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Lesbian Feminism, 1960s and 1970s

By Yamissette Westerband

Lesbian feminism emerged in the late 1960s and the 1970s in the United States.

Origins: Responding to Feminist Exclusion

Lesbian feminism largely emerged in response to the women’s liberation movement’s exclusion of lesbians. As the Second Wave of feminism picked up steam during the 1960s, feminist discourse largely ignored lesbianism. Some feminists harbored hostile attitudes towards lesbians, however. Some viewed lesbianism as a sexual rather than a political issue. Others believed the project of feminism would dismantle strict sexual categories, and would release a “natural polymorphous sexuality,” making lesbian politics irrelevant. NOW’s leader at the time, Betty Friedan, referred to lesbianism as the “Lavender Menace.” This phrase referred to her view that incorporating lesbianism in the feminist agenda would undermine the credibility of the women’s movement overall.

Alice Echols in “The Eruption of Difference” describes the emergence of lesbian feminism during this time and the creation of a lesbian separatist movement in response to the homophobic sentiments expressed by heterosexual feminist organizations of that era.

In response to being ostracized as a “lavender menace,” some lesbians formed organizations and developed political ideologies addressing their needs. Groups such as The Radicalesbians wrote political texts including “The Woman Identified Woman,” a prominent article that was the first to reclaim “Lavender Menace” in order to address the resistance faced by lesbians from the women’s liberation movement. One of the noted leaders of Radicalesbians was Rita Mae Brown.

These activists called for female and lesbian separatism, arguing that “Only women can give each other a new sense of self.” (“The Woman Identified Woman,” 235) They held that “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are categories created by a male-dominated society utilized to separate and dominate women. Notably, “The Woman Identified Woman” argued that the issue of lesbianism is essential to women’s liberation. “It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation and the basis for cultural revolution.” (The Woman Identified Woman, 236)

On May 1, 1970, lesbianism became a serious issue at the “Second Congress to Unite Women,” when lesbian activists such as The Radicalesbians chose this conference to educate feminists regarding the political obstacles faced by lesbians. At this event, the “Lavender Menace” attempted to rush the stage to present lesbian issues and distributed copies of “The Woman Identified Woman.” Although the lights were doused before the stage was rushed, this action led to pro-lesbian resolutions being passed at the conference’s final assembly. In 1971, the Radicalesbians disbanded.

At this time, many heterosexual feminists expressed discomfort over having sex re-injected into their feminist world, a world they believed to be outside of the androcentric relationships of sexuality. Echols argues that “...the introduction of sex troubled many heterosexual feminists who had found in the women’s movement a welcome respite from sexuality.” Perhaps in response to heterosexual discomfort, lesbian feminists distanced themselves from the sexual aspect of lesbianism and assured feminists that lesbianism involved “sensuality” not sexuality. Thus, Radicalesbians had to persuade feminists that lesbianism was not simply a bedroom issue, and that lesbians were not “male-identified ‘bogeywomen’ out to sexually exploit women” (Echols, 216).

In essence, lesbian feminists tried to untie lesbianism from sex so heterosexual feminists were more comfortable. But they still had to find an effective way to address the accusation that their masculinity was somehow complicit with men and patriarchy. Lesbian feminists responded by distancing themselves from stereotypes of “masculine roles,” maleness, and patriarchy. One way they were able to do so was by disentangling lesbian sexuality from heterosexuality and re-conceptualizing heterosexual sex as consorting with “the enemy”. They capitalized on dominant assumptions regarding female sexuality, including ideas of women’s romantic and nurturing sexuality versus men’s aggressive sexuality. They were then able to draw a distinction between lesbian sex and heterosexual sex, claiming that lesbian sex was “pure as snow” since it did not involve men. For example, “…the male seeks to conquer through sex while the female seeks to communicate” and “…lesbians are obsessed with love and fidelity” (Echols, 218).

Using this ideology, lesbians successfully billed lesbianism as an ultimate form of feminism--a practice that did not involve men on any emotional level. In this way, heterosexual feminists were seen as inferior because of their continued association with men. Lesbians took on a “vanguard” quality as the “true” bearers of feminism. As radical feminism became more associated with lesbianism, heterosexual feminists left the movement.

Within the feminist movement, lesbian feminists were often accused of elitism and arrogance, because they considered themselves the “vanguard” of feminism. As a result of the differences between Radicalesbians and feminists, Rita Mae Brown and approximately 9 other women formed a lesbian separatist group called “The Furies Collective.” The Furies became famous for their newsletter of the same name. Unlike the Radicalesbians, The Furies were not as successful in jump-starting a large-scale separatist movement - but they did “set the terms of the debate” (Echols, 228).

These 9 women lived together, worked together, and extolled the virtues of communal living, from sharing clothes to producing a newsletter and raising children. They were unapologetic about their beliefs and stances on political issues, which gained the resentment of many heterosexual feminists. However, separatism eventually led to a more insular and isolated experience for The Furies and the group disbanded after a year and after Rita Mae Brown’s departure.

Building Communities & Institutions

Los Angeles

Southern California has a rich history of lesbian feminism and identity politics during this period. For ten years (1970-79), lesbian feminists in Los Angeles engaged in political activism on behalf of several social causes. However, because lesbians and gay men lacked institutional foundations from which to draw moral and financial support, they also engaged in institution building as they organized politically. In many ways, the activists of this time were inventing the wheel, since they lacked role models and the support of already established institutions.

In the article, “Lesbian Activism in Los Angeles (1970-1979),” Yolanda Retter describes the LA movement in three phases. The first phase is characterized by the development of lesbian separatism, with lesbian focused groups and all-purpose centers largely staffed by volunteers. In attempts to challenge patriarchal forms of organizing, the majority of groups lacked formal hierarchies and leaders. The second phase involved the creation of groups and centers focused on lesbian specific issues. During both the first and second phases, tension arose due to diverse backgrounds, varying ideologies, and differing agendas of community members. Lesbians fought over sexual styles, sexism, racism and worker/boss disparities. For example, LA lesbians battled over the behavior of members in their own communities, conflict arose over lesbian feminist opposition to monogamy, butch/femme identities were under attack as imitation of male/female roles institutionalized in heterosexuality.

As a result of many of these tensions and due to volunteer burnout, many of the first wave of centers folded. During this period, there was also a growth of specialized centers focused on one or few specific issues (as opposed to all issues). During this time, as lesbian culture expanded nationally, the institutional base of LA lesbian community grew. However, in spite of contentious dynamics, institution-building proceeded at a rapid pace. Before Stonewall, lesbian culture consisted of bars, private homes, strips of beaches, and softball fields. But, due to lesbian organizing, lesbians created lesbian-media, woman-focused cultural productions, and women-only spaces in conferences and community centers. For example, they developed The Lesbian Tide, an independent lesbian feminist magazine, which promoted consciousness-raising and focused on providing political support to all progressive causes.

Finally, during the final phase lesbians joined forces with gay men to challenge homophobic backlash.

Seattle, Philadelphia, the Midwest

Two women moved to Seattle in 1972: Bryher Herak from Montana, a place, she told an interviewer, with “big trucks” where lesbians dressed in boots and denim—and Jane Meyerding from Chicago, a university graduate and veteran activist who hadn’t yet found a way to publicly express her feelings for women. Upon arriving in the Pacific Northwest, each woman set about looking for others like herself. Years before, a dimly lit lesbian bar would have been the obvious place to visit. Instead, Meyerding met her first Seattle lesbian at the Young Women’s Christian Association in Seattle’s bustling University District. Herak learned of a lesbian party when she stopped by a women’s bookstore in the “U-district.” (Atkins, 129)

The political climate of the early 1970s and the emerging lesbian feminism had sparked redefinitions of lesbian identity. But they had also enabled a collective lesbian politics different from before—a politics often explicitly linked to feminism, gay liberation, and socialism. Further, as the two newly-transplanted Seattleites’ experiences showed, community building practices linked to this more public politics heightened lesbians’ visibility, creating new spaces, beyond bars and private homes, where lesbians could meet and talk.

Seattle’s YWCA had started as an auxiliary office to the Young Men’s Christian Association, situated in the University of Washington’s fraternity row. In 1970, influenced by a revitalized national women’s movement and feminist critiques of liberalism, the YWCA’s director moved the office from fraternity row to the university’s retail district so as not to reproduce what she called “a traditional male-female relationship” with the YMCA, which was “just what we’re fighting against.” (Atkins, 133; Taylor & Whittier, 351) The YWCA’s new digs quickly became a hub of feminist politics, in which bulletin boards sported notices about feminist events, a rape counseling service began, and both the Northwest Women’s Law Center and the National Organization for Women opened offices.

But the YWCA also played a key role in Seattle as a catalyst for the development of new public lesbian institutions. In those spaces, feminist and lesbian-feminist politics commingled with lesbian socializing. In 1970, the first issue of the YWCA’s newspaper, Pandora, detailed how 45 women had recently met in Seattle to discuss their feelings about the Gay Liberation Front, and to decide whether they should form a separate lesbian group. (Atkins, 133-4) The decision was in the affirmative; two weeks later, Pandora had published a rationale and a set of objectives for the new Gay Women’s Alliance. Their statement, while creating a certain distance from the women’s movement, yet invoked radical feminist language in describing the need for lesbian spaces built in coalition with a larger feminist community:

“For as long as women have been struggling against the male-domination prevalent in our society, lesbians have been the niggers of the women’s movement. Women’s liberation has been running scared in fear of the labels ‘lesbian’ and ‘dyke’ hurled by men trying to quell the rise of self-determination among women. And, for the most part, women have reacted defensively, and have put down their gay sisters in order to appear valid in men’s eyes. But our common goal, as women, must be to write our own definition of woman and womanhood […]

As they begin to get themselves together to understand one another on a human, personal basis, gay women will want to establish contact with other women’s groups in the Seattle area. Our goals as women may not be identical, but we have enough in common to warrant communication and common rallying points. (Atkins, 134-5)

In March 1971, the GWA opened a Gay Women’s Resource Center within the YWCA’s offices. The resource center was staffed by volunteers and open from noon until 10 p.m. It not only created a speakers’ bureau and provided references to lesbian-friendly businesses, but it also set about becoming a place where lesbians could meet and talk to one another outside of the bar scene. (Atkins, 135)

Outside Seattle, feminist organizations and politics also played key roles in space-making and community-building. In a Midwestern 1970s lesbian community profiled by sociologist Susan Krieger, members generally identified both as lesbians and as feminists. Some met each other while they were working to create the Women’s Shelter in that area. As the years passed, the range of institutions and activities available to lesbians broadened considerably. Lesbians began to find each other while working at the Rape Crisis Center and the Women’s Information Network, or while attending support groups and social events sponsored by those organizations. They would meet at concerts and through sports—as well as in bars. (Krieger, 216)

In Philadelphia, women active in Radicalesbians reported that they had heard about the group through the Women’s Center or through women’s studies classes at the University of Pennsylvania. One Radicalesbian member said most participants were single and “part of the point [of attending meetings] was to meet people, if not the main point.” The Radicalesbians not only organized meetings, parties, and dances, but also a lesbian feminist conference, a pride parade, political demonstrations, bike-riding trips, church services, baseball games, and women’s picnics. (M. Stein, 344-8)

Exemplifying this commingling of the political and the social were the lesbian consciousness-raising groups that sprung up during this time. Patterned on the sexually nonspecific consciousness-raising groups of radical feminism, these were small groups where lesbians in turn discussed their own life journeys. (Taylor & Whittier, 351) In connecting their own experiences with those of others, the expectation was that they would become aware of the ways their experiences were not solitary ones and were instead part of larger systems of oppression. Consciousness-raising group members connected their experiences with lesbian-feminist political ideas, discussing the merits and drawbacks of various philosophies in relation to their own lives. (Atkins, 138-9) In this way, the consciousness-raising groups were not only key sites for social connection and the articulation of identity, but were also sites of political organizing grounded in the personal.

Literary Production

These new specifically lesbian spaces created in the wake of women’s liberation were not only in the realm of the physical. They were also textual. The Daughters of Bilitis published The Ladder, the first national lesbian periodical in print, from 1956 to 1970. In 1970 both the editor of The Ladder and the president of DOB decided to disassociate the publication from DOB and to turn it into a more political magazine. At about this time there was an unprecedented explosion of lesbian literary production, frequently ensconced during the late sixties and early seventies in newspapers, journals, magazines, and newsletters.

Periodicals such as Amazon Quarterly, Crysalis, Feminary, Conditions, Lavender Woman, Feminist Bookstore News, Lesbian/Lesbienne, Sinister Wisdom, Azalea, Connexions, Heresies, Open Door: Rural Lesbian Newsletter, Calyx, Fireweed, La Vie En Rose, Aché, Hot Wire, Dyke, Rites, and Common Lives, Lesbian Lives created imagined communities of discourse where far-flung lesbians became authors engaged in a common purpose. Reading the publications enabled personal validation and self-discovery, cultural identification, and the building of community for those who, such as in more rural areas, did not have support groups, bars, or other physical institutions nearby.

Of the lesbian specific art and writing during this period, some of the work, like the Radicalesbians’ “Women Identified Woman,” advocated for lesbian separatism. In “The Scum Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas, women are described as whole, perfect entities, while men are blamed for many existing social problems. Solanas described males as incomplete beings, and argued that the male claims female characteristics for himself while projecting male characteristics onto females. Solanas held the view that love can only truly exist between two females. “The Scum Manifesto” also had anarchistic political leanings, arguing for the overthrow of the government, elimination of the money system, institution of complete automation, and the destruction of the male sex (with the exception of few select men, who would belong to the men’s auxiliary).

Another example of writing created by and for lesbians was “Edward The Dyke” by Judy Grahn. While Grahn was allied with the serious, revolutionary lesbian feminists of the 1970’s, her work stood out through its use of satire and humor. The topics were deeply revolutionary and filled with struggle, but the style was so satiric that readers were often left with an odd sense of confusion from Grahn’s poems. Critics have said that she incorporated rhyme and meter into poetic meaning to remind readers how much gay and lesbian history has been passed down by oral tradition as opposed to written tradition. Although central to a lot of Grahn’s work is a lesbian identity, her work also encourages women to find commonality with each other instead of uniting as women based on their differences from men.

During the seventies, lesbians began to develop an autonomous lesbian-feminist publishing network that enabled the circulation of book-length works. Rejecting the capitalist and male-dominated politics of the mainstream publishing industry, this network constituted women who edited manuscripts, ran printing presses, and bound books, as well as women-owned bookstores. The alternative presses, with names such as Naiad, Persephone, Diana, The Women’s Press Collective, Aunt Lute, Spinsters Ink, Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press, Daughters Inc., Firebrand Books, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Cleis, New Victoria Press, Seal, and Press Gang Publishers, aimed to be nonprofit and nonhierarchical. They also sought to incite radical activism through the texts they published.

Scholar Alisa Klinger has argued that “The revolutionary investment of North American lesbian writers in the actual means of textual production enabled them to self-consciously represent themselves and their readers as literary and political subjects for the first time.” (Klinger, 66-8) These literary spaces added to the physical sites being created at this time; in all these spaces, lesbians found one another and built new kinds of political and social communities.

Divisions

For some, the community that coalesced through the many new connections that lesbian-feminism fostered constituted a unifying force—“a whole culture, a camaraderie, a support system, a network, shared understanding, shared vision,” members told sociologist Susan Krieger. This shared understanding and vision was connected to political acts emanating from personal identity, such as “daring to say the word ‘lesbian’ out loud” or “doing a demonstration in support of a woman who didn’t wear a bra.” (Krieger, 215-6) But for others, lesbian-feminist community was characterized as much as by division as by unity—by the forming of politically motivated boundaries demarcating which women, and which ways of being, were superior or inferior.

Appearance, Style & Sexuality

For example, in many lesbian-feminist communities younger lesbians were ambivalent about femme/butch culture, viewing it as a pre-feminist anachronism that constituted an ill-advised alliance with patriarchy. Some Radicalesbians called butch/femme “male-identified role-playing among lesbians.” One viewed butch women as lacking enlightened community and progressive political consciousness. She described them to sociologist Barbara Ponse as “rural women, farm women, country women who had no contact with any kind of gay community [and] really thought they must be like men.” (Ponse, 252) Because this view conceived of femme/butch roles as irredeemably against feminist struggle, one woman who later identified as butch recalled to Ponse that it was “very hard” to identify as both butch and feminist “back in those days.”

Historian Marc Stein has conjectured that this lesbian-feminist disapproval was both racialized and classed, because at this time, both white working-class lesbian culture and African American lesbian culture generally continued to be organized around butch/femme roles. (M. Stein, 350) Indeed, although lesbian feminists often used language aiming to speak for all women, only a few African American women and a few women over 40 participated in Radicalesbians. (M. Stein, 344) In one mainly white and middle-class Midwestern lesbian feminist community, those who lived in trailers, worked on farms, and were not college educated possessed an acute awareness that they were on the community’s margins. (Krieger, 217, 219)

Lesbian-feminist disapproval of femme/butch culture was philosophically based on radical feminist assertions that all aspects of everyday life are highly politicized sites of potential resistance to patriarchy. (Taylor & Whittier, 358) However, to some, these expectations of lifestyle and of personal appearance became rules demarcating who most merited authentic membership in the community on the basis of her adherence to a proper kind of feminist politics. This ideal feminist politics frequently saw itself as devoted to the negotiation of new definitions of gender, such as by moving one’s appearance and demeanor toward androgyny.

The “dress code” in some lesbian-feminist communities, for instance, comprised T-shirts, overalls, Levis, hiking boots, no makeup, virtually no dresses or skirts, short hair, and a refusal of leg shaving. (Krieger, 219; Taylor & Whittier, 359-360) For some community members, this new dress code served a vital feminist cause of freeing women from the shackles of a heteropatriarchal gaze. For others not wishing to change their appearance, these expectations caused tensions. Jane Meyerding in Seattle said it seemed the lesbian feminist community there began to divide along stylistic lines, between “bar dykes” and “Coffee Coven dykes.” (Atkins, 147)

If, for lesbian-feminists, the style of dress was one site of resistance to patriarchy, what women did in the bedroom became another. Groups such as the Radicalesbians characterized heterosexuality as a cause of the oppression of women and contended that lesbianism was the revolutionary vanguard of feminist resistance to patriarchy. (Taylor & Whittier, 356; M. Stein, 354) One Radicalesbian member wrote, “Why in the name of hell do so many of our Sisters continue to let men use and abuse them to death? […] any woman sleeping with any man on a fairly regular basis is prostituting her mind, her body, and her spirit.” (M. Stein, 354)

But if sleeping with men amounted to acquiescing to patriarchy, one didn’t necessarily have to engage in sexual relations with women in order to be feminist. In 1980, poet and theorist Adrienne Rich broadened the meaning of “lesbian,” writing of a “lesbian continuum” that encompassed a spectrum of “woman identification” from “the impudent, intimate girl friendships of eight or nine year olds” to all kinds of “marriage resisters” for whom “women provided the ongoing fascination and sustenance of life.”

“Woman identification” de-emphasized the importance of the erotic for Rich, to argue that all kinds of connections between women—sexual or not—carried the power to upend heterosexuality’s embrace of the patriarchal status quo. (Rich, 240-1, 244-5) Because of the separatist ideology that discouraged sharing one’s bed with a man, some lesbian feminists viewed bisexuality in stigmatized terms as an ideologically bankrupt lifestyle that, in siding with men over women, denied innate feminist potential. (Ponse, 253)

Race

Along with differences over appearance and sexuality, racial differences, too, became increasingly salient in lesbian feminist, as well as broader feminist, communities. African American lesbian Anita Cornwell joined the Radicalesbians and began writing for the Ladder in 1971. Her first Ladder article expressed a hope for cross-racial coalition-building. But the next year, she wrote that her feelings had changed somewhat when she was attending a conference populated mostly by white lesbians. It was there that she learned a Black Panther had been shot. “[T]he moment I or any other black forget we are black, it may be our last,” she wrote. “For when the shooting starts any black is fair game. The bullets don’t give a damn whether I sleep with woman or man.” In a 1974 essay Cornwell recalled that she had joined the women’s movement believing her race would not affect how she was treated. Just six months after she joined, she said she “faced the truth” that “racism does exist in the Movement […] [i]t was there, however, and is still there.” (M. Stein, 355-6)

Feelings of exclusion spurred some women of color to break away and create their own organizations. One of the best known is the Combahee River Collective. A group of black lesbian feminists created the collective in 1975 because they were frustrated with racism in the women’s movement, sexism in the black freedom movements, and dissatisfied with the recently-formed National Black Feminist Organization’s inattention to sexuality and to analysis of economic oppression. In a 1977 statement, the collective emphasized that the aims of their intersectional politics followed from an analysis of their own life experiences:

[W]e are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. […] We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. (CRC, 272-3, 275)

The collective acknowledged that the political community they had formed was not necessarily more devoid of conflict than others. They had experienced internal disagreements and drop-offs in membership, they wrote. Yet, they voiced hope that “we know we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.” (CRC, 281)

Five years later in 1982, this optimism appeared to have been confirmed. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press published the pathbreaking book Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, co-edited by Combahee River Collective co-founder Barbara Smith. In her introduction to the book, Smith expressed satisfaction with the progress that nine years of women of color organizing had wrought. She described the publication of the book as attempting both to solidify their hard-won gains and to communicate them to a broader audience.

Writing that same year, anthropologist Esther Newton observed that although lesbian-feminist rhetoric positioned itself as universalist—as representing all women—“class and race antagonisms” in lesbian communities in fact “may have sharpened since 1970.” (Newton, 161) Lesbian-feminist ideological hegemony, she wrote, had elided the ways in which lesbian cultures are actually highly fragmented. For Newton, ideologies of unity could not paper over salient differences between lesbians.

Lesbian-feminists had formed the new communities of the 1970s with high hopes. These new spaces that changed the ways lesbians interacted with one another, they felt, could simultaneously change the world. The comments of a Midwestern lesbian-feminist seemed to exemplify the ambivalences of membership in these new communities, however: “The community for her, said Jenny, was a place of belonging. At the same time she thought of it as very distant and hard-to-know. It was what she was supposedly part of, yet she didn’t feel part of it.” (Krieger, 219)