Lesbian feminism is a cultural movement and critical perspective, most popular in the 1970s and early 1980s (primarily in North America and Western Europe), that questions the position of lesbians and women in society. Some key thinkers and activists are Charlotte Bunch, Rita Mae Brown, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Monique Wittig (although the latter is more commonly associated with the emergence of queer theory).
While historically lesbianism has always enjoyed an intricate relationship with feminism and feminist projects, going back at least to the 1890s, "lesbian feminism" is best contextualised as a branch movement that came together in the early 1970s out of dissatisfaction with (second wave) feminist and gay liberation movements, respectively. In the words of lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffreys, "Lesbian feminism emerged as a result of two developments: lesbians within the WLM [Women's Liberation Movement] began to create a new, distinctively feminist lesbian politics, and lesbians in the GLF [Gay Liberation Front] left to join up with their sisters".
Like feminism, lesbian and gay studies, and queer theory, lesbian feminism is characterised by contestation and revision. Nevertheless, if one key theme could be isolated it would be an analysis of heterosexuality as an institution. Lesbian feminist texts work to denaturalise heterosexuality and, based on this denaturalization, to explore heterosexuality's "roots" in institutions such as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. Additionally, lesbian feminism advocates lesbianism as a rational result of alienation and dissatisfaction with these institutions.
Sheila Jeffreys defines lesbian feminism as having seven key themes:
- An emphasis on women's love for one another
- Separatist organizations
- Community and ideas
- Idea that lesbianism is about choice and resistance
- Idea that the personal is the political
- A rejection of hierarchy
- A critique of male-supremacy (which eroticises inequality)
Biology, Choice and Social Constructionism
As outlined above, lesbian feminism typically situates lesbianism as a form of resistance to "man-made" institutions. Sexual orientation is posited here as a choice, or at least a conscious response to a situation.
In separatist feminism, lesbianism is posited as a key feminist strategy that enables women to invest their energies in other women, creating new space and dialogue about women's relationships, and typically, limits their dealings with men.
Strategies of lesbian separatism are also controversial within feminism. At its most extreme, male genocide (androcide) has been put forward as a strategy for achieving women's emancipation, as in Valerie Solanas' SCUM Manifesto. This is certainly a small and isolated view but nevertheless there was a specific flourish of scholarship and literature dealing with whether men are really necessary. Some of this looks at issues of reproduction, for example parts of Mary Daly's classic text Gyn/Ecology. Other canons explore histories of male violence and still others reference the historic genocides perpetrated upon groups of women. Witchcraft is the most obvious example, but one might also cite a general if variegated preference for male offspring, throughout human history.
Elsewhere, lesbian feminists have situated female separatism as quite a mainstream thing and have explored the mythology surrounding it. Marilyn Frye's (1978) essay Notes on Separatism and Power is one such example. She posits female separatism as a strategy practiced by all women, at some point, and present in many feminist projects (one might cite women's refuges, electoral quotas or Women's Studies programmes). She argues that it is only when women practice it, self-consciously as separation from men, that it is treated with controversy (or as she suggests hysteria). Male separatism on the other hand (one might cite gentleman's clubs, labour unions, sports teams, the military and, more arguably, decision-making positions in general) is seen as quite a normal, even expedient phenomenon.
Still other lesbian feminists put forward a notion of "tactical separatism" from men, arguing for and investing in things like women's sanctuaries and consciousness-raising groups, but also exploring everyday practices to which women may temporarily retreat or practice solitude from men and masculinity.
The Woman-Identified Woman
If the founding of the lesbian feminist movement could be pinpointed at a specific moment, it would probably be May 1970, when Radicalesbians, an activist group of 20 lesbians led by lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown, took over a women's conference in New York City, the Congress to Unite Women. Uninvited, they lined up on stage wearing matching T-shirts inscribed with the words "Lavender Menace", and demanded the microphone to read aloud to an audience of 400 their essay The Woman-Identified Woman, which laid out the main precepts of their movement.
Contrary to some popular beliefs about "man-hating butch dykes", lesbian feminist theory does not support the concept of female masculinity. Proponents like Sheila Jeffreys (2003:13) have argued that "all forms of masculinity are problematic."
This is one of the principal areas in which lesbian feminism differs from queer theory, perhaps best summarised by Judith Halberstam's quip that "If Sheila Jeffreys didn't exist, Camille Paglia would have had to invent her."
"Womyn" along with "wimin", "womin" were terms produced by parts of the lesbian feminist movement to distinguish it from men and masculine (or "phallogocentric") language. The term "women" was seen as derivative of men and ultimately symbolised the prescriptive nature of women's oppression. A new vocabulary emerged more generally, sometimes referencing lost or unspoken matriarchal civilisations, Amazonian warriors, ancient - especially Greek - goddesses, sometimes parts of the female anatomy and often references to the natural world. It was frequently remarked that the movement had nothing to go on, no knowledge of its roots, nor histories of lesbianism to draw on. Hence the emphasis on consciousness-raising and carving out new (arguably) "gynocentric" cultures. (Esther Newton's classic (1984) text "Radclyffe Hall and the Mythic Mannish Lesbian", although she was certainly not a lesbian feminist, is interesting here in exploring the substance of, and debates around lesbian histories prior to the 1950s in particular).
Bonnie Zimmerman is a lesbian feminist literary critic who talks quite a bit about the language used by writers from within the movement. (See her 1978 text) Often drawing on autobiographical narratives and the use of personal testimony. Lesbian feminist texts are often expressly non-linear, poetic and, perhaps, obscure.
Tensions with feminism
As a critical perspective lesbian feminism is perhaps best defined in opposition to feminism and queer theory. It has certainly been argued that feminism has been guilty of homophobia in its failure to integrate sexuality as a fundamental category of gendered inquiry, and its treatment of lesbianism as a separate issue. Adrienne Rich's (1980) classic text "Compulsory Heterosexualilty and Lesbian Existence" is instructive, but one might also cite the ambiguously reflexive Signs (Summer 1980) issue "The Lesbian Issue."
Tensions with queer theory
Yet it is certainly arguable that lesbian feminist projects continue within queer studies and theory (that it has, where critique still surfaces, been a rebranding strategy), after all many of the central scholars (Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Gayle Rubin) if not "lesbian feminists" are certainly lesbians, feminists and looking at questions of gender and sexuality.
Barry (2002) suggests that in choosing between these possible alignments (lesbian feminism and/or queer theory) one must answer whether it is gender or sexuality that is the more "fundamental in personal identity."
Views on BDSM, sexual violence and pornography
Views on transgenderism
Views vary, but there is a specific lesbian feminist canon which rejects transgenderism, transsexualism and transvestism, positing trans people as at best gender dupes (or functions of a discourse on mutilation); at worst shoring up support for traditional (and it would say violent) gender norms. Obviously, this is a position marked by intense controversy.
Lesbian feminism is sometimes associated with opposition to sex reassignment surgery; some lesbian feminist analyses see SRS as a form of violence akin to S&M.
For a useful summary of these arguments see Sheila Jeffreys' (2003) book, "Unpacking Queer Politics."
- Faderman, Lillian: "Surpassing the Love of Men," p. 17. Quill/William Morrow, 1981.
- Lesbianism and Feminism. Accessed May 28th 2007.
- Jeffreys, Sheila: "Unpacking Queer Politics," p. 19. Polity, 2003.
- Rich, Adrienne."Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."
- Jeffreys, Sheila: "Unpacking Queer Politics," p. 19. Polity, 2003.
- "Lesbians in Revolt: Male Supremacy Quakes and Quivers", The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly Vol. 1, January, 1972. Accessed 2 June 2008.
- Revolutionary Lesbians: "How to Stop Choking to Death Or: Separatism," 1971, in, "For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology," ed. Hoagland, Sarah Lucia, and Julia Penelope. p. 22-24. Onlywomen Press, 1988.
- Jay, Karla: "Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation," p. 142-144. Basic Books, 1999.
- Translesbian feminism
- Straight feminism
- Lesbian science fiction
- List of Lesbian Periodicals, Journals and Magazines, Past and Present
- Guardian interview with Sheila Jeffreys, July 5, 2005.
- Lesbian Feminism at the GLBTQ encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture.
- 1970s Lesbian Feminism: An Overview, History, Bibliography & Guide
- Sarah Lucia Hoagland lesbianfeminist and author of Lesbian Ethics.
- Radical Women in Gainesville an online exhibit that documents the development of a lesbian feminist culture in Gainesville, Florida.
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