IT WAS A SUNDAY afternoon in 1971 when I found myself driving around an uncharacteristically empty Piccadilly Circus with a clipping from The Sunday Times in hand. The words “Women’s Liberation” in the headline had caught my eye, and I was searching for the London address at which a so-called “workshop” was located.
In the narrow alley, a door opened onto a staircase where a sign hand-drawn with a black felt pen was tacked up: “Women’s Liberation: upstairs.” And in case the staircase itself were not enough, a wobbly arrow pointed the way. I climbed very slowly, sensing that something important was about to happen. At the top I paused, wondering if I should just turn around and go back down the stairs, but then I opened the door and stepped into a small room made even smaller by the metal bookshelves that covered three sides. On the fourth side, in front of a rain-streaked window, was a desk with several Rolodexes and stacks of a mimeographed newsletter. A woman in jeans and a plaid shirt sat on the desk chair facing into the room, where three other women sat on the floor, drinking Nescafé.
The woman at the desk looked me up and down. I felt immediately overdressed, aware of the sharp creases in my petrol blue trouser suit.
“Can I help?” she said.
“I’m not sure,” I said apologetically. “I thought maybe I’d pick up some information…”
“Well, there are lists of groups on those shelves,” said the woman, “and this is the latest newsletter if you’d like a copy. There are some articles from the New York Redstockings over there, and a few books too. There’s a box for donations by the door.”
I thanked her and wandered around, picking up papers randomly, while the four of them remained silent. Then, suddenly embarrassed, I threw some money in the box and hurried down the stairs. Just before I opened the front door, I heard a burst of laughter from above. Were they laughing at me?
Back at the flat, I made myself a mug of tea and sat down to see what I’d collected. Those women certainly hadn’t been friendly, but I wanted to know them anyway, wanted to go back and show them I wasn’t really as conventional as I looked.
I was shocked to find that the first article was called “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Nobody had ever said that word in my presence, even though I’d become familiar with the thing itself in my secret affairs with women. Now I discovered that not only could one say it and think about it, one could write a treatise on a subject apparently neglected in the male literature. Working my way through the pile of papers, I discovered that housework damn well ought to be paid for, that women’s clothes symbolize our oppression, and that I had been very, very lucky when I’d found a safe, though illegal, abortion. The abortion itself had been painful and frightening, but now, suddenly, I saw how much worse it might have been.
At the bottom of the stack of papers I came across a single sheet headed “Consciousness Raising Groups—London area.” I had never heard of consciousness raising and had no idea what it entailed, but I scanned the list for my part of town as if it were exactly what I’d been looking for. The closest was the Holland Park Group and the contact person was Lilian. I dialed the number and reached Lilian herself, who had an American accent. The group met on Wednesday evenings, she told me, and I was welcome to come. The next meeting would be at the flat of someone called Tina whose address I wrote down.
When I rang the bell and walked up to Tina’s flat, I had no idea what to expect. I told myself I wasn’t a prisoner: I could always leave if I didn’t like it. But the women sitting in a circle, some on the floor, others on the couch or chairs, looked friendly and offered me a cup of tea. By the time the last two had arrived, we were nine and Lilian seemed to be in charge, though I quickly learned that no one was supposed to be.
“Well, here we are again,” said Lilian, by way of starting the meeting. She sounded slightly jaded, but then brightened up: “and we have a newcomer.”
Everyone turned to me and I realized I was supposed to speak. Blushing, I said, “My name’s Judy and I’m happy to be here,” then lapsed into silence.
“Well,” said Lilian, “since tonight’s topic was proposed by Janet and she couldn’t be here, I think this would be a good time to discuss the organization of the collective, don’t you? Shaver’s Place is, as usual, in fucking disarray.”
I’d never heard anyone use the word “fuck” before and was stunned at the casual way it slipped into Lilian’s sentence—stunned not in a censorious way, but rather admiring of what immediately seemed cool. Before long I would come to realize that it was commonplace, particularly among the Americans, and soon I too would find it indispensable to opinionated speech. But for now I crouched in my chair, observing this very foreign world.
A couple of weeks later, all of us in the Holland Park group showed up at the collective’s monthly gathering at Shaver’s Place. Beyond the office where I had picked up my papers on that first Sunday was a much larger room that could, perhaps, have seated thirty people on the floor, but which was crammed with fifty or sixty. The room smelled of sweat and was thick with cigarette smoke. Someone quickly raised the question of office hours and someone else wanted to discuss ordering books to sell. Within minutes, women were interrupting each other and shouting in frustration, some even getting up to leave when they failed to be heard. I listened intently whenever a new topic was raised, trying to understand the issue and consider its merits, but just as I would begin to grasp, say, the significance of allowing or not allowing men into the bookshop, someone would stomp off in a huff and the subject would flounder in a whirlpool of ideological speeches.
“We’ll never get anywhere if we’re run by a bunch of fucking separatists,” yelled a small, studious-looking woman at that first meeting. To which Lilian and half a dozen others hurled a chorus of responses:
“We won’t get anywhere under the thumb of the fucking male-dominated Left either!”
“This is a women’s movement, assholes!”
Soon everyone had forgotten about the bookshop and the various other subjects that had been broached. After a couple of hours, the whole group, minus a few whose tempers had launched them down the stairs and into the street earlier, drifted off to coffee bars and pubs in apparently good humor.
I WAS STILL unequivocally in love with my consciousness-raising group when, in February, 1972, we all went to the second National Women’s Liberation Conference held at Acton Town Hall in a dingy part of London. Before setting off, I tried on both my pairs of jeans four times, assessing their relative merits in the mirror. The older pair was nicely faded, its denim softer, the ankles a little peggier. The newer ones, though, were snugger around the pockets. They looked much better with the jacket. I settled for the new.
At the plenary session, the room was full of smoke. Woman after woman ran to the stage and grabbed the microphone. Six hundred pairs of blue jeans sat on six hundred metal folding chairs. The only skirt in the room was Elizabeth Turner’s, and she could get away with it because she’d been in jail. Anyway, it was a blue denim skirt.
Lilian, who knew a lot about everybody, told me that Elizabeth Turner and her lover, Janie, had been in jail in connection with an I.R.A. conspiracy, though everyone knew that the evidence had been planted by the police. According to the rumor mill, while they were in jail Janie’s mother, who was upper-class and hysterical, visited the two of them. She wept copiously at the sight of her daughter lounging in the visiting room, wearing frayed and very dirty jeans, and acting as if it were perfectly normal for a young lady of her background to entertain her mother for tea in Holloway. As her mother wept bitterly over having a communist for a daughter, Janie, realizing that things could hardly get any worse, decided to seize the moment and told her mother that she was not only a communist but also a lesbian. That’s nice dear, sniffed her mother, smiling vaguely in Elizabeth’s direction.
At Acton Town Hall, Elizabeth’s upper-class British accent and wild cloud of red hair, as well as her skirt, labeled her as one of the few non-American leaders. Her fingers were long and sexy. Her calves—the only ones visible the whole weekend—were firm and somehow revolutionary. She quoted Marx frighteningly often, and each time she did her skirt whipped against her legs as she whirled around looking for detractors. She was utterly terrifying.
Lilian, however, dismissed Elizabeth’s Marxism as irrelevant. We were to be separatists, she said. All that male theory was for the boys: we weren’t going to bother with it any more. The other members of our group, sitting in a line half way back in the auditorium, looked relieved: their mothers didn’t want communist daughters either. I was relieved because I’d never read Marx and didn’t want anyone to find out. As the plenary ended, women wandered out into the hallways to examine an array of smudgy position-papers, duplicated on leaky machines like the one at Shaver’s Place.
I threaded my way through the throngs towards the door, ready to slip off and have a sandwich by myself, but my eye was caught by six women sitting on a bench by the stairs. One was wearing black jeans, something I’d never seen before. Two had leather jackets. And two were kissing each other. Not a “darling how lovely to see you” kiss on the cheek. And not a “see you later, love” peck either. A real, low-down, tongues-involved smooch. I stood stock-still, staring. I wished I had worn my old jeans instead of the new ones. And I got a very funny feeling in my stomach.
After lunch, two workshops—one on women writers and one on class in the women’s liberation movement—and another plenary session, I joined my group for dinner at a transport café around the corner. Over baked beans on toast, we enthused about the day.
“I’m not sure about separatism,” ventured Margo, her white lace blouse crisply tucked into very pale jeans. “It seems so difficult to really live it.”
“I went to the ‘wages for housework’ meeting,” said Suzanne. “It makes perfect sense, you know. I can’t believe anyone would disagree.”
“Who’s going to the dance, tonight?” asked Lilian.
“I am,” I said firmly, a blush spreading upward from my knees.
“Good,” said Lilian, assuming general agreement. “We can all dance together then.”
But in the end only four of us showed up. There was a women’s rock band and about a thousand pairs of jeans gyrating, stretching, and bopping across the dusty wooden floor. There was beer in paper cups and smoke so thick you could barely see the door, if you happened to be watching for someone. (I was trying not to watch too obviously for the black jeans or the leather jackets.) Most women danced in groups or alone, weaving through the crowd, hooking up with other dancers for a few minutes, and melting away. In the corner, I thought I saw two couples holding each other, dancing close.
I turned away and threw myself vigorously into our group effort, concentrating hard. Lilian, who deplored the uptight dancing of the British, flung her long, light brown hair backwards and forwards over her head. Soon I collapsed onto a rickety wooden chair by the wall, lit a cigarette, and surveyed the scene. The enormous hall was filled with dancing women, some of whom were stripping off their flannel shirts and letting their bare breasts dance as vigorously as the rest of their bodies. I felt strangely calm, almost as if I’d always known I’d end up here.
While musing on the turn my life had taken, I had been joined by a very tall woman with long, fine blonde hair. She leaned against the wall, propping her leg, which was in a plaster cast, in front of her, and smoking. She looked Scandinavian, which it turned out she was—a Swedish painter in fact, and quite a notorious one since the women’s art exhibition at the Swiss Cottage Library had been closed down by the police on account of her enormous painting, God Giving Birth. Her name, she told me, was Monica, and she lived in Bristol. We chatted casually for a while, sharing cigarettes and pointing out the most spectacular dancers, none of whom either of us knew.
Suddenly there was a stir at the door. Dancers started moving towards the table where women paid their entrance money. “What’s up?” Monica asked a woman who had left the crowd and was strolling past us.
“Oh, nothing much,” shrugged the woman, “just some blokes in drag trying to get in.” She looked impressively bored and wandered on.
“Faggots!” said Monica. “Why can’t they just leave us alone to do our thing. Bloody men think they belong everywhere!”
But as the rumor of an invasion of men scurried around the dance floor, more and more women stopped dancing and turned to watch the entrance. A few pulled on their discarded shirts but left them unbuttoned while they waited to see what would happen. The band played on, thumping out a beat that rattled the rough floorboards. The crowd by the door started to talk excitedly and gradually moved back, parting as if to make way for royalty, while at the same time linking arms as if to create a barrier. Then, two figures appeared in the doorway and stood perfectly still, surveying the scene. The band stopped playing, the drummer being the last to peter out in a trickle of thumps. The whole place fell silent.
Excessively tall and slender, the two newcomers appeared to be young women from a Henry James novel. They wore long, elaborate gowns that hugged their bodies, elegant high-heeled shoes, enormous, sweeping hats and elbow-high white gloves, and they both carried parasols. The one on the left had dark curls that fell beneath her flowered hat, and her dress was pale green. The other wore yellow and a hat adorned with narcissuses. Very slowly they moved forward into the room. Women started to whisper: “Don’t let them in, they’re men!” But the strangers just strolled on as if they were at a Buckingham Palace garden party. They paraded in a circle, stepping out with pointed toes, swiveling their upper torsos to the left and right like models on a catwalk, while no-one said a word. Monica, however, started nudging me in the ribs.
“I know them,” she hissed. “It’s Jackie and Pat. I know them.”
“Jackie and Pat?” I repeated stupidly, having only a vague idea that gay men sometimes used women’s names. “But … they’re men.”
“No they’re not,” Monica said firmly. “They’re women. I know them. They live near me in Bristol. This is an action.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, not getting it in the least.
Pretty soon Jackie and Pat, or whoever they were, arrived back at the doorway. They turned one last time to face the silent wall of women and threw out handfuls of business cards. I walked out on to the dance floor and picked one up. “Sistershow” it said. “Feminist political theatre by Jackie Thrupp and Pat Van Twest.” When I looked up again, they had gone and there was a buzz going around the room. People were starting to defend their right to dress the way they wanted, even if they did all look the same. “No one should have to put on all that uncomfortable stuff,” said one. “Did you see those shoes?” asked another. “Still,” said Lilian, appearing suddenly with a glass of water in her hand. “Still, we did all think they were men. That says something about sex roles and assumptions, doesn’t it?”
“Er, yes. I suppose it does,” I said dubiously, while Monica nodded her head but looked puzzled.
Margo, who had wandered up to join us, was more direct:
“What do you mean?” she demanded. “What assumptions?”
“Well,” said Lilian impatiently, “Here we are, all rebelling against femininity and the expectations that are laid on us—and what have we done but create another uniform with even stronger expectations of conformity. So—don’t you get it?—when we see women dressed like traditional women in here with us, we have to assume they’re men!”
At that moment the band struck up again. Monica hobbled out to the dance floor on her cast, pulling me along, my arm firmly clasped in her large, paint-flecked hand. Lilian boogied away towards the band with Suzanne and Margo in tow as the crowd shelved the question of conformity and began to dance, singing along—soon shouting with the band: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” The room pulsed to the beat, a thousand pairs of blue jeans perfectly synchronized.
Judith Barrington’s books include Lifesaving (2000) and Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art (2002). This article is excerpted from her forthcoming book, The Air We Breathed: A Memoir.