The feminist/lesbian movement – some highlights and personal memories

With this introduction I am not trying to portray an objective or full account of the feminist and lesbian movements as they developed in the seventies. I am recounting some highlights as I experienced them and as they have shaped me.

The feminist movement of the seventies in Germany built up on the student movement and many of the initiators of the feminist movement had also been activists in the student movement. The gender inequalities in the leftist groups as well as in society became very visible to us and it was logical, that, once activated, we women began to address them. Feminism was a thorough reversion and revolt. The structures of society were analysed as patriarchal, which proved a wider frame of reference than the analysis of capitalism and class inequalities. All sectors of society, health, birth, education, violence, the economy, the media were analysed in their patriarchal structures. Counter cultural feminist projects were established to address them.  Feminism also brought the revolt closer to home. The personal was political. A whole new wave of energy and ardour was unleashed.

One of the issues that gained a lot of public support was the fight for the right to abortion. The campaign started with the self incrimination of celebrities as well as countless doctors in a major German magazine, that they had participated in abortion. I spent days running around Frankfurt gathering signatures for this campaign. Later we publicly organised busses to take women to The Netherlands, where abortion was to be obtained legally.

The principle we applied in this campaign we called öffentliche Illegalität (public illegality). Many women and doctors practiced abortion quietly and as a clandestine act of defiance. The point of our campaign against the restrictive abortion laws in Germany was to break the rules publicly, in order to contest their legitimacy and validity.

I remember the exiting week before we chartered our first public busses to The Netherlands. We (the representatives of the Frankfurt women’s center) were interviewed on the local TV channel every second evening. In the evenings between the prosecuting attorney was interviewed. It became a dialog, watched by the local public every night, as entertaining as a good detective series. We would declare that we indeed would publically break the law at the end of the week by taking women for an abortion to The Netherlands and we would explain our reasons. The prosecuting attorney would declare that indeed this was against the law and he would take steps to prevent it. The problem, however, was, that it was not so easy to take preventive action, since we publicly declared that we were going to fill the bus not only with women who were intending to have an abortion, but also with women who were not, but would just enjoy a visit to The Netherlands. So either the police would have to stop a bus on its way to visit a neighbouring country, which was not so easy to do legally, or the police action would have to be taken in The Netherlands, when the women actually visited the clinics there. And since in The Netherlands abortion was not illegal, this was also not an easy police action to perform. Plus, there was enormous public support for our action. We got phone calls from bus drivers volunteering to drive us saying “My wife has told me to support you”.

In the end the busses left without any police intervention, with balloons, posters, song singing and in a caravan, which was joined along the way by feminist groups from the communities we passed, and greeted at the boarder by Dutch feminists with more posters, flyers, theatre playing and public speeches. The busses continued to the clinics and the women were treated without any problem and came home rested and well the next day. It was one of the success stories of the principle of breaking the rules publicly to create change, for in the end the restrictive abortion laws in Germany were altered and abortion (under certain rules)  became legal in Germany.

One of the most provocative aspects of the feminist movement at the time was claiming “women only” spaces: women centers, women’s bookstores, women’s publishing companies, all women bands, parties and dances.

I became a singer in the first all women rock band in Germany: The Flying Lesbians, which have since become cult (www.flying-lesbians.de). On one TV documentary about the music of the seventies the Flying Lesbians were featured right after The Rolling Stones (which does not portray that we were as popular, but more that indeed we were part of the many expressions of revolt and change unfolding in the seventies). Indeed all women bands were an innovation at the time. It is hard to imagine now how much controversy on the one hand, but also how much liberation and enthusiasm these women only activities, projects and spaces unleashed.

One of the most famous women only spaces was created by the Danish feminist movement. They organised women only summer camps on a Danish island called Femø.  This went on for several months and included some weeks which were international. The international weeks were conducted in English and attracted feminists from all around Europe but also from the USA. They became legendary. Countless initiatives and projects originated from these gatherings at Femo. They were the closest to experiencing a “women’s world” you could get. We populated the whole island, lived in big tents together, cooked and organised camp life together, held daily tent meetings and consciousness raising sessions, cleaned the toilets and went swimming together, engaged in political debates, came up with all kinds of project groups and actions plans and of course organised parties, jam sessions and dances every evening.

When it was hot the custom was to go naked. I remember how much it “opened my eyes” to for the first time really be able to study and experience women’s bodies as they were, not as they are portrayed in public life and advertisement. It was a real realisation that real women did not look like they were portrayed in public images. By being together with so many women (there was enough space for about 300 women at any given week) in such intimacy and proximity I noticed that I began to develop a different aesthetic. I found these women truly beautiful and they did not fit the “public norms”.

At Femø women’s ways of doing things was the norm.  A different culture developed a palpable difference to the “outside world”. Women’s confidence and self esteem grew, they tried out things they would not “normally” do, they discovered how much they enjoyed (and missed) the company of women. Femø was an adventurous and experimental place and gave the international feminist movement many impulses.  It was in this atmosphere that I fell in love for the first time with a woman and henceforth joined the lesbian movement.

Coming out publicly and contesting public taboos (and legislation) against homosexuality was the main focus of the lesbian movement. Given the feminist focus on women only activities and the creation and celebration of female culture it was a good time to be a lesbian. “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice” was one of the provocative slogans developed at the time and it was exhilarating to take part in big lesbian events and gatherings. We experienced ourselves as many, as avant-garde and definitely not as discriminated or isolated.

Profiling lesbians in history, creating lesbian archives, lesbian anthologies, lesbian publication houses, lesbian films, lesbian cafés and salons, demonstrations, exhibitions, festivals, counselling services for individual lesbians and couples as well as educational lectures in schools and youth clubs belonged to the many activities and projects initiated by the lesbian movement. Many lesbians remained also the protagonists and played leading roles in the feminist movement.

What deeply impressed me in my participation in the student and the feminist/lesbian movement and what shaped the way I approached situations later in life was the experience of being an active player in society. In both movements we shaped history. We were not “objects” of decisions and actions taken somewhere in society, we were subjects, participating in and influencing decisions. And not because we had joined institutions and political parties and were part of the political game (many of my fellow companions of the student and feminist movement did make this choice later on when the green party was founded), but because we raised our voices and took action as citizens.

This was programmatic. The term outer parliamentary opposition was coined to emphasise that society can only be truly democratic if its citizens are politically alert and active. The fact that in the student and feminist/lesbian movement we were successful in many if not all our concerns and endeavours gave me a deep conviction as well as confidence that direct action and taking things into your own hands is possible. It shaped the way I understood my profession as sociologist and my choice for engaging in activating research. I have remained dedicated to initiating and supporting self help movements and bottom up activities all my life.