Wednesday, 01 May 2024 18:51

Vulvae and other silent revolutions

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Yesterday I met up with Maria Tamboukou, a professor in Feminist Studies at the University of East London, to visit a museum together in Turin, Italy.

We picked the MAO Museum of Oriental Art, showing a surprising collection and a beautiful temporary exhibition.

We had a very enjoyable time in the museum and eating pizza afterwards – which she kindly offered to me. During our conversation, she asked me questions about my work both academic and not as well as about my family and life.

Ph 1 Monogatari

Ph Gaia Del Negro, Kazuko Miyamoto (Tokyo, 1942) installation in the ‘Contemporary Monogatari: new Japanese narratives’ exhibition, MAO, 30 April 2024.


She told me about her research with a Foucauldian approach to writing unspoken genealogies (stories about how they came to something) of women in the social space, that means women workers, artisans, artists, musicians, mathematicians. She says women have always occupied social spaces, but their stories are often untold. What happens to them?

Maria uses both historical archives - in London, and also in Bologna, in Milan, in Turin - and narrative interviews, and finally checks her interpretations of the materials she finds wih her mixed approach, by sharing her work with networks of expert women in their fields across the globe. She herself comes originally from Athens, Greece.

I had not realized before that we both came from a patriarchal Mediterranean country and share the (privileged) educational migrant experience of doing a PhD in the UK.

I was reminded of my own desire to research women’s lives and right now, to work with women.

Ph 5 Vulvae Rose

Ph Gaia Del Negro, the rose on my balcony, that I brought on a train from Liguria where Grandma Dorotea used to live until 2018,  reminds me of the sensuality of a vulva, 1st May 2024.


She seemed amused to discover I funded an informal intergenerational group of socially recognized women colleagues called the Subterranean Vulvae, with whom we work on consultancy projects, and talk, and share dinners and wine - conspiring to 'subvert the system'. I am among the older ones, for once! Am I getting older and how do I position myself?

A few brave colleague consultants are in their 20s.

As I told and listened, I realised I deeply appreciate connecting personal and professional. The small and the big picture. And creating and attending to network that are relational and experimental. I can only offer a point of view, a temporal perspective, an emotion. I grow in relation to others, like shades of light and darkness moving reciprocally, revealing and changing patterns.

The auto/biographical, duo-ethnographic, collective and relational art-based work and writing, during my free time over the years, as independent researcher, was incredibly helpful to open myself.

I was scared and stiff for a long time – and for sure I still often am. I had toxic intimate relationships. I looked to change my partners and be elevated in their eyes, in a sort of competition for visibility and power, maybe…

Ph 2 Quayyum Agha

Ph Maria Tamboukou, Gaia inside Shimmering Mirage (Black), 2016, by Anila Quayyum Agha (Lahore, Pakistan, 1965), 30 April 2024.


Maria’s daughter is a lawyer working in advocacy for human rights. Her mother suggested to her not to enter Academia as it was already becoming marketized – they actually call the students ‘customers’ during university meetings. Like her, I try to work for promoting social justice, as a freelance consultant for community building in collaborative networks. I am also studying to become a systemic relational counsellor. Many scholars are moving outside the university in the UK, Maria says.

On my train back from Turin, I received an email from the University of Milano Bicocca that recognised my PhD title at Canterbury Christ Church University, as equivalent to the same title in Italy. I was very happy. I applied only in Spring 2024, after graduating in 2017 and coming back to Milan in 2019. Why did it take me so long to want to be recognised in Italy for my hard work abroad?

Coming back to Milan was a personal choice (I wanted to take care of my genealogy).  

Il was also a cultural shock. The bus drivers at the Bergamo airport made sexist jokes – what a coincidence.

Feminism is still often a scary word in Italy, as I wrote about with two colleagues in education at Milano Bicocca, Laura a full professor and Silvia a freelance researcher.

Another Silvia, one of the Vulvae consultants, told me the other day that being a feminist (by which I think she means wanting to negotiate her freedom) is challenging her relationship with her partner. Amelia, a dear friend is right now negotiating gender roles with her husband, as she is finishing a Masters and may pursue a new career after giving birth to two babies. Other younger colleagues challenge gender identities and norms, with their limited sexual and affective frameworks for meaning making and living.

Ph 3 restorative circle

Ph Gaia Del Negro, restorative circle during a transnational partners meeting, conducted by my colleague Greta, winner of the LGBTQIA+! Erasmus+ project, Wroclaw (Poland), 23 April 2024.


In the meantime, pro-life organisations will be introduced in women health centres in Italy where the right to abortion is already not respected – doctors in women health centres can use conscience clause. The 'natality' law was passed by... the first woman prime minister in Italian history! – also the main opposition party has a young woman leader, and for the first time 3 women academics lead all three public universities in Milan in 2024. And yet, the 1950s nuclear family model is still a reference, which does not correspond to the variety of family assemblages that subjects create along lived lives.

And many more contradictions, creativity, joy, violence, wars, in the unfolding of feminist social change!

The Vulvae and other informal groups and connections are my resource of hope, to keep on keeping on, starting from my own emancipation, through a lot of humour, and trust.


Ph 4 Assemblage Lahiri

Ph Gaia Del Negro, personal assemblage reflecting on my intimate relationships, through objects in my apartment in Milan, 13 March 2024.

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