Lesbian Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK
Talk given at Rad Fem 2013, 9 June. The Camden Centre, London
The impact of the ‘sex wars’
Lesbianism as a politics, rather than just a sexual preference, was the target of savage attack by the pro-sex feminists of the 1980s ‘sex wars’, that is those feminists and lesbians who considered that all the sexual forms that libertarian men were defending against feminist critique simply were what sex naturally was, and those who sought to change the way sexuality was constructed were ‘anti-sex’. The pro-sex brigade sneered at us and said we just weren’t sexy enough, we were boring and too serious and did not really understand that lesbianism was fundamentally about sex. This position was encapsulated on the subscription page of the lesbian sadomasochist magazine ‘On Our Backs’ in the mid 1980s in the slogan, underneath a picture of a woman swathed in tight black shiny leather with tourniqueted breasts, ‘A lesbian is the lust of all women condensed to the point of explosion’.
4. The personal is political
Lesbian feminists took from radical feminism the understanding that ‘the personal is political’ (Hanisch, 1970). This phrase sums up the important revelation of the feminism of the late 60s and 70s that equality in the public sphere with men was an insufficient if not a nonsensical aim. Some feminists simply said that women who wanted to be equal with men lacked ambition. Others analysed the limitations of the strategy in more detail, pointing out that it was the dynamics of personal heterosexual life which imprisoned women and limited their engagement in public life, and that the very notion of public life itself, including its forms and content, derived precisely from men’s possession of a servicing ‘angel in the house’. Hierarchy had to be eliminated from personal life if the face of public life was to change and if the barriers between public and private were to be broken down.
Thus lesbian feminists, like many gay liberationists before them, rejected roleplaying and any manifestation of inequality in lesbian relationships. They saw lesbians who engaged in roleplaying as imitating the noxious patterns of heterosexuality and standing as obstacles in the path of lesbian liberation (Abbott and Love, 1972). The lesbian feminist vision of the future did not consist of a public world of official equal opportunity based upon a private world in which inequality could be eroticised and milked for excitement. The public and private were to be all of a piece and to be shaped to represent a new ethic. It was the lesbian feminist and radical feminist critique of sexuality and relationships, the idea that the personal is political and needs to change, that came to be challenged in the 1980s in what have since been called the ‘feminist sexuality debates’ or ‘sex wars’. A new breed of lesbian pornographers and sadomasochists derided lesbian feminist understandings of the personal as political and the importance of equality in sex and love as anti-sex (see my book The Lesbian Heresy, 1993).
5. Sexuality of equality
In the late 1980s and 1990s lesbianism was regendered, with the recreation of butch/femme roleplaying, to represent a sexuality of power difference. In a more recent example, a lesbian academic explained in the Journal of Lesbian Studies her despair at entering a lesbian event back in the 1970s and finding that all the lesbians who were there, who were having a great time, were androgynous and she found she was not sexually attracted to any of the. They were not roleplaying power difference so they were completely unexciting to her, ‘In the late 1980s, … I looked around at the room of androgynous lesbians-sweet women, laughing and enjoying themselves, comfortable in their bodies and the celebration of sexuality that dancing with your own can bring-and with the suddenness of an electric shock, I realized there was not one woman in the room who I could imagine dating. My community, a home in my heart, left me sexually cold, aloof’ (Lev, 2008: 134).
For lesbian feminists the personal, including how we do love and sex, is political. We understand, as I and Catharine MacKinnon, amongst others, have pointed out, that sexual feelings and sexual practice is socially constructed out of the power dynamics of male domination. Penis-in-vagina sex is at the heart of this political system, both signifying ownership and colonization of women and providing powerful pleasure to members of the male ruling class. For this reason, sexuality is constructed as the eroticizing of male domination and female subordination. ‘Gender’ constitutes the behaviours seen as suitable for those occupying these status categories. Masculinity is male dominant behaviour, and femininity is female subordinate behaviour. Thus women are required to wear revealing and constricting garments and torture shoes, do painful practices of depilation on their bodies, and make up to show their deference to males: this is femininity. Males on the other hand wear comfortable, loose clothing, and comfortable shoes, and can walk about in the world with barefaced cheek. Women must smile and simper deferentially, whilst men may interact whilst barely moving their facial muscles. There is much more to gender but above all it does, in these ways, very clearly represent the power dynamics of male domination. All of this is, unfortunately, sexy to many lesbians and gay men as well as to heterosexuals who may seek to retain the excitements of power difference by eroticising the roleplaying of masculinity and femininity.
In the seventies lesbian feminists, like those involved in other political movements, believed in ‘living the revolution now’, that is, living our lives in a way that presaged how we wanted the world to be. We sought to create in our personal lives, prefigurative forms, which would presage an ideal world that could exist after the revolution. Thus in a world where sexuality was constructed on a model of sadomasochism which led to the relegation of women and girls to the sex industry and to high rates of sexual violence against women and girls, the aim in personal life was to seek to eroticise equality and engage in egalitarian relationships without sex roles. Nowadays, living the revolution now is understood only in relation to the environment movement, where it is considered appropriate to reduce waste and use of fossil fuels, for instance. Sexuality on the other hand is completely depoliticized, not just for the malestream world but for most lesbians too, who would consider any critique of ways to ‘put the power back in’ to be anti-sex, bigoted, hateful, fascist and so on. It is interesting that the recent campaigns against me by tg activists have all included the important fact that I have criticized BDSM, which is now seen as tantamount to proof of complete social unacceptability.
As Janice Raymond reminded us back in 1989, lesbian feminism was not about every individual lesbian’s quest for the grail of what uniquely turned her on, it was not based on individualism but collectivism, ‘Lesbian feminism was a movement based on the power of a “we,” not on an individual woman’s fantasy or self-expression. This was a movement that had a politics- that realized that prostitution, pornography, and sexual violence could not be redefined as therapeutic, economic, or sexy to fit any individual woman’s whim in the name of free choice’ (Janice G. Raymond, 1989).
Why is it different now?
1. Impact of individualist politics: there is no such thing as society
Lesbian feminism, like second wave feminism in general, came out of a time when there were very serious revolutionary political movements taking place around the world. There was a radical students movement, the black power movement, the anti-apartheid movement. Serious politics inspired second wave feminism, both in our activist tactics and our imaginations. We believed in revolution, not reform. These politics and the strong Left that existed in UK, for example, were undermined by the onslaught of Thatcherism, Reaganism and free market individualism which attacked all forms of collectivism and sought to dissolve the glue that enabled radical political action. As Thatcher famously said, ‘there is no such thing as society’. Citizens were to be fashioned into indivdual consumers to take part in the marketplace of consumer goods, rather than in the marketplace of ideas.
The political agenda that took over from the belief in revolution was the rights agenda. This is about individualism and allows no space to understand women’s oppression as a sex caste. All individuals are seen as having equal rights. Thus the male-bodied transgender has an equal right with individual women to use the women’s toilets, and sexual violence by men against women as a class, including in the toilets, cannot be imagined or recognised. The rights agenda has been very problematic for feminism. Many feminists have sought to use it for their purposes, often successfully, but when it comes to the rights of men who say they are women to enter women’s spaces, and the inability of so many to question this, then we can see clearly the shortcomings of this approach.
2. Extinction of women only spaces
The extinction of women only spaces and the continuous campaign against any attempts such as this conference to recreate them, creates huge problems for the recreation of lesbian feminism. It is in women only spaces that heterosexual women can envision becoming lesbians. Inspired by the strength of women to do everything on their own and without men’s permission or condescension, women are able to develop a passion for women. The heat of lesbian eroticism was powerfully felt in the politics and the women’s spaces of the second wave. There is not so much of that now.
I have heard the argument that men these days are different, have been exposed to feminism, some have feminist mothers and so on. But the tsunami of porn and violence against women does not support this view. The culture in which women live is arguably more woman-hating than before. In the 70s pornographic imagery did not dominate the streetscape, and there was no easy access to Internet porn to ensure that males from childhood to adulthood would be exposed to porn. Violence against women is just as pervasive today but often in more brutal porn-inspired ways. Indeed it may be that heterosexual women’s involvement in anti-porn campaigns, for instance, is precisely because finding men unaffected by porn is no longer possible. It may be the case that in this respect men are not better these days, but much worse.
There is every reason for women to separate so that they can think together outside men’s pornographic space. But men, it seems, are more furious now at any possibility of women meeting without them. They are litigious and use serious harassment and threats of violence. In the 1970s I put my name, address and telephone number in the London Women’s Liberation Newsletter so I could have meetings at my house. That is unthinkable now. Feminism has been forced into secrecy and anonymity. So I don’t think the argument holds water that men are different. I think there is a state of emergency for feminism right now.
3. Enforced heterosexuality: compulsory propinquity with men.
In the present heterosexuality is forced upon women through enforced propinquity with men. As the few spaces in which girls and women might have been able to be together without men are eliminated, girls and women have no alternative. There are vanishingly few girls’ schools or university colleges any more, for instance. Single sex education has long been seen by supposedly progressive educators as dangerous, as creating lesbianism. It does do that, and I think it creates feminists too. Now men’s rights activists, transgender activists, and many young women themselves seem determined to enforce compulsory propinquity and treat the idea of women only spaces with suspicion or derision.
In a world so viciously heterosexualised and fiercely gendered, lesbian feminism has a struggle to become visible, especially when lesbians are now expected to admit they are really men after all, and transgender in order to create surgically constructed heterosexuality, not as good as the real kind but much safer, for the purposes of male supremacy, than two women loving each other as women.
I do think that for a truly radical feminism to develop which offers a strong challenge to male violence and male sexuality, lesbian feminism is necessary. Janice Raymond explains that a crucial principle of lesbian feminism is that we are there for all women, including all heterosexual women:
We feel and act for all women because we are women, and even if we were the last ones to profess this, we would still be there for women. (1996).
This helps to explain why lesbians were such a force within second wave feminism, and why it is hard to believe that they will not be so once again, despite the grim forces organised against us.
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Today’s music is Alix Dobkin, Talking Lesbian.
Coming Wednesday: Bev Jo asks twenty-five questions and The Scallion reports on even more.