Vanishing Lesbians? Dr Alison J Laurie considers the history and significance of lesbian spaces

Feminism, Herstory, Lesbian

Are lesbians vanishing?

Or has the way we understand visibility changed?

World wide, it seems that there are very few lesbian bars, clubs or public meeting places that survive. Even in Paris, there are now no lesbian bars. The few once lesbian bars that survive, are now for gay men. In the US, in city after city, lesbians report the loss of bars, clubs, and bookshops.

Here in New Zealand, there are now no lesbian clubs, and in many cities, no regular meeting places. In Auckland, the Charlotte Museum holds lesbian events, as does the Lilac Library in Wellington. There are occasional women’s dances, regular lesbian walks in Wellington, lesbian potlucks on the Kapiti Coast, and some other places. Some lesbian magazines continue to survive, in Auckland and Christchurch, and a few newsletters. The Wellington Lesbian Radio Programme continues, now for 31 years. The Lilac Library, Radio Programme, and some lesbian events, are financially supported by the Armstrong and Arthur Charitable Trust for Lesbians. The Women’s Bookshop remains, as do some women’s centres, but of course these are not specifically lesbian.

There are bars, meetings, and other gatherings, in the main centres for the Rainbow communities that include a range of people. And it does seem that in the big, wide, and ever-expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQI there is a less noticeable presence from lesbians. Public events like the Hero Parade remain dominated by gay men.

What has replaced the former physical meeting places for lesbians now seems to be the Internet, with a myriad of lesbian web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter connections etc. A virtual world, for discussion, dating, contacts. In this, younger lesbians are no different from others in their age group. And older lesbians are learning to do this too. Though many sites are also rainbow inclusive, and not only for lesbians.

We have always struggled for inclusion in mixed groups with gay men. In the 1960s, “kamp girls” as we called ourselves then, could not be members of kamp men’s clubs, like the Dorian Society in Wellington. New Zealand was a highly sex segregated society, especially following the return of two generations of men damaged in overseas wars, who established the RSAs, the custom of men only public bars, and much besides. Gay men and lesbians are products of the cultures in which we live, and gay men were no more used to socialising with women present than were heterosexual men. After the extension of licensing hours to 10pm in 1967, many hotels set up mixed bars, though public bars remained men only for some time.

Eventually lesbians responded to being excluded, by setting up our own clubs, the first being the KG Club in Auckland, and Club 41 in Wellington. Following the introduction of Gay Liberation, lesbians worked with gay men, to gain human rights and to change the criminal law against male homosexual acts. As these groups expanded, the sexism of many gay men meant that lesbians embraced the new ideas of lesbian feminism, also introduced from the US. Lesbians formed our own groups, soon joined by women coming out through Women’s Liberation, lesbians leaving gay liberation, and lesbians from the old kamp culture. For the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians established clubs, magazines, lesbian centres, bookshops, organizations, summer camps, and held many events, including dances, conferences, and much more. All for lesbians only. Safe spaces, where lesbians could meet, talk, relax, and develop a lesbian culture. Lesbian separatism was one response to the male exclusivity and separatism of New Zealand society generally, and especially of the more conservative gay men.

New Zealand lesbian culture became inclusive of race, class and disability, and was politically active around anti-racism, peace and employment issues. Many lesbians worked in coalitions, and worked with gay men, leading up to homosexual law reform in 1986. During the law reform and human rights campaigns, it was difficult to have the word “lesbian” used by the media, or by gay men, many who thought “lesbian” could be subsumed under the term “gay”. We did achieve specific inclusion in the Human Rights Act 1993, arguing that “homosexual” was mostly understood as referring to men, and that “lesbian” needed to be specified to make it clear that women were also included, and that “bisexual” also needed to be specified.

As we have moved into more recent times, “lesbian” is always included in the alphabet soup. But more often as a letter, than as a reality. For example, there is little attention given to lesbian health issues, such as the high incidence among lesbians of breast cancer. Or of the importance of pay equity to lesbians, who remain disadvantaged, as are all women in New Zealand, by the pay differentials between male and female wages, compounded by the additional factors of race, class, age and disability. Same-sex marriage has brought some relief to lesbian mothers and co-parents, but the issues of maternity leave, breast-feeding in the workplace, child-care, and leave to care for sick children have not been resolved. Men in the alphabet soup show little interest in these issues.

Among rainbow youth, “Lesbian” may be regarded by some as an old-fashioned, unpopular, unattractive identity, despite all the Ellens and Hollywood stars coming out. Famous people have always been allowed to be different, and it may not change things that much on the ground, in schools, workplaces, families, and all the many places where lesbians fear discrimination and exclusion. It remains difficult to live as lesbian, in a society where women who refuse to be sexually available to men threaten the gendered structures of patriarchy. However, there are increasing numbers of young women who do live as lesbians, marry, have children, and socialize only within their family groups. Perhaps they no longer have any need for lesbian spaces, events, or cultures.

So – are lesbian spaces vanishing from the physical world, into the safer spaces of the virtual world? Can lesbians retain visibility within the alphabet soup, or do we need to move away and rebuild more lesbian spaces like the Charlotte Museum and the Lilac Library? And to what extent should we welcome others from the alphabet soup into our lesbian spaces? Would these others take them over, dominate, so that these places could become rainbow areas, mainly reflecting the interests of men. As girls and women, we are taught to put the interests of men first, to make them feel comfortable, and look after them. And not to make them angry, for fear of the consequences. It’s hard to break this socialisation. And those who have been socialised as boys and men, can speak with such authority and confidence, that it seems natural to defer to them, and to put their interests first. A Rainbow Museum might be financially sound, if men supported it, but would it still display adequate lesbian material among large new Rainbow collections? And, the Charlotte Museum advertises in a blog post, that a “lesbian-feminist transwoman may be the most radical of us all”. If they were many, and a critical mass, what kind of “lesbian” culture and history would be reflected? Alix Dobkin sang, “every woman can be a lesbian”. Today, perhaps “everybody can be a lesbian”. Otherwise, there are Rainbow events overseas and in New Zealand, with an ever-increasing alphabet soup of genders and sexualities, dominated by gay men, queer men, flamboyant and keen to prioritise their own visibility and their own issues.

These are all questions to consider for the future. Will lesbians vanish? Become more visible? Move in completely new and unimagined directions?

Dr Alison J. Laurie, 2015.

CMT experiment crop

 

“Am I changing into something of a monster or am I just claiming back my rights?”

Feminism, Herstory, Lesbian

Could violence be liberating? Not a commonly posed question concerning women’s relationship to the serious issue of domestic and related violence in New Zealand – and for good reason. Police are currently called to an average of 200 domestic violence situations a day, and that figure is estimated at a fifth of the total incidents of domestic violence in New Zealand. That’s at least one call out every seven minutes. But in the late 1970s in Wellington, lesbian feminists reflected upon this very question, reflecting on their own use of violence, wondering: “Am I changing into something of a monster or am I just claiming back my rights?”

Articles on this theme published in the lesbian feminist magazine Circle document a range of attitudes towards violence, both violence between lesbians, and violence between lesbians and heterosexual men. What is clear is that ‘fisticuffs’ were prevalent in late 1970s lesbian life, so much so that women began to reflect upon the politics of throwing a punch. From a 2015 perspective where relationship violence as it impacts on lesbians and others within the Rainbow spectrum is only starting to garner thorough attention, I was surprised to find this politics of aggression being critically presented in 1979.

For one Circle writer, lesbian feminist violence was a means of empowerment. Echoing the ethos of self-defence, she claimed that fighting was just another thing that women needed to learn. But this was not the politics of knowing how to keep safe when approached on a side-street, so much as a politics of fighting like the boys. This writer describes instances where she initiated fights with men on the street, noting that she would be more likely to pick a fight when she “didn’t like the look of him and knew he wouldn’t retaliate. That’s a lot of when I do things – working out if they look as if they’ll hit me back (none of them really has yet).” She then reflected, “There’s a lot of shit about “we’re going to find a better way of doing things”, “we’re just like them” but for me that’s bullshit. Some middle class woman saying to me “I cut them down with words” or “I stay away from them”, well I’m no better with words than those men are and I’ve no car to get around in anyway else and they’re my streets too.”

Lesbian-Feminist Circle, 'Lesbian's Ignite', 1079, p.18For another Circle correspondent the violence in the Wellington lesbian scene was the symptom of lesbian oppression and resulting fear and frustration. However she also noted, “What is disturbing though is that the violence that should be directed outside is so often diverted into the lesbian community and finds expression against other lesbians in the same form as male brutality and cruelty.” Lesbians threw punches at bars, but they also threw punches at home, while some stayed away from lesbian and feminist meetings for fear of the backlash if they threw a punch in a public forum.

Google for ‘feminism +violence’ and you’ll get a plethora of hits concerning feminist campaigns against domestic and sexual violence. None will argue for the feminism of physical hits. Google ‘lesbian +violence’ and you’ll find a similar array of sites against physical and sexual violence, and a few links to porn sites to boot. Which leaves me to wonder, does the feminist politics of lesbian violence remain?  Were we monsters or freedom-fighters?

The Charlotte Museum Trust holds copies of Circle within its research library.

Compulsory Invulvament

Art, Feminism, Guerilla Knitting, Herstory, Museums, Patriotism, World War One

Over the last few weeks I learned a number of valuable lessons – the plural of vulva is vulvae, Hamilton is the knitting capital of New Zealand (closely followed by Wellington), and also that it’s hard to stand still in a strongly flowing stream, let alone walk against the current. For weeks prior to the opening of the Charlotte Museum Trust’s ANZAC Day exhibition, I was absorbed by a vulva-poppy mania. What newspapers would have referred to in decades past as being absorbed by an ‘orgy of knitting’. Lynda messaged me photos of her knitting from Dunedin, Jacqui handed over a bag of crochet poppies when we met for brunch, Colleen was unsure how to finish her vulvae so I sewed them up, Ineke passed a sample over at bookclub, all the while my partner was overcome with a knitting frenzy resulting in a growing pile of unsewn vulva-poppies piling up higher and higher on my desk. I knew why I was doing this particular exhibition, and wit aside, I believed in it. But as we got closer and closer to ANZAC Day, and I watched the little videos showing the making of Te Papa’s ‘The Scale of Our War’, I began to waver: was my vulva-poppy mania (masquerading as a women’s commemorative campaign) getting in the way of the ‘real meaning of ANZAC Day’? Golly, was it?

On ANZAC Day I drove up to the Charlotte Museum, wending my way north from the knitting capital of New Zealand. A scattering of people in formal regalia were preparing for an ANZAC commemoration at Gordonton, farmers had planted oversized poppies in their roadside paddocks around Huntly, and the ANZAC Day speeches were already being aired on the radio. I began again to feel the pull of public sentiment, a creeping feeling that maybe I was missing out by refusing to attend a dawn service.

When I spoke about the vulva-poppy installation at the Museum later in the day, I dwelt on the tension in feeling a love for one’s country, when you know that the country being commemorated is not the country you love. I love New Zealand, but the New Zealand I love has knitters and mothers and nurses and ambulance drivers and prostitutes as well as soldiers in its history for the period 1914-1918. That is, it has women, too.

panoramic for blog

 

During World War One women knitted, and their knitting kept men in the army. Trench foot was a constant threat to soldiers exposed to wet environments, where feet basically began to rot if left uncared for. Soldiers with rotten feet couldn’t fight well, and you know what slowed down trench foot? Clean dry socks. Simple really. Women’s knitting kept the troops on active service. And they knitted a lot.

During World War One mothers were encouraged to ‘give’ their sons to the war. Those little bundles of joy raised and cherished and taught to do good? Now they were being sent to die and you weren’t allowed to say a word in opposition. This was the maternal sacrifice of women. But there was also a second layer to the maternal sacrifice. In New Zealand and Australia maternal mortality was high, and if you didn’t die during childbirth, there was a really good chance you would be left with ongoing pain and debility. In the 1920s when soldiers were fast becoming memorialised as superstars of the ANZAC nations, some women responded, ‘you know what? we die for the good of the nation too, and we do it giving birth to those flaming soldiers’. Or something to that effect. Some reports suggested that while 30% of returned soldiers were on invalid pensions, 50% of mothers were invalided through childbirth, but with far less fanfare.

It must be said, there are no bronze statues to the women knitters and the dead mothers.

Record numbers attended ANZAC Day services on the centennial of our ill-fated landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, services commemorating our numerous soldiers and a scattering of nurses.

Charlotte strode against the current to commemorate the thousands of knitters and, yes, the mothers of World War One.

IMG_0642

‘Invulved’ is an exhibition of beautifully knitted poppies, vulva-poppies, and vulva, arranged in the shape of a silver fern, open Wednesdays and Sundays at the Charlotte Museum Trust, 1-4pm, until 13 May.

When lesbians knit.

Feminism, Herstory, World War One

You know that feeling when you come across a photo of a woman knitting and you know you know her partner from somewhere but for the life of you can’t remember where in your research career you came across her? That feeling? When you’ve spent the past ten years of your life researching women, and now they’ve all blurred into one? Kate-Sheppard-Cora-Wilding-Edith-Grossmann-Jessie-Mackay-Annie-Fraer-Rosa-Sawtell-Dora-Laura-Paula-Flora-Mary-Jane-Sue, was there a Sue? It probably doesn’t help that they have all been white women with English names. And, they are all dead, making them as indistinguishable as ghostly sheets of blank paper.

I was provoked into this reflective reverie whilst sourcing knitting related material for the Charlotte Museum’s knitted vulva installation, which opens on 25 April. You see, the object that set me flicking unsuccessfully through the lists of women’s biographies in my head, was a photograph depicting the Spinsters’ Club knitting for the soldiers of World War One, which is held in the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, used on their website, and reproduced above.

On the top left of the studio photograph, Daisy Isaacs is captured mid-stitch, knitting for all intents and purposes what might best be described as a small knitted vulva (masquerading as a sock). Below the photograph, Alison Laurie explains how Daisy Isaacs and Amy Kane (not shown) were a female couple. Until I found the photo on www.teara.govt.nz, I hadn’t known that there was an awesome precedent for lesbians knitting vulva-poppies, and needless to say I was well pleased to have found it. However until I read the blurb below the photo I also hadn’t known that Amy Kane preferred the company of women, or at least of one woman in particular. I had not heard of Daisy Isaacs. But for some reason, I had heard of Amy Kane… if only I could remember why.

A good half hour of ruffling through hand-scrawled notes later, I realised that I knew Amy Kane as an interwar president for the National Council of Women, and as a spokesperson for rural women through her involvement with the Women’s Institutes in New Zealand. That is, she was a member of the feminist elite, successful, and as it happens, literary. One extract that I had ferreted away concerned her 1929 report on the status of women in the Press, which was put before the annual meeting of the National Council of Women for that year. A fan of quality over quantity, she not altogether enthusiastically noted in her report that, ‘the past year while showing no production of special talent has been marked by an increase of publications by New Zealand writers’. And as is so often the case when it comes to historical traces, nothing I had stumbled across during my research into the Women’s Institutes or the National Council of Women had suggested she might have been a lesbian. AGM minutes seldom begin with ‘Amy Kane and her wife Daisy Isaacs were in attendance’, more’s the pity.

CHP19330725_2_4_1-a1-693w-c32-949-4105-1385-1900

Miss Amy Kane, of Wellington. Press, 25 July 1933, p.3

Apparently Kane had been born in Wellington in 1879, where her social standing and literary inclinations led her to help establish the Pioneer Club in 1909, a woman’s club, where she acted as president for over thirty years. She had also been a columnist for the ‘Women’s Pages’ of the New Zealand Free Lance from 1914. Kane died in 1979. I don’t know if Kane helped Isaacs knit for the soldiers during World War One, but I do know she was an avid supporter of the Red Cross during those years, making it pleasing to imagine the two women knitting socks, if not actually vulva, together during World War One.

For more on Amy Kane see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3k1/kane-amy-grace

For an overview of Isaacs and Kane (and the photograph used here) see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/30277/daisy-isaacs-and-the-spinsters-club

A poppy by any other name – or – when is a vulva not a vulva?

Art, Feminism, Guerilla Knitting, Herstory, Museums, World War One

When I was young, every Anzac Day we had a school flag hoisting; rows of fidgeting primary schoolers contemplating the significance of a day when we watched the principle erect a flag on what was on other days at best a crude maypole that we might swing ourselves silly around. But on Anzac Day the flag pole wasn’t for the blister inducing squeal of finger-skin on metal. On Anzac Day the pole was for rather more clanging than usual, as the ropes were adjusted, and for the pseudo-silence created by fidgeting children. When I was ten our class re-wrote John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, and our teacher read it for us at the flag hoisting. On that day I cared less for the ritualised drama and more for the reading of our poem. Or to be precise, for the reading of the one word that I had contributed to our poem: cobber. Cobber was also my own personal victory. When my teacher had requested of our young poetic minds, ‘what word should we use here to mean friend?’, Cara raised her hand to suggest ‘mate’. But both the teacher and I knew that ‘mate’ was not the right answer, and when I, prompted by personal affront at the potential misrepresentation of my forbears, offered ‘cobber’, Cara’s word was rubbed off the blackboard to be replaced with mine. You see I came from a home where cobbers were the eerie ghost contained within the corners of my father’s smile. Oh yes, my family knew of war. The teacher was well pleased with my familiarity with Pakeha myths and legends. As, to be fair, was I.

The same year that I bested Cara for what was probably the first and last time, Georgia O’Keeffe died at the age of 98. An American modernist painter, O’Keeffe’s rise to fame in New York coincided with the middle of World War One, where McCrae’s original ‘In Flanders Fields’ was published a few months before the opening of O’Keeffe’s first major solo exhibition. By the 1920s O’Keeffe was painting large-scale close-ups of flowers that highlight the similarities between female genitalia, and flowers. Because it was the 1920s Freudian interpretation abounded. Because her flowers looked like vulva, she went on to become a myth and legend of late twentieth century feminism. I knew none of this at the time of her death, which took place about a month and a half prior to the reading of our Anzac Day poem, which understandably, because of my cobber contribution, I now thought of as my own.

There has always been a similarity between vulva and flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t create it, nor did the feminists who later asserted she had painted this subject matter on purpose. There has always been an association between flowers and Anzac Day, too, in part because the day originally took the guise of a communal funeral with wreaths and other floral commemorative bouquet, but also because of the poem written in 1916 about Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow. But there has never been an association between vulva and Anzac Day to make the triangle complete. Until that is, Charlotte decided to proceed with an installation that knitted women and Anzac poppies together, set to open on 25 April 2015.

In my mind’s eye the walls of the museum’s gallery will be lined with thousands of knitted poppies and vulva, making the room seem like a red woolly womb, a snuggly fitting tribute to the women of World War One. But in the meantime it involves knitting, which always gives me blisters on my fingers. And, incidentally, seems to induce anxiety dreams about wool.

CMT experiment crop

The Charlotte Museum Trust invites knitters to contribute to their community knitting exhibition commemorating the women of World War One, by posting or delivering knitted poppies, poppy-vulva, and vulva, of approximately 10-15cm across, to the Museum by 20 April. Further details are available on our facebook page.