Alison Laurie

Alison Laurie

Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, an oral historian and a lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at lesbian organizing in New Zealand as distinct from gay organizing, and this is a particularly interesting topic because the situation of women in New Zealand obviously is different from the situation of men, and especially as we go back into the earlier years looking through at the development of sex roles in the 19th century and so on, then how lesbians have organized is a topic of particular interest.

When we go back to looking at the gender relations between men and women pre contact, and we look at the writings of somebody like Makereti whose writing has been brought to us by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku who looked at that work quite early on, Makereti tells us that gender relations between men and women in Maori societies were fairly equal. Obviously these are class-stratified societies, but women could own property; women had, on every level, more or less the same rights as men did.

But then with the introduction of European law women become chattels. As according to the British law of the time, on marriage a women and a man become one, and that one is the person of the husband, and any earnings she has become his, any property she has becomes his and so on, and that's the case until about 1885 when you get the Married Women's Property Act and reform of that.

However, some of those attitudes continue, and in fact coming right through into the 1970s we find that it was difficult for women to get access to credit without the signature of their husband or of a man, it was difficult for women to open an account even at a department store without a man being a signatory to that, so there were still these kinds of attitudes lingering on. And in fact the campaign about rape in marriage - rape in marriage is first made a crime in 1985 - so that still harks back to the idea that a woman is, in fact, the property of the man. So, the situation wasn't equal.

Having said that, New Zealand is the first country where women vote. We successfully get that through in 1893. We're the first entire country to have women voting and in Parliament. We're the first country where women could take degrees at a university - that's from 1877 at Auckland University College: Kate Edger. So, all of these things put us ahead in terms of gender relations; so it isn't that bad, but it isn't that good either, and there are a number of quite anomalous things that need to be considered.

So the situation then for lesbians starts to become interesting. Apart from our early communities where women are particularly in the post-war period there are places to meet, private parties, there are some hotel bars where women can meet, there are coffee bars where women can meet, so there are networks, and there are other kinds of clubs or organizations - church groups, sporting groups - where women can meet together.

But we first start getting a period of organization with the arrival here of women's liberation, which starts from the late 1960s. And this is a worldwide explosion of political consciousness, what is now regarded as second-wave feminism, though Dale Spender points out that in fact there's always been a women's movement throughout the 20th century; that when we think of waves, like first-wave feminism and second-wave feminism, we shouldn't assume that there's nothing in between, but just that it isn't peaking at quite those same levels of energy. Certainly between first-wave feminism, which roughly begins to dwindle in the beginnings of the 1930s, probably, but certainly between then and the end of the 1960s, early 1970s, we have a lot of very important things like the campaign for equal pay, the marriage guidance movement, family planning and things of this sort which are all seeking to improve the position of women.

The difference with women's liberation is that it is the baby-boom generation coming of age in that period after World War II, fueled with a great deal of energy, who start to put all of this in motion. And there's a lot of writing; communication becomes better, there are a lot of books that start to come out. And within a short space of time we have women's liberation branches throughout New Zealand, largely, at first, being centered on universities, and very soon community groups and so on throughout the country, as well, and high levels of energy.

It's from that movement that we begin to see the emergence of lesbian groups and eventually the emergence of lesbian feminism. Lesbian feminist groups move from lesbians who had been calling themselves gay women working in gay liberation together with men, lesbians from the earlier networks, sporting networks and things of that kind, and then lesbians in the women's liberation movement who begin to feel that their own interests aren't really being attended to and that there is some lesbiphobia among the heterosexual women. So these three groups come together and we see the emergence of the first kinds of lesbian organizing here, in particular the Sisters for Homophile Equality, which begins in Christchurch and with a branch in Wellington, with the formation of the Gay Feminist Group in Auckland, and with the emergence of various lesbian clubs like Club 41 in Wellington and the KG Club in Auckland and other kinds of groups.

The thing about the early 1970s is that through women's liberation, gay liberation and lesbian feminism what we have is a period of extreme energy. When people talk about the 1960s they're really talking about actually the energy of the 1970s, because that's the period when everything comes, really, to a kind of peak. And it's difficult to explain to people who weren't involved at that time just how high energy this was. It was a belief that we could change the world, that it was possible to change society, that it could all happen and would happen in our lifetimes, that people would easily see how important it was to remove the obstacles to equality, to completely change the fundamentals of society.

And I think that there have been periods like this in human history before. Certainly when we read some of the writings around the events leading up to and during the French Revolution in the late 18th century we can see some of that same kind of energy. And in the words of people like Wordsworth, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven," we can see that these kinds of periods have happened in human history before with a belief that this is an era of change. And it feeds upon itself because when you have a mass movement, a lot of people coming together, and with this kind of energy, this belief in ourselves and the feeling that it could all happen, then there's a very important movement.

So, a lot of things happen in the 1970s in terms of lesbian organizing, and that continues on through the 1980s, as well.

Of course there are a lot of problems. You get, for example, conflicts between lesbians and straight feminists in New Zealand, particularly at Piha, which was an important meeting taking place there, and at the United Women's Conventions taking place in 1977 and 1979, and after each of these even more lesbians began to organize separately.

From 1978 several groups were formed in Wellington, including a specific working-class group, a self-help therapy group, and the Lesbian Project, which focused on organizing regular social events and raising funds to open a Lesbian Center. Breathing Space, a discussion and social group for women coming out as lesbians held regular fortnightly meetings during 1979 and 1980. The Lesbian Wellington Network formed following the 1979 United Women's Convention, and that met at regular intervals and organized many political and social events and produced a newsletter. In November, 1979, the first Lesbian Center opened in rooms at Boulcott Street, and subsequently there was a second Lesbian Center opening in Cuba Street, so at one time there were actually two. The Lesbian Liberation Week was held in October, 1980, and there was a campaign against the Wellington City Council which had refused to carry advertisements for the Lesbian Center on its buses.

And in other centers there were also forms of distinctive lesbian organizing. In smaller centers lesbians often worked in organizations together with feminists or with gay men for mutual support in both political and social activities, for example, in MAGRA, the Manawatu Gay Rights Association established in Palmerston North in 1977, which still continues as MALGRA, the Manawatu Lesbian and Gay Rights Association, and there were smaller organizations in places like Ashburton, Gisborne, Wanganui and the Wairarapa.

During the 1980s lesbian groups and organizations grew in numbers and scope as lesbian communities became more open and political activities became more organized and publications and services expanded. Lesbian phone lines were started on a regular basis in various cities in the 1980s, and these kinds of phone services have always been very important because as women become aware of their emerging feelings for other women, it's important to have somewhere to phone and get information and so on.

In 1981 a Christchurch group established the Lesbian Line Telephone Service, and in Dunedin and Timaru in 1984. And by 1990 there were services in Nelson, Palmerston North, Timaru, Wanganui and Hamilton, as well as the four main centers.

Lesbian radio broadcasting started in Wellington on Access Radio in 1984, and that was followed by lesbian broadcasting in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. The Christchurch program, Wahine Takatapui, Sound Women, was broadcast on Plains Radio FM. In Dunedin the student radio station was used. And radio has been an important way to disseminate information and ideas, and to promote discussions for many sections of the lesbian communities.

During the 1980s several lesbian newsletters or magazines were produced. Circle continued being produced, which had been originally produced by the Sisters for Homophile Equality, which had become defunct by the 1980s, but we had Behind Enemy Lines, Dyke News from Auckland, Lesbian Lip in Wellington, Glad Rag, and the only magazine continuing now is the Tamaki Makaurau Newsletter, which continues on into the 21st century from Auckland.

The lesbian radio program continues, still in the second decade of the 21st century, and there are now a number of really important sites on the Internet providing information: Wellington Lesbians, and there is LILAC, the lesbian library which provides information and people can borrow DVDs and magazines - a whole lot of things of this kind. So, the numbers of institutions and activities and so on in the second decade of the 21st century are very important, and too numerous to talk about.

But it's interesting that that period of high energy really discontinues after the end of Homosexual Law Reform, and I think it's after that that the feeling that the world could be so dramatically changed begins to fade because we move into more difficult economic times when people withdraw their energies from working in these alternative movements. And I don't think it's just a question of the ages of the people concerned, but I think people needed, lesbians needed, to be more careful about their economic future; they needed, perhaps, to be more conformist in some of the activities, and some of the more radical movements begin to decline after that sort of period.

What the future will hold is difficult to know because we have now large numbers of young women who would prefer not to identify themselves as lesbian, they would rather be identifying themselves as unidentified or use other terminology: perhaps takatapui if they're of Maori descent, perhaps refer to themselves as bisexual, and many now are beginning to think of themselves as trans people.

So, things change and we don't really know what kinds of organizing women, however we understand what women are, might be doing in the future. But it's interesting to reflect on our past and to see how much has been achieved when we compare our situation today with what the situation was like at the beginning of this period, as we think about how women began to meet together from the 1960s and how they began to organize political activities to make social change from the late 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com