Lal Coveney: Full Interview
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
19th September 2018
This is Rachel Larman recording for West Yorkshire Queer Stories and it is the 19th September 2018 and I am here with Lal who is going to introduce herself:
LC: Hello my name is Lal Coveney. I'm 72. I've lived in Leeds since 1964. I came to Leeds to go to Leeds University and I thought Leeds was the most wonderful place and I've never moved out and I've never regretted coming.
RL: How do you identify Lal?
LC: I identify first as a woman, and then as a feminist and then as a lesbian.
RL: OK, so can you tell me about coming to Leeds and your developing political awareness?
LC: Well, as I said, I came to Leeds in 1964. I didn't even know where Leeds was; I had to look it up on the map. Umm I came from a quite sheltered middle class family living on the edges of Birmingham and I had lived for some time in the South, hadn't got an accent because I was always told to leave my accent at the door by my parents … not an unhappy childhood but a growing awareness that my brothers got things that I didn't, and I didn't get them because I was a girl.
Coming to Leeds University was brilliant for me and I was here during a time of great political agitation in 1968. I very quickly met up with some quite political people and in my second year I took up a relationship with a guy called John who was an anarchist poet. I clearly had decided that my life was very boring and this was, [laughs] I was going to try and find somebody who would upset my parents, the most I could possibly find, which indeed happened; [laughs] and he had a beard and he had long hair and he was quite nice really.
I knocked around with anarchists and people in a group called Direct Action which never did any direct action. Their version of direct action was to hand out leaflets, umm, in the town centre and I'm not even quite sure what the leaflet said but it certainly wasn't a cry to direct action, not in the sense that you would associate with anarchists anyway.
In 1969 some women I knew went to a women's conference at Ruskin College in Oxford and came back and told me and a couple of other people about it. So, the irony of course is that me and my friends were friends because our boyfriends were friends, then all of us got together and said: 'these men are completely hopeless, a) they don't know what direct action is and b) you know, they haven't absorbed the idea of the equality of women; this is completely foreign to them’... they would talk over you in meetings, they would just say putting-down things all the time. I remember sitting in the back room of the Pack Horse, umm, with a whole bunch of people and a guy called Jeff was there, who was a lecturer, and he reached forward and he got hold of my nipple and tweaked it so that it really hurt and he did that in front of all these other people; it was just public humiliation of the greatest order. I still get cross when I even think about it. And that was par for the course really.
So a Women's Liberation Group started really quickly after these friends came back from the Ruskin conference. I think we set it up in that same year. And it grew to be very, very big, so big that it then had to... like there were over a hundred women coming; - in fact it started off with men there as well, but very rapidly we decided to get rid of them, umm, because we wanted to talk about men behind their backs without them there - umm, it ended up breaking into regional groups in Leeds and most of the conversation in the beginning was about the immediate things happening at home like babysitting, doing the washing up, doing the housework; why weren't they doing it? This is the politics of everyday life, which they weren't... they weren't prepared to take their politics into everyday life. And we got great support from each other and that - it was a truly wonderful time.
And then the literature that was coming out and the books that were being published and it all supported the way that you felt and it made sense of all those years of neglect and being put down and being made to feel like a second class citizen and all that. And at the same time there were posters coming out of China. There was a famous one of women workers up a giant electricity pylon and the caption underneath said: 'Women Hold Up Half The World'; which was a - yeah it’s a very good soundbite; it actually makes you think; it makes you think. Then a lot of very feminist music was coming out as well. So everything was going our way. We had huge national conferences and nobody had got any money, nobody had a car, hardly anybody had a phone. We did those roneo newsletters where you got covered in ink and mine was one of the typewriters that did the cutting of the stencils.
RL: What were the publications called that you were producing?
LC: They were... I think they were probably called Leeds Women's Liberation Newsletter…, probably. Later on WIRES was set up in Leeds, which is Women's... Information and Resource... something-or-other; very essential tool for the women's movement keeping in touch with each other.
RL: So what sort of things would be in these publications?
LC: Umm, debate about things that were said at conferences. Conferences would be about 'women and work', 'women and motherhood', umm, the whole 'getting paid for housework' issue, and then increasingly women were finding that they weren't actually heterosexual, they were lesbian and I found that of myself; I fell in love with a woman in my women's group and where I later met women all over the world who had had electric shock treatment for being lesbian and I was quite amazed at this because for me it was just a very joyful encounter and all the other women in my women's group said 'gosh, that's wonderful!'. So it was never never a problem; I was never put down for being a lesbian.
But I was also going into teaching as a profession and it was not safe to come out as a teacher. Umm, we're talking the '70's here so I could not buy a car without a male signature to guarantee me, even though I was a teacher. I was a teacher; I was a valid enough person to teach children but I wasn't a valid enough person to be able to sign an agreement on buying a car. That's the sort of world that we were in. The first teaching job I had was the first year in that school where women had been allowed to wear trousers. I know it all sounds incredible now, but that's, that's the way it was and, to show you how impossible it would be to come out as a lesbian, at that school we had a sort of social studies strand where we, we had a team of teachers teaching it and one of the questions that came up in a sort of big joint session was about abortion and so, those of us who knew about abortion, which included me, - 'cause I'd had a job doing abortion counselling - spoke, and explained and answered the kids questions - these were secondary school kids and nobody... - they wanted what we'd got to tell them; nobody was telling them - and the very next day the Head Teacher called us all [over?] and said he'd had a complaint from a parent about what we'd said about abortion and he thought it would probably be better if we didn't discuss abortion and this is because we were working on a white working-class estate where there was a strong contingent of the National Front and they were anti anything like that, so in that context it would be unfeasible to come out as a lesbian.
RL: Can you tell me about the sort of activism that you were involved in?
Quite early on in our women's group we mounted a set of campaigns; one was about supporting prisoners' wives. We got a group together that established a room near Armley Jail, which was a remand jail, because women were standing outside the gates in the pouring rain with nowhere to go so we got a group together that rented a house and decorated it and provided basic self-catering facilities and chairs and tables and things like that for the women to do, so that was our first success. We tried to do something about 24 hour nurseries; didn't get anywhere with it. And then three of us from that same women's group set up - not... over a period of about one and a half years - we set up Leeds Women's Aid so that was probably one of the best things I did in my whole life really.
RL: Can you tell me more about that?
LC: Well we were astounded to discover - this was me and my sheltered life speaking - I was astounded to find that so many women were being beaten up by their husbands. At the time it was called 'battered women' and nobody had a grasp on how universal it was but as soon as refuges started being set up umm I mean there must have been a refuge in nearly every city in the country. There were more than 80 anyway set up really really quickly, all voluntarily funded. We put adverts in the newspaper and then we had the problem of dealing with all the stuff that was being given to us. I lived in a collective household and it was just ... the stuff that came through the door: rolls of carpet I remember in particular, cans of paint, you know, all sorts of things that people were giving us to... umm and the Council gave us two houses that had been condemned [both RL and LC chuckle] and that's how Leeds Women's Aid started, on no money, no money at all!
RL: So where was it?
LC: It was err down on Burley Road. Yeah. It was very exciting. However, I, at the same time the refuge was being set up umm - and we discovering about the need for things like anti-climb paint because men were trying to get in - umm I started teaching and in the end I became ill trying to do the two things at the same time and I had to retreat from Leeds Women's Aid, which was sad.
RL: What about women and education [unclear] campaign?
LC: Well, yes, we had a lot of support from some of the senior, umm, advisors in the city where I was working and we set up a women's group to try and get better representation for women on various education committees in that city, umm and, and to set up sort of training courses for, for young women as well. I can't remember exactly what we achieved but we enjoyed going to the meetings and we felt very supportive of each other. It was, a lot of it was about supporting each other in a very male world... Yes.
RL: So how did you organise in these campaigns and with the women's group; was there a particular way you were organising?
In the women's group we had a telephone tree; that of course only, only worked where women had got a telephone. In the first group only one woman had got a telephone so we had to go round to each other's houses... what we had to do was fix the next meeting at that meeting, basically. But nobody'd got a car either. Mmmm, so I did eventually get a car so that I could go to work. And then I was 'the' car that would take six people in a tiny Ford Fiesta down to a conference in London or up to Edinburgh or Newcastle or whatever. It was always jam-packed. Yeah. So scarce resources and not a lot of money. But... the conferences were very basic. We slept on the floor; we slept in church halls; we didn't sleep even on mattresses. It was all very basic and I don't think women today would want to do it really [laughing] and you have to recognise that it was all very exciting and very liberating and, you know, 300 women altogether having a debate about their lives was just very mind-boggling and exciting.
The other thing that we did we wrote stuff. I was in a group called The Patriarchy Study Group which had a look at low-level porn and the growing tendency to make soft porn acceptable. We wrote a few papers about that and got them published. I think they were called The Patriarchy Papers. Then we wrote, we wrote other things. I mean there's another re-issue coming out soon called The Sexuality Papers. I was part of that group as well. We had a newsletter that came out - ooooh how many times? - once a month? - once every two months? - called RevRad Newsletter: Revolutionary and Radical Feminist Newsletter, which was completely scurrilous and was the shocking end of the feminist market. We had friends who were - what were they? - Radical Feminists - who thought we were a bit awful and thought the cartoons were a bit much and we just enjoyed being scurrilous really.
RL: So what were they objecting to - the Radical Feminists?
LC: I don't know. I think you'd have to ask them. They thought we weren't serious enough and the cartoons were just very very funny. If you, if any of you have seen any Jacky Fleming cartoons or postcards or Jo Nesbitt they have got the flavour of our sense of humour. There's one, there's one I particularly remember of Jacky Flemings' where a guy is saying to the woman - they're in bed - and the guy is saying to the woman 'was that good for you?’ and the woman saying 'No, when it’s good for me I go 'aaaaahhh'’ and that's written on the postcard. And I just thought that was funny. We weren't the academic end of the feminist market
RL: Could you tell me a bit about the lack of recognition that you feel that lesbian feminists got in kind of feminist activism in general?
LC: I do think that it was perhaps recognised at the time and has now been forgotten. Without lesbians, or without lesbian feminists Women’s Aid wouldn't ever have existed, nor would Rape Crisis, nor would the other campaigns about violence against women, like the Zero Tolerance campaign; nor would Reclaim The Night. Lesbian feminists were the backbone of all of those campaigns. It could have been because fewer lesbian feminists had children. I mean childcare was always an issue. But then lesbian feminists were also lesbian mothers and had very strong campaigns for lesbian mothers and to try and get the feminist movement to support lesbian mothers and to help lesbian mothers get pregnant with cans of sperm being carried across the city in thermos flasks. You wouldn't believe... [laughs] and it worked. There was a bit of a concern because a lot of the children who emerged from that were boys, and we thought 'mm what is this?' but [chuckles] there was, you know, a sprinkling of girls as well. And they all turned out to be completely wonderful and delightful children.
RL: So were there a few people involved in organising this?
LC: Oh yes it was all very secretive; it was probably illegal.
And there were, there were, you know, direct actions, like the Leeds Women Against Apartheid all started off in a mixed anti-apartheid group and got fed up with the men because they never did anything but talk whereas the women separated off and they raised money; they sent money to South Africa to protest groups; they got women over to speak about what was going on; they raised petitions; they went to council members; they did tons of stuff; they ran a newsletter. Ummm so, we were all big doers. We had, I'm sure it was probably lesbian feminists who did other illegal things like I think there was fire-bombing of sex shops; there was an incident at Leeds Art College end of year show where some sculptures that were deemed by female students to be pornographic were damaged; there was paint thrown at a screen - a cinema screen - in the centre of town that was showing a film that everyone thought was woman-hating. So there was quite a lot of direct action as well.
RL: So going back to what you were saying about that lack of recognition about lesbian feminist work, why do you think there is that lack of recognition; why aren't those voices kind of heard?
LC: I don't really know. I puzzle over it. I think maybe women who are in relationships with men - however good a socialist they are - they see the world problems as being to do with capitalism or a different kind of power struggle whereas from my perspective the problems of the world are exemplified by the fact that women are still, in this country, dying at the rate of more than two a week, despite having set up Women’s Aid in 1973 - which is yonks ago - and the problem hasn't got any better, in fact it’s got worse. Ummm...
There's something very single minded about lesbian feminists about having women in focus, having, about, the way we look at the position of women in society across the world. I remember one woman once saying to me: 'why do you care so much about what's happening to women in South Africa?' and I said: 'because it could be me' and she looked at me astound... in astonishment and she said: 'well it couldn't be with you, you weren't born there' and I just said: 'well I could have been born there'. And I would have, if I was a woman born there, this would be happening to me. Not sort of that big a jump is it? It’s, what was it, degrees of separation? So I've found, ummm I find my natural home is with lesbian feminists because they have got women first and foremost in mind and that's been the driving force in my life since I was 23 and now I'm 72.
RL: So how have your politics overlapped with your lifestyle? How have they impacted on each other?
LC: Well my early politics were very definitely libertarian and so... and the way that affected things were we all lived together in a great big shared house and we did have rotas for things and we had house meetings and early training in how boring committee meetings can be... ummm and then I suppose I've moved from that to preferring to live with women and..., and eventually only started living on my own much later on in life when I was about 50 so I had many years of living with other women in our shared household, basically, and that's part of the politics preferring women's company and wanting to engage in life in a feminist kind of way.
RL: What about culturally in terms of books, films, where you were going out, was that influenced by your politics as well?
LC: Yes I think it probably is. You don't get a lot of choice about the films that you see, I have to say... the books have got better... the art work's got better; you can see women coming out of their shell and even, I suppose, the #Me Too! movement you could see as a cultural shift, a real cultural shift, which has impacted hugely on women. I think that was quite seismic actually, where women felt empowered to come out but there are still articles saying 'you ain't seen nothing yet' – it’s still going on inside the entertainment business.
When I was at university lecturers would routinely sleep with their female students who would feel honoured rather than exploited and then the people round the edge would be thinking: 'mmm higher marks for your final degree', and then despise those women, so you couldn't win either way. But the seduction of women by men has, has, you know, it’s now much more exposed and much more unacceptable. It’s a bit like men beating women up. They now know that it’s not acceptable. They are still killing women and they are still beating women up, but they know they shouldn't be, whereas before we started making a noise about it they thought it was alright. They thought that was their right as men and now they know it’s not. It hasn't changed the number of people who die but it’s changed the views of society, the attitudinal shift, which is a huge first step to, for instance, changing the legal situation for women. You've got to change the attitudes first.
RL: Have your views changed over time?
LC: I think I've got a tiny bit more sympathetic towards men, about how difficult it is to be a gentle man in a society like this and some of the words and phrases that people have come out with have been very useful. Somebody came out with this phrase 'toxic masculinity' which I like very much. I mean I do recognise that not all men are toxic. I have two very nice brothers and I have been - because of the educational work I had - there's a lot of lovely men working in education. And the fact, if you use a term like 'toxic masculinity' it allows for the fact that there's a sort of, there are some men who aren't toxic. But I do feel sorry for men sometimes about how limited their lives are, what they are pressured into liking, you know, the men who are forced to talk about cars and football when maybe they're not very keen on it.
And the same pressures on, you know, there are pressures on gay men; I [have or had] three friends who are gay men who wouldn't go near a gay disco or a gay bar because of what goes on there; they hate that... they hate a lot of what happens in that culture so they haven't got a home, they haven't got a place to be. Lesbians, I think, have been better at finding places for themselves but they aren't public places; there's nowhere for women to go in this city. There used to be a weekly women's disco.
RL: Where was that?
LC: That was at The Woodpecker - well it was in various places - but it ended up at the Woodpecker pub just off York Road which was then pulled down. But that, yes, that was, that went on, in my memory for many years, but it possibly wasn't that many years. But this, as far as I know, there's nowhere really. There's, sometimes you'll get a gay venue that will have a women's night. I don't know whether that still exists in Leeds now. Nobody I know goes out to a lesbian venue.
RL: So where would women meet then?
LC: In each other’s houses, at parties, at, I don't know, at political get togethers; maybe at [unclear] conferences and that kind of thing. Yeah.
RL: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
LC: Only that I did… I did want to make the point that lesbians have been the backbone of so many things that have benefited so many women and it - I would like to see that recognised.