Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Gendering – Be Safe, Take Care: On the Matters of a (Feminist) Pandemic

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Ellie Walton, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK

Tentative fingers tease dough from the sides of my mother’s old ceramic bowl,
nurturing.
Familiarity fostered through tactile connections with active yeast and milled flour, refined.
– We’ll be fine. I am her and she is me.
There’s a reason they call it the mother dough, I am raised, and she gives rise.

I’m sitting at my mother’s kitchen table. I’ve been here all day. My mother and I sit across from each other, co-working gently (mostly). Discussion ebbs and flows. We talk about my work, we talk about the pandemic, we talk about community networks and governmental response, we talk about collectivism and mutual aid. I whittle a spoon, gently carving away at the wood – too deeply in some places. I cut my hands where my grip is loose and when my wrist starts to ache I pass the spoon across the table to my mother – she takes it from me, and we share the process in all its glory, in its strain and in its charm.

This spoon whittling endeavour is apt. We spent the afternoon talking of imperfection and process and mistakes and chaos and patience, and the spoon comes to be a site where all of this is made material. Thinking of spoons returns us to something a friend wrote when I asked her about the ways cooking and eating serves as a mode of caring queerly for those she loves. Her care simmers away, bubbles up, spills out, overflowing in all the right ways: “cooking for her is infusing nourishment with my love by osmosis, each stir of the pot equivalent to a thousand soft and gentle brushes of my fingertips against her cheeks”. The wooden spoon and the pot on the stove become kinship objects, emboldening relationality and bodily mergings, nurturing: deliberate, tentative and tender care.

I spent yesterday evening batch cooking lentil soup and coconut curry in my mother’s kitchen. The wooden spoon and the pot on the stove become kinship objects once again. Each clove of garlic crushed with a knife lies strewn atop the chopping board – spilling out, overflowing. If the meals I make could speak, they might say: “I want you to be well. Be safe. Take care”.

Onion skins litter the floor and seeds from red bell peppers are scattered across the worktop, slick and juicy still – residue from their residence within the pepper-as-a-whole. I look around and I think how this must be what it is like to take up space freely and unapologetically, to be haphazard and chaotic, and to allow yourself to be so without rigidity or self-policing, throwing caution to the wind. The aroma of onions lingers on my hands for hours, stubborn in spite of soap and water – evidence of material care is temporally transgressive, resistant to erasure.

My mother is a 52-year-old woman, living with various mental health conditions and long-term disabilities. She resides within the confines of ‘high risk’ in the face of this pandemic, and she has spent the past three days in a hospital ward. Her return home of course invites flurries of get-well-soon’s and how-are-you’s, but when questioned she asserts with resilience and grace, “I had the best time, and I made so many friends, and I know that I made lives brighter whilst I was there”. And she means it.

As we sit discussing panic buying and pandemic-induced-individualism, she recalls a conversation shared with three other women within the confines of a hospital lift: bread, its tactility and sensuousness, hands in dough as cultivating, coaxing a yeast reaction, an encouragement to rise, providing material sustenance to loved ones in carbohydrate form. Each woman, in turn, shares advice and knowledge – I make my bread like this, have you tried it? Oh, I’ve never used that kind of flour before! Next time I make my bread I will use your method, and I will eat it and savour it and a part of you will reside within me. Names go unexchanged but lives become married indeterminately and fortuitously within this transitory space: a nurturing encounter, a generous encounter, like a potluck lunch of heritage and history to bring and to share. And so it is made evident, by an incidental conversation occurring within a lift of all places, that possibilities are emergent, reimagining our encounters with others in this trying time – and there always have been, though we are not always so ready to recognise them.

“The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practise of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honour it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an independent sociality, a politics of care.” – Johanna Hedva [1]

A conversation I shared on Monday urged a consideration of this pandemic as a feminist pandemic, and no doubt this has been or will be considered at length, by those who are all too aware that it is women who will disproportionately suffer with the affliction that ensues. It is true that it is women who will disproportionately suffer as incidents of domestic violence rise in line with calls for self-isolation. It is disproportionately queer and trans women who are likely to be confined to or self-isolating within risky home environments. It is disproportionately Black women who are denied vulnerability and fragility, and who are likely to have their pain devalued and undermined. It is disproportionately disabled women who suffer in the face of ableism and medical and governmental callousness. It is disproportionately poor women who are affected by a welfare state without sufficient provision, and by narratives of fecklessness when workplace closures mean unemployment and benefits. And of course, it is disproportionately women and women aligned individuals who are faced with the ‘burden’ of care, both general and newly / contextually emergent.

But this framing of care (care as burden) is deeply inadequate, and it is dangerous too – I am always reluctant to conceive of care as an inherently oppressive set of practices. The hauntings of liberal feminist scholarship on care as trivial and relentless stick to us, marking us, a chip on the shoulder. But the need for us to stand shoulder to shoulder in spite of this chip is greater now more than ever. A conceptualisation of care as facilitating nothing more than the subjugation of women is naive, blind to the powers of care as a force of resilience, as transgressive and transformative, as a burst of light. The community responses of mutual aid and the broadening networks of support and solidarity that have emerged out of our current global crisis are a source of hope, emblematic of a (Black) feminist and queer ethics of caring. Our response of mutual aid to the pandemic and to the inadequacy of global government strategy is a clear invocation of the fact that we need to take feminist, queer, crip care seriously. This is not a new endeavour, and Black women’s experience-based-theorising has long been articulating the transformative possibilities of caregiving. Black women transformed intimacy, reproduction and domesticity into sites of political resistance [2], in spite of (or perhaps in response to) the persistent positioning of care as a devalued doing, as taken for granted or rendered invisible [3].

If we can recognise the value in these affirmations of love and support and nurture in the context of the pandemic (as Black, brown, queer, poor, and disabled women have been doing for generations), then there is hope that our framings of care may be rethought, queered in entirety. Relations of care and intimacy that do not easily align with the logic of relational normativity have been marked as deviant or impossible others [4], but it is upon the otherness of these queer trajectories of care that we are now reliant to make our survival possible.

This crisis makes it brutally clear: our systems of living and being and engaging with the world are unsustainable. These systems work against so many of us, and so many of us were never meant to survive [5]. In the words of Sara Ahmed, in queer, feminist and anti-racist work, care is about “the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the everyday experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves, looking after each other” [6]. Community care, radical kinship, tenderness and generosity are not only weapons to be deployed against systems that rely upon our shattering, but equally, serve as means of reassembly. Most frequently these networks of care arise out of circumstances of calamity, but I hope with all my heart that they remain resilient even in times of calm.

Scatter your onion skins freely, tend to your loaves. Cook for one another, whittle spoons, and use them to stir up your love. Be angry, and scared and vulnerable and open. Be safe, be generous, and be kind.

References
[1] Hedva, J. (2016). Sick Woman Theory. Mask Magazine, The Not Again Issue.
[2] Kessler, L. (2005). Transgressive Caregiving. Florida State University Law Review, 33(1).
[3] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
[4] Hansel, N., 2011. Rethinking Relations: Queer Intimacies and Practices Of Care. [Bachelor of Arts dissertation]. Wesleyan University.
[5] Lorde, A. (1997). ‘A Litany for Survival’, in: The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York, NY: Norton, pp. 255-256.
[6] Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

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