A month or so ago I wrote about the Lesbians Against Pit Closures campaign for the New Statesman, exploring their methods and what modern feminists can learn from them.
If you don’t know already, LAPC were a group which came from and campaigned alongside Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – the group of gay and lesbian activists depicted in the movie Pride. The show of solidarity from the gay community to the miners was repaid tenfold when the NUM forced a vote on gay rights at a Labour party conference after the strike. The motion passed that day was passed into law when Labour took power in 1997: LGSM, LAPC and the NUM are all a huge reason we have gay rights today.
Anyway, the basis for the piece was a number of interviews I did with women from LAPC. It was an absolute honour getting to speak to them and I was very proud when they liked what I wrote.
One of them, Leonie, has kindly allowed me to reproduce her answers here. I think it’s a fitting day to post them – International Women’s Day – as they show something very important: brilliant things can be achieved by ordinary people just deciding to do something. Leonie fitted campaigning in around her studies and social life, choosing a group which enabled her to campaign to the best of her ability because it was a group she was comfortable in.
As Leonie says: “It’s important not to worry that you are not doing enough, everyone’s contributions matter, however small, and at each point in your life you can only do what feels comfortable at that moment.
Even just sharing your views, or just being yourself and modelling an ethical way to live will make a difference.”
– Why was Lesbians Against Pit Closures formed? What led to you forming a women’s only group distinct from LGSM?
– What were reactions to you forming LAPC?
– What was your role in the group?
– What did LAPC do, what were your methods?
Leonie: I was less involved in the daily running of LAPC and LGSM as I was a full time student living outside London at the time. I used to collect money and food donations for the miners in the week with members of the University Women’s Group and then come to London at the weekends and go round cafes, bars and clubs with collecting buckets.
What I remember most was the differing reactions of the people we asked for contributions. Outside the supermarkets we were often shouted at for what we were doing, but in the gay and women only spaces the reactions were overwhelmingly positive or occasionally neutral. But perhaps that said something about the struggles families in this small town were facing at the time?
For me it felt natural to work more closely with LAPC that LGSM, partly for practical reasons as I felt more comfortable collecting for the miners in women only spaces as they felt safer and I was more familiar with them as they were often the clubs, cafes and bars where I had spent time socialising.
Collecting with LAPC was an exuberant, sociable time and what I valued was that my social life had a purpose. I was not just out socialising, I was doing something practical and helpful, and making a statement about the sort of world, based on fairness, that I felt needed building.
– What obstacles did you face as a woman and as a lesbian whilst campaigning?
– Some LAPC members were also LGSM members. Yours was a lesbian only group whilst theirs was a gay and lesbian only group. How did separate/safe spaces help each group to campaign?
– How much did you work with the wives of the miners? Had they experienced discrimination similar to your own?
– What advice would you give to young women activists today facing misogyny and “mansplaining”?
Leonie: I tended to organise with the women in LAPC more than the mixed LGSM because this felt natural for me. In my late teens I was particularly lucky as my school librarian was a feminist so I had access to key texts such as ‘The Second Sex’ and Anne Oakley’s ‘Housewife’. I attended girls groups and consciousness raising women’s groups, read Spare Rib and Shocking Pink (a fabulous feminist girls’ magazine) and went to women only benefits and spent nights at Greenham Common. I gained a real sense of strength through organising with other women and grew to understand why ‘the personal is political’.
When I then started at University I was surprised to experience a quite casual misogyny, a lack of women in decision making in University groups and what appeared to me to be a general lack of awareness of issues beyond socialising. Apart from the Women’s Group which attracted quite a bit of ridicule from male students, the only other political group I was aware of was the Socialist Workers.
In comparison to this, working in women’s groups was empowering, exciting and the possibilities of what we could achieve together seemed boundless! There was no time wasted having to justify our position, we just got on with organising. At the time of the miners’ strike there were many groups of women organising politically and practically on a range of issues, and using all sorts of creative approaches, like film, music, art, poetry and drama. I think that for many of us the miners’ strike encapsulated so many of the injustice we were fighting against that it became a focal point for women campaigning on a range of issues.
My advice to any young women wanting to organise today is to find a place where you feel comfortable and supported, where you don’t have to justify yourself and you can just get on with organising and make a difference. Don’t be sidetracked by divergent opinions, just work with what feels comfortable for you and with the people who support you best, and then you will be most effective.
– Both LGSM and LAPC helped people whose lives were at first glance a million miles away from your own. Why was solidarity with the miners so important to you then?
Leonie: As a teenager I had avidly read Spare Rib and learnt about the experiences of a range of groups, and coming from a 1980’s consciousness raising and feminist background it seemed very natural for me to support the miners, alongside a range of other groups and issues.
The 1980’s was also the time of Margaret Thatcher’s government that seemed to foster self-interest whilst dismantling the organisations that supported so many groups of people, so it seemed very important to take a stand. For example, it was only a few years after the miners’ strike that the Government abolished the GLC (Greater London Council) and ILEA (Inner London Education Authority).
– Is solidarity with other causes outside of “your own” still important to you now?
Leonie: In today’s climate, solidarity with people outside of my own ‘groups’ is even more important than it was during the miners’ strike. If ever there was a time where people needed to stand up for fairness and an ethical approach to life, it is now.
For me, one of the most important lessons we can learn from the miners’ strike is not to give up or feel disheartened when it seems impossible to make a positive impact. The Pride film highlights that although the strike was lost and this had such a dreadful impact on mining communities, there were many positives that came out of the experience of groups organising together, for the individuals involved and in a wider, more political context.
– As a “fourth wave” feminist I’ve often found myself very frustrated that many of my sisters do not feel problems experienced by other oppressed groups are worth feminists’ time. Do you agree/disagree with my view of modern feminism? And what can we do today to follow the example of solidarity which we’ve been set in the past?
Leonie: One thing I learnt is that to campaign effectively it is really important to avoid a ‘hierarchy of oppression’. No one group or person’s oppression is of less value than another’s. All need to be tackled, but we can choose the campaigns we have an affinity or passion for, as there we will make the greatest difference.
It’s also important not to worry that you are not doing enough, everyone’s contributions matter, however small, and at each point in your life you can only do what feels comfortable at that moment. Even just sharing your views, or just being yourself and modelling an ethical way to live will make a difference.
Although groups can gain strength from campaigning around their particular experiences, disparate groups can have much in common and I found that sharing experiences with other groups, like the miners’ wives, helped me see similarities in our personal and external experiences.
People can learn from each other and gain strength through sharing experiences. I learnt through attending women’s groups and consciousness raising groups in the early 80’s that there is strength in numbers and even more than that, we can grow stronger when we share our experiences and vulnerabilities.
This poem, often quoted at that time, summed up why I felt it was important to stand up for the miners.
‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’
(Niemoller: various dates)
– What was your opinion of Pride, and the way it portrayed lesbian activists and LAPC as a group?
– Were there any major differences between what you did and what eventually went on film?
I felt that the Pride film really captured the essence of the times and energy and commitment of those involved and the amazing relationships formed between the two communities. I was glad that LAPC was featured and appreciate the limits imposed by the structure of the film.
I would like the active, positive and complementary role of LAPC to be recognised, as it can provide a model of how effectively different groups can organise together and how empowering it can be for women (and other groups) to organise on their own as well as in tandem with other groups.
You can find out more about Lesbians Against Pit Closures, LGSM and how they supported the miners by watching the documentary they made themselves: All Out! Dancing in Dulais.