‘They don’t want us to come together,’ Cis O’Boyle of artist-led organisation Idle Women insists, ‘so when we come together, we are resisting.’ Speaking two days after this year’s women-only Shifting Loyalties gathering (27 November – 4 December 2017), O’Boyle and co-caretaker Rachel Anderson’s impassioned resistance fights against their exhaustion. For eight days, over 50 women gathered in Pendle, Lancaster, to debate, eat, learn, laugh and challenge male violence together – an all too rare oasis of female solidarity. ‘I cried when women left,’ O’Boyle admits.
Shifting Loyalties is a place for women to share their personal survival stories, build resilience and confront the struggles women face worldwide. It recognises women’s bodies and lives as the personal sites where the global prevalence of a violent, unequal and deeply patriarchal world plays out, and offers a physical space for refuelling. Idle Women, which formed in 2015 in response to cuts to women’s services in the UK and the systemic erasure of women’s contributions to public life, maintains this commitment to all poles of the struggle. Their projects slip between the personal, the local and the global.
This year’s gathering was the second Shifting Loyalties. Devised in 2016 alongside Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004), it has already gained a place in the hearts of attendees. ‘I’m living for it,’ artist Jesse Jones, 2017’s Irish entry to the Venice Biennale, told the organisers after drawing inspiration from last year’s gathering. ‘It’s very rare for women to have space that’s women-only, and women cannot really prepare for what that will be for them,’ Anderson says, ‘it’s always incredibly strong and powerful and profound.’
The importance of female togetherness to Idle Women is clear. ‘There is a layer of armour around the male gaze [and] male interaction that you don’t need to have. To come into a women’s space and realise that you are taking off a layer of armour…’ Anderson trails off. Emerging from such an experience, going, as she puts it, ‘back to your own battle’ – it takes some time to adjust. The profundity of realising that that there is a way to be together that is based on mutual-empowerment and free from the pressures of a male-dominated world is at the core of Shifting Loyalties. The workshops and activities draw from this energy.
For the two of them, however, there is another layer to this. ‘You can be accessing something quite profound,’ O’Boyle says, ‘and then someone asks you where the honey is.’ Anderson and O’Boyle are fierce organisers, having this year completed a two-year project in which women artists were provided with residencies on a custom-made canal boat. From water, Idle Women now moves to bricks and mortar. In St Helens, they have been given a building by the council and are working with local tradeswomen to skill-up local women and transform it into a women’s centre. In Blackburn, where the Idle Women office is now based, they move into new premises with long term collaborators Humraaz Support Services. Their belief in the power of Mother Earth – ‘look what she’s doing to capitalism!’ O’Boyle declares, ‘She’s fighting back!’ – sees Anderson and O’Boyle preparing to announce a new land-based Idle Women project and fund-raising drive in 2018. With such a lot to plan, the two are not sure they have the capacity to organise Shifting Loyalties 2018. The attendees have plans to self-organise instead; testament, perhaps, to the DIY spirit the gathering fosters.
Despite their women-centred ethos, Anderson and O’Boyle are reluctant to call Idle Women ‘feminist’. ‘We are womanists,’ they offer instead. While both would personally consider themselves feminists, they fear the word is rife with divisions, and may drive away women in need of support. They focus, instead, on the individual women they meet. But, as Anderson commented, when it ‘feels like so much work is needed for one woman, how can we possibly meet the crisis – the global crisis?’. The question could be the refrain of the women’s movement worldwide.
All of Idle Women’s projects are closely bound to place – environmentally, politically and historically – and Shifting Loyalties is no different. Pendle capitalises on its brutal ties to the European witch hunts during the 15th to 18th centuries, with a local branding campaign emblazoning public spaces with cartoon witches. On this, Idle Women fight a constant struggle to educate and shift the narrative.
Informed by collaborator Federici, Idle Women offers an analysis of the witch hunts as the social genesis of capitalism. ‘The word gossip means ‘‘female friendship’’,’ Anderson explains, with O’Boyle adding that ‘the word ‘spell’ literally comes from ancient Norse and it means just to speak.’ Before the witch hunts swept across Europe women lived together, cooked together and gave birth together in the gossip. The witch hunts isolated women, and ‘they would torture her, until she confessed to being a witch and then denounced all the other women in her friendship group’, Anderson explains. The only way for women to survive was to retreat into the individual home, subservient to men. The break-up of female communities allowed the dominance of men to flourish, establishing the social structure and gender inequality on which capitalism and patriarchy feed.
The negative use of words like ‘gossip’ and ‘spell’, Anderson and O’Boyle argue, demonstrate that our culture and language is predicated on the demonization of women. The idea that there is danger in women being together and talking together, has very deep roots. Cartoon witches are a sinister homage to what Anderson calls ‘the beginning of patriarchal power’.
Beyond decoding cultural symbols, however, a deconstruction of ‘witch tourism’ must also confront the contemporary hunts that continue to slaughter women. Shifting Loyalties hosted Zoe Young, who showed her film What I Used to Know: The Road to Ghana’s Witch Camps (2011), which details this brutal reality facing Ghanaian women. The gathering is a space for awareness raising, and in another session Layla Hussein and Louise Robertson of the Dahlia Project and the Face of Defiance campaign detailed the fight against Female Genital Mutilation. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut (World Health Organisation), and the Dahlia Project works to support women who have undergone FGM. Educating and arming women with these figures is a way to harden the resolve, and to build a solidarity that is global and informed.
In the face of such overwhelming facts, Anderson celebrates that ‘there is still a voice of resistance raising and women are speaking out’. They find hope in coming together and sharing their stories. ‘We all sit around the fire cackling at our survivor stories’ Anderson says ‘and suddenly… we can laugh, and we can cheer.’ While among the many women they work with there are very few good news stories – the woman that gets rehoused, the woman that gets her leave to remain – when they come together around round the fire, O’Boyle reflects ‘we realise we are beginning, that there is hope’.
This year, as Shifting Loyalties drew to a close, women crept away at dawn. They didn’t want to face the goodbyes. They left refuelled, however, with promises of collaborations to come, with blossoming ideas, relationships, debates and projects. This is the goal of Idle Women: to provide women with spaces of resistance and togetherness. Their model of activism is inspiring, having found a way to respect the severity of women’s personal survival stories, while locating them in a global struggle against gendered violence. ‘Having an analysis; it’s empowering’ O’Boyle reflects, ‘but it’s also terrifying’. They are reclaiming the gossip. Pass it on.
Laura Harris is a PhD candidate based at Bluecoat, Liverpool. As well as contributing to arts websites in the North West, she is Liverpool editor of thestateofthearts.co.uk.