I wanted to teach the inmates about female empowerment. Instead, they overturned my views on everything from sex work to marriage
I thought I knew about feminism. I had the word “FEMINIST” written in black marker pen across the front of my homework diary aged 15, along with an anti-war sticker that incongruously involved a cupcake. I had graduated from the “girl power” of my primary school years to reading Germaine Greer on a beanbag in the college library. I felt sorry for the girls in sixth form getting Brazilians, who, unlike my enlightened self, clearly hadn’t clocked that waxing was a tool of patriarchal oppression. I studied feminist theory, went to feminist gatherings and listened to feminist podcasts. I had spent several evenings sitting cross-legged at a “collective” organised by other middle-class, university-educated women talking about intersectionality and Frida Kahlo. By the time I graduated from university, I had firmly absorbed a list of the correct ideas and words that I needed to be a “proper feminist” (but was probably not someone you wanted to invite to a dinner party).
In 2015, two years after graduating, I began a job working in a high-security women’s prison. I had read enough statistics and policy reports before I started to know that women in prisons were in desperate need of a little female empowerment. But what I quickly learned was that my feminist education had a thick wedge of information missing: namely, the part where it connected to actual women being very fundamentally oppressed because of their gender. Confronted by someone whose cervix had been plugged with four egg-sized capsules of crack cocaine on the behest of a controlling boyfriend who would reap the profits, I found it difficult to work out quite how my Frida Kahlo T-shirt and mansplaining radar were going to help things.