A Suitable Job for a Lesbian

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 35, Summer 1997.

Gillian Dunne’s book, Lesbian Lifestyles: Women’s Work and the Politics of Sexuality, examines the interconnections between life experiences, employment and possibilities of being a lesbian. Through life history interviews, women discuss how and when they became lesbians and how their work and social lives intersect. Jill Radford reviews this interesting and important book.

Lesbian life and lesbian lived experience have traditionally been neglected as subjects of research, even in Women’s Studies. More recently, the growth of queer theory has put the clock back even further by representing lesbians solely in terms of sexuality and sexual practice. Within this hostile cultural and political climate Gillian Dunne’s study of lesbian lived experi­ence is particularly welcome. Drawing on feminist theoretical perspectives, it provides a useful reminder that lesbians are women too. It demonstrates that living as lesbians in modern Britain involves balancing acts, since lesbians, like our heterosexual sisters, often have to struggle to integrate work and social life with domesticity and relationships, and further that this juggling of commitments is played out in a society characterised by heterosexism and anti-lesbian discrimination. The events at Kings­mead School (T&S 32) and the recent (Feb 1997) suspension of a lesbian feminist lecturer from a University Near London, are two recent examples which illustrate that anti-lesbianism in education is thriving in the 1990s and has reached the point of threatening lesbians’ employment rights as well as academic freedom. A glance at the Daily Express this week (March 1997), which featured a renewed attack on ‘lesbian feminist separatists’ by Erin Pizzey in the guise of an autobiographical account of her life since Chiswick, shows media heterosexism continues to be central to the right’s attacks on ‘political correctness’ in the run up to the General Election.

In this academic study, Gillian Dunne initially sets the scene by taking us on a relatively accessible journey through feminist theory. In overviewing socialist feminist analysis of women’s relationship to employ­ment, she highlights one of its major limitations, i.e. its failure to engage with sexuality as an organising principle in society. This, she points out contrasts with its central role in radical feminism. However she argues, albeit with some significant exceptions (Lisa Adkins 1995), radical feminism has given less attention to the role of employment in women’s lives. Gillian Dunne’s aim in studying the material realities of ‘non heterosexual’ women’s relationship to work, social life and relationships is to add a vital new dimension to our theoretical under­standing, by bringing together insights from both socialist and radical feminism, and to add to the knowledge of lesbian life in the 1990s.

‘Non-heterosexuals’ and other lesbians

As I discuss below, I do think this book is very interesting. It traces some common threads in UK lesbian experience, and makes some unique connections by questioning what makes it possible for women to live as lesbians, outside heterosexuality and male control, in a society which continues to discriminate against women, including specific forms of anti-lesbian discrimi­nation. However, I do have some difficulty with the naming of the women in this study as ‘non heterosexual women’. While accepting that heterosexuality within patriarchal societies is defined as the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and only acceptable form of sexuality for women, and consequently that living outside heterosexuality is a form of resistance, I remain uneasy with this negative naming, particularly as it is a form of naming which ties lesbians directly back to the patriarchal norm. I recognise the author’s concern to be inclusive of women who, while living outside heterosexuality, do not define as lesbian. However the flip side of this seems to be that lesbians are expected to give up or suspend lesbian identities, in deference to those preferring to be ‘non heterosexual’. In the context of lesbian history, Sheila Jeffreys’ question ‘Does it Matter if They Did It?’ (T&S 3) points to the complexities of ‘lesbian’ as a political and social as well as sexual identity. Gillian Dunne, however, is not constrained by the historical problems associated with retro­spectively applying a 20th century identity to women of an earlier era, but by the inclusion of subjects in her sample who, while living outside heterosexuality, are reluctant to define as lesbians. While it is necessary to respect the standpoint of subjects in researching women’s lives, it does seem that as a consequence no women are allowed to identify as lesbians, as lesbian identity is subsumed within a wider notion of ‘non-heterosexual’. The author’s own unease on this point is reflected in the disjunc­ture between the book’s title Lesbian Lifestyles and the text itself where the L word is rarely used.

Having got this first gripe out of the way, I will return to identifying the positive contribu­tions the book makes to understanding and theorising lesbian lived experiences. The study is based on life history interviews, organised round the themes of: ‘continuity, change and choices’, with 60 ‘non heterosexual’ women from a range of backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, living in the 1990s in a town in southeast England. She collected this sample by networking and snowballing, so its findings are particular to the women involved, rather than representative of lesbians in the UK in the 1990s. As it’s not really possible to construct a representative sample of lesbians from any listing, whether from the census or a lesbian listing, this is not a criticism; and while there are significant absences, notably black and minority ethnic lesbians and lesbian mothers, it is a large sample and diverse in terms of age, educational achievement, employment and coming out histories.

The ethics of research

As the anonymous small town is also the author’s home and where she lives as an out lesbian in the lesbian community, the study is enriched by her own insights and knowledge. Writing about your own community is a brave and quite a tricky thing to do. It clearly involves high levels of trust between the author and the women interviewed and a clear sense of what it is possible and safe to publish and what has to remain confidential. Mistakes here could make for difficulties in terms of her own continuing involvement in that community. Given the importance of lesbian friendship and lesbian community in the lives of lesbians, risk-taking in this context can have serious repercussions.

Anticipating a later point, as more and more of the ‘high achieving lesbian community’ are getting degrees, more and more studies of lesbian life and lesbian history will be written and more research into the lesbian community will be undertaken. This promises to be an exciting period for the writing of lesbian feminist history and scholarship, although my thoughts are that such research needs to be conducted with care. Not on this occasion, but sometimes, through working at the Lesbian Custody Project, and as a women’s studies tutor, I find myself, my friends, my community either in the shadows or the full gaze of academic research. From the standpoint of being research­ed as well as a researcher I suggest it is timely for us to think about developing and negotiating codes of lesbian and feminist research ethics. The writing of lesbian feminist history is too important a responsibility to leave to academic researchers alone. The question of how we represent lesbian mothers to outsiders’ worlds — the judiciary, social workers, the media, as well as research students — was an issue of discussion and strategic thinking at the Lesbian Custody Project because we knew that represen­tations matter to lesbian life in the real world. Gill Dunne’s careful discussion of and approach to questions of ethics and accountability in researching in a lesbian community and publishing for wider audience would be a useful starting point for this work.

Becoming a lesbian

The aim of Gillian Dunne’s study is not to rehash those tired debates in sexology or psychosexual theory about the causes of lesbianism, but to identify what makes it possible for some women to live as lesbians, or outside heterosexuality and male control.

The intent is not to explain lesbianism per se, or to outline predictive categories of social construction. Rather it is to explore some of the meaningful experiences, and social and economic influences and processes, whereby a questioning perspective on conventional accounts of social reality, and in particular gender relations, may come about. While a critical perspective may be shared by many (lesbian and non lesbian) women, it is interesting that the decision to move beyond heterosexual relations is only taken by some. (p 21)

In exploring what facilitates some women’s choices to live beyond heterosexuality, Gillian Dunne follows a life history approach. Recog­nising that economic self-reliance and financial independence are necessary elements of living as a lesbian, she explores the complexities of their inter-relationship: is it financial independ­ence that enables some women to make the choice to move beyond heterosexuality or is the recognition that a ‘lesbian life is the life for me’ that motivates women to achieve economic and financial independence through their choices in relation to available educational and employ­ment options? The analysis presumes that both discontent with normative heterosexuality and financial independence are necessary for a lesbian. Gillian Dunne encouraged her subjects to reflect on their childhoods, educational options and choices, employment opportunities and their questioning and choices in relation to sexuality.

It is this approach which makes for the interest of the book. In relation to childhood, Gillian Dunne encourages women to reflect on whether in childhood they questioned normative sexuality and femininity: for example, Were they ‘tomboys’ and was this encouraged or discouraged by their mothers and fathers? What was the significance of being a daughter of a working mother — did it disadvantage their childhoods, as pro-family lobbies assert or did it widen their horizons in relation to employment possibilities and so put them on the road to getting the type of job which was to provide a (lesbian) living wage? Or did they grow up thinking boyfriends, heterosexual courtship and marriage were inevitable? Later, at secondary school, was it the ‘intellectual pose’, becoming ‘sporty’ or taking up of a particular hobby, like music, horses or the girl guides which enabled them to escape ‘the cult of romantic hetero­sexuality’? Did being at an all girls school help? In the case of those in school in the 1950s, was it the ‘innocence of girlhood’ — prior to the 1960s (hetero)sexual revolution that facilitated an escape out of the traps and trappings of compulsory heterosexuality? How significant were these early escapes to the development of lesbian identity in adulthood?

What of women who didn’t break out until later? How did those who drifted into the conventional norms of femininity, boyfriends, stop-gap jobs, marriages and motherhood subsequently escape? Was it the chance meeting of other lesbians that made the difference — and was this more likely for women in some jobs than others? What did choosing to be lesbian later on in life entail in terms of changing their lives? Did it mean going back to college and retraining for a more secure and well paid job? Was the choice to put men out of their lives more possible for those women, who by not having husbands or career breaks for motherhood and childcare to hold them back, had been able to work themselves into positions of sufficiently security to get by?

Lesbian choices

Reading the accounts of how women negotiated these choices was fascinating and for me the definite centre of interest of the book. Gillian Dunne’s sample of 60 women provided for a diversity of responses on all the questions above. I was, however, disappointed that so few black women participated in the study. Also given my own background as a lesbian mother, who for a long time worked to support other mothers make the shift out of heterosexuality without losing their children, I was disappointed that the struggles of mothers to move beyond heterosexuality to live as lesbian mothers were not represented in this study — although I understand Gillian Dunne is going to explore their routes out in a supplementary study.

In a society in which women are trained for a subordinate role as wives and mothers, Gillian Dunne’s study of how her subjects accommo­dated, negotiated and ultimately rejected the norms of their times is very interesting. Is it simply coincidence that lesbians are generally high flyers in educational and employment terms, as this book provides the evidence to suggest that mostly we are? Or is it that as lesbians we just have to be? Perhaps, it was because we preferred even doing our homework to messing about with boys, that we did better in school. Or was it the opportunity of living away from home by going to college that made for the freedom to think and move ourselves beyond heterosexuality? — an opportunity less available to women growing up in the 1950s and 1960s than for women today. How significant was meeting like minded women or women who identified as lesbian? How far did these childhood strategies help to open doors to higher education, jobs with prospects and life beyond heterosexuality?

Lesbians at work

Gillian Dunne also asked women to reflect on the choices they made on leaving school and college and entering the world of paid employment. As at every other transition point, the women in the study had different options and choices. Those with good qualifications were better positioned to enter the white collar professions with prospects for career develop­ment, equal pay and opportunities for living independently, i.e. outside heterosexuality. Questioning dominant representations of femininity and heterosexuality, some women looked to non stereotypically women’s work, the manual trades and the armed forces as a way of expanding their horizons and opportunities for a more unconventional life. While those entering the manual trades experienced discrimination, sexual harassment, pornography and serious levels of heterosexism, many also found this work rewarding and, without husbands or breaks for mothering and child care to hold them back work-wise, progressed to secure and more senior jobs, allowing them more choices in other aspects of life.

The army, despite its militarism and institutionalised heterosexism (being lesbian is grounds for dismissal) was a choice for some women, including two of the three black women in the sample. Its attractions seem to lie in the perception that it offered prospects for develop­ing technical and craft skills, career prospects and job security (provided you’re not found out), possibilities for travel and opportunities to develop sports interests and for physically demanding work outside the confining atmos­phere of the factory or office. All five women who spent time in the army spoke of its lesbian networks and suggested that lesbians in the armed services were more achievement-orientated than their heterosexual sisters, to the point where, as one of them put it, ‘the Women’s corps would be unable to function without the lesbians’. At the same time they had experienced high levels of heterosexism. Anti-lesbian purges were reported to be common­place, and the life in the army included the constant fear of exposure — one of the inter­viewees had been discovered and discharged.

Other women had drifted through conven­tional routes from leaving school without qualifications, into dead-end jobs, marriages, motherhood and part-time low income stereo­typically female work. For these women, giving up on heterosexuality in adulthood meant either living precariously on the low wages of casual work or restructuring their lives by retraining to qualify them for better paid work. Other women were fortunate enough to find challenging work in the voluntary sector, often in the arts, welfare, health sectors or in women’s movement type jobs. These jobs offered non-financial rewards and job satisfaction and more autonomy, regarding how they dress and in the ability to combine radical politics with their working lives, but remain relatively low paid and without pension rights, for example. The achievements of the women in this study provide a very positive image of lesbians as hardworking, achieving women. It is also well known that lesbians are well represented in all areas where women are reaching the top, but whether such high levels of achievement can be claimed for lesbians in the UK more broadly is less certain. Having lived in both Lambeth and Hackney during the 1980s and 1990s, I know for example that unemployment was a significant reality in the lesbian communities there, and that it disproportionally affected black lesbians and lesbian mothers. This seemed less of an issue for the lesbians in the south east town, a more affluent community perhaps.

Towards the end of the book Gillian Dunne explores the fascinating issue of how lesbians’ working lives and relationships impact on each other. As she points out, one of the many attractions of lesbian relationships is their potential for an equality unachievable within heterosexuality. Many of the women in long term lesbian relationships made this point and commented positively on how their partners supported them both practically as well as emotionally in terms of their work responsi­bilities and ambitions. For those who had previously experienced heterosexual relation­ships, this made for a marked contrast; within heterosexuality they found male partners resentful of the demands and commitments of their working lives and jealous of any successes and promotions. Gillian Dunne points out that perhaps because lesbians tend to be serious about their employment and (if her sample is in any way representative of lesbians more widely), amongst the higher flyers, lesbian relationships tend to be equal in terms of the women’s employment and earnings status. She also questions what happens when women partners are unequally positioned in relation to the work they do and the incomes they bring home. From the small number of women reporting experiences of living in unequal relationships they were short lived; she tenta­tively concludes that inequality and difference presents real difficulties in lesbian partnerships.

Making a different sense

While reading women’s accounts, I found myself reaching into my own memories and writing myself into the script. Reflecting on my own childhood and early years of adulthood and the choices I made in those days, brought back powerful memories, some treasurable and others less comfortable. It led me to reflect on dilem­mas, strategies and choices in my own journey to a lesbian identity in ways which made a different sense of them. Once begun, in my experience, remembering can also be a disturb­ing business, as painful and unwanted memories can assert themselves. I also found this in working with adult women on autobiographical assignments for women’s studies courses. So I was surprised by what struck me as absences in this book. Because men’s abuse of women and children is a damaging factor in the lives of so many women, it does seem surprising that it has so little presence in the life stories as recounted here.

In making the links between education, employment and sexuality, Gillian Dunne is forwarding the project of developing a material­ist feminism, but the absences prevent its being the fully inclusive theorising aimed for in contemporary radical feminism. Having said this, I also need to say I did appreciate reading the women’s stories and tracing the clues to lesbian identity from earlier stages of life (if clues they are and not herrings after all).

Gillian A Dunne Lesbian Lifestyles: Women’s Work and the Politics of Sexuality (Macmillan Press, 1996)

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