Whatever happened to feminism's extreme sects?

Many marched for the cause, but some went further, firebombing sex shops, and even disowning their own sons. Twenty years on, Katy Guest catches up with former members of feminism's most extreme sects

Twenty years ago, a group of women sat in a room in London's County Hall, trying to work out how to spend £14m. Among them were the representatives of the disabled, lesbians, working-class women and a number of races. They didn't represent any political party. They "just wanted to make a difference to women".

As they looked out across the Thames, groups of their sisters marched on Whitehall, waving banners and shouting for their rights. Some lived in separatist women's collectives, leaving behind their male children rather than risk the corrupting influence of the Y-chromosome. Others called themselves Angry Wimmin and flouted the law to deface advertisement hoardings and carry out arson attacks on sex shops. Their voices had never been louder.

But in April 1986, Margaret Thatcher disbanded the Greater London Council. Amid the in-fighting and disappointment, the Women's Committee drifted apart. This marked a turn in the tide against the more extreme, organised wing of the feminist movement; and soon it was in a rapid, and irreversible, decline. But what of the women behind it? Where are they directing all of that anger and commitment in the 21st-century world of Blair's babes, metrosexuals and post-feminist muddle? Have their views on the battle of the sexes changed in the intervening years?

When I try to contact the women from that more militant era, it turns out they have not gone far. Tentative email enquiries receive a wave of positive responses and offers of help. A few automated replies trickle in, such as one from a former Lesbian Separatist that says: "I am out of the office on maternity leave..." Another replies, crisply: "I may not be what you're looking for at all. I was not a Revolutionary Feminist; I was a Socialist Feminist with a lot of time for Radical Feminism. If I had any enemies from those days, they were Rev Fems. Oh my, how confusing. Those were the days!" But soon there is a boom of friendly voices.

"I am happy to talk," read the emails, from addresses all containing words like "consultancy" and "collective". "I am delivering training/Giving a lecture on the sexual politics of the international HIV/Aids movement/At the high court." Many of them conclude with the words "in sisterhood..." Evidently there is no such thing as a former feminist.

It is a truth that is demonstrated by Vanessa Engle's documentary, Angry Wimmin, which will be show on BBC4 on 15 February. The film opens with Sheila Jeffreys, a twinkly-eyed lady at a scrubbed wooden table. "Men grow bold, as they grow old," she sings, to the tune of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. "They all lose their charms in the end. Men are all wankers, said Christabel Pankhurt, 'cause women are a girl's best friend." She chuckles, a revolutionary glint in her eye. She has not changed a bit.

"Rage is absolutely fundamental," she says, cheerfully. "Not anger. Anger is not strong enough." Jeffreys now lectures in feminism, gender and sexuality at the University of Melbourne - she thinks she failed to find a similar position in the UK because her politics were seen as so controversial. And as a founding member of the Revolutionary Feminists, a group that emerged in Leeds in the late 1970s, Ms Jeffreys had plenty to feel angry about. "I can't imagine how everyone does not feel an entirely reasonable political rage at what is happening in the world," she says now. "Let alone what is happening to women. The international sex industry, the selling of women simply as containers for men's penises worldwide, is huge and increasing incredibly rapidly as a part of globalisation. How could anyone not feel rage? What is the alternative?"

What made the Revolutionary Feminists so revolutionary was that they decided exactly who was to blame for women's subjugation: men. All men were potential rapists, they said - not because all men had raped, but because, if they had no evidence to the contrary, women had to fear all men as if they would. The Yorkshire Ripper was attacking women, and curfews were imposed to stop women, not men, going out after dark.

"The Socialist Feminist groups of the early 1970s were not naming men," says Jeffreys. "And I was concerned to problematise the role of men. I viewed women as a class. In 1979, we wrote the manifesto that said that only by stopping having sex with men could women be free. It's just like we gave up Cape apples because the profits went to South Africa. We advocated 'political lesbianism' - whether you fancied women or not."

In the late 1970s, the Revolutionary Feminists marched through the cities, hands held aloft in the international feminist sign of the vagina and demanding to "reclaim the streets". They waved placards, and they carried little squeezie plastic lemons in case they needed to defend themselves against aggressive police. They chanted, "Whatever we wear and wherever we go, no means no means no means no." ("Some of the liberals would say 'Yes means yes and no means no,' says one, now, "But for us, 'No' was enough."

For some, though, expressing such sentiments, however vocally, wasn't enough. Towards the end of the 1970s, a breakaway group calling itself the Angry Wimmin began to emerge. They wanted more than chanting in the streets; they demanded direct action.

"We spelled the word 'wimmin' to get rid of the word 'men' inside it," explains Susan Hemmings, who picked her last name from an advert for bread rather than go by the name of her father or ex-husband. "The last thing you wanted in the core of your identity was men. Sometimes we spelt it 'wombyn', or without the 'b' as 'womyn'. We changed the word 'history' to 'herstory'. Sometimes it could get a bit tricky."

But the Angry Wimmin went further than changing their names. "The Revolutionary Feminists were just theoreticians," tuts one former member of the group, who does not want to be named. "We started using direct action. The only rule was that it was not allowed to endanger anybody's life." Some Angry Wimmin burned down sex shops, or scrawled graffiti over adverts they considered offensive. Others piled into WHSmith and "ranted" about pornography. They were the radical wing of feminism. Not that they were the same as the Radical Feminists, of course. "I don't care for Radical Feminism," adds the former member. "It's theoretically wishy washy and it tends towards biological determinism."

As the groups diversified, manifestos were written faster than the ink could dry. The Lesbian Separatists were women who hoped that one day a wall might be erected around the equator, so that men and women could live in separate societies.

"I used to wonder, if we clubbed together and bought an island, would it be a utopia, or would we end up with the same hierarchies?" says one. "Part of me still thinks that a wall around the equator would be fantastic. Apart from all the blokes who are my friends."

Another, Kath Hassell, lived in a lesbian collective that was strict about whom it allowed in. "My brother came to see me and I wouldn't let him into the lesbian separatist house," she says now. "He loved me so much that he slept in the car. It wasn't that men were the enemy," she adds, quickly. "We just didn't need them."

With the expansion of feminist ideologies, black, working class and disabled women started to feel that they were not sufficiently taken into account. Kirsten Hearn explains: "Sisters Against Disablement was formed because we felt excluded by the women's movement. We were denouncing women and groups who were not making things accessible for us."

Slowly, cracks began to show. "They used to turn up at book fairs," says one woman in the documentary. "They would sit outside in their wheelchairs and look a bit threatening." "You didn't say anything when a disabled woman spoke," adds another. "In the end [their tactics] just felt like bullying and harassment."

"It was a bit Lord of the Flies," is the way another sums up the broader situation. "It was like a cult where everyone keeps turning on everyone until there's only one left."

So whatever happened to the notion of sisterhood? According to some, the sisters happened to it. Linda Bellos, a Revolutionary Feminist, the former leader of Lambeth Council and sometime Angry Woman, now runs a consultancy that advises companies on equality and diversity. She saw it all start to turn sour at Spare Rib magazine, the bible of the feminist movement. "It was about point scoring," she says. "That's just how the white, middle-class women who owned the women's movement played us. We fell into the trap of thinking that the more oppressed we were, the more points we could have. Bloody women from Oxford had universalised their experience, defined it as feminism and wondered why it didn't mean anything to the rest of us. When we started asserting our equal right to define what feminism was, they didn't like it. If you're going to talk about the sisterhood being all-powerful, what version are you talking about? Heterosexual feminists were the sisterhood. What unites us is being women. But we bring to being women our class, race, religion... Some of those ruling-class women felt we were attacking their feminism. And some of us could see that we had as much apart as we had in common."

As Thatcherism made its mark on the 1980s, the struggle became harder. Like other left-wing movements, feminism came under stress. Financial support was scarce after the disbanding of the GLC, and there was feuding over scarce resources. A new politics of individualism was replacing fuzzy 1970s collectivism.

Ask Sue O'Sullivan, who edited Spare Rib from 1979 to 1984, about the women's movement and she says, sadly: "That's all back then. Everything's dead as a doornail now. Women are working away on feminist issues [she herself works for an organisation called the International Community of Women with HIV and Aids] but there's no movement left. It's difficult to contemplate how difficult and bitter and intense all the different strands of feminism were - how it rubbed everyone up the wrong way."

But there are others who are more positive. "I am now the director of Preston Women's Refuge," says Valerie Wise, who headed the GLC's Women's Committee from 1983 to 1986. "I wanted to be the MP for Preston, but I didn't get selected. It caused me to have a major rethink. Now I put all my energies and commitment into domestic violence and I think I achieve more doing this than I ever did in local politics. It is taking me back to my roots; I made my name in issues to do with women and now I am back doing that."

Where they agree is that we must be very grateful to the women's movement - despite its shortfalls and its frequent fallings out. "We were castigated as the Loony Left," says Wise. "But the things we were advocating are now so mainstream. We were ahead of our time. Childcare is a good example. Women were not being able to participate in life because of the lack of childcare provision. Now everyone agrees that women should be able to participate in working life."

According to Bellos: "One of the things we owe to that era is choices for women. A young woman can think about becoming a doctor, a train driver... We have greater control over our own reproduction. We have legal rights, we can own property, vote, drive... I think class remains a key element in people's life chances - which is why I remain a socialist. But that doesn't diminish anything I feel about gender; it's not a competition."

Jeffreys is inspired by the fledgling women's movement that she sees flourishing in developing countries. "Feminism is now much more international," she says. "I work with women from many countries in a common struggle. In other countries, such as Bhutan, feminism is just starting. This is what gives me hope for the future."

Bellos also feels guardedly optimistic. "Largely, Revolutionary Feminism got it pretty right," she says. "That analysis is as relevant and valid today as it was then, and I fear it will be as relevant and valid in 20 years time. I'd love it to have been a distant memory - just like children going up chimneys are to you and me. I have a new granddaughter, and I'd like to think that in her life she will not fear rape. But I don't think I can hold my breath. We have a lot to do."

Ask these women to choose an "-ism", meanwhile, and little has changed. "I do describe myself as a revolutionary feminist," says Bellos. "I'm also a Marxist, lesbian, black, African and proud of it. People are more than their gender, more than their class, more than their race and ethnicity. I learnt that through the crucible of the women's movement."

Jeffreys feels the same. "I usually describe myself as a radical feminist - or a lesbian feminist or a radical lesbian feminist," she muses. "But the ideas of revolutionary feminism are still the basis of my life and activism." O'Sullivan, also, says: "I want to keep on challenging myself but I hang on to things I believe in, so I guess I'm still a socialist feminist. I don't know where to express that like I used to. But I'm incredibly grateful to have been involved in something that had that impact." Only Wise says she no longer necessarily tells people she is a feminist. "I don't suppose I need to," she shrugs. "I don't think it matters that nobody asks the question any more."

The women in the documentary, asked to describe what they are now, are just as certain of their position. "I would just call myself a feminist now," says one. "No, I'm not still a separatist," laughs another. "I'm still pretty rabid, but I temper my rabidness in different language," another admits. One says, guardedly: "Well, I've become a Buddhist since then..."

Some say resentfully that the women's movement drowned itself in a puddle of patchouli oil, as so many feminists hived off from politics to explore the world of alternative therapy. Others are just biding their time. Not surprisingly, many of these women are wistful about when they were wimmin. "I have dreams, real dreams during sleep, about women's conferences," says Jeffreys. "I feel nostalgic about sleeping in sleeping bags in a church hall during conferences, talking till all hours. Thank goodness I don't smoke rollies any more, and now I would want a bed. But I still think very much of those times, of the huge excitement and feeling that we were changing the world."

Bellos, meanwhile, feels she has softened. "I think I am more tolerant now," she says. "I am still intolerant of injustice but I'm more tolerant of where people are at. And I believe my politics has stood still and the world has come to meet us. Equality and justice are not special pleading - they are generally understood." Is she still angry? "Yeah," she says, smiling. "I'm cross!"

Sects and the sisterhood

Angry Wimmin

Emerged out of Radical Feminism, advocating direct action such as burning down sex shops and removing or defacing offensive adverts. Members operated a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about their illegal activities. Their heroines were women such as Linda Bellos, who still refuses to discuss the group's direct action.

Socialist Feminists

Grew up alongside the Socialist movement of the early 1970s, but struggled to have its voice heard among other worthy causes: "We were told by men that ours was a bourgeois cause." Well-trained through experience on the Left at working meetings and agendas. Saw women as a class in itself but it was derided by some for not pointing the finger of blame at men.

Revolutionary Feminists

Emerged in the late 1970s in Leeds, inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper and the threat of male violence he represented. Aligned to Women Against Violence Against Women, who marched to "reclaim the streets".The enemy was not the ruling classes, but men. The group published a manifesto: Political Lesbianism - the Case Against Heterosexuality.

Lesbian Separatists

Aimed to create a society in which men and women lived totally separately. Advocated "political lesbianism, whether you fancied women or not". Some wanted to build a wall around the equator, to separate men and women permanently. A few gave up their male children, or refused to have children in case they were boys.

Radical Feminists

Emphasised the patriarchal roots of inequality/social dominance of women by men. Viewed patriarchy as dividing rights, privileges and power primarily by gender, oppressing women. More militant in approach, opposing traditional social and political organisation because it was inherently tied to patriarchy. Accused of "tending towards biological determinism".

Sisters Against Disablement

"We felt excluded by the women's movement," says Kirsten Hearn, a founder member. "We were denouncing women and groups who were not making things accessible for us." Accused of point scoring, or "thinking that the more oppressed we were, the more points we could have". Schisms appeared when groups such as this and lesbian feminists wanted to be regarded as separate.

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