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  • LV Penman

What do you hear when you hear the word feminism?

I’ve been aware of and interested in feminism on and off for most of my life. I first remember encountering feminist ideas when I was a child. This was partly through my family, and partly through the representations of feminism in the pop culture of the late 80s/ early 90s.  

What did my pre-teen self think of when they heard the word feminism? It felt exciting, and confusing. I had vague notions of Greenham Common and protests, that merged with the Spice Girls singing about ‘girl power’, and arguments about language (was it acceptable to say ‘chairman’ now?) made by men who rolled their eyes at women’s ridiculousness. In many ways feminism was a bit of a puzzle. But I knew that it meant something that I was interested in – if only because I was aware of the ways men held power, and the pressures and expectations heaped on women, and here was a counter to that.

My interest and engagement with feminism didn’t go much beyond that for a while. I was growing up in a middle-class family, saw myself and was being socialised as a girl, in a white working-class part of northern England. I was calling myself a feminist, but often the feminism I was ingesting was a liberal, white feminism mostly focused on replicating existing power structures; just with more white women accompanying the white men at the top. It was easy for me to sit comfortably there as someone who often benefits from the status quo.

I was fortunate as I got older to meet people who challenged me on this. Women who weren’t just calling themselves feminists but were using their bodies to defend abortion clinics, form barriers around fascist gatherings, march in the streets demanding justice and safety. Who were linking with other groups and communities, And who asked what felt to me at the time like difficult questions about feminism – about where it let down sex workers, or why the contributions of Black women were/ are so often erased from dominant feminist conversations.

I began to hear a much wider set of voices and experiences when I heard ‘feminism’; and I began to hear disagreement, discontent, friends telling me about the ways in which they didn’t feel welcome when they heard ‘feminism’.

At the same time, I was discovering my queerness, and finding a home in queer spaces. Spaces where I could talk about my bisexuality, my non-monogamy, and where I eventually found space to understand and interact with my own gender in a more expansive way.

There is so much crossover between feminist thought and action and queer thought and action. I was learning in practice what Audre Lorde says – that ‘there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives’. And yet, at the same time, I couldn’t always work out how to bring these parts of myself together. We live in a culture that I find encourages us to act as if we do live single-issue lives, to split ourselves up, both inside ourselves and from one another.

That’s something I’ve found within therapy training and work too.

When I decided to train as a therapist, I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. We are asked to examine ourselves – our inner worlds, motivations, drives. We’re asked to show up as our full selves in this work – only to find that some parts of us might not feel welcomed in or met. My queerness has been so important to me: as a site of creation, joy, community. I noticed the lack of queer affirmation in the theories I was reading much more starkly than I did the lack of feminist perspectives, at first.

Then I joined the feminist reading and supervision group that Rebecca set up, and gained so much from discovering Feminist Therapy – a school of thought I hadn’t known existed – and allowing that to shape my thinking alongside my ongoing training and practice. There has been a lot to discover and think about. There still is. One strand that has been helpful is a feminist approach to ethics; a deep engagement with how we identify our values and employ them in our work, a call to continually question myself. 

It’s an ongoing project for me to find ways to bring together feminist and queer-affirmative therapy. There are so many mutual influences and crossovers between these ways of working, and at the same time they are often approached as if they are distinct or even somehow in opposition.

Now when I hear ‘feminism’ it feels just as exciting as it did when I was young, but more spacious. It’s not just a word; it says to me: connection, action, care. It means talking about how patriarchy affects all of us, and how patriarchy both strengthens and is held up by racism, transphobia, classism and ableism.

I hear the voices of the friends I’ve made. The conversations and arguments we’ve had over the years. The gigs we’ve been to together. I hear hope and rage and joy – the things that keep me going when things feel tough.

LV Penman


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