One: Talk given at the ‘Music and Liberation’ exhibition at Space Station 65 gallery, South London, December 2012:

‘A big thank you to everyone who has come along tonight, and to Debi for inviting me to speak and share some thoughts on the Women’s Liberation Music Archive.

Coming to south London tonight, as I thought about how the archive came about, I felt accompanied by many ghosts. There is much feminist and lesbian history around us. For example, in March 1972 women who’d met through Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front women’s group gathered at the council flat of Hazel Twort, a founder of WLM and the Peckham Rye WL group, and began the first feminist band to come out of the movement (to the best of my knowledge): the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band(a catchy little title) [which was shortly followed by the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band.] In the mid-70s I lived myself in Peckham and rehearsed in a shed with women met through a notice in the London Women’s Liberation Workshop newsletter, in a band called Jam Today, whose members continue in musical careers. And at that time, just down the road in Vauxhall two whole terraced streets were women’s squats, a dyke community with one of London’s first feminist discos in a local pub and the first South London Women’s Art Centre in one of the houses in Radnor Terrace. Nearby there is the rich history of Brixton’s squatting, anti-racist, women’s and LGBT activism. And so on …

Patching such pieces together is the kind of work we are doing in the archive, to create a bigger picture of the political context, in which to make real that which may otherwise be fragmented and lost. And some women from that era are no longer with us. I feel passionate also about honouring their memory.

I count myself very lucky to have been involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the late 1960s onwards, and in making feminist music with many great women back then, as groups proliferated all over the place in many musical genres. Over subsequent years when we met we said to one another: we really must collect and document our music from that time, to ensure women’s achievements are not yet again ‘hidden from history’! We began dragging out stuff we had kept in boxes, in attics and under our beds, and, around the turn of the century, sorting it out, digitising some dusty old cassette tapes and talking seriously about what to do with it all.

The Women’s Library 2010.
Photo Paddy Tanton

In 2010 I went to the Women’s Library exhibition marking the fortieth anniversary of our first national WLM conference. It was great to see film of the London Women’s Street Theatre Group on the first International Women’s Day march through London in 1971, and a Spare Rib benefit poster featuring the band Spoilsports. I remarked to my old friend radical feminist Amanda Sebestyen – who I’m delighted is here this evening – that I’d like to see more about political-cultural activism, especially music, and felt an increasing urgency to write about this aspect of our movement which could otherwise could be marginalised or unknown. Amanda put Debi Withers in touch with me, knowing she was keen to research and archive this material. She and I began the work which has born fruit in this exhibition curated by Debi, and the Women’s Liberation Music Archive on which it is based. The online archive has grown since its launch in May 2011, with over fortyone thousand hits to date, and the physical collection of artefacts will be housed by the Feminist Archive South in Bristol.

While spending many months on the computer searching out contacts and networking, tracking down women I’d lost touch with for decades, and uploading masses of stuff to the website, it was moving from the outset to find the generous responses from huge numbers of women contacted by Debi and myself. In a very real sense it’s their archive and I am very glad we were able to facilitate it. They loaned and donated music, films, photos, lyrics, tickets, posters, hand-written set lists and some wrote personal pieces specially for us – women such as Frankie Armstrong, Rix Pyke from Clapperclaw, Paddy Tanton from the Lizzy Smith Band, who it is also wonderful to see here tonight. They made this archive possible through both their support now and (often unpaid) hard work decades ago.

Now, most of what we fought against then continues to rear its ugly head. Domestic and sexual violence; pornography; prostitution; trafficking of women and children; religious fundamentalism; the racist and xenophobic legacy of imperialism; Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation by avaricious capitalism that siphons off wealth away from the common good to the super-rich elite; right-wing attacks on working class and disabled people, savaging the welfare state and NHS, cutting essential benefits and resources with the ensuing deliberate impoverishment affecting our hard-won reproductive rights, incomes, housing, employment, childcare … patriarchy and heterosexism oppressing women in myriad ways around the world, through all the systems that view women as commodities and chattels, manifesting the same misogynist and male supremacist agenda.

Believe it or not, I am actually known as someone who looks on the bright side! Which is that: always and everywhere, women resist! Our resistance to oppression takes many forms. It springs up whenever we are downtrodden, sold, beaten, exploited and denied our human rights. We organise and fight back, we campaign and create solidarity, all over the world. Progressive cultural activism is part of this struggle. Opponents of justice and freedom know this, whether instigating the destruction of arts funding and education here, the Taliban banning music, or the jailing of Pussy Riot. I have always been inspired by political culture, by people like Chilean Victor Jara or Palestinian Reem Kelani, who know the split between political activism and culture is a false one. Nor are the arts an add-on or luxury. ‘Music is the spirit, music is life,’ said jazz legends Mary Maria Parks and Albert Ayler: ‘Music is the healing force of the universe.’

That was why I got involved in music in the 1970s and why I now want to let people know what we were about in Women’s Liberation. We wanted regime change; same as now. Not simply equality within an unjust world. At our most radical we were internationalist, anarchic, wanting revolutionary change. Our music and art and books and pamphlets and films and theatre and photography and poetry and posters and magazines and dancing and events were part of that. The sounds and songs we made voiced our passions and rage, humour and joy, demands and dreams, manifestos and hopes for a transformation of the world.

The Women’s Liberation Music Archive is valued by many people as an idea whose time has come. It will continue to grow and develop and hopefully be a useful resource – a testimony to feminist creativity and autonomy.

For as long as the world still needs it, may the struggle for women’s liberation flourish and prevail!’

 © Frankie Green

Frankie in a t-shirt saying 'Cut capitalism not culture' reading from a paper.

Two: a presentation by the WLMA team given at various events, including the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network meeting, Nottingham Women’s Center, 2014, and the Older Women’s Festival at Women in Health in Camden, organised by Opening Doors London.

 ‘Hello. Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. I’m Paddy, and I’m here with my colleague Kathy – we’re two of the team administrating the Women’s Liberation Music Archive and members of the project’s Steering Group. I’d like to talk about the archive a bit first and then end with any questions you may have and like to discuss. We are showing a few images from the archive – if there is anyone with visual impairment who would like a fuller description please do tell me and I will be happy to take them through it.

So, what is the WLMA?

It’s a feminist, voluntary not-for-profit project, dedicated to documenting and celebrating the history of the music-making involved in the WLM during the 1970s and 80s. It was launched online as a website on Mayday 2011 and in the real world it’s a collection of artefacts housed by the Feminist Archive South, at the University of Bristol. It’s an open-ended, ongoing project and continuing to grow, so contributions of ideas and items are welcome.

How did the archive come about?

Women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the late 1960s onwards, who were making feminist music together back then, as groups proliferated all over the place in many musical genres, met in subsequent years and agreed that they must collect and document their music from that time, to ensure women’s achievements are not yet again ‘hidden from history’! They began dragging out stuff kept in boxes, in attics and under beds, and, around the turn of the century, sorting it out, digitising some dusty old cassette tapes and talking seriously about what to do with it all. Then in 2010 Frankie Green and I went to the Women’s Library exhibition marking the fortieth anniversary of our first national WLM conference. It was great to see film of the London Women’s Street Theatre Group on the first International Women’s Day march through London in 1971, and a Spare Rib benefit poster featuring the band Spoilsports. We remarked that we’d like to see more about political-cultural activism, especially music, and Frankie felt an increasing urgency to write about this aspect of our movement which could otherwise could be marginalised or unknown.

What’s in it?

The archive has come about due to the generosity of a great many women. They’ve lent and donated lots of memorabilia kept from the 70s and 80s and continue to do so. They made this archive possible through both their support now and (often unpaid) hard work decades ago. Many of them continue in their careers as musicians and teachers and organisers and activists. So huge gratitude to them – if any of them are here today it’s good to be able to thank them in person.

We have amassed a collection of recordings, photos, posters, flyers, reviews, articles and other ephemera that have been scanned and uploaded online. There is a small sample on the display board.
I n 2010 the archive began by women making a list of bands from memory, comprising about 20 names – we now have around 150 entries and are growing steadily.

There is a compilation CD on offer containing tracks from twenty of the bands involved – the asking price is £10 but of course if anyone would like a copy but can’t afford that, please, make us an offer! 
Included in the archive are not only musicians and singers but events organisers, sound engineers, recording technicians, photographers, DJs, MCs, journalists, distributors, and so on – everyone who helped make it happen. Back then as some of you will remember, women did the whole thing ourselves, and that meant creating an infrastructure. Many groups were self-funded, relying on donations and benefit gigs to fundraise, etc. Later on funding became available and music events and groups proliferated – the GLC and other local authorities gave support to feminist, anti-racist and community causes. We were enabled to run workshops, hire rehearsal space, purchase equipment, set up studios. Of course Thatcherism put paid to that.

Without physical support and encouragement, a material base, how can girls and women without resources who want to be musicians and technicians do so?

What are the aims of the music archive?

To provide a resource – for activists, students and researchers, feminist of all generations, musicologists, everyone interested in social history …

As well as documenting and celebrating – we want to show the place of this cultural activism in the social and political context. The hope is that the archive acts as a conduit for people to find out about the movement – its aims and demands, actions and campaigns. And to show the significance of political culture. As Frankie Green, the archive’s Administrator, has said, “We are inspired by people like Chilean Victor Jara or Palestinian Reem Kelani, who know that the split between political activism and culture is a false one, that the arts aren’t an add-on or luxury. Progressive cultural activism is part of the struggle. Opponents of justice and freedom know this, whether slashing arts funding and education here, the Taliban banning music, or the jailing of Pussy Riot.

That was why I got involved in music in the 1970s and why I now hope to let people know what we were about in Women’s Liberation. We wanted regime change. Not simply equality within an unjust world. At our most radical we were internationalist, anarchic, revolutionary. Our music and art and books and pamphlets and films and theatre and photography and poetry and posters and magazines and dancing and events were part of that. The sounds and songs we made voiced our rage, humour and joy, demands and dreams, manifestos and hopes for a transformation of the world.”

A WLMA presentation

Who uses the archive? What has it achieved?

A lot of people use the site and interact with us. A typical couple of months will see, e.g. contacts with an MA student, involving a skype interview and her visiting the collection in Bristol; a request from a film company making a documentary on the Irish Women’s Centre to arrange using tracks from the archive; a woman broadcaster in the States DJing a programme advertising the archive and playing tracks from the compilation CD; a teacher at a catholic high school in Australia requesting the CD as an educational resource in her gender studies class; a request for a speaker at LGBT History Month, and several women offering photos and info on bands we’d not heard of before.

So far feedback has been positive and constructive criticism is always welcome.
 One area where development is needed is geographical spread – the archive is still primarily England-based. We have a lot of gaps. So if you know of anyone we may have left out please let us know.

We think that by putting a lot of material all in one place we have ensured that it stands a chance of not being lost, forgotten, overlooked and ‘hidden from history.’ It can be seen as showing the dynamism and passion of the feminist movement of that time. We hope the collection takes its place among all the other archives documenting the history of our movement and other progressive social movements.

Closing remarks

It is sometimes dispiriting to look back at the WLM when globally women still contend with the same issues: the misogyny, racism, violence, inequality, the imposition of cruel cuts and austerity – we seem to sliding backwards in so many ways.

The archive team hopes that the music archive is not about relics from the past, a rosy-tinted view of the era, or simply an exercise in nostalgia, but shows the continuity of women’s ongoing quest for liberation from gender roles, heterosexism, patriarchal oppression and economic exploitation. The struggle continues and, as it does so, we can sing, dance and write poetry to uplift our spirits and show the tenacity of creativity and resistance. Women’s resistance springs up whenever we are downtrodden, sold, beaten, exploited and denied our human rights. We organise and fight back, we campaign and create solidarity, all over the world.

The importance of setting up a feminist music archive was talked about by many of us for years before it was set up so it’s an idea whose time has come. It will continue to grow and develop and hopefully be a useful resource – and a testimony to feminist creativity and autonomy.

Three: ‘Feminist Archives and Activism: Knowing Our Past – Creating Our Future’ Workshop at the Feminism in London conference, 25th October 2014, Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London WC1

 a poster for the Feminism in London conference 2014, showing a clenched fist, using suffragette colours, purple white and green.

‘How important is culture to political movements? I believe history shows it is integral, an essential means of enacting resistance. Women’s Liberation was no exception, with a flowering of grassroots revolutionary creativity.

In the Women’s Liberation Music Archive you’ll find collections of recordings, videos, photos, lyrics, flyers, clippings, all types of music – jazz, rock, folk and more. Street bands and cabaret overlap with the great alternative theatre archive, Unfinished Histories, created by Susan Croft. There’s information not just on composers, singers, instrumentalists, but sound engineers, technicians, events organisers: everyone who created an independent infrastructure, setting up recording studios, distribution networks and skill-sharing workshops, inventing new ways of doing things, making it happen for ourselves. Our songs voiced our demands, our rage and joy, and dreams of a radically transformed world.

The 1974 Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band’s manifesto said: ‘music … contains a certain view of life, supports a certain order of things. Unless we use music to express women’s fight against oppression, to encourage other women to stand with us, it will support the established order … we are trying to create music that expresses the new values and relationships the movement is creating, of women standing up against male domination … about women’s relationships in the home, at work … fighting back, having a good time together without men, about how we want to be … the women’s movement, not the commercial circuit, has made our music. We want to build common ground between us, the women we sing about and the women we sing to  – our unity against oppression.’

We who experienced this history saw the risk of it being lost without this archive. But archives aren’t about preserving history in aspic, or rosy-tinted nostalgia; they’re living resources for ongoing struggles. Ours is not just about music, it acts as a conduit through which to view the movement. Simple pieces of ephemera like handmade, photocopied flyers tell us much. Sliding price scales show unequal incomes. Venues show the need for women’s spaces. Crèches: an essential part of feminist childcare practices. Disabled access info – or the lack of – indicates barriers to inclusion. Fundraising gigs for women’s centres; refuges; the National Abortion Campaign; Lesbian Line; magazines like Spare Rib, Red Rag, Outwrite. You’ll see internationalism, solidarity with the women of Grunwick’s and striking mining communities, our protests against Thatcherism. See the work we did, the fun we had, recognise recurrent themes: opposition to all forms of oppression and exploitation – male violence, abuse, prostitution, pornography, poverty, lack of housing, education and employment. The toxic confluence of racism, class, colonialism, capital, male supremacy and heterosexism: same old same old!

On music generally: despite women’s achievements, what’s changed since the 80s? Sexism’s still rife in the music industry; arts funding is cut; some schools rely on charity for instruments – scandalous, I believe. What happens to a girl whose music lessons stop or if local orchestras close? If she can’t afford a violin or drum-kit? If boys dominate music sessions at her youth club? (that’s if it’s still open!) Without support what do girls and women do? And how much more could we do?! Music’s just one example.

Without investment art will happen, but for it to thrive society should prioritise it. Feminism wants a world where our potential isn’t wasted, our bodies are not commodities, profit is not god and patriarchy’s in the dustbin of history. A society which values the arts, and the lives of girls and women. We’re a helluva long way from that. To quote: “the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past.”

As the struggle continues, let us uphold the principle that access to our cultural commons should be a public good, available to all. Art is not a luxury. As the song goes, ‘hearts starve as well as bodies’ – we need bread and roses.’

© Frankie Green October 2014

Four: Talk for the History of Feminist Activism event, March 11, 2015, during the festival organized for International Women’s Day at Queen Mary’s University, East London, attended by Frankie Green, Paddy Tanton and Terry Hunt of the Women’s Liberation Music Archive.

Various WLM badges demanding free abortion on demand.

Thank you for this chance to talk about my experience of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the kind of feminism I was involved in – and to share some thoughts on our ongoing work. Feminism being the political movement to end all forms of oppression and exploitation of women and girls I feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to be involved in its manifestation in the 1970s and 80s. Lucky because this cause is one of the most vital quests for justice the world has ever known. 

I can’t give an objective, authoritative overview of that time, but – luckily for us all – loads of work has been done to record our history in archives that are useful resources and show how knowing our history can strengthen our movement.  I was checking out the Feminist Archive website to jog my memory before coming here and thought I must invite you to use it! The compiled chronology shows the staggering amount of campaigns, conferences and publications that proliferated. 

Robin Morgan famously wrote in her 1972 poem ‘Monster’:

‘I want a women’s revolution like a lover. I lust for it, I want so much this freedom,

this end to struggle and fear and lies, that I could die with the passionate uttering of that desire.’

We need a women’s intifada, don’t we: an uprising that throws off male supremacy and the subjugation of women.

The names of organisations back then indicate their historical context: Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay Liberation Front. It was a time of great mobilisations – decolonisation movements in Africa and Asia, civil rights, Black Power. Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, Palestine Liberation Organisation – it seemed the world was transforming through the struggles of people demanding self-determination, and there were women’s movements happening everywhere. 

I was part of two areas of intertwined activism – housing, and music-making. Hearing of the movement at the end of the 1960s I went in 1971 to its 2nd national conference, at Skegness, among women who were part of a revolution within the revolution – demanding that men leave the event, getting together in groups to talk with one another, disbanding formality in favour of local organization. Our right to autonomous political organising had to be – literally – fought for: women had to get on the stage to take the microphone away, and there were men who physically attacked us. We had to insist on taking ourselves seriously and being taken seriously. 

Women from diverse situations had in common that we were pissed off, angry, determined. It was inspiring to meet women struggling in trade unions against male domination and for equal, decent pay and conditions including strikers from Fakenham leather factory, Ford’s, and the Night Cleaners Campaign. Women fed-up with their conditions as housewives and mothers, working against racist immigration policies, from all shades of left-wing groups, fed up with sexism. Soon many women left Gay Liberation, seeing the oppression of lesbians as part of women’s general oppression: the denial of rights over our own bodies and lives. It was not a matter of being denied equality due to homophobia – a word implying irrational fear – it was a recognition that lesbianism doesthreaten patriarchal control within the family. That was why we had our children taken away from us, or were deemed mentally ill – because of a more far-reaching concept: heterosexism, the ideology that only relationships between men and women are valid. This oppresses all women, as it sees us as complementary to men, a subordinate half of a whole. The underlying dualism of socially-constructed gender roles on which this rests remains, in many places, as absolute in systems of gender segregation, apartheid.

So what did we do, back then? Thousands of women formed a network of groups and set up the WL Workshop, its newsletters and magazine, Shrew. For coordination we had a tiny office, eventually with a paid worker. It was agreed to hold bi-annual national conferences to provide a forum for debate and policy-making. The first major events I knew of were the first national conference at Ruskin College in 1970; the disruption of the Miss World Contest at the Albert Hall when women threw smoke bombs and charged the stage – and the first International Women’s Day march through London. That march [here’s the poster for it] was the largest such event since the Suffragette era, with women literally joining in from the pavements. 

Four initial demands were formulated – Equal Pay, Equal Educational and Job Opportunities, Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand, Free 24-hour Nurseriesand 3 added later: Legal and Financial Independence for All Women, The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality and An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians, Freedom for all women from the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression.

These were hotly debated, their tactical usefulness and their limitations. Some women felt them to be not revolutionary enough. But have we actually achieved any of them?!

Breaking silence was vital. Consciousness-raising enabled us to understand and analyse our situations. It sounds commonplace now, but identifying that what happens to girls and women in the so-called private sphere – family, household, childcare, sex – is political and determined by vested interests leads to the question: ‘who benefits?’

The beauty of dissenting politics is their denaturalising of the status quo. Those in power want normalised hierarchical structures to be seen as a-historical, natural so inevitable – but male supremacy is not natural, racism is not natural, capitalist competitiveness is not natural – human nature is not fixed – its potentialities can flourish or wither according to what is encouraged. This is the awareness growing from consciousness-raising: another reality, another economy, another society is possible – and collective action can bring it about.

The courage of survivors began to expose the devastating extent of violence against women, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment and men’s assumption of entitlement to sexual access – and to show that these were not personal problems but institutionalised. That they’re not the fault of any one woman any more than poverty and homelessness are down to individuals – they are structural. We asserted that we are not responsible for attacks upon ourselves by dint of our clothing or behaviour, that men committing crimes are culpable – a truth still being denied by patriarchal and religious strictures using blame and shame against us.

The link between theory and practice was crucial. Our diaries were crammed with protests, debates and meetings: the National Abortion Campaign, Women’s Aid, helplines, the Working Women’s Charter. Direct actions are what I remember most vividly. Crowbarring corrugated iron off doors to squat houses left empty. Chanting around the American Embassy demanding Free Angela Davis with the Women’s Theatre Group carrying symbolic chains; occupying the Trafalgar Square Post Office to protest the removal of Family Allowance (Child Benefit) from women; rallying at Holloway Prison. 

In grassroots organising cultural work and housing were interlinked: squatting was about homes, but also seizing the physical space necessary to hold meetings, share childcare, publish pamphlets and posters, hold exhibitions, band practices, poetry readings. Women being expected to live in nuclear families meant we had to take these spaces ourselves to share, live collectively; many women wanted to raise children together. There were many squatting communities of women, some overlapping with mixed ones such as at Kings Cross where I lived before moving to Hackney. Whole terraced streets of women’s squats grew up. 

The right to squat was long-established. We believed everyone has a right to housing. Mostly we took over boarded-up council houses, restoring plumbing and electricity ourselves, challenging the state when taken to court or the police and bailiffs came. One band, the Stepney Sisters, wrote a song called ‘Don’t let Houses Rot – Squat!’ [you can read more in the songbook ‘Sisters in Song’ – displayed on stall] This is before Thatcherism began slashing the social fabric with policies like right-to-buy destroying public housing, opening it to a market where it’s not about homes but property investment for a rich elite. 

Progressive culture is essential to political movements and women’sfilm, theatre, art, literature, publishing, poster-making and music thrived. Bands incorporated politics not only in the lyrics and style of what we played but in ways of working. Our politics show in groups’ names: the Harpies, Devil’s Dykes. Frigging Little Bits, Brazen Hussies, PMT, Ova, Proper Little Madams, The Mistakes, Mother Superior and the Bad Habits, Jam Today, Sisters Unlimited. A man who yelled ‘stroppy cows’ at us in a recording studio when we failed to pay him the attention he felt he was due provided the name for feminist label Stroppy Cow Records. [One of its founders, Terry Hunt, is here in our WLMA team tonight.]

I was first involved in 1972 in the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band– a catchy little title! We were on the dole or single mothers or in low-paid jobs so getting instruments was hard. I was a drummer playing saucepans with chopsticks. We practised in squats, pubs, council flats and community centres. Music-making was embedded in the movement and our lives which involved demonstrations, running women’s centres, spray-painting excursions. Gigs included fundraisers for strikers; women’s festivals and the first National Lesbian Conference in Canterbury in 1974.  We made music for the film ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’. We handed out songsheets for women to join in. Song lyrics expressed politics: ‘Body Squat,’ e.g., connected the taking over of houses with control of our physical selves for ourselves, our reproductive rights, an end to objectification. 

Women playing music and instruments usually played by men embodied the politics of carnival – turning the world upside down, inverting power structures, reclaiming power. Many men became aggressive at mixed events where all-women groups were on stage and the women we were playing for danced with one another in circles. By 1976 when I joined the band Jam Today the movement had grown hugely, we played benefits, colleges, conferences and festivals and demos, fundraising for women’s centres or refuges; NAC; Lesbian Line; magazines like Spare Rib, Red Rag, Outwrite, the women of Grunwick’s [poster displayed] and striking mining communities. We composed our own songs or changed lyrics by changing the genders. We experimented trying to break down the separation between performers and audience; working collectively, debating ‘what constitutes ‘feminist music?’ and ‘how can art contribute to social change?’ We set up the Women’s Monthly Event in central London to create a regular woman-only space. We wanted to demystify music-making and make it accessible, so held skill-sharing workshops at youth clubs and conferences, creating a way into music for women with the development of an infrastructure of sound engineering, overlapping with the builders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics of the Women and Manual Trades groups.

Five years ago we started compiling the Women’s Liberation Music Archive. This is not simply about music: it acts as a conduit through which to view the movement, and overlaps with others which now form the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network. Together we can ensure that women’s achievements are not yet again, to quote Sheila Rowbottom, ‘hidden from history.’

I don’t want to paint a rosy-tinted picture of the past. The movement was not free of the toxic racism endemic in British society, legacy of slavery and empire. Not free from the poison of class, ableism, ageism, heterosexism. Obviously not, as it emerged within a society riven by those injustices – and could reproduce them, and founder on them. Our organisations are themselves sites of struggle. This underlines the importance of opposing these obstacles, finding common ground, dealing openly with debate and listening to one another. 

I came to believe in what I still believe to be important: an anti-racist radical feminist movement incorporating values of socialism, human rights and secularism. For me, radicalism in its literal sense meant going to the roots of oppressions and understanding how they are all interwoven – and working for change from the roots up. 

At 20, I was optimistic and naïve, taking a while to realise progress doesn’t just snowball. We had reason and justice on our side; how could we fail? Surely ignorance and injustice would be swept away! I underestimated the backlash: the hatred and ridicule; the tenacity of power structures; and the containment and co-option of our cause into liberal feminism. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone analysed the 19thcentury Women’s Rights Movement for suffrage by identifying the reactionary patriarchal forces aiming to defeat feminism as capitalism; racism; government; church; family; law. To which we would add, e.g., the media. She warned against selling out the cause for ‘more important’ issues, and narrowing our focus to single issues. 

It can be hard to sustain a political movement. Change is a long time coming. On the way I believe we need to treat one another with respect and solidarity. When I look back at the 70s I think what women did was bloody amazing. Huge respect is due to those who persevered subsequently: Southall Black Sisters, Justice for Women, Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, Rights of Women, women working against child abuse and the pornography industry and developing strategies to exit prostitution, to name a few. They changed our legal and social landscape. 

Frankie on a picket line outside the High Court in London's Strand holding placard saying 'Free Kiranjit Ahluwalia: self-defence is no offence'.
A Southall Black Sisters + Justice for Women picket of the High Court in the 80s

The intense upsurge of the movement in the WLM was one watershed in a long struggle. At our most radical we were internationalist, anarchic. We wanted regime change. Not equality within an unjust society – but transformation of it. It wasn’t about becoming CEOs, joining the military, buying into a neo-liberal notion of choice or aiming for the FTSE 100. It certainly wasn’t about driving around in a pink van trying to persuade women to vote for austerity-lite. [This references a van in which Harriet Harman toured around in the 2016 election campaign.]

What we fought against then continues to rear its ugly head through myriad systems that view us as chattels, worthless or inferior. But I am still optimistic. Because wherever there is oppression there is resistance! It springs up whenever we are downtrodden, sold, beaten, exploited and denied our human rights. We organise and fight back all over the world. Currently, a tremendous momentum is building – and if you share a sense of urgency now is the time to act! Now is the time to refuse to tolerate the imprisoning of women seeking asylum – time to speak out to demand funding for women’s refuges and other vital services – time to insist no-one goes without their rightful shelter, sustenance and bodily integrity – time to support the European Women’s Lobby and the End Demand campaign to abolish prostitution and question its legitimisation by the euphemism of ‘sex work.’ To assert that profit is not god, and the wealth of the world must be spent on the well-being of the world. 

Let us keep on doing everything in our power to bring about a world in which no woman can be trafficked, no girl can go uneducated, be mutilated, forced into marriage or have to sell her very body to survive. A world where it would be unthinkable that any man can buy sexual access to women, or that a human body can be a commodity. A world where we have – women’s liberation. Never give up!!!!   

© Frankie Green 2015

Five: Notes for a lesbian panel discussion event at Shropshire LGBT History Festival February 2019: ‘Outing the 70s and 80s’

Six women in chairs facing the audience at Shropshire LGBT History event with rainbow flags in background.
Discussion with audience at the Shropshire LGBT+ History Festival event
Programme advertising Shropshire lgbt history festival lesbian film and discussion session

Remembering the Gay Liberation Front I thought I’d talk a bit about my experience of encountering GLF in 1971. GLF was a watershed moment – one of those Big Bangs of ideas and energy that turn the world upside down – an intense burst of activism which continues to expand. GLF was carnivalesque, took the piss out of the straight world, it was radical, outlaw, and the strand of it that most appealed to me didn’t want to just be accepted or assimilated into the world but to change it utterly! It was vibrant, exciting, anarchic, celebratory, irreverent, showing that life-affirming fun was not separate from serious politics and questioning and criticising and analysing institutions and practices: denaturalising the family, heterosexism, marriage, monogamy, repressive gender roles of masculinity and femininity, rejection of patriarchal and authoritarian structures. 

Before GLF GLF‘s importance can only be understood in the historical context of what preceded it. Lesbians were pathologised, as were gay men, and deemed mentally ill perverts. There was some overlap of both experiences, but we did not have the legal prohibition which criminalised and imprisoned them. Our oppression was that of stigmatisation, shame, incarceration in mental institutions, the threat of losing homes, jobs or being unemployable, and the cruelty of being having children taken away – deemed by the courts unfit mothers.

When I was young you’d only be accepted if you took a particular path, living within heterosexual and capitalist career norms. School was authoritarian and harsh. There was no way of articulating unconventional feelings, and hiding what you felt seemed necessary to avoid ridicule or worse. Psychiatric services were to be avoided at all costs; there was no gay-friendly counselling. ‘You’ll end up in Sunnyside’ (the local institution) was the threat, and many did. 

As a child and teenager I felt increasingly unhappy, more so as the 60s wore on, and becoming a lesbian was difficult – like many people alienated by insular environments I began to dream of escape. I felt at odds with the conventional ethos of the society, in terms of the prevailing gender and racist conventions. I felt wrong, out of place, unhappy; I was uncomfortable in that type of society (NZ) and disliked its colonial settler relationship to the land and ownership/exploitation of it.

I don’t want to put a gloss on the past or view it through rose-tinted spectacles. There were divisions and conflicts within GLF; I confess much of that passed me by, as I was swept up in the excitement and wasn’t involved for long. Perhaps there is an advantage to that: these memories for me are a mostly positive overview. Some of the concerns of lesbians and gay men overlapped – job & housing discrimination; family rejection; being ridiculed; physical violence; coming out; but some diverged widely, with men concerned with age of consent, police harassment of cruising, but lesbians dealing with child custody issues, supporting women faced with husbands’ domestic violence and economic dependence upon men, childcare, housing, e.g. 

Context of GLF It was the era of inspiring movements for social justice: anti-colonialism; Civil Rights & Black Power movements; the Women’s Liberation Movement; the anti-apartheid movement. Its manifesto stated ‘The long-term goal of Gay Liberation, which inevitably brings us into conflict with the institutionalised sexism of this society, is to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression … We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights.’  

It recognised that overthrowing gender roles and heterosexism were the basis of our struggle. And it was not bounded by national boundaries but had a spirit of internationalism. In GLF we weren’t after being equal within an unequal society through reforming it, but about throwing out the whole system that was based on and perpetuated inequality, injustice, capitalism, class, race, gender. Radical transformation of the social, political, economic order. We turned shame into Pride.

Clause 28 One outcome of GLF and WLM was the development of a base from which to organise a national movement against the appalling clause 28, the draconian right-wing attempt in 1988 to legislate us back into a state of invisibility and invalidation. The persecution of Gay’s The Word bookshop which Janet’s brilliant film interview with Amanda documents so well came from the same reaction to gains we made. The clause was part of a backlash from the Thatcher government aimed at local governments. Many Labour councils had developed Equality Units, including Lesbian and Gay Units, which were publicly funded and pushing forward progressive agendas for the provision of housing, employment and education rights. They were ridiculed as the ‘loony left.’ 

It was no coincidence that the clause was put forward at the same time as an anti-abortion rights bill – all part of trying to quash women’s right to control our own bodies and lives. It also drew on and perpetuated anti-gay prejudice during the HIV and AIDS crisis. This vicious backlash hit not only at progress made in terms of gay rights, but the WLM’s achievements of challenging patriarchal nuclear families and establishing collective ways of living and working. This was evidenced in the second part of the clause which attempted to ban the presenting in schools of  ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ 

Feminists organised against the clause in groups, such as Hackney Dykes, which I joined, and many others nationally. Lesbian activist protests included abseiling into the House of Lords, invading the BBC newsroom, being thrown out of the public gallery after the parliamentary debate (ref Hansard, 15 November 1987), occupying a show house at the Ideal Home Exhibition, chaining themselves to railings at Buckingham Palace dressed as suffragettes, to name a few. Although as an organisation GLF had faltered, it had given people experience of organising and campaigning to draw on. A strong sense of civil rights meant a determination to never go backward. We had networks, resources, groups, communities, helplines, cafes, centres, national, parliamentary and international support enabling us to mount a campaign of great strength, passionately fought. Although we lost – despite our lobbying, demonstrations, picketing of Town Halls and parliament, and magnificent direct actions – the law was eventually repealed in 2003. 

Women marching with banners saying 'Hackney Dykes.'
Hackney Dykes at the huge march against Clause 28 in London

The Present We can never be complacent about any gains made. Anti-gay bullying in schools continues, religious denial of our human rights raises its ugly head regularly, and Britain is horrifically deporting lesbian and gay asylum seekers back to life-threatening situations – a shameful racist situation making a mockery of its supposed anti-discrimination stance. Human rights are indivisible and there is no pride in the fact that I can have a civil partnership while other lesbians are being denied safe refuge and forced out of the country into terrible danger. 

Pinkwashing The spirit of solidarity both with other oppressed groups and lgbt people worldwide which was integral to GLF continues in the actions of anti-pinkwashing campaigns against Israeli apartheid and L&G Support the Migrants against deportations under the vile tory ‘hostile environment’ policy.

Political culture I’ve always been interested in how music and other art is integral to political movements; WLM with its great burgeoning of cultural activism being no exception. There I met inspirational women such as Luchia (Fitzgerald) and Angela (Cooper) when they set up Women’s Aid in Manchester, and who are with us here today and are the subjects of the wonderful film Invisible Women.

Advertisement for film 'Invisible Women' showing GLF badge, women's liberation symbol, poster for the Northern Women's Liberation Rock Band, women's aid poster, and portraits of Angela and Luchia.

I met them again when they were in Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band which is featured in the Women’s Liberation Music Archive you have leaflets about. WLMA was set up to document and celebrate the feminist music-making of that time – I hope you’ll find it interesting. Thank you.

Standing talking to the audience about lesbian history. A screen behind shows image from wonderful film Invisible Women, women waving rainbow flags at Pride in Manchester.
Talking at the Shropshire LGBT+ History Festival event
with screen showing image from the film Invisible Women
Photo Diane Langford