Diana Souhami – No Modernism Without Lesbianism

In this talk Diana Souhami outlines the lives of mainly wealthy North American and English lesbians who chose to escape to live in Paris in order to free themselves from the patriarchal control exerted on them by their families at home.

She discusses their support for the new modernist movement in writing and art.

Visit Diana’s Website

Further Reading

Coming Out Stories

In these stories women talk about the time when they first realised or decided they were lesbians and when they came out as lesbian to others. Most came out during the time of Gay Liberation and the Women’s Liberation Movement l970-l990. But a few are later than this.

Lesbian Feminist Theatre

Presentation for Lesbian History Group, Sat 2 November 2019 by Zayeet and Vole

Za: Hi I’m zayeet. I’ve been known by many other names over the years but Zayeet will do for now. And…

Vole: I’m Vole, also a bit of a shape-shifter namewise. Previously known as Val Dykestein, currently known as Vole, or on stage as Dr Vole.

Za: We are part of Keep Earth Company which we’ll fill you in on later.

We’re here to talk a bit about lesbian feminist theatre, in an introductory, hopefully pique-your-interest kind of way, and to mostly tell you about what we’ve contributed to the genre.

I came to the UK in 1984. At that time I was doing an MA in theatre, which included playwriting, performing etc. But I already had a background in performance.

In the early 1970s I wrote, directed and played in a musical about lesbians who lived on women’s land, which was a fairly big movement at that time amongst certain women primarily in North America. A few years later I became a member of a lesbian feminist street theatre or guerrilla theatre, bit of both: Auntie Nuke and the Atom Sisters. We performed at demonstrations, in shopping centres, festivals and at feminist venues around the San Francisco Bay area. We had an amazing time parodying the patriarchy, covering various current political concerns.

I also performed in a comedy duo called Friends of Anemone and I did a lot of solo shows composed of skits and original songs. Our themes were always women centred, nature-celebrating, antitechnology, anticapitalism.

When I came to London, one thing I was interested in was learning a diversity of theatre modalities, internationally based. I went to performances and workshops of women from various countries, including studying for a bit with Anu Kapoor from whom I learned a style of theatre called ram-lila from South India. Associated with my MA, I gathered a motley collective of fabulous dykes who became Free Range Women. Together we devised Sprouts Came First which was partially based on that style of theatre.

Lezzannanas was another theatre collective I was involved with into the 1990s with Camilla Cancantata. One of our high points was performing at Lesbenwoche in Berlin. I also was a director of a community arts project, Artshare South-West, which included producing performances and workshops in all sorts of artforms.

Val and I did some one-off shows together – the Meshuggeneh Matzo Show, at the launch of a Jewish women’s night at Wesley House. And West Fried Story – a sketch we did with Camilla at Centerprise as a benefit for PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign).

You’ll hear more about Free Range Women and about Val soon, but now we thought we’d sing you a song from my early career.

Lesbian Ecstasy
It's not my fate
 to be a straight 
 i'm endowed with a lesbian destiny
 there's no doubt about it
 or way not to shout it 
 i'm filled up with lesbian ecstasy…

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops 
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and their sisters
 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians do

 It's not my fault
 if you're named Walt
 and can't share this lesbian energy
 i'd trade it for none
 all us women have fun
 in Amsterdam, Australia and Anglesey 

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and their sisters
 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians do

 it's not a fact that i must act
 in a manner that pleases the average norm
 my pleasures are earthly 
 my spirit is firstly
 connected with women in wild forms

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and our sisters

 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians 
 ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh what lesbians 
 do do do do do what lesbians do!

Vole, about myself:

I grew up in Hendon in a Jewish family. My parents loved music, books, comedy, theatre, opera, films – as members of the audience. I loved those things too but never imagined that I could become an actor, or even a singer. I put myself in a box marked “writer”, and sat in my room reading and writing. I did a degree in Male Studies – also known as English Literature – but towards the end of it I suddenly had a lightbulb moment of radicalisation.

Eventually I started meeting lesbian feminists. I now realise how amazingly lucky I was to come out into that welcoming world of lesbian feminist politics and culture in the early 80s. I got involved in groups like WAVAW (women against violence against women) and Jewish Lesbians Fight Racism, and I spent all my time at AWP (A Woman’s Place) on the Embankment.

One day this womanZayeetinvited me to be part of her theatre group. I’d already started reading my poems in public. I was in Michele Roberts’ writing class at the City Lit. There was a rural residential weekend where we were doing the planning to put on our own poetry event, and someone overheard me singing in the bathroom. Since it was a case of “make your own entertainment”, she persuaded me to sing for the others that evening. I didn’t take a lot of persuading!

That was it – I was launched. So joining up with Free Range Women and putting on our play Sprouts Came First in 1986 was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

We’ll talk about the play itself later. First we’ll sing another of Zayeet’s songs. It’s from her play Fiddler in The Closet

If there were no rich men
 If there were no rich men
 yayadeyadeyadeyadeyadeyadeya dum
 All day long we’d dykey dykey doo
 If there were no white straight men!

 We wouldn’t have imperialism
 capi crappy zapitalism ku klux klan conservative
 If there were more trees instead of men
 More women-only space and women’s time

 We need a world of wild turkeys and geese
 The end of the family and war
 x-mas gone, and with it the shopping malls
 There would be no more people starving in the streets
 Plenty of borshch to go around
 And lots of feminist vegan matzo balls -
 yayadeyadeya (etc)

 If there were just women
 baleboostah bube meisa bubeleh babushka hoo-ha!
 No more gods and slavery and hate
 Everywhere we’d wildly celebrate
 Would there be too much revelry and mirth -
 If this were a lesbian earth?

Zayeet: Dyke theatre list
Some earlier theatre that led up to or were precursors to lesbian feminist theatre as we knew it in the 80s include:

Suffrage drama of which there was quite a bit. Amongst the better-known plays were How the vote was won by Cicely Hamilton as well as Votes for women by Elizabeth Robbins, which appeared at the Royal Court in 1907 – it was a more feminist version of Hedda Gabler. Edith Craig (daughter of Ellen Terry) set up the Pioneer Players (1911-20) She and her partner Christabel Marshall wrote plays for the actresses’ franchise league.

Women’s Liberation March

Then of course from the 60s a major influence was theatricality of political uprisings and marches including those to do with lesbian and gay rights, women’s liberation et cetera.

Moving along to the 1970s, there was the rise of fringe theatre itself which included the feminist theatre study group. In 1973 we saw the beginning of the Women’s Theatre Group which later became Sphinx. Theatre of Black Women was founded in 1982 by Bernadine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall. There was also Monstrous Regiment and Gay Sweatshop which were mixed groups, the former being a mixed feminist group, the latter being a mixed gay and lesbian group, mostly gay actually.

Gertrude Stein and a Companion

Lesbian theatre groups abounded. A lesbian feminist play could be a play that was written by a lesbian or about lesbians or preferably both, preferably also acted by lesbians, with themes around coming out such as Any Woman Can from 1976, which in its first one-night performance in Leicester starred Miriam Margolyles, seen in this slide in another play, Gertrude Stein and a Companion – and Jackie Kay’s Twice Over at the Drill Hall in 1988.

Another theme was lesbian mothers, including about custody, such as Care and Control by Michelene Wandor. Very often plays were comic, spoofs set in the lesbian community. Or they might address wider serious issues such as nuclear disaster: The Day the Sheep Turned Pink by Cordelia Ditton and Maggie Ford; or male violence – 1981 Curfew by Siren. Another play by them was Pulp.

The Drill Hall was famed for lesbian pantos. Nona Sheppard and Bryony Lavery featured large. These will be covered later in Val’s talk.

Sprouts Came First

Another important venue was the Oval House, in Kennington, which Kate Crutchley ran in the 80s. Lots of the plays of these groups were put on there, including our play Sprouts Came First. Kate was one of my mentors, was incredibly supportive to the development of dyke theatre. It’s also worth mentioning the GLC (Greater London Council) here because they also offered a lot of resources to the community to express ourselves culturally. Also the Arts Council.

To briefly mention some of the groups that came along in the 80s that were either lesbian or followed by lesbians:

Berta Freistadt’s A Fine Undertaking, 1984, was a very funny parody set in a funeral home. And finally, Shameful Practice was a professional lesbian theatre company with a strong comedy element for all who need it.

That was loads of theatre!

Vole: “panto theory”

I have a theory.

Like many others of my generation, and probably other generations too, I wasn’t born into a lovingly, acceptingly lesbian environment. Most of us grow up alone, one of a kind, thinking There’s something wrong, I’m different, what’s the matter with me? One day, sooner or later, we realise.

But, growing up as lesbians in a straight world, we absorbed the images that surrounded us. If we even grew up in conditions where we had access to cultural artefacts, we might have heard those straight songs, seen those mainstream plays, and imagined ourselves replacing the male hero, rescuing the female character, running away from the world of men…

It’s been so rare for there to be a representation on the mainstream stage of a young lesbian realising who she is. When Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home was recently turned into a musical play, 10-year-old Alison sees a grown-up dyke in a cafe, and recognises that they have something in common. That this is the type of woman she could grow up to be. Her utter delight, and yearning, is beautifully captured in the song “Ring of Keys” – it’s the keys that this dyke wears on her belt as she swaggers up to the counter. The keys to Small Alison’s new world.

But for many of us, this never happened. For some of us, maybe it happened the other way round, much later on. As adults, we might go back to the stories, the dramas, the music that we grew up with, and we might re-run them, but this time with a lesbian sensibility. In our Fiddler on the Roof, or Fiddler in the Closet, Hodel might run off with a woman revolutionary.

The Sound of Music

For me, the funniest thing I ever saw, a moment of sheer delight, was the lesbian version of The Sound of Music at London Women’s Centre in 1991. I don’t have a programme or photos – it was staged in secret, because the tabloids had got hold of the fact that it was being illegally put on before the original version was out of copyright. The headline in the Sun was “Doh, a deer, a female queer”. (Boo, hiss). So all I have left is this mysterious ticket and the memory of lesbian Maria entering with her carpet bag and a big grin, on the way to become the new nanny for the children of whoever it was. I’m pretty sure the plot was based around the evil proponents of Clause 28.

For me, who had spent my childhood with a huge crush on Julie Andrews, as Maria, even as Mary Poppins for fucksake, it was like going back and seeing it all from the reverse viewpoint. Rewriting history into herstory: here was Maria and she was actually a dyke!

It would explain why I – and Zayeet, and others – love to rewrite those songs from musicals again and again. Why I choose to re-use those tunes that had so much significance for me then. It’s like rewriting our past to make it more ours, more authentically in keeping with our dykeliness.

In the discussion in the second half, please tell us if any of that resonates with you.

But the theory could explain why one of the most popular forms of lesbian feminist theatre I remember from the 80s and early 90s was the annual pantomime, usually at the Drill Hall. Pantomime wouldn’t have featured in everyone’s childhood – but many of us did enjoy those themes, those fairy stories, now re-run with a modern sensibility and a big helping of contemporary politics.

Traditional panto already has the Principal Boy played by a woman, slapping her thigh as Robyn Hood or Cinderella’s Prince. The lesbian pantos took it further, making the same-sex attraction more overt, the power of those high-status characters more effective as female leaders of the plot. We audience members participated with enthusiasm, cheering, shouting “She’s behind you!” and singing along with the musical numbers – which were often very well-crafted by the likes of Laka Daisical, Jan Ponsford who wrote the music for Fanny Whittington and Helen Glavin.

Zayeet: about Free Range Women

Coming on to our theatre company, Free Range Women and our play Sprouts Came First. It was a satire, or perhaps post-absurdist. After performing it for two weeks at Oval House Theatre, we repeated the play at Lauderdale House.

We devised the piece together over a period of a few weeks. We each chose a kind of lesbian character/stereotype to portray. I was the narrator/foil/catalyst for the unfolding plot (if we can call it that), of a lesbian household and its meetings, meditations, collective living issues, like vegetarianism, love and relationships etc.

We also had a spiritual, goddessy-type character, and the others were three dykes who shared a flat in Deptford. One just wanted to go dancing every night, one was the nurturing cat-loving homebody, and Val here played Paula –

Vole: Paula… Tiklicorect!

Za: who was a full-time political activist. Meetings 24 hours a day, telling everyone what to do, and obsessing about what the US military were doing to the women at the Greenham Common peace camp. Destroying her own health in the process.

Vole: and given my penchant for musicals with really crap sexual politics, I found a song in Guys and Dolls which seemed to have potential for a bit of satire.

A lesbian can develop a cold


Lesbian Stress”?

 It says in this book:
 The average revolutionary lesbian
 Inevitably overbooked,
 After her millionth meeting may react
 With psychosomatic symptoms
 Not easily overlooked
 Affecting the upper respiratory tract.
 In other words, just from waiting around
 For that fucker to give up his hold
 A lesbian can develop a cold!

 You can feed her all day
 With the Vitamin A and the Bromofizz
 But the medicine never gets anywhere near
 Where the trouble is
 When she’s getting a kind of a name for herself
 And that name ain’t Ms
 A lesbian can develop a cold.

 The dyke remaining non-existent
 As far as society goes
 Shows a dramatic tendency, see note
 (Oh – see note)
 Chronic organic syndrome
 Pains in the fingers and toes
 And trouble with the ears and nose and throat
 In other words, just from worrying if the revolution is on or orff
 A lesbian can develop a cough

 You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk
 You can give every shot for whatever she’s got
 But it just don’t work
 When she’s tired of being solicited by her solicitor’s clerk
 A lesbian can develop a cough

 And furthermore, just from stalling and stalling
 Each action and march and trip
 A lesbian can develop la grippe
 When they get on the train for Westminster
 To protest some MP’s crime
 They’ve got all the banners and placards
 And the mood’s sublime
 But someone’s forgotten the leaflets
 For the fourteenth time -
 A lesbian can develop la grippe!
 La grippe – from a lack of a proper kip.
 With the wheezes and the sneezes
 And a sinus that’s really the pip
 From a lack of a regular income
 And a feeling she’s growing blue mould
 A lesbian can develop a bad, bad… [achoo]

Vole: Agitprop

In thinking about lesbian feminist theatre, it occurred to us that much of women’s political activity has an inherently theatrical aspect. There has certainly been a strong tradition of musical protest – using music, whether vocal or instrumental, on marches and demos, or making music itself the protest. An example of the latter – which shows the crossover between feminism and the peace/anti-nuclear movement – is Camilla Cancantata’s choral piece Trident: A British War Crime, which we staged as a singing flashmob in the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh in 2004.

With protest as theatre, one striking example – again anti-nuclear weapons – was the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. The mass Embrace the Base actions, the dancing on the silos, the decorating of the fence, the confrontations with the police and the locals all had a theatrical aspect – visual symbolism being used to draw attention to the enormity of the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

And of course there is the music of Greenham – the many beautiful, or raucous, songs written there, or shared there. Our friend Paula Boulton has been archiving them and teaches them in workshops all round the country. Remember that Greenham was the cauldron into which many women jumped and emerged as lesbian feminists.

Boadicea: Radical feminism lives!

Going back to the seventies, thinking of strikingly theatrical feminist actions, we remembered the 1970 Miss World contest where Women’s Liberation activists flour-bombed the stage, shouting the slogan “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry!” I heard that they also released a troop of mice but I couldn’t find a reference for that. (An audience member confirmed that this was apocryphal.)

And then forward to the late eighties with Thatcher’s introduction of Clause 28, a.k.a. Section 28, of the Local Government Act [the one in which lesbians and gay men were described as promoting homosexuality and “pretend families”]. The many L & G actions against Clause 28 included dykes bravely abseiling into the House of Lords [from the gallery], and attempting to take over the BBC Six O’Clock News [on 23 May 1988]. My friend Kirsten Hearn wrote a song to immortalise that – “Nicholas Witchell / Is all of a twitchell / With dykes chained to his desk”.

One of Claudia Clare’s Clause 28 pots

And some women, myself included, invaded a show home at the Ideal Home Exhibition and hung banners from the windows saying “Lesbians aren’t pretending”. The only surviving record of that action brings in another artform – Claudia Clare, one of the invaders, immortalised it in pottery.

Oxford Lesbian Strength 1986

Lesbian Strength marches often included a cabaret and disco afterwards – I was involved in organising (and performing in) some of the cabarets in London, and Free Range Women performed after the Oxford Lesbian Strength march in 1986.

Camden Dykes Get their Claws Out

Slide 4, not shown on the day, indicates some of the creativity and irony that was used by lesbians responding to government/patriarchal oppression: there were a number of events whose titles referenced Clause 28. This slide showed a cabaret called “Camden Dykes Get their Claws Out” with a picture of a crab; I organised a poetry reading called “All the Nice Girls Love an Abseiler” along with Berta Freistadt and Eve Featherstone.

There was a musical entertainment as well as the political speeches at this year’s Lesbian Strength march in Leeds.

Keep Earth Company (KECo)

KECo playing at Denmark Farm

Zayeet: Our latest theatre collective, Keep Earth Company, grew out of a lesbian gathering we attended in West Yorkshire in August 2018. At the planning session, asked for suggestions of workshops and activities I suggested creating a play. Another woman wanted to run a song-writing workshop. So we joined forces and with interested women devised a musical. We combined our passion for animal spirits, mycorrhizal networks of trees, and finding a frequency to end patriarchy.

The members of Keep Earth Company live too far from each other to meet often, so we are now a loose sisterhood. If anyone would like to get involved, let us know and we’ll fill you in on how we operate now to keep to our shared direction.

Vole: Our colleague Paula says that she organised the open mic evening at FiLia last month and the performers who came forward were 90% lesbians. Song, drama, comedy, poetry were all represented. She feels that there is a clear thirst for lesbian culture.

KECo rehearsing at Denmark Farm

Here’s one of the songs we wrote together as KECo:

OUR RESISTANCE (short version)

In my ears the words of women
 Sapphic sisters sowing seeds
 From forever to forever
 Telling, telling, telling of our resistance, our resistance
 Women’s circles, rings of mushrooms
 Touch my bones and sing my spirit
 We will never be forgotten
 Someone will remember our existence, our existence

 (Listen, listen, listen…)

 Life force thrumming through the networks
 Power drumming underground
 Sounds of Sapphic sisters singing
 Listen to the song of our resistance, our resistance 

 REPEAT last 4 lines, ending with
 Listen to the song of our resistance, our resistance, our resistance!


Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays

Putting Your Daughters on the Stage: lesbian theatre from the 1970s to the 1990s, Sandra Freeman

Lesbian Playwrights in Britain, Rose Collis

The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Theatre, Sarah Stanton and Martin Banham (see lesbian theatre entry)

Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own, Lizbeth Goodman

Women in Theatre, Julia Pascal. Contemporary Theatre Review, 1995, Vol 2#3 (introduction available at

The Impact of Feminism on the Theatre, Michelene Wandor

Siren Theatre talk: – short clip of New Zealand’s musical comedy duo the Topp Twins – “Recording the History of Alternative Theatre” (searchable for names, companies, etc)

Lesbian Mothers up against the Law.

Dr Lynne Harne on Lesbians and Child Custody
Helen Brown on Lesbian Self-Insemination

In the mid l970s lesbian mothers leaving heterosexual partners began to lose custody of their children. Lesbians were also attacked for seeking artificial insemination by donor.
Lynne Harne talks about how lesbians began to resist this legal discrimination and Helen Brown outlines her experience in the first lesbian self-insemination groupin the late l970s.

We know that some lesbians in first wave feminism who were in heterosexual marriages did have children. Vita Sackville West being one of the most famous. Others were adopting and bringing up children. Some women growing up in the l950s and 60s remember being looked after by ‘aunties’ who were clearly in retrospect lesbians, but kept quiet about it, because of attitudes towards lesbianism at the time.

By the mid- l930s the patriarchal backlash against lesbians had taken hold and they were increasingly being defined as sexually predatory.i Those who had any involvement with children such as ‘spinster’ teachers began to be viewed as lesbians and therefore a possible danger especially in single sex girls’ schools.

Lesbian teachers were pathologized by sexology and the spread of Freudian ideas and these attitudes continued post-war and into the l960s, where those working with children were forced to keep quiet about it for fear of losing their jobs.

Lesbian mothers and child custody
During the early l970s the emerging lesbian feminist liberation movement was enabling heterosexual women with children to leave their husbands or unmarried partners, become lesbians and live in lesbian only households.

Women who were lesbians prior to the Gay and Women’s Liberation movements, but had married and had children in order to conform to hegemonic heterosexual norms, also felt safe enough to declare their lesbianism and finally leave oppressive marriages. But during the mid l970s the fact that lesbians had and were bringing up children was considered a huge threat to the hetero-patriarchal order, in the family courts dealing with divorce and separation.

It has to be remembered that although lesbianism had never been made illegal in the UK, this was due to the patriarchal fear that if women knew about it they would desert men in droves! It is not surprising then that in the l970s, state institutions such as the family law courts still viewed lesbianism as deviant and perverse.

Lesbian mothers were regarded as likely to ‘corrupt’ children, and to threaten fathers ‘natural authority’ in the heterosexual nuclear family. Vengeful fathers who were left by women who became lesbians, felt their patriarchal right of sexual access to women was threatened and their paternal right of ownership of children in families was undermined. They contested custody of the children, on the grounds of mothers being lesbians and sometimes also for feminist activism.

This was in contrast to the treatment of heterosexual mothers in custody disputes who, since the early l970s usually kept custody of their children on divorce or separation. However, this practice was based on the assumption that heterosexual women would remarry and resume their subordinate and dependent position on another man, with the children coming under the authority and control of a stepfather.

The attitudes of the family courts towards lesbians are illustrated in two lesbian custody cases which began in l975 and were reported in l976. The first (Anon), reported in the Family Law Journal in l976, involved a case where the mother was living with her lesbian lover and was about the custody of a 5-year-old boy. The boy had lived with the mother and her lover for 2 years before the case came to court. This case illustrates many of the fears the family courts held at the time about lesbian influence on their childrenii

Children growing up to be lesbian or gay. The judge’s decision, based on that of two psychiatrists who had been called as expert witnesses for the father’s side, said this boy would be “blemished” by growing up in a lesbian household … in particular his “psycho-sexual development” would be affected through witnessing the mother and her lover sleeping in the same bed. In other words, it was felt he would probably grow up to be gay and in the view of the courts this was unacceptable. The fear that the children themselves would grow up to be homosexual was seen as one of the major negative influences of being raised by lesbians in the l970s.

Children not conforming to traditional sex roles and stereotypes. Another factor in the judgement was that he would “not grow up along strong normal masculine lines. “ In other words, he would not learn to dominate girls or play with traditional boy’s toys, such as guns and cars. The threat of lesbian mothers undermining ‘normal’ gendered roles is also a key aspect of later cases.

The shamefulness of being lesbian – lesbian mothers causing children to experience social stigma. The third aspect of the judgement stressed the shamefulness of being lesbian and that the child would also grow up to be ashamed and embarrassed by his mother. “He might grow up accepting her whilst not approving of her. It would mean the decay of society if people adopted that attitude.” Labelling lesbianism as ‘shameful’ and something which would cause children ‘extreme embarrassment and hurt’ was a strategy, which was felt to be unanswerable, as it was assumed that this attitude was shared by the general population.

Lesbian feminist activism. The second unreported appeal case (W v W) involved a lesbian mother with two daughters, twins aged 11. The mother had already lost custody of the girls in a lower court, but they were still living with her because the father had no alternative accommodation to offer. He wanted the girls to be put into care. His case was based on the mother’s lesbian activities and her attachment to the Women’s Liberation Movement.

At the end of the case, the mother kept custody of the girls but only because the father and his new wife could not accommodate them. Her lover was ordered not to come to the house and have no contact with them. The mother was described as having “a dangerous influence” on the children as she was “obsessively wrapped up in the feminist cause”. The judge said, “it is quite obvious that the girls’ lives are highly abnormal and that it is only common sense to say that these children ought to have a more normal life in a more normal family among less vehemently minded people.”

Later cases which involved boy children focussed specifically on the supposed impact on the child’s ‘gender identity’ – (a concept which had only been invented by psychologists in the l950s This fear was based on the idea that boys might not realise they were the male sex (despite having male genitals) and would grow up to be ‘transvestites.’ Concerns about ‘gender identity’ were also linked, as they are now, to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, which the WLM was already challenging. The concern that girls brought up by lesbians would reject oppressive feminine roles and that boys would not be masculine enough were regarded as real threats to male supremacy.

Lesbian feminist resistance
At the beginning of the l970s some lesbians with children joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). However, since this organisation mostly reflected the interests of gay men, the issue was never discussed. By l973 most lesbians had left GLF and at the first lesbian conference in Canterbury in l974, lesbian mothers began to talk to each other about having children. The same year a new women’s liberation demand was formulated at a conference in Edinburgh. This stressed women’s right to determine their own sexuality and included an end to discrimination against lesbians.

Lesbian mothers at that time however got little support from other lesbians. For many women being lesbian meant they had freed themselves from the cultural imperative which defined women – that of being mothers. They assumed that it was lesbian mothers own fault if they had ‘chosen’ to have children. The fact that many lesbian mothers had not at the time felt they had made that ‘choice’ was not recognised. This meant that lesbian mothers had to begin to organise mainly on their own.

The group Action for Lesbian Parents (ALP) was set up in l976 as a support network and to share legal information. Solicitors were at the time advising women to keep quiet about their lesbianism when they left men, or, if this was impossible to seek out evidence that their children would grow up ‘normal.’ The group began to contact radical psychologists to produce research, as well as making contact with similar groups in the US who were using some initial research, to demonstrate this ‘normality.’ iii

Moreover, as other lesbians began to realise that lesbian mothers were being discriminated against specifically because of their sexuality, support for them increased in the lesbian feminist community. By the early l980s lesbian feminism had grown in strength. It became the dominant force in the WLM and was beginning to have a wider impact. The concept of ‘heterosexism’, for example was being used to challenge the assumption that only heterosexuality was normal.

In l982 the feminist legal organisation Rights of Women agreed to apply for funding from the Greater London Council (GLC) to set up the Lesbian Custody Project. This project would research legal discrimination against lesbian mothers and provide them with a legal advice service as well as developing a network of lawyers who could fight lesbian custody cases, using recent psychological research on lesbian mothers and their children to show their children were no different from others.

The Findings from the Research.
‘Normality’ is an extremely loaded concept since it reflects the dominant cultural values of the time. Having to prove their children were ‘normal’ was not only insulting but it created contradictions for lesbian mothers. This was because many were trying to challenge sexist and heterosexist values in bringing up their children.

Nevertheless, as the research demonstrated it was hard to challenge these cultural values, when they were reinforced in the social environment outside the household; for example in nurseries and schools. Also nearly all the children had continuing contact visits with their fathers. Thus, the initial comparative study between lesbian mother households and those of heterosexual single mothers found no significant difference between the two groups of children.

For example both groups demonstrated quite traditional gendered behaviour in their play activities. Perhaps more significantly in terms of the concerns of the courts, the research showed that children of lesbian mothers were no more likely to get teased or bullied at school than children growing up with single heterosexual mothers.

Later follow up research on the adult children from the original study found that there were more positive benefits growing up in a lesbian household, although these would not necessarily be viewed as such by judges. For example adult children of lesbian mothers were found to be proud of their mothers’ lesbian identity and young women in particular were more positive about their mothers’ lesbian partners, than girls who had grown up raised by heterosexual women with a new male partner.

Other research which looked at children of lesbians who had grown up in lesbian households from birth and without fathers (see below) found further positive benefits for children growing up in lesbian familiesiv

Challenging heteropatriarchal culture
From the early l980s onwards lesbian mothers and daughters often went on collective holidays together, for example at women only holiday centres and this meant that these girls could socialise with children of other lesbian mothers and therefore feel less isolated. Lesbian mothers were also confronting anti-lesbian attitudes in schools and demanding that primary schools had story books that addressed growing up in lesbian families.

However dealing with the health services was more problematic, as health professionals had been trained to regard lesbianism as a neurotic illness and often blamed mothers when their children had health problems.

By the second half of the l980s lesbian mothers were in general winning custody cases and this no doubt can be put down to the research, as well as a broader changes in social attitudes. Nevertheless, during the period l975-l986 many lesbians did lose custody of their children and often did not even see them until they were much older.

This was because many vengeful fathers slandered mothers to their children an encouraged them to refuse access visits. Another shocking aspect was that fathers who fought legal disputes against lesbian mothers to gain child custody included socialist men from the ‘new left’. These men also used heterosexual socialist feminist partners to give anti-lesbian testimony in the courts.

Lesbians choosing to have children and the ‘lesbian baby boom.’
By the late l970s there were lesbians who were choosing to have children through artificial or self-insemination. This meant the sperm donor would be anonymous and there would be no legal father around to contest custody, or to directly control mothers. In l978 the London Evening News got a heterosexual journalist to pose as a lesbian seeking artificial insemination by donor at a private clinic, seeking the support of lesbian groups to do this.

The paper then published an anti-lesbian expose about lesbians having children through this means. Action for Lesbian Parents organised a sit-in at the newspaper’s offices and demanded the right to reply. Pro-lesbian slogans appeared in Parliament Square, at the Law Courts, and outside the offices of the British Medical Association.

Other lesbians set up self-help insemination groups using groups of gay men as donors. Women would support each other by going to collect the sperm, thus keeping the name of the donor anonymous. An account of such a group is given below. However, for some lesbian feminists, lesbians choosing to have children remained controversial and their continued to be debates about the ‘lesbian baby boom.’

Lesbians who wanted to adopt children had a far harder time. This was due to the fact that social workers like health workers had been trained to see lesbianism as a mental illness, as it was defined as such until the Mental Health Act, 1983!

By the early l990s it also became possible for lesbian partners to obtain legal shared custody with biological mothers (Harne and Rights of Women, l997). But all these changes had involved ongoing political struggle by lesbian mothers – a struggle which has now largely become lost. By the mid-l990s lesbian parenting had become accepted as a ‘life-style’ which could be assimilated into mainstream culture and which no longer posed a threat to the dominant heteropatriarchy.

On being part of a lesbian self-insemination group

Helen Brown

I was one of a group of women who set up a feminist self-insemination group in London in the late l970s. I was part of the group as support for my partner – I was already pregnant but my partner wasn’t getting pregnant and was very depressed – we thought there had to be a better collective way and put an ad in the London Women’s Liberation Newsletter to meet other lesbians who wanted to get pregnant.

The group met regularly and carried out loads of research about self-insemination. This was about the same time there was the big scandal in the Evening News – a front page headline about a Dr Strangelove, in a private clinic who did artificial insemination for lesbians – A friendship group of gay men read it and wondered what they could do to support lesbians who wanted children – so the two groups got together and stayed together till everyone was pregnant.

Then some of us stayed together even longer, meeting regularly to discuss childcare and mothering issues – a source of great support – we are all still in contact. There were challenges to us wanting children. I had one discussion with a woman who said I was betraying the lesbian cause – she also said that mothers couldn’t help fuck up their children and it wasn’t fair to bring children into the world. Also there was quite a lot of bad feeling about what if the children were boys. I had no sympathy for this view – I felt that women had been punished for centuries for giving birth to girls and I wasn’t going to accept being punished now for giving birth to boys.

But the support we were offered was far greater than the criticism. – ever since the children were tiny other lesbians wanted to get involved-e.g. we lived in a shared house and the others in the house took responsibility to share different nights – we had a shared crèche with 2 other children and mothers and then they went to a community nursery- We were always able to work and combine childcare.We did have hassle to get acceptance at the school and the health services couldn’t accept that our children had two mothers and no fathers. Also because one child was disabled we had to hassle for further support for him.

i Alison Oram (l989)’ Embittered, sexless or homosexual, Attacks on spinster teachers l919-l939’ in Lesbian History Group(eds) Not a Passing Phase. (London. Women’s Press)

ii Ii Rights of Women Lesbian Custody Group (l986) ‘Lesbian Mothers’ Legal Handbook’. (London, Women’s Press)

iii Sue Allen and Lynne Harne (l988) ‘Lesbian Mothers – the fight for child custody,’ in (ed Cant and Hemmings) Radical Records. Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History. (London, Routledge)

iv Lynne Harne and Rights of Women (l997) Valued Families – The Lesbian Mothers Legal Handbook, (London, Women’s Press).

Ova – the Radical Feminist band – Rosemary Schonfeld




You can enjoy some of Ova’s music at



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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)





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