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1970s Lesbian Feminism

"A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion."
- Radicalesbians 1970 The Woman Identified Woman.

By Ara Wilson.


While doing research for a video project on early 1970s lesbian feminism, we found few Web resources dedicated to this vibrant, controversial, and radical movement. The materials on this site primarily cover the development and emergence of lesbian feminism, a moment from roughly 1970 to 1975, and addresses the related but separate trajectory of lesbians of color.

In 1970, lesbian feminism emerged as a radical political project from within the U.S. left -- the anti-war, student, and civil rights movements; welfare activism; anarchism; second-wave feminism; and also from lesbian subcultures. The early 1970s lesbian feminists, and especially separatists, were mainly but not exclusively white, and came from a range of class and cultural backgrounds. Radical lesbians extended feminist theory even further, pointing out that (compulsory) heterosexuality is key to male dominated society (a.k.a. patriarchy). The logical strategy for feminists is to escape heterosexuality, and embrace lesbianism, in order to free themselves, overthrow the social order, and create a more just society.

The historical background for the emergence of this movement is conveyed in a chronology for 1963-1970, while 1971 to 1976 chronicles the crystallization of lesbian feminism. Black lesbians and other lesbians of color have forged a radical political trajectory critical of but also connected to the mostly white versions of the separatists.

Lesbian feminism insisted on overthrowing or rejecting patriarchal culture, and therefore, produced a plethora of alternative forms of expressions centered on women -- or womyn, wimmin, womon. You'll find a list of secondary articles, monographs, and overviews on 1970s lesbian feminism at commentary, analysis and reference. A guide to relevant Websites is provided in sisterly links and lesbians of color.

Lesbian Feminism, In Brief - Lesbianism as Politics

"REVOLUTIONARY LESBIANS see their struggle as a total one as a struggle for a non-exploitive communist society...We feel that none of us will be free until ALL forms of oppression -- ALL explotive relationships (capitalism, imperialism, racism, sexism, youth oppression...) are eliminated."
- Revolutionary Lesbians 1971 How to Stop Choking To Death or: Separatism

Lesbians who were active in the radical movements of the late 1960s -- civil rights, anti-war and peace struggles, student movements, and feminism -- began to turn their revolutionary energies to their own position as lesbians. Analyzing the inextricable link between heterosexuality and sexism, they concluded that women's liberation and lesbian identity are one and the same project. In Washington DC, Cincinnati, Chicago, the Bay Area, New York, Boston, and elsewhere, progressive lesbians began to devote more of their political energies to formulating this new movement, which placed their identities and desires at the center of a revolutionary politics. Drawing on the ideas and methods of these new social movements, lesbian feminists worked to forge a rigorous analysis of the systems and structures that oppressed them as women and lesbians, and to define the logical course of action from that theory.

By emphasizing lesbianism, the radical lesbians did not mean a simple question of sexual object choice, lifestyle, or assimilation into mainstream heterosexual society. Rather, lesbianism meant a political act -- the deliberate and passionate orientation to other women in a misogynist, heterosexist world. The proliferation the politicized erotic and emotional bonds among women would generate the force to create a feminist cultures and overthrow the patriarchal order.

"Just as sexism is the source of all our other oppressions, maleness is the source of sexism."
- Gutter Dyke Collective 1973 Over the Walls

Lesbian feminist activists aimed to deconstruct, decenter, and destabilize patriarchal society. They organized political actions to criticize homophobia within the women's movement (the "Lavender Menace") and in the larger society. Often organized into political cells (such as the Furies or Gutter Dyke Collective), these activists cultivated political strategies in line with their feminist critiques, among them:

  • zaps, or creative symbolic protests and actions
  • reinventing sexuality by expanding sexual expression away from heterosexual intercourse and possessive monogamy, and by valuing women's bodies and experiences
  • creating the womyn's culture necessary to realize their political goals and recreate society through music, art, and literature
  • rewriting language away from patriarchal power, for example: 1. replacing women with wimmin, womon, womyn 2. bypassing patrinomial last names by dropping them, changing them (Silverwoman, Murielchild, Spinster, Dykewomon), or alphabetizing by first-name
  • forging radical spiritualities by going before or beyond "god the father" and turning to witchcraft or goddess worship
  • revising androcentric theories, philosophies, and assumptions
  • separatism as a (controversial) strategy to redefine physical, social, and political space and allow women to form autonomous worlds, which ranged from: 1. temporary women-only events, such as a concert or conference (which typically included young boys, a terrain of much debate) 2. women-only or lesbian-only political groups 3. an effort to direct one's "energy" towards women, not men; to form relations only with women; to minimize interactions with males 4. all-lesbian houses or communes

    Among the many women involved in formulating this lesbian feminist or separatist vision in the early 1970s, in varying ways, some of the better known (or better recorded) were:

  • June Arnold
  • Ginny Berson
  • Joan Biren (JEB)
  • Blanche Boyd
  • Rita Mae Brown
  • Charlotte Bunch
  • Meg Christian
  • Mary Daly
  • Marilyn Frye
  • Karla Jay
  • Jill Johnston
  • Judy Grahn
  • Audre Lorde
  • Barbara Love
  • Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
  • Kate Millett
  • Nancy Myron
  • Holly Near
  • Pat Parker
  • Adrienne Rich
  • Jane Rule
  • Linda Shear
  • Barbara Smith
  • Valerie Solanis
  • Chris Williamson

    Some of the key organizations and publications were:

  • Chicago Lesbian Liberation, 1971-1974
  • CLIT: Collective Lesbian International Terrors, 1974
  • The Killer Dyke, 1971-1972
  • The Furies Collective - The Furies, Washington DC, 1972-1973
  • The Gorgons - Dykes and Gorgons, East Bay, CA
  • The Lesbian Separatist Group - The Amazon Analysis, Seattle WA 1973
  • National Lesbian Conference, Chicago, IL, April 1973
  • Jill Johnston, The Lesbian Nation, 1974
  • Lesbian-Feminist Center, Chicago IL, 1974-1977
  • Radicalesbians Revolutionary Lesbians - Spectre, Ann Arbor MI 1971-1972
  • Tribad, New York City, 1977-1979

    Lesbian Feminism Under Fire

    "Flannel shirts, blue jeans, no make-up, no jewelry and short hair were all requirements of the club. Effectively, we became desexualized in our dress codes. It was not clear who was sleeping with whom."
    -JoAnn Loulan 1984 Lesbian Sex

    Lesbian feminism of the 1970s or after is generally considered discredited. On the one hand, lesbian feminists have been the target of dismissive criticism from a broad spectrum of liberal or heterosexual progressive positions. On the other hand, serious questions have also been raised closer to home. Radical critics, among them gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (glbt) voices, feminists of color, and radical feminists -- including many lesbian feminists themselves -- have pointed to serious problems in lesbian feminist ideas and practice, faulting it for:

  • being mostly white and middle class, thereby reproducing racist and classist assumptions
  • defining issues in ways that exclude or discourage lesbians of color, and ignoring the commitments minority women must have to men in their worlds
  • taking critical distance from butch-fem identities or working-class lesbian scenes
  • being anti-sex and prudish
  • "policing" sexuality; judging sexual desires and practices
  • leaving the sex out of lesbianism
  • not accepting male-to-female transsexuals and transvestites as women
  • reappropriating butch or female-to-male transgendered figures as would-be lesbian feminists
  • denying bisexual desire or politics
  • adopting essentialist ideas about sex and gender
  • perpetuating the cultural binary of male/female

    C. Moffat - "Italy and Germany Reproduction" - 2002.

    The Radicalism of Lesbian Feminism, Reconsidered

    "In our society which defines all people and institutions for the benefit of the rich, white male, the Lesbian is in revolt."
    -Charlotte Bunch 1975 Lesbians in Revolt

    Many of the critiques of 1970s lesbian feminism are well-placed, and were raised by lesbian feminists themselves -- and especially by lesbians of color. Certainly the 1970s lesbian feminist efforts to remake the world did not achieve their utopian goals. After the mid-1970s, too, lesbian feminists became more focused on sustaining their communities, culture, and established ideas than on revolutionary action.

    Yet however valid the radical criticisms, they do not explain the progressive attitudes towards the early movement. In feminist, glbt, and critical histories and theories, lesbian feminism often gets simplified, caricatured, ridiculed, or ignored in ways that would be unthinkable for other progressive projects.

    Thirty years later, it is worth reconsidering the politics and problems of 1970s lesbian feminism. One quality that stands out is the daring revolutionary scope of this moment. The women involved feverishly took on the powers of the state, religion, society, family, and culture, at great personal and collective risk, and with a breadth and passion that dwarfs most glbt or feminist efforts today. For better or worse, this lesbian program was very much of its time. Just as other well-known movements of the 1960s to 1970s left their marks on progressive and alternative projects -- yet with far less recognition -- lesbian feminism generated its own radical legacy:

  • in creative forms of political mobilization (continued in the peace movement, later ACT-UP)
  • in progressive social programs and policies (e.g., battered women's movements, rape crisis programs)
  • in spiritual beliefs and practices (goddess worship, paganism)
  • in sexuality, with its radical remapping of women's erotic lives (from "cunt coloring books" to lesbian erotica)
  • in women's art, music, performance, and writing (Michigan to Lilith; Pat Parker to Sisterspit)
  • in women's studies, glbt studies, and queer theory, for which it laid the intellectual and institutional groundwork
  • in such key radical concepts as the sex/gender system, patriarchy, the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality, compulsory heterosexuality, and heterosexism

  • Lesbian Feminism Today

    Many women active in early 1970s lesbian feminism moved onto other projects, ranging from music distribution to writing and publishing to international organizing, and to both sides of the debates on pornography, S/M, or prostitution. Yet some women from this 1970s generations, joined by others who came (or came out) after, remain dedicated to lesbian feminist and/or separatist politics. Among them:

  • the radical theologist Mary Daly, who continues to generate controversy with her womyn-centered teaching and writing.
  • the long-running newspaper off our backs, a major venue for radical feminist perspectives.
  • lesbian-feminist authors Janice Raymond in the U.S. and Sheila Jeffreys in the U.K., among others.
  • the intrepid lesbians who live out their vision at Sister Spirit, Sugarloaf Women's Village, and other rural women's communes.
  • writers, artists, and performers, who probably provide the most successful on-going expression of lesbian-feminism: ; 1. womyn's music festivals (like the Michigan Women's Music Festival) ; 2. lesbian and women's music radio shows ; 3. music distributors (Ladyslipper, Olivia Records) ; 4. performing artists Alix Dobkin, Tret Fure, Chris Williamson, and others, who continue to enjoy a loyal following ; 5. women's bookstores ; 6. feminist visual artists (Harmony Hammond, Judy Chicago) and filmmakers (Barbara Hammer)

    The powerful contributions of Lesbians of Color have only grown since the 1970s, even while constrained by racism and conservative backlash. The late Audre Lorde holds an enduring influence, with several institutions bear her name, while Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and others continue to write important critical and creative works. As with the white lesbian feminists, lesbian feminists of color realize and maintain their political vision most vibrantly in poetry, music and cultural expression, spiritual practices, and social networks. In the the global south (the third world), women are also working to incorporate their concerns for sexual rights within their struggles for economic justice, political freedoms, and human and women's rights, and are forming local groups as well as regional and even international networks.

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