The Lesbian Revolution cover image

The Lesbian Revolution – October 2018

The Lesbian Revolution: lesbian feminism in the UK 1970-1990

Sheila Jeffreys FiLiA Salford, Greater Manchester October 2018


I am going to talk today about my new book The Lesbian Revolution: lesbian feminism in the UK 1970-1990. The book is a history of lesbian feminism, and I wrote it with two purposes. One was simply to set the record straight. Lesbians and lesbian feminism have been entirely omitted from the written history of the Women’s Liberation Movement. That is a problem in itself because lesbians are routinely written out of history, often, these days, by pretending that they were really ‘trans’ and disappearing the word lesbian. But it is particularly exasperating because lesbian feminists were not just one variety of feminists in the movement who have been unfortunately passed over, but, as I argue in the book, the beating heart of the WLM.  Even histories of the WLM by lesbians themselves do not mention the way lesbian feminists did not just contribute to but shaped the WLM.


The other reason I wrote the book was because an embryo lesbian feminism movement is starting again, and I wanted to provide good information about the ideas and practice of the previous movement and how it was destroyed. In this way, not everything has to be reinvented and some of the mistakes can be avoided or at least recognised as they take place. Lesbian feminism now is being reinvented in a very different context. There was no social media last time, so we were not under surveillance and our ideas could be created in a women-only context. We were not forbidden or prevented from holding women only meetings, there were only women only meetings. And there was much more that was different too. Lesbianism and heterosexuality were seen as socially constructed, not innate. So, hundreds of thousands of women internationally who might not have considered it before and been shaped by all the social pressures to be heterosexual, chose to become lesbians. This mass creation of lesbians was crucial to our politics and to everything we achieved. Now, unfortunately, the idea that lesbianism and heterosexuality, as well as masculinity and femininity are innate and cannot be changed, is fashionable even amongst many younger lesbians who see themselves as feminists.


I was involved in lesbian feminism in this period. I made the choice to become a lesbian because of my politics and took part in the writing of some of the significant texts of lesbian feminism at that time, from the Political Lesbianism paper (Onlywomen Press, 1981), to the Lesbian History Group book, Not a Passing Phase (Lesbian History Group, 1989). I also wrote my first two books in this time out of my lesbian feminist politics, The Spinster and Her Enemies,1985 and Anticlimax, 1990. I was a member of the London Lesbian Offensive Group, the Lesbian History Group, the Lesbian Archive collective, Lesbians against Pornography, and Lesbians against Sadomasochism. Lesbian feminism transformed my life. When it went into gradual decline from the mid-1980s onwards I grieved along with many others.


Lesbian feminism and the WLM


It is reasonable to speak of a ‘lesbian revolution’ because of the extraordinary changes that were brought about by the mobilising of lesbian feminists during this time. Lesbian feminists came out of the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Movement to create a rich culture and a rich social and political community in which all feminists could immerse themselves so thoroughly that they had little need to have recourse to the resources of the malestream world. Lesbians created culture through setting up feminist and lesbian presses and bookstores, feminist art projects, theatre groups, bands, discos, dances, and concerts. They wrote and published copious books of theory, fiction and poetry, self-help, and history. Lesbians took the lead roles in creating innumerable resources to resist male violence, refuges for women battered by men in their homes, incest survivors’ groups, and rape crisis centres. Involvement in creating and running these resources led to many more women deciding to become lesbians. Lesbians were much involved in organising political groups, events and conferences for hundreds and thousands of women at a time. Lesbians also organised groups and activities for lesbians only. The result was that a lesbian feminist living in London, for instance, could go to several meetings a week, several conferences a month, and conduct a social life entirely in feminist and mostly women only spaces, bookstores, arts centres, women’s centres, and discos. Importantly, the facilities and community created by lesbian feminists formed the base from which the Women’s Liberation Movement for social change was able to draw its energy and nurturance.


The American lesbian feminist, Adrienne Rich, expressed the centrality of lesbian feminism to the Women’s Liberation Movement in the US in a speech in 1977.


In this country, as in the world today, there is a movement of women going on like no other in history. Let us have no doubt; it is being fuelled and empowered by the work of lesbians. Lesbians are running presses; starting magazines and distribution systems; setting up crisis centers and halfway houses; creating political dialogues; changing our use of language; making a truly lesbian and female history available to us for the first time; doing grassroots organizing and making visionary art (Rich, 1977: 6).


Lillian Mohin, an American lesbian feminist who lived in London in the 70s and 80s and contributed greatly to the creation of lesbian culture through Onlywomen Press, expressed the importance of lesbian feminism in the UK thus, ‘it’s crucial that we assert the necessity for lesbianism as a means of freeing all women from the oppression of all men. Lesbians have provided most of the vitality that fuels the WLM and it’s time we acknowledge that rather than politely refrain from mentioning it’ (Mohin, 1984: 8). In fact, the written history of the WLM does politely refrain from mentioning this.


The Lesbian History Group was set up by Rosemary Auchmuty and me in 1984 out of our concern at that time that lesbians were being left out of history. We  explained in our book, Not a Passing Phase, that documenting lesbian history is difficult because lesbians did not usually leave a record that they were lesbians and if they did their families were likely to erase it after their deaths. In some cases, historians made up boyfriends for lesbians to normalise them, ones that died in the war perhaps. At the time we wrote the book it did not occur to us that the history of those of us involved in lesbian feminism could suffer a similar fate to that of lesbians in earlier periods. But this is what has happened. The lesbian feminists that the present book is about are not in the same position as lesbians before the WLM who preferred to remain closeted. They have been happy to embrace the word lesbian and have their lives and loves made public, but there were still difficulties for me in recording this history. Some women I know to be lesbians did not want to be so identified, and some groups which were composed only of lesbians did not use the lesbian word. One lesbian who was asked if I might include her as a lesbian in the book said that was fine, but it was the first time she had been ‘out’. New forms of disappearance are taking place. Lesbians in the WLM have been obscured by different means from those used to deny or conceal the lesbianism of those who loved women before us, but obstacles still exist.




I did the research for this book through feminist archives in London, Glasgow and Leeds, and through interviews. I made great use of my extensive, personal collection of papers which includes journals, press cuttings, conference papers and minutes of meetings from groups that I was involved in such as the London Lesbian Offensive Group and the Lesbian Archive collective. I interviewed women who were active lesbian feminists in the 1970s and 80s and conducted research in feminist archives in London, Glasgow and Leeds to examine materials which were not published in mainstream fora, such as newsletters, minutes of meetings, conference papers. The 12 oral history interviews were conducted with lesbians that I know from that time who were politically active in various branches of feminist and lesbian feminist work, campaigns against violence against women, black lesbian activism, the lesbian child custody campaign, feminist bookshops and feminist publishing, girls’ work, running women’s centres, the Lesbian History Group, the Lesbian Archive, and Lesbian Studies. These lesbians do not necessarily represent a full range of political views held by lesbians who were feminists at the time. They are mainly those who called themselves radical or revolutionary feminists, and most importantly, lesbian feminists i.e. they saw their lesbianism as fundamental to their feminism, rather than incidental, and were involved in challenging heterosexuality as an oppressive institution. Most were ‘political lesbians’, in the sense that they became lesbians as a result of their involvement in the WLM and exposure to lesbian feminists and lesbian feminist ideas. This practice of feminists choosing lesbianism as a form of resistance to male supremacy may seem foreign to common notions about lesbianism today, even within feminist circles, which are that lesbianism is something essential, not something that can be chosen, and with no particular relevance to feminism.


Structure of the book


The first half of the book looks at the situation of lesbians before the development of lesbian feminism, how lesbian feminism came to exist, and the changes that it wrought. Before the 1970s, lesbians were culturally invisible. There were no places lesbians could socialise that were women only. This all, unfortunately, sounds a bit reminiscent of today, where feminist meetings, even those that include men, get picketed and threatened! Before the advent of the WLM lesbians were restricted to mixed gay venues and were likely to have to try to survive in a culture of butch/femme roleplaying which imitated the rules of the heteropatriarchy. Lesbians in my book describe how, in social bars and clubs, lesbians relegated to the role of ‘femmes’, were required to sit with other femmes around tables guarding their handbags whilst the ‘butches’ went to chat with others at the bar. Where dancing took place, butches would seek permission for a femme’s butch partner to ask her to dance. Roles separated lesbians into two separate cohorts and imposed severe restrictions on how they could behave and who they love. There was no lesbian culture, no lesbian literature, movies or poetry. And today we seem to have regressed again to a cultural desert. Women socialised for safety in their own homes. The book explains how lesbian feminists came together, created a language, ideas, culture and community in the 1970s.


But lesbians did much more than that. Lesbian feminists played a central role within the WLM, particularly in creating women only spaces such as women’s centres and resources against violence against women. Lesbians I interviewed, who were key players in the movement against men’s violence and the creation of theory and practice on this issue, explain that, in relation to heterosexual sisters, they had much more time. They did not have to spend time with family or boyfriend at the weekend, for instance. And we were free to think without the interruptions of men’s demands or remonstrances. We did not have to consider ‘what about Nigel’.


One chapter of the book is entitled The Lesbian Perspective, a phrase created by the wonderful American lesbian feminist linguist and theorist Julia Penelope. It looks at the way in which lesbian freedom from the control of the male mind enabled extraordinary theorising of male violence and of lesbianism. We created lesbian feminist ethics about how to relate to each other on terms of equality in relationships and in sex, and about lesbian friendship. Theory development is crucial for the movement. The great majority of the influential feminist theorists of the WLM were lesbian feminists. Feminists and lesbian feminists need to know what the problem is, how male dominance is constructed and maintained, and how women and lesbians are kept down, if the new feminist uprising is to make change. There was much really exciting lesbian feminist theory at the time. We waited excitedly for each new book by lesbian feminists such as Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin (who was proclaiming her lesbianism in the 1970s), Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde. Radical feminist theory was largely lesbian feminist theory though attention is never drawn to this fact.


Another chapter looks at the way in which separatism was fundamental to lesbian feminism and to the WLM as a whole. Separatism takes many forms. It can simply mean, as I have argued elsewhere, being prepared to think outside the box of male domination. It can mean creating women only spaces and facilities. The women only principle was the basis of feminist organising all across the world. It was created because feminists recognised that men would dominate and distort in their own interests as members of the dominant group, the male sex class, all discussion, ideas and practice. Today the women only principle is hard to assert but still absolutely crucial. But many lesbian feminists went much further to live separatist lifestyles, not usually on women only land as many did in the US, but in terms of their emotional and political lives. We only read books by women authors. I still don’t read novels by men, for instance.


The book also has a chapter on the culture that lesbian feminists created for feminists in general, not just lesbians, through women’s music and musical venues, theatre and art that were in fact largely created by lesbians. The culture was informed by the theory and politics of lesbian feminism, by works of ideas, novels and poetry that were not just the product of lesbian feminists but also arose from a distinctive lesbian perspective, a view of the world that started from a critique of heterosexuality as a political institution and envisaged and created a new world for women.


Another chapter of the book is devoted to the crucial critique of heterosexuality which lesbian feminists created, showing that heterosexuality is not an unfortunate effect of nature, but a social construction. Heterosexuality as a political institution, we pointed out, is a fundamental base for male dominance. It is the means through which women’s labour, emotional, domestic, economic, reproductive, sexual, is extracted for free and through which the production and rearing of children is controlled. This political purpose is so important that the institution is imposed by the creation of ‘gender’ in the cradle. Pink bows on the bald heads of little girls determines which babies get the most hugs and attention and what is expected of them. Girls are made sexually heterosexual through the sexual attention of boys and men throughout their lives as well as the world of propaganda they are surrounded by, the porn and girls’ and women’s magazines about how to please men in bed and explaining how to do anal sex without too much pain and how to lie on a bed to enable the penis to go right down the throat. Heterosexuality is created by a culture in which all the novels in the airport bookstore are about hets, in which all the movies, plays, poetry, are still overwhelmingly het. And so on. The mechanisms of enforcement are innumerable and pay no attention to whether this is what girls or women actually want. The critique of heterosexuality included a profound critique of the construction of sexuality. My first two books, for instance, were on the way in which sexology, the science of sex, eroticised women’s subordination for men and women too. Lesbian feminists argued that sexual relationships had to be based in equality and should not include eroticising of inequality. We tried to live the revolution now, and live as feminists in all aspects of our lives. A feminist revolution could not be won, we were certain, while it was precisely women’s subordination that was the basis around which sexuality was constructed. This meant that lesbians too needed to change. Butch/femme roleplaying was roundly rejected, as was sadomasochism.


The theorising of sexuality and heterosexuality was the greatest theoretical achievement of lesbian feminism. And a most important aspect of this was the creation of political lesbianism, the idea that women could make a political choice to be lesbians. This was not out of a clear blue sky. It formed part of a universe of lesbian thought, social spaces and feeling. When women like myself spent all of our free time with women, fiercely creating ideas, dancing, laughing, the loving formed an ordinary part. We explained to each other that it made no sense to devote all our emotional energy to those who were the problem, men, rather than to those who were the solution, women. The great excitement in our women’s community was erotic and we fell into each other’s arms. We considered ourselves to be in the vanguard of feminist resistance. As the US Black lesbian feminist Cheryl Clarke said, ‘Lesbianism is an act of resistance’.


The second half of the book is directed towards understanding why lesbian feminism declined. Many of the reasons for the demise of lesbian feminism were the same as those which caused the WLM in general to decline. I  concentrate in the book on those which relate to specifically lesbian feminist concerns or which involved mainly lesbian feminist actors. One was the intense backlash against the radical/revolutionary feminist analysis of sexuality and sexual violence which was largely created by lesbian feminists and encapsulated the lesbian perspective. The enemies of lesbian feminism used the promotion of sexualised hierarchies of power through sadomasochism and butch femme roleplaying to attack the new and revolutionary ethics and ideas that lesbian feminists had created about the importance of equality in sex and relationships. The extraordinary theoretical and practical challenge to the sexuality of power and hierarchy in which women’s subordination was sexy, was eliminated and is little known about today. Socialist feminists and their journals like Feminist Review promoted sadomasochism. It was promoted too by male gay, left and progressive magazines and journals including the entertainment magazines City Limits and Time Out and even the Guardian. The whole of the left and the male establishment loved SM lesbians and placed photos of lesbians in leather chaps, Nazi caps forcing other women onto their knees to suck off dildos over photos and news of boring lesbians in jeans and T shirts who challenged their prerogatives and said they had to change.


I shall look also at the internecine warfare around identity politics which created divisions around class, race and disability which led to such destruction of the revolutionary impulse in the mid to late 1980s. It led to the stultification and eventual collapse of many important institutions of lesbian and feminist politics and culture, such as the London Women’s Liberation Newsletter and the Lesbian Archive. Rahila, from Southall Black Sisters, in a piece in the magazine Outwrite in 1986 on the destruction of the WLM said of the harmful effects of identity politics ‘The CIA couldn’t have done it better’. The actors involved where this struggle was at its most heated were mostly lesbians. None of these conflicts would have been so effective in trashing lesbian feminism and the WLM without the changed political context that was brought about by the Thatcher government and its neoliberal, individualist politics which led to the abolition of the Greater London Council and the passing of legislation that prohibited local councils from engaging in the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. These political changes are described in the final chapter.

I am hoping that The Lesbian Revolution will provide a new generation of lesbian feminists with vital information about how we did it before, as they work out how to do it again!