“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.