Lesbian Feminism

Stephanie Gilmore & Anne Collinson. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Lesbian feminism emerged during the second wave of feminist activism in the United States. Beginning in the 1970s, lesbian feminists challenged homophobia and heterosexism in the women’s movement, fought against sexism in the LGBT movement, struggled against antilesbianism and antifeminism in other social movements, and carved out political, social, and cultural niches for themselves. Many lesbian feminists advocated separatism, living whenever and wherever possible in lesbian feminist communities and spending money and time only with other lesbian feminists. Lesbian feminists also developed radical critiques of patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, heterosexism, and the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality. For many lesbian feminists, lesbianism was the logical outcome of feminism—as one lesbian feminist put it, “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”

Early History

Historians often trace the beginning of lesbian feminism to the founding of Radicalesbians in New York in 1970 and the Furies in Washington, D.C., in 1971-72. The establishment of these two groups represents a vital and crucial turning point in the history of lesbian feminism and—along with the writing of various manifestos, the organizing of various political actions, and the creation of various groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s—marks the beginning of an organized lesbian feminist movement that called itself lesbian and feminist. However, the history of lesbian feminism in terms of building, fostering, and developing identities and politics that can be classified as both lesbian and feminist follows the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Many nineteenth-century women who formed same-sex romantic, passionate, and intimate friendships, established Boston marriages, or even passed as men, believed in and fought for women’s rights, women’s equality, and women’s empowerment. When sexologists created new sexual taxonomies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the people they labeled inverts and homosexuals included women who resisted sex and gender oppression. Among the women who fought for female suffrage, embraced the cause of free love, labeled themselves New Women, wore men’s clothing, advocated for the advancement of “colored” women, and adopted the new term “feminist” in the early twentieth century are women who considered themselves lesbians or who have been identified as lesbians by historians. As urban lesbian cultures—often centered in bars, speakeasies, house parties, and softball leagues and frequently organized through femme/butch dyads—began to take shape in the first half of the twentieth century, many participants viewed themselves and were viewed by others as strong proponents of female resistance and female strength. Lesbians who broke down barriers against women working in traditionally male jobs and serving in the traditionally male military can also be regarded as both lesbian and feminist.

Lesbians played important roles in the women’s movement in the years before and after World War II, but only in the 1950s did a formally organized lesbian movement begin. Of the first major homophile organizations, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was the most widely known and influential group for women. Founded in 1955 by lesbian partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, DOB soon had chapters in major urban centers across the United States. Inspired by the predominantly male Mattachine Society, Lyon and Martin sought to create an organization and a publication, The Ladder, dedicated to changing public attitudes toward lesbians and lesbianism. While some DOB lesbians (including, for example, Barbara Gittings) were opposed to or ambivalent about feminism, others explored the effects of sexism on lesbians, criticized gay men for being sexist, and expressed interest in forming alliances with women’s movement organizations. In the late 1960s, several DOB members and other homophile leaders strongly embraced feminist politics. Martin joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1967; DOB president Rita Laporte and The Ladder editor Barbara Grier attempted to take the organization and the magazine in feminist directions; and writer Anita Cornwell published groundbreaking work that explored intersections of gender, sexuality, and race in their publication. Conflicts over feminism, however, helped precipitate the collapse of the national DOB in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, following the transformative Stonewall Riots of 1969, which launched the gay liberation movement, lesbians began to feel increasingly alienated from gay men, gay communities, and gay politics. In 1970, Martin said good-bye to gay men in a statement published in various periodicals, including The Ladder and The Advocate. Citing philosophical, moral, and political differences, Martin wrote a scathing critique of sexism in gay political organizations, public spaces such as bars and bathhouses, and gay publications and then announced that she was turning her attention to the feminist movement: “I must go where the action is—where there is still hope, where there is still possibility for personal and collective growth. It is a revelation to find acceptance, equality, love, and friendship—everything we sought in the homophile movement—not there but in the women’s movement” (Martin). In spite of their common ground of oppression based on same-sex sexual orientation, many lesbians felt that gay men did not treat them with mutual respect or a sense of equality. Many women felt this way not only about older homophile collectives such as the Mattachine Society but also about younger gay liberationist ones such as the Gay Liberation Front.

The women’s movement that Martin and other lesbians embraced gave rise to many feminist organizations, liberal and radical, and lesbians played key roles in countless feminist groups. Many lesbians, however, experienced tremendous conflict within organized feminism as talk of women’s liberation and women’s equality occurred alongside actions excluding, avoiding, and attacking lesbianism and lesbians. One of the most volatile and notable examples of this happened in NOW. Conflict between lesbians and heterosexuals had been brewing, especially in its largest chapter, New York City NOW. With the emergence of the gay liberation movement, lesbians demanded recognition and support from the women’s movement. Within the chapter, feminists began to identify lesbianism as a key feminist issue. After Rita Mae Brown, a member of this NOW chapter, came out as a lesbian, she claimed that NOW national president Betty Friedan pushed her out. Other lesbians in the chapter, including chapter president Ti-Grace Atkinson, were voted out of or unilaterally removed from office—incidents many referred to as being purged. In 1969, Friedan lamented that lesbians in NOW were threatening its pursuit of women’s equality, constituting what she called a “lavender menace.” In response to this epithet, forty-plus lesbians, many from the New York City chapter of NOW, stormed the stage at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women—wearing purple shirts bearing Friedan’s words—and insisted that lesbianism was a women’s-rights issue. Despite fears among national NOW board members that a strong and visible lesbian presence would diminish the organization’s political clout, many rank-and-file members supported the protest and its message. In the same year as the Lavender Menace protest, the Northern California chapter of NOW passed a resolution identifying lesbians’ rights as women’s rights. Mobilizing from the grassroots within NOW’s federated structure, women pushed the resolution to the state chapter of NOW, then to a regional conference. In 1971, the national NOW passed the resolution and, on paper at least, acknowledged lesbian rights as part of its national agenda.

Lesbian Feminist Organizing

Implementing inclusivity, however, was another story altogether. Some lesbians, scorned by the purges and faced with the task of changing many heterosexual women’s hearts and minds, abandoned liberal feminist groups such as NOW for radical feminism and women’s liberation. In spite of the paeans to sisterhood and revolution, however, many radical feminist organizations did not openly discuss lesbianism or welcome lesbians with open arms. While lesbians began participating more actively and openly in contemporaneous radical movements, especially black power, they also began to pen manifestos about lesbian separatism and the unique oppression faced by lesbians. In 1970, Radicalesbians, a group founded in New York and made up of women who had participated in gay liberation, women’s liberation, or both, invented a new political definition of what it meant to be a lesbian: “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” Different from male homosexuality and certainly different from female heterosexuality, lesbianism, according to the Radicalesbians’ manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” was a source of political and cultural power. According to Radicalesbians, all women who were women-identified could consider themselves lesbians, and Radicalesbians called upon all such women to deepen their commitments, sexual and otherwise, to other women.

Alienated from a feminist movement that openly sought women’s liberation, but had broken its promise to represent all women, and discouraged by sexism among men in gay liberation, many lesbians now founded their own, separate organizations. Radicalesbians groups were established in several cities beyond New York, including Philadelphia. The Furies, one of the most influential, formed as a residential, publishing, and political collective in Washington, D.C. Other groups sprang up in a variety of U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, and in many of these, lesbian feminists and separatists proposed that lesbianism was the most complete form of feminism, the ultimate expression of “the personal is political.” Revising conservative essentialist and biologically determinist views about women, they argued that all women were born lesbians but that male privilege and dominance in U.S. (and Western) society destroyed women’s capacity to love women and instead pitted them against one another. In this framework, women who threw off the yoke of male domination and openly loved women, in sexual and/or nonsexual ways, were lesbians. Describing lesbianism as a political identity and not just a sexual choice, many lesbian feminists advocated overthrowing heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family as institutions oppressive to women.

Such commentary was often expressed through the lesbian feminist press, which exploded in the 1970s as more and more women published and distributed newsletters, newspapers, magazines, and journals across the United States. Lesbian feminist publications varied widely in form, content, and distribution; some journals continued for years, while others lasted only for a single issue. While collectives such as the Furies published journals that have received significant scholarly attention, other collectives formed for the sole purpose of publishing a single newsletter, many of which have been overlooked. Most of these publications were typed, mimeographed, and either distributed through mail subscriptions or sold in independent women’s bookstores.

By helping women to address feelings of isolation and providing a source of news and commentary on lesbian experiences, these publications fostered the development of urban and rural lesbian feminist communities. Some publications, such as Spectre: Paper of Revolutionary Lesbians (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and The Furies, focused on socio-political aspects of lesbian life; others emphasized lesbian art and culture. For example, African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde served as poetry editor for Chrysalis and Amazon Quarterly, contributing to the papers’ political and cultural forums. Although many lesbian feminist publications did not enjoy a long publication run, they introduced political, social, and cultural issues to other lesbians and feminists and promoted discussion about what it meant to be a lesbian. Among the better known periodicals were Furies, Spectre, Lesbian Tide and Chrysalis (both in Los Angeles), Amazon Quarterly (Oakland, California), Lesbians Fight Back and Wicce: A Lesbian/Feminist Newspaper (both in Philadelphia), and Lavender Woman (Chicago). All boasted a variety of features, including political manifestos and statements, photographs, cartoons, calendars of events, cultural reviews, and fiction.

In addition to producing publications dedicated to lesbian liberation, lesbian feminists cultivated multiple political strategies. Using the radical feminist practice of zap actions, lesbian feminists targeted venues of traditional womanhood and heterosexuality, protesting beauty pageants and bridal stores. In addition to practices of zap actions and consciousness-raising, lesbian feminists critiqued heterosexuality and patriarchy through unique lenses. They invented and modified language to challenge patriarchal power, replacing “women” with “wimmin” or “womyn,” and dropping birth names in favor of woman-identified names. They also forged gynocentric spiritualities, writing about and embracing traditions that preceded Judeo-Christianity and taking up witchcraft and goddess worship.

Many lesbian feminists also advocated and, whenever possible, practiced separatism, living in communities that did not include heterosexual women or men. In some contexts, lesbian separatists broke off from lesbian feminist groups when their agenda of total separation from men and heterosexual women was met with resistance. In their own economically independent communities, lesbian separatists pursued the political project of creating and maintaining feminist, women-only space. Urban and rural collectives disassociated themselves from the population at large in locations ranging from major metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., to rural parts of Kansas and Mississippi. The collectives tended to be short-lived as conflicting life choices, political objectives, and personal values came to the fore. While they lasted, however, these groups practiced innovative forms of cooperative living, egalitarianism, and an ethic of caring. Lesbian feminist values were also institutionalized in longer-term creations, including feminist bookstores, coffeehouses, and the women’s music industry. In the 1970s, lesbians and feminists came together to establish the annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, still in existence and functioning in the new century as a weeklong event featuring singers, poets, artists, and their supporters. Other festivals that celebrate women’s music, art, and culture later sprang up across the United States; these include Camp Sister Spirit’s Womyn’s Festival in Ovett, Mississippi, the Bay Area Women’s Festival, and the Ohio Lesbian Festival.

Criticism and Conflict

In spite of their commitment to eradicating injustice for all women, lesbian feminists and their theories of lesbian feminism came under fire in the mid-1970s. Many lesbian feminist groups adopted the tools of other revolutionary movements: consciousness-raising, action, criticism, and self-criticism. However, lesbian feminists faced factionalism and criticism from both within and outside their communities. Though women of color such as Ernestine Eckstein, Cleo Glenn, Ada Bello, Jeanne Cordova, and Anita Cornwell played important (though underexamined) roles in the homophile movement of the 1960s and the lesbian feminist movement of the early 1970s, lesbian feminist groups, especially separatist communities, tended to be made up primarily of white, university-educated, middle-class women. Those women who were older or younger, of color, working-class, disabled, radical or socialist, overweight or otherwise non-conforming to traditional ideas of beauty all charged various lesbian feminist groups with reproducing discrimination and oppression. Class and color became the main factors that produced division.

Lesbian feminists advocated the inclusion of women of color in their groups, but such inclusion was never widespread in practice. Many women of color outside of lesbian feminism criticized the radical doctrine for overlooking their interests and agendas. A key moment of conflict took place in 1970 at the Black Panthers’ Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where black women confronted white lesbians. Over the next several years, radical lesbians of color charged “mainstream” lesbian feminists with being racist and classist. Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Cherríe Moraga, among others, offered important critiques of feminism, especially its whiteness, while refusing to become antifeminist in the process. In so doing, they articulated important lesbian feminist stances, offering complicated, radical positions on the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other factors in women’s lives. In 1977, the Combahee River Collective published its influential “Black Feminist Statement,” which evinced the group’s commitment to fighting the integrated and interlocking forces of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class oppression. The collective also challenged the idea of separatism, recognizing that although they were feminists and lesbians, they felt solidarity with progressive black men, straight feminists, and other allies. By the mid-1970s, African American lesbians were organizing as lesbians, feminists, and women of color in such groups as the National Black Feminist Organization (founded in 1973), the Combahee River Collective, and the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gay Men (founded in 1978).

Within lesbian feminist groups, accusations of classism, ageism, and racism were common. Chicana author Cherríe Moraga pointed out that the structure of lesbian feminism excluded women of color even though lesbian feminist groups claimed to be open to all women. Rita Mae Brown’s memoir of her time in the Furies collective, A Plain Brown Rapper (1976), documents some of the clashes related to class that arose within this collective. There were differences of opinion over how and where money should be spent, who should work at what types of jobs, and how best to communicate with other collective members, all of which Brown attributes to class divisions. The 1970s also marked the beginning of Native American lesbian publishing. Influenced by the 1960s native revivalism, gay and lesbian Native Americans began to publish essays, poetry, and novels. Paula Gunn Allen’s essay “Beloved Women: Lesbians In American Indian Cultures” marked her public coming out and her challenge to the tribal and church-influenced homophobia she experienced. Asian and Pacific Island American (API) lesbians were particularly active in larger Asian communities, such as San Francisco, where API lesbian and feminist activist organizations rallied for access to health care, entry to bars, and provided support networks.

Other critics accused lesbian feminists of being anti-sex, suggesting that when lesbian feminists attacked sex between women and men as the primary basis of women’s second-class status, they were being prudish and not recognizing that sex for women could be pleasurable, empowering, and liberating. In print, many lesbian feminist publications offered contemptuous analyses of heterosexuality, often condemning pornography, heterosexual satisfaction, and acts and displays of heterosexuality. In the process, some lesbian feminists discouraged sexual definitions of lesbianism, identifying such definitions as male and heterosexual in origin. Influential theorists such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin equated pornography and rape, which fuelled intense debates over the role of sex, pornography, violence, and sexuality in feminism and lesbian feminism. Eventually these debates erupted into the full-fledged feminist “sex wars” of the late 1970s and 1980s. Many lesbian feminists, including Joan Nestle, Amber Hollibaugh, Pat Califia, Ann Snitow, and Dorothy Allison, resisted the so-called anti-sex feminists in print and in person. For example, Joan Nestle’s essay “My Mother Liked to Fuck” challenged the notion that all heterosexual intercourse and sexual penetration were forms of legalized rape. Though many lesbian feminists took the pro-sex side, critics of lesbian feminism equated the movement with the anti-sex faction.

Lesbian feminists also came under fire for not accepting male-to-female transsexuals as women and for denying the legitimacy of bisexual desire and politics. By the 1990s, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was a main cultural and political site of tension among feminists, lesbians, and transsexuals. In 1991, a festival security guard expelled a transsexual woman. Afterward, festival organizers instituted a “womyn-born womyn”-only policy, stipulating that only women who were born physically female could attend the festival. While preserving the ideals of women-only spaces and safe spaces for women that were advocated by many lesbian feminist groups, the festival was attacked for the way it dealt with a controversy sometimes referred to as the “Transgender Menace.” By the end of the decade, transsexual activists (through Camp Trans, their counterfestival demonstrations across the street from the Womyn’s Festival) garnered more allies at the festival. While Michigan Womyn’s Festival organizers did relax their policies somewhat regarding some transsexuals, Camp Trans is still ongoing, operating as a vital force for trans politics, activism, and awareness and demonstrating the grip that the male/female dichotomy has had on feminism, lesbian and otherwise, in theory and practice. By 2003, Camp Trans publicized their goal to have a greater presence of MTF activists to directly challenge the womyn-born womyn policy. The protest highlights that while the festival does not set policy for other women-only organizations and support services, they act as the transphobic standard of such spaces.

Although lesbian feminism emerged in the 1970s in response to sexism in the LGBT movement and homophobia and heterosexism in the women’s movement, the movement remains both influential and controversial in the twenty-first century. While caricatured in U.S. mainstream culture, lesbian feminism remains popular among its core of believers as an explicit political commitment and an implicit set of beliefs and practices. Serial and monographic publications, music festivals, women-only spaces, art, pornography, and bookstores continue to express and develop the tenets of lesbian feminism while also incorporating and responding to critiques. Lesbian feminism generated a radical legacy through political mobilization, social activism, intersectional analysis, and new perspectives on the power of patriarchy; the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality; and the route to liberation and empowerment.