Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My Experience at UK Feminista Summer School

Today I want to try something different. I want to write about my experience at UK Feminista Summer School on Sunday. But I don’t want to bring in politics, or pass judgement; at least not yet.

I only attended the School on Sunday. I went with a friend from Cardiff Feminist Network.

From the very beginning of the event, specifically during the “Welcome & Introduction” session, I felt disconnected from everyone else in the room. I am not entirely sure why. I was experiencing the familiar feeling that “everyone else is much better than me”. This meant that I was feeling quite low. And things only got worse.

Throughout the day I had to struggle with this feeling of “lowness” or depression. Everyone was smarter, prettier, more successful and more sociable. Everyone wanted to be with everyone else. Except me.

Lunchtime was Hell. The meal I had lovingly made for myself sucked. And all the other women were happily chatting away with all the other women. I was confronted, once again, with the cold, harsh reality that I am quite shy, and struggle to interact with strangers. I was unhappy. I felt as if all the other women had learnt something I never did: how to be happy and chat to complete strangers. So I remained on my own. I paced around the room on my own. And eventually ended up where most loners like me end up: behind books. It was high school, all over again.

After lunch I attended a talk titled “Activism in Theory and Practice: from research to the ‘real’ world”.
The word I used to describe the talk when taking notes was “crap”. Yes, it’s harsh, but that’s how I felt then. The talk made me feel unbelievably lonely because I could tell I was the most radical person in the room. This made me feel like a “black sheep”. It was as if I was standing on the other side of a pane of glass: I was next to everybody, but I just wasn’t “there”. Feelings of hopelessness and despair followed through. The experience left me wondering “why bother trying to be a political writer? It’s all a waste of time because I can’t get on with people”.

The talk was “crap” because the women who gave it belonged to the “fine” tradition of postmodernist thought, and were therefore quite careful not to think or, heaven forbid, give their opinion on anything. Yes, even though they were in a room full of feminists. Even though they were not “lecturing” us on anything, because we were not their students. They still tried to appear “objective”. Which meant, inevitably, that they spoke of nothing. That’s the essence of postmodernism right there. It appeared that nobody else but me could see that, however.

The non-lecturers asked us to form groups and discuss what they had brought up. Once again, just like high school. We went around saying our names and what we “did”. One woman from a “public sector/voluntary sector/good job helping people”, and three young women with glamorous student careers. When it got to me, I lost it. What was I supposed to say? “I am unemployed, have depression and dream of becoming a writer”? I was feeling too low even for that. So this is what I said “I sit at home and suffer”. Which is pretty accurate anyway. And I am nothing if not a drama queen.
Then, two more talks followed. “How the cuts are hitting women hardest” and “The global struggle: international feminist resistance”. The feelings brought up by the first talk only grew stronger with the second one. I felt decidedly unimportant compared with the women giving the talks. Their presence brought up feelings of resentment: they had nice jobs going around changing the world. And then they got to give talks to fellow feminists. I felt there was a hierarchical set up, and I was at the bottomest bottom. And I grew resentful because of it. The hierarchy seemed to say “these women have done worthy things, they spend their lives doing worthy things, that is why you should listen to what they have to say; and no, you have nothing worthy to say because you don’t spend your life doing worthy things”. In order to “defend” myself from this hierarchy, I had to remind myself that, worthy as these women’s deeds may be, they get paid to do them. That’s right: their feminist work is a full time job. Meanwhile, my feminism is done for free. So why should they have something worthy to say and not me?

These feelings are not pretty. These thoughts are less so. But that’s what I felt and that’s what I thought. My feelings and thoughts are what they are. I am not “blaming” anyone over them. My feelings are not “right” nor are they “wrong”. The thoughts I had were an attempt to counter very painful feelings.

If you wonder why the blazes I am writing about painful feelings of depression, social exclusion and inadequacy, I give you Brene Brown on courage

The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
(...)  I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage
(...) Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.

(I'll try to write something a bit more positive on UK Feminista Summer School soon.)


kurukurushoujo said...

I know exactly how you feel. I have the same problem when it comes to such events. Sometimes I'm so afraid that I don't even attend because my shyness often materializes as brooding anger- at myself but other people don't know this, of course.

I think it's admirable that you don't beat yourself up over your thoughts and behaviour. I often spend so much time thinking that it ends up making me more depressed.

Mary Tracy said...

Thank you, kurukurushoujo. I really appreciate your comment.

Helen said...

I think what you say about the feminist hierarchy is really interesting. Over the weekend I was really happy to listen to, and learn from, my fellow feminists who are doing work I might not otherwise know very much about. But I did feel the force of the hierarchy you describe in the "Activism in Everyday Life" workshop, where it seemed like the women who had been picked for the panel didn't have any particular specialist knowledge or experience - I'm sure they are all lovely people who do great things, but I also felt like they spent the vast majority of the time saying things that were pretty obvious to the vast majority of those in the room. I know I'm not the only one who felt this way - I saw a lot of bored, vacant stares; a significant minority of attendees walked out; I even saw one woman texting "this is such a waste of time!" before she eventually gave up and left. The problem wasn't with what the women were saying, just that they were saying things any one of us could have said: they weren't giving us anything new to talk about, educating us on anything, opening our eyes to anything. Most infuriating of all, given all of this, was that there was relatively little time given over to the workshop's attendees to discuss things amongst themselves. The only part of the workshop that felt productive was the end, when discussion was opened up a bit more, and by that time many people had already left. I couldn't help feeling like "why have these people been chosen to impart wisdom to us" - that discomfort with the apparent hierarchy of feminists that you were talking about.

But on the other hand I think it's also worth pointing out that most of the women who have cool feminist jobs and were considered to have something to contribute to the conference will have started out doing hard, unappreciated graft, volunteering and organising. It is absolutely a privilege to be able to do feminism full time, but if you're currently "doing feminism for free", you are probably putting yourself in a great position to do that kind of cool job in the future, if you want to.

To round off, I think one conclusion that could be drawn from your piece is that it would have been nice for more of the workshops to be generated from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and I'd agree with that - as someone who is naturally quite shy and awkward like yourself I'd have appreciated more opportunities to engage with fellow feminists in a more structured way than just walking up to them and saying hello.

smashesthep said...

Hi Mary Tracy, I'm sorry to hear that you felt alienated at this conference. I recognize the feelings you're describing, and I wish that this hadn't been such a painful experience for you.

I'm definitely experiencing the feeling of "being the most radical person in the room" at my feminist book club, as well as pretty much anywhere I go at any time. Where are all the radicals? I want to go to *that* conference.

Also, if the title of the workshop was called, "Activism in Theory and Practice: from research to the ‘real’ world”", why were the speakers all people who didn't have everyday lives in the real world (like you do)? It seems a misnomer, yeah? People like you who do "feminism for free" are the ones whose work is in the real world, and yet you felt at the bottom of the hierarchy? I find that to be a very strange set up.

I love your last section about vulnerability and courage-- spot on, that. Keep up the good work, lady! You are not alone. We are here.

Clara said...

I feel sorry that you seemed to have such a bad experience of Fem School - I was there too, and I experienced the complete opposite. As soon as I arrived, I felt part of something and everyone I passed in the hall or on the stairs smiled or said Hi.

I thought the whole weekend was filled with positivity and openness, and I enjoyed all the workshops and lectures I went to as I thought all the speakers were well-informed and passionate.

Not all the speakers there were 'professional feminists' and their 'nice jobs going around changing the world' were most likely hard won, with little financial gain and the things they see and experience may actually boreder on traumatising at times. These people didn't just 'get lucky' with their jobs - they put in the graft and forged connections with others of a similar ideal and goal.

I can't help but think that you might have got more out of Summer School if you'd put yourself out there a bit more. I appreciate that it is hard being shy, as I used to be very shy myself, and sometimes I'm still a bit social awkward. But you have to remember that the people around you are just PEOPLE, there's no reason you can't strike up a conversation or join in when people beside you are talking. I got involved in conversations with strangers after just asking where they'd found the coffee machine, or asking where someone was from.

Although it might be courageous to write about your experiences and your depression, I think it would be more couragous to confront your fear and force yourself to talk to people. Shyness can easily be mis-construed as aloofness or snobbery, and it's up to you, not everyone around you, to make the effort.

I found that practise really does make perfect. Try talking to strangers and engaging a bit more, and you'll see that it gets easier every time you do it.

I honestly feel that anyone at Summer School would have been happy enough to talk to you if you'd tried, and I'm sure that even if you'd expressed an opinion different to their's, most people would have been glad to listen anyway. That, after all, is why we were there.

I'm sorry your experience wasn't more positive, but I hope you come back next year and find the courage to immerse yourself in the social aspect as much as anything else. It can be a really positive experience if you just open yourself up to it.

Mary Tracy said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, I really, really appreciate them.

Helen, I'm 100% behind your ideas of "more workshops from the bottom up" and "more opportunities to engage with fellow feminists in a more structured way". I was already thinking alon these lines, and I believe it would greatly improve the Summer School experience. I appreciate being included in a group where everyone, say, has to say their name, rather than walking up to random strangers and introducing myself. While the first is inclusive of everyone, the second feels only available to those who are naturally confident.

Mary Tracy said...

@ smashesthep

I have told you that you rock, right? I wish there was a "radical" feminist conference, I would be the first in line for that. This is not to say that I don't appreciate UK Feminista's, of course I do. It's just that my poor radfem heart feels a little bit... hungry. I want big questions, big alternatives, big ideas. Doesn't mean I don't like everyday ideas, but a bit more balance would have been nicer.

"Activism in Theory and Practice" turned out to be neither. I was expecting a talk about the need for theory to back up our activism, to give it direction, and how that is shaped by feminist ideas. There was none of that. Instead we got academics; one briefly tried to present postmodernist gibberish as an example of "feminist theory", and another talked about her difficulty as a researcher to reach activists for her research. And how you can do activism within the classroom while remaining "objective" (hint: you can't).

As for the last quote, Brene Brown is really good, check out her work if you can.

Mary Tracy said...

Clara I appreciate your comment. This post wasn't an attempt to "critique" UK Feminista, but rather, to express my feelings. These are not pretty feelings, like I said, and the thoughts are not nice either. I don't justify them, nor condemn them, much less blame UK Feminista for making me feel that way.

Yes, I struggle with social gatherings, but I am getting better at it. I did talk to people, and I met an amazing feminist from my home country, a most unbelievable encounter. We had an amazing time. And I wouldn't have met her if I hadn't had the courage to walk to her and ask where she was from.

I am more than happy that UK Feminista Summer School exists. I would like to contribute to make it better. I am by no means interested in "pooh-poohing" the hard work of other feminists. There were things that worked and things that didn't, as you would expect. And I'm sure the organizers will take in everybody's imput and make next year's summer school a much better experience.

LonerGrrrl said...

Feminism needs more 'unpretty' feelings to be expressed in its name, Mary Tracy, and it should certainly allow room for that to happen, so good for you for posting this, I know it's not easy to admit to feelings of social anxiety.

I too experience feelings of disconnection and awkwardness when in large informal groups and from attending similar feminist events as this in the past, I recognise your description of seeing everyone at ease with each other whilst you're left feeling small and inadequate because of your inability to speak.

What makes it more difficult - but also precisely more pressing for feminists to discuss social anxiety/shyness - is that women are expected to be sociable and strike up conversations with each other easily. But some of us are actually more comfortable adopting the aloof, silent pose men can get away with.

There's enough pressure on women to get along with each other and keep up shiny happy appearances - don't be afraid of calling out feminism for doing the same. Just because you get involved with feminism, doesn't mean you automatically become this confident amazing activist type, and it's dangerous to maintain that fallacy (which does exist). I'd rather read a blog post such as this one, which admits its author's vunerabilities, 'cause it comes from the heart, and is honest. I feel somewhat distanced from feminism at the moment, because it seems to be lacking some of that. It's often very assured in its rhetoric and stance on things, and as someone who is feeling quite unsure of herself at this point in her life, I find little in contemporary feminism to counter that.

Mary Tracy said...

Thank you, LonerGrrrl. I don't have any other words. Thank you.

gorilerof4b said...

It feels wrong to say that I liked this post, because of course I don't like the fact you had these difficult and painful feelings Mary, but I like the fact that you wrote it: as the comments show, these are feelings a lot of us have in those kinds of situations. And those feelings are political, in that surely they must relate to the question of voice in politics. Reading this also got me thinking about the practice of consciousness-raising as feminism's grassroots, bottom-up, 'feminism for free' method - a method that gives people like us political speech. I guess I'm saying that there may be something inherently patriarchal about the "expert panel vs audience" setup which can be experienced as alienating.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with the rest of us x

gorilerof4b said...

I meant to add that around the same time that I read your post, I read this one from Bolshevik Chick where she expresses some similar thoughts: http://bolshevikchick.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/on-blogging-and-part-of-my-boston-experience/

Mary Tracy said...

@ gorilerof4b Thank you! It must be said that a lot of feminists had issues with the "experts speak, audience listens" approach. Not sure what the alternative would be, other than making it explicitly clear that the "speaker" should just introduce the topic and that the audience is invited to contribute as much as they want.

And thank you for the link, I'm reading it now.