In October I co-curated an exhibition of artwork for the London Feminist Network’s Feminism in London conference. The conference was open to all and attracted women and men with diverse and clashing views on the state and future of feminism. Within the exhibition there was a particular focus on art by women who had experienced addiction, prostitution, incarceration, mental health issues and abuse. Many of these artists attended the conference but had never been to that sort of event, let alone grappled with feminism as a history, movement or ideology. With all my energy trained on fixtures and untangling artists’ instructions for installation pieces, frankly, I was distracted from the activism and debate of the event as well. For me, the best reward for all the hours I poured into logistics and hanging was from the surprise, pleasure and pride on the faces of the women whose art took centre stage and captured the attention and empathy of the attendees.
Women in recovery from problematic drug and alcohol use are up against so much more than addiction. Struggles with a history of abuse, mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, lack of education and opportunity often underlie reliance on drugs or alcohol. In highlighting the different shape of women’s experiences with substances my aim, and that of my colleagues at the RSA and collaborators at the Feminism in London conference, is to take a wide angle view of the influences that shape a journey into recovery and how services can be tailored to support the whole person.
In the lead up to the conference I ran a focus group with members of the Women’s Group from the Gravesend West Kent Recovery Service Hub, some of whom had contributed pieces for the exhibition. In initial conversations to feel out interest in the focus group the majority of the women said they were not sure if they identified as feminists or were even sure of what it is. So many approach feminism from the same place, claiming, as William Hague did in a recent interview for Stylist magazine, ‘I wouldn’t really describe myself as a feminist but I believe in women’s rights.’ The very definition of feminism is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’ but barriers have been built in the layers of meaning history has piled upon the term. When it came to the discussion the women defined their own feminism through their personal experiences. Many of the artists I worked with were not making consciously feminist statements with their work, but by simply expressing their diverse passions, pains and pleasures as women they reached the very core of the feminist movement, and bolstered the call for compassion, solidarity and action for equality.