We’re Idle Women, an arts organisation who initiate and create contemporary art with women, and we’ve just launched a new floating arts centre that will tour the canals of the North West until 2017. This arts centre is named Selina Cooper, after a famous Suffragette who lived in Nelson and campaigned for women’s rights as well as improvements in healthcare and employment conditions for working class women. We’ve designed and built our boat in the context of the present-day mass closure of specialist women’s services, refuges, safe houses, social spaces and the continuing lack of place for women in the arts. Idle Women addresses the urgent need for a dedicated women’s space, a radical redress of power, acknowledgement and voice.
We’ve just completed the first phase of our project, called Architects of Women’s Place, with the incredible support, labour and continuing encouragement of many local women who have helped us conceive and create the Selina Cooper. Co-dependent on its sister motorboat, the vessel will navigate the North West via the “cut”, the wound carved into the earth by canals serving the industrial revolution, an epoch that owes everything to the hidden labour of thousands of unsung women.
At present we’re moored on the canal by Sandygate Mill, Burnley’s latest redevelopment project, which has been designed for public use with amphitheatre-style terraced seating, street lighting and animation projections. It’s a great spot for a sandwich by the water with views of Pendle Hill in the distance.
It’s not been easy. Preparing for our community launch, which was open to all, we experienced young men throwing rocks at the boat, jumping on the roof and removing our mooring lines, and older men casing the new boat for its new solar panels. They’ve banged on the windows, asking “Do you have a TV in there? Do you have any animals?”, and shouted obscenities at a teenage girl passing by. This wasn’t about the boat – it was about women taking their rightful space in a male-dominated public zone.
During our two-year journey we aim to name the historical and present-day systems that try to form women into unnatural shapes and contain and contort our past and our future, and recognise the women who resist, create and thrive despite all this. At the beginning of April, we welcome our first artist-in-residence, Martina Mullaney, whose practice explores the disappearance of the mother from both feminism and the art world. She will be joining us with her daughter and her dog as we navigate the Weaver’s Triangle and Straight Mile on Burnley’s canals. We will continue to work with women’s communities in the area, and women who are thriving despite the everyday male violence they experience.
Idle Women is a place for all women and girls to belong, a growing network of connections, friendships and co-creation. This is the beginning.