Women's Leisure and Auto/biography: Empowerment and Resistance in the Garden

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Leisure as "reproduction" and "resistance" are consistent themes within feminist leisure studies (Currie, 2004; Deem, 1986; Shaw, 2001; Wimbush & Talbot, 1988), with the suggestion that women's empowerment is closely related to their resistance of oppressive gender relations (Brace-Govan, 2004; Shaw, 2001). This work creates much needed theoretical space in the continual politicisation of leisure by arguing that the separation of leisure from work may be impossible for some women and that time for leisure has to be continually fought for and (re)negotiated. Even so, as Wearing (1990, 1998) and others, drawing on Foucauldian-influenced poststructuralism, have argued, once "my space" and "my time" is carved out, leisure can become a source of empowered, self-determined identities with which women can resist and undermine constructions of traditional and normative femininity (Currie, 2004; Green, 1998; Wheaton & Tomlinson, 1998). We approach women's leisure and the possibility of their empowered agency through our attempt to interpret one woman's auto/biography lodged at the Mass Observation Archives, (MOA) held at the University of Sussex, UK. Our use of this specific auto/biography (we have named it Joy's story) firmly locates our explorations in the site of the domestic garden. While gardens are still relatively neglected fields of leisure study, there is increasing awareness that gardens are political sites, created and maintained by gendered relations in the home (Bhatti, 2006; Bhatti & Church, 2001). Our original intention was to draw out the relations between the activities of gardening and those of home-making, yet our difficulty in interpreting Joy's agency (as expressed in her own story) as either the "reproduction" or "resistance" of gender relations has led us on a different but necessary tack. What we offer here is an illustration of our suggestion that "at-home" leisure and women's agency therein may have a more complex and negotiated nature than can be realised by reproduction/ resistance frameworks. In this sense, we are offering Joy's story as a telling case (Sheridan, Street, & Bloome, 2000) to suggest that Joy's story can be read as her creative re-positioning to gendered norms. Here we draw upon Davies and Harre's (1990) concept of positioning, which embraces the psychosocial processes of identity and agency, to suggest that both necessarily involve negotiations and interactions with others within shifting power relations of social contexts and rhythms of the life course. This is useful in revealing the contextual, intersubjective and affective dimensions of agency that can be sometime neglected when agency is valued in terms of autonomy and independence (Wray, 2004).

This paper is in three sections: the first illustrates how recent accounts in feminist leisure studies assume a conceptual affinity between empowerment and resistance. By drawing on Wray's (2004) recent critique of empowerment we question whether there is conceptual merit in teasing out empowerment from resistance as means to approach the temporal and contextual nuances of gender relations. In the second section we illustrate our arguments through a life story drawn from the Mass Observation Archive. One woman's life story is presented through an auto/biographical narrative. It tells of the role of her garden and the (re)construction of her identity throughout her life course to the time of writing. The final section draws on positioning models of identity to argue that empowerment may stem from an active re-positioning to contextualised gender-norms that escapes any easy categorisation as resisting or reproducing gender relations.

Resistance and Empowerment in Feminist Leisure Research

Feminist analysis of leisure has successfully demonstrated that leisure spaces and experiences are sites where unequal and uneven gender relations are reproduced, maintained and resisted (Aitchinson, 2000; Shaw, 2001). …


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