For lesbian lips only.

Genderqueer, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Transgender

The Charlotte Museum Trust contains within its archives a selection of lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines from the 1980s. Run by collectives and penned by volunteers, these publications were hell bent on, wait for it, a lesbian revolution. Lesbian Lip and Circle moreover were explicit in their preferred readership, featuring the censoring ‘For Lesbians Only’, and ‘For Women Only’, on their covers. Why such exclusivity? Why such separatism? A lesbian revolution required an authentic (patriarchy-free) sense of womanhood (womyn/wimmin/womon, et al, hood), so these magazines embraced the idea of women-only and lesbian-only spaces. Gawd, if you wanted to know what women were really capable of, best you figure it out without men telling you what to do, right? Right on sister!

As a director becoming newly acquainted with the Museum’s collection, flicking through the articles featured in Lesbian Lip and Circle coincided for me, with what we might call the ‘Bruce Jenner Effect’ imploding upon the interwebs on the one-hand, and the related correspondence received by the Museum regarding lesbian-only spaces, and how they might be preserved within wider issues of queer and trans politics, on the other. An intersecting juxtaposition you might say, and one that got me thinking about the relationship between lesbians (or lesbian-feminists), and transgender issues, from within the archives of the Charlotte Museum Trust. So what can the Museum’s collection tell us about this relationship, or at least, what are a few of the many things it can tell us? I thought I would reflect on two counts, firstly, on the perspectives found within 1980s lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines, and secondly on the scope of the collection itself.

Who has lesbian lips?

For some of the writers of 1980s Circle, intent as they were upon moving beyond heterosexuality and patriarchy alike, a bloke was a bloke was a bloke, and nobody raised as a boy was welcome within the closed circles of political lesbianism. However I would like to pay more attention to the articles featured in Lesbian Lips in the May-June newsletter for 1982, because in this issue the lesbian feminist authors contemplated the relationship between ‘women’s liberation’, and ‘lesbian liberation’, arguing in turn for a new definition of ‘woman’, one which would incidentally lead to that lesbian revolution they were looking for. To be fair, I am myself taking a liberal interpretation of the political position expressed by these women, however, one way of understanding lesbian politics, is to understand the need to redefine ‘woman’ in a way that breaks free from heterosexuality (women attract men and breed: full stop) and patriarchy (men are normal and make all the rules; women are not and need to be taught the rules). Under the heading ‘lesbian and queers’, one author argued that ‘woman’ exclusively meant white, middle-class, and heterosexual. In turn lesbians couldn’t be women. They may be either invisible or hated, but they were not accepted as women. Aberrations – sinners – perverts, but not women. So lesbian feminists of the 1980s? Some argued against their white cis-gender middleclass heterosexual feminist peers to create a utopia where ‘woman’ could mean non-heterosexual, and moreover, where ‘woman’ existed outside of patriarchy, that is, outside of the rules created by men.

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If we fast-forward through to 2015, then one way of understanding the relationship between lesbian and transgender politics , is that transwomen are, like cis-gender lesbians of the 1980s, capable of redefining ‘woman’ in ways that are neither patriarchal nor heterosexist. Should she want to be, a transwoman lesbian feminist may be the most radical revolutionary of them all. So trans politics and lesbian politics? Yes. But wait, there’s more:

Lesbian lips in drag: what we collect

From the perspective of a historian, lesbians are always hard to find. That’s not because they didn’t exist, it’s because they didn’t always go by that name, and sometimes straight women behave like they might be lesbians. Gender and sexual identity are what historians like to call ‘historically contingent’, which means what counts as being homosexual for one generation, doesn’t for another, the edges shift, and if you go far enough back, no special category for lesbian sexuality even existed.

Reflecting this situation, the collection of lesbian culture at the Charlotte Museum is not clear cut in its inclusion of lesbians and its exclusion of all others. It couldn’t be. There are too many grey areas in the past for it to be otherwise. Take the case of Amy Bock, popularly described as ‘a Tasmanian-born New Zealand female confidence trickster and male impersonator’. Amy was a con-artist, participating in criminal activities that culminated in her attempt to marry Agnes Ottaway in 1909. Having used many aliases throughout her life, Amy lived as Percy Redwood until she was caught out in her attempt to secure access to generous patrons through her marriage to Agnes. Some consider Amy Bock’s 1909 cross-dressing marriage as proof of Bock’s lesbianism.

Postcard depicting Amy Bock as the Female Bridegroom, collection of the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

Would we include her in a lesbian museum? Sure, because we may never know if her feelings for Agnes were sincere, or if given the opportunity she would have chosen to live as a lesbian, but we do know that she is part of lesbian culture, for she did seduce and marry a woman, and thus she fits within the bigger grey edged picture.

But Amy is also in one of our grey areas for another reason. In living as a man to marry a woman, Amy is both a historical lesbian and transgender man. And its often the case that our lesbian heritage does include women who may have lived as women their entire lives, but expressed their lesbianism in terms of being ‘born with the soul of a man’. In a way, our collective understanding of lesbian heritage is deeply entwined with the experiences of people we might now think of as being trans men. Our collection has favoured the experiences of people raised as female, who then went on to love other people raised as female, irrespective of whether or not either party may have wished to be identified in that way had they been given the choice. It’s a clumsy way of expressing it, but it’s how it works. In a sense, historians are bound to the nuances, or lack thereof, that made up the lived experiences of those in the past. When bodies are allocated one sex or the other upon birth, and peoples’ lives were explained in terms of their ability to fulfil or otherwise, the roles of that sex, then ‘lesbian’, ‘spinster’, trans man or gender queer, are all going to look pretty much the same when we look backwards. In turn the ‘lesbian space’ created by the collection, reflects the past, and as such already includes the history of trans politics within it…

For more on contemporary trans politics see http://frufruscrub.tumblr.com/post/91765505896/language-tips-for-cis-feminists-speaking-on-trans

For more on gender and safe spaces see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdua6xvcalg

For more on Amy Bock see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b30/bock-amy-maud

For more on Circle and Lesbian Lips see The Charlotte Museum Trust collection in person, 8A Bentinck Street, New Lynn, Auckland. Open Wednesdays and Sundays 1-4pm.

We also welcome comments on this and other blogs.

Colour glaze and venereal disease: food for thought

Art, Contemporary Art, Crown Lynn, Herstory, Museums, New Zealand art

Recently I had the pleasure of playing tourist in the fine city of Auckland, casting aside my commuters’ hat in favour of walk socks and sandals – metaphorically speaking – I don’t actually wear sandals. As such I defied the laws of nature to attend the dawn blessing and subsequent opening of Te Toi Uku (destined to be known as ‘the Crown Lynn Museum’). Later that day I heard Lisa Reihana in conversation with Rhana Devenport (Director of the Auckland Art Gallery), participating in an event scheduled for the opening of Reihana’s exhibition, In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Both were worth the early start. And because you never really stop being a museum director, both got me thinking.

Te Toi Uku is The Charlotte Museum Trust’s sister museum in New Lynn. Currently it is open as a research centre only, and sports a flash building in which to house its collection. In time it hopes to be open to the public, as we in our less flash building already are. Small display cases show iconic swans, and colour glaze tableware. Having been a collector of Crown Lynn for over ten years, I am embarrassed by how excited I was to be able to attend the opening of a Museum which to be fair, I had only just heard existed.

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In Te Toi Uku is housed a collective heritage that we can all understand – who hasn’t eaten off Crown Lynn dinner plates?! In my family, being bought a Crown Lynn dinner set upon leaving home was a rite of passage. And at the same time, Te Toi Uku is an integral part of a distinctively New Lynn heritage: Crown Lynn isn’t called Crown Lynn for nothing.

After attending both Te Toi Uku’s dawn blessing and opening, I pulled my socks up, and dashed back into town in an attempt to make that afternoon’s event at the Auckland Art Gallery… in spite of traffic.

Lisa Reihana’s talk about her work In Pursuit of Venus [infected] was also well worth attending, albeit I arrived late and missed the beginning. I did however trip over a number of people in the dark which I think made up for coming in late. In Reihana’s panoramic video, spanning an immersive 26metres of gallery wall, the artist recreates Joseph Dufor’s 1804 scenic wallpaper. The original wallpaper focussed on the savages of the Pacific for its design motif, and Reihana’s video recreates this through a series of vignettes using actors, which is shown at approximate life size. It’s very impressive and worth a visit. In her talk, Reihana drew attention to her desire to be both respectful and inclusive in her use of Pacific culture in the work. While Dufor’s wallpaper told the story of an exotic, utopian Pacific, a fantasyland awaiting discovery, Reihana rewrites that history into something more substantial, human, and, well… ‘infected’. Listening to Reihana, I was reminded of how contemporary New Zealand art so often utilises New Zealand history; how our past is regularly being written by historians, but also by artists.

800px-'Sauvages_de_la_Mer_Pacifique',_panels_1-10_of_woodblock_printed_wallpaper_designed_by_--Jean-Gabriel_Charvet--_and_manufacturered_by_--Joseph_Dufour--

Part series of the 1904 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique

What does this have to do with lesbians, or the Charlotte Museum Trust? Both events raised issues of respect and inclusion, and speak to the question of how we might best represent the past in the present. Te Toi Uku preserves a predominantly Pakeha New Zealand treasure. It tells a national history through crockery. In Pursuit of Venus [infected] also offers a history, one which aspires to Pacific inclusion and respect. And this made me think, is it possible to tell a national history through lesbians at the Charlotte Museum? Can we do that and also be respectful and inclusive? When sometimes, respecting lesbians means keeping them invisible?

Reihana’s work is on show at the Auckland Art Gallery until 30 August. For more on Reihana’s work see http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/

Te Toi Uku is open by appointment only. For more on the Crown Lynn Museum see http://portageceramicstrust.org.nz/

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.

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‘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.

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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.