She Thought She Knew Feminism Until She Worked In A Women’s Prison


Thought you knew about feminism, well this woman did too, she had the words “FEMINIST” scrawled across her homework diary aged 15, with some anti-war stickers with cupcakes…

She graduated from the “girl power” of her primary school years, all the way to reading Germaine Greer on a beanbag in the college library

She really did feel sorry for the girls in the sixth form that were getting Brazilians, not like this enlightened girl who had already worked out that waxing was a tool of patriarchal oppression.

Studying feminist theory, she was always at feminist gatherings and took in all the feminist podcasts too. She had many an evening of sitting cross-legged at one of these “collectives” organized by other middle-class types, university-educated women.

By the time she graduated from university, she had amassed a huge collection of all the correct ideas and words that were essential to be a “proper feminist”, but was not the person to ask to a dinner party!

She graduated and started working at a women’s prison, a high-security one at that, thinking on the whole that women in prisons are always in need of a little female empowerment, doesn’t it stand to reason?

She soon learned that her feminist education had a massive wad of information missing, that is the part where it connected to actual women being quite fundamentally oppressed because of their gender…

Face to Face with a woman whose cervix had been crammed with four egg-shaped, and sized bungs of crack cocaine, from a dominating, wouldn’t take no for an answer boyfriend, reaping the profits to himself, of course, she discovered it was quite hard to now see how she was going to empower them…

Some had been selling themselves from pavements, and many others had been professional shoplifters, known as “grafting”. That is pocketing anything from fillet minion to lipstick, all to be resold house to house.

Leading up to the Christmas period, lists are collected of what people want, from the local establishments, stolen to request, sold cheap and fast for cash. It’s the women who go out grafting and taking the risks too.

In sessions with the women, they are asked to take magazine cuttings and create a map of their paths they took in lives and how they got to where they are now, and where they would like to end up, the results followed a theme.

Nearly every road began with bottles of vodka, syringes, and dubious characters, and ended with symmetrical houses and white wedding dresses and Laura Ashley sofas.

She introduced into the magazines her partner’s railway-modelling magazines and glossy Sunday supplements in the hope of inspiring something different, maybe a new job, or an interesting hobby, some travel even…

But NO !

She asked:

“What else would you be doing in the future?”

And suggested:

“You’ve been writing some beautiful poetry about your experiences …I could help you get them published as part of a campaign for prison reform.”

After a while she realized that ambition and independence are a good deal further up the hierarchy of need than security, and it’s pretty realistic to assume that the quickest way to ward off a coercive and abusive man is to find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way.

She changed her ideas on many things and became more understanding of the issues that pulled the women into the cycles of behaviour that kept them trapped to repeat past mistakes.

She very quickly worked out that her idealism had made her treat feminism like a club rather than a journey. Her self-congratulatory, cross-legged feminism was not flexible enough to accommodate the volume of women’s conflicting experiences, thoughts and feelings in the prison, life is shades of grey and not just black and white!

Some women want to start a business, and others would like the safety and security provided by giving control to a trustworthy man and that’s just the way it is.

Some women that sell themselves want unions, others want an escape route to get out and stay out, so for feminism to be even the least bit useful, it has to be uncomfortable.

It also must include people whom it would be easier to leave out, of course, women who say they’re not feminists and who need a man to save them.

She finally concluded that working in prison messed up her ideas of what feminism should be.

“I went into prison thinking that I would be able to use feminism to help empower women, and to reform a system. Instead I met women who taught me about feminism, and saw myself change instead.”

But life is complex and difficult, we all have to be openminded and learn to evolve, do you agree?