(A Girl’s Guide To) Sensible Footwear

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Kate Charlesworth, a celebrated cartoonist and former contributor to the Guardian, and acclaimed illustrator of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, opens the curtains of lesbian history from the 1950s to the present day, with a little help from Gilbert and Sullivan and a side of Nancy Spain.

Sensible Footwear is a glorious political and personal history that gives Pride a run for its money; but, like Pride, it wears its heart at the centre, making the invisible visible, and celebrating lesbian lives from the domestic to the diva.

Before today’s LGBTQI universe expanded from the Big Bang of Stonewall, post-war Britain was like so much of the world today, hostile towards and virtually in denial (and worse) to anything we might now call ‘queer’.

In 1950 male homosexuality carried a custodial sentence; blackmail, violence and the fear of exposure were ever-present. Female homosexuality had never been an offence in the UK (allegedly, no-one could bring themselves to explain the facts to Queen Victoria) effectively rendering the Sapphic sisterhood even more invisible than they already were – often to themselves. Most who knew they were ‘different’, or came to that realisation later on, were flying blind – unless one went to public school.  Growing up in the North was a rich and colourful experience for Kate Charlesworth, but at the time it seemed anything overtly queer was thin on the ground.

Like countless other girls and women, Kate took what role models were on offer, and failing that, made them up, in the spirit of that classic old dyke joke:  ‘What do lesbians use?’ ‘Their imagination…’

Paul Gravett for The Bookseller

24 October 2018
The often hidden history of lesbians in Britain from 1950 to the present comes alive through the vivid re-creations of acclaimed cartoonist Kate Charlesworth. In sensitive wash illustrations, she evokes formative experiences of growing up in the North and the gradual realisation that she was 'different'. Isolated and invisible, Charlesworth sought out role models in Dusty Springfield and Billie Jean King and devised icons of her own through her comic-strip characters. Sensible Footwear engagingly documents decades of changes in the LGBTQ+ life.

Val McDermid

I’ve been familiar with Kate Charlesworth’s work since her pioneering cartoons in Gay News in the 1970s. At the time, the lives and concerns of lesbians were far less visible than those of gay men, and to see Kate’s representations of our experiences made us feel less insignificant as well as providing an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. There was a real sense of inclusivity and immediacy in her work then and that has continued to be a feature of her art. If we don’t write our history down, the next generation are cut adrift from the journey that lies behind their present lives. Without a sense of where they have come from and how far they have come, they are vulnerable to losing the advances they have made. A Girl’s Guide to Sensible Footwear will be a crucial cornerstone in building our future by making sure we remember our past. And Kate’s style – feisty, questioning, open, witty and sometimes angry – is the perfect vehicle to communicate that lived history of feminism, activism and liberation history in a uniquely accessible way. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

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