The Women’s Campaign and radical self-care: Escaping the ‘scary hairy hippies’?

Amelia Oakley 12 April 2015

The Women’s Campaign gets a lot of criticism that often overshadows the important work it does for women at this university. Whilst there are genuine critiques that can be launched at it, just like every other student liberation campaign, its reputation exceeds itself. I’m a fresher and was warned away from the ‘scary radical hairy hippies’ many a time but chose to attend forum anyway and… survived. There are a number of very interesting reasons for the general dislike of the campaign many of which are rooted in misogyny. Hm, a group of women demanding agency and autonomy without always being polite – I wonder who might have a problem with that?

The image of the campaign, whatever it may be, should not invalidate the vital work that it does. Recently, it established a radical self-care group on Facebook that, I think, exemplifies its ethos. The idea started as a discussion at forum, the campaign’s main decision-making space, about the difficulties of self-care in a society that not only polices women’s bodies and mental wellbeing but actively encourages self-deprecation and critique. The group is an online space for self-defining women and non-binary people from across the university to share experiences, tips and advice about living in a world of gendered oppression. It is here that the Women’s Campaign’s core principles are most evident – building solidarity networks, encouraging women and non-binary individuals to speak about issues that society shames us unto hiding, allowing us the space to post our experiences without fear that they may be undermined or invalidated. I encourage every woman and non-binary person who is not yet a member to join the group. It has a number of different purposes: from sharing angry feminist music playlists, to tips on how to deal with sexist microagressions, and advice on finding ways to be a little kinder to ourselves as people. Oh, and cats – there are lots of pictures of cats. 

Radical self-care is slowly becoming more and more central to my understanding of feminism and how I choose to practise it. It is about arming myself with the tools to survive in a world that was not built for me – a black woman – to succeed. Radical self-care is about self-preservation, forgiving yourself, being kind to your body, and generally giving yourself the permission to exist as a flawed and complex human being. Audre Lorde argued that radical self-care is an act of political warfare. Often when we think about activism, we envisage physical acts of protest. We don’t think about what an achievement it is to strive to be happy, healthy and fulfilled in a world of gendered oppression designed to make this virtually impossible.

For some who cannot access physical forms of protest, online self-care spaces are the their only connection to feminist campaigning, and what a valid and important connection it is. It is crucial that everybody takes care of themselves and protects their health and happiness fiercely, but this act of self-care becomes a lot more critical to survival when your personhood is constantly under attack by systematic oppression. 

Every time someone new posts something in the group along the lines of “Hey, this is my first post, hope this is okay but does anybody else … ” and the messages of love and solidarity pour through, I can't help but think this is what the Women’s Campaign is all about. Yes, it is unapologetic about women’s liberation but it also provides spaces for women and non-binary people to just be, without fear. Having a space like this (even if only online) in a place like Cambridge, where we are taught to internalise all of the pressure and emotions that come with it, provides a safe haven for many. A place to rant, show and receive virtual expressions of solidarity, to share ideas, laugh, cry and ultimately make us all feel a little less alone.

The radical self-care page also addresses some of the legitimate criticisms that have been levelled at the campaign: *all* women are encouraged to share their experiences in this space and slowly but surely, the women whose faces the student body unfortunately does not think of when they think of the Women’s Campaign – women of colour, disabled women, transgender women – are feeling more comfortable in the spaces that womcam provides. Each person brings advice and anecdotes from their own experiences and even if they cannot directly relate, there is always some outward show of empathy – from crafting to emojis to pictures of aforementioned cats. 

Every single woman, just by virtue of existing as a woman at Cambridge, is a member of the Women’s Campaign. Every woman has access to the committee’s decision-making processes through forum and so can change aspects of the campaign that they find troubling. If the barrage of commentary on social media wars over the last week has taught us anything, it is that students are always going to disagree, especially at a university where ‘rigorous academic debate’ is prized above all else. But let us not forget why the Women’s Campaign exists – to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that comes with being a woman in public spaces, to provide support and services to all women across the university during their time here.

Often those who aren’t engaged with the campaign have an image of it built by other people’s opinions instead of experiencing it for themselves. The self-care page is a perfect way for women and non-binary people to understand how crucial its work is. It combines the campaign’s unflinching commitment to women’s liberation with aggressive skills of empathy and the people in this group emerge stronger because of it; ready and wiling to destroy patriarchy one cat picture at a time.