Feminist Oasis was started as an experimental and exploratory business, and continues to be a evolving and fluid entity. So when people ask me, as the founder of this business (I often still call it a “project” because it is still so experimental, but it is, in fact, a business), how it came to be, I imagine that they often expect a founder’s story that involves market research, business plans, messaging studies, a rolled-out launch, etc. The actual brith of this business was sparked by finally setting aside the need for finalizing these “reasonable” steps, embracing the experimental possibilities contained in the core vision and then taking the leap and just launching it. I wanted to come up with the answers that are needed to grow into a future home (answers that concrete business plans, etc., help determine) by exploring the questions together, as a community.
The conception — ideas formulating
Starting in early January 2017, I began to formulate ideas around creating a physical gathering space for women. This space would enable organizers to come together and work on community issues, create art, talk about big ideas and do so in an environment that was a haven from the corporate patriarchal atmosphere that was so pervasive in traditional spaces in our mainstream culture. It would be a space where we could host all the events and programming ideas that I and others talked about. I had lots of ideas of fun workshops, media discussions, consciousness-raising discussions and opportunities to just be with other like-minded badass women. This idea vacillated between a more work-centric or co-working space to a more casual and radical collaboration space for artists and organizers. In addition to vacillating between the types of work being done in the space, I also kept vacillating on location — should it be in a more obvious place like Portsmouth, already known as a hub of creativity, or further into the suburbs in a place more accessible for folks who had already been pushed out of these more expensive downtown hubs? What about finding an urban downtown that could really benefit from this type of innovative revitalization? What about finding a farm about to be retired for lack of interest in a next generation of farmers, and build this space around sustainable food, therefore integrating even more life needs into the offerings of this space?
I also had had my own experience the previous year of quitting my job (a very scary leap at the time) and then losing a job due to an electoral disaster (aka the 2016 election) — and after both of those experiences, was surprised to find how quickly I was able to create an economically stable life for myself, based on my own deeply-held values. I saw so many other people, particularly brilliant and qualified women, who were working to make others wealthy but who wished they could do what they really wanted to do — work that they really believed in. My ulterior motive for a work-centric space was to pool together resources that would make it much easier to overcome the true barriers that many women, specifically women who have children or limited economic capital, face when taking a leap of turning a side hustle or passion project into an economically viable business.
Another major consideration that I was going back and forth on was the issue of whether this space would be unapologetically for women (as were many exciting new places popping up around the country, like Women’s Center for Creative Work, The Wing, The Coven, New Women Space, etc.), or be open to anyone who felt aligned with the community values (more in line with a post-patriarchal society — but were we really there yet?). The more obvious the oppression of women and marginalized communities became in the daily news throughout 2017, the more necessary a haven from white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy felt. No matter where on this particular gender-inclusive spectrum the eventual space would be, I knew that it would be inclusive to all women-identifying people, including trans women and gender non-conforming or nonbinary folks, so I started gravitating towards the spelling of “womxn” that was the most inclusive (recognizing the history of transphobia that “womyn” carried with it). More on our inclusive language here.
Throughout 2017, I had meetings with a good amount of community leaders, consulted with the NH Women’s Business Center, approached a local developer with the idea and had meetings with several friends across sectors like architecture, business, art, community building, etc., eager to get a plan together and start raising money to build this utopia. I wrote a mini-plan of the space, outlining what it would look like, how the community would operate and share costs, how resources like transportation, childcare and healthcare could be pooled to make them more accessible for everybody. I envisioned a public-private partnership with a town; coop-like revenue models split with the community members and municipality. I started wondering if people were going to actually live there, too — it made sense in some ways, but felt too big in other ways.
I also thought about the flip side of having an actual physical space — what if it remained entirely organized events/pop-up experiences? We could take over spaces for periods of time, an evening or a few weeks, during times when spaces were not being used or had space that we could use for our purposes that complimented the space’s primary use. My campaign organizer/community organizer brain tingled at the thought of this — could I put to use my network of collaborators, and find a lower-overhead way to access the physical spaces and the focus would remain in the programming itself? Would this make workshops and events easier to offer? Or would the organizing energy of frequently moving outweigh the cost savings?
That thing began to happen that happens to so many big ideas — I became overwhelmed with the enormity of it, and caught up in the “analysis paralysis” that happens when you’re stuck in a cycle of questions that you can’t make up your mind about. Location, name, community segments, financial models, physical space versus pop-up experiences and how broad the mission and audience was. The more people I talked to about the idea, the more enthusiasm grew — but so did the complexity of the idea. Everybody had additional considerations to add, new ways that this could succeed for more people. It was great to see the energy growing, but I was losing sight of my original vision and mission.
By the end of 2017, I had taken the idea underground for a bit, deciding that I was going to stop talking about it until I’d figured out and nailed down at least some of the big questions.
Okay, let’s go for it.
On November 21, 2017, I had a routine a hair cut with my longtime stylist and friend, Jessica Todd. We chatted as usual about our upcoming projects, and she asked me what big thing I was up to next. I hesitated at first, thinking, I’m still not ready to share my big idea… but then I decided to just go for it and tell her. I gave her a really high-level view of the idea for the space, what people might do there, and how it would be a place to host all the events and programming ideas that I had.
“What kinds of events would you even do?” she asked. Oh, that was the easy part, I thought. I started by telling her several of the ideas that I’d had. “First, I want to have a women-only screening of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, followed by a discussion with maybe some women’s studies professors, on the feminist theory in that film. Also, I want to have an intergenerational feminist discussion, where people have to bring someone 15 years older or younger than themselves so we can talk about the feminist movement informed by past, present and future perspectives…” I went on and mentioned a few other ideas, like a pop-up coworking series, and Jess was on board right away.
Not only did she remind me of how exciting these ideas were (I’d lost the excitement because I’d been thinking about them for so long), she also offered up her own space to host a first event or two. I told her that an additional hesitation I had that was keeping me from just starting pop-up events was that I didn’t have a name yet, or any branding done. In order to make pop-up events memorable and harness those multiple experiences together into equity under one brand name, you really have to have a name, right? I knew that was a silly thing to get caught up on, but it seemed like a crucial piece.
The very next day after that hair cut conversation, having been re-energized by seeing and hearing enthusiasm from another person about these ideas, I had the name: Feminist Oasis. I had been brainstorming and trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to convey with the name. The word oasis came, and I immediately Googled Feminist Oasis. I was shocked to discover that the .com URL and major social media handles for “feministoasis” were available. From my time in marketing and naming products and businesses, I knew that for two easily-spelled and relatively short words, this almost never happens. It seemed perfect — not, perhaps, for a future permanent home, but certainly for this pop-up entity. It said exactly what I was going for — an oasis from white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Cut, print, I was going for it.
The signature color
So as to not get caught up in a branding analysis paralysis of a logo and typeset wordmark, etc., I thought the easiest way to make an immediate visual impact as a pop-up entity was to have a unique signature color. When taking over a new pop-up space, using that color would easily transform the space from its usual look, and people could start to to recognize a Feminist Oasis event. I knew I wanted to ask questions and gather feedback and input at every event, so I knew that interactive Post-It walls would be present at most of the events, too, adding more opportunity for that color. I decided on a vibrant green, just a bit dialed back from a more garish lime. Green said “abundance” and an abundance mentality goes directly against the scarcity complex that our unhealthy power structures are built upon. Growth, nature, abundance, life, renewal — all associated with green.
Feminist Oasis, LLC
On January 3, 2018, I filed official paperwork through the State of New Hampshire for Feminist Oasis, LLC. It came with a “Certificate of Formation” — a clear sign, I thought, that Bey was watching over us.
Why a business? Why not a nonprofit, a 501(c)3 or 501(c)4?
Feminist Oasis is providing a service (space or experience) that we believe has recognizable, tangible value. It gives participants, subscribers and members the opportunity to support values-aligned entities in their community doing the important work to organize the experiences, provide the space, bring expertise to panels, provide professional services and share valuable knowledge.
While there are pros and cons to all legal structures of business, activist, government, NGO and nonprofit work, a typical 501(c)3 structure felt like one of the least flexible structures for what I wanted to explore. Nevertheless, I was met with surprise many times at not being a nonprofit. Part of this assumption may be fueled by the perception of work that is typically considered “women’s work” being often undervalued and therefore underpaid or not paid at all. Supporting women seems like a worthy mission, making it a natural fit for a charity, and depending on what the entity does and how it wants to operate, a nonprofit model might be the right fit — but it didn’t fit the vision or goals I had for Feminist Oasis. Additionally, I was not interested in giving up my political voice. A 501(c)3 would provide charitable tax benefits, but would also come with strings such as not being able to have a public political voice. A 501(c)4 would provide political speech freedom, but to my understanding is really a structure set up for organizations for whom political lobbying is their primary goal — not a fit for us. While the work we do is absolutely a community benefit, it may align us more closely with a B Corporation or social enterprise than a charity. Those third-party designations or certifications for “for profit” business entities are ones that we may well consider in the future, once we are past exploratory phase.
But I am also very interested in exploring entirely new ways of living and doing business in the world that were as far outside of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy as possible. This may result in us inhabiting a space that does not currently have a recognized designation in our current business and nonprofit spectrum.
Inspired in a large way by several courses I took through Sister’s Feminist Business School, I am interested in playing with ideas outside of current social and economic orders. Capitalism is the system in which we operate in the US, and it’s not currently legally possible to completely extricate onesself from it. But to recognize the white supremacist roots in American capitalism, and how patriarchy is inextricably linked to both of those power structures, is to question how we can shift out of these unhealthy power structures. It should be no surprise that the current entities who are given the most freedom for exploration in our culture are “for-profit” businesses. While Feminist Oasis does not exist with profit as its primary goal, it is an entity that seeks to rethink the inevitability of unhealthy power structures that are the foundation of our culture.
That’s a pretty lofty goal, but I can see no more worthy endeavor for a socially-engaged feminist. Hello, Feminist Oasis, LLC.
The Lemonade launch — our first event
I started planning our first event — that Lemonade screening — for January 20, 2017. The “I” quickly became a “we.”
Jessica Todd and her staff were our host and significant collaborative partner for this launch event. We lined up feminist scholars from UNH’s Women’s Studies Department and Phillips Exeter Academy. We enlisted help from DJ Skooch, Laney & Lu and Kate & Keith Photography for services at the event. We reached out to the NH Women’s Business Center, L’Oreal and 3S Artspace for projector equipment, a screen and chairs. We brought the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation and Celina Adams Consulting on as sponsors to help cover the costs that tickets wouldn’t cover.
We committed to paying our panelists and all vendors — even if it was not their full fee, it was really important to me that right out of the gate, we were a business that paid womxn for their work. The economic empowerment of professional women was not going to be undercut because this was “a good cause.”
The event was incredible. While much of it was a blur as I pushed through insecurities to execute this personal and professional milestone, one moment stands out so very clearly. A friend and attendee shared her thoughts on the experience towards the end of our post-film discussion. With tears in her eyes, she expressed gratitude for being in this space, for being surrounded by such an incredible group supportive women, lifting each other up.
It was a perfect articulation of my goal behind this event, and behind Feminist Oasis as a whole.
We were off!
Promoting intersectional feminism
Using the word “feminist” brought with it an increased feeling that all genders must be welcome — while spaces created and unapologetically reserved for women are undeniably important, the perception of the feminist movement as being only about women or only for women is a misconception that we wanted to help break down. Feminist theorist bell hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” Part of that is ending discrimination against women, particularly those of color, of varying socio-economic backgrounds, with disabilities, of varying gender identity and sexual orientations. But part of that is also the recognition of sexist oppression of men and male-identified people — cultural messaging and expectations around masculinity, chivalry and emotional expression — and gender binary thinking, period. Feminism must address all of these systems of oppression and more. But just because we had “feminist” in our business name did not mean that we were solely responsible for shouldering the work of an entire movement, nor were we the sole representation of an entire movement. However, the word “feminist” is already so polarizing, that by using it in our name, we share a certain responsibility of being an inclusive representation for the intersectional movement.
I remain convinced that spaces reserved primarily for women are necessary, but is a business with the word “feminist” in it the right vehicle for gender-exclusive programming? We’re currently leaning more toward a “no” as the answer to that question, but like most other questions, we are leaving it open for experimentation as is appropriate for each space and experience.
There are some events that lend themselves to being very much for womxn. Galentine’s Day, for example, is “a celebration of female friendship” so it may not make sense to explicitly invite men to that event. However, for our discussions around feminism and social issues, or for our action plans, we absolutely must have men involved in order for these conversations and actions to have maximum impact in the community. We’re finding already that simply having the word “feminist” in our name leaves most men to assume that it’s not for them. Therefore, making a rule to limit our experiences to just be for womxn is not necessary to ensure that womxn’s voices are heard at these events — at least, that has been our experience thus far. Some of our oasis-centric events will certainly be created with womxn in mind — being for womxn, and led by womxn. However, I don’t know if it will ever be necessary to explicitly exclude men or other genders from attending. I’m more interested in creating a space centered around values of intersectionality and inclusion, and knowing that mostly womxn will be the ones naturally showing up, for now. Hopefully, the perception of feminism being the sole responsibility of women will be eradicated, as must the idea that dismantling white supremacy is the responsibility of people of color.
One of the benefits of being a pop-up entity is that we can experiment with various locations around the region, and different types of spaces. We’ve already held or are planning to hold events in: hair salons, art galleries, cafes, private homes and performance venues.
We would love to explore even less traditional spaces — such as off-hours businesses and other partially-unused spaces — for future experiences.
We are always looking for new spaces as we create these events — for limited or ongoing collaboration. Some host venues split programming revenue with us, others benefit from sales of goods they offer our participants. We discuss how we can create mutual value with all of our host partners. Got a space to offer? Contact us!
The types of experiences we are currently working on:
- Oasis events — parties & celebrations for fun & inspiration
- Learning events — issue-specific discussions around intersectional feminism
- Field Trips — organized group visits to art
- Book Clubs & Article Clubs — discussing intersectional feminist writings
- Co-working Series & Workshops — collaborating & exploring new economic frameworks, mindsets & practices
Already, many experiences are overlapping these categories, so perhaps they are more of a list of intentions that we grab a la carte as we roll onward with our programming. See current events lineup here.
Building alternatives to white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy
We have found that the phrase “building alternatives to white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” can be unsettling. That is okay — it is going to be uncomfortable to dismantle such deeply-ingrained systems of oppression. Those in power benefit from perpetuating a sense that current power structures are good, or at least are inevitable.
However, it is also up to us to educate our community that working to dismantle these unhealthy power structures does not mean that we are against the people that these structures claim to benefit. We are not anti-white people, anti-free market or anti-men. These unhealthy power structures are harmful to all involved. White supremacy is most harmful, and even deadly, for people of color, but it is also damaging to those who believe themselves to be white, too. Capitalism which is built on colonialism, oppression and slavery is not a truly free market, and it is unsustainable even for those at the narrowing top. Patriarchy is oppressive to womxn and femininity, but it is damaging to all genders.
This is why we are focused on building alternatives to these structures. We believe that by demonstrating that there is a better way, a more equitable way — that it is not necessary to rely on existing models built on these problematic structures — that people will see by example that it is possible to do things differently. By no means do we think that we are the first to try to do this. We are inspired by so many who have gone before and questioned these power structures and fought for justice, and we seek to lift them up as examples, to spread their stories more widely and to inspire new possibilities by following their examples and building off of them.
Lifting each other up
Thankfully, the concept of gatherings of women being filled with competition or cattiness is one that is dying out already, but patriarchal power structures continue to promote the scarcity mentality that there are limited spaces for women.
Part of building alternatives to that mentality is unabashedly lifting each other up. If Feminist Oasis could be encapsulated in a GIF, it would be this one by artist Libby Vanderploeg, entitled “Lift each other up”:
There is no shortage of work to be done in any or all of these arenas. We are seeing more and more like-minded organizations, businesses and entrepreneurs emerge with unabashed values-centric practices.
One of our values is “Yes, and!” — meaning that there is space for all of this work to be done. And there is space for everyone to be doing it in the way that best fits them, with focuses that they care about the most.
To bring this goal into practice in a very tangible way, we hope to organize regular parties and celebratory events where our sole purpose is just to lift up those around us doing amazing things. We want to collaborate with many mission-aligned entites, and are excited about continuing to lift each other up in all the ways.
Calling all co-conspirators!
Alexandra Bishop quickly became an integral collaborator for events planning and for kicking around big strategy, goals and messaging for Feminist Oasis. Recently, we decided on “Co-Conspirator” as a fitting title for her. I liked how “conspiring” had more secretive or undermining/radical connotation than simply co-organizer or a co-somethingelse.
I think it was just a few days later that I saw a tweet quoting author Angie Thomas: “We don’t need allies in the fight for social justice — we need co-conspirators.” It called to mind the phrase was reported to be used by social worker Feminista Jones in 2015 and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza in 2016. Wherever it originated, this alternative to “ally” is an action-centric one, and therefore aligned with our ethos.
On our frequent check-in conversations, Alexandra & I discuss how can rethink assumptions at every possible stage of this evolving entity — from subscription structures, business memberships, events budget structure including percentage shares for panelists and organizers, sliding scales for more marginalized community members, and all manner of radical experiments. We’re talking about recording these conversations and releasing them through a podcast — not as a sign that we’ve figured everything out, but on the contrary to make our explorations transparent.
There are other co-conspirators, too, in big ways and small. We’re looking forward to build this new economy and create spaces for all of us to work together, rethink assumptions, learn about those who have gone before us, build on their work, listen to each other and act for justice. Want to join us? Let us know!
What makes this all so exciting is the freedom to explore, to test the hypothesis that a truly intersectional anti-oppression force for equity and justice can also be sustainable: economically, energetically, environmentally, communally.
There’s no real end to the origin story of an entity that is still evolving, but I suppose this brings us up to relatively present time. We’ve recently wrapped up a very successful (from multiple perspectives) first series of coworking, with 9 sessions throughout the month of March at Teatotaller. It was enlightening to learn how much effort it takes to organize these sessions, learn what aspects were the most valuable to participants and even testing out a new location, which ended up being a wonderfully-aligned partner where I’m sure we’ll have many future Feminist Oasis events. Our first book club was a smashing success. Our first field trip was inspiring. Our first action plan is being released any day now. And on an on it goes!
What is Feminist Oasis (today)?
I’ll wrap this up with as concise an overview as I can muster right now, as to what Feminist Oasis is — today. This is how I framed this question at each of our nine coworking sessions in March 2018, knowing that, while our vision is steady, the details of how get there continue to evolve from day to day, as we continue to listen to our community.
Feminist Oasis is an experimental business, where we envision, as a community, what alternatives to white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy could look like, and explore how can we can build them, together. We do this by: promoting intersectional feminism through spaces (to work, create and play) and experiences (to act, challenge and inspire); and creating safe and fun spaces to lift each other up.
This informs the three goals below, which you’ll see and hear us repeat a lot (though like everything, they may evolve as we continue to listen to our community and its needs).
promoting intersectional feminism through spaces and experiences
building alternatives to white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy
creating safe and fun spaces to lift each other up
Follow along by subscribing to our email list — we’ll let you know of upcoming events, and new cornerstone writings here on our website. Keep an eye out for bright green zines, periodicals that we update with upcoming events and sneak our intersectional feminist propaganda into and leave around the region.
Got ideas, reactions, questions or other thoughts? Please leave them in the comments below. This is an ongoing conversation!