Page Three

Radicalesbians Meeting

A Radicalesbians meeting. November 1970. Copyright Ellen Shumsky. Courtesy of the photographer.


As Radical Lesbians set out to create their own movement, they worked hard to avoid the problems they had experienced in other groups. They wanted to develop an organization that would nurture each member, encourage equal participation, and discourage patriarchal “leadership hierarchies” that would allow individual women to exert undue influence on the group.[18]

They instituted the lot system so that members took part in all aspects of the organization—from mundane tasks like writing meeting minutes to more challenging jobs like public speaking.[19] With the exception of a general Wednesday night meeting, members met in small groups that encouraged strong bonds and gave all women the opportunity to be heard.[20]

The group aimed to create a supportive community of women, to give lesbians a voice in the gay and women’s liberation movements, and to take action against their oppression. They picketed lesbian bars in an effort to reach out to less political women, contributed to feminist publications like Rat, spoke about lesbianism at colleges and on radio shows, and participated in activities like self-defense classes at an All Women’s Night at Alternate U.[21]

GLF Women

Members of the GLF Women's Caucus participate in a 1971 March on Albany. Photograph by Richard C. Wandel. Courtesy of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.


Although Radicalesbians worked hard to bring together a wide range of women, the group nonetheless began to splinter. Women who achieved conventional success were chided for elitism, and less radical members felt alienated by the pressure to conform to radical ways of thinking and acting. In the fall of 1970, Barbara Love left the group to bring back the GLF Women’s Caucus, which she promised would welcome women of all backgrounds and political outlooks.

Members also struggled to create a sense of togetherness in the group. Despite their best efforts to discourage individual members from taking leadership roles, women who were better versed in lesbian feminist theory, were more confident and outgoing, or who had more political experience and organizational expertise nonetheless became unofficial leaders. Less outgoing, less experienced, and newer members often felt diminished or left out.[22]

By 1971, many of the original members had become disenchanted with all forms of organizational activity, leaving the group to focus on transforming their own lives.[23] While RL collapsed within the next year, it helped to spark an explosion of lesbian cultural and political activity that went far beyond the group itself.

Ellen Shumsky, who left Radicalesbians to form a commune in Vermont, talks about the collapse of Radicalesbians, as well as the broader importance of the group