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  • Rebecca Esho Greenslade

What do you hear when you hear the word feminism?

In her introduction to Living a Feminist Life (2017) Sara Ahmed poses a question: what do you hear when you hear the word feminism?  It’s not an easy question to answer, at least not for me. But feminism is not an easy practice. This question returns me to my childhood and nascent feelings of dis-ease that I was too young to understand. ‘Feminism’ makes demands of me, particularly how to close those gaps between my personal ethics and my every day life.  ‘Feminism’, now, has become a life-affirming word. It is a spiritual commitment and praxis, a means to acting upon my desires for material and relational changes in our world, a desire for us to question deeply the mechanisms of severance that function to that keep us away from each other, and a desire to imagine alternatives.


Yet, it wasn’t always that way. I wasn’t raised a feminist.


Brought up in a Thatcherite household by working class parents whose middle class aspirations generated an internalised disdain for their working class roots, I was raised on a diet of meritocracy, individualism, privatization and maintaining the status quo. A status quo that, as a white, aspiring middle class family, served us well through not being disrupted, but through being maintained.


Yet, when I look back, perhaps my first experience of patriarchy, sexism and gendered socialization – although I did not have that language then - was through my resistance to the ways my two older brothers were asked to maintain the status quo differently to me. I can remember my frustrations when, from a young age, every Sunday lunchtime my mother called me away from my play to set the table, to gather plates and stir the gravy whilst my brothers continued playing upstairs, undisturbed. Each time there was a family visit, I was forced into wearing a dress whilst my brothers could still wear their trousers. My brothers were never told their behaviour was ‘unladylike’, their young bodies were never scrutinized or referred to as ‘puppy fat that she will lose when she gets older’. I knew from an early age that I was treated differently because I was a girl and that different expectations were applied to me. Now, through the language feminism has provided me, I can see how this gendered socialization contributed to the confusion and anger that burned within me as a child and that I carried into adulthood. Anger that, as a girl, I was not allowed to express because anger was too unladylike to express. My anger posed questions, questions that disrupted the white middle class status quo that my parents worked so hard to maintain. My anger, to coin Sara Ahmed’s term, killed joy. Imagine, many, many, many years later discovering Audre Lorde’s feminist writings on anger; anger that is appropriate, understandable, bridging, necessary and galvanizing …


I wish I could say these early experiences led me to feminism. I can’t. To coin bell hooks’ term my ‘‘habits of being” were so entrenched in white liberal perspectives, that at best any feminist leanings in my teenage years and beyond were orientated to notions of ‘equality’, but a self-concerned equality. And, having internalized early and constant objectifications of my body, my efforts towards equality were often messy, harmful and self-objectifying. I am still undoing my early schemas of individualism, meritocracy and privatization. For me, in this body, living a feminist life is a commitment to unlearning and learning anew habits of being. As write this now, I am unlearning and learning.


My first introduction to feminist thinking in therapy was around ten years ago. By then, I’d completed five years of psychotherapy training, a training which ignored feminist perspectives completely – the curricula was made up of entirely white, male Eurocentric perspectives. Not even de Beauvoir made it onto the reading list of my final two years training in existential psychotherapy. I was at an RD Laing symposium and Will Hall – a inspirational survivor, therapist and organizer, gave a presentation standing on a chair waving Jerome Agel’s ‘The Radical Therapist’ (1971). This collection has long been out of print, however it has now become been so important to me that I own two aged, used copies, each with fragile, cracked brown pages. The essays in this collection are angry, subversive, urgent, sometimes humorous, but it was Nadine Miller’s Letter to her Psychiatrist that gave me goosebumps the first time I read it.. She wrote this letter on 4th June 1970, after a week’s holiday away from her daily routine; it is essentially a fuck you and fuck off letter to her psychiatrist, a realisation that her sessions with him have coerced her into accepting male supremacist structures and that she is justifiably – not pathologically – hostile towards men that maintain these structures for their own benefit. Men like him. She ends by informing him that she is donating the $28.00 she owes him to the local Women’s Center. I continue to love this letter and how it kills joy, unconcealing the patriarchal mechanisms of concealment that her psychiatrist disavowed. I love that she is so direct and unnuanced. Because sometimes, I don’t want to be nuanced either. This small, fiery book introduced me to the early radical feminist therapy movement – a time I didn’t live in but a time I am deeply nostalgic for, an imperfect movement that continues to both inspire, and trouble, my practice today.


And, so it began. I have been in an ongoing challenging - at times ambivalent - relationship with feminism and psychotherapy ever since.


In my experience, engaging with feminisms and a feminist therapeutics challenges us to try to re-imagine psychotherapeutic cultures that have been built from and upon white, capitalist, cis-heteropatriarchial, imperialist systems of thought and praxis, a re-imagining where we move from therapeutic practices of independence towards therapeutic practices of interdependence. Feminist therapies show us how a feminist clinician might intervene in both pedagogical and therapeutic spaces, disrupting epistemological orthodoxies, refusing the neo-liberal subservience of our profession, creating new pathways of practice that subvert and divert from the official path laid out by the psy- disciplines. Sara Ahmed says:


To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question. (Ahmed, 2017, p. 2)


For me, these living feminist questions include, how can we practice differently in order to cultivate an ethics of care that considers the collective, interdependent subject, as well as the individual? How can we center ethics at the heart of undertaking solidarity work in psychotherapeutic practice? How do we organize our work around points of connection without erasing our differences, where do we resist the politics of politeness or the desire to smooth over discomfort? How can our collective therapeutic ethics intervene in and transform the social contexts that make oppression and suffering possible? Most recently, I have been engaging with abolition feminism which has forced me into deeply uncomfortable questions on how our therapeutic practices may still render carcerality possible, still refuse people and still pose possibilities for therapeutic captivity.  I am interested in feminist psychotherapy as a project and practice of critique, disruption and intervention, taking up the question James Hillman posed thirty years ago when he asked if psychotherapy could “have new fantasies of itself, so that the consulting room is a cell in which revolution is prepared?’ (1992, p. 38). Of course, these do not have to be your feminist questions, but I would love to know what yours might be.


And, feminism is teaching me that these questions are not best attended to alone, in a library or even in a single dialogue with a supervisor, but together, in community, listening deeply to each other, sharing perspectives, maybe disagreeing but always learning. I am learning that a feminist life is a not an I/my life but an expansive we/ours life. To quote Sara Ahmed again:


We can be part of a widening when we refuse to be narrowed … We have to create room if we are to live a feminist life. When we create room, we create room for others (2017, p. 265).


bell hooks opens Teaching to Trangress with how she came to theory at a time of deep pain and confusion. I am not surprised that over two years ago now, at a time of agonizing rupture, heartbreak and loss, she was the feminist writer I reached for, her words helping me to breathe broken-hearted breaths. Thank you bell. Phenomenologically, there is little difference between madness and heartbreak. Recently someone asked me what psychosis is.  “A broken heart”, I replied.


Now, it is unusual for me to be asked about the state of my heart; even those who bore witness to my crying, my shrinking, my fighting for my life, rarely ask me how my heart is now. I expect it is, in part, because the extractive neo-liberal psyche presumes the linearity of time; it sees life as a one directional, rather than iterative process. I should be fine by now because time has passed. I am not sure I am. I want to say that, perhaps, feminism is a lineage of broken hearts - strong, pulsating, courageous hearts that refuse the brokenness to break them, instead the grief becomes a guide – fuel - for this practice life. I am reminded of when Arundhati Roy said in a talk, but who wants an unbroken heart? You know, I don't. Mine is just shatteredFeminism teaches me that ‘my’ heartache is not a solitary experience but is in collective resonance with all hearts that ache from interpersonal losses and traumas, despite their different contexts and conditions.  It connects me to you. If I am honest, the Feminist Therapy Network was founded on and from a broken heart. And it will always welcome yours.


As I began to write this piece, it was 150 days since the genocide in Gaza began. Today, it is 263. The threshold of the unimaginable was crossed many months ago; I am bearing witness to the worst atrocity of my lifetime. I am frightened by the implications of the permissibility of such deep levels of dehumanization. I am heartbroken that people I care about can see justification in the murder and displacement of Palestinian people. In Zen, the Bodhissatva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara is known as the Perceiver of the Cries of the World. She will not leave this world until she can no longer hear a single cry. I think feminism is the practice of hearing the cries of the world. Although I am sure that even Avalokiteshvara must be struggling right now as she listens to these daily cries of genocide.


These past months, I have been carrying the Chicana-Palestinian Sarah Ihmoud’s question with me: “what does it mean to practice feminism in a moment of bearing witness to genocide?” This question reminds me of spiritual activism’s call to refuse the inseparability of our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ lives. Perhaps it means attending protests if our bodies allow, speaking up if we have public profile or platform, writing to our MPs, donating to aid if financially resourced. It also means showing up to our broken heartedness. I am grateful for feminist spaces that enable me to do so, vulnerable and uncensored. I remind myself of the reasons some hearts have to close and shield themselves from others’ suffering. And, as I witness this suffering from afar, I intentionally remember the acts of resistance that are taking place alongside, of the extraordinary depths of humanization that have arisen from the squalor of this dehumanization. And, I renew my commitment to the feminist imagination and the practice of holding otherwise possibilities of being in and for this world.





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