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.



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

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

Lesbians in Education in the 1980s.

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

2)  Girls’ Clubs

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

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

2)   So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Tower Hamlets Girls Project- Snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Young lesbian groups

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

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

This is illustrated by statements made by a young lesbian,

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) How did it all disappear? (again)

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

7) What can we learn from these experiences?

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


Copyright © Elaine Hutton / Lesbian History Group and 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.


Resources used

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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