Women of the punk era
Cazz Blase interviews women of British 1970s punk on the music - and the politics, in part three of her series
Gina Birch was on an art foundation course in Nottingham when she first encountered what would become known as punk. She and her friend Alex were hitch-hiking around the UK, on a quest to find the perfect art school,when they fetched up at Saint Martin’s College Of Art in London, and saw the Sex Pistols perform alongside Bazooka Joe.
“It was the Sex Pistols’ first ever gig,” she explained to me, “and it was so bizarre. I don’t remember Bazooka Joe, but I do remember these four boys, on the stage, and they only played about four or five songs… they were just really kind of mesmerising, because they were so unlike anything we’d ever seen before, and we were both rather taken with them, we didn’t know what they were called, or anything about them.” Gina’s friend Alex didn’t get into Brighton, and at the last minute Gina changed her application from Leeds to Hornsey, meaning that the two girls arrived in London in September 1976. “Now, the art scene where I was at Hornsey was pretty dreary compared with Nottingham and Leeds,” she explained, “and I thought I’d maybe made a bit of a mistake in the end, coming down here, but… I discovered that there were these gigs going on.” She saw Subway Sect at the Royal College of Art, along with The Clash, on 5 November 1976.
“It was just an incredibly exciting event. And shortly thereafter, or around that time, the Roxy Club opened.” The word ‘punk’ was floating around by November 1976, thanks to journalists Caroline Coon and Jonh Ingham, but Gina maintained that, “All we knew, we kind of were beginning to belong to a tribe, which was known as punk by people.”
Punk was something you did rather than listened to, or admired. It was about being that person yourself, rather than standing back and thinking that somebody else was great
Her involvement with the scene intensified during late 1976 and into early 1977: “I was just immersed in it. We used to go to gig after gig after gig. I lived in the house at the end of Westbourne Grove in a squat there, and Esperanta [sister of Palmolive, drummer in The Slits] and Richard [drummer in The 101ers, Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash outfit] lived in the basement of this house.” She explained “so there was this kind of hippy punk crossover thing going on, and then there was the link from Palmolive, Esperanta, to The Slits. So I was aware of The Slits’ first gig, of course, which I went to, and completely changed my life! And subsequent Slits gigs, and then Ana [Da Silva] and I did our first Raincoats gig… in November 1977.”
Helen McCookerybook was an art student in Brighton when she discovered punk: “Well, I remember reading about punk in the New Musical Express [NME],” she told me, “and I couldn’t work out what it was that was so special about this music, and I think the music kind of crept up on everybody, well, crept up on everybody I knew, by accident.” She maintained that being a punk was “something you did rather than listened to, or admired, or something. It was about being that person yourself, rather than standing back and thinking that somebody else was great.”
She added: “There were just a lot of people all making music, and they were all shapes and sizes, and all lending each other instruments, so it was more like joining it than discovering it I suppose, and that was about 1976, the end of 1976 I would think.”
She explained that there was a clear division between punks who could afford to buy the designer punk clothes sold in Sex and Boy on the King’s Road in London, and everyone else, “who just wore cheap stuff, and some people went the whole way and wore bin liners”. This division led to fisticuffs on a number of occasions… “I remember having this argument with this girl, who wanted to kill me, because she told me I was a poseur cos I was in a band, but then I just got the back of her t-shirt, and it said ‘Boy’, and I just said ‘Who’s the poseur? You buy your stuff, I make mine.'”
Seeing women who were taking the bull by the horns, even though they couldn’t really play, but they had this energy, and enthusiasm and spirit. That was the thing that kind of made us feel we could give it a crack
She added: “I was always sewing, I sewed my trousers to make them drainpipes, I turned them inside out, drew black felt pen, sewed down the line, and slit them! Make your own jewellery; dye your own hair – all that kind of thing or just putting things together that you find in charity shops.”
The punks in Brighton (and elsewhere) were living a hand-to-mouth existence, cheap was the defining aesthetic: “Whatever you could get hold of cheap, whatever I could get hold of cheap I wore. And swapping: ‘Oh, I like that'; ‘Oh you can have it then.'”
Lucy O’Brien was a schoolgirl living in Southampton when she discovered punk. “I think it was just through friends at school actually,” she told me when we spoke on the phone. “I think it was seeing a picture of The Damned and just thinking ‘Wow’, it was really striking to me – the dog collar, and the whole thing – it just seemed really exciting. And then there were friends talking about it at school… It’s just something I responded to on a really elemental level, and I was about 15 at the time, and I thought ‘gosh, that’s what I want to do. I want to wear jeans that look like drainpipes…'” she laughed, “cos then everything was flares, huge flares. And I wanted to dye my hair as well, but I didn’t get round to that until maybe a year or so later because I was in a convent school and you kind of couldn’t really – it was difficult to rebel.”
She summed up the attraction of punk by saying, “I think it was it just felt so different, so, so different and alien, that was what really attracted me.”
‘Oh I’m really bored, let’s form a band': stumbling into music
For Gina Birch (left), who formed The Raincoats with Ana Da Silva in 1977, The Slits were a major inspiration. “When I saw them play, I was just… It seemed so extraordinary, and so… doable somehow. I mean… I didn’t know if I could do it, but I just thought… Suddenly the possibility was there, and it was so, so amazing to see them, and I so wanted to be part of it.” The impulse didn’t go away: “I think it must have been in the early September of ’77, I just ran into a guitar shop and, not knowing what I was doing, I just bought the cheapest bass they had in the shop. I didn’t want to play it cos I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I mean, now I’d say ‘I have no idea how to play it, can you just show me how it works?’ but at the time, so humiliating to go into a shop and admit you didn’t know what you were doing, being female, the whole thing was absolutely, gut wrenchingly, embarrassing. So I kind’ve thrust the money at this guy, for 30 or 40 quid this thing cost, and ran out with it. And I didn’t know how to tune it, didn’t know what to do with it, but little by little, with help from various friends and neighbours, I kind’ve worked something out. And then I played along to these records, and it took me about a week to learn a few notes of the bassline to [Toots And The Maytals’] ‘Funky Kingston’. And then Ana came back from her holiday in Madeira, and within a week or two there were four of us in the rehearsal room, trying to make a song.”
The Raincoats got their first gig via Palmolive’s brother in law Richard, who said to the nascent band, “‘Right, you’ve got a band, come and play a gig’ and we were like ‘what?!’ Anyway, we said yes! So then, within a few weeks, we were playing our first gig.”
As regards the bands initial influences, she adds “Yes, The Slits were absolutely fundamental to me wanting to do it, I mean, Ana was totally inspired by Patti Smith, but, when she saw Patti Smith she didn’t say ‘Ah, Patti Smith’s great, now I can do it,’ she thought Patti Smith was the best, the first woman she’d ever really seen performing, and she was… awestruck. But I don’t think seeing Patti Smith made her feel she could do it. I think seeing women doing it who… obviously were just taking the bull by the horns, even though they couldn’t really play, but they had this energy, and enthusiasm, and…. spirit. That was the thing that kind of made us feel we could give it a crack.”
Helen McCookerybook’s first band was Joby and The Hooligans (right), in which she played bass: “In Brighton there were a lot of lesbian bands, and… they were sort of part of the punk scene, but I knew I didn’t want to be in them because it didn’t seem as much fun as what… It seemed more earnest [laughs] and my concern [so far as the music was concerned] was the actual fun of doing it all.” Joby and The Hooligans were “totally extraordinary; we had a [cross-dressing] drummer called Ricky, who used to turn up on my doorstep in drag sometimes at about 11 o’clock at night [and] our lead singer was a guy called Joby, who was a total anarchist… he had a very posh voice but he wasn’t from a posh background at all, and he loved annoying people, but he was totally respectful of me, completely respectful.” She explained: “So it didn’t seem strange to be a female being involved in it, really, at all actually. It just seemed totally normal and what everybody else was doing, cos there were lots of other bands with female musicians in them as well. I mean there was a group of bands who were very masculine in Brighton, but a lot of those bands existed before punk, and they sort of all cut their hair short and dyed it, and we kind’ve laughed at them really cos they weren’t proper punks.”
One of the women Helen got a lot of support from on the Brighton scene was Vi Subversa, singer/guitarist in The Poison Girls. “Well, she was brilliant, because she often didn’t agree with the politics of the bands that she was supporting. She had got a really hard time from a lot of the women’s groups and things. She got a hard time from a lot of people, a lot of the young men didn’t like her, they found her scary… because she was a mum, you know, what’s a mum doing being a punk? It’s a young person’s thing. I think probably a lot of the people who didn’t like her… there was a lot of insecurity there because perhaps she showed people up. I mean, she was a true punk because she was totally anarchic, she supported other people: she was a pioneer; she paved the way for lots of them. To me, that’s what being a female punk was all about, being a pioneer, and she was a perfect example of that.” She added: “Sue, the bass player [in Poison Girls], Belladonna, lent me the first bass I played. The Poison Girls lent us, Joby and the Hooligans, their drummer, who was Vi Subversa’s son, Danny, who was 13, so he played our first few gigs with us, and they were always there, sort’ve helping with the PA, and just generally around facilitating everything, but not in a patronising way, in a generous way.”
We used to rehearse, probably, three or four nights a week, and stop at nine o’clock for marmite sandwiches
For Lucy O’Brien, the impetus for forming a band came from her school friends. “I went to a convent school, and we were in the sixth form. I could probably count on one hand how many of us were really into punk, so we naturally gravitated towards each other. We used to go on political demonstrations and things … against the National Front, because they were gaining in popularity at that point, and also the National Abortion Campaign were pretty active. I think John Corrie, the Scottish MP, was trying to outlaw abortion, or restrict, severely restrict abortion. So, there were certain big political campaigns that were going on that we got involved in. And then I think the band… it was about the time…” She broke off, explaining, “You know, a lot of people linked politics with music, and forming bands, and it was a very natural fusion, lots of bands were quite political. We were just sitting in the common room one day, and my friend Maddy said ‘Oh I’m really bored, lets form a band’ and we all – there were four of us there – [said] ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ and we took it from there.”
She continued, “I’m amazed, when I think about it now, the resourcefulness that we showed, you know, we didn’t even think twice about it: ‘OK, well we need… what do we need, to form a band?’ ‘OK, erm well, what can we buy immediately?’ ‘Oh, we can get some drum sticks,’ so we all went into town and bought some drum sticks, then we thought well, we’d better get a drum kit to go with it, and that’s gonna be one of the big purchases. We had Saturday jobs so we all put some money towards it, and we got one on HP [Hire Purchase], and got… I think it was Maddy’s dad to be the guarantor… very brave of him… We needed to raise some money to buy more instruments, and we used to make earrings and sell them at school, and we used to make cakes to sell, and we did actually make some money out of those things, surprisingly, and that all went towards buying instruments. We had our instruments, and then I remember going on holiday and coming back, and meeting up with the girls, and them saying ‘We’ve got a gig in two weeks’ and I went ‘Oh shit.’ [laughing] That was so typical of punk really, and, ‘OK, well we’d better get a song together, or a few songs together’ we just… I think we just jammed… just basically played some riffs, and we had some lyrics, ‘She’s become resigned to life, she’s become a lonely wife’, and it went on from there.”
A lot of men really took it as a provocative stance, that you were personally offending them by dressing in a way that was really anti the conventions of femininity
The band was called The Catholic Girls, and Lucy played keyboards and later synthesizer. She described the bands first gig as being “an extremely scary experience, but we just kept on doing it – kept on getting gigs and building it up from there. And we used to rehearse in our front room; the drum kit was set up… it was a permanent fixture there for about six months in the front room of our house. I don’t know why my mum didn’t mind… We just used to rehearse, probably, three or four nights a week, and stop at nine o’clock for marmite sandwiches. So we’d stop and maybe practice a bit more after that, then we’d have a listening session, so we’d listen to whatever was out at that point, whether it was PIL, or Siouxsie and the Banshees, or the latest album that we wanted to dissect. So we were pretty organised about it, when I think about it.”
Action/Reaction: ‘It took a really long time for it to get through my skull that it was something that shocked people, a really long time.’
I asked each of my interviewees why punk was so shocking, and if they felt that it was harder for women to be punks than for men. The responses were varied, reflecting a diversity of experience – and also revealed how much I had unwittingly soaked up and subscribed to punk mythology.
“I don’t think punk was shocking,” said Gina Birch, “Punk was revolutionary to me! It wasn’t shocking, it was a great time for women because the emphasis on that kind of male/female sexual…” She changed tack, saying: “Sex was taken off. I remember being at Hornsey and boys would produce hardcore porn magazines and show them to you, and laugh when you were embarrassed or blushed – they thought it was a ‘merry joke’.
“Actually, in punk, no one would show you a hardcore porn magazine, cos sex was kind of… I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but it was kind of irrelevant, and gender became… There was a kind of genderlessness. It was the most genderless time that one could imagine…
“So the boys had short cropped spiky hair, and the girls had short cropped spiky hair, and you could wear the same clothes, and you could have your hair the same, you could put stripes on your face or spots, or dots, or… You could do what you wanted, so it didn’t make any difference if you were male or female. ” She added: “On the other hand, I have to say, when The Slits performed, they did have a kind’ve very strong sexuality, sexual… presence. Sexuality. It was a different kind of sexuality; it was a kind of very energised kind of sexuality. I think, with The Raincoats, we didn’t project that sexuality in that way, and that kind’ve pissed people off.”
In retrospect, the male punks were actually fulfilling a rather orthodox, rite of passage male youth rebellion
This led onto a discussion about the perceived image of The Raincoats, who have been written about over the years (when they’ve been written about at all) as dressing down, dressing plainly and not wearing makeup.
“Well that’s not entirely true because we did wear makeup,” responded Gina, “and we didn’t dress plainly, and in fact… Some of the time we made terrible choices of what to wear, but a lot of the time, I mean, I did wear my pink and orange striped trousers and my red brothel creepers and my hair bright blonde and spiky. There were times where I’d wear my mum’s old cocktail dresses over a pair of trousers! And a scarf around my neck, and not-brushed hair, and it was kind of deliberately mismatched. What would I say? We weren’t trying to be Plain Janes…”
No, I said, I just think that’s how it’s been put across.
“Yeah, it’s been put across as a dowdy feminist thing, but actually, Chicks On Speed say, Kurt Cobain, was quite influenced by the way we looked, as a look that was kind of… has been interpreted by other people – the messy hair thing, and the looking like you’ve slept in your jumper, I mean, why not?” she continued, “I mean, it was a protest! And it was quite deliberate, and that was probably shocking. But instead of being shocked people start thinking it’s dreary, but actually it was quite dynamic in a way, and it’s an interpretation to say…” She concluded: “It did threaten the boys, you know, the boys in black leather, who wanted girls in a tutu. And… we didn’t wanna wear tutus – I liked Viv’s look, it was great, but it… wasn’t for me at that time.”
Helen McCookerybook didn’t think punk was shocking either, “Because it was just something that I did and everybody else was doing it. So it took a really long time for it to get through my skull that it was something that shocked people, a really long time. Because I thought it was so great, and I suppose – I was quite naïve – and I thought everybody else must think it was great as well. I mean from my perspective it wasn’t difficult for women at all, because one of the very first people I met was Vi Subversa in The Poison Girls.”
For Lucy O’Brien, punk was shocking in the context of mainstream British society in the mid-to late 1970s. Her view of the period prior to and during punk matches the world as portrayed by Honey and Jackie at that time. “It’s really hard to describe this now because punk’s everywhere, but I mean then, it really was something that was totally alien. If you could imagine a world that was very conformist, on the whole, and a bit like the set of Charlie’s Angels. Everyone had perfect perms or perfect flicked hair.” She added that, for women in the 1970s, there was a “huge pressure to conform and to be ‘ladylike’ and wear nice inoffensive blue eyeshadow”. And that young women were “almost duty-bound to hold yourself back and not be vulgar, and not be too obvious. And I think the great thing about punk was [that it] ran counter to all those things.”
She continued: “I think it probably was hard for a lot of women to take that step, even if they wanted to, but I think there were some of us who just leapt at it, like myself, because it just seemed so exciting, and so cool, and I think the visual aspect… I remember interviewing Linder Sterling, she did The Buzzcocks’ album covers [and also performed as part of Ludus], and she said, and I agreed with her really, was that, if you were a woman in those days, you were kind of running the gauntlet every time you stepped outside the front door. So it was very provocative and you’d lay yourself open to a lot of potential violence, and a lot of men really took it as a provocative stance, and almost took it personally, that you were personally offending them by dressing in a way that was really” she breaks off, then continues, “in a way, really anti-feminine, or anti the conventions of femininity.”
That wasn’t our main focus: to be a feminist band. We were a band of women doing something, because we wanted to do it, and we wanted to make a space for ourselves
Journalist Coon took a longer view of the issues raised: “Each new generation is quite taken by surprise and shocked by the way the adult world sets itself against youth.” She added: “The punk generation was shocking because not only was it challenging the authority of the establishment ‘elders’ in the normal way of youth, but punks were doing so in a way that was utterly unclubbable and without precedent.”
Helen McCookerybook explained that a lot of people wanted to co-opt punk, including the Socialist Workers’ Party. Conversely, part of the reason why Rock Against Racism started, according to Jon Savage, was that the punk scene was being unwillingly co-opted by the National Front, who had taken notice of the way that a number of the King’s Road punks were wearing swastika armbands, the perceived politics and questionable self-justification of which would be an essay in itself.
Coon said: “First of all, in retrospect, the male punks were actually fulfilling a rather orthodox, rite of passage male youth rebellion. All young men, whether they are aristocrats, Oxford undergraduates in the Bullington Club for instance, or working class football hooligans, they are indulged in their drunkenness, in their swearing, in their destroying things. Traditionally, for centuries of British culture, young men are allowed to get drunk, destroy, create anti-social havoc – and then they settle down, and they are absorbed back into adult male patriarchal culture.”
This licence, she believes, didn’t extend to young women. “What was truly revolutionary and a marker of progress in society, which utterly depended upon the advances made by the feminist movement, was that the punk generation women had… certain freedoms that were becoming well established in law, that enabled them for the first time of any subcultural movement to actually be on an equal par with male punks.” She contrasted the punk period with the hippy period of the late 1960s, when women “were meant to be decorative arm-pieces, Dolly Birds. We had to sit at home, embroidering jeans.” And she sees the hippies’ treatment of their ‘chicks’ as a key instigator of second wave feminism.
Punk and feminism: ‘We weren’t best placed’
“It is very, very dangerous for women to rebel and put themselves outside the patriarchal pale, as the equal of men, shocking like men, destroying things, going on demonstrations, fucking around, like the men do,” said Coon, “A male’s heroic reputation can be enhanced by sex and drugs, a woman’s ‘reputation’ is usually destroyed by sex and drugs. Women of the punk generation were the first generation to go outside the patriarchal pale and then find it easier to come back in as responsible members of society, like the men did, like Bono or Bob Geldof did. For women to make that journey is more difficult but punk women had, within the law, some hard fought for women’s liberation safety nets to fall back on, which made it easier for them.”
Caroline had been a feminist prior to punk – “I was born a feminist,” she told me -and was undoubtedly influenced by, and involved with, second-wave feminism.
McCookerybook feels that the socio-political context of punk is very important, but she was not interested in feminism at the time, despite her other political activities and interests. These included squatting and Rock Against Racism [see here for information about the developing RAR archive]. The Equal Opportunities Act and the Sex Discrimination Act both came into force just prior to punk. At the same time, legal abortion was being threatened, and Spare Rib wrote regularly of female poverty and the racism endured by South East Asian women. “It was a very interesting time to be around,” she recalled, “Feminism was quite unappealing to a lot of women like me, I didn’t like it: I was one of the lads.”
Her views have changed over the years, however, and she added: “But this is one of the cons around being a woman who actually does something – all the lads say ‘You’re one of us, you’re not one of those stupid feminist people’ and so you go ‘Yes, yes, yes I am’ you don’t think, you don’t actually realise that you actually are one of those feminist people!”
Gina Birch wasn’t a feminist prior to punk. She sighed when I asked her if she became a feminist during or after punk. It was a very light sigh, but it was enough to indicate to me that she has been asked about punk and feminism a lot. “It’s funny,” she began, “because, at the time, I was always quite a feisty girl, I was always quite determined to beat my own path. When Ana and I started the group, what we were thinking was, we were doing it for us, we were pushing the boundaries for ourselves. So there was a little opening and we rushed through, and we decided ‘Right, we’re gonna do this,’ and we were pushing at the edge of something, and we were criticised for it. We kept pushing, in our own way, forward. Then Vicky [Aspinall] joined the group, and she brought the F word with her.”
Prior to joining The Raincoats, Vicky Aspinall had performed with the feminist band Jam Today. “She said ‘well, you may not think you’re feminists, but what you’re doing is a kind of feminist act. The way you’re behaving, um, is’ and so I started reading about feminism, and we started getting asked about feminism in interviews. We weren’t making overt political statements, we were just doing what we were doing, and what we decided was that” she paused, before adding carefully, “We wouldn’t go around espousing a feminist agenda but if people asked us if we were feminists we wouldn’t deny it, because although…” she broke off, then added: “It’s funny, isn’t it? Now I would say ‘well, yes, of course I’m a feminist… yes,’ and I have written a song about it, but… That wasn’t our main focus: to be a feminist band. We were a band of women doing something, because we wanted to do it, and we wanted to make a space for ourselves. Actually, as it happens, The Slits doing it, and Patti Smith doing it, helped us to do it, and if we’re doing it, we help other people to do it, so there’s a kind of continuum, but it wasn’t our aim to do it so other people could do it.”
She laughs, “It was much more selfish than that! But, you know, as it happens, 30 years later, we’re incredibly honoured, and amazed, and privileged that people then say ‘we were inspired by you to do it.'”
Lucy O’Brien discovered feminism about a year before she discovered punk. “I think I first got into it when I was about 14,” she said. “My step mother used to subscribe to Spare Rib and she also wrote, she was very groovy, she also wrote for this feminist bulletin, called Women’s Report, and that used to report on all these different feminist issues around the world. So I became aware of it really early on, and also I think at the age of 15, or 16, I read The Female Eunuch, and that really got me going, and I think that was true for quite a few young feminists of my generation, we read The Female Eunuch… and, again, Linder, said, you know, it was like it re-arranged your molecular structure, reading that book.”
The importance of Greer’s book, which was first published in 1970, is perhaps hard to appreciate now. “I think I dipped into it not that long ago,” said Lucy, “and, now it would be seen as… almost a bit dated, and very polemical, but at the time… again, these were ideas that hadn’t really been really properly expressed, so we were coming across them for the first time.”
I asked Lucy if she felt that there was a relationship between punk and feminism, “Yes, definitely.” She added, “I mean, there were a lot of women punk musicians who steered clear of the term feminism, I think The Mo-dettes famously said, you know, ‘got nothing to do with feminism’. I think there was a lot of anxiety about being labelled, because it’s true, at that time anyone feminist was seen as very humourless and boring, and I think if you’re in a rock’n’roll band you don’t want to be seen as humourless and boring!” she laughed. “But there were a few female bands who were quite upfront about feminism, I mean The Raincoats were one, and we were really pleased about that because, amongst my friends, we were looking for feminist role models, we were looking for some of the punk musicians to come out, and as well as Rock Against Racism there was Rock Against Sexism, and they were pretty active for a few years.”
She added: “And I think it was there anyway, just in the whole attitude of… you know, The Slits and the song ‘Typical Girls’, and The Raincoats had that song ‘Off Duty Trip’, which was about a soldier who got let off, after raping a young girl, so these links were being made all the time in song. And then of course we had the Delta 5, we had The Au Pairs, who came in a little bit later – they were more post-punk.” She concluded: “I think the links were there. And Siouxsie Sioux was always a very strong figure, and even though she wouldn’t outwardly call herself a feminist at that point, she was a great role model in that she was incredibly independent and tough, and I think a lot of young women were inspired by that.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of women from that time,” said Gina Birch, “and at the time there was this idea that punk was about getting rid of certain labels, so punks didn’t consider themselves socialists or feminists or… They were beating their own path – whatever that was. It was kind of anarchy… if you’re an anarchist, or a situationist, or whatever, you don’t want any of those rules, and… There’s a place for that, I think, there’s an age for that, there’s a time for that, with young people.” She paused, then said, “But there’s different strands of punk cos there was that punk, and then there was the Rough Trade kind, which became ‘post punk’, which had much more of an ideology… there were an awful lot of women who worked in Rough Trade, and Geoff Travis would say himself, feminism was one of the most important movements of the 20th century, and if you ignored that… you had your head in the sand.” She explained: “Geoff was a very well educated, ideological… man. And then you’ve got all the Gang Of Fours, and the Scritti Polittis, all those men,” she laughed, “who were very pro the idea of feminism.” Her tone changes from amused to serious, as she adds: “As were The Raincoats, in the end.”
Coon articulates very well why feminism was not embraced widely within the punk scene, a state of affairs which was demoralising at the time.
“I had to recognise that the feminism that they were reading about was very off putting. It often put me off! Young women punks were reading about feminism from the tabloids, and the tabloids were talking about feminist ‘Wimmin’s Libbers’ as ‘smelly, hairy, Greenham Common, men-hating’.” She explained: “There were 57 varieties of reasons why feminism was seen to be horrible – and these were virile young women who did not want to walk around the street with ‘horrible feminist’ pinned on them. Despite wanting to be shoulder to shoulder with men, and wanting to be equal with men, they didn’t want to be labelled feminist.”
I think to stand onstage is to go against all of that, all of that cultural oppression really, and say, ‘Look, I’m here’
The other kind of feminism being written about was “broadsheet feminism – the kind of puritan, leftist feminism that was ghettoised on The Guardian’s women’s pages.” Caroline defined this variety of feminism as “generally an essentialist, mother, anti-sex kind of feminism. This dungarees, mother, essentialism, female goddess ‘respectable’ feminism was one of the ways women had to negotiate and challenge patriarchy, but it was not the kind of feminism that was attractive to young women who were yet to have children and ‘domestic’ responsibilities. This tabloid versus broadsheet feminism was playing out in punk.”
Another reason why the relationship between punk and feminism is seen as such a problematic one was put forward by Gina Birch, who pointed to the presence of two particularly strong women in the public eye at this time: Vivienne Westwood and Margaret Thatcher.
“Vivienne Westwood was a very strong force,” she began, adding, “I don’t know if she was a feminist or not. I think she was much more anti labels and yet… Margaret Thatcher had come to power at that time, so you see it’s a very tricky time, because Margaret Thatcher embodied all things that most of us hated, and yet she was the first female Prime Minister.”
She added: “So there was this kind of ridiculous contradiction of when women get to power,” she paused, and then said carefully, “we weren’t best placed at the time to…” she broke off, and started again. “You know, if she’d been a brilliant, benevolent, fantastic female Prime Minister, I think things would have been incredibly different. But she was such a battleaxe…”
The moment at which feminism, punk and Margaret Thatcher collided was seen by Gina as being like a “black cloud… it was difficult to grapple with, or come to terms with, because it didn’t make any sense.” This sense of confusion, contradiction, and sliding identities as the 1970s ended and the 1980s began is something I shall be looking at in part four.
For now though, I shall leave the last word to Lucy O’Brien, who was quick to point to the ultimately positive impact performing in a band as a young woman had had on her. She still feels that going on stage is “one of the most powerful things that a young woman can do, because as young women you’re socialised into subservience really, still, I think, subservience to others points of view, and to getting male approval, and to not pushing yourself forwards, or, too much. And I think to stand onstage is to go against all of that, all of that cultural oppression really, and say, ‘Look, I’m here,’ and to stand onstage in a way that’s fairly confrontational, or it doesn’t have even to be confrontational, in a way that is truly yourself, I think that’s one of the most empowering things that young women can do. I’d almost say that all young women have got to do that experience, cos I think once you’ve done that, it’s like facing the ultimate fear, once you do that… I mean, I remember for a few years after that, I wasn’t really afraid of anything, and that felt so good. But, you know, part of that was being 18!
“You know, you kind’ve take more risks. But I just think it sort’ve set me up, and so, in that sense of punk and anyone can do it, I think it enabled a lot of us as young women to feel very powerful very young, and … that’s the women punk made us, right from then, not being afraid to voice your opinion and be heard.”