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Trigger Warning: Sheila Jeffreys’ Fiercely Political Memoir

Few women have influenced lesbian politics or feminist thought as much as Sheila Jeffreys. A pioneer the women’s liberation movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she’s a co-founder of Britain’s revolutionary feminist movement. By continuing to advocate radical feminist politics when they fell out of fashion in the ‘90s, Jeffreys helped pave the way for today’s resurgence. Like many lesbians of her generation, Jeffreys has played an active role in two distinct waves of feminism. She has lived a life rich in lesbian community and culture. And now, with her memoir Trigger Warning: My Lesbian Feminist Life, Jeffreys shares her journey through the movement.

trigger warning sheila jeffreys

Trigger Warning, published by lesbian-run Spinifex Press, is a compelling account of feminist history. As Jeffreys points out, lesbians were often the driving force behind the women’s liberation movement. “It was lesbian feminist energy that fuelled the women’s centers, rape crisis centres, refuges, discos, and conferences, and it was lesbian feminists who wrote many of the most significant books and papers of the time.”

Jeffreys herself was amongst them: she’s the author of eleven feminist books, among them Unpacking Queer Politics: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective and The Lesbian Revolution: Lesbian Feminism in the UK 1970-1990.

In Trigger Warning, as with her books on feminist thought, Jeffreys makes the space for lesbian politics that are not accounted for by the activism of either gay men or straight feminist women. Jeffreys believes in political lesbianism – a subject she knows to be “controversial.” In other words, she considers sexuality to be a social rather than biological fact. To Jeffreys, the idea that sexuality is innate – that lesbians and gays are born this way – is “conservative.” While Team AfterEllen doesn’t believe that being lesbian is a choice, we absolutely recognize the value of Jeffreys’ advocacy.

Her commitment to lesbian politics shines through every page of Trigger Warning. It has, after all, been her life’s great work. Jeffreys was a founder of Lesbians Against Pornography, Lesbians Against Sadomasochism, the Lesbian Herstory Group, and the Lesbian Archive – which is now housed at Glasgow Women’s Library, along with copies of her books. And Trigger Warning is a vital piece of documentation, preserving details and dates likely to be overlooked by malestream history.

Trigger Warning doesn’t always land as a memoir, though. After the opening chapter, Origins, Jeffreys is sparing with details about her personal life and the people who inhabited it. She mentions being in a relationship with a woman and then – without any reference to breaking up with her, or meeting someone new – names her next partner in passing while describing their campaign against child sexual abuse. I can’t be the only lesbian reader who would have liked to know how Sheila Jeffreys met Linda Bellos. Talk about a lesbian power couple! Details about what it was like being part of an interracial lesbian relationship in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, how Jeffreys and Bellos decided to team up politically, would have enriched this memoir.

But throughout Trigger Warning there is a sense that her personal life is an afterthought. And this is a shame, because Jeffreys has travelled widely and built some extraordinary lesbian spaces. It would have been interesting to know more about how she experienced lesbian community first hand. Especially given that many of the vibrant lesbian spaces she describes – women-only discos, lesbian herstory groups – are now defunct and younger women are often deprived of the opportunity to find out for ourselves.

Still, Trigger Warning is a book that looks to the present and future of our movement. Having lived through the heyday of the women’s liberation politics, been part of the first openly lesbian communities in Britain, Jeffreys is acutely conscious that some of the gains lesbians made are now being lost. As a result, she’s highly critical of lesbian erasure:

“The word lesbian is no longer favoured in a younger generation in which women proudly proclaiming that they love women is treated as hateful. In the 1970s, our first and most important task was to valourise the word lesbian, to say it with pride… because we could not have lesbian liberation if we had no word to describe ourselves. Now women who love women must prevaricate and call themselves something else which does not suggest disloyalty to male domination through a refusal to love and be penetrated by men. As a result, both famous and everyday lesbians are calling themselves ‘queer’.”

Trigger Warning has a lot to offer as a piece of feminist documentation, a memoir by one of the most prolific lesbian writers of this era. But, more than that, it’s a book with the power to galvanise a new generation of readers; to encourage lesbians of all ages to claim this label and community with pride.

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