Ova – the Radical Feminist band – Rosemary Schonfeld




You can enjoy some of Ova’s music at https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk/o/



Copyrights © Rosemary Schonfeld / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sisterwrite bookshop – Lynn Alderson

Sisterwrite bookshop – Lynn Alderson. Lesbian History Group Event 8/10/2016



Sisterwrite bookshop – Lynn Alderson.pdf



I was at Sisterwrite for its first 3 years – and I can’t answer for the whole 15 years of its life. I was one of the three founder members, but after leaving Sisterwrite I moved away from London for some years, and didn’t play a part in its subsequent development.

It all began for me in the summer of 1978 when Mary Coghill and Kay Stirling came to see me at Compendium Books, and said they wanted to start a women’s bookshop and did I want to join them?

I didn’t know Mary, but did know Kay a little. I was sceptical. I thought it would take a fair amount of money, capital to get premises, stock etc. and I certainly didn’t have it. But Mary had managed to accrue a bit, she was able to offer 5k plus 3 from her sister and that was a good beginning, We were clear from the beginning that it would be a loan and that the shop would pay it back when we could, and we did. We worked out that we needed about 16K, and set about fundraising. We also send around a letter of support and got a lot of different organisations and individual women to sign and give us a vote of confidence. Eventually, with some donations (i think Amanda, you gave us one), and low interest loans, we reached about 11k and felt we might be able to manage with that. Even then, it was a not a lot of money, and we worked without wages for some time.

They wanted my involvement because I was managing the Women’s Section at Compendium, and for those of you who don’t know of it, Compendium was the biggest and best of the alternative/radical bookshops in London then. It was on Camden High Street and got so big that at one point occupied 3 shops there. It was famous and a great centre for alternative culture – which, I have to say I sometimes clashed with. There was more than a little pornography around and things came to a head once when I ripped down a series of postcards I found offensive. But it was that kind of place, part of the libertarian, not to say libertine, culture of the time. I was allowed full say over my section, paid myself from the till, and I think it was the only interview for a job I ever had where they asked my starsign! Apparently Virgos were ok.

I had worked at Housemans, the Peace News Bookshop as it was known then, in Kings Cross, still there of course, where I’d managed all the radical periodicals. Anyway, the point being that I had the specialist knowledge and was a bookselling and to some extent publishing professional, and Kay had also worked in books, at Colletts and had bookshop skills too. From the beginning we wanted to be good booksellers, knew that in order to work that the bookshop would have to be well run and profitable.

I agreed to give it a try – it was exciting – the thought of being able to run the shop ourselves, to fully reflect our politics and do things our way, and to show that women could do it was very attractive. And perhaps its worth reminding ourselves – at this point that women were having to learn all sorts of new skills in order to live more autonomous lives, and to do our politics. And, just to prove that we could do whatever it was. Autonomy was the big word then – whether it was of our movement, or on a more personal level. Onlywomen (the original Women’s Press) had to go out and learn to print in order to get control of the whole process, in order to be able to publish what they wanted and how. We fitted closely into the existing radical, political alternative culture – ie Publications Distribution Coop and the networks for support that began to be formed and this was both a product of, and an enabler of the huge amount of radical writing that was taking place then.  And, I think that’s important. Without that around us it would have been difficult to make a success of the shop.

Kay and I both lived in squats, that was a way of getting control of our housing so that instead of living in little isolated bedsits, we could live collectively, or at least, try to live collectively – I was living in the London Fields squats where we opened a number of houses, and which eventually led to a women’s (predominately lesbian) housing coop. Anyway, the other big thing about living in the squat was no rent, and that made it possible for us to live on the dole until the shop was beginning to make enough money to pay wages. We worked part time on the project from June to September and then full time, taking possession of the shop in November and opening early in December.

We decided on a structure that was essentially a workers’ coop. We did have a few other women technically members of the coop at first, since I think you had to have 7 at the time and we were only 3, but it was always in the hands of its workers and we replaced them with workers as the numbers of us grew. And that was another thing – cooperatives are non-profit making in that any profits go back into the business or are given away or whatever, but you do not as individuals privately own the business and its profits. It is non-profit-making in that sense. That was very much part of our politics and principals at the time.

There was a saying then that co-ops were ‘self-managed exploitation’, since so many paid rubbish wages and expected staff to give their all. We decided to try and give ourselves good conditions of work, even if we couldn’t pay a great deal. So for example, we had a 4 day week, six weeks holiday and we allowed provision for a worker to take a year off if she wanted, the thinking being that if it was a right to have time off for having a baby, we should allow women time off for doing something else, ie writing a book, studying, travelling, whatever.

But we were very much a collective, having meetings and taking decisions together – all operating on consensus largely, and although there may have been one or two differences of opinion, by and large we got on well together, respected one another and also respected our different skills and orientations. For example, Kay was very interested in non-sexist children’s literature and did a lot of work over the years to develop that. Mary was in the Matriarchy Study Group as I recall – incidentally the first group I ever heard of that was split over the demands of a transsexual for membership. And it was transsexual then rather than transgender. But all 3 of us were radical feminists, and we thought that significant in doing the project successfully together – that although we were very different people, there was a lot of agreement between us about important political principles and ways of working. And we were all very committed to the shop and each other.

We set the shop up with a lot of help from friends, Penny Collier came and helped build bookshelves, Jo Nesbitt the cartoonist came and helped and was later responsible for the wonderful nun/whales that could be seen swimming around the walls of Sisterbite – she had a bit of a thing for nuns…… but it seemed appropriate at the time, and funny. There’s one of her postcards in the file I’m passing round if you want to see one. And she also did our poster – in there too. (Take a look at the book titles in it). Lots of women dropped by and helped, clearing rubbish, building shelves, painting etc.  Sandy Martin was working at a wood shop on Essex Road at the time, and she helped us to get the wood we needed at a cheap rate. I’m only sorry I cant remember all those who helped now.

We had identified the premises on Upper Street, I think in the summer of 1978.  A friend of Mary’s who had some spare money, a man, (I think it was Mischa Wolf), bought it and we rented from him. He was not otherwise involved in the collective, it was always our bottom line that this would be a women-only venture. We couldn’t make the shop women-only and rumours to that effect, I have seen it written on the internet that men were not allowed, were false, – it wouldn’t have been legal at the time. And, indeed there was the need to deal with men in general, libraries, academics, suppliers etc. in no way were we separatist in that sense.

I do remember one man leaving the shop with a friend at one time, saying, ‘isn’t it a pity they are missing out half of the human race?’ The irony, the irony…

And, we did have some trouble with men occasionally, Kay was threatened at one point by an aggressive man in the shop, we had graffiti sprayed on the windows and once our locks were glued up. We did have a wire grill installed at the front of the building, shatter-proof glass and a buzzer inside to alert women upstairs, and, I think its important to remember the atmosphere of the times where one or two bookshops had been bombed. We did not see the police as our friend either, we had the odd one in plainclothes come in, very obviously listening to conversations and phone calls and noting down titles. We thought we were probably phone tapped, having once picked up the phone to find NAC (the National Abortion Campaign) on the other end, when neither of us had rung the other.

And, there were links between radicals and groups like the Bader Meinhoff, one of their women members (Astrid Proll) was living under another name in the Hackney squats. So their suspicions of us weren’t entirely unfounded.

But, having said that, it was a bookshop for women. And, most importantly a centre for the Women’s Liberation Movement. We were all very active in the movement and clear about that. I’d been involved with Onlywomen, at one time also on the coven of Earlham Street, where I’d met my first radical feminists in the shape of Lilian Mohin of Onlywomen fame, and Sheila Schulman (sadly no longer with us). So I was very much part of that wing of the movement. Kay was involved with the Women’s Arts Alliance and literature, Mary had a passion for history and healing, and I was keen on feminist science fiction at the time, as well as politics. But we were fine about coming from different places and trusted each other’s feminisms and integrity. They were, are very fine women.

So we worked hard at getting the run down shop into some order, and it was run down and dusty. Upper Street was not the trendy place it is now. There was an old fashioned underwear shop just down the road, you know the kind with that yellow cellophane in the windows to stop the sun spoiling the suspender belts and capacious bras on display. They went on pricing in handwritten pounds shilling and pence labels until they day they finally went under. The Kings Head pub down the road, busy and popular as a theatre pub kept its huge silver till and continued with pounds shillings and pence too for many years. Maybe even still do.

The street was run down and unloved, and we weren’t as close to a tube as we’d have liked, in between Highbury Corner and the Angel – but it was the best we could do and we just hoped that women would come to us. And, they did. You did.

But I’m jumping the gun. One of the most important things we knew we had to do was to find some way of getting books from the USA. So many things were being published there, and so little in Britain that we knew it would be vital for our success.

I had already taken home, bit by bit, the card index file from my job at Compendium and we’d painstakingly copied out each card, giving details of books, publishers, price etc. so that we had the beginnings of a collection, a data base I guess. I then went to the States. We could only send one and we agreed it would be me as I’d had some experience of importing already, and cheekily, I asked Womanbooks in New York if I could go through their stock and make notes. Amazingly they said yes, which was very sisterly of them. They were the most famous women’s bookshop at the time and had a huge collection of books. So I stood on stools and ladders and went thro every single one of their books and publications and wrote out a card for them all. It took at least 3 days, may have been more. Can’t think how I did it now. But I also went and saw distribution organisations and set up an account so we could order directly from them. I set up an account with an American bank so that we could pay into it and then be able to pay our suppliers directly with American cheques. I went to San Francisco to see some of the small publishers, and set up more accounts, and Philadelphia I think too, not sure exactly why. Anyway, the upshot was that we were then able to provide a very comprehensive selection of books for our customers, not just the mainstream presses, but the pamphlets, the small press stuff, the political journals and papers such as Off Our Backs and Sinister Wisdom. Perhaps I should mention here that we didn’t always get what we ordered, that if customs didn’t like a book in your consignment, then they could and did confiscate the whole box – it was very difficult to get it back again. So, somehow loads of porn got in, but if they didn’t fancy The Joy of Lesbian Sex, for example, then they could just confiscate it. Same in Ireland where certain issues of Spare Rib weren’t allowed in.

Lets not forget some of our other imports, Olivia Records – the women’s music company. And, if you’ve never heard Meg Christian’s Gym Teacher – you’ve truly missed out. Many of you will have fond memories of those records, there was a time when they seemed obligatory in any and every lesbian household. One of the very early photos in the file, of the 3 of us shows the Olivia records behind us I think. Curiously, I think they now do very successful cruises for lesbians, huge boats full of lesbians, imagine that!

It was a matter of personal pride to me that we should have everything, or at least know of it and where to get it. It wasn’t a question of profitability. We didn’t only stock things that sold as I know many bookshops did and do. We were trying to operate as a centre for knowledge and activity for the WLM, We were a physical location where you could go, meet other women,(the anarcha-feminist group I was in at the time often met at Sisterbite). You could find newsletters that would tell you what was happening; read notices for groups or somewhere to live; find the latest book or article, the one everyone was discussing at the time; or find something totally obscure – books on medieval women or women in Victorian literature; lesbians books and newsletters, some of which were kept under the counter – Down There, the guide to self-exam by Sophie Laws of Onlywomen, sold with a speculum to do it yourself, and here is one of those speculums! – And if I remember rightly there are some lovely photos of my cervix in there, not an easy photo-shoot); or Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation – very popular that was, we sold many copies. The art of the female orgasm was something we definitely had to teach ourselves. We sold badges and lovely silver women’s symbol earrings and pendants (Paddy Tanton made the first of those), and labyris/axe pendants, and badges, of course.

A Woman’s Place was operating at the time in central London, and they sold a few books too as well as being primarily an information centre. We were anxious not to upset them or impede their business in any way, so we did go to see them early on, and later when we were up and running and had some money, gave them some. In our first year we were able to give them and WIRES £500 each, and I think we bailed WIRES out again when they had no money for printing. It was always our intention to pass money on to other feminist organisations when we could and we talked quite a lot about the difficulties of how to decide who we should support. There seemed to be lots of issues we had to discuss and decide about together.

We did start to pay ourselves as soon as we could. Having opened a few weeks before Christmas, the word was really spreading by then and we were getting loads of women coming to the shop – and I remember the first day, just before Christmas when we took £1,000 in one day. It seemed a huge amount, and we were thrilled. Of course, our American books in particular were expensive, and I remember being verbally duffed-up at the disco because we were not selling cheap to women. But we couldn’t do that, as I said at the beginning, we knew we had to make a profit to survive, but it was never a private profit or capitalist venture. But few of us then had a problem expressing whatever it was we thought about whatever anyone else was doing in the name of feminism. You had to be prepared to be challenged, however good you thought your motives were. And, of course, selling politics, as in a sense we were, was just asking for it.

However, all the informal services we offered we did so for free – women would telephone to ask for all kinds of information – when the next demo was, how they could contact someone, where could they get an abortion. And, remembering what I said earlier about the phone being tapped, we could have gotten in very deep water had we passed on information about illegal abortion networks, so we were always very careful.

We did those things for the love of feminism, to promote and spread the word, to be a service to women and, to lesbians of course. Then there was little in the way of facilities and services. The local councils were having great battles to set up lesbian and gay units. There wasn’t much in the way of literature, but we tried to have everything there was, even if some of the novels were more than a bit naff. And, as I said, we kept things under the counter that were in any way sensitive. Women’s newsletters meant only for women, Catcall and Wires, or only for lesbians. It was important to open up those networks for communication. There wasn’t an internet, of course, that’s exactly why books, periodicals, journals, pamphlets were so important. Conference papers, discussion articles in newsletters – all these things were in the print medium, and we made our own. We got access to Banda machines in the early days, those involved the cutting of waxed paper to go on a metal drum full of ink in order to produce copies. Later Gestetners, a little easier. And it was only by controlling those means of production and distribution that we got the power to decide what was printed and where it went. Spreading the word about a demonstration took time, from advertising it in newsletters and journals, to posters (and Sisterwrite kept many posters for sale as well as for information, they became a feminist art form), to word of mouth. Meetings were important. We did things face to face.

When a number of women wanted to discuss entering the Labour party as a strategy, we agreed to have the meeting at the shop to discuss the pros and cons. Funny how that one seems very relevant again now. So many women came that we had to close the shop doors and I was worried the wooden floors of the first floor where the meeting was taking place would collapse. And still we had women in the street banging on the doors to get in. It was very heated. Some women saying it was the best plan to get things changed, others that it was only by having a strong and autonomous (that word again) women’s movement that we would put pressure on the parties to make the kind of changes we wanted to see happening. Women did both those things, and both were right I think now. Each approach made important gains for women.

Anyway, my point being, that we did things together, argued them out, disagreed profoundly and were sometimes nasty, and sometimes funny and often weepy with the passion of it, but we did it in real reality, not virtual reality, and that, I think, is why we changed things and ourselves so profoundly and formed bonds that have connected us all our lives and kept us engaged all our lives. I wanted to say that, but I won’t go on. It just seems important to me that with so much political activity taking place on line now, and in such a different way, that we don’t forget the importance of being there with each other. And, that was what Sisterwrite was for ultimately. So that if you went looking for the Women’s Liberation Movement, as I had a few years before, you would find it.

Sisterbite was opened during the next year, 1979 as a café where women could come and relax, and that was women-only. Caroline Forbes, (another good woman we have lost) opened it up and it became very popular. She was joined later by Frankie Green (now of Women’s Liberation Music Archive fame) and Judith Skinner. Caroline had spent time in Australia and was a great fan of jaffles. Anyone remember those? Basically sandwiches toasted in a special machine, everything from eggs to jam. And, Liz Trott (who died a few years ago now) reworked the little garden out the back and that became a lovely place to sit and chat and have your lunch. In a sense we were the forerunner of the ‘destination’ bookshop, where you had a coffee shop and became somewhere to spend time and not just buy something. The big chains went in for it big time, later on.

We also gave space upstairs to the WRRC, the Women’s Research and Resources Centre and we gave them periodicals from the shop and provided a reading room that any woman could use. That was also a very useful archive and many women used and valued it. I do recall one day that Bea Campbell was researching her latest book up there, and we locked the shop downstairs and left, not knowing she and a few other women were still there. They did manage to get out eventually, via a back alley. And altho I didn’t do it deliberately, honestly, it did make me smile as there was a lot of hostility between soc fems and rad fems at the time – remember that thing they (I think it was in a lesbian left show) once said,  – you could sleep with a rad fem, but don’t on any account talk to them!

I don’t remember doing this but apparently we stickered books we didn’t agree with – (including Bea’s Sweet Freedom) I’m sure we were quite opinionated enough to do that. Certainly we stickered books that had a sexist cover that we didn’t approve of – Susi Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue being one that was successfully changed I think. Authors didn’t necessarily get control of their covers then but started to write it into their contracts around that time.

We had author readings – Marge Piercy was one, which we organised at the Kings Head down the road, but other visiting poets and writers too. We didn’t do book signings as we thought it was a bit star worshippy, we were a bit holier than thou at times. But it was very much frowned upon in the movement to be famous or stick your head above the parapet – we were determined not to have leaders and it was very difficult at times for those trying to do things publicly when all they got was criticism for it. But I digress again.

The shop did become a centre that was known internationally. There were some links with European feminists, we stocked some literature from Denmark and France. Sisterwrite was contacted by the French feminists who were challenging a group in France who had tried to take out legal rights over the words Women’s Liberation Movement, asking for support. It totally split their movement, and of course, we were appalled that anyone should try and do that, tho i’m not sure that we were able to do anything practical to support them. We produced a catalogue of books and everything we stocked so that women who lived outside London could have access too, and that also went abroad and we had a number of women in different countries ordering things. We got a grant of £2,600 from the EOC (Equal Opportunities Commission) to do the first one ( the second and much larger one is also in the file), (I don’t remember any other grants, we did work very successfully as a commercial enterprise). The EOC sent a male photographer to take pictures of us for their publications, but I sent him away suggesting (politely) that they send a woman photographer instead. He went back and told them he’d been savaged by a little old lady. I’ll admit to a grey hair or two but I think you can see from the photos that that wasn’t quite an accurate description I was 31 I think. I’ll admit to it now tho and like to think I could be much more savage. But the catalogue was, I believe very useful, it contained comments and descriptions as well as ordering information, and lists of useful groups and organisations etc. again, a lot of work, but worth it to disseminate the material and to include women who for whatever reason couldn’t get to the shop.

We tried to make sure we reflected the important debates at the time and the widest range of women’s issues. We kept sections on what we described as Black, Asian and Third World Women’s Writing, and women’s liberation politics including class and disability and Violence Against Women and Lesbian Literature and Politics. We were not a very diverse collective ourselves at the beginning but I believe that changed over the years. And we stocked material we didn’t necessarily agree with at times, like some of the stuff on S&M because we thought the debate was important. And often books that weren’t by feminists or didn’t take a feminist line if it was something about women we thought useful or unique in some way.

Feminists visiting London also came to the shop from all over the world. One of my personal favourite moments was being able to introduce two women who had been expelled from the Soviet Union for their feminist activities to the then editor of Manushi, the Indian feminist magazine. One of the Russian feminists was trying to survive by selling her watercolours, there’s a couple in the file, and we stocked and sold them for her. One of my least favourite moments occurred when I was standing by the feminist science fiction section (I imagined myself a bit of an expert by then) and being asked by a customer what I thought of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. I replied somewhat sniffily that they were ok if you liked fairytales with dragons in them. Of course, it turned out that the woman who had asked me was Marion Zimmer Bradley……She seemed to take it in good heart.

We took books to conferences and ran bookstalls there, often donating part of the proceeds. And we supplied a lot of books on sale or return to women who wanted to sell them at their event. Again, not really profitable, but essential in doing the work we were trying to do of spreading the word and supporting the WLM in any way we could. We stocked libraries, one or two of them would just send us some money saying they were trying to set up a women’s section and could we chose and send them a selection of books. Women who worked in academia often made a point of ordering thro us. Good to remember that debates such as those in Love Your Enemy and Breaching the Peace were included in women’s studies then. We attended conferences in Manchester, Leeds, Amsterdam. There were links with other feminists in bookshops, Jane at Grassroots, Mandy at News from Nowhere in Liverpool, they came and visited us and we had a conference of Feminists in Bookselling and Distribution in Manchester in 79.

And, we had very little shoplifting to contend with, not quite none, but it wasn’t the problem it had been for many other shops. Tho we did have a small group of boys that caused a bit of trouble, running into the shop with toy guns and taking the donation box.

By the time I left, 3 years later, the shop was very successful. We had taken on Jane Tilley (another we have lost), to work in the shop. We were able to pay ourselves a reasonable amount, the shop had taken enough to get a mortgage on the premises and was stable and well established. And, of course we had learned all the necessary skills, how to pay wages, run accounts, do stocktaking, deal with suppliers from here and abroad, whatever we needed, we learned. We had become a well-known bookshop and centre, and I think we did it well in terms of knowing our stuff, knowing who our customers/supporters/audience were and what they wanted. I did read around that time a fashion piece in, I think, the Evening Standard of all things where they were remarking on the return of skirts – and actually said that even one or two members of the Sisterwrite collective had been seen wearing them – the implication being that if even the dykes at Sisterwrite were wearing skirts they must be cool again. So, we even became fashion icons too! Hard to imagine when I think back on the old shirts and dungarees and silver sprayed monkee boots and schoolboy ties and blazers at discos – but that could be a whole other subject for the Lesbian History Group. What did lesbians wear?

It was, of course, assumed that we were all lesbians, which was never quite true. But the shop was also part of lesbian culture at the time. Women could and did meet in the shop, eyes meeting over a volume of Sappho, and go for a coffee upstairs. I got chatted up a couple of times, at one time a young customer was waiting for me outside the shop when we closed up. I was very surprised – I didn’t think I’d agreed to anything, just had a chat at the till, but apparently, I’d accepted a piece of chewing gum, and that was somehow significant. And, we did have a rule that collective members weren’t to sleep with each other. Hmmmm. I think that didn’t last long, if my memory serves me right, Caroline and I put paid to that one.

But, much of the culture surrounding the shop at the time was lesbian, the squats some of us were living in again were a way of living the way we wanted as lesbians, with all our experiments with monogamy and non-monogamy and group living. Penny put a bath in the middle of our hall in the squat we shared at one point – so you could well come in and find a woman in the bath. Or, I once knocked on the door of another women’s house to have it opened by Rosie, fully naked – it was a very hot day. And i should mention that Rosie Gowing made the lovely piece of stained glass that graced our front windows. Wonder where that went? There just is something about women being strong and autonomous that turns women into lesbians. To make the squats habitable some of us had to learn how to do the electrics (thanks to Lee that we were able to turn the meter back, again, allowing us to live on very little and defeat the man!), and another woman who is here today, the redoubtable Chris taught me how to put a sash window in. I treasure the memory, tho I’ve never done it again. I guess that what I am trying to say is that we were creating an alternative society where women did things for themselves, and that’s a very lesbian thing to do.

We also supported one another as a collective, tho we didn’t necessarily socialise or talk about what was happening in our personal lives a lot – when I was not at my best, heartbroken and distinctly flaky, Kay and Mary took the strain, and when Mary was ill, similarly, or when Kay arrived at work in tears, we put that first, and tried to see each other thro whatever it was.

And, Islington, dusty and unfashionable as it was at the time was also the home of the famous Crown and Woolpack women’s disco, and others later on. I think some of the Women’s Events, combining music and poetry, mad dressing up and all kinds of things were held at Islington and Finsbury Town Halls. There were many lesbians living in the area by then.

  • I think the existence of the shop and publishers also encouraged many women to write and there were lots of writing groups at the time too. Be it novels or articles, having a place where they will be published and distributed and sold and have a readership is essential, and particularly important for lesbians at the time who really didn’t have access to mainstream publishing and bookselling, or indeed access to each other. But I’m sure much more will be said about that at the Onlywomen talk you are going to have in December.
  • Novels were as important as political writings, and we sold books such as ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French almost by the hundred. Dale Spender’s book on language, ‘Man Made Language’ was another important one – and I think the first to really bring home the importance of the words we use and who gets to define those and how much they shape our thinking. Important all over again I think in the current trans debate, but also hugely significant in thinking about race, class, disability, animal rights, all forms of oppression. We imported Mary Daly’s works, and ‘Gyn/ecology’ was such an important text that the Women’s Press decided to publish it here and asked us to stop selling the US version. And, we did. I like to think that there was a general sense of supporting each other’s projects and willingness to cooperate. Much to my amazement at the time, the Sunday Times reprinted straight pages of ‘Gyn/ecology’, right on the front pages of one of its supplements I think. I think they described it as the apex (not that, the opposite of nadir?) of radical feminism. Hard to imagine now.
  • It is significant also I think, that many of us knew each other, that it was a social circle too, that some of us lived together and learned from each other and wrote for each other and fought each other and loved each other. We gave one another strength and formed a living, vibrant, energetic community. And we had an amazing time. Sisterwrite could never have existed without all the women who helped, and all the women who came and bought books and passed the word and all the women who wrote and printed and drove things round in vans, Alison Read, Pam Isherwood and Gail Chester were involved with the Publications Distribution Coop, part of the wider feminist network that linked in not just to publishing and bookselling but out to colleges, schools, universities…  It was a collective manifestation in the broadest and best sense. I quote the end of the collective statement in the second Sisterwrite catalogue
  • “We owe our existence to the Women’s Liberation Movement and the continuing strength and creativity of feminism.”


I suppose I need to say a bit about the end. The shop lasted for 15 years, but things had changed a great deal over that time. My last experiences of the shop had been of a run down place with little energy or enthusiasm. But, to be fair, there wasn’t the same women’s movement to support it any more. And, everyone was selling feminist books, and many other things had changed, the big chains had been able to dominate the trade once compulsory RRP ended and they could discount books. This meant the end for many small bookshops. The whole political climate had changed beyond recognition.

Kay and I went to see the remaining collective members (not women we knew) when we heard that the shop was to close. We wanted to know what had happened and what was going to happen to the money. We had thought in taking out the mortgage that whatever happened to Sisterwrite that there would be a pot of money left from the sale of the premises which could fund another women’s project, and Islington had become a very desirable place to be by then. But we were told that they had remortgaged the property, in order to keep going and now it all belonged to the bank. So, it was very disappointing for us, but as I said, the whole world had changed and Thatcher’s Britain was a very different kettle of fish.


Overall, I don’t think we ever thought the bookshop would have lasted that long. It did wonderful things in its day. It provided employment for a lot of women over the years. It was, a good example of a women’s cooperative, a worker’s cooperative, and I guess it had an impact on many women’s lives.

We were part of – all of us who created this network – were part of something much bigger. When women began to have more confidence that our voices were worth being heard. That the networks of publishers, journals, distributors and booksellers meant that you could be heard. We depended on them and they on us. It became a great flowering of creativity for women, from novelists to polemicists. Women’s voices entered the mainstream culture in a way they hadn’t done before. I am very proud to have been a part of that. Our movement was its inspiration and made so much possible.

(Thanks to Pam Isherwood for providing some photos)





Copyrights © Lynn Alderson / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Expanding Lesbian feminist communities – Angela C. Wild

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Angela C. Wild PDF

I am going to talk about Lesbian ethics, anti-political lesbians and expanding Lesbian feminist communities.

Because this particular topic has been discussed online in more or less heated debates I want to clarify that my position here is a political one, I am after deconstructing an ideology, not individual women who recognise themselves under that name

I am going to discuss here where the “born this way” narrative is coming from, what it is doing to women who are not “born this way” lesbians, what impact it has on women’s ability to access a political awareness of sexuality and their sexuality, the impact it has on women ability to reach a stage of self determination and the impact it has a the wider movement. And how this particular rhetoric seems to prevent a sense of lesbian feminist community   or makes it harder to expand our community.


A few definitions:

Born this way lesbians : otherwise known as essential lesbian, natal lesbian…:

That theory defines sexuality is innate, sexuality is sometime defined as a genetic reality or a mix of genetic/ social constructivism.

Women who agree with that narrative say they were lesbians from birth, lesbianism is said to be an essential part of themselves, something that was always in them since birth. These women knew very early they were lesbians and have had very little or no sexual experiences with men.

The issue isn’t that some women say they are born lesbians, but that the only way to be a lesbian, is to be born a lesbian, you cannot become one later in life.


Political lesbian: I use the term political lesbian rather than lesbian feminist because it is most of the time misunderstood for meaning “lesbian” and “feminist” As if these two things have nothing to do with one another.

A Political Lesbian is a woman who has chosen to become a lesbian because or thanks to her politics. A woman who has chosen to put women first in all aspects of her life including romantically and sexually.

Political Lesbians define sexuality as socially constructed, it is uncompromisingly anti-essentialist,  it comes hand in hand with a political critique of heterosexuality as an institution and defines heterosexuality as politically enforced on all women by violence and a relentless propaganda, to ensure each men has access to women for sexual but also domestic servitude.

Political Lesbian define lesbianism as political act of resistance because it is denying men access to women. It often means that for the women who call themselves Political Lesbians, politics got them to lesbianism, they couldn’t have been lesbians without the feminist process.

As sexuality is socially constructed, it can and should be deconstructed, women forced in heterosexuality should be freed from it.



The born this way narrative is an ideology that actually comes from the gay men movement. In the 70’s, the gay liberation movement and Lesbian feminists were together challenging that ideology that sexuality is biological.

In the 80’s there was a big return to the biological model to explain homosexuality. It is an argument that is directly drawn from the Victorian sexologists (who were notoriously not very pro women)

Homosexuality is according to that model a deviation from the norm (the norm being heterosexuality), a perversion.

In the 80’s the gay men’s movement makes the strategic decision to argue that homosexuality is innate. The shift is supposed to attract mainstream sympathies on the basis that homosexuals have to be accepted for who they are as they cannot help themselves.

Lesbian feminists at the time disagrees and opposed the move because it didn’t represent their experience and was anti feminist and counterproductive.



One of the opposition to Political Lesbianism by women who call themselves “actual Lesbians” on the basis that they have been lesbians since very young is that it is appropriating and insulting to Lesbian who have suffered from anti lesbian oppression since they came out. Supposedly, women who came to lesbianism later have not suffered from that oppression because they were straight.

If we go back to a critique of compulsory heterosexuality by Adrienne Rich and how she describes the “pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, “. “within which women have been convinced that marriage, and sexual orientation toward men, are inevitable, even if unsatisfying or oppressive components of their lives.”  we can see that this assumption is completely unfounded.

No woman is heterosexual.

The one amongst us who are or have been in heterosexual relationships are the ones who Patriarchy anti lesbian oppression has successfully formatted.

These women have experienced precisely that: Anti Lesbian oppression and Compulsory heterosexuality are one and he same thing and no woman straight or lesbian has ever escaped it.

Talking about appropriation in that context is dividing women and prevent us to see our common experience of oppression.




Another anti political lesbian argument that we hear a lot is that Political Lesbians desexualise Lesbianism.

The famous line from the Leeds pamphlet “Love your enemy” that states that “political lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women

This line has been used and twisted to prove that political lesbians are not real lesbians, because it has been understood to mean political lesbians don’t actually have any sexual activity with women and that lesbianism is about holding hands while reading feminist books with women. This is of course ridiculous as political lesbians defines as loving women and putting women first in every way including emotionally and sexually.

The born this way narrative basis the very definition of lesbianism on and ONLY on sexual attraction and sexual activity with women.

That is problematic.

Political lesbians argue that lesbianism is more than just about sexuality. It is about culture, politics, building communities, sisterhood, revolution etc. Sexuality is one part of that.

Because political lesbianism  has by definition a political analysis of sexuality, we get named anti sex by anti feminist men. Why would women who call themselves feminist use the same argument as our oppressors?

One of the way non political lesbian justify being more lesbian that political lesbians is by saying they “lust after women’s bodies since they were teenagers”.

It is one of the effect of basing ones definition of lesbianism on men’s culture and men’s values, then we have the incredible situation where women who objectify other women get to be more of a lesbian than women who actually made the decision to love women in a non objectifying way.

Political lesbianism  rejects the definition of lesbianism as women’s right to objectify and prey sexually on other women. This is what men do. It is misogyny.

The point of saying “Lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women” is obvious.

No woman is sexual all of the time, women don’t walk around in a constant state of sexual heat. Further more women are constantly assumed to be straight whether they are having a relationship or not, one do not loose ones sexuality if we do not have a sexual activity at one point of our life!

Does a lesbian who has broken up with her lover stop being a lesbian?  As Ann Tagonist asked Do older lesbian who do not have sex anymore stop being lesbians?


Very ironically I have read recently that political lesbianism’s view of sexuality is creating a hierarchy amongst lesbians. The idea is that political lesbians would be more worthy lesbians than the born this way lesbian.

In my opinion, political lesbianism is the most women inclusive movement within feminism. It argues every women is shaped and oppressed by hetero-patriarchy.and that it is possible for every women to fight that conditioning and escape what patriarchy has build us and name us for.

The idea of an essential sexuality on the other hand is an invention of patriarchy. That some women are innately straight and some other women (a minority) are innately lesbians both serve the patriarchy.

Arguing that some women are innately heterosexual mean these women are biologically determined to be sexually used by men. this is deeply misogynistic and anti feminist idea.

Ironically the hierarchy of lesbian does exist and is an invention of the anti political lesbian propaganda and lesbians who are not feminists.

In that model, lesbians are judged to be more or less worthy according to how much contact they have had with men. It is nothing more than a cult of purity and how women are deemed as unworthy if they ve ever been touched by a penis

Typically it goes like this:

“GoldStar Butch / Butch Lesbian / Fem lesbian / ex het lesbians / heterosexual women”

In this model women who have had any kind of sexual activity with men are called sells outs, traitors and collaborators.

In contradiction to that, political lesbians acknowledge that women have been coerced to be heterosexual in the first place and recognise that heterosexuality is the core of the oppression of women. The closer to men the more in danger.

Blaming women for their oppression is anti feminist.


It is not surprising that some of the opponent to political lesbianism are stating  “lesbianism is not a threat to patriarchy.” 

  • Indeed if ones definition of lesbianism is male centred it is not a thread to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is condemning women to a lifetime of heterosexuality, it is not  a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is that of an elitist club one can only access by being born into, it is not a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is about blaming women for their oppression it is not a threat to patriarchy.

A Lesbianism which is part of a conservative patriarchal gay movement isn’t threatening because it argues homosexuality is innate and cannot be promoted.

Political Lesbians argue that Lesbianism can be promoted and indeed it should be.

Surely conservative male government officials were feeling threatened enough by lesbianism when they passed Section 28.

Why else would they push a law forbidding the promotion of homosexuality and pretend families (read Lesbian mothers) in primary and secondary education? This followed a time in the mid l980’s when Lesbian feminism had been at its height, challenging compulsory heterosexuality in the mainstream in London local government.


To conclude, the born this way / anti political Lesbian narrative, has become stronger and stronger over the decades. Women used to choose lesbianism more in the 80’s, now its harder and harder for women to challenge their heterosexual conditioning because the world lesbian is locked to define the ones who knew they were lesbians since they were born.

The born this way anti political lesbian argues that women who were once straight should never call themselves lesbians if they became lesbians later in life as a result of their political awareness.

its a political problem for women who are looking for their way out of heterosexuality and are pushed out of lesbianism and bullied to call themselves “celibate or “Female exclusive bisexual”, forever outsider to the wider lesbian community.

As a woman who was once straight and who survived heterosexuality I am grateful I once heard one didn’t have to be born a lesbian to become one. I am grateful I had sisters around me who had walked this path before and told me it was possible.

As we are trying to free ourselves from men’s sexuality and colonisation over our bodies and minds, as we are trying to redefine desire, love relationships while the whole wide world tell us it is impossible to do so,  it would be good to have the support from our sisters.


Copyrights © Angela C. Wild / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




Lesbian Ethics Part 3 – Lesbian feminist friendship – Lynne Harne

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 3 – Lynne Harne PDF


Following on from Elaine Hutton I am going to talk about the significance of lesbian feminist friendship particularly in terms of the ideas developed by Jan Raymond in her book A Passion for Friends.[i] I will also refer to some of the ideas that were already developing in the lesbian feminist community in the UK about friendship in the early l980s.


Jan Raymond built on Adrienne Riches’ ideas from her essay Women and Honour[ii] and those of others such as Mary Daly. . She primarily saw lesbian feminist friendship as both political and personal relationships which could help us to develop more effective politics and women’s political power through female bonding. She saw this as a challenge to what she called hetero-relations and hetero reality defined by the ideology that women primarily exist for men.  She did not view lesbianism as a purely sexual category but also as a social and political category where lesbianism is a choice.


She invented an ideal of friendship which she termed ‘Gyn Affection’ and said that it means


“Personal and political movement towards each other. As the personal is political so too the political is personal. Although politics and friendship cannot always go together we need to create a feminist politics based on friendship”


She saw this type of friendship as sustaining lesbian feminist community and political resistance to male power and male bonding against women. I should also say that she did not necessarily exclude heterosexual women in developing these ideas of friendship, but acknowledged this was much more difficult for heterosexual women. Nevertheless, I believe that for the most part she was referring to the lesbian feminist community.


She stated that Gyn affection  is not only a loving bond between 2 or more women but it is also a freely chosen bond which involves reciprocal assurances based on honour (which I interpret to mean trust), loyalty and affection.


Despite this slightly romanticised idea of female friendship she recognised it as an ideal to which there were several obstacles.


These included certain forms of lesbian separatism which she called ‘disassociation from the world.’ While recognising that lesbian separatism can have value in strengthening bonds between women she also saw long term disassociation from the world, as negative because it fails to confront and challenge male power in the form of hetero-reality and hetero-relations.


This argument is similar to one made by Adrienne Rich in an essay called ‘The meaning of our love for women is what we have to constantly expand’ (1977).  Rich argued that total separatism is a ‘temptation into sterile correctness, into powerlessness and an escape from radical complexity’ and that turning our backs on issues like women’s reproductive rights mean that we are turning our backs on compulsory heterosexuality where women are forced for different reasons to have sex with men. She also stated that violence against women, motherhood, childcare and racism were all issues which involved lesbians, so needed to be challenged for these reasons alone.


Other obstacles to the kind of personal and political friendship that Raymond was proposing included what she termed therapism;relationism; the tyranny of tolerance and victimism to name but a few.  While I do not have time to discuss all these here I want to focus on some aspects that can still have relevance today.


As Elaine Hutton has already highlighted although therapy as a practice is no longer so relevant now, the ideas behind it are.

For example in using the term therapism Raymond talks about ‘a tyranny of feelings where women come to believe that what really counts in their lives is their psychology’ and where a refusal to tell how one feels is seen as repressive and a denial of one’s inner life.


She argued that we live in a therapeutic society where self-exposure of feelings is seen as one of the highest virtues. Psychology has created a new type of person the human confessing animal which also leads to the publicising of personal life. Thus in her view therapising where women often act as sisterly co-counsellors is a substitute for genuine female friendship. She argues that the personal is political does not mean the publicising of ones personal life, where the intimate and private are expected to be exposed.  I hesitate to refer to facebook here, but in my view and probably many of my generation facebook is not the place to reveal our most deeply felt thoughts about our lives.


In relationism as applied to the lesbian feminist community, she refers to the tyranny of relations where she argues that the lesbian obsession to be in an ‘erotic relationship’ is no different from heterosexual women being obsessed with having a relationship with a man. ‘It seems’ she says, ‘that in one sense, lesbians have replaced men with women as relational objects.’


A critique of relationism or what in the UK we called couplism was also being developed here in the early l980s.  For example in a journal called REV/RAD –   the revolutionary and radical feminist magazine couplism was critiqued as a form of relationship where lesbians in sexual relationships do everything together. Such behaviour makes it impossible to have autonomous friendships with either individual in the relationship. Couplism was also seen in relationships where friendships were secondary and friends only became important usually when the relationship was in trouble.


I do not have time here to go into more detail on all the obstacles that Raymond identified. She recognised that what she was describing was ideal and that many women had felt betrayed by their personal and political friendships in lesbian feminism. She argued that we shouldn’t have too high expectations of each other and that feeling the ultimate victim of women’s betrayals are the result of too high expectations that women will behave differently from men. She states that in a woman hating world women will internalise and externalise anti-woman values. But that this is only a partial truth, and while we should continue to have high expectations of women, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are not lived up to.



[i] Janice Raymond l986 A Passion for Friends. The Women’s Press. London

[ii] Adrienne Rich l979 On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Virago. London



Copyrights © Lynne Harne / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Lesbian Ethics Part 2 – Elaine Hutton

 Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016



Adrienne Rich’s Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying was written in 1975. Her introduction said ‘It is clear that among women we need a new ethics; as women, a new morality.’ She went on to say, ‘I wrote Women and Honor in an effort to make myself more honest, and to understand the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women.’

I think I first read it in Newcastle on Tyne in the late 70s, and as I remember it was circulated widely among lesbian feminists in Tyneside at the time. Women mainly reached for it to quote bits to each other when they’d split up with a lover, or fallen out with a friend or a group. We focussed on ‘the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women’, and conveniently forgot AR’s assertion that she wrote it also ‘in an effort to make [herself] more honest’.

This reaction to the article points up the difficulty of establishing a lesbian ethics. A ‘new morality’ does involve making judgments about the attitudes and actions and politics of other lesbians, and we can fall into many traps in trying to do so.

I’m going to read out some significant passages from the essay, just in case you’re not familiar with it, and/or to give you the flavour.

Just a word – AR constantly refers to ‘relationships’; Julia Penelope – quoted in Changing our Minds, (p 116) says

‘Our relationships aren’t limited to those that are sexual; sexual intimacy isn’t the defining characteristic of a ‘relationship’. Our friendships are ‘relationships’, and our disagreements are relationships, too.’ (1990)

Can we think in terms of this wider definition?

Rich begins by talking about the male idea of honour, and how women in patriarchy have been expected to lie, and rewarded for lying. She then switches to our own relationships.

‘To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, however, leads one to feel a little crazy.’ etc.

  • Read out a number of statements in her article.
  • Note that within this dense series of dictums about how to conduct ourselves in relationships with other women, individually and in groups, inevitably criticism and judgments are involved.

In Changing our Minds (1993), Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins basically wrote another version of lesbian ethics, in that they mount a detailed critique of therapy and the way it has been taken up by lesbians, causing us to embrace being victims together, rather than enriching each other as activists changing the world. A major part of therapy ideology is establishing a cult of ‘the self’, so that every woman’s experience and opinions are valid, and equal. (‘You’re worth it.’) Perhaps therapy doesn’t have such a hold now, but what’s still relevant is the way the jargon and psychobabble has infiltrated our consciousness – and politics. For instance, ‘just as therapists are not supposed to be judgemental, angry or critical with us, so we are supposed not to be judgemental, angry or critical with each other.’

‘Criticisms are felt as “attacks” and disagreements experienced as “hostility.” (p 148)

Where I stand

I’m totally sympathetic to Women and Honor, and I’ve always thought Changing our Minds a ground breaking book, and dipping into it over the last few days 20 years later I haven’t changed my mind.

My difficulty is applying the ethics to the lesbian community, in a bid to change the world.

As long ago as 1981, I wrote an article entitled ‘Reflections on the break-up of a lesbian relationship’, in which I stated ‘Because of the confusions and lack of patterns for our behaviour, it’s very easy for us to accuse each other of acting like men, of not having rid ourselves of ‘the patriarchy within’, …for instance, the word ‘patriarchal’ can be used to apply to all kinds of lesbian feminist behaviour. We can call monogamy patriarchal because of all the associations of property/possession. But we can also call non-monogamy patriarchal when it’s expressed as ‘Why should I deny myself as many sexual partners as I want just because my lover feels hurt? Why should any of these women put demands on me? I’m free to sleep with them all’. In the latter case, we have the problem of morality. In trying to invent a new existence, we hurt others.’

I think I was saying we can play with words and concepts to our own advantage. (Friggin’ Little Bits, a lesbian singing group in Newcastle in the 1970s, wrote lots of songs that showed how lesbians tied ourselves in knots trying to invent new ways of relating, while not being able to discard notions and feelings of possessiveness, ownership and jealousy. – ‘I’m yours, you’re mine, fuck anyone else’ go the words of one song).

A list of devices lesbians use against each other in the name of ethics/morality roll off my tongue….

‘You’re aggressive/entitled/abusive…acting like a man’; ‘you’re silencing me/negating my experience’; ‘right and wrong are patriarchal concepts, smacking of Catholicism’; ‘let me discuss your racism with you’, etc. I’m sure you can all think of examples…

So, is there a relevance for lesbian ethics today?

  • How do we begin to live up to it?
  • Is it possible to be critical of other lesbians/ lesbian lifestyles/ politics without setting ourselves above them?

Note that as a political movement, being critical and asking questions has meant we are denigrated as the ‘thought police’, and now, of course, as TERFS.

Elaine Hutton, June 3rd, 2016

Copyrights © Elaine Hutton / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys PDF

What is lesbian ethics?

In the 1980s Lesbian Ethics was a hot topic in a way that is unknown today. In the US the journal Lesbian Ethics was published from 1984 into the 1990s. In the UK the journal Gossip: a journal of lesbian feminist ethics was published from 1986 onwards by Onlywomen Press in response to the US version. Lesbian ethics was understood to cover analysis and theoretical exploration of issues concerning lesbian personal lives, sexuality and relationships. There was not a clear distinction between ethics and theory. Indeed the UK publication, Gossip, covers a wider ground of lesbian theory with much material on lesbians in fiction and in the movies, for instance. The US journal is a little more limited in scope.

Origin in the male left?

Lesbian feminists in the WLM considered that the personal and the political should reflect each other. They were not alone in thinking this. Many had come from the left where thinkers in the 1960s and 70s talked about what they called ‘living the revolution now’, how activists and revolutionaries should conduct their ‘private lives’ in consonance with their political beliefs and aims. They talked about prefigurative forms, i.e. creating forms of practice that would prefigure what would happen after the revolution. For those on the left this related to issues such as squatting, non-monogamy, sharing resources. These ideas travelled over into the WLM as we saw last meeting in relation to squatting.


In particular, the idea that the correct politics of relationships entailed non-monogamy was adopted by some within feminism and particularly lesbian feminism. This idea had its origins with sexist men who wanted widespread sexual access to women and were able to lecture non-compliant women that they were too hung up on seeking ownership and property in another person and deeply bourgeois ‘romantic love’, rather than ‘free love’. Within heterosexuality these ideas benefitted men but not women so much.

So, some of the ideas of living the revolution now came to lesbian feminism from the male left, though lesbian feminists added their own interpretations. Other ideas came specifically from lesbian feminism and included radical critiques of the male left ideas. Lesbian feminists agreed with the radical feminist understanding that the personal is political, i.e. issues of personal life are shaped by political structures. Lesbian ethics could be seen as a way to turn that around and accept that the political is personal, i.e. political values should form the foundation of the way in which we live our personal lives. Lesbian feminists often took these ideas very seriously indeed. The idea that we should not be looksist, for instance, was interpreted by some to mean that we should not ‘fancy’ other women but engage in sexual relationships with them solely on  the basis of their right on political ideas.

Feminist philosophy

In the 1980s, lesbian feminists in the US in particular, began to address these ideas within discussion of what was called ‘lesbian ethics’. From 1984 an important journal was published by Jeanette Silveira in California, called Lesbian Ethics. This published articles by many of those involved in discussing what we in UK were probably still calling the politics of the personal, such as Julia Penelope, Bev Jo, Sidney Spinster, the UK novelist Anna Livia, and the Bloodroot Collective which ran the feminist vegetarian café and bookstore in Connecticut and first delivered their paper at the W.I.T.C.H. lecture series in Boston, Women’s Intellectual Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Lesbian Ethics featured a regular “Readers’ Forum,” offering short pieces by many contributors on special topics set in advance. Memorable topics have been “Non? Monogamy?” (1: 2, Spring 1985); “Lesbian Therapy” (3: 3,Fall 1985); “Femme and Butch” (2: 2, Fall 1986); “Sex” (2: 3, Summer 1987); and “Separatism” (3: 2, Fall 1988). Articles covered topics such as lesbian nuns, sado-masochism, Dyke Economic, fat oppression, lesbian violence and the possibility of lesbian community.

Gossip, in the UK, republished some of the articles from Lesbian Ethics in the US, notable Julia Penelope’s series The Mystery of Lesbians, but also pieces by UK lesbians like me on butch and femme, separatism, AIDS, fat oppression, lesbian movies and literature.

In the late 1980s in the US, lesbian ethics became a field of teaching and literature in philosophy departments in universities where lesbian feminists were teaching. Philosophy in the academy seems to have taken a rather different form from here in the UK, where universities have not nurtured feminist philosophers. In the US however, a number of academic lesbian feminists were been able to incorporate issues such as sadomasochism into the remit of philosophy in a way that I think would have been unthinkable in the UK. These remarkable and exciting US academic lesbian feminist philosophers include Marilyn Frye, Sara Lucia Hoagland, Claudia Card, Joyce Trebilcot and Jeffner Allen. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland published her book, Lesbian Ethics, in 1988, Claudia Card published Lesbian Choices in 1995, and Jeffner Allen’s collection Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures was published in 1990.



Lesbian feminist ethics was concerned with how lesbians related sexually with each other. In concert with the idea of living the revolution now, there was some outrage and horror when, in the early 1980s, the ideas of a lesbian sado-masochist movement were imported from a group of San Francisco dykes who called themselves Samois, into the UK. The revolution was, of course, to be about equality, so how could a sexual practice based upon the eroticising of  extreme differences of power, be consistent with our revolutionary aims. We did not want to create a future, through our actions in the present which continued to eroticise women’s inequality.


We understood that the eroticising of women’s inequality was the foundation, the very bedrock of the way in which sexuality was constructed under male supremacy. We did not see sex as ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ but as a form of thinking and behaviour that is shaped by the power relationship of men to women. Women are born into inequality and only have powerlessness to eroticise. Heterosexuality embodies women’s masochism and powerlessness, in makeup and clothing, high heeled shoes for instance, having to show bottoms in skirts and not be able to climb trees etc. Men, very clearly, find women’s subordination sexy and this is the very basis of their sexual response. Pornography and men’s writings make that extremely clear. Men are trained to be initiatory and aggressive towards women sexually. Women are expected to eroticise submission and this works fairly well. Collections of erotica and women’s sexual fantasies show women eroticising men’s power. Mills and Boon novels feature big, strong men and women as swooning fans. The murder of women, rape and all forms of sexual violence against women and children  are ordinary aspects of men’s sexual sadism. We argued as lesbian feminists, and I argued in my book Anticlimax, that for women’s revolution to have any chance of success it was necessary to transform sexuality so that it featured the eroticising of equality because, as I wrote in my paper in Lesbian Ethics onSM, it was hard to fight oppression when you responded sexually to the boot that kicked you into submission.


In the early 1980s revolutionary feminist lesbians such as myself would go to conferences and set up workshops to discuss sadomasochist fantasies. Our practice was to ask women what sort of fantasies they had and make them seem funny and laugh at them. We considered that laughter was the best response and would take the power out of the fantasies, which would not be capable of creating such a sexual frisson after a roomful of women had rolled about laughing at them. In 1984 we set up the group Lesbians Against Sado-Masochism in London, and I wrote the piece, Sado-Masochism: the erotic cult of fascism which was published in the US journal Lesbian Ethics in 1986, and then became the appendix of my book The Lesbian Heresy in 1993. In the 1980s the term sado-masochism was used whereas the term BDSM is used today.


The ideology of SM

In the early 80s there was a detailed ideological defence of sado-masochism mainly created by gay male practitioners. Not surprisingly, SM was central to the sexuality of gay men, as they had ‘damaged’ masculinity and therefore eroticised powerlessness and powerful, aggressive masculinity in the way that women were expected to do. Many books and articles were written by them, and critique was thin on the ground. The forms of defence put forward were that SM was a valuable form of practice because it created a particularly powerful and pleasurable sexual response. Gay sex that did not focus on SM was called disparagingly at the time, vanilla sex i.e. colourless, or bambi, and seen as namby- pamby or niminy-piminy. SM sex was called by gay men ‘heavy-duty’, i.e. the real thing.


At that time there was a rather small underground fetish scene of het SMers. The most publicly promoted form of SM was gay sex, and indeed, as I argue in my book Unpacking Queer Politics, sm became the mainstream and accepted expression of gay male sexuality and gay male porn. The promotion of sado-masochism influenced lesbians who were part of a mixed gay scene.


SM dykes

SM dykes defended their position in slightly different ways from the gay men. Some practitioners made it clear that SM was a solution for them to the problem of having a damaged sexual response as a result of sexual abuse by men, usually their fathers or stepfathers. I can remember speaking against SM at conferences where young women would jump up from the audience and say that SM had healed them from the PTSD they suffered from sexual violence. They said that it enabled them to ‘feel’ and broke down the defensive wall they had built up to guard against sexual feeling lest it trigger the trauma of the abuse. In reply I would always say that that just created a constant cycle of abuse and offered no way out. The feminists speaking out about sexual violence from fathers within the WLM joined what were called Incest Survivors’ Groups in order to practice feminist consciousness-raising and self-help to heal from trauma. SM groups, it seemed were the new anti-feminist alternative, aimed at recycling rather than healing. Many feminists weighed in with critiques at the time, and the book Against Sadomasochism (1982) was a useful collection of pieces from very well-known feminists including Kathleen Barry, Diana Russell, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker. One defence lesbians made in the 80s of SM was that it was OK for lesbians to do it because no men were involved and women were each other’s equals. Thus they could truly consent to the practice and no inbuilt power imbalances existed. Articles and memoirs in the book showed how the practice of SM functioned within abusive relationships wherein one lesbian could punish her partner for infidelity, for instance, by humiliating her and causing pain.


Alice Walker’s piece was particularly powerful. She argued that sm was racist because it eroticised and recycled the abuses of slavery. She explained that SM dykes played out scenarios of master slave, with white mistresses and black slaves in dog collars and on their knees. This she saw as counter-revolutionary, sexist and racist in the extreme.


In the early 80s in London there was much use of Nazi imagery by SM gays and SM dykes. The swastika was an important SM symbol and both gay men and lesbians into SM wore them. It was in response to this that I wrote ‘Sadomasochism: the erotic cult of fascism’. I argued that at a time when skinhead youth were beating up black gay men, and particularly disabled gay men, in the toilets at gay clubs, it was entirely inappropriate to be promoting the eroticising of fascism.


There were some within the WLM who considered that fighting SM was an unnecessary distraction, rather an unimportant side alley for feminists. The radical feminist journal Trouble and Strife, for instance, in the early 80s put the shoutline ‘Not the sadomasochism debate’ on its cover in order to show its disdain for the issue. But SM proved not to be a minor issue, tangential to mainstream feminism. The huge expansion of the porn industry mainstreamed SM. The defence by many gay male and some lesbian practitioners made SM chic, such that it became the trendy and progressive way to do sex. The effect now is that many young heterosexual feminists I speak to say they have been involved in SM. They have mostly got out by the time I talk with them but it is clear that SM is very big now in mainstream heterosexuality. But, more importantly, the promotion of SM has so influenced everyday malestream sexuality that what were once seen as SM practices are now routinely carried out against women in heterosexuality, practices such as what is called ‘rough sex’, anal sex which leads to teenage girls having to wear butt plugs because of the damage to their bodies, or even the choking of women, for instance. None of this was ordinary practice when I was a young heterosexual woman at all.


Far from being a diversion, the SM that we combatted so valiantly in the 80s, now called BDSM, has become de rigueur in much heterosexual practice in the present. BDSM is mainstream and not looking particularly niche and revolutionary any more. However, at this time there is vanishingly little in the feminist or lesbian communities online or off of the ethics of sexuality and everyday life and relationships. Sexual practice, in particular, is hardly examined. Whereas it was politicised as crucial to women’s oppression in the WLM it has now been almost entirely reprivatized. Women do not speak of how troubled they are by SM sexual fantasies now. I see no discussion of how our sexual practice fits into the revolution we are trying to create.


Copyrights © Sheila Jeffreys / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Lesbian Feminism into the Mainstream – Lynne Harne

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

The 1980s saw the development of a new phenomenon – municipal lesbian feminism, when some lesbian feminists in London began to work for and influence local government – most significantly the Greater London Council (GLC) and the Inner London Education Authority. As well as addressing sexism, the GLC adopted the concept of ‘challenging heterosexism.’ Funding was given to some lesbians projects and training was developed for staff on how to challenge heterosexism in the workplace. The concept of challenging heterosexism also impacted on the Inner London Authority most significantly in the youth service through the development of girls work and some young lesbian groups. The talks discuss what lesbians involved in this work were able to achieve and the opposition to it.

Municipal lesbian feminism in London 1981-1987

Dr Lynne Harne became a lesbian feminist activist during the l970s. In the l980s she worked as a research and policy officer for Rights of Women on lesbian and child custody issues, then became an equal opportunities officer with specific responsibility challenging for heterosexism at the GLC and then worked for the ILEA and was a member of the feminist lesbians in education group. In the l990s she became an academic.)  

I am going to talk about a brief moment in the l980s when lesbian feminism became mainstreamed in London focussing on the Greater London Council and its sister organisation the Inner London Education Authority. The Greater London council (GLC) was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in l986, but the Inner London Education Authority survived another 4 years before it too was abolished in 1990.

The wider political context

The wider political background to this is that the Tories had won the general election in l979 but many local authorities were being run by left wing labour councils. Ken Livingstone became the labour leader of the GLC in l981 and decided to open up the work of the council to improve equal opportunities for working class people, black and ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and lesbians and gay men. It was known as the Rainbow Coalition.

The GLC Women’s Committee and the Funding of lesbian feminist projects

Initially, there was a lesbian and gay working party which was heavily dominated by gay men and gay male interests but lesbian feminism began to have an influence when the Women’s Committee was established in l982. Several lesbian feminists went to work for the women’s committee support unit during this time and established that lesbians had different needs and interests from gay men.  The Woman’s Committee began for the first time to fund lesbian projects – for example it funded the lesbian custody project at the women’s legal organisation Rights of Women and also funded some workers at Lesbian Line (a phone line for lesbians only) as well as funding other women’s projects mainly run by lesbian feminists such as Women in Manual Trades. It even purchased the lease of buildings so that they could be women only and provide women only services. One of these was 54 Featherstone Street (now called Tyndall Manor) and as far as I am aware remains the only building in London just for women and women’s services, today.

However the committee also gave funding to more libertarian feminist organisations such as  English Collective of prostitutes and later loaned money to Sheba publishers which began to publish lesbian porn in the late l980s.  In addition, it contributed to funding the setting up of a lesbian and gay centre which ended up never being used by lesbian feminists because it was taken over by the BDSM  brigade and  was probably the first so called lesbian and gay centre to allow male trans to use the women’s toilets.

The influence of lesbian feminism and the battle against heterosexism

Following on what had already happened in the women’s liberation movement the women’s committee underlined identity politics which became viewed as a series of separate oppressions or isms i.e. sexism , racism, disablism and later heterosexism. Within this approach, however lesbian feminists were still able to have an impact on the policies and some of the practices of the GLC through, for the first time challenging anti-lesbian attitudes and discrimination. On a broader level we raised the idea of compulsory heterosexuality as a social institution, through the concept of heterosexism and challenged ideas that lesbians and gay men are ‘born that way,’ and are sad victims of their biology.

Heterosexism the last ism to be addressed represented the first political and ideological confrontation between lesbian feminists and gay men at the GLC, highlighting the difference between lesbian feminist politics and the increasing libertarianism of gay male politics at the time.   Already working in the GLC was an established gay male mafia who believed they were born that way and could not help being gay and this was the approach they wanted to take in challenging lesbian and gay discrimination.

However the lesbian feminists argued that in tackling heterosexism we should state that sexuality was socially constructed, and that heterosexuality was a compulsory institution and was coerced. 

How Heterosexism was defined.

The lesbian and gay version was set out in the leaflet ‘Harrassment of lesbians and gay men..and how to challenge it at the GLC’ (l985) this leaflet was circulated to all 15 thousand GLC employees at the time

This is an extract from it

‘Lesbians and Gay men exist in all cultures, races and classes and religions and have existed throughout history.

People are not born with a particular sexuality they acquire it

Heterosexism is a set of ideas and practices which assume that heterosexuality is the superior and therefore only ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ form of sexual relationship.’

The gay male mafia strongly objected to the wording that ‘people acquired a sexuality’ rather than being born with it and tried unsuccessfully to get this phrase removed.

The Women’s committee version on challenging heterosexism went even further to include an analysis of the coercive nature of heterosexuality and encapsulated contemporary lesbian feminist analysis. This was reflected in the handbook called ‘Tackling Heterosexism: A Handbook on Lesbian Rights’ which was published just before GLC abolition in l986.

‘In the same way (as sexism), it has become clear that heterosexuality liked the assumed superiority of men is not natural but acquired. The fact that a majority of women and men choose it as their preferred form of sexuality has more to do with persuasion, coercion and threats of ostracisation than with its superiority as a form of sexuality.

In a heterosexist society the pressure is on right from childhood through adolescence and into adult life to ‘choose’ heterosexuality. So intense is that pressure that most heterosexuals do not even experience any sense of making a choice and so universal is it that most do not even experience it as a pressure. Women’s magazines, for example are full of information on how to be heterosexual – and rarely give an alternative…People are rewarded for fitting into the heterosexual model and punished for not doing so. Such a dominance spreads far beyond what happens in individuals personal and private lives, into every aspect of the way society is organised.’ 

It also spelt out the relationship between heterosexism and sexism in the following statement.

‘Mainly because of the impact of the women’s liberation movement, sexism has over the past 20 years received increasingly serious attention. Because many lesbians have felt they have more in common with heterosexual women in the struggle against sexism (men’s power over women) than gay men, much less attention has been paid to heterosexism with which sexism is intricately related.

While gay men are often under threat of violence from heterosexual men, lesbians are even more likely to be attacked and in addition they experience sexual harassment, whether or not their sexuality is known. While gay men are often despised or mimicked for not being real men, Lesbians arouse anger for challenging the assumption that women need a man emotionally, sexually and financially. They are accused of trying to be like men by rejecting what are regarded as essential feminine mannerisms or ambitions – infact any woman who refuses to acquire and display these is threatened with being labelled lesbian, whether or not she is.

‘Lesbianism represents for most men and many heterosexual women the least attractive and most threatening type of womanhood. To call a young woman a ‘lessie’ is very common at school if she steps out of line by showing affection for girls or women or does not focus on making herself attractive to boys or men in the modes laid down by heterosexism. ‘Lessie’ ‘lesbian and ‘dyke’ are tantamount to forms of abuse used to control the behaviour of all women. For this and many other reasons heterosexism and its relationship to sexism are issues for all women.’ (GLC Women’s Committee, Tackling Heterosexism: a Handbook of Lesbian Rights, l986; ps 5-7)

Much of the women’s committee analysis was also reflected in a training manual on challenging heterosexism for use with workplace employees, which it was hoped would be used by other local authorities on abolition. (GLC Equal Opportunities Group, Challenging Heterosexism in the work place: a training resource pack for Personnel and Training Staff in Local Authorities, l986)

The mainstream response

Perhaps not surprisingly, more than any other equalities policies developed at the GLC, the women’s committee policies to tackle sexism and heterosexism, became the main target of the Tories in arguing for its abolition and were taken up by the rightwing media.   To quote from Linda Lee Potter of the Daily Mail in an article entitled ‘Now Big Sister is watching you,’ in l984.

‘Militant GLC feminists are said by the Tories to be launching a £700,000 campaign dedicated to proving heterosexuality can chain, fetter and oppress our lives.


They’ve already worked themselves into hate over pretty models in bras and suspenders on the underground, tried to get beauty contests banned and want to install women watchdogs in factories to censor and preferably sack any man who dares to wink at a female colleague. They would at a stroke abolish eyelash curlers, coloured nail varnish and makeup.


Literature described as subversive would naturally include anything escapist like Barbara Cartland. Instead we’d be encouraged to strip down and reassemble a lorry.’

On the abolition of the GLC some inner London local authorities did set up their own lesbian and gay equality units, but the radical influence of lesbian feminism on municipal policies and practice had stalled indefinitely.

Lesbians in Education and the Inner London Education Authority

The Inner London education authority (ILEA) which controlled and funded school education for the inner London boroughts was much more cautious and conservative and never took up the GLC policy of challenging heterosexism. It did fund research into discrimination against lesbian and gay students in schools and published a report on this, but took the approach that ‘they were born that way,’ and therefore could not help it.  Unlike the GLC it also dealt with lesbian and gay discrimination together, rather than separately.

At the same time the ILEA  did not have an employment policy which prevented discrimination against lesbian and gay teachers or nursery workers. Openly lesbian or gay staff could still face dismissal because of the power of head teachers and school governing bodies. Following the abolition of the GLC, the ILEA did adopt a policy to prevent discrimination in employment against lesbian and gay teachers in l986, but in practice little changed since it was left to headteachers and governing bodies to implement it.

The Sexuality and Relationships project

Following the report on discrimination against lesbian and gay students in schools the authority funded a Sexuality and Relationships project which was headed up by a heterosexual woman and had one part-time gay male member of staff to develop resources on lesbian and gay issues to be used in schools. This meant that inevitably lesbianism was hardly addressed.  One of its most unfortunate  resources on parenting was a book entitled Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which was taken up by the rightwing press, to argue that ILEA was promoting child sexual abuse, by having such a book. The book was not supported by lesbian mothers who were demanding that schools provide appropriate resources on lesbian households for their children.

On the more positive side the ILEA did fund a Women and Education Resource Centre which did provide resources for use in schools and youth projects and included books for children of lesbian mothers such as ‘I have lots of Mommies.’

Girls and young lesbian  groups

The most innovative work involving lesbian feminists was developed through the ILEA youth service which was prepared to fund girls groups and young lesbian groups. The youth service was less constrained than school education because it was a non-statutory service and could argue that it was meeting the needs of girls and young women whose participation was voluntary. This is discussed in the following talk by Elaine Hutton on girls work.

Feminist Lesbians in Education

The group feminist lesbians in education was set up to act as a support and campaigning group to challenge heterosexism in education in London. It consisted of teachers, youth workers, students, lesbian mothers and others interested in changing education policy and practice. In 1987 it produced an issue of Gen a journal produced by the women and education group in London It documented the continued resistance of ILEA to challenge heterosexism in schools, the problems for teachers, school students and lesbian mothers in being able to be open about their sexuality to schools, as well as the more positive developments in youth work and in the development of lesbian feminist resources.

The backlash

But by l987 the writing was on the wall. The Tory government was looking for an excuse to abolish the authority and the very limited work it had done on developing resources for schools on lesbian and gay issues became the prime target and the authority was not even prepared to defend this work. The Jenny lives with Eric and Martin book also served as the rationale for the government to introduce legislation (section 28) which would make it illegal for local authorities to intentionally promote homosexuality or publish materials which promoted homosexuality or promote the teaching of homosexuality as ‘a pretendedfamily relationship’. Lesbian feminism was also under attack from sexually libertarian lesbians who wanted to imitate the gay male lifestyle and the demise of its influence was reflected in the joint lesbian and gay campaign against section 28 and the subsequent development of ‘queer politics.’

References and resources

GLC Women’s Committee, Tackling Heterosexism: a Handbook of Lesbian Rights, l986

GLC Equal Opportunities Group Challenging Heterosexism in the work place. A training resource pack for personnel and training staff in local authorities.

Gen Challenging Heterosexism, l987.

Lynne Harne ‘Dangerous Liaisons Reasserting male power through gay movements’ in Lynne Harne and Elaine Miller    ‘All the Rage Reasserting Radical Lesbian  Feminism’   Womens Press, l996




Copyrights © Lynne Harne / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 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 lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.