The current literature on second-wave feminism routinely portrays the lesbian movement as an “offshoot“ of the women’s centers. In Berlin, at any rate, the opposite was the case. We lesbians from Homosexual Action West Berlin (HAW) called for the founding of a women’s center and brought our cultural revolutionary experience with us, since many of us, like the other women from the women’s center, had started as leftists but had also undergone a painful search for identity, something that the feminist women who related to men still had ahead of them. And we had convincingly demonstrated that women can organize autonomously and act politically without an associational structure.
Gay women are women first and foremost
At first, the Berlin women’s center’s public actions mainly revolved around the abortion ban, as was common in many cities in those days. What was unusual was the explicit solidarity from lesbians in the HAW, as expressed in a flyer that they distributed in the women’s bars and an intervention at a teach-in at Berlin’s Technical University (TU):
Gay women are women first and foremost. And §218 [the law banning abortion] affects all women. It deprives all women of their right to make decisions. … Patriarchal society rests not least on the total sexual and economic exploitation of women. … To attack the bourgeois family, which ensures a continuing labor supply for production, is to get to the root of existing society.
The rather dramatic explanation for this solidarity seemed rather unnatural to me at the time, since after all one of the few advantages of lesbianism is not having to worry about contraception and abortion. The authors apparently wanted to show that HAW women were no “apolitical tea party.” Ilse Kokula, one of the HAW women, described the internal discussion as follows:
The women’s group wanted to attend the demonstration with the provocative slogan (following a French model) “Abortion is good, but it’s better to be gay.” After objections from the women’s center plenary that abortion wasn’t really such a good thing (but merely sometimes necessary) the slogan was shortened to “It’s better to be gay.”[ii]
To accept oneself as a woman
Gisela Necker, one of the older women in the HAW, benefited from the direct exchange of ideas between the HAW and the women’s center, as she told me:
It was the women’s movement, not the lesbian movement, that later made me realize how oppressed I am as a woman, that it was a real imposition when men wolf-whistled at me as I walked past. Previously I had just accepted it as my fate.
It was this new sensitivity that allowed me to accept myself as a woman. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I learned it was a good thing to be a woman. I realized that men had it even harder because of the pressure on them to achieve. Before that I envied them. Now I understood that achievement and a profession weren’t everything.
And I learned to step back from my active role and my butch attitude. It was quite a step in my life to realize that I had a feminine, softer side that I used to conceal, especially in sexual matters, and I could allow it to come out now.
“Converts” causing conflicts
Other women’s centers were burdened by the subsequent coming out of their lesbian sisters, who now demanded attention for their problems and often evoked fear, guilty feelings, embarrassment and bewilderment among the heterosexual women. Merely calling themselves lesbians caused confusion—after all, women emerging from the women’s center in those days were often insulted as “lesbians” and men also frequently used the word to silence uppity women. And now the women’s centers clearly had lesbians among their own ranks!
Moreover, as soon as they found themselves in their own groups, some of the lesbians built up their self-confidence by distancing themselves from heterosexual women. “Converts” in particular eagerly adopted the pose of living more radically and authentically than their heterosexual sisters. This led to conflicts and frustration in many West German women’s centers. What was the situation in the Berlin women’s center? In our interview I asked Roswitha Burgard, who had been one of the most active members of the women’s center:
– Can you remember conflicts at the center because the lesbians exerted pressure?
– No, should I?
– I think it never got that far because the lesbians in Berlin had already had their own center for some time.
– Right, I really can’t recall anything of the kind.
– How did you experience us lesbians who were active at the women’s center?
– Fascinating, I felt curious, and a little unsettled. Because you were living something that I wanted but I didn’t yet dare.
We Berlin lesbians had already created our own center—the HAW— in 1972, one year before the founding of the women’s center, and we had gathered experience in actions, consciousness-raising and a non-hierarchical, open organization, but above all we had acquired self-confidence and an openness towards all other women. Waltraut Siepert, active in both centers at the time, remembers:
It was like paradise, a certain trust was just there, whether we knew the woman or not. We were open and pleased about any woman who showed up. That was the foundation that allowed us to start the women’s center, because we had that experience from the HAW. We felt like embracing the whole world and wanted to give everything we had. And there was also so much respect.
A thrilling sense of strength
Cornelia Mansfeld also mentions respect:
To start with we had great respect for and interest in each other. There were lots of lesbians in every group, including the abortion rights group. I don’t recall any conflicts because of that. We were all really into each other because we felt our power, there was something erotic about it: Seventy women come together, all of whom have been waiting and looking in a similar direction, and then they suddenly find seventy others who want the same thing. It was a sudden feeling of community after the experience of great isolation. “Women together are strong” expresses this sense of collective power, the feeling of being able to change [our situation] together, a thrilling sense of strength!
Monika Schmid, one of the youngest people at the women’s center, noted:
I mainly experienced affection towards me as a woman from the old-school lesbians; they simply love women and in that sense they loved me too. The political lesbians,[iii] in contrast, only tried to distance themselves, as in “I’m better than you!”
I didn’t feel compelled to become a lesbian, but the pressure was there and made us reflect on our attitudes towards men. This continued for many years and is still there today. In the meantime I have developed relationships with women of a depth that I have only experienced once with a man.
Emotional independence from men
Nearly all of the heterosexual women in the movement were troubled by the contradiction between constantly attacking male behavior, institutions etc. and going home after women’s group meetings to have their emotional and sexual needs met by a man. In 1974, Anja Jovic wrote in the journal Kursbuch,[iv]
The verbal radicalism of the plenary in those days contrasted rather starkly with the reality of most of the women. It was virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about the aspiration towards emotional independence from men. While most of us aspired to this in one way or another, very few women managed to put it into practice. This circumstance led to something like a hierarchy of consistent and inconsistent feminists, which we rejected so vehemently—out of earlier experiences of competition over who was the best communist—that we were scarcely in a position to recognize it in ourselves. …
During this whole period I had a rather stable relationship with a woman who was going through a similar process to mine. This relationship existed in an intermediate stage of tenderness and friendship, and we often helped each other to process all of the changes in our values and relationships. My contacts with other women also became more spontaneous and open than before and I noticed that I was learning to accept myself along with them. But I was afraid of being gay.
Men were also starting to worry because of their partners’ increasing orientation towards other women, as this letter of March 30, 1973 from Cillie Rentmeister notes:
Otherwise I danced quite a bit with Karin and Elisabeth. Lutz and the other men were quite helpless and jealous, grimly dancing all by themselves. Sometimes we also formed mixed groups with them, and they were quite relieved: “Whew, the women are touching them again after all.”
So radical – but living with a man…
In our interview Roswitha Burgard told me about her own ambivalence at the time:
I was in the sexuality group; we were translating Anne Koedt’s paper “Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” which was revolutionary in those days. The man was superfluous—how liberating!
I was in a steady relationship with my Norwegian boyfriend at the time and the women said: Roswitha is so radical but she’s living with a man— which was like a flaw. He wasn’t macho, but quite gentle, a sympathizer; the women in my communal apartment accepted him, and this made things both easier and harder for me. I was conflicted, and then I was bisexual for a long time.
The lesbians were becoming stronger at the women’s center, I admired them—it seemed like THE alternative for me! But I was very much in love with this man. He accepted everything, and I could always come back to him. The way I treated women in those days was not always that great either. I was curious about women, tried out a lot, but when they wanted something longer-term I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t true love.
Quite a few lesbians back then swore they would never again serve as test objects for curious straight women. The women’s rock band Flying Lesbians wrote a critical and ironic song about it:
Now and then
Every so often
And in passing
A women’s night just has to be
In the woman question
You see I am bisexual
I like to keep things open
I keep both sides hopin’
I always have an alibi
Because you see, I’m bi
I used to be unstable
But now I’m oh so able
If I don’t get on with the guy
Then she’s still there waiting
Women’s groups are really neat
But nights I’m with him between the sheets
From her its tenderness I find
With him security, peace of mind
And if I sometimes feel rage
The women give me courage
And everything is fine for a while
And I can reconcile everything again
What I liked so much with the women
I brought back home to him
He does it with more subtlety
Since I’ve become a feminist
I totally agree with women’s fight
And feminism is just right
But if he dislikes the intensity
Of course he’s my priority
But now and then …
But Roswitha’s story continues:
Finally I fell head over heels in love with Birthe, the same way I had in my relationships with men, and from then on it was clear to me.
And that was the end of it with men? Oh for heaven’s sake, I don’t mean to say …
Cristina! [outraged, then we both laugh]. Today, yes. It was a long road to the lesbians.
We lesbians at the center were not totally without missionary ambitions, as is evident from a letter by Cillie Rentmeister:
The women’s movement is like a girl, going through puberty, getting pimples, blushing when men whistle after her, insecure, in search of herself, always looking at herself in the CR mirror,[v] opening her big mouth. …
We gay women could help her to get curves and become a woman faster. The best thing would be to seduce all of them, but the idea is better than the practice. If we could only speak more often about being gay in the group, saying and showing how wonderful it is and can be, and it is also more convincing if we have experienced it ourselves. Every woman is at least partly gay, and she needs to become conscious of this. Moreover, if she regards being gay as an alternative (even as a fallback position) she gains more room for maneuver with her guy, with all guys.
The desire for more freedom will then arise in other areas of life as well.
Lesbians as witches
The increasing public visibility of both lesbians and lesbian groups was accompanied by vehement attacks in the contemporary press, especially the BILD newspaper, but also in Quick magazine. Sensationalist articles criminalized lesbian women and vilified the lesbian way of life.
The Springer press attacked the allegedly “cruel lesbian women,” but probably meant feminists. The campaign coincided precisely with the founding of the first women’s centers in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main. While these centers offered abortion counseling and campaigned against the abortion ban, feminists no longer focused on this topic alone, but now challenged quite other social arrangements as well. We had honed our awareness in the consciousness raising groups,[vi] realizing for example that “the personal is political!”
We organized several leafleting actions to protest the series of anti-lesbian articles in the BILD newspaper in the spring of 1973. We distributed 10,000 flyers at seven central locations in Berlin—there were 50 of us women, 15 from the HAW and 35 from the women’s center[vii]—although in March 1973 the women’s center was still in the founding phase.
The chapter Witch Hunt (1973) includes the full text of these flyers on the Springer press campaign. In them we stated publicly for the first time what the vilified women—as well as other women—had suffered: sexual abuse, marital rape and domestic violence. Marion Ihns, for example, had effectively acted in self-defense, but was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Protesting against the witch hunt of the Springer Presse in Winter 1973 organsized by the women’s center and the HAW Berlin. The photo shows Monika Schmid at left rolling a paper and Beatrice Stammer and Cillie Rentmeister at right. Photo: Cristina Perincioli
What was remarkable about the trial in Itzehoe was that during the protest actions, the feminist movement declared itself in solidarity with the lesbians, put the abovementioned taboo topics on the agenda, and set about addressing them over the next ten years.
Witch hunt and domestic violence affect lesbians, too, but they would remain silent on those topics from now on. We could have said a lot about the continuing exploitation and vilification of lesbians in the media. Twenty-five years later, the popular television soap opera Lindenstrasse was able to present a lesbian as the epitome of evil, without an iota of the humanity accorded to every other character on the show, and nobody protested. As in the 1973 press campaign, the soap opera lesbian had but one aim: to murder her lover’s husband and get her hands on his money.
I will never be able to fathom why the lesbian movement retreated after making such huge waves in the early 1970s, devoting itself instead to organizing lesbian gatherings, finding a site for the “lesbian nation”[viii] and ultimately proclaiming lesbianism to be the one true path, in keeping with the slogan “feminism is the theory; lesbianism the practice.”
[i] In the 1970s, the German word used to refer to homosexual men and also women was schwul.
[ii] Ina Kuckuc (i.e. Ilse Kokula), Der Kampf gegen Unterdrückung. Materialien aus der deutschen Lesbierinnenbewegung (Munich, 1975), p. 74.
[iii] The German terms are Altlesben (literally, old lesbians, i.e. women who had been lesbians even before the movement) and Bewegungslesben (movement lesbians). The latter term referred to women who had previously lived heterosexual lives and only began to identify as lesbians in the women’s movement.
[iv] Anja Jovic, “Ich war getrennt von mir selbst…” Kursbuch 37 (1974), Verkehrsformen, II: Emanzipation in der Gruppe und die ‘Kosten’ der Solidarität, pp. 67–83.
[v] CR is short for consciousness raising.
[vi] See the chapter Consciousness-Raising Groups (1973).
[vii] Siehe Kapitel Hexenjagd (1973) .
[viii] Jill Johnston, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (New York, 1973). Nur wenige Jahre später erschien eine deutsche Übersetzung: Nationalität lesbisch – Die feministische Lösung (Berlin, 1976).