When words are not enough: assisting the rebirth of women’s community culture
Costigan, Kate (2006) When words are not enough: assisting the rebirth of women’s community culture. PhD thesis, James Cook University.
In this research I question the cultural oppression that works to suppress women’s creativity and play and investigate ways of assisting the rebirth of women's culture. Dominant discourse and language are masculinist and exclude women from defining our own reality. This is evident in social policies and social work practice which both adopt and perpetuate masculinist encoding of, and inscription on, women's experiences and expressions. The purpose of this research was to learn from the perspectives of women who are single mothers, if they were able to express their experiences more authentically in their own ways, outside and tangential to dominant (masculinist) language and discourse.
In Australia women have resisted and challenged masculinist narratives on their lives through the arts. Creativity and play remain vital to women's health and well-being, however, they are often precluded from single mothers’ lives due to the primacy of women's caring responsibilities. These women’s access to opportunities for timeout, community participation and play, particularly in rural and regional Australia, has so far received a paucity of research. Two thematic research questions guided this study: Can women express ourselves more authentically through art? And can social work assist the expression of a women’s community culture?
The qualitative methodology I played with drew from my radical feminist perspective. I used participatory observation in the first part of the research, which involved my experiential participation in community groups and more formal classes that drew from a range of artforms. This first part of this research informed the second part of the research which involved the participation of single mothers in a series of creative Playspaces (workshops) I facilitated. This emergent Feminist Community Cultural Research strategy I designed was based on participative strategies and a grounded theory approach drawing from a range of artforms. This methodology was inspired by a search for women’s dances, songs, music, play and creativity as individual and collective self-expressions. The data collected through the Playspaces was journalled, video- and tape-recorded and the women who participated reviewed my initial drafts.
In the first part of the research I found women’s (cultural) expressions were often inhibited by masculinist structures and processes and this appeared to undermine women’s community at times. The politics of the groups were rarely informed by social justice values, feminist values or groupwork skills, and served to actively dissuade and suppress women’s community culture, although glimpses of women’s community culture persisted, affirming its existence outside dominant culture. In the second part of the research I found that community and women’s centre co-ordinators often acted as gatekeepers to single mothers’ opportunities for women’s community culture.
My analysis of my own groupwork in the Playspace revealed issues of politics and ethics, particularly accountability, recurred. Facilitation is a balancing act between support for individuals and the group, as well as support for an ideal of women’s community culture with the reality of differences between women. Women’s leadership surfaced as a mother theme.
Two themes embedded in the core of three concentric layers of meaning emerged. The themes are co-creation and embodied expressions, and individual pursuit and collective connectedness. The layers are women’s play and (p)leisure, rekin(dl)ing women’s kinship and an essence of spirituality, soulspace. The Playspaces were a portal to an/other experience, a soul space for women’s expressions, where new understandings of old cultural ways open possibilities within social work.
My research demonstrates that there are more liberating and authentic ways through which social workers can communicate with women and assist women in communicating with each other. Implications for social work, groupwork, social policy and feminism are raised. Practice recommendations are made to address masculinist obstructions to the facilitation of women’s community cultural expressions.