earlier age. And I believe that the same applies to women and girls around the world.

And to the woman I met on Saturday I would like to say if she ever reads this: don’t be afraid, join your local feminist group and see how it feels. You might feel like you can’t possibly claim feminism for yourself when you’re surrounded by people who don’t know what it means and yet have the audacity to make incessant jokes about it, but trust me, you will not feel like that once you have found your sisterhood. Perhaps it’s time to change your friends. Or at least get some new, feminist ones, and educate your old ones 😉 Hope to see you around!

The Angels & Witches HERstory

It has been long overdue. I have been so busy trying to find a solution to the space problem that I have lost track of what this blog was set up for in the first place: to document the story of Angels & Witches. And so the other day, when I was having a conversation with a new friend about the project, I realised that there was nowhere on the blog that I could point them to that would give them the best idea of how the project was born – its own herstory. Obviously, there are bits and pieces all over this blog, but thought that perhaps it was about time to make a more coherent whole out of it all!

The path has been twisted, with unexpected turns all along the way, but all the while Angels & Witches has stayed true to its roots.

It all started in the fall of 2015. Corporate life has never really been on my dream list and never felt quite like my place, but around that time it has started turning into a bit of a nightmare. One day, the new bosses of the company that acquired my previous employer 6 months earlier, came in and decided that it would be a good idea if my whole team was to compete against each other for our own jobs! That was the beginning of the end of my time in the corporate world, and a start of something completely different – Angels & Witches! Although, at the time, I was yet to realise that.

That night, I went home to tell my mother about what happened and her response turned the dreadful day into the best thing that ever happened to me. ‘Quit! And let’s do something together!’ – she said, simply, as if this was the moment she’d been waiting for all along.

From that day, nothing has quite been the same. I did go back to the office the next day – to hand in my resignation. My bosses were not pleased to say the least. My manager say in his chair, speechless, for about a minute after I dropped the news. The whole horrid process they invented was for the purpose of finding the ‘weakest link’ in the team. I was not it, as it turned out. My job was never really at risk. But that was beside the point for me at that stage. The whole process was for me the final straw I needed to realise that corporate life was not for me at all. And the world of possibilities that opened in front of me the day before, could no longer be shut.

I had never felt so happy. I didn’t know EXACTLY what I wanted to do just yet. The whole idea of setting up my own business was completely new to me. But the feeling of having freed myself from the corporate chains was amazing, and the realisation that there was an open path of opportunity ahead turned me into a completely different person. I’d never felt freedom and drive like that before.

It’s like a whole new dimension of life opened up right in front of me. I had never thought about running my own business up to that point. Feminism was something I did in my free time. For free. All the time. But it did not really occur to me that it could be something that I could do full-time – I never thought about it that way. I mean who would pay me for that, right?!

The thought of opening a business of my own was foreign to me until then. Let alone a feminist one! It seemed an unspoken ‘truth’ that feminism was something that had to be done in one’s spare time, as there was no money in it. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the idea of starting up a business that gradually it occurred to me that it HAD to be a feminist one. And how the hell are we supposed to ever get gender equality if all feminist work is to be free?!

Initially we simply started talking about a café or a teashop, with a yoga/natural therapy space in the back. The feminist part came to me a bit later. It was a bit of a revelation. I started going round more and more cafés, and talking to friends about the idea – doing research for my business – and I realised that all the cafés that I loved had something truly unique about them. And there was nothing I was more passionate about than feminism. What could be more unique coming from me than a combination of coffee and feminism – two of my favourite things? And all of a sudden, once I had that realisation, it seemed like the only reasonable choice for me! It HAD to be a feminist café!

And from there, all things started falling into place. I had a million ideas: it would be everything from feminist music to… feminist books and I was getting new inspiration for the kinds of events that could be run there nearly everyday!

My mom and I have been into experimenting with cooking since I became vegetarian, and so the choice of food never really seemed like a question. Apart from one: vegetarian or vegan? To start with, I was leaning more towards the former, but it quickly became apparent that it not being fully vegan might keep some feminists away. And so vegan it is. And that just turned out to be further excuse to experiment with our cooking!

And now we finally come to the name inspiration question – which is probably the most intriguing question to most people I’ve spoken to about the café. Why Angels & Witches? To be completely honest, it was a compromise of sorts. ‘Of sorts’ because when I did think about it, it actually seemed kind of perfect!

My mother was always more into the idea of angels than me – guardians, good spirits, all kinds of ‘positive’ influences of the spiritual world, which has always been close to her heart. Me, on the other hand, I had just gone through a bit of an obsessional phase with Gerda Lerner, who’s the feminist who introduced women’s history into Academia in the US. Which does bring us to the witches part. Just give me a minute, ok? A short Gerda Lerner introduction is much needed here.

According to Lerner, women’s history is not a 100, but more like 700 years old. And this was the theory that sparked my interest in witches. Is it possible that witches were the first feminists, and that their covens were the first women’s groups? Witches were not solely women, you might say. Yes, but throughout history there have always been some men who did not quite get patriarchy and supported women in our struggle.

Further, according to Lerner’s theory of where patriarchy stems from, the division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women is one of the key pillars of the system of patriarchal oppression, and women pitted against each other in constant battle for societal approval – one of the biggest impediments to women’s liberation.

Hence, ‘Angels & Witches’ – the coming together of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in what is, to my mind, a truer reflection of what we all are: complex human beings. The simplification of women as either or has served to divide women and uphold patriarchal structures throughout centuries. It still rings true of some contemporary societal scenarios. Thanks to our feminist foremothers, some of those stereotypes have already been shattered. We’ve started to see women as more multi-dimensional human beings, as more human, at last… But the struggle is far from over. Angels & Witches aims to support it by creating a space to further bust harmful preconceptions.

Towards a feminist definition of success

brooke-lark-194253.jpgThe other day, I’ve had a really odd phone conversation with a recruiter. He was trying to convince me that I should quit my job – that I just got 6 days earlier, because it wasn’t a responsible job to have, career-wise. Fair enough, you might say, he’s a recruiter, that’s his job. But it might seem just a little bit more odd to you if I told you that the job that we were talking about was sort of a feminist dream job. No, not to his mind, apparently. But to my mind a million times better than what he was offering. I’ve never really been a massive fan of the 9-5 but, since I’m a feminist, and after I’ve had my first feminist job, I started looking at all office work as a bit of a waste of time, to be honest.

I mean, I get it, we all need to work in one form or another, and that’s why I turned to the recruitment agency in the first place – they were offering a well paid job, and at a company that didn’t particularly resemble a soulless corporate giant. I guess it could definitely be worse. But having had a taste of what a feminist job looks like, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything but.

The company trying to recruit me was a professional market research company – an area that I have been in most of my professional life and so it seemed obvious, to his mind at least, that it was the job I SHOULD have been dreaming of – a ‘proper’ career development steps, whatever that means. But I just cannot. I cannot imagine – let alone dream of – spending 40 hours each week on work that mostly just makes me miserable, because all I can think of 39/40 of those hours, most weeks, is what amazing things I would be able to do if I spent all this time doing feminist work.

I cannot help it – I am a feminist and once I had a taste of a feminist job, I didn’t feel like going back to my old life of a boring 9-5, in an office full of people that I had nothing in common with, apart from the dislike of said 9-5.

Yes, my feminist job doesn’t pay much. Fact. It is not a full-time job, and therefore it only allows me to pay my rent and basic expenses. Fact. No, it is not a perfect job – it does have its ups and downs, just like any other jobs. Fact. But the ups, in this case, include being able to save a feminist space for future generations of girls and women. And so the downs quickly fade away, if you think about the incredible impact you’re making. I don’t know many ‘proper’ career paths that give a similar sense satisfaction.

What is also true about it is that it allows me to do this tiny little thing every day that not many ‘proper’ jobs do – help bring a world that is better for women just one step closer. Even if it might only be a small step. It allows me to do what I love, what I’m really passionate about, and it gives me the flexibility to also pursue my other interests at the same time. Not many people can say that about their jobs. I consider myself lucky. Most people I know from my last office job barely had time for anything apart from work, family and shopping. That was it for them.

I can’t live like that. And I shouldn’t have to apologise for it. And yet, because we live in capitalist patriarchy, I have this guy, a stranger I must add, on the other end of the phone making me feel like I’m crazy for not wanting a ‘proper’ job, a boring 9-5 that would make me mind-numb within a short few months, if not weeks, instead of a job that I’m passionate about that also gives me the freedom I need to pursue my other dreams at the same time, like the café and my writing.

But what is really bizarre about this whole story is not where this guy was coming from in the first place – this idea that I would be better off with a career-wise job – but just how hell-bent he was on convincing me that my dreams and convictions shouldn’t really ‘cloud’ my judgement when it came to career choice… The thing is, I don’t feel clouded at all. My vision has never been so clear. I want a job that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, rather than a lot of money and prestige in the business world. I have no desire to become a CEO of a corporation. I want to be able to do something that I love, while keeping my independence and options open.

I was forced to look for work again, as the search for a space for the feminist café took longer than expected. But should that mean that I have to get back to my old life that was not me, that made me feel like I was wasting a large proportion of my life on earth doing non-feminist work, and getting progressively more and more frustrated? I don’t think so. Not if I can avoid it!

We need a new definition of success. One that does not start in the business world and finish at FTSE 100. One that stretches beyond what is simply good for the economy, and includes that which is good for people. One that includes feminist visions of society, work and success.

 

Photo credit Brooke Lark