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.

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Why not a lesbian museum? Miriam Saphira reflects

Herstory, History, Lesbian, Museums

In 2001 a small archives group was set up in Auckland to try to encourage people to write their stories and send them to LAGANZ (Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand). In February 2003 I took a T-shirt quilt and the badge collection to the Outlines conference, and thought they would be great at LAGANZ, but they could not collect objects so back in Auckland the group  thought, ‘What about all those lesbian art works that relatives will never understand or know what to do with? – Why not a lesbian Museum?’.

Quilt made from 48 T-shirts from the 70s to early 90s for the Outlines Conference 2003, by Miriam Saphira

Lesbian history has been lost. Lesbian culture was always hidden and available only to a few lesbian academics. With a history of discrimination, violence, and hospital incarceration there is little trust in the straight world knowing about lesbian culture or viewing it. In the 1920’s there were several group of lesbians who mixed socially in New Zealand e.g Tuesday Club in New Plymouth. Apart from a few hearsay references and photos we have very little information about their lives.  After the backlash from World War Two in the late forties and fifties,  lesbianism became classified as a mental disorder. It was not until the seventies that there was a renaissance of lesbian culture. This material was becoming lost.

I did a feasibility study – not knowing anything about museum standards or what was involved, and I set up the Charlotte Museum Trust with Nicola Jackson, Christine Hammerton, and Paula Wallis. We put some money in and began fund raising. In 2007 the Charlotte Museum held a Poster show in conjunction with Marco Trust under the title REMEMBER THIS ONE. The exhibition was held throughout the Hero festival and was very well attended with over 800 people viewing it. We got registered with the Charities Commission in May 2007. As founder of the Museum and as Secretary of the Trust, I would not have put my hand up if I had known it would involve writing 86 policies to become a real Museum with Museum Standards…

But hey, we did it!

One of the failures of modern society is to provide safety for our young people. Lesbians still have a higher than average rate of suicide. The stories of several lesbians who have been incarcerated in mental hospitals and subjected to invasive treatment in attempt to change their sexuality needs to be in the public domain.

Information of lesbian culture is now available for the first time to the public, especially to young people who might be questioning their sexual orientation or wanting to understand a friend’s orientation. The many songs and poems the museum hopes to preserve are part of the stories of women from many different walks of life and education. The Charlotte Museum Trust collects and preserves artifacts of lesbian culture such as labrys, music, theatre, film, literature, art and other memorabilia from early lesbian life in New Zealand / Aotearoa. Currently we have a collection of 800 lesbian cultural artifacts: Labrys (in bone, glass and silver), domestic ware, lesbian ceramics, 2100 lesbian books and many of the early magazines from both New Zealand and overseas.

Straight people who have visited the museum are astonished by the early women who had female companions and the women orientated works we have on display, while lesbians visiting us talk about a sense of pride.

Dr Miriam Saphira

Self Love

Contemporary Art, Lesbian, New Zealand art, photography, Selfies

I am not sure I even remember my first selfie. It was definitely taken on a 35mm semi-automatic film camera, and definitely using a timer. It probably involved precarious balancing – both of the camera, and of me. I was probably 19. While I may have taken self-portraits at most twice a year, millions of people now take multiple self-portraits daily. As a genre, selfography bloomed in the 2010s. It found a home in social media, travelling from MySpace, to Facebook and beyond. But it’s not the internet that makes today’s selfies different from the self-portraits I took as a young woman; its little things like face recognition, auto-focus, and the ability to reliably take photos at close range.

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

Charlotte Museum Trust poster girl

The bathroom or public toilet has become a ubiquitous setting for selfographers worldwide. Well lit, often private, with a nice big mirror. Why weren’t we all taking photos in bathrooms when I was in my teens? Because most of us couldn’t afford the macro lenses that allowed you to take a photo in such a small space, and even if you could, you never knew what the camera had focussed on while you were smiling hopefully into its big black eye. Digital cameras and their user-friendly technology have created a new genre in photography that plays to the advantages of auto-focus, auto-exposure, face recognition, and close range. Selfies quickly became a visual style, where subjects often photographed themselves looking upwards at the camera creating a flattering distortion of the face. Then came the duckfaces.

With informal, popular standards for selfie taking, comes the possibility for selfie subversion and selfie play. For at least my first year as a facebook user, I rebelled. I tried to look bad in selfies to break the monotony of smiling eyes and strategically blown out complexions. I used tomato sauce and chicken feathers to create a Halloween selfie for my profile picture that was also a tribute to Anne Noble’s photography. And I don’t even celebrate Halloween.

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Tribute to Anne Noble, 2009

In 2013 the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, at the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London, became one of the first exhibitions to take selfies seriously. Two years later the Charlotte Museum Trust is doing the same with our ‘Me Myselfie I’ exhibition, due to open at the Charlotte Gallery on 16 August.

As many in our community know all too well, lesbians don’t always get the opportunity to define themselves for the world: to put their real selfies forward. Lesbians have been medicalized, stigmatised, pathologised, categorised, and misunderstood for years. In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study where he identified lesbianism as pathology. For Kraft-Ebing, sexual inversion (the reversal of gender roles) was the result of poor breeding and poverty. A little later in 1897 Havelock Ellis published Sexual Inversion. Ellis associated lesbianism with sadism and bestiality as sexual deviations. For Sigmund Freud, who began writing at about the same time, all humans were born bisexual, where proper healthy psychological development resulted in heterosexuality, not homosexuality. When teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to kill Parker’s mother in New Zealand in 1954, their apparently lesbian relationship was used as evidence of a medical illness during the trial. Internationally, this postwar period saw women who loved women medicalised as promiscuous, predatory, and psychopathic. Many of us live and have lived under this shadow.

In a world where others have always had the job of defining us, the Charlotte Museum Trust believes the selfie is an awesome medium for reclaiming ownership of what it means to be a lesbian.

And selfies are also a whole lot of fun. Let’s not forget the fun.

And thus The Charlotte Museum Trust wants your selfies! As an added incentive we are also offering a tidy little competition. Our judge Jac Lynch will select two selfies to be professionally printed and mounted by Imagelab, to be sent to the winners at the close of the show.

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Selfographer and CMT judge Jac Lynch avoiding the paparazzi

Entries for both the exhibition and the competition close 29 July. Email us at charlottemuseum@gmail.com for an entry form, but do be quick!

Open to New Zealand residents only. Terms and Conditions apply.

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