Adapted from a lecture given in Welsh at the University of Wales Trinity St David in Lampeter, on 8 March 2022, International Women’s Day
Women, food and community – the three words go together so well. But what is it exactly that links them? I believe that there is much more to it than historical accident and cliché, and that a closer look at the relationship has much to teach us. Here I will start with my own experience, and hope that it might resonate with others and lead to something.
Growing up in Cardiff in the seventies, a studious child with grand ideas, I used to wonder what it meant to be a woman. I saw the men I knew going out to work, enjoying professional careers or other vital roles that gave them status and importance, and I knew I wanted that. But it puzzled me that while some women did that as well, becoming teachers, lawyers and doctors for instance, many of them, including my own mother, stayed at home. I could see what they did – they cooked, looked after children, went to the shops, had tea with their friends, talked to the neighbours, made jam – but didn’t they miss having a career? Or were they glad that they didn’t have to go out to work? I couldn’t quite work it out. Everything about my education led me to university, where I studied science, as girls are encouraged to do, and started a career in agricultural science publishing. At the same time though, I felt a tug towards the traditional world of women, and wondered what I was missing.
My career was conventional enough to begin with. But sitting at a computer editing science journals, however interesting, did not satisfy me. I yearned for something else that I couldn’t name, something to do with family, home, community and tradition, and the mysterious world of women. I started volunteering for community and environmental projects: helping at the Oxfam shop on a Saturday morning, spending working weekends on organic farms, volunteering for nature conservation tasks, tin-rattling in the high street and so on. Through that, I learned how communities work, and the particular contribution of women, who often took a leading role in those settings.
Today there is a fierce debate about who can be called a woman. But what I find more interesting here is to look at the collective experience of womanhood, which might be called female culture, or female society. The naming of it is awkward as it isn’t something we often discuss directly, and it is fraught with stereotypes and assumptions. What I can say though is that working in community food projects, I see women everywhere: organizing events, producing newsletters, gardening and cooking, writing and planning – and yes, making the tea. Because making the tea is symbolic of caring for a group, which in our culture is central to the female way of doing things. As a young adult I had seen that as subservience and what I called ‘being a doormat’, but later, through observation and experiment, I came to appreciate its significance. I discovered female society and took my place in it.
What then is the female way of being and doing? I can only speak from my own experience when I say that an all-female group feels very different from a mixed one. When women come together, the ideal (not always observed) is unity, the well-being of the collective. As women we learn to look after each other’s feelings, because we know that our individual well-being depends on the health of the group. We are anxious therefore not to compete with each other, and if we succeed in the world, we tend to keep quiet about it. The coherence of the group comes first, and at its best it enables us to achieve things that we cannot do on our own.
This is the traditional role of women, as I experienced it: creating unity in the family and in the community, reining in excessive individualism, and caring for the fabric of society. These are things we need these days more than ever, whoever is doing them. But while most people would agree that we need more women in public life, this female way of doing things is still neglected. All too often it is the exceptional woman who is promoted, while women as a group are left behind. Cooperation, service and care, the mainstays of female culture, remain on the margins of public life, devalued and underpaid. Staying at home and keeping house has become an old-fashioned and almost irresponsible choice, a drag on the economy and a waste of talent.
It is important to emphasize two things at this point. First, there is no reason to believe the feminine way of operating is any better than the masculine way, with its emphasis on strategy, authority and individual leadership. Clearly, we need both, and both are available to everyone, whatever our chromosomes or our pronouns. Second, female culture can become unhealthy – all the more so, perhaps, because it is suppressed and dismissed. And when it is unhealthy, it can be very destructive. We can be so careful about unity, that we do not develop as individuals, or allow anyone else to succeed. We hold ourselves back, connect through a sense of victimhood, and fear each other’s successes. We compete, but pretend not to, pushing the negative feelings under the surface, where they are difficult to handle. Sometimes it would be better to fight openly. That is the dark side of female society.
But with that caveat, let’s look more at its strengths. There is much more to the world of women than niceness and care, and the feminine approach deserves to be taken seriously. To see how it works, consider a lecture or a presentation, where someone stands on a platform and delivers a monologue to a respectful audience who can ask questions at the end. We might call that the masculine model of sharing knowledge, where it flows from expert to audience. The corresponding feminine archetype meanwhile would be the circle, like the sewing circle for example. In a circle, everyone has a voice and there is no hierarchy. We listen to each other, and understanding arises naturally between us, as a shared experience.
I like the image of sitting in a circle around a pool of water. If we can sit still enough, listening to each other attentively, then the surface of the pond becomes still and we can look into the depths, seeing things that would otherwise be obscure. Another image is the witch’s cauldron, which transforms miscellaneous ingredients into potions that heal. In the circle everyone is responsible for creating the conditions that allow its members to learn, and we may in fact contribute more by listening than by talking. Ultimately, the circle allows wisdom to emerge, not through one person who knows things, but from the fact of our having come together with that intention. The important point here is that we do not know in advance what is going to happen. Unlike the traditional lecture, where the speaker must be convinced they have knowledge to share, in the circle we inquire and wait.
We tend to think of not-knowing as a weakness, but here it is a strength and even a necessary condition. If we think we already have the answers, there is no room for anything new to grow. The poet Keats coined the name ‘negative capability‘ for this faculty, which he described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Resting in doubt is not a comfortable position to hold, and so we need practice in it, which is one of the functions of the arts and culture generally. The symbolism of the female body which receives, incubates and painfully gives birth to new life gives us a way of understanding the apparently passive function of receptivity.
Women often have painful, raw experiences to share – losing children, suffering violence and betrayal, as well as everyday disappointments – and by sharing these, we connect with each other and discover strength in vulnerability. This is not easy. But if we can stay with those experiences, without interpreting them, giving answers or casting blame, just letting them be, it is possible for us to receive the wisdom we need. Today we face overwhelming existential challenges like climate change and mass extinctions, as well as poverty and war. We need wisdom and connection more than ever before, if we are to make room for a new future. Instead of thinking that we have the answers and we need to convince everyone else, why not admit that we do not know what to do? This need not be a sign of failure, but a starting point. It can even be inspiring as it leads us into fresh thinking and a sense of purpose.
That is why I am a member of several women’s circles, which meet regularly. I see us as creating a space for the new life that will restore our society. Each one is an opportunity for me, and us, to learn how to tolerate uncertainty and imperfection, strengthening the muscle of not knowing. We practise the art of trusting in the mysterious process of transformation and we nurture the new life that grows among us. These circles are necessarily small, but their depth is what counts. Women’s circles may be organized into networks such as Red Tent (once active in Wales, now archived), the Millionth Circle and countless others, or they may be homegrown, and more or less formal, with or without meditation, ritual or an element of coaching.
I think the capacity to listen and to receive needs strengthening in public life generally. Of course, we need to collect data, make forecasts, write strategies and create action plans. We need science and technology. But at the same time, we must cultivate the ability to accept uncertainty, to wait patiently, to be present. This is something that is available to everyone, women and men, and indeed the modern Way of Council movement holds circles for both sexes, while the Welsh Government includes circles and active listening in its culture change programme under the Well-being of Future Generations Act. In our culture however it falls particularly to women to meet in this way, because of the lifelong, indeed centuries-long, training we have had in attending to the feelings and needs of others.
Circles, like other groups, also nurture friendships and meet the deep human need to belong. If a group connects people in a way that builds trust, by listening with respect and love, and giving confidence to its members, this strengthens our whole society. This brings us to food and community.
For me, agriculture was the bridge between a scientific education and a career in social change. Food is a symbol of society and community, and farming is the basis of that. Food is what connects us with each other, and that is evident every time we sit down to share a meal, or even as we exchanged recipes over the internet during lockdown. And food is more than just a symbol of course. It is a physical necessity. Through farming and gardening, food connects us to the earth, and to the rest of nature. Food is at the centre of everything, enabling us to draw together the different aspects of a fragmented world and make it whole.
I left my job in the world of agricultural information, trained as a teacher, and decided that educating the public about food and farming was the way forward. One of the things I enjoyed most while working for Organic Centre Wales at Aberystwyth University was organizing demonstration school meals. We would go into a school, talk to the cook and the teachers, maybe visit the local farmers’ market, and plan a meal using local ingredients. I remember for example going to a primary school in Anglesey, and talking to the cook, the head teacher and someone from the county council’s catering service. Following their directions, I met the butcher to see where he got his meat from, and he passed me on to the abattoir, who made arrangements with the local mart to buy a cow raised on the island. I went to see a man making ice cream from local milk on an industrial estate next to the school, while the headteacher organized a school visit to a nearby windmill supplying flour from local wheat and spoke to a market gardener who supplied the vegetables, and so on. And thus we brought together everything that was needed for one meal.
On the day, the butcher, the market gardener, the miller and the ice cream maker as well as farmers, local councillors, school governors and county council staff came to eat with the children and teachers. There was tremendous enthusiasm in the dining hall, which I think had to do with suddenly being able to see a whole network of food relationships that is normally hidden from view. By sitting down to share a meal we create community – three times a day, every day – and for one day that wider community was visible. And in the middle of it all, the cook, kitchen staff and dining room assistants were getting the credit they deserved for feeding the next generation, as well as showing little children how to use a knife and fork, and how to talk to your friends around the table.
We did similar meals about a dozen times across Wales, from Cardiff to Llandysul, from Bridgend to Wrexham, sometimes with parents joining us, and each time there was the same excitement and sense of occasion. Everyone was able to see, and taste, how food creates a community and how we depend on each other, and to appreciate that as a good thing. Usually, the meals were followed by lively discussions about how to get more local food into school meals, a debate that continues to this day, as it is no easy thing to buy and transport food from local producers to scattered schools, at a reasonable price. But it is key to so much.
Local food, then, can sustain and even revitalize a community. But there is another reason it matters, I think. If you read government policy documents, they are full of big ideas – sustainable development, resilience, net zero carbon – that are supposed to save us. But unless we can translate those ideas into action on the ground, in our communities, they are of no value. The word must become flesh. We see what goes wrong when abstract ideas are interpreted simplistically. After the second world war, the drive to increase food security produced butter mountains and barley barons. Now the quest for Net Zero carbon has enabled a corporate land grab, as for instance British Airways buys farms in Carmarthenshire for tree planting, so that they can make flights carbon neutral. It’s business as usual, only worse, because now it is destroying rural communities and reducing our ability to produce food.
We must work in a given area with a particular community, because it is the details of geography, climate and above all personalities and politics that will decide whether a project will succeed, and how it will unfold. That is why local food is so important, giving people a way to be involved in their communities and discover their citizenship. Organizing a local meal is difficult, because you have to understand an area, and know who is who, and solve tricky problems of distribution and payment. There are of course general principles that are transferable from project to project, but the work of getting to know a community must always be done. It means going back and forth between the big picture of national policy and the local details, holding the tension that results, and making compromises.
A while ago I heard something very funny on Woman’s Hour. Katrine Marçal, author of Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, was talking about the author of the Wealth of Nations. His argument was that the market creates wealth for everyone, and all we need to do is to create the right conditions for it to do its job. But ironically, when Adam Smith wrote that book, he was living at home with his mother. She (or a maid) would have been cooking his meals, mending his clothes, and presumably keeping his spirits up when the writing wasn’t going so well. Of course, Smith did not mean to belittle his mother’s work, nor to suggest that housework should become part of the all-important market. No doubt he greatly appreciated the care he was receiving, but he could not have known that the market would turn on the domestic world and fragment it, and destroy the natural world into the bargain.
Too often priceless things, such as nature, beauty and care, are neglected because they are not part of the market. We try to include them somehow, by paying farmers to protect nature, and carers to look after children and old people, but it does not often work well. For one thing, there has been so much damage to nature and society, that the market itself is not able to restore the situation. But also, the consumer economy has changed our values and our way of seeing our responsibilities, so that we no longer understand quite how to take care of these things even though our survival depends on it. Profit and economic growth guide us, not the wisdom of our consciences.
I think we all sensed at those school meals how much damage market economics has done to our communities and found in them a hint of how we might recover what is of real value to us. There is much talk of the dangers of neoliberalism among the intelligentsia who mourn the decline of our society, but of course that is just another abstract word. What we need is experiences and actions that allow us to go in a new direction and make us face the fundamental questions. Why can’t we feed ourselves from local farms, and does that matter? Why do some people not have enough to eat? And what has happened to home cooking? Maybe there is value in housework after all.
During my time at Organic Centre Wales, I worked nationally. Apart from traveling around Wales to organize school meals, we would lead school visits to farms, organize conferences on food and farming, and attend shows and festivals. I remember working on a stand at the Conwy Feast for a whole weekend, for example, inviting the public to taste the difference between organic and conventional carrots in order to start a conversation about cooking and growing food. It was fun to meet all kinds of people and hear about their food experiences, but it was also delightful to get home, unload the car and sit in front of the computer in a warm and dry office. I would put the photos on our website, write a report, then move on to the next one.
Looking back though, I was a bit of a tourist. I would visit a project, explain my ideas, create a lot of work for other people, and then leave and on to the next thing. Now, I mainly work locally, especially in the Aberystwyth area. And that is very different, because I know people and people know me. If I make a mistake, everyone will know, and I will have to apologize and learn from it, or I won’t be as effective next time. And then, there are the groups and individuals who don’t get along with each other, and I have to be very careful about what I say, and to whom, if I want to be trusted. It means I have to act carefully and think about the long term.
As a result, there is much more depth to my work now. I have had to appreciate the complexity of things, and the human element that can be so awkward. Big, theoretical questions become concrete, painful, immediate ones. For example, there is the fact that vegetable growers do not earn as much as an office worker like me, while others depend on food banks, and so it is a luxury to be able to buy local and organic food. These are uncomfortable realities that must be faced.
And when there are arguments, such as those over rewilding or intensive poultry units, the polarization of views is uncomfortable. I can sympathize with farmers who are speaking up for the essential unity of food production and care for the natural world, and are seeking a way forward that preserves their self-respect as well as their livelihoods. I can also feel the despair of conservationists witnessing the relentless decline of wildlife populations (these categories are not mutually exclusive of course). These are individual people whom I know, and the questions they are grappling with are fundamental to human existence, so there can be no easy escape into generalities.
The point here is that acting locally forces us to face painful truths and see ourselves as part of a whole system. I can’t separate myself from the situation I am in, and every choice I make has an impact. But if we are willing to see what is wrong, and feel the pain of it, this can inspire us to change things, and be part of the solution. If we can tolerate uncertainty and not knowing, answers may come. Here we come back to the feminine way of dealing with things, and Keats’ negative capability.
Our world needs regeneration. Big problems surround us – climate change, pandemics, war, the cost of living – and the business-as-usual that has created the problems will not be able to solve them. It is better I think to accept the end of an unsustainable lifestyle, mourn it, and start anew. That means letting go of the old way of doing things and recreating our society, or rather, letting our society renew itself. Not by withdrawing, blaming ‘the system’ or seeking redemption through green consumerism, but by reflecting, engaging and waiting. For that we need faith in people and in goodness.
Part of the answer, I believe, is to rehabilitate the feminine principle, which has been misunderstood and undervalued for so long. We need to value service and care, and to get better at waiting and tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity, alongside leading and planning. We need midwives, as well as engineers. We need to do the small, practical things and be satisfied with them. We need to develop confidence in the knowledge of our hearts, as well as the evidence of objective measurements. That way we will give birth to the new world that is waiting for us.
I would like to thank Hazel Thomas for the invitation to give this lecture, Llinos Dafis for encouragement in preparing it and editing the Welsh version, the women of Cadw i Fynd Ceredigion and other circles for their inspiration and company, and Jane Macnamee for comments on the English version.