Theory Skirmishes (1973)

Print Friendly

The conflicting parties explain their points of view from today’s perspective, as well as their motivations at the time

 

After the initial euphoria, the women’s group of Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) began to experience conflicts similar to those that had broken out in the Action Council for the Liberation of Women and the leftist groups: a mistrust of go-ahead practice and a constant need for theoretical confirmation, in search of the (one) true path.

            One year later, in 1973, we at the Berlin Women’s Center decided not to let ourselves be paralyzed any longer by such theoretical considerations. Of course we also had our theory groups, but we did not use them to accuse each of other of inadequacy or to frighten one another. In any case, this phenomenon affected all of us in one way or another. The seven women from HAW whom I later interviewed revealed the hopes and desires behind their positions in those days.

10plenum_faust

A discussion at the Lesbian Action Center (LAZ) during the 1975 Pfingsttreffen. Painted on the wall is a raised fist inside a women’s symbol, with the fist breaking through the symbol. This militant women’s symbol disappeared after a few years, to be replaced by the biological symbol for the female sex (this time unbroken) or the labrys.  Photo: M.S.

 

            And this is how the conflict started: three months after the founding of the HAW women’s group we were still formulating quite simply why we had decided to establish a women’s group:

Up until now, we too only met in the bars. But we all know that each of us is essentially alone there. Many give the cold shoulder to anyone they don’t know. Couples are often so fixated on each other that they anxiously avoid contact with anyone else. We want to put an end to this state of fear and isolation and sense of competition. In our center on Dennewitzplatz we want to try to overcome this loneliness through encounters, conversations and sociability. We don’t want to let our environment, which is full of prejudices and taboos about homosexuals in general, to push us into a subculture.[i]

The text goes on to enumerate everything we had done thus far (quite a lot) and admits that we had neither a declaration of principles nor a structure:

Our Wednesday meetings do not proceed according to a fixed agenda, but correspond to our needs. Nobody is under any pressure to perform. We take account of the general mood. The focus can be on individual problems or general topics. There is no leadership. Anyone who wants to can take the initiative; we don’t offer any ready-made concepts or programs. Each one of us can develop her own activities.[ii]

 

Two months later, the documentation notes signs of disenchantment:

The differing needs—for casual gatherings on the one hand and organized group work with political contents and aims on the other—caused us to stagnate. For that reason, in September [1972] we decided to organize more firmly and created three new working groups (the previous ones had already disbanded). We also had another suggestion for a discussion on how the group saw itself.[iii]

 

Following this, we formulated a “self-understanding” that is striking for its frequent use of the verbs “must” and “should”:

The group should be in a position to release its members from their socially imposed isolation and the resulting fears; as individuals, too, gay women should no longer feel stigmatized by an environment that deems its own rituals of coexistence to be natural and normal. The group must aim to make itself superfluous… In order to have public influence, we must on the one hand understand clearly why we are homosexual, and on the other confront the public with the results of our analyses. As many members as possible should communicate with one another in consciousness-raising groups, and also try to express this experience theoretically.[iv]

 

Twenty-five years later, Brigitte Classen, a new member of the group at the time, described how this text came about:

Seven women were sitting there, sort of a family circle, and they said something to me like “Oh, you’re a newbie, have a seat.” I had no use for that. They didn’t know what they wanted. Afterwards we were supposed to go to a bar, and that wasn’t my thing either. There was a lightheartedness about them that made me uneasy. And then the zinger, and please don’t laugh at me: I asked them what they wanted—because I was goal-oriented and used to that from leftists. But they hadn’t a clue.

So I thought, maybe they just don’t know they need that, and for the next meeting I actually wrote a text about what the group wants. And then I made the biggest mistake I ever made at that time, and wrote: “it must be the objective of the HAW women’s group to disband and become superfluous.” They didn’t like that at all, they wanted to keep clucking along in their little group.

 

In the meantime more and more students had started coming to the HAW women’s group. They asserted their demand to underpin our activities with theory and expressed this in a never-ending series of “suggestions for discussion” and “statements of principles,” for instance:

On principle, it is important to uncover the connections between capitalism and patriarchy—oppression of women, family ideology, enforced roles, ignoring homosexual women— whereby the latter naturally (which remains to be proven) sounds somewhat spectacular for the left-wing women’s liberation movement, but for us it is a logical conclusion.

This general emancipation cannot, however, occur in a society in which human beings dominate one another based on the maximization of profit for a few monopolies. And however hackneyed and clichéd it may sound to you, for us it is the relevant conclusion and also the point of departure and superstructure for any group work.

Divided we fall — united we stand. [v]

I read these passages aloud to my interview partners and asked them to comment. I made an effort to offer a representative selection of opinions from the HAW women’s group in those days, and would like to describe the members’ various living situations to the extent that I did not already do so in the preceding chapter, A Little Band of Perverts.

            Ilse Kokula had gathered experience as a cook and a social worker before beginning her studies at the teacher training college (PH) in Berlin:

We had class analysis, primary and secondary contradictions, and we also wanted to lead women to socialism—I did too— but as a free lesbian in socialism! Brigitte Classen was always saying we had to become bisexual, but I didn’t want to. I was left-wing too, but not like she was; I was much more pragmatic, I didn’t feel up to all that, I preferred to sell beer and chat.

 

Gisela Necker was a librarian and already forty years old when she helped build the HAW women’s group. There is more about her life in the chapter Lesbians in the Shadows in part 2. Here is Gisela Necker on the debates in those days:

Reading this “declaration of principles” again today, it is striking how divorced from reality the language was in those days and what an enormous distance arose among us. Some people enjoyed theorizing in order not to have to do anything practical, it was another means of escape. In order to cover up their fears people dragged out the theories.

Things were different at the very beginning. At first we saw ourselves in a very practice-oriented way, and our first flyers reflected that.[vi]

9homophil flyer
But already after [the first nationwide lesbian meeting at] Whitsun 1972, after a few months, there were suddenly more academic women than anything else, who tried to take the HAW in a different direction. But many women preferred to stay in their consciousness-raising groups. This led to the emergence of factions: some wanting to emphasize fun and pleasure, the others theory.

At first I escaped to the consciousness-raising groups; since they were about our personal experiences I was able to keep up. We also kissed and cuddled a lot — it was a lovely time. So many different women—who didn’t immediately just pair off— we wanted to “revolutionize” everything and monogamy was a bourgeois relic after all. Emotionally speaking, verybody was supposed to get along equally well with everyone else.

 

Ulla Naumann, one of the founders of the HAW women’s group and later of the Berlin Women’s Center, had already been active in the Action Council for the Liberation of Women in 1968. There she put women’s sexuality on the agenda and was open about being a lesbian. She had been married before and worked as a salesrepresentative for  nautical supplies. After taking her Abitur exams she got divorced and studied psychology. Here is Ulla Naumann on the mood in the HAW women’s group:

There is something nice about an association like that, but it is awful when it finds no political articulation. Lesbians are more conventional than the rest of the world because discrimination gives them a stronger penchant for conformism. Lesbians have to watch out that they don’t pander to other people because they often experience isolation as life threatening.

 

 

Monne Kühn describes her reading group on women and socialism as a search movement:

With Angela we read Friedrich Engels’s Origin of the Family, then Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Matriarchy… We were searching for an identity. There was no lesbian literature to be found! And if there was, it was vile stuff about how sick lesbians are. We only discovered Charlotte Wolff later.

There were several consciousness-raising groups; some people ran them down, talking about “stewing in their own juices.” But I found it important for lesbians to communicate about their experiences. At some point you’d had enough of this phase—but it was interesting to discover the common ground in personal experience: not feeling normal, how parents and relatives respond. I was able to build on that for actions: we have to defend ourselves, show that we don’t just want to be tolerated but accepted as equal. That gave me strength.

 

Petra Lang, who was studying law, psychology and history back then and is now a publishing sales representative, recalled her time in the HAW women’s group in an interview:

After a while my needs had been met and I only came by as a visitor. Not that I didn’t see the political dimension, but this “Now we have to…” was not my thing. I translated the theories into my personal life in such a way that I stopped lying to anybody about being a lesbian, including the publishing companies I worked for.

– Did you call yourself a leftist?

– That went without saying in those days. I wasn’t in any political groups; I had read Marx, you had to at university, but I didn’t really think about it. What makes me rather cautious in political ambitions is the constant mixture of personal aggressions—for whatever reason—and the attempt to achieve this on a highly objective level. I am suspicious of this mixture, it isn’t anything horrible, but it amuses me more than it motivates me to get involved. In the HAW there were also perfectly legitimate protests against the feelings of powerlessness that lesbians feel in society. But I never suffered from those feelings of powerlessness.

– I [Cristina Perincioli] had the feeling in those days that the HAW was paralyzed by our lofty standards and the fact that we did not tackle the concrete matters at hand because we were forever struggling with those standards.

– Yes, that was a function of the times and the fact that we felt judged by the HAW men. And because social supremacy, let’s just say the power of the fathers, was naturally the thorn in women’s side. And we were not clever or restrained enough to say: “I have a problem with authority, I would actually like to make this guy, my father, shut up, he should just let me get on with things, he shouldn’t have some image of me, he shouldn’t force me to do anything anymore, he shouldn’t always have the last word.” This self-knowledge, what am I actually opposing, am I fighting capitalism or a figure inside myself that is more powerful, and simply projecting that because it is more acceptable? We had little opportunity in those days to talk about inner sensitivities. I didn’t formulate it like that either at the time.

 

Angelika worked as a receptionist for her husband, with whom she had three children. She fell in love with a female student, who introduced her to student circles where she gained new intellectual, cultural and political inspiration. She underwent ideological training in the Socialist Women’s League of West Berlin (SFB)[vii] and joined the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin (SEW). Her divorce was followed by a custody battle over her children lasting many years. She then worked in a clinic, was soon a member of the staff council and today works as a naturopathic doctor. She recalls:

There were very diverse tendencies: While one camp was looking for a bit of fun, to finally meet some women and then—which naturally was the case for me, and a few others who’d been bitten by the political bug——we wanted this thing in a tidy little box, where it suited us, and so we conducted the kind of discussions we knew from the SFB and like the HAW men did, with minute-taking, agendas and clearly formulated objectives.

At home I did working groups with lesbians who were also in the SEW, we read political texts and finally split off from the HAW women because we weren’t getting anywhere there with our political orientation. Then we brought women’s and lesbian issues into the SEW group and grappled with our male comrades. We tried to fit ourselves into that framework and after ten years were forced to admit that it is an apparatus where we were nothing but tiny puppets and that they just exploited and spied on us.

We also worked very intensely with the unions, but realized that the party functionaries only ever wanted to know where the SEW could infiltrate. They bragged that the SEW was well established in this or that plant. We were just pawns and were misused, but that only became clear to me much later.

 

10_cp_tellermine

Cristina Perincioli at the LAZ in 1975  Photo: M.S.

I felt a total sympathy with the two of you [Waltraut Siepert and Cristina Perincioli]. Basically I found what you were doing wonderful. You were always able to act according to your feelings, according to the principle “If I don’t like something, I am going to do something about it. If I find somebody unjust, I’m going to kick his ass here and now. I don’t need to consult any literature or a working group.”

I couldn’t do that. I would have been much too scared. I couldn’t let my feelings out. I had to protect myself. I had to take refuge in intellectual activities. Probably I thought if I could understand everything intellectually, why these horrid things were happening with my family, my husband and my girlfriend, if I could just understand everything, then it would all be okay. And in order to do that I had to scrutinize everything. That is why women who could discuss on this level with me were so important. That went on for many years. And only then did I dare to explore my own feelings.

You were down-to-earth, always practical. But Brigitte Classen wanted high culture, it wasn’t just political, there was something else as well that intrigued me. I found it fascinating.

 

Brigitte Classen started her studies in Berlin in 1963, including philosophy, was close to the Socialist Students’ League (SDS) and had a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to study in Paris, where she encountered much more relaxed attitudes, including towards homosexuality. Before that she had kept her lesbian relationship a secret even from her friends. In Berlin she had read Hegel, Marx and Kant, and in Paris she became familiar with the structuralists. She tried to bring her new knowledge into the women’s movement as well. After two and a half years of participating in the HAW women’s group she founded the journal Die Schwarze Botin, in which she was able to publish her ideas independently. In an interview she talked about this period:

What was lacking was a social utopia, goals that extended beyond this little hen party. I thought I could teach the women something that they might find interesting and that might be worth reflecting on. I wanted to show that there is more than consciousness-raising, which they indulged in every day, which irked me because it actually impedes the process of consciousness: they met every day, told each other the same things, thought they were blossoming but they were merely stagnating. They accused me of so many things: being elitist, authoritarian and arrogant…

– Do you think you were?

– I’m sure I was, at least somewhat. After all, somebody has to provide the impetus, somebody has to say, we’re going to do this now and we’ll meet then and then.

– That isn’t how I remember it, but rather that you were always making theoretical interventions. Which kept practical people like me from getting anywhere. We locked horns frequently. I always wanted to tackle something concrete, “come on, let’s do this…” and you kept throwing out the big questions and distracting us from matters close at hand.

– Maybe I still wanted to understand this or that. Perhaps I was too theoretical and paid too little attention to practice, maybe so. I told you where I came from, and that was largely theory. But at bottom I was always for putting it into practice, but with the women I always had the impression that something was missing and we have to sort it out. I always thought that lesbians could be more advanced in their thinking because they have gone through a bit more, that they could be an avant-garde; I realize that was my mistake. The HAW women’s group was very American-oriented, the French version—that whole faction against [Jacques] Lacan at the time, [Luce] Irigaray was not so bad yet, then there was Hélène Cixous, who showed us new paths for feminism, taking them in a lesbian direction—that naturally didn’t interest anyone here. One woman said to me: What do I care about your stuff in Paris, what do I care about Hélène Cixous? I’m interested in the new lesbian from Gelsenkirchen. She was right. These great women were coming to the Pfingsttreffen. What did they want? They wanted to pick up women—they couldn’t do that in Wanne-Eickel. And that is just fine, but I’d rather sleep alone than with a woman from Gelsenkirchen.

– Don’t speak too soon.

– Ah well, it is too late now anyway.

 

 

[i] HAW Frauengruppe (eds), Eine ist keine — gemeinsam sind wir stark, documentation (Berlin, 1974), p. 14.

[ii] Eine ist keine, p. 15.

[iii] Eine ist keine, p. 18.

[iv] Eine ist keine, p. 18.

[v] Eine ist keine, p. 12.

[vi] A flyer for the universities from the early days:

Are you

  • homophile? – genteel version
  • homoerotic? – yearning
  • lesbian? – Sappho’s long dead
  • homosexual? Even professors know something about this

or

–gay? Then we have definitely run across each other before.

But we can also meet on purpose, in Berlin 30 at Dennewitzstr. 33, entrance A 1st floor, HAW women’s group.

Eine ist keine, p. 17.

[vii] See the chapter Socialist Women’s League (1970–80) in part 2.

Download PDF

Leave a Comment