How to become a lesbian in 30 minutes Part 2 – Elaine Hutton

‘How to become a lesbian in 35 minutes’- Municipal Lesbian Feminism and Lesbians in education. Lesbian History Group Event 5/12/2015

Lesbians in Education in the 1980s.

I’m going to talk about the Girlswork movement within the Youth Service in the 1980s, which arose out of second wave feminism, but first take a brief retrospective look at the Girls Club movement which began in first wave feminism.

2)  Girls’ Clubs

  • In 1911, the National Organisation of Girls’ Clubs was formed (this is at the height of the Suffragette’s militant campaign for votes). Some volunteers were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, suffragettes – striving for change in women’s position. Between the wars, in 1931, NOGC adopted a constitution with objects such as ‘to arrange deputations to government departments and public bodies, in connection with the social, educational and industrial equality of girls and women’ – so it continued to fight for women’s and girls’ rights.
  • In 1938 there were 352 affiliated girls’ clubs in London. The London Union of Girls’ Clubs (LUGC) employed 4 paid women staff, owned 3 camp-sites, a swimming pool and a country club, for the sole use of young women. Until the 1950s the youth service was not a paid professional area of employment, so it was mainly run by volunteers. All officers, members of committees and club workers were women.

The basic message, throughout this time, was ‘– understanding and valuing girls and ensuring they get equal shares.’ (Jane Dixon   A Short History of the Girls Club Movement in London)

2)   So what happened?

  • All was lost after WW2 with the appointment of men at the top. In 1946, the London Union of Mixed Clubs and Girls’ Clubs was formed, as mixed work was seen as a progressive experiment. In 1949 there were 50 girls only clubs, by 1960 there were 7. The growing emphasis on ‘professionalism’ led to an increase in the number of male full-time youth workers, with women being employed as part-timers or working voluntarily. In 1960 the title of the organisation became ‘London Union of Youth Clubs.’ Girls had been completely disappeared.
  • Girls’ lack of involvement in this context was predictable. As early as 1952, as more men took on leadership roles, they were offered courses in how to work with girls, as ‘many men have experienced difficulty in planning a programme to interest girls…’
  • Henceforth, girls were treated as a ‘problem.’ During the 1960’s, they were offered activities such as grooming, fashion, and jewellery making – that is, channelled into femininity.
  • By the 1970s and 1980s, youth work – funded by local authorities all over the country, was thriving. However, it had effectively become ‘boys’ work’ with all the resources now going into men and boys. When girls did attend clubs or centres they remained ‘invisible’, and didn’t compete with boys for the use of facilities, equipment or attention, unsurprisingly given the way they were treated. This was the situation when lesbian feminists started getting jobs in youth work in the late 70s and 80s.

3)  How the 12 borough wide Girls’ and Young Women’s Projects were born.

  • In the mid-1970s, with the surge of the British women’s liberation movement, feminist youth workers, predominantly lesbians, came together to organise, and challenge mixed work and what happened to girls within this. But when women workers initially tried to set up girls’ only nights in youth clubs, they often experienced (literally) violent reactions from boys. Generally they got no support from male workers, as by then the predominant ideology in youth work was that of ‘soft policing’ of delinquent boys. Women workers were seen as inadequate if they couldn’t ‘control’ i.e. pander to, violent young men, or weren’t prepared to tolerate their behaviour. A small group of dedicated women fought hard to re-establish the right for girls to be provided for equally, often at great cost to themselves. Women making these ‘demands’ were described as ‘difficult’, women’s libbers, and in some cases sacked by male workers.
  • Here are some typical responses by male youth workers:

There is some harassment of the girls by the boys but this is only healthy natural teasing. I firmly believe in the integration of girls and boys and see no need for specific work with girls…In fact, two girls are taking part in a pool competition (Out of Sight, p 27)

It is important to find the right type of woman to work with girls. …Women who believe that girls have a positive role to play but are not strong feminists. I dislike feminist views; they only rouse hostility in men and boys. (Out of Sight, p.24)

  • Against this background, women youth workers fought hard and finally prevailed. So the Girlswork (political term) movement was born, or re-born. Youth Services throughout UK took on ‘working with girls’, and the National Association of Youth Clubs had a Working with Girls unit (Leicester) to give support, training, and provide resources and ideas for the national Girls’ Work movement.
  • London borough youth services were part of ILEA, the radical authority headed by Ken Livingstone. After the pioneering and successful models of Camden and Islington Girls Projects, which also, incidentally, set up the first very successful Young Lesbian groups, the rest of the 12 London boroughs followed. These projects tended to attract feminists and lesbians – for instance, I applied for a job and hadn’t been a youth worker before this, and had no background in youth work.

  Tower Hamlets Girls Project- Snapshot

I was employed by Tower Hamlets Girls Project (1984-88), and often worked closely with Hackney Girls Project, which had also employed a lesbian. In the time I was there we had a great deal of freedom to do what we wanted.

Among the aims of my project (which of course we wrote ourselves) were:

  • To work with girls and young women all over the borough, in an anti-racist and anti-sexist way, with young women with disabilities and young lesbians.
  • to develop innovative provision which challenges the traditional roles of women.
  • to develop the confidence of girls and young women in their abilities and opinions, and to enable them to question and make appropriate decisions about their own lives.
  • Also, to be a resource for girls’ work in the borough, to campaign for and support girls’ work, monitoring how resources are allocated and supporting women workers in their work with girls, as well as co-ordinating borough-wide events for girls and young women, and to  initiate training for workers on issues associated with girls’ work

Because of ILEA’s radical policies at the time, we had money, and access to resources. There was a central Learning Resources branch. Lots of videos were available, which generated discussions and ideas – for example, Motherland, (1983) – ‘based upon the personal  testimony of 23 women who came to Britain from the West Indies in the 1950s’, talking to their daughters who were youth club members; How can I ignore the girl next door? (how to become a lesbian in 35 minutes), young lesbians talking about their lives; Danny’s Big Night – scrutinising male behaviour critically; these videos were usually made by youth projects, with the help of arts’ workers.

Provision for girls quickly took on feminist approaches. e.g. with part-time lesbian feminist youth workers, I ran a number of evening girls’ groups, where we discussed anything and everything – e.g. why would you want to get married? what do you want to do with your life? At times, these became young women’s consciousness raising sessions, so girls disclosed abuse, and raised issues of being bullied. (We always tried to deal with problems that arose in their lives). We worked with community arts projects to make videos, e.g. Four Corners, a video shopfront project collaborated with our project, so several groups made short videos on ‘fostering’ and ‘sexual harassment’ – they chose the topics, wrote the ‘storyboard’, improvised the acting out of scenes, and learned to use the equipment to video their stories, then we showed them publicly. Over time, in different youth club sessions, they explored ideas and issues which affected them, such as authority and freedom, racism, relationships with friends, siblings, parents, parents’ partners – the space and time to do this became invaluable. I also started running girls’ groups in several schools, at lunch-time and after school, and even did sessions in school-time with sympathetic teachers – always insisting on single-sex groups, which felt like a coup, given schools were generally more conservative in their approach.

e organised several girls’ activities weeks across Tower Hamlets and Hackney, and employed a number of tutors to do ‘non-traditional activities’ with groups of girls. The organisation of these was formidable, getting venues, transport, tutors, and working out the timing. I employed lesbian feminists whenever I could, including the van drivers.  Activities included car maintenance, self-defence, horse-riding, carpentry, computers, drama/video.Several times, we took groups of girls away, to Oaklands Women’s House in Wales, to do activities such as mountain-biking, pony trekking and canoeing. The main aim was to give them a sustained experience of an all-women environment. Here, predictably, anti-lesbianism emerged, which manifested itself as resistance to the two women who were teaching them canoeing. On the second day the whole group came down to the stony bank in skirts, high-heels and full make-up, rather than jeans and warm jackets…we dealt with it by going back to the house and having a discussion, which didn’t resolve everything, but we were careful to confront their stereotypes and prejudices and talk about why they held these attitudes. (Their resistance to lesbianism was a demonstration of ‘femininity’!)

We organised training for both full and part-time youth workers – sexual abuse (including what to do when girls disclose), how to approach non-traditional activities, challenging heterosexism, working with girls in ‘mixed’ youth clubs.

The full-time Girls’ Project workers throughout London met regularly together around the boroughs to discuss problems, conflicts with management, conflicts with each other. These meetings had the effect of making us a united and coherent and politically formidable grouping of women.

5) Young lesbian groups

I set up one quite late on in my years working there – it didn’t really come out of the project organically, so didn’t last long. I think the most valuable work I did in the project was running and organising young women’s groups, where they had the opportunity to reflect on their lives, and perhaps gain a different perspective. The strength lay in showing them strong women, a lot of whom were lesbians, as the girls I worked with were often quite young. So it was youth provision for girls which offered, among other things, wider possibilities than heterosexuality – and femininity. (pass round photos).

Within other girls’ projects, young lesbian groups emerged as a genuine development as the need arose, and had a feminist basis, as radical work with girls meant young women were able to see lesbianism as a positive political alternative to heterosexuality.

This is illustrated by statements made by a young lesbian,

I began to realise that there was a political affiliation, in some places, with lesbianism …I had thought it was just purely sexual, and then I finally realised that it had a lot to do with politics…And how it can be a political decision not to sleep with men…                                                                                        (Talking about Young Lesbians, p.29)

However, a number of young lesbian and gay groups, funded mainly by the GLC and partly by ILEA London Youth Committee and other sources, functioned at the time. The London Gay Teenage Group received funding from the GLC, and though it’s never stated, there was a tendency in such groups to put male interests first in groups that didn’t emerge from young women’s projects.  For instance, there were a number of underlying assumptions behind lesbian and gay youth work:

  • young lesbians and gay men were born that way and therefore have special needs,
  • sexual preference/orientation is the prime definer of homosexuality,
  • lesbians and gays are the same as/as normal as, heterosexuals
  • and lesbians are no different from gay men.

We can see how this thinking leads directly to the situation we have today – LGBT.

These assumptions created a context for the work, which meant certain forms of provision were more acceptable than others. Groups were advertised as offering support, advice or counselling. Courses were run for lesbian and gay youth workers, on ‘counselling skills and healthy living’ to deal with internalised oppression. This emphasis on the route to healthy homosexuality was insidious, as it reflected the ideology of the individualised solution, where anger and potential action against oppression were contained. The counselling model was more acceptable to local authorities, as it did not upset the status quo. .

One outcome of this was that lesbianism was restricted to small groups where young women had already defined themselves…so it didn’t ‘spread’. There were several instances within the Girls’ Projects of lesbian workers being told by their officers that it was inappropriate to come out to young women in other groups, even if they asked directly. I asked my manager what support I’d get if I came out in a school, as the girls were already making comments about my short hair and manner of dress and she told me it was inappropriate to talk about my private life, as she, the manager, wouldn’t come out as a drug user.  (However, it was always acceptable for heterosexual workers to talk about families and male partners and kids). The same (white) officer told me Asian women wouldn’t attend a training day challenging heterosexism, because ‘Asian people think it’s rude to talk about sex’ again revealing her own prurient view of lesbianism and racist assumption that no lesbians are Asian.

6) How did it all disappear? (again)

  • As said already, the Girls Projects met regularly to plot, and strategise, but after a time management London-wide tried to bring in targets and outcomes, which we resisted for a long time. The intention of this was to bring the projects under control.
  • Trendy supportive men invented ‘Boyswork’ which, of course, they’d had all the time, and attempted, sometimes successfully, to steal our hard-won resources to do it. They put out pamphlets and booklets stealing our language and ideas – sounds familiar? But there was always opposition, and a critique, of their attempts to undermine us, as we were a strong united group.
  • In less radical hands, and with women workers who weren’t feminists, girlswork became, ‘makeup’, grooming, cooking, crafts – non-threatening training for heterosexuality and femininity (history repeats itself, as similar activities were offered in the 1950s and 1960s). .
  • Thatcher abolished the GLC and then ILEA so it was a matter of scrambling around for another job for all of us. The fact that the government found it necessary to take the step of abolishing the GLC and ILEA shows what a threat the radical values had become.
  • Bringing in Clause 28 was a direct and deliberate thrust at political lesbians and our values – The amendment was enacted on 24 May 1988, and stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Gay men subsequently did not support lesbians, insisting they were born that way and couldn’t help it so needed tolerance and understanding, whereas lesbians, myself included, declared proudly in large meetings fighting the clause that our aim in our various projects was indeed to ‘promote homosexuality and pretend family values.’ We didn’t express it that way, of course – we said we encouraged young women and girls to look critically at the family and marriage, and show them there were other ways of living outside of the nuclear family (this wasn’t news to them, as the majority already were!)

7) What can we learn from these experiences?

  • Girlswork existed before the war, from the turn of the century, and was wiped out, and in the 70s, with 2nd wave feminism, we fought for and brought it back.
  • We named ‘anti-lesbianism’ and fought unashamedly and upfront for lesbian rights and values and for the right of young women to become lesbians. We resisted mixed groups, and stood out for single sex groups, and had the research and evidence to demonstrate that girls preferred that (Subsequently, in my next job with Bucks County Council Youth and Community Service, I did a research project which also showed girls preferred single sex groups and exciting activities, and it was suppressed by the head of service).
  • We were a united group who fought for what we believed in, and constantly met, argued, discussed, face-to face, what we should be doing. We also stood united against undermining of the work, and supported each other against unsympathetic managers.
  • We were ‘out, proud and identified as lesbian feminists.’


Copyright © Elaine Hutton / Lesbian History Group and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Resources used

Hutton, Elaine, Girls’ Own Story, (later titled Sabotage in the Youth Service), 1985, unpublished thesis for Diploma of Youth and Community Work

Lloyd, Trefor, Work with Boys, National Youth Bureau, 19854 

National Organisation for Work with Girls and Young Women – Background and History

This is a leaflet which includes references to articles by Louie Hart, Val Jones, Val Marshall, Pratibha Parmar, Gilly Salvat, and Jane Dixon

Within the leaflet, I have used information from the following:

Val Marshall ‘The Working Group for the recently formed national organisation for Work with Girls and Young Women explains why the re-establishment of a Girls Work Organisation is long overdue’, published in Youth in Society, June 1983

Jane Dixon   A Short History of the Girls Club Movement in London

Val Marshall Girls are People too.Out of Sight: A Report on how the ILEA Youth Service in the Camden area is meeting the needs of Girls and Young Women, 1982

Tower Hamlets Girls’ Project Report, September 1984 – July 1986

Trenchard, Lorraine (ed),   Talking about Young Lesbians, London Gay Teenage Group, 1984

Trenchard, Lorraine & Warren, Hugh, Something to Tell You, London Gay Teenage Group, 1984

Trenchard, Lorraine, & Warren, Hugh, Talking about Youth Work, London Gay Teenage Group, 1985

Youth Work Unit, Working with Girls: A Reader’s Route Map, National Youth Bureau, 1981


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