Want to make connections with grassroots feminist activists across borders and languages? Melanie Maddison talks to Red Chidgey about an online project that aims to help us do just that
Who are you and why are you interested in European grassroots feminism?
Red Chidgey: Hi, my name’s Red. I’ve been a conscious feminist for half my life and it’s an instinct to me now. A lot of actions I do revolve around feminist media and creating feminist spaces – in particular through zines, festivals, workshops and learning spaces. I am particularly fond of finding out about European feminist histories and connections (and, indeed, transnational feminism) because a lot of material and feminist memory is imported from the States, and it creates this situation where local and other histories are totally erased or sidelined. I feel like I am well fed on feminism in North America, and I want to know more about homegrown stuff.
When and why did this project first come into being?
RC: The website project www.grassrootsfeminism.net – which is an archive and resource for the transnational feminist movement – is the brainchild of the Austrian feminist Elke Zobl. She’s also the founder of www.grrrlzines.net which is this amazing webportal for all things internationally zine.
So, to tell you a little bit about Elke, I think she’s very good at having a macro-vision: she’s good at seeing gaps in the networking practices of feminists and she’s good at creating free resources so this movement can hook up. And she’s expert at generating funder interest in supporting these projects too. So it’s through Elke and her project Young Women as Producers of New Cultural Spaces that myself and the Swedish feminist Jenny Gunnarsson Payne put in a sister-bid and got funding from the Austrian Science Fund to be involved in the website. Our role in particular is to map grassroots feminist media in Europe, which is part of the grant we currently hold.
Why was it important to create a space to document and share information on the production of cultural spaces by women?
RC: A big motivation for me is that I cherish the feeling – which I call my ‘Women’s Liberation’ feeling – of lots of women coming together with similar aims and different backgrounds and they work together to bring something into being. They have a dream or they set themselves a challenge and then they explore it: how to work collectively and independently, how to create something feminist and forge different economies. These are precious histories and cultures which are at risk of being lost forever. These histories also stand testament to the inherent creativity of the grassroots women’s movement. The ‘Women’s Liberation’ feeling, for me then, is that sense when all the walls suddenly drop and something happens which is totally not status quo, not business as usual. There’s energy, and potential (and usually conflict, else you’re not doing it right!) and something happens. It can be a very temporary thing. This is why I love history and archives: because I can step into another time when the very same things were happening and learn from the knowledge, mistakes and successes of past events and activists.
It makes me feel stronger, it sharpens my critical mind, it frees me from accepting everything tooth-saged about feminism from academics and I get a sense of continuous struggle and connection. I think feminist knowledge, feminist cultures and feminist memory are precious elements and I refuse to sit back and even let a few fragments be forgotten or white-washed (and I do mean that specifically in terms of white-centrism too).
What do you see as the link between producing unique cultural spaces and the grassroots media that is heavily documented and referred to on the site?
RC: This is such a great question. What is the link between cultural spaces and media – a lot has to do with communication, with representation, with the shaping of ideas and connections. It has to do with the lifeblood of a movement: how do we dream, how do we talk, how do we uncover the bullshit and how can we start seeing each other, for real?
I think feminist spaces/media are vehicles for working out how we want to live, and how we want to tackle and dismantle the forces that try to constrain or hurt us. Media and spaces – such as festivals, working groups, discussion days, exhibitions, libraries or whatever – also support each other. We use our media to promote these spaces, to discuss them and to learn from the mistakes that might have taken place in them. So it’s good to have a record of these things – it helps us see the big picture, it privileges the act of dialogue, and it can be a place for challenges and resources.
The website is subtitled ‘Transnational archives, resources and communities’ why is the transnational aspect of this project important to you?
RC: Because so many struggles are inherently connected, and we are a stronger movement of resisters and creators if we can learn to thread these stories, situations and responses together. The website is a beginning; maybe two years, or five years, or 10 years down the line we will have a well-networked women’s movement – strong for its multiplicity and ability to cross borders – where we can work even more coherently in awareness and solidarity. I like the expansive view of the website because I think it’s important to see how some of the micro-pieces of the puzzle – such as zines – can fit into other self-publishing women’s projects worldwide. Or to keep a horizon in mind which refuses to be so involved in one’s tiny sphere of influence, but instead to have the possibility to chart all these currents within a similar, strong wavelength.
Is it important that the website may be added to/contributed to in any language?
RC: Of course. English is often used as a common tongue, but this website allows for everything, which is so important to help broader connections and for the website to be useful on a greater scale. It also opens up so many possibilities and new ways of learning about feminism in different countries – maybe you don’t know the language but you can figure out the projects and the aims from the visuals. I love that: how we can travel our ideas beyond words and keep communicating.
Ladyfest documentation plays a big part on the website. Why is Ladyfest so important to European grassroots feminism/activism, in your opinion?
RC: Ladyfest is something of a flagship event for the third wave feminist movement (though I love a good natter about what ‘third wave’ really means!) The Ladyfest focus came out of Elke’s research on women as producers of new cultural spaces – she’s been looking at the intersections of feminism, queer and other movements for social change. Ladyfest started as a North American thing in 2000 and quickly migrated over here – it was because some women from Glasgow were at the original Ladyfest in Olympia, Washington that Ladyfest came to Europe so quickly. They organised Ladyfest Scotland in 2001 and things just mushroomed. (Check out the Ladyfest Europe website and the no-longer-active chronology, www.ladyfest.org).
I would say that Ladyfest in Europe is a super-important strand of the DIY feminist network, and there’s a hell of a lot of networking which goes on between people and countries, which is just mind-blowing.
It’s also important to recognise the diversity of the Ladyfests which take place too, for example, a Ladyfest in Lithuania a few years ago was organised by a NGO called New Generation of Women Initiatives (and you gotta remember that eastern European NGOs are a lot more recent and grassroots than NGOs in western Europe). Berlin has a Ladyfest every year. For the way in which Ladyfest meshes the culture and political, I also like this statement from another German Ladyfest:
“The term Ladyfest implies a development of the Riot-Grrl idea: In this regard a Lady is a woman demanding respect and being aware of her skills. She no longer needs to fight for acceptation. Keeping that in mind, the Ladyfest Stuttgart-Esslingen addresses itself to people of all ages, origin, culture or sex who share the idea of a self-confident feminist movement in art and activism. After making the attendants aware of the manifold forms of privileges and oppression in society those can be criticised. The centre point here is the overcoming of the assigned role for women in art: women are mainly noticed as ‘pop-accessoire’, for example as consumers, dancers in front of the stage, fans, groupies, background singers and at all events as interpreters.”
What do you see as the power and importance in digitally archiving?
RC: It’s not ideal, because we still have the digital divide and the internet is not accessible to everyone. But it’s a start. Through sites like www.grassrootsfeminism.net we create the chance to check out random slices of feminist history. For example, in the Grassroots Media in Europe archive we have loads of graphics from the feminist poster-making collective See Red, which was around from the ’70s to the ’90s. I go weak at the knees when I see these images: the cleverness of the design, the scope of the issues covered and the range of female representations involved. Archives bring the force, and humour, of feminist activism to light.
Why settle for what someone tells you about the past, when you can see snippets for yourself? Feminist history is our birthright and it’s far too important to keep locked up in vaults. It’s the history of women, for the people. (Earnestly holds fist in air). And it’s important to remember that history means YOU, it means each of us. It’s just as important to document the work you are doing right now as it is the work of our mothers, sisters, feminist dads, etc. Feminism is a living thing and so is its history.
What is the purpose of including resources on the site, such as how-to guides, research, teaching materials, books and articles?
RC: Because we gotta learn and share information with each other, right? Whether that’s a tool-kit for creating effective anti-racist spaces, or how to self-publish, or what you need to know to put on a festival, or to organise a protest – we’ve all got a lot of experience and if we can share it, it will save a lot of time (and heartache)! But this site is not just for the activists, it’s for the scholars too. It’s connecting these two sides – practice and theory – because each is strengthened by the other. So the resources sections is part activist tool-kit, part reading list. Consider it your online feminist free school (and upload your teaching materials to share!)
What do you see as the networking and community potentials of the website?
RC: That answer is really simple. A lot will be down to people who think the project is a good idea and want to help it grow. It can be used to publicise events, load up PDFs of your zine, upload some archive materials or interviews and create your own profile (this is being developed; hopefully soon there will be a community feature which will be like a feminist Facebook!). Basically, the website is a seed which we want to see sprout everywhere. The website team – Elke, Jenny and I – will be feeding in content from our research, but that’s just a contribution. The site is for you (whoever you are, person with an interest in feminist revolution and creativity!) to shape and help tend however you like. It’s based on Web 2.0 principles, so anyone can register on the site, get a password, and then add material, add comments, edit stuff, etc. It’s totally interactive. We’ll try and pass on the word as much as possible, but we’re not the gatekeepers. Consider it an International Women’s Day gift from us to you.
What else does the European Grassroots Feminism project entail, beyond the website?
RC: There’s a survey on the site about grassroots feminist media, all are encouraged to fill it in. It only takes 10 minutes or so – the online bit is about who you are, how you see feminism and what feminist/women’s media makes you tick. Then there’s the opportunity for a longer email questionnaire and face-to-face interviews. We want to start building up a really interesting profile of feminist media production and consumption in Europe – from the ’70s to now, across borders and generations. So if Outwrite made you swoon, if The F-Word floats your boat, if you’re known to crack out the Quark or push the gluestick for the cause, come and tell us about it. And you could be famous too – all the responses will be background research for a book on grassroots feminist media that we’re planning on coming out of the website. It feels like exciting times, and we want to record all the grassroots histories and roles in it. Also check out the gorgeous banner art on the website by Nikki McClure – she’s a paper cut artist who creates these gorgeous scenes from a single piece of piece. It’s breathtaking.
Thanks for the interview!