Female Empowerment

In early 2020 we had the pleasure of  Veneta Neale joining us to do some research with some of our clients. Veneta is studying for a Masters Degree at Brighton University, here is her story.

This project is called, Ink, which has been about the exploration of female empowerment in collaboration with Inkscape, a tattoo shop in Bexhill, East Sussex.

Personal events which occurred at the beginning of this year, have pushed me to re-assess my life and the way I believed it would develop in the future. I have had to think about what is important and how I can be pro-active in changing my circumstances to ensure I am the best version of myself, for myself and my children. Working through this process has enabled me to reflect on the fragments of myself that have broken away and I desperately want to claim them back. I want to re-emerge, not as somebody else, but a better version of myself. I wanted a reminder, a print on my skin to ensure I didn’t forget where I am going and how important this journey is and will continue to be. Six weeks into my self-healing, I lay back in a leather chair listening to the buzzing of the tattoo needle, whilst reminding myself why the pain will be worth it when it is all over.

For me to enable this research to work, I needed to reach out to women. I worried about small numbers, which stemmed from my own self-doubt, many women do not believe their stories are about female empowerment. Gilmore & Marshall argue that historically female literature has been set to devalue the words of women and that is, “Where doubt about women’s credibility and value lurks.” I reached out to women who had received tattoo’s at Inkscape by making a poster which included the following: I would like to hear your stories, however short they may be, however ordinary you think they may be (though I am sure they are not). My poster was displayed in the shop and on their Instagram and Facebook pages. The owner Lou also spread the word about my week stay to visitors and customers of the shop. The best thing for me was that Lou was very excited about my residency and spoke about my visit with enthusiasm. Leigh Gilmore & Elizabeth Marshall, Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing, (Fordham University Press: New York, 2019), pg. 39, [of colour and white women]

My arrival to the shop was filled with trepidation, I did not know how people would feel about me speaking to them whilst they were being tattooed or how much of their story, they would be happy to reveal. Inkscape enables a feeling of exclusivity. It is unlike any other tattoo studio I have entered. There are comfy chairs that are situated in the “waiting” area; yet feels like a trendy café. The music is varied to coincide with the mood of the owner and that is greatly influenced by the clientele. Customers are offered, tea, coffee or herbal tea and you immediately feel comfortable, even though you know what will proceed is going to hurt. I had no need to worry, each and every customer that came in were happy to meet me, sign my consent form and even happier to unburden their stories. Humphries states that, “Each individual, whatever their age and supposed ability, has interesting and important things to say and to share with others. The first step towards realising the potential of oral history is to recognise the value of this experience. Initially this means our own experience and experiences of those who live around us.” (Humphries, 1984) The time I spent at Inkscape was about listening to stories from different women in a unique setting, which induced comfort, like a knitting circle, we needed to be together we needed to share. Share a part of our pain, not because we need to be understood, but because some of the potency is lost in the act of sharing. Audre Lorde expresses that, “The good words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognise our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives…For we have been socialised to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” Whilst in residence I did not need to ask for stories, once we began to speak, they were offered to me. Humphries. Stephen, The Handbook of Oral History – Recording Life Stories, (Inter-Action Trust Limited: London, 1984), pg. 3 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Berkley: Crossing Press, 2007), pg.44

The genre of my work is specifically life writing. Not only do I enjoy the task of interviewing women to listen to their stories, enabling them to reveal glimpses of the people they have become. These interviews are important for the emancipation of the female literary trope. Gilmore & Marshall argue that, “Adult life writers like Kaysen, Grealy, and Gadsby, who address childhood trauma may immure trauma with narrative, suspending the process of grieving, rebuilding, and surviving by holding onto a story that was formed early in the aftermath of the traumatic event. Life writing by women […] speak to the chronic, everyday quality of oppression in women’s lives, but does so from within different histories and specific locations.” I was constantly aware that the women who spoke to me had been through some form of trauma and had chosen to use tattoos to aid their healing process. Because they had chosen a pro-active approach to healing, they may also be more willing to open up to me about their decisions and maybe the trauma that had lead them to Inkscape. Gilmore and Marshall state that, “The entangling of gender pessimism with race, girlhood, and trauma is part of the history of psychoanalysis and the study of gendered childhood. The history includes how Freud developed the talking cure through his work with adolescent female patients. Because the witness is integral to autobiographical accounts of trauma, illness, and pain, we want to contend here with the claim of the un-representability of pain in trauma theory, which relies on Freud, and also with persistence of this claim. Pain demands a witness. Yet trauma theory as it has developed from readings of Freud centres the genres of the interview, the case study, documentary film, myth, poetry, and the fable.” Leigh Gilmore & Elizabeth Marshall, Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing, (Fordham University Press: New York, 2019), pg. 39 Leigh Gilmore & Elizabeth Marshall, Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing, (Fordham University Press: New York, 2019), pg. 40

As I suspected before this process began, most of the women who shared their stories with me, did not believe they were stories of female empowerment. They also felt that their stories were not going to be of relevance to me, that their stories were less important than another. It was my job to ensure them, to point out to them how amazing and strong they were. The importance for me when working with others in the capacity of storyteller and for that period, listener. Is to provide them with a little piece of me, to develop trust and encourage them into understanding how valid their history is. Kester argues that, “Art projects are often centred on an exchange between an artist (who is viewed as creatively, intellectually, financially, and institutionally empowered) and a given subject who is defined a priori as in need of empowerment or access to creative/expressive skills. Thus the “community” in community-based public art often, although not always, refers to individuals as culturally, economically, or socially different from the artist.” It was important for me to break down these confined structures to enable each of the women who shared their history with me to feel like we were in this together. Because although they were aware of the outcome of my work, it was imperative to share views and information rather than make them a subject of necessity. This approach to the project would be harder to gather information and a creative output, as, “Processing data from unstructured interviews can be difficult and time-consuming because it involves bringing together similar statements from different participants and links are often difficult to make.[…] They have to listen actively and note any new or interesting data the participant provides. This requires them to be good communicators and to process good facilitation skills.” I had such a range of women who came to see me. I had two witches, who already felt the effects of female empowerment and come into the shop wholly to share their stories. I met two women who shared really difficult stories with me about living in a women’s refuge. Their strength and composure whilst relating their words, humbled me greatly. I met a woman who had miscarried twice and had come to the shop to symbolise her unborn children with butterflies on her wrist so they would always be part of her life. I met two women whose friendship had overcome so many obstacles that they wanted to get a joint tattoo. I met a woman who was symbolising her own strength with a sign of self-love to remind herself that she chose not to pump heroine into her veins anymore. I met a woman who was on her way to say goodbye to her beloved Grandad who had limited days left to live. And I met Margaret; whose strength blew me away. I will come back to Margaret. I held a piece of paper with questions, yet I never looked at it, because the process in which I work is more about validation and empathy than it is to do with ticking boxes. I am not holding interviews; I am taking part in conversations. Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, ((University of California Press Ltd: London, 2004), p.137 Doody, Owen, PhD, MSc,B.Sc, R.N.I.D., & Noonan, Maria, MSc, BSc, RT,R.M., R.G.N. (2013). Preparing and conducting interviews to collect data. Nurse Researcher (through 2013), 20(5), 28-32. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.brighton.ac.uk/docview/1443469489?accountid=9727, accessed 29/04/2020 [Researchers need to ask questions carefully, consider what to ask and how to phrase it appropriately, and know when to prompt participants and probe responses.]

I said I was going to come back to Margaret. It wasn’t easy to decide who’s story I would share today. Margaret isn’t her real name, but her story is real. Margaret is 75 years old and she came into the shop to get her first ever tattoo, in the hope it would help her grieving process. Margaret physically shook when we spoke, yet she said she needed to talk to me, needed to share her story. This is a from the beginning of Margaret’s story… It had been three years, eight months and four days since the pretty policewoman knocked at her door, pushing strands of mousy hair behind her ear as she spoke words that stabbed at her heart, shaking her knees and forearms. Margaret wished she had had a heart attack there and then, so she didn’t need to see her Michael’s body the next afternoon. This is from the end of Margaret’s story… Margaret was relieved when she saw Anna approaching the shop, she realized her hands had been shaking despite the warmth of the day. Margaret was greeted in the same manner as before, with a warm smile, a rub of the shoulder and a cup of tea. When the girl with the auburn hair rolled up the left leg of her slacks Margaret suddenly thought, ‘Wait till the girls at the bingo cop a load of this in the summer.’

Using the tattoo studio to conduct my conversations meant women were able to speak to me in a safe space, a space they had previously chosen with an understanding that they were able to be themselves. Inkscape provided a platform of female empowerment. Safe spaces are integral to the development and emancipation of women because it has been, “revealed that women’s socialisation, as well as their experiences of harassment and objectification, construct girlhood and womanhood as fearful states whereby most women are routinely vigilant, consciously or unconsciously.” By having a space which is inclusive to women creates comfort and belief in the words that are being spoken without any form of hierarchy. Most of the women I spoke to had been to male tattoo shops and felt either victimized or unable to “speak up”, which had led to tattoo’s they were unhappy with and an experience they did not wish to repeat. Sharp, Remnant and Redpath argue that, ”Despite differences of, for example, class, ethnicity, location and sexuality – share fear, risks and experiences of violence by men. The development of this paradox is no doubt partly a result of the critique that some feminist work essentialises gender. In response to such criticism, a discourse has emerged which guards against essentialising women’s fear and victimisation.” The diverse group of women I spoke to at Inkscape has elevated my passion for life writing. It has enhanced my need to create more stories which reveal the lives and histories of women. It is important to me that these stories are shared, in a hope that they elicit commonality amongst woman. I now understand Oakley when she states, “Where both interviewer and interviewee share membership of the same minority group, the basis for equality may impress itself even more urgently on the interviewer’s consciousness.” (Oakley, 1981) In books such as Mary Barton, where Gaskell has created a world where we are given insight into the voices and struggles of women, there is an understanding that creating a space for women is a platform for more women to share their truth’s and I want to continue where she has led. Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J., & Redpath, R. (2015). ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), 105–118. https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.3781 Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J., & Redpath, R. (2015). ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), 105–118. https://doi.org/10.5153/sro.3781 Tang, Ning. “Interviewer and Interviewee Relationships Between Women.” Sociology, vol. 36, no. 3, 2002, pp. 703–721. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42856436. Accessed 12 May 2020.