Grass Roots Babies: Lesbian Artificial Insemination in 1970s and 80s Manchester
Find out about the hidden history of lesbian motherhood in Manchester in the 1970s and 80s in this fascinating research by PhD student Samuel.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Manchester was a hotbed of leftist activism. The tradeunion movement, Peace Movement, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Women’s Liberation Movement all enjoyed strong support in the city and political groups led by a new generation proliferated. At the heart of it was Grass Roots Books, a bookshop located firstly on Oxford Road and then on Newton Street, fostering a new political climate through the spread of progressive literature. A part of the shop’s legacy that is often forgotten about, however, is the integral role it played in helping lesbian women build families through artificial insemination. Reading Grass Roots Books as a symbol of the close ties between the lesbian and gay community and leftist activism in Manchester, this blogpost takes a closer look at how the city’s progressive political climate shaped the experiences of donors and lesbian mothers in the city.
Why artificial insemination?
Artificial insemination was initially introduced as an infertility treatment for heterosexual, married couples in the 1960s, but it quickly captured the attention of lesbian women in the 1970s. A relatively simple procedure, artificial insemination involves the direct introduction of semen into a woman’s cervix using a variety of vessels ranging from a needleless syringe to a common spoon. It can both be performed in a clinical setting with the assistance of medical staff or at home by the recipients themselves in the case of self-insemination. Whereas previously casual heterosexual encounters or marriage had been lesbian women’s only pathways to pregnancy, this procedure allowed them to conceive without penetrative sex with a man.
Sisters doing it for themselves
In Manchester, would-be lesbian mothers’ first steps to parenthood often began in Grass Roots Books. Inspired by the Women’s Liberation Movement’s motto “sisters doing it for themselves,” the bookshop made Lisa Saffron’s Getting Pregnant Our Own Way,a self-insemination guidebook by and for lesbian women, available to anyone who needed it. By offering essential information on artificial insemination, ranging from how to determine the time of your ovulation to tips on finding a donor, this yellow book allowed lesbian women to pursue pregnancy outside of medical institutions. Bypassing the involvement of medical experts was more than a personal preference, however, it was a political act. In her forthcoming essay “Did I have a dad in the first place?” Jo, a Mancunian lesbian mother, describes her decision to perform self-insemination with her partner Sue as follows:
“You’re bucking the patriarchy. You don’t care about regulation; you know what you’re doing. You’re Jo and Sue who want a child. Simple. You don’t need medics invading your privates.”
Jo and Sue were dedicated to the Women’s Liberation Movement, regularly attending feminist conferences and marching in demonstrations. Their shared commitment to “bucking the patriarchy” was echoed in the decision to perform the insemination at home by themselves. Far removed from the involvement and supervision of gynaecologists, self-insemination offered Jo and Sue the tools to get pregnant their own way, resisting attempts to clinically regulate the procedure. The practice was further framed as part of the wider feminist fight for every woman’s right to bear children. During a time when a discriminatory bias that deemed lesbian women unfit to raise “healthy, well-adjusted children” pervaded society, becoming a lesbian mother was a purposeful challenge to dominant ideals of what a “good” family environment could look like. In short, the personal was political.
Sperm donation as a political act
These political ideals filtered down into the practice of sperm donation as well. Whereas some would-be lesbian mothers asked a gay friend to act as a sperm donor, others relied on lesbian community networks. Support groups were set up to act as go-betweens, liaising between donors and lesbians to arrange donations. By minimising the contact between both parties, these networks served the double purpose of making free donor sperm more easily available and facilitating the desired level of donor anonymity. In Manchester, the self-insemination group Nestwork met in the city’s LGBT+ centre, the first publicly funded ‘gay centre’ in Europe. Emblematic of the strong links between the lesbian and gay community and leftist political ideas in Manchester, the council’s equal opportunities unit, which served to represent the rights and needs of disadvantaged groups in society, secured funding for the building.
Like other Mancunian lesbian women, Nestwork helped Jo and Sue find a donor after a previous arrangement with a gay friend fell through. At one of the group’s meetings, the couple was presented with a folder containing the contact information, physical attributes, and medical history of men willing to donate sperm. In an interview, Jo described these men as follows:
“They were all heterosexual guys, young people, kind of alternative types. This was their way of supporting women. I remember Sue saying that if they were anarchists, they will probably think property is theft and are just passing on some of their property.”
Whereas around the country, a lot of lesbian mothers turned to gay friends for donor sperm, in Manchester at least, most of the active donors were leftist men. To these men, sperm donation was a political act in support of feminism, their way of helping break down oppressive societal attitudes dictating only heterosexual, married women should be allowed to mother. To some, as Sue suggested, donating sperm for free was part of a wider commitment to radical leftist activism, a rejection of sperm as property and, by extension, capitalism.
A Mancunian Story
These examples all demonstrate how the practice of lesbian artificial insemination and the city’s progressive political climate were deeply connected. Like the books on offer in Grass Roots Books, ranging from Marxist to feminist literature, the experiences of donors and lesbian mothers reflected the strong ties between the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Front, and leftist activism that made the city unique.
This blog post is part of a wider PhD project that aims to call attention to the hidden history of lesbian motherhood and sperm donation in Britain, moving away from the focus on heterosexual couples in histories of parenthood. Supervised by Rebecca Jennings, author of Tomboys and Bachelor Girls and A Lesbian History of Britain, my research captures the history of artificial insemination and lesbian motherhood throughout the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on the exchanges between sperm donors and lesbian mothers. If you are a lesbian mother or sperm donor interested in being interviewed or if you know anyone that might want to participate, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or +447956031409. Please feel free to reach out as well if you have any questions about the project or just want to hear more!
L. SAFFRON, Getting Pregnant Our Own Way: A guide to alternative insemination (LONDON: Women’s Health Information Centre, 1986) J. SOMERSET, ‘”Did I have a dad in the first place?”’ forthcoming, 2020