Feminist Spoons

// 3 November 2009

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You may not have heard of the Spoon Theory, but it is worth a read.

A woman called Christine Miserandino was trying to think of a way to explain to her best friend exactly what it was like to live with a chronic illness, and came up with the Spoon Theory to give her an idea of what her life was like.

I find myself quite regularly using it, e.g. “I was planning to do that, but I don’t have enough spoons”. It is also becoming more well-known and well-used by other disabled people I know. It’s very simplified, yes, but it gets the message across, as long as the person you are mentioning it to knows what you are talking about.

Friends and family are aware enough of my health problems to understand when I have to cancel things, or rearrange them. But these days, I am much less involved in feminist activism than I ever have been.

This is definitely spoon-related, and also directly related to my main local feminist group meeting in an inaccessible venue for so long that I gave up arguing with them about it. (They now meet somewhere which may be accessible, but they’re not sure. I feel so thoroughly disenamoured with them that I’m not willing to test it out).

But I have also found that while individual feminists can be very understanding with my lack of spoons on a day-to-day basis, it sometimes seems less acceptable when it interferes with my ability to attend actions, protests and meetings.

I have it when there is a feminist action going on which I am not well enough to get to. I think of little else the whole time I should be there, I berate myself and feel thoroughly miserable. It then doesn’t help when it is implied at a later date that those who did not attend were not committed enough, didn’t care enough, aren’t good enough.

This is far from universal, and many, many feminists have, or are developing, a really good understanding of disabled politics and the issues affecting disabled women. It is also not unique to feminism. The same attitudes can prevail in general lefty politics, the peace movement and more.

But historically, a lot of feminism has failed to address disabled issues. To quote from a blog post I wrote many moons ago,

Feminism needs to integrate disability politics, needs to embrace disabled women and our experiences, to be fully feminist. Excluding disabled women from feminist academia, analysis, activism and community not only is crap for the disabled woman, it prevents feminism from becoming all it needs to be to liberate women.

While I wrote that in fury about a particular situation, it still stands. It’s not just about making sure we can get into the building! It’s about understanding that without addressing issues affecting disabled women, feminism can never be fully representative of women, nor can it adequately support us, campaign for us or understand our lives.

Comments From You

polly // Posted 3 November 2009 at 9:26 pm

Thanks Phillipa, it’s appalling that feminist attention to disability issues is not only more or less non existent, but people often express horribly ablist attitudes. A couple of examples that spring to mind – a high profile feminist row that recently erupted where one of the protagonists was immediately accused (I use the word advisedly) of being mentally ill. And a piece a bit back on the F word on thin privilege where a lot of comments where published saying people should be healthy and exercise. And the commenters didn’t seem to see what the problem with that was.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 3 November 2009 at 10:36 pm

Thanks for your comment Polly. It can be horrifying when someone is, like you say, ‘accused’ of being mentally ill. And the underlying ableism of suggestions like exercise is unfortunately not often spotted. But we’ll keep working on awareness and consciousness-raising!

OuyangDan // Posted 4 November 2009 at 9:03 am

This is a great post! Thank you!

It is so hard to not beat one’s self up when one’s energy and resources are so limited. Sometimes the work it takes to even just write a well worded post takes a lot of spoons, and some abled bodied people don’t fully appreciate that. Even online activism is worth something (especially the spoons spent), and I think a lot of times we as bloggers sell ourselves short as far as our self worth goes in the activist world.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 4 November 2009 at 9:08 am

Ouyang Dan, thank you so much!

I think we probably do sell ourselves short, and I agree that online activism is worth something too :)

I guess we need to give ourselves credit for anything we manage, when things are difficult, and ignore the world around us which may not appreciate it.

Napalmnacey // Posted 4 November 2009 at 10:59 am

I know how you feel. There’ve been a lot of amazing rallies and events that I’ve not been able to go to since my endometriosis got bad. I remember going to rallies and protests *all* the time as a teen. It breaks my heart not to go to them now.

And people say to me, “Why do you complain? Why are you so PC? Why don’t you actually DO something instead of complaining all the time?!”

And that breaks my heart and makes me want to cry, because to raise awareness through being the change I want to see is all I have these days. I don’t have the energy or the mobility for much else. I hate being told I’m not doing enough for my ’causes’ so I should just shut up.

Anyway, thanks for writing this post.

sianmarie // Posted 4 November 2009 at 11:42 am

thanks for this thought provoking post. as i have learnt more and more about privilege this is something that has been in my mind for a while.

unfortunately the feminist group i am a member of has meetings in an inaccessible building. this is something i really believe we need to change, but we are also faced with the problem that there are very few places which we can use for free, and who are so flexible. this is no excuse i know, but i think when groups like ours have no money and are a bit desperated, we tend to grab at opportunities rather than thinking them through all the way.

but you have inspired me to start looking at what we can do to change this. we always try and make any events accessible, but when the meetings aren’t, it seems a bit of shutting the door afterh the horse has bolted.

plus what you say about inclusiveness is so important. women all face the same issues, but often not in the same ways – we need to work together to make sure that all women are liberated and to learn how to check our language and our perceptions. blog posts like this are wonderful in helping me, at least, appreciate this learning curve.

Kristel // Posted 4 November 2009 at 12:38 pm

Philippa, a great post. You are a far better feminist than any of those cruel insensitive people who made you feel bad about not attending actions. Please don’t berate yourself! As Ouyang Dan says, online activism can be just as effective, and I think often a lot more so because it reaches so many more people and has a much more lasting effect. And yes, of course it’s no way just about being able to get into a building, but in the case of that particular so-called feminist group, it would have been a bloody good start! It is just shocking that they didn’t take it into account. No wonder you don’t even want to bother checking out the new venue. Well, it’s their loss.

You’ve got enough to deal with juggling the spoons on a daily basis, so keep blogging and doing what you do, and PLEASE! never again berate yourself. It is the people with the kind of shameful attitudes you describe who should be berating themselves. And never, ever sell yourself short.

I wish you all the best, and look forward to more posts from you.

Jehenna // Posted 4 November 2009 at 12:45 pm

Personally I think online activism is absolutely essential.

I’m a white, hetero, religious, feminist woman living in Australia at the moment.

Through the efforts of some wonderful women and men, I’ve started to learn about :

– disability issues and ablist privilege

– trans gender issues and cis privilege

– racial issues and racial privilege

– cross cultural issues with viewing feminism and/or women as a homogenous whole

– body issues and thin privilege

– health issues and health privilege

– mental health issues and privilege

– female activism about feminist issues

– male activism about feminist issues

– feminist intersections with other areas like anarchic activism

All this, because people have spent their time and effort on writing about their experiences and theories and have brought my attention to bear on things I didn’t even know existed.

Even if my base point of starting is ablist and prejudiced, I’m incredibly grateful for your efforts. Because reading what you write helps me challenge my assumptions and grow.

Hopefully one day, it will help me avoid being a total ass to someone :)

Kitt // Posted 4 November 2009 at 1:55 pm

Philippa – thank you! I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to read your post. I too was once a very active feminist / political activist but that was before I became ill and this is the first thing I’ve read on F-word that has touched me in a very personal way. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you have to attend demo’s – that is not the only way to make an impact on the world around you and for some it is simply not possible. I know disabled feminists have a lot to offer – we have been forced to plumb the depths of out ingenuity to do the things we want to using as few spoons as possible, and to choose our battles because we simply have to prioritise everything, everyday. Feminism has always benefited from the ingenuity of women letting disabled people in will only add to this. We are another voice in the choir that will make the song sweeter and stronger.

I am so glad that F-word has finally decided to examine disability and I look forward to your future posts – definitely worth the spoons!

Philippa Willitts // Posted 4 November 2009 at 4:18 pm

Napalmnacey – one of my health problems is endometriosis too, so I really know what you mean. I also remember those days of demos most weekends and action all the time! I miss it too, and you’re right, being the change we want to see is not only something we can sometimes only do, but we need to also remember that it is really good and worthwhile! It is good enough, as are we :)

And thanks Sianmarie too. We’re all on a learning curve, always. There are always issues we need to know more about, and do more about. It sounds like you’re really considering the issues and I’m glad my post helped with that.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 4 November 2009 at 4:30 pm

Kristel – thank you! You’ve given me a real boost!

Jehenna – thank you too, your comment really made me smile! Endeavouring to avoid being an ass to someone is probably a good goal for all of us! There really is a lot for all of us to learn, and I’m so glad you’ve got good input in your life.

And Kitt, I’m so glad that my post touched you personally, and I loved your phrase:

–we have been forced to plumb the depths of out ingenuity to do the things we want to using as few spoons as possible–

This sums up my life!

Glad the post was worth the spoons. For me, the amazing feedback I’ve got totally makes it worthwhile :D

Jackie Bather // Posted 4 November 2009 at 6:25 pm


Your comment re: how easy it is to be offensive, by accusing someone of being ‘mentally ill’ is very striking.I believe that people who use this strategy are actually terrified, of being thought of as mentally ill themselves, in some way.They have some personal issues and anxiety, with the whole area of mental health, be it good or poor health.So their comments actually reveal far more about their own mode of thinking,rather than the person they are directing them at, in my view.

Miss // Posted 4 November 2009 at 6:34 pm

Thanks for your post. I have Lupus and Fibromyalgia, and it seems to me that some people understand (until you have to cancel.) Then it becomes clear that they have no idea, and they don’t particularly care. These people I remove from my life. They are stressful and not worth my spoons. xo

Kiri // Posted 4 November 2009 at 7:11 pm

Thanks for writing this. You’ve really made me think about disability and feminism. It’s so often overlooked and you truly are doing your bit by writing pieces like this – even if you can’t make it to the demos all the time believe me, you’re doing something very important here. Thank You!

Alex T // Posted 4 November 2009 at 8:43 pm

‘It’s not just about making sure we can get into the building!’


Daniela Vincenti // Posted 5 November 2009 at 11:11 am

Dear Philippa,

Thanks for speaking out on these issues. I would like to add that no woman should be pressured into doing more than she can for feminism. We all have other commitments and issues in life. I totally get your point about disabled access. Unfortuneatley there are resource implications too, and sometimes the only affordable place is one without adequate facilities.

Ms Chevious // Posted 5 November 2009 at 11:33 am

@ Napalmnacey

Spot on!! Although I am passionate about mental health awareness I simply can’t undertake as much activism as I’d like because it takes too many spoons – also it consumes me to the point when I just become walking MH issues, when the whole point is that I am much more than that.

Sigh. Apparently we really can’t have it all sometimes!

Amy Clare // Posted 5 November 2009 at 11:47 am

This is a fantastic post, Philippa.

I have chronic medical conditions which affect my life enormously and like you, I don’t have very many spoons so I have to use them wisely. I don’t participate in protests/marches/other physical forms of activism, for this reason. It is simply very difficult for me to get involved at this level.

One of the difficulties I face is that my carer is my boyfriend, and I need to be accompanied by him in most places. Every local feminist activist group I have found so far has stated that its meetings are open to women only. If my carer can’t attend then I can’t attend and that’s that, really. While I understand why they restrict entry, I feel that there should be some flexibility where disabled women are concerned.

Being absent from physical activism doesn’t mean that I don’t contribute, though. I have written a few guest blogs and a review for this very site, and this keeps my hand in so to speak. I’m considering starting my own blog, but that would take many more spoons and isn’t something I’m sure I can manage. However – every little bit counts!

A fake name (sorry) // Posted 5 November 2009 at 3:21 pm

Thank you for this. I have felt so guilty in the past when I have let down “the cause” because I just didn’t have the spoons.

So many times I would sign up for activism, events, projects and so forth in my manic periods and then be unable to follow through when I got depressed later. I felt that I couldn’t tell the groups what was happening so have left them thinking I’m just unreliable.

It is strange how one blog post can explain how I have been feeling when I didn’t know myself. Thank you so much Philippa. And I agree with others – online is the way forward for those with limited spoons (or spoons that turn into forks in my case).

gadgetgal // Posted 5 November 2009 at 4:24 pm

This is a great post! My sister’s a disabled feminist but to be frank she’s probably a bigger one than me, and no less of one because of it keeping her away from direct campaigning. And as hers is deafness it’s also unseen. But the fact that she’s strong, works hard, has struggled to have a family, has made it work now that she has one – yeah, she’s definitely a better feminist than I am!

And I think you’ve started a trend here, by they way – suddenly I’m seeing spoons mentioned everywhere!

zohra // Posted 7 November 2009 at 11:53 am

Great post Philippa, thanks for naming some of the problems so clearly.

RadFemHedonist // Posted 7 November 2009 at 6:28 pm

I have been suffering from depression, and it’s really crushing when somebody tells me to “eat less and exercise more”, sometimes a bar of fairtrade chocolate or a big plate of pasta and cheese is what gets me through the day plus my meds make me put on weight (this I know) and possibly increase my appetite (I’m not sure, but I think that is one of the side effects as well), and it can often be very difficult or impossible to exercise if you have some kinds of disability or health condition, plus, if we did try to produce enough food for everyone without making loads of extra that went to waste, wouldn’t it be good for us to have some extra fat on us in case there was a time when the crops didn’t grow or there was a food shortage for some other reason? The whole idea that we should all be working to maintain an optimal weight is questionable when we may well not always be able to find that perfectly balanced meal, I do actually feel my health being affected by my diet and would like to try and do something about it but that’s a decision I’m making for my own benefit, not to prove myself moral in the eyes of gym going, bike riding (I’m not sure I have the coordination to ride a bike and really I’m terrified of getting hurt in the traffic anyway), healthy eating sanctimonious gits (not that everyone who does those three things is like that and I have every sympathy with how unnecessarily dangerous roads are for cyclists and I appreciate their efforts to reduce fuel emissions) along with everyone who doesn’t do those things but can still be relied upon to say something horrible about my weight because I don’t live up to their standards of attractiveness or because I’m fatter than they are and so they think “hey, at least I’m better than you”. I also will make any changes I make for my HEALTH, not so shallow men and women will suddenly want to shag me or to prove I have the ability to delay gratification without reason. I read the spoon theory and it makes a lot of sense.

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