Susan: Full Interview
Interviewed by Lydia Valentine
LV: Lydia Valentine, 9th October 2018, West Yorkshire Queer Stories.
S: Susan, DOB 09/08/1952, what else do you want to know?
LV: Where you live and how you identify.
S: Leeds Seven, I identify as a lesbian.
LV: And your pronoun?
S: I’m usually known she/her, but I’m very happy with they/their.
LV: Thank you … So, Susan, how were you first introduced to the concept of pacifism and peace campaigning?
S: Well, I was brought up a Quaker, so both my parents came from Quaker family. And Quakers have been associated with peace activism, as we call it these days, pacifism then, forever really. So, within my family it was just the normal way to be, but we were aware that it wasn’t the normal way outside the family. So, all my relatives, aunts and uncles on both sides, were Quakers and my grandfather on my paternal side had been a conscientious objector during the First World War, and it was considered in the family that’s why he hadn’t progressed very much in his career. He was a white collar worker, but, he always stayed as a clerk or whatever they called it in those days, some kind of low-level administrator, but he definitely had the capacity to rise through the ranks but never did. He was always treated at work as a bit of a pariah, because he hadn’t fought in the First World War.
So, my parents actually met because – so men were conscientious objectors because they didn’t want to be conscripted and go to war and they had to go before a tribunal – women didn’t have to do that, because they could sign up for something like nursing, which is what my mum did. So she trained as a nurse, she hadn’t planned that for her life but that’s what she did during the war. And they met because my dad opted for farming, that was an alternative for COs, and my mum’s brother did the same thing. So, my dad and my mum’s brother, although the families came from different parts of the country, they ended up on the same farm amongst a whole bunch of other conscientious objectors. And so my mum went to visit her brother there, and met my dad. And in those days during the war a lot of people courted by correspondence, they corresponded for a year and only saw each other a couple of times and then they were wed and had four of us. So, their activism continued after the war in terms of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [CND], so I was taken on the Aldermaston marches which is what the annual demonstration, [phone rings] walking from Aldermaston to London – Aldermaston being where they were creating nuclear arms. And I was taken in my buggy, or in those days called a pram or a pushchair, along that route. Later, I – I remember walking it, I remember being a small child, probably didn’t walk the whole lot, probably you know got off the train and then walked and then got back on a train somewhere, I don’t know. But I do remember, so for me to have that kind of memory I was probably five or something I would think – five or six. I’ve never asked my older sister about that – whether she remembers. She stayed Quaker – I didn’t but she did. She’s still an active Quaker today, which is much more kind of relevant and active where she lives in South Africa.
Interestingly, my daughter, who’s in her late twenties, told me last week that out of the blue she’d been to a Quaker meeting on Sunday morning, so what they call a meeting for worship. She’s been a couple of times before in her life, and she’s been to Quaker weddings because my siblings all got married in the Quaker style. She just went along because she was feeling really perturbed about some work she’s been doing, so she works around modern slavery, and she just needed what she felt would be a really comfortable, safe place to be.
So back to the war stuff, what I did learn from my aunt before she died was that she had, my brothers and I’s dad’s sister, gone down to the magistrates to register as a conscientious objector which women didn’t normally do because they didn’t have to – and they didn’t know what to do with her. ‘You don’t need to do it’, she said ‘Yes I do, because I want you to know that I object to this war and all wars’. So they weren’t sure what to do with her and they ended up, the magistrate ended up sticking her into an office, of a friend of his so that she didn’t then have to go work in the armaments’ factory but it was a bit bizarre really. But I was proud of her for that, standing up as a woman and saying ‘this is how I feel’ and so I want to say this.
LV: That’s amazing.
S: Yeah, she was my favourite auntie and my middle name is after her. So, brought up as a Quaker, we had a lot of international contacts, my grandparents had taken in refugees during the Second World War so people from all across Europe still have contact with my family. And we lived on a farm which was in the south east of England, small farm, and so every summer holiday various international students would come and spend the summer working on the farm to learn English and have a good time I guess. So I was always thinking that Quakerism was the source of that really, although they weren’t Quakers and they weren’t necessarily connecting anymore historically they just heard about it as a place to come. So later when I was in my early twenties and I was travelling round in Europe I had various contacts of people I could go and stay with, go and see, in my sort of what today would be called a gap year – not quite sure where the gap comes but y’know.
And that reminds me that also, at that time, part of my travels were that I was doing what was called a voluntary work camps. And some of them were through Quaker Oats Service or something like that, I could be doing something physical like doing up an old building to be used as a youth centre. Or I could be looking after disabled children on a summer scheme. Or… any European country I chose various places to go, I worked with traveller children in Cardiff, I did something in Denmark, I did something in France, you know kind of all over the place really – Ireland. But that was mostly through my Quaker connections. And when I first left college when I was 19, I got a job in Paris, and they had what they called an International Quaker Centre there, and young people, mostly English-speaking from across the world would meet up there. And I used to frequent that centre quite often because it gave me connection and new friends, people I could meet. And it was through that that I met a young woman who was a student, an English woman who was a student in Paris, and we shared a flat together. I think, I think I could probably go anywhere in the English-speaking world and meet Quakers and probably in other parts of the world too if I wanted to. And my sister’s always maintained that tradition of open house, open door, for anybody who wanted to – somewhere to stay in Cape Town, for example.
LV: Do you still identify with your, kind of like, Quaker roots or have you moved away from them?
S: Well, I think it’s influenced me a lot, I did move away from it very clearly in the 1970s. I couldn’t connect anymore with the pacifism, and that was because of the liberation movements in Africa and the liberation struggles and recognising that, I mean it’s history now isn’t it and it looks different in a different perspective. But what was going on in South Africa, what was going on in Mozambique, what was going on in Angola – in those places in the ‘70s, you know the repression was just massive. And that people were standing up to it and doing so sometimes using armed struggle I kind of identified with and understood. I only understood the use of arms by the oppressed – [laughter] I totally totally reject it by established wealthy countries and so that’s kind of where I went with that. And I don’t... I can’t say today that I am a pacifist or even a peace activist, although I’ve been active so um ... in the early ‘80s I was involved in some of this women’s activities in Greenham Common [peace camp]. Um, by that time I was living in Yorkshire, and um... I can remember standing on the streets of Harrogate singing songs with a group of about six or eight women bringing awareness to the people of Harrogate and it was significant in Harrogate because of Menwith Hill [RAF base operated by the National Security Agency] and the nearby… You know there was also demonstrations going on at Menwith Hill and a camp was set up there for a while. You know I used to attend demos there and I spent Christmas at Greenham once in a very small tent [laughter].
By that time, connecting it to the LGBT stuff – I didn’t come out till I was 30 – so the, all the Quaker stuff really is part of my heterosexual life and the peace activism sort of from involvement with Menwith Hill and Greenham Common was very much to do with my new life as a lesbian and feminism and around women. So I spent Christmas, yeah, I can’t remember which year – about 82 I should think – in a small tent in the snow at Greenham, just a couple of nights [laughter]. Family thought I was mad but completely understand, because of the whole background, standing up for what you believe in – in this case lying in a cold tent with your big woolly socks on.
LV: Do you feel then that your sexuality did really affect your relationship with peace activism or pacifism, or maybe affect it in any way?
S: I don’t know really how I connect the two, because I think my feminism’s more significant in the sort of things I got involved in. So I know a lot of lesbians were active in Greenham, but so were a lot of straight women and I might well have been active at Greenham if I’d still been heterosexual in my interests. So I don’t know really how the two connect, and certainly during – so I was, I went on demonstrations again against the Iraq war and um I really despised Tony Blair really for taking us into that and going along with, you know trying to drag us all along with the stories about weapons of mass destructions and collusion of the US. I’m really suspicious of all that sort of behaviour really and ... I’m glad that we’ve stayed out of Syria as far as we have. I rather suspect we were more involved than most of the public know and I find it very disturbing... But I don’t, I mean, with any of those activities a lot of my lesbian feminist friends would be involved as well but I don’t really know what the connection is.
LV: So, by the sounds of it, you were more involved in maybe the feminist activism side.
S: Yeah mostly, but if we’re gonna declare war on anybody I’ll be out there saying ‘no, no’. And I went to Palestine three years ago with a group of women friends, lesbians as well, and again I felt a connection with the Quakers there because they’re very active although I didn’t go with an organisation, I went independently. And, oh gosh we learnt such a lot and it was absolutely fascinating, and I really identify again with the struggle there. And so in terms of peace activism, again I sort of feel well, you know I think non-violent action is fantastic and the Palestinians have proven that over and over again. ...But it takes an awful lot to resist in that way and you know I don’t blame any of them for using violence occasionally if they get the opportunity – which they don’t, it’s very hard. But you know throwing stones at armed soldiers who are very well protected, it just there’s no balance there so I – I know which side I’m on, I know where I stand with that stuff. I really really respect people who manage to maintain the kind of pacifist approach and talk about the importance of dialogue and at the end of the day that is gonna be the only way to resolve things so I still believe that, although I can completely empathise with people who rise up.
And it’s very interesting with the, all the stuff about suffragettes during this year, that we’ve kind of idolized them as if they’re non-violent because of chaining yourself to railings. That didn’t happen very often, not many of them did that. Quite a lot did throw bricks through windows and cause some explosions as well – we don’t hear about that. And in those days, in today’s language, they’d be called terrorists. So I have a real interest in that sort of question of what – who, what, when is someone a terrorist and not a terrorist?
LV: And do you think the fact that they were women, kind of, led to the way that we perceived that movement?
S: Probably, but it’s also partly because what they achieved, what they won, became acceptable – so that’s a bit like Mandela as well, who was involved in using violence albeit trying to avoid harming any human beings. And you know, at that time, he was ... he wasn’t called a terrorist but he was the equivalent of today’s terrorist, and because of what happened in the long run he becomes a hero of change. And, you know, I think that ... perhaps some of the same stuff in Northern Ireland – much more difficult for the Republicans to shake off their terrorist labels but you know they have, Sinn Fein have become officially an accepted part of the establishment. And um, I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this now, except that ... I wear a white poppy in November when everyone else is wearing red ones, ‘cos I don’t – I remember the dead but I don’t celebrate the fact that people were massacred and massacred others as well.
LV: Do you think, kind of, what you’ve learnt through your experience of pacifism could be used to help the way that people are campaigning for LGBT rights? Have you seen any relationship between different forms of activism that you’ve encountered?
S: Well I can say that the skills and the – the ability to stick with your principles and try and involve other people and get people active in things – I guess all that’s stuff’s connected whether you’re looking at it from a feminist perspective, peace-activist perspective or an LGBT perspective. Or indeed at the moment I’m involved with stuff with older people and trying to get our voices heard, so you know I think taking a principled stand on anything definitely – where I am today, my original pacifist Quaker background has had a lot of influence and affected me a lot yeah.
LV: That’s great, thank you.