Lesbian Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the U.K.


Lesbian Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK

Talk given at Rad Fem 2013, 9 June. The Camden Centre, London by Sheila Jeffreys

(Part I of II)

This talk is necessary because in the wave of feminism which is taking place right now lesbian feminism is scarcely visible. This is very different from the second wave of feminism, in which lesbian feminists formed the beating heart of the movement. In the few histories that exist of second wave feminism in the UK lesbians are conspicuous by their absence. Sheila Rowbotham’s massive, 800 page history of feminism, A Century of Women (1997), does not have the word lesbian in the index, for instance.

To fill this rather obvious gap, I have been doing research in the UK in the last few weeks in archives, looking at the newsletters and journals of the 1970s and 80s, for a book I am going to write on lesbian feminism in the UK 1970-1990. I have been interviewing women who were lesbians at that time about what lesbian feminism was, what it meant to them, and, crucially, why it declined, with the effect for many that their hearts were broken. Some of them are here today.

One of the things I want to show in this book is the extraordinary range of activities, groups, institutions, festivals, enterprises, that lesbian feminists created. The sheer scope of this movement makes what is taking place in feminism just now look like a tiny tributary compared with the great Amazon river of lesbian feminism at that time. The newsletters and interviewees speak of a range of activities that were created by lesbian feminist energy and commitment. Firstly, lesbian feminists created campaigns and institutions such as women’s centres, which were for all women, not just lesbians, and continue to form the bedrock of women’s services today, though many disappeared in the terrible wave of extinctions from the 1990s onwards that still persists to this day.

I shall look first today at the activities lesbian feminists were involved in to give a sense of the scope of second wave lesbian feminism, starting with general feminist campaigns in which lesbians were heavily involved and going on to the activities that were specifically lesbian feminist.

The violence against women campaign

Women who became involved in the campaign against male violence in the 1970s, if they were not lesbians already swiftly became so. The London Revolutionary Feminist Anti-Pornography Consciousness-Raising Group, for example, began in 1977 with mainly heterosexual members. After we had examined and analysed pornography, mainly magazines because videos were still quite new at that time, only 1 of the 8 women in the group was still heterosexual. I was one of those group members who chose to become a lesbian after a few short months of looking at what men thought of women and sex in porn magazines.

Lesbian feminists created facilities and campaigns against violence against women, setting up rape crisis centres, shelters, and campaigns such as Feminists Against Sexual Terrorism, which had a newsletter (FAST). The Central London group of Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), at its peak in the early 80s drew 40 or so women to meetings to plan demos and direct action against sexually violent films, and advertising. There were several groups in London itself, and in all major cities across the UK. My interviewees recall, as I do, that the vast majority of women involved in these activities were lesbians, or became lesbians very quickly after becoming involved. WAVAW, in particular, was overwhelmingly composed of lesbians. In the early 1980s lesbian feminists set up specifically lesbian groups against forms of violence that were harming lesbians and the lesbian community. These included, in London, Lesbians Against Pornography (LAP), and Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM).

The interesting thing about the great representation of lesbians in the organisation of this massive campaign against male violence is that it was for the benefit, largely, of heterosexual women. When we went to do talks to women’s groups about male violence we were frequently asked by heterosexual women, but aren’t you just a bunch of man-hating lesbians. We had learnt to say, as we said to journalists who asked the same question, there are lesbian and heterosexual women in our group. That was not true, but our lesbianism had to be concealed lest it invalidate everything we said. Unless women are allowing men to penetrate them they lose all credibility.

Why was it lesbian-dominated? My interviewees suggest this is because analysis of male violence is much more straightforward for lesbians. They do not have boyfriends in their heads standing in the way of radical ideas. They do not have to keep saying, or thinking, what about Nigel?

One of the features of the second wave campaign was that we put it all together theoretically. The 1980 conference on violence against women in Leeds organised mainly by lesbians, had papers on woman battering, rape, child rape, sexual harassment at work, everyday sex in heterosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, sexual fantasy and much more. We sought to understand male sexuality so that we could understand why they engaged in this onslaught of violence, which is, arguably, more extensive and varied in its forms today. As lesbians we could afford to be profoundly critical of the way in which male sexuality was constructed, and put it all together. For heterosexual women this is likely to be very much harder, because of their investment in relationships with men.

Today, on the other hand, the vast majority of those involved in campaigns such as Object in the UK, seem to be heterosexual, and not flocking to become lesbians. This needs explaining, and it might have negative effects. It might mean that the radical edge, and profundity of analysis, that such organising had in the 1970s will not be forthcoming.

Women’s culture and community

Another area in which lesbians dominated was in creating women only culture and community. It was mainly lesbians who set up lesbian publishing houses such as Onlywomen Press in London, and feminist bookstores such as Sisterwrite in Upper St, Islington, or Silver Moon in Charing Cross Road (both gone now). It was lesbians who set up the Women’s Monthly Events, and organised countless discos and benefits. Women’s dances were a main way to raise funds for feminist activities. They were, of course, women only, and no one thought that odd or complained. Heterosexual women attended and they did not want their boyfriends to attend, as is likely to happen today. Many women were able to become lesbians because of these spaces, because for women afloat in the warmth and eroticism that are created in women only spaces, the possibility of becoming a lesbian is hard to resist.

Lesbians set up theatre groups and bands, wrote music and songs. They played to women’s and to mixed audiences but they were women only ventures, focusing on feminist and lesbian material.
The last remnant of this extraordinary outburst of creative activity in the US, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, has been for decades under siege, literally, by male-bodied transgenders and has had to modify its women only policy (and will no longer operate after 2015).

Lesbians set up women’s lands, festivals, conferences. There were no men allowed and this was not controversial. All the spaces, organisations, and activities were women only, and this was the source of the extraordinary energies and creativeness. In those times there was no question as to whether men should be invited, it was out of the question. I saw in a box of my papers in the Women’s Library in London, the advertising for a 1982 launch by Andrea Dworkin of her book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, by the Women’s Press, which was part of a mainstream publishing house. It was clearly stated that is was to be Women Only. The Radical Feminist Conference that was due to take place in the same building in 2012 suffered a sustained campaign against it by men who laboured under the delusion that they were women, with the effect that it had to meet in a secret location. How times have changed!

It was lesbians who set up the women’s housing coops like Seagull, and provided collective housing spaces for women in squats. It was lesbians who recognised the importance of getting women into manual trades so that they could enjoy high status work and earn good money. Women in Manual Trades set up training courses for women as motor mechanics, electricians, carpenters, plumbers. In the 1980s women’s trade directories offered a wide choice of women who would come to paint our homes, do building, electrical or carpentry work, or to whom we could take our cars for repair. This was ground-breaking stuff. I don’t know what it is like in the UK, but as I understand it women are still a tiny minority of train drivers, 3.2 percent. Fewer than two percent of construction, automotive and electrical tradespeople in Australia today are women (Australia, 2013). The percentage is probably lower than it was two decades ago. It seems that feminists have been quite successful at getting women into professions, such as medicine and the law, but have had no success at all in getting women into the bastion of male working class pride and confidence. Trade jobs are well paid, and develop physical strength. Women cannot wear high heeled shoes while working in construction.

And of course it was lesbians that wrote the poetry and feminist theory that inspired a generation of women, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Kate Millett, Janice G. Raymond. Other most important radical feminism writers were lesbian feminists in the early part of their lives.

Principles of lesbian feminism

1. Lesbian feminists started from their love for women

The title of a piece by Adrienne Rich in her 1979 anthology On Lies, Secrets and Silence, articulates the task of lesbian feminism very well, ‘The meaning of our love for women is what we have constantly to expand’ (Rich, 1979). Lesbian feminists added a wealth of meaning to the way in which women could love women, and politicised the concept. The basis of lesbian feminism, as of the radical feminism of this period, was woman-loving. Lesbian feminists understood woman-loving to be fundamental to feminism. As Charlotte Bunch expressed it in 1972:

We say that a lesbian is a woman whose sense of self and energies, including sexual energies, center around women – she is woman-identified. The woman-identified -woman commits herself to other women for political, emotional, physical, and economic support. Women are important to her. She is important to herself. (Bunch, 2000 1st published 1972: 332)

As feminist philosophers have pointed out, male supremacist philosophy and culture is hostile to women’s love and friendship towards other women. Janice Raymond explains, ‘In a woman-hating society, female friendship has been tabooed to the extent that there are women who hate their original Selves…’ (Raymond 1986:6). The creation of woman-loving was a task necessary for the very survival of feminism. If women did not love themselves and each other, then they had no basis on which to identify and reject atrocities against women. For a feminist movement, solidarity of the oppressed was a necessary basis for organising. But woman-loving was always seen as constituting more than a woman’s version of comradeship.

Night Stage raising crew, lifting. 2006. ..Image from the book project Welcome Home: Building the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, self-published First-Edition 2009...Photo by Angela Jimenez.copyright 2009 Angela Jimenez Photography

Night Stage raising crew, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 2006.

Marilyn Frye, the US lesbian philosopher, in her essay on the differences between gay male and lesbian politics sees male homosexuality as the apogee of the masculine bonding that forms the cement of male supremacy. The bonding of lesbian feminists, however, is heretical:

If man-loving is the rule of phallocratic culture, as I think it is, and if, therefore, male homoeroticism is compulsory, then gay men should be numbered among the faithful, or the loyal and law-biding citizens, and lesbian feminists are sinners and criminals, or, if perceived politically, insurgents and traitors. (Frye 1983:135-6)

Lesbian feminists, unlike all the other denizens of male domination, refused to love men. Woman-loving does not survive well in male dominated queer politics. In a mixed movement the resources, influence and just sheer numbers of men give them the power to create cultural norms. As a result some lesbians have become so disenchanted with their lesbianism, and even their femaleness, that there are presently hundreds if not thousands of lesbians in UK and US in the 1980s who have ‘transitioned’ i.e. adopted the identity not just of males but, in many cases, of gay males with the help of testosterone and mutilating operations (Jeffreys, 2014).

2. Separatism

Lesbian feminism is distinguished from other varieties of lesbian politics by its emphasis on the need for some degree of separation from the politics, institutions, culture of men. Such separation is necessary because lesbian feminism, like its foremother radical feminism, is based on the understanding that women live, as Mary Daly describes it, in the ‘state of atrocity’ (Daly 1979). The state of atrocity is the condition in which women have for centuries, in different parts of the world, survived terrible violence and torture from men.

The lesbian feminist critique of the whole system of male supremacist thought is far reaching in its vision and originality, its courage and creativity. When I speak of radical feminism and lesbian feminism in the same breath that is because most often the leading thinkers of radical feminism have also been lesbians (Kate Millett, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Janice Raymond) and lesbian feminism grew from a radical feminist foundation.

The visionary thinking required to create the new world-view of lesbian feminism could not easily be developed from within a mixed gay liberation movement. The creation of space in which to imagine a new world-view was one crucial reason for lesbian separatism. Lesbian separatism is the separation of lesbians from mixed gay organising, and in some cases in the US in particular, from the women’s liberation movement. The basis of lesbian feminism has always been the separate lesbian feminist culture and institutions. The importance of women’s/lesbian culture is well expressed by Bonnie Zimmerman, ‘I would go so far as to say that without a culture and a politics, we wouldn’t have lesbians, only women who have sex with women’ (Zimmerman, 2008: 46-7). The crucial importance of women’s space which excludes men is explained by the lesbian feminist philosopher, Marilyn Frye:

​Our existence as females not owned by males and not penis-accessible, our values and our ​attention, our experience of the erotic and the direction of our passion, places us directly in ​opposition to male-supremacist culture in all respects, so much so that our existence is ​almost unthinkable within the world view of that culture (Frye, 1983: 145).

She explains that when women forbade male entry into their groups and activities it denied them important goods and sources of power, ‘Female denial of male access to females substantially cuts off a flow of benefits, but it has also the form and full portent of assumption of power’ (Frye, 1983: 103).

The contemporary rage of men’s rights extremists and male-bodied transgenders at being denied entry to women’s spaces, and the reluctance of women to give them cause for anger, can be understood with reference to Frye’s useful insight that ‘conscious and deliberate exclusion of men by women, from anything, is blatant insubordination, and generates in women fear of punishment and reprisal’ (Frye, 1983: 103). Men’s right of entry, she says, is conferred upon them by their position of dominance and women’s lack of any right to deny this to them as a result of their subordinate position, ‘It is always the privilege of the master to enter the slave’s hut. The slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave’ (Frye, 1983: 104). The entryism of male-bodied transgenders to women’s spaces has helped to fracture lesbian communities by extirpating the environments that have nurtured women’s resistance and rebellious thinking, and their ability to love one another.

3. Lesbianism as choice and resistance

Whilst gay liberation men might say ‘I am proud’, lesbian feminists have gone so far as to say ‘I choose’. Janice Raymond expresses it thus: ‘women are not born Lesbians. Women become Lesbians out of choice’ (Raymond 1986:14). This does not mean that all those who chose to identify as lesbian feminists consciously chose their lesbianism. Many had been lesbians before lesbian feminism was first thought of, but, as my interviewees expressed it, their lesbianism was transformed and given meaning by lesbian feminism, it became a politics. As Adrienne Rich pointed out, choice for heterosexuality was not a possibility because heterosexuality was enforced upon girls and women throughout their lives. But lesbianism could be genuinely chosen as an act of resistance.

Lesbianism as an act of resistance

But, whether lesbian feminists were lesbians before they became feminists, or chose to become so thereafter, they have a common understanding of their lesbianism as what Cheryl Clarke, in This Bridge Called my Back, the historic anthology by US Women of Colour has called ‘An Act of Resistance’. Clarke explains, ‘No matter how a woman lives out her lesbianism …she has rebelled against becoming the slave master’s concubine, viz. the male-dependent female, the female heterosexual. This rebellion is dangerous business in patriarchy’ (Clarke 1999:565).

Political lesbianism

Political lesbianism was the name given in the UK, in the 1979 Political Lesbianism paper (Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, 1981), to the phenomenon in which thousands of women who chose to become lesbians for political reasons or chose to have no further sexual relations with men. Many feminists had been lesbians before they became feminists and adopted a political interpretation of their lesbianism, but many others became lesbians as a result of feminism. Bonnie Zimmerman quoting Sarah Schulman’s The Sophie Horowitz Story in order to express the extraordinary excitement and momentum of this time, ‘It’s so strange, you know, in the early seventies, one day, half the women’s movement came out as lesbians. It was like we were all sitting around and the ice cream truck came and all of a sudden I looked around and everyone ran out for ice cream’ (Zimmerman, 2008: 40). She comments, ‘That was me. I ran out for ice cream one day, and I’m still addicted’. That was me too. In 1977 I became a political lesbian as a result of being challenged by the lesbian feminists I met as to how my heterosexuality was consonant with my revolutionary feminism. As it was put to me at that time, why put all your best energies into the problem, men, rather than the solution, women. That made sense to me, and I asked my boyfriend and my male lodger, Nigel, (yes, really, and ‘Nigel’ was the term I and others began to use at the time for anti-sexist men), to move out.

For lesbian feminists, lesbianism is understood to be a political practice, a form of activism in itself. The 1970 lesbifesto from Radicalesbians expresses this well with their statement: ‘Lesbianism is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion’ (Radicalesbians, 1970). The many women who were exploding into lesbianism in the 1970s did so not just out of a powerful attraction to women, but out of rage. No way would they accept the conditions of women’s lot under male domination, one aspect of which was compulsory heterosexuality. But neither would they put up with the other constraints on women: sex roles, femininity, learned helplessness. Radicalesbians stated that even those women who were lesbians before they were feminists and said that lesbianism was not a politics for them, were kidding themselves. Part of their lesbianism, too, was their refusal to put up with the conditions in which women were expected to live.

To be continued Tuesday, August 4.

Today’s music:

Amazon by Maxine Feldman

New Ground by Alix Dobkin


Tomorrow, Terre Spencer writes about why pronouns really, really matter.

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  1. Reblogged this on Jill Gertrude.


  2. Alex Rebbe (woman) says:

    Thanks for posting this! I like Mary Daly’s “women are living in a state of atrocity”, and Sheila pointing out that insisting on women-only spaces is an act of insubordination and hence the aggressive tactics by men against such efforts. Men are using the old tactic of divide and conquer, pitting women against women so that we effectively do the men’s work of disempowering ourselves by dissolving our solidarity. I also noted her remarks about lesbian feminism arising out of radical feminism, had thought it was the other way around; I’ll look forward to part two.


  3. Brylliant says:

    Linked and Featured on Feminism XX: feminismxx.blogspot.com



  1. […] posebno u Parizu, sada skrećemo pokret na Ujedinjeno Kraljevstvo. Ovdje donosimo prijevod govora koji je Sheila Jeffreys održala pri Rad Fem kolektivu 9. lipnja u Camden […]


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