1970s Lesbian Feminism
"A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion."
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."
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."
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:
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:
Some of the key organizations and publications were:
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."
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:
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."
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:
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 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.