This blog is dedicated to Lucy Ashby, the founder of Women on Women, and in memory of Rhea Anthony, who we remember with such love.
C/W: Some NSFW images (women with bare chests)
We recently catalogued our 100th object! This exciting milestone begs the question: what will item 101 be? With Lesbian Visibility Week upon us, the answer is obvious; something that celebrates lesbian life in Norfolk! Back in January, we looked at the life of Anna Gurney, Norfolk’s Queer, Disabled, Geologist. This time, we’re rolling the clock forward to the 1990s to look at two lesbian-orientated groups through the collection of one woman, which is now safely housed at the Norfolk Heritage Centre, and is accessible to all thanks to Queer Norfolk and Norfolk Library and Information Service.
When picking up the Women on Women (WoW) and Lesbian Line archive, I had the privilege of a good mardle with Jojo Foster. Jojo was one of a small group of women lead and inspired by Lucy Ashby, who founded WoW. She also volunteered on the Lesbian Line, as well as supporting many other groups and projects from the 1980s onwards. We talked for several hours, pouring over the stacks of papers she’d saved over almost two decades that WoW was supporting local lesbians. I asked Jojo how it all started:
Jojo: “So, 1996, it was in the Arts Centre. This is probably our first flyer that we gave out about it. And the interesting thing there is: ‘Lesbian’, ‘Bisexual’, ‘Not sure’ and ‘Transgender’ – right from the start in 96. So that was a little bit…”
She trailed off, but I could guess what she was alluding to. It was unusual for women’s groups in this period to be accepting of bisexual women, and it was almost unheard of for transgender women to be able to join in women’s groups – especially lesbian groups. We picked up this discussion later on.
Jojo: There were women’s centres all over the country. They tended to be feminist or separatist… It was just something that didn’t sit well with me. WoW was probably the first [of its kind] I would say, certainly for lesbians, bisexual women and non-stereotypical women. … I think it was the first, I think Sheffield happened after us. That there were a few women’s camps and stuff like that… you used to gravitate to a feminist group because they’d be full of lesbians!”
WoW was not the first lesbian organisation to operate in Norwich. First was Kenric, which was a national befriending service. There was also Lesbian Line, which started in the early 1990s. Local gay and lesbian switchboards were fairly common around the country, with a similar line operating in Cambridge from 1979. The London Gay and Lesbian Switchboard opened in 1974. I asked Jojo more about the London Switchboard. As a keen listener to The Logbooks podcast, I wondered what links existed between the Norwich switchboards and the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard.
Adam: So, were you in contact much with London Switchboard?
Jojo: Not really, no, no. We had a couple of workers who used to work there, then they came up to Norwich, but no. We didn’t need to. Although I do know that people were referred to us from there.”
The Norfolk Heritage Centre, where all the material Jojo has donated will be stored, only collects objects with a clear focus on Norfolk. Jojo showed me lots of leaflets and booklets from all over the country, which panicked me: what would we do with all of these? They’re not from Norfolk, so could I make the case for keeping them? I asked her why she had things from all over and, fortunately, her reply made it all make sense as part of the broader collection:
Jojo: “People were so frightened of being out. They didn’t want to phone the London switchboard, so they’d phoned the little ones. We kind of had an invisible awareness that they could be from anywhere, and so we got all the stuff [from all over the country] then, you know refer people there. What we used to do – because we didn’t have any funding – we’d send away for other places that had some bumpf and was happy for us to use it. We never got anything to run phone lines. We never got anything to to pay for any expenses.”
The lack of funding for LGBT+ community projects is something that Jojo mentioned frequently and sadly is still very much the case today. This challenging climate meant that groups would work together when one received some funding and shared money when fundraisers took place. This kind of solidarity is vital in our community; always has been, and always will be. I asked Jojo about where WoW and Lesbian Line’s funding came from.
Jojo: “All of our funding, absolutely everything, came either via the Gay Men’s Health Project or a gala evening or something they did and gave us £100 or whatever, or rent-free places because they got the AIDS funding – AIDS and HIV outreach work. So what we did, we invented a little thing, we started doing welcoming packs after about a year. And giving out safe sex stuff. So there’s some stuff in here that’s quite amazing. Like, ‘what is a dental dam?’ and all this weird stuff… And it’s weird unless you were there! So the little pack, it was one of our pictures, and then inside would be one of these, a lollipop, you know the, usual. Condoms as well. Oh, there was a fight. ‘Why are you putting condoms in women’s packs?’ Oh, God. I mean, really! It’s so political. It got really crazy, but ‘Um, actually for sex toys.”
While unity and support among local queer groups was strong, especially when AIDS became a more prominent issue from the late 19080s, there were also divisions:
Jojo: “I mean, people could be really bitchy, but people did help each other out. But some lesbian women said that AIDS was coming into our community via bisexual women who were sleeping with men and then bringing it into our community. So as a hatred of bisexual women began. And so WoW was very much about [inclusivity]. The original meeting and discussion among 15 of us was non-stereotypical [women]… Be yourself, totally non stereotypical – bisexual women as well. And then a vote was as to whether we would include transgender women and one of the women who started it up was transgender.”
Rhea Anthony was one of the founders of Women on Women. She passed away in 2012. The inclusion of trans women from the beginning was deliberate and not without controversy at the time. Ultimately it was the right decision, and the decision stayed with the revolutionary group until its last day in August 2014, when the charity officially closed. Jojo reflected on her time with the organisation.
Jojo: People generally volunteer for a couple of years maximum and then they’ll go, you know… It was only me and then a few others that stuck around. Because I was in a position where I could and it meant a lot to me, I suppose, you know, seeing the big picture. The whole story from the beginning to when it closed. But WSW – Women supporting women – which is at the Norfolk LGBT+ Project started up to help keep the work going. We managed to close WOW, and they took it on the very next week. So there was a nice overlap and that was a good ending. Heartbreaking and so difficult… but a good ending.