This book examines the ways in which women were able to deploy ambiguous concepts such as the 'career woman' and the 'bachelor girl' to simultaneously indicate and mask a lesbian identity. Contemporary anxieties about female same-sex desire which attached to these figures offered the opportunity to deploy them as an indication of potential sexual deviance. But their very ambiguity simultaneously afforded a protection from censure which more explicit terms such as 'lesbian' did not. These cultural connections between 'deviant' and 'normative' models of sexual identity have become the focus of considerable attention by queer theorists and historians in recent years. Queer historians have sought to analyse the institutional practices and discourses which produce sexual knowledge, and the ways in which these organise social life. They have concentrated their research on the binary opposition of homosexuality and heterosexuality as the dominant epistemological framework of knowledge about sexuality. The book seeks to explore the connections between space and cultural practices in lesbian history and is therefore concerned with the material world of post-war Britain. Identities such as 'tomboy' were invested with specific meanings in particular spatial contexts. As a child in rural Essex in the early 1950s, Nina Jenkins could use the term 'tomboy' to explain and excuse her desire to climb trees and be part of a boys' street gang.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book traces a range of gender and sexual identity models current in Britain in the post-war period, and explores the opportunities offered by specific discourses and spaces for individual women to perform distinct gendered and sexual identities. It explores attitudes toward the development of sexual identities and childhood sexuality in the post-war period, through an examination of educational and medico-scientific notions of lesbianism. The book traces the opportunities for articulating a lesbian identity in adulthood. It suggests that, in the 1950s and 60s, a specifically lesbian subculture began to emerge in the residential districts of West London. The lesbians had mixed with male homosexuals, prostitutes and other marginal figures in the growing bar and nightclub scene from the 1920s onward.
Lesbian narratives of childhood sexuality in the post-war decades, such as Diana Chapman's, reflect this uncertainty, representing childhood crushes as both common aspects of schoolgirl culture and the forerunner of adult lesbian sexuality. Lesbian narratives indicate that this association of lesbianism with masculinity persisted into the post-war period. Narrators overwhelmingly constructed their childhood selves as physically active and 'tomboyish', reflecting the common theme in medical case histories. Lesbian sexual activity was apparently perceived as a more tangible possibility in residential institutions such as boarding schools, approved schools and remand homes. Medical science remained one of the most influential forces explaining the aetiology and characteristics of female homosexuality in the post-war decades. The contradictory representation of schoolgirl sexuality in educational and medical literature in the 1940s and 50s afforded considerable flexibility for the expression of female same-sex desire in adolescence.
Feminine occupations tended to encourage women workers to project a heterosexual identity at work and were therefore environments which proved insignificant to and problematic for the construction of a lesbian identity. In a conflation of the patterns of development of the lesbian and the career woman, both were women who had failed to develop a maternal instinct and thus mature beyond the adolescent phase of homosexuality. The influence of medical discourses characterising lesbians as emotionally abnormal and potentially predatory, meant that single women teachers were increasingly regarded as poor role models for girls. Cultural associations of masculinity and women-only environments with lesbianism meant that the women employed in such workplaces were constructed as potentially sexually deviant. Under the leadership of Margaret Damer Dawson and Mary Allen, both of whom were lesbians, the Women Police Service (WPS) made an important contribution to women's policing during the First World War.
In characterising lesbian relationships as immature and short-lived, Commutator drew on a familiar post-war theme in medical and popular literature. The dominant discourse of feminine domesticity was, however, framed in overwhelmingly heterosexual terms and the experiences of single women and lesbians were conspicuous by their absence. Representations of lesbians in medical literature and fiction overwhelmingly reinforced notions of lesbians as single, marginal figures, existing on the peripheries of society. Freudian medico-scientific attempts to explain the aetiology of lesbianism in terms of a breakdown in the parent-child relationship were replicated in other literary portrayals of the lesbian as the product of a broken home. In the post-war decades, media representations of lesbianism characterised lesbians as a threat to marital and family life, focusing on divorce cases and murder trials.
A vibrant lesbian bar culture emerged alongside gay male subcultures in London and other British towns and cities before the Second World War and played an important role in the development of collective lesbian identities in the post-war period. This chapter focuses on the metropolitan lesbian scene in London and the Gateways nightclub. Particularly, where the collective identity of a lesbian subculture is apparent and through which the intergenerational conflicts with the lesbian and gay political groups can be clearly traced. The Gateways was a members-only club throughout the 1950s and 1960s and prospective patrons had to apply for membership, in writing, forty-eight hours in advance of their visit. Historiographical accounts of the US lesbian bar culture have focused on class as the important distinguishing feature of different lesbian communities, constructing the bar community as working class, in contrast to a more discreet middle-class lesbian community.
In the spring of 1964, the first British lesbian magazine, Arena Three, was produced and circulated to a small number of subscribers. Amongst the most heated debates enacted in Arena Three throughout its eight years were those which touched upon issues identified in sexological and other medical and scientific writings on lesbianism. Alison Oram has argued that Minorities Research Group (MRG) sought to exploit medico-scientific interest in lesbianism, believing that collaborating in research would offer an opportunity to push MRG's own agenda. A proposal to establish a social club, suggested in the first issue of Arena Three, enabled many readers to crystallise their early notions of lesbian identity and to define the boundaries of their community. In addition to the fundamental conflict that existed between the material and discursive communities of MRG and Arena Three, the organisation of social meetings, particularly in London, exacerbated existing financial and administrative tensions.
The ambiguities and contradictions in post-war notions of femininity afforded women a surprising degree of flexibility in the expression of alternative gender and sexual identities. An emerging lesbian consumer culture, in the context of wider social changes in accepted women's behaviour, played an important role in defining new models of lesbian identity based on butch/femme roles. The picture of lesbianism and medico-scientific research, which emerges from lesbian accounts, points to a complex interplay between the medical profession and lesbianism generally, as well as between individual psychiatrists and lesbians. Accounts of the development of a specific lesbian subculture, emerged in the 1950s, and the educational objectives of the first lesbian magazine, under-cut the notion of the 1960s as a decisive moment of radicalisation. Representations of the bar subculture and lesbian organisations such as the Minorities Research Group and Kenric, in particular challenge the accepted narrative of pre-Gay Liberation Movement politics.
In the decade after 1971, new social and political conceptualisations of lesbianism proliferated. Following the demise of Arena Three, a group of women, including Angela Chilton and Jackie Forster, established a new lesbian organisation and magazine, Sappho. The Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive, which represents the largest single archive of lesbian and gay personal narratives in the UK, exemplifies the connections between lesbian politics and history. Its history, and that of the larger archive of which it forms a part, is intimately connected with the development of lesbian and gay historical research in Britain and the place of oral history within it. The ambiguities in concepts such as 'tomboy' and 'bachelor girl', which enabled them to be deployed as indicators of sexual dissidence, also afforded a protection from the explicit naming of a deviant sexual identity.