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Why Embodied Feminist Spaces Matter. And Why We Need to Bring Them Back

image of a woman wrapped in thick ropes and with hands in red tape dancing for an audience
In the foreground,  Annapurna Malla is a community organizer, educator, musician, dance-theatre artist and performer of mixed Kashmiri and English ancestry. Feminist Art Conference, March 7, 2020—Photo by Brian Armstrong

Last week, while wrestling with a sense of feeling lost at sea, I picked a notebook from a shelf above my desk—at random—and began to absentmindedly flip through it. I stopped at a page where I had written down, in big bold letters, “How not to be a bitch to the system.” It, obviously caught my attention. But why did I write that? Where was I? Who said it?

I thumbed through the next few pages, looking for answers.

The next 15 or so pages were scribbled notes, ideas and quotes I had made while attending no less than five feminist events over the ten precious days before the pandemic lockdown, March 4 to March 14.
Wow. How times have changed. And so has the way I attend to my personal liberation and professional publishing work.

I suddenly felt nostalgic. But why? Now there are an infinite number and variety of online feminist events I can attend – anywhere, anytime – and all from home, at a much lower cost in dollars and time.

I came to a page marked 03/07/2020.  A Saturday.

I had showed up early that morning to take in and write about the Feminist Art Conference festival at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. This was my third time attending. There was a coffee stain on the page.  It triggered my memory which in a flash, reconstructed scenes from the day. I purchased a coffee from a feminist barista entrepreneur wearing a beret; she told me about her activist work while she poured. We exchanged cards. Once in the lecture hall, found an empty seat in the second row for the plenary. I rummaged in my bag for a pen and this notebook, and a few minutes later splattered some my still steaming coffee on the page as I bumped elbows with the person I sat next to.  Immersed in the scene, I noticed how the room was animated with people moving about in full bodied ways.  The  crowd’s mish mash of hats, scarves, gloves, coats, bags, everyone squished together, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder looked like a quilt of moving colour. You could tell by the clothing it was early spring.

Will we ever experience being together like this again?

At “gathering time,” the electrifying music muted as MC Justine Abigail Yu took the stage. I had read about her work as a diversity advocate and publisher of Living Hyphen, a magazine and community that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians. With a rally-cry voice, she looked out at the audience and said assertively, “Good morning! Are you ready to smash the patriarchy?”

A photo of three women who opened up the 2020 FAC conferece. One is holding an aboriginal drum.
FAC 2020 Opening Ceremony: Welcome and Land Acknowledgement with Knowledge Keeper Liz Osawamick, MC Justine Abigail Yu. performancer TIAYL

Affirmed by the “WOOT WOOTs, Yu asked. “Are you ready to decolonize? Are you ready to end capitalism?”

We shouted back “Yes,” louder with each sentence, signaling “We are fully present.”

The rally cry culminated in disorderly applause.  I remember how it felt, how subversive to shout such things in solidarity with a diverse crowd. These spaces inspire me: grassroots, feminist, places where we can safely talk about how to end capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy without having to explain or justify why we need to.  These spaces are sacred.  And far too few in number.

As the clapping died down, Yu said “I think this is probably the only place I can say that and get applause.”

I flipped the page.

More opening remarks. Grateful-to-have sponsor shout outs. A spiritual and thoughtful land acknowledgement. Then a “narrative healing” dance and spoken word performance. And facilitated discussions on subjects such as Afrofuturism, resistance, rematriation movements, inclusive feminism, what a decolonized economy might look like. With everyone invited to participate, you never knew what would happen or come out of it. Aha moments and learnings collectively generated—versus pipeline fed.

Someone quoted Tracee Ellis Ross, an American Black actress and activist, and I wrote it down:  “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be inspire me and not terrify me.”

During breaks, I took in the art show in the main hall and snapped a few pictures of the art in the hall. 

Pictured above is The Brown Paper Bag Test (2016-2018) by Ashley A. Jones, which speaks to the painful legacy of colourism among African-Americans. The “paper bag test” was used as a marker of privilege and beauty—if you were lighter than the paper bag, you passed the test. The text across the bags reads: “YOUR BEAUTY IS NOT DEFINED BY THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN.” Ashley was my studio mate when we completed the FAC Residency together in 2017.
Pictured above is The Brown Paper Bag Test (2016-2018) by Ashley A. Jones, which speaks to the painful legacy of colourism among African-Americans. The “paper bag test” was used as a marker of privilege and beauty—if you were lighter than the paper bag, you passed the test. The text across the bags reads: “YOUR BEAUTY IS NOT DEFINED BY THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN.” Ashley was my studio mate when we completed the FAC Residency together in 2017.

Later that afternoon, I Lyft-ed over to a solidarity concert held at the Paradise Theatre in support of the Wet’suwe’ten land rights standoff (remember that?).  I heard a line up of amazing emerging female musicians including Stones, Lavender Bruisers, Mimi O’Bonsawin, Caroline Brooks (Good Lovelies), Skye Wallace, Tange and Moscow Apartment. I loved one song by the band Tange so much, I listened to it ten times when I got home and licensed it  to accompany our International Women’s Day slide show.


A Snippet of a performance by TANGE at Toronto’s 2020 International Women’s Day fundraising concert for the Wet’suwet’en Legal Fund and Climate Justice Toronto. at the Paradise Theatre.

LiisBeth Media’s IWD 2020 Roundup of Events Attended-Live. 

I must have been swept away by the concert. Because I made no notes. Not even musical ones.

I turned the page.

More scribblings and quotes, this time from a fundraiser for The Redwood (A women’s shelter) few days later. They screened “The Feminist in Cell Block Y”, an incredible documentary about a convicted felon who taught feminist literature to fellow inmates in an all-male prison in Soledad, California. I wrote down my impressions of seeing the men read, out loud, passages from bell hooks’ books. I copied notes from the facilitator’s flip chart in the film —  how patriarchy incites violence, rape culture, crime and anger because it’s the only way most men can live up to and rail against patriarchal ideals of masculinity.

Image of panel discussion following a screen of "The Feminist on Cellblock Y". Moderated by Jeff Perera (White Ribbon Campaign), Brandon Hay (Founder of the Black Daddies Club (BDC), Abi Ajibolade – Executive Director The Redwood), Emma Lacey-Bordeaux (Producer of The Feminist on Cellblock Y), Julian Diego – Program coordinator at SKETCH
Panel Discussion following a screen of "The Feminist on Cellblock Y". Moderated by Jeff Perera (White Ribbon Campaign), Brandon Hay (Founder of the Black Daddies Club (BDC), Abi Ajibolade (Executive Director The Redwood), Emma Lacey-Bordeaux (Producer of The Feminist on Cellblock Y), and Julian Diego (Program coordinator at SKETCH)

After the screening, a panel of filmmaker and grassroots activists gathered on stage to share their impressions of the film with the 200+ plus who attended.

I recalled sharing a link to the film afterward on social media. And going for food and drinks with my partner to talk about our experience.

I could have spent hours flipping through this notebook.

Instead, I spent time thinking about how these gatherings compare to their ZOOM replicant.

Why can I remember so much about in-person gatherings whereas with online gatherings and events, I  struggle to remember anything at all?  Who was there? What season –or even day was it?  Can technology mediated spaces even can create memories or lasting impact?

Over the summer, I engaged in oodles of online events. Gatherings of five to 500. Breakout rooms. Whiteboards. Cool speakers. Yet, when I try to recall them, it’s like they never happened. Ideas and conversations , unanchored, rise and evaporate in minutes. How can I retrieve and build on what I took with me without the aid of sensory clues? Stains on my notebook caused by a seatmate’s wandering elbow?

I realized I not only desperately miss these feminist and embodied gatherings; They served as essential wayfinding experiences for someone on a transformational journey.

To do their magic, they actually require all this: Subversive, stark gathering spaces with uncomfortable seats. Being in full-bodied community with people. Craft tables selling feminist art. Zines. Screen-printed patches and pins for sale. Challenging large scale art works to be experienced, not just viewed (at one event, a large pink-and-red vagina made of silk veils and pillows that you could walk through; at another, a re-interpreted Judy Chicago table setting which you could touch). Hand-illustrated name tags with pronouns. Music by emerging female, trans or queer talent who don’t get enough stage time in mainstream venues. The extraordinary care paid to creating accessible, safe spaces where we could have brave, vulnerable conversations with strangers. Seminars and performances coming alive with diverse, fierce, feminist grassroots educators, questioners, creators, writers and entrepreneurs aged 16-93.

In these spaces, even on days when it feels as though there is a hole at the bottom of my cup, I could always count on an upcoming opportunity to refill it from a flowing fountain of rebellion, reflexive learning, camaraderie and inspiration.
Ultimately, it this deep respect for the incredible work of revolutionary feminists creating such spaces that inspires the work we do at LiisBeth Media and, more recently, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.

Much has been written about how the pandemic has surfaced and re-confirmed the nature and depth of the mess we have made of the world we live in.

It has also, I hope, irrevocably, lifted our understanding of what it means to be human and tightly fastened the insight that that only humans—not technology—can truly, meaningfully transform the world we live in.
Sadly, we won’t be able to be together like ways I described again for a long time.  Realizing this makes me sad—and question my own stamina to do this work in the absence of these vital re-fuelling stations.

But giving up is not a really a choice.   

And surely, feminist gatherings and events will comeback soon.

Opening up to the last page of this notebook, I hastily over-wrote;  If mushrooms and wild flowers can grow strong in mud, shit and decay, then so can I.  Underline.

Publisher’s note: If you are looking for meaningful feminist conversations online, consider The Feminist Enterprise Commons (operated by LiisBeth Media, Canadian based),  The Continuum Collective (U.S. based, founded by Jillian Foster) and PowerBitches Gather (U.S. Based, founded by Rachel Hills).

Related Reading

Ilene Sova: A Woman of Action

“As someone who disagrees with how the system works today, and as a feminist activist, I wake up each day asking myself what will I actually do to change it?”-Ilene Sova, Founder of FAC

Read More »
Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here

LiisBeth is all womxn-owned/led.  works to promote entrepreneurs, creatives and innovators in the feminist economy. If you appreciate our work, please consider becoming a donor subscriber. [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]




This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.

Related Articles

Sample Newsletter

Dispatch #21


Ilene Sova, Superwoman, 2013



Why start a business in an industry in crisis (publishing, media, journalism), targeting a demographic (feminist entrepreneurs and business owners) that adds up to a hyper-niche space, and that few, if any advertisers care about (their enterprises tend to be small; read: they have no money).

Because, as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

Creating Cracks 

I recently picked up the book Making Feminist Media by Elizabeth Groeneveld (2016) at the library. The book is about Groeneveld’s insight into feminist media after studying five significant “third wave” feminist publications (Bitch 1996-present, Bust (1993-present), HUES (1992-1999), ROCKRGRL from 1995-2006, Venus Zine (1994-2010), Canada’s Shameless (2004-present), and the only online publication studied Rookie (2010-present).

While their feminisms diverge, what they all have in common is that they aimed to cleave cracks in the steely grey morass we call the system to advance an agenda of social, political, and economic gender equity and equality. Despite the operating challenges and hate mail they received (a phenomenon even before the age of internet trolls), they still triumphantly created vibrant and life-changing media spaces where women and girls could have authentic conversations that matter to them.

Groeneveld notes that these magazines demonstrate, by the nature and stories of their very existence, “what the capitalist market can and cannot sustain.” Their history also shows us why it is so important that healthy societies ensure alternative narratives are heard: These stories become the fodder for the coffeehouse or kitchen table debates that sometimes later lead to the founding of new movements, inventions, businesses or community initiatives that better our world. These magazines didn’t just retread safe consumer narratives—they inspired new ones that catalyzed social change.

If They are so Important, Why is Feminist Media so Hard to Fund?

Feminist media in North America has been around since the early 1700s. A study by Kathleen Endres and Therese Lueck, referenced in Groenveld’s book, which catalogued 76 feminist publications, notes that over one-third of them were defunct after 10 years. Most hung by a financial thread (even in the ‘good old days’ of periodical publishing). If they play such an important role in the lives of women, and our collective path to gender equity, we have to ask why they are so unsustainable.

For starters, enterprises of all sorts generally do better when they address huge markets with big consumer-minded audiences, and in comparison, the number of people who engage with feminist media is low. The fact that the community is also fractured exacerbates the addressable market size problem. There is no one feminism.  While many have a base of loyal paying subscribers, there never seems to be enough of them to make the reader-supported model work on its own. Also, many feminists have (with good reason) been historically suspicious of corporate funding, if not outright anti-capitalist and anti-consumer in their worldviews, and this has not helped the bottom line. Magazines who started to become too commercial in an effort to survive were sometimes punished by their own readers (read: unsubscribed).

However, this appears to be changing. Feminist entrepreneurs, in particular, generally agree that the new imperative is not to ignore capitalist economics, or capitalism as mass culture, but to invent a feminist interpretation of what capitalism could be like if guided by different values. For “how to” inspiration, many look to the social innovation and evolving social enterprise space. New organizational models (e.g.non-hierarchical network organizations or collective impact organizations) and transformative funding models (e.g. community bonds, impact investors, crowdsourcing) are part of today’s feminist changemakers toolkit.

While market realities still befall many, the few recent success stories referenced in the book demonstrate that it is possible to craft an acceptable collage of compromise between sustaining an independent medium for feminist audiences and running a financially viable enterprise that can pay editors, illustrators and writers at the very least, a living wage.

This is good news for the future of feminist media and anyone interested in advancing gender equality and equity. The reality is that new worlds start with new stories.  We need feminist media and storytellers. In fact, it would seem, given recent world events and troubling trends, that we need these outlets and voices more than ever before.

“…reading feminist magazines is much more than the consumption of information or entertainment; it is a profoundly intimate and political activity that shapes how readers understand themselves and each other as feminist thinkers.”–Elizabeth Groeneveld

As a feminist business magazine, LiisBeth is also engaged in navigating this tricky feminist media enterprise design, operating and funding terrain. And as a result we too are working to craft our own unique pastiche of sustainability. For example, rather than accept the either/or options of becoming a nonprofit or for profit, we customized our articles to reflect a for-profit/non-profit hybrid. We chose to further our commitment to social purpose by becoming a certified  B Corp. And like others in the feminist media sisterhood, we also look to leverage new funding sources (e.g. crowdsourcing) along with innovative and aligned sponsorships, swaps (SwapcityB2B, Bunz) and partnerships to build and sustain what we started.

For now, with just over 600 subscribers, we are not yet a bonafide crack—just a chisel mark. But with your continued support, we can indeed become one of the many cracks that lets the light in.

(To subscribe to LiisBeth today, click here)

Other feminist media to consider this holiday season:

Home  (Now defunct, but amazing archive online)

LiisBeth Field Notes

We think this video featuring Marlon James (author of the 2015 Man-Booker-prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings) is one worth watching—and showing your kids. In this video, he talks about the difference between being a non-racist and an anti-racist. Being a non-racist facilitates inaction—perhaps you don’t discriminate, but you also don’t actively work to stop discrimination. He makes a strong case. Simply standing on the sidelines by being non-racist is not enough.

To go a level deeper on understanding the distinctions regarding where one is on a spectrum of non-racist to anti-racist advocacy is also well illustrated in this chart prepared by Rina Campbell of Campbell Consulting in Chicago. In Campbell’s chart, she looks at the difference between a passive non-racist, active non-racist, ally behavior, and anti-racist advocacy, at the individual, community, educational and systemic levels.

After reviewing Campbell’s chart, think about where to you fit in. And then think about how this spectrum framework would apply to your relationship with feminism. We think the same logic can also be applied to other forms of discrimination like gender inequity. Are you sexist? Non-sexist? Or anti-sexist?

Gifts That Keep On Giving: Introducing the B-CORP Gift Guide

Okay, if you are going to buy gifts this holiday season, here is an opportunity to spend your shopping dollars in ways that matter. You can get to the Canadian B Corps online gift guide here. B Corps are businesses committed to positive social and environmental impact. And guess what?! We’re in there!

Other Cool Links to Nifty Gifts:

1. LiisBeth Bookshelf—recommended reads by LiisBeth (when you order via our website, you help us out too!)

2.  Mashable’s feminist gift guide

Can’t Miss Events

LiisBeth attended the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) last year and became a fan of this hidden gem of an event. This year it will be from Jan. 10 to Jan. 21, 2017. They usually sell out, so hurry and register here.

The Feminist Art Conference of Toronto is a volunteer-based organization that brings together artists, academics, and activists to consider feminist issues through art.

LiisBeth is hosting one of the community panels at the FAC on Saturday, Jan. 21, entitled Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. Panelists include Jack Jackson (All Jacked Up), Renishaki Kamal (Fidget Toys), Emily Rose Antflick (Shecosystem) and more!

And for Your Calendar in 2017, Don’t Forget to Mark:

  • Canadian Women’s March to Washington, Jan. 21.  This event has been organized to support women’s issues in the USA and has now become a Global Movement.A small group of dedicated volunteers are leading the Canadian Initiative and will support these efforts across Canada including a Delegation to Washington, DC. Want to join in? Register here!
  • Forum for Women Entrepreneurs Pitch for the Purse event, Feb. 20, Vancouver, B.C.
  • International Women’s Day March, March 8, 2017
  • Ontario Pay Equity Day, April 19, 2017
  • Digifest is a three-day conference located on Toronto’s waterfront that focuses on the future of education, creativity, entrepreneurship, gaming, and technology; organized by George Brown College. It also features a pitch competition. April 27-29, 2017

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