A Lesbian Crone’s Manifesto

I am a Woman. I am a Lesbian. I love women..all sizes…all shapes…all ages.

I love to trace the soft skin of her check, nibble on the spot where neck meets shoulder… the soft, subtle curve of a breast hidden by summer’s thin cloth… the deep, heavy wetness of a mother’s breast. I love to run my hands down her sides till they rest on the swell of her hips … to lay my palms on the sensitive MaizeCoverspot over her ovary where the pelvic bone begins to curve to protect the womb … her soft inner thigh.

I especially love Butches…their broad shoulders, strong hands, muscled thighs, straight backs. I honor these women who were our vanguard, who stood in front of many of us ignoring the mocking stares, absorbing the angry words and punches.

We stood behind them, not cowering but perhaps with just a bit less courage. They were our warriors.

And now every time a young butch transitions from her own strength and power, our sisterhood is diminished. We should encircle these young women and hold them in our warmth until they are strong.

And I also love the wary looks of my sisters for I know that they have survived a girlhood wrecked by violence and abuse, but I revel in the hopeful glances of women whose girlhoods were filled with love and respect…they are so few.

At 62 I am to old to be deceived by men in dresses or transwomen. As a crone, I am no longer distracted by their angry accusations. I know who and what I am. I am a Woman. I am a Lesbian. No one will silence my voice. No one will silence the love in my heart for my sisters. I am a Lesbian.

– Ann E. Foland
Bandon, Oregon

Coming soon: Meghan Murphy reminds us to get personal.

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Searching For Tribe

When I was a girl, we listened to folk music. We listened to soul, and we listened to the Beatles, but also we listened to a lot of folk music. My mother worked at the Ash Grove. We were Early Hippies. I remember going to some little outdoor festival and wandering around among adults, off on my own as usual, and feeling perfectly safe. I came across a barrel of steamed artichokes. A whole barrel!

We also listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell. “Ladies of the Canyon” struck me as a life goal. This is how it should be. Trimmed with antique luxury. None are thin and all are fat. Sailing seas and climbing banyans, coloring the sunshine hours. This.

Life interfered. We went to the other side of the continent. Then we listened to Jesus Christ Superstar and John Renbourn. And we played a lot of chess and I wrote a song about the seahorse in the aquarium and wandered around at night with the dogs and made cookies at two in the morning, and had my own personal giant pine tree to climb and a decaying root cellar to hide in. This wasn’t that far off. This was very close.

But then everything fell apart again, and I moved back to Los Angeles and lived in the Seacastle Apartments, which were magnificent but were later condemned after an earthquake. Then I became an assistant to a woman who had some of that canyon ladies stuff down, but unfortunately she took to dealing cocaine, and everything again fell apart.

Then I met a guy through the bulletin board in the L.A. Reader. This was what we had before we had the Internet so easily, this strange free-form no charge classified ad section. This was around 1983. We had a scrapbook of all that madness but it got lost too.

We left Los Angeles, my second time doing so but not my last. I washed back up on the shores in 1988, sans boyfriend. I’d tried to find the canyon ladies at a commune, but they turned out to be a cult.

My next effort involved engaging in a hostile takeover of a cooperatively run health food store, after taking to sporadically dating the manager. He was a nice enough guy, but an absolutely terrible manager. He’d threatened to quit a lot, and the board of directors asked me if I wanted to do it. Sure, I said.

Things got predictably dramatic. It was a rather good gig, other than the robberies and horrible floor plan and all the fans of the ex-manager coming in and giving me the hairy eyeball.

I wound up giving up, ex-manager was reinstated and promptly started advertising for a new manager. Then the place failed entirely and he moved to Vancouver with much family money and, last I checked, was happily ensconced up there, busy going to meetings of nonprofits. That’s good.

I met some good ladies there too, but by then I’d gotten into tarantulas. The tarantula society ultimately lured me out to New Mexico. It was a little short on canyon ladies but I did learn a lot of interesting stuff.

Then when I got sick of working full time for the tarantula society for around $500 a month, I took to used book dealing. Even fewer canyon ladies, here in Little Texas. But I did learn a lot about books.

At this point I was pretty much at the end of my rope, and dove into the Internet.

And there you were, all of you. The canyon ladies. I finally found you!

Ladies2

But so far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?

It took awhile. I made a lot of mistakes. The learning curve was steep.

I learned that I could unwittingly be insensitive towards women. I learned about how to see it when male acquaintances were trying to sexually groom me. I learned to stop questioning my gut reactions.

I learned that gender socialization runs so deep that there is no end to the learning, the unlearning, the untangling. For the first six months or so after I Discovered Radical Feminism, I thought that I’d figure this stuff out more or less in..nine months? maybe a year? I was expecting the plateau any time now. That was several years back.

But it never happened. It still never happens. I’m still stumbling around, semi-blindly, making a lot of mistakes. I’m just better at it now. Hey, practice makes perfect, eh?

Some of my family and extended family members worked in early childhood education. They said a few things that I remember. One is that you cannot cure personal damage, all you can do is grow stronger.

Another was that you can’t tell anybody anything, all you can do is give them the experience.

The Internet comes up short with giving people experiences. The telling is important, but women get weary. So many of us have so much, often unspoken, on our backs already. And so many of us are isolated, washing up here online like I did. Still hoping that maybe those canyon ladies are out here somewhere, drawing the sunsets and making each other delicacies, and pouring music down the canyon.

– Miep Rowan O’Brien

Coming up soon: Ann Foland is a Lesbian Crone.

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Third Person Feminine

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By Terre Spencer

Subjective: SHE; objective: HER

SHE and HER: how did these two words, a mere six letters in toto, become so contentious? Or rather, how did the uses of two tiny pronouns—SHE and HER—become so divisive? They are so small, can they not just be overlooked for the sake of, well, of something? Beyond feminist analysis, what is going on with SHE and HER? And how can feminists navigate from here?

Much has been written by established feminist bloggers incisively exposing MTTs’ (male-to-trans) outright appropriation of our feminine pronouns. When men—and, tragically, even young boys now—decide that they suddenly “feel like a woman inside,” they ppropriate SHE and HER en route to their first estrogen injection appointments. And more often than not, demand that everyone immediately accede to their “preferred pronouns.”

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The transgender movement has caused—and is causing—great harm to women in political, legal, social, personal, professional, statistical, and ethical areas.

Within the broader areas above, there are many more sub-topics affecting women, such as: the silencing of women; the erasure of women; the MTT appropriation of womanhood; women’s lost political ground to all things trans; the MTT reinforcement of patriarchal gender norms; increased female exposure to male violence; the effects in sex-based statistical reporting; a myriad of legal ramifications; privacy, restrooms and changing rooms; abortion and contraception access and legalities; specific women’s health issues; maternity leave; childbirth and breastfeeding; the very definition of WOMAN—just for starters.

I urge every woman to read every possible feminist analysis piece on the many effects of transgenderism upon women. Feminists agree that transgenderism is an overarching threat to feminism and women. But there have also been online dust-ups specifically regarding the use of the third person feminine for “gender-critical” MTTs.

The first time I saw SHE/HER used for a MTT by a gender-critical feminist, it was disorienting. I thought it was the disregarding of feminist theory that left me disconcerted. But weeks later, the ongoing discomfort still bordered on a breach in a most perplexing way. There was something even more fundamentally askew, perhaps primal, beneath the abandoning of feminism.

Another impassioned flare-up on the issue occurred and more raw feelings arose. I had an ongoing sense of feeling unsettled. I began recalling two areas of study that I had not formerly connected to transgender appropriation of all things female.

The first was research that confirmed that once our brains identify an outline as human, our first mental task is to determine sex, then race, then other markers of status and power within varying social contexts. There are many more current studies confirming that the brain’s fusiform face area (FFA) identifies sex first.

The second was more recent, eminently more subtle, and perhaps even more relevant to the pronoun issue. After taking a 2009 writing and trauma course by one of James Pennebaker’s Ph.D. students, I immediately read everything that I could find by Pennebaker. In 2011, Pennebaker published The Secret Life of Pronouns, a compelling look at how the use of function words play a pivotal role in social and cultural cohesion.

After the initial rush of impassioned arguing that feminists should never, ever refer to MTTs as SHE/HER had subsided, these two studies began appearing in random thoughts while I was walking or making a grocery list. The random thoughts became niggling, and finally almost repetitive, so I re-read The Secret Life of Pronouns, to quell the intrusive thoughts.

And there it was in chapter one: a subtle, but critical, dimension well-aside from feminist political strategy that the very words SHE and HER contain in themselves: they are a specific type of word.

SEMANTICS

SHE/HER are not just any old words, and this is of particular feminist interest. It turns out that pronouns are function words. Function words have very little meaning outside the shared social understanding of the participants and, therefore, the brain handles function words differently than it handles context words.

FUNCTION WORDS ARE HIGHLY SOCIAL

Pennebaker attributes the following to function words:
Used at high rates
Short and hard to detect (stealthy)
Processed in the brain differently than content words
Very, very social

Pronouns are entirely referent to context words by mutual understanding between speaker and listener—or reader and writer. In other words, a social trust is required for pronouns to have meaning. Interestingly, the more engaged the participants are in a discussion and/or the better the relationship between participants, the higher the frequency of pronouns in the discussion.

The social Broca’s area of the left frontal temporal lobe is activated to process pronouns. A myriad of social cues are necessary to provide ongoing meaning for pronouns, and the brain expends considerably more energy when processing pronouns (and all function words).

In contrast, context words—such as: BOAT and CHEW—activate Wernicke’s speech area of the left posterior temporal lobe. Context words are handled in the background without engaging needed social cues. Social cues are not necessary to ascertain meaning for context words and the brain conserves energy by avoiding the extra social monitoring tasks.

Pronouns, however, require a shared understanding of who is being referred to, which is a social activity. The word THEY is meaningless unless the speaker clearly conveys who THEY are and the listener understands who THEY are within that specific context. A highly social trust between the speaker and listener is invoked in Broca’s area when pronouns are used. When this area of the brain is damaged, a formerly earnest and engaged person, such as Phineas Gage, becomes quite, well, anti-social.

When the words SHE/HER are used, a female is understood as the referent. The social brain looks and listens for additional cues and context to determine which female. The contextual trust between speaker and listener implies that the person referred to is female. To refer to a male with feminine pronouns creates not only a cognitive disconnect, but also a social disconnect, no matter how slight that might seem. The use of SHE/HER for males has—aside from the heated political debates about the advisability of doing so—relational, social consequences.

It was this relational disruption of trusted feminists using SHE for MTTs that remained long after the high-spirited disagreements faded. This was the unsettling disturbance that gave me no peace, not the disagreement itself.

SHIFT(S) IN MEANING

When words shift meanings due to new uses—semantic change—unexpected things occur. Calling males SHE/HER invokes a semantic change called a contranym or auto-antonymy, words that have opposite meanings. If the referent is male when SHE is used, the word SHE will become its own contranym. Examples of contranyms are: INFLAMMABLE, which means both combustible and non-combustible; and CLEAVE, which means both bring together and drive apart. Are we prepared to have SHE mean both male and female?

Because SHE/HER are function words referent only to context and social trust, the very meanings of FEMALE/WOMAN are at stake. Is this the semantic change that feminists wish to promote? Re-assigning the definitions of the words WOMAN/SHE/HER to the oppressor class, males? There are plenty of feminists who consider using SHE/HER for males a breach of trust. Knowing that pronouns are connective, social words, these feminists are not wrong.

Additionally, using the words SHE/HER for males necessitates the use of the word CISGENDER. By way of explanation: if SHE can refer to males, then the need to delineate females from MTTs exists. And, as always, this necessity occurs entirely at the expense of women. And that will always get my back up.

POLITICS (WITH SEMANTICS IN MIND)

Broadly speaking, there are four responses to the MTT SHE/HER appropriation issue.

The first and largest group simply do not have the interest in investigating, analyzing, and navigating the many issues surrounding what exactly to call these males. Well-meaning, they just go along with whatever MTTs request. Also included in this group are the liberal feminists who subscribe to the effects of po-mo/queer theory. This mass, unthinking agreement with MTT delusions is particularly dangerous. As stated above, when SHE and HER lose their connection to femaleness, WOMAN and FEMALE becomes open to re-definition. What feminist really believes that re-defining either WOMAN and/or FEMALE as male will benefit females? Not one of us.

A second group balks, realizing that no matter how much plastic surgery any MTT undergoes, no matter how much artificial estrogen he injects, a MTT is still a man. They decline to join in the pronoun-bending because it offends all common sense. These people will be called behind-the-times by the first group. (As if sex-based pronouns have sell-by dates!)

Third, some very thoughtful feminists have ceded on the pronoun issue, especially when referring to “gender-critical” MTTs. They call certain MTTs SHE/HER and try not to refer to other MTTs by any pronoun. Hoping that such “gender-critical” MTTs will help achieve feminist goals, they are attempting to be respectful. I wish I were that optimistic. I cannot help but wonder: if these MTTs were indeed so gender-critical, if they know that they are male, why do they continue to appropriate female pronouns?

Instead, I would endorse and cheer a MTT movement to create and employ MTT-specific pronouns. When respecting MTTs occurs at the expense of the very definition of WOMAN, it is too dear a price to pay.
Is it a good idea to participate in the semantic shift of the words SHE/HER, to actively join in MTT pretense that MALE = FEMALE? What possible gain is there in making the word CISGENDER a clarifying term, and offering the word WOMAN up for re-definition? Poof! No oppression of women here, folks, we can all go home now.

Is it a good strategy to accede the use of female pronouns to MTTs that admit that they are male (yet, whose Facebook profiles refer to themselves as “female” when they have other choices?).

It is quite telling that the trans movement did not come up with their own pronouns. ZE and ZER would have been good choices. Instead, MTTs insist upon calling themselves SHE and HER. This both reinforces gender strictures and contributes to the erasure of women. Note, please, that women cannot escape patriarchy and its oppressions simply by calling ourselves HE and HIM. Men, however, have further invaded womanhood by calling themselves SHE and HER.

The last group is the feminists who fiercely resist handing over feminine pronouns to MTTs. All males are referred to as HE and HIM by these women.

Using words differently changes perceptions. Have feminists really had the necessary discussions about the social changes that will follow from semantic changes of our pronouns? Are we clear about what is invoked in the blurring the meaning of the words SHE and HER, especially when these highly social referent words are being used to mean the oppressor class? Is disturbing feminist trust ever worth the risks, no matter how lofty the intended goals may be? I think not. There has to be another way. Or other ways. Ways that do not disadvantage women.

So what from here?

We can encourage MTTs to create their own pronouns. In fact, my message to MTTs is: “Come back when you do not demand/wish that I participate in your delusions. No one benefits by pretending that you are a SHE. Make up your own pronouns. Performing your idea of woman might as well include novel MTT pronouns.”

We can resist the erosion of feminine pronouns—a foundational move until we have a firm political strategy in place.

Alternatively, we can divert: Women could adopt the terms XXE/XXER, just as Ms. was a move away from the terms MISS and MRS. These new female third person pronouns will mean only the bearer of the XX chromosomal pair. If MTTs want to get plastic surgery and wear dresses, all the while retaining their male genitalia (as over 80 percent of them do), they can have SHE/HER. We would have to fight like hellcats to keep XXE/XXER from the clutches of MTTs.

We can employ a combination of the above. Women are afraid, and we have every right to be: we know that MTTs have proved to be at least as violent to women as other men. We know that exactly this threat is issued to women by males/MTTs every day, so often it is no longer necessary for males to utter the threats. Male violence, the ever-present patriarchal enforcement does not need to be explicit to be recognized.

A growing number of academic and/or publication editorial standards require women to accede MTT “preferred pronouns.” Alas, even using “preferred pronouns” does not make women safe. Women are de-platformed for being gender-critical even if they do accede to preferred pronouns. An attempt was made to have a women fired even though she does use “preferred pronouns” for MTTs. This is not blaming women being held to “preferred pronouns” by employers or schools, just pointing out the strategy of ceding political and semantic ground is ineffective.

Again, SHE and HER are rather special words, not to be casually given away. They are very specific words that involve trust between writer and reader, speaker and listener. I believe that they are worth fighting for—trust is worth fighting for.

We can suggest that a MTT movement to “re-pronoun” themselves develops, a movement much stronger than the MTT insistence upon getting into women’s spaces, restrooms, and prisons. Because women are not the cause of MTT problems. Males are. Note to MTTs: pushing your way into feminism and appropriating our pronouns is not going to ease one bit of your internal discomforts, nor resolve external issues. Really, is anything more ridiculous than pronoun appropriation as a panacea for a multitude of unrelated issues?

I sincerely hope that I am wrong. I hope that the willingness of many to oblige MTT “preferred pronouns” does not result in a total woman-erasing dystopia where MALE = FEMALE after our pronouns are made meaningless. I, for one, will resist with my last breath and encourage my sisters to do the same until we females have third person pronouns securely our own.

Breaths, Sweet Honey in the Rock

Her Precious Love, Alix Dobkin

Tomorrow, Miep Rowan finds the ladies of the canyon, Ann Foland is a Lesbian Crone, and Meghan Murphy reminds us to get personal.

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Lesbian Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the U.K.

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Lesbian Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK

Talk given at Rad Fem 2013, 9 June. The Camden Centre, London by Sheila Jeffreys

(Part I of II)

This talk is necessary because in the wave of feminism which is taking place right now lesbian feminism is scarcely visible. This is very different from the second wave of feminism, in which lesbian feminists formed the beating heart of the movement. In the few histories that exist of second wave feminism in the UK lesbians are conspicuous by their absence. Sheila Rowbotham’s massive, 800 page history of feminism, A Century of Women (1997), does not have the word lesbian in the index, for instance.

To fill this rather obvious gap, I have been doing research in the UK in the last few weeks in archives, looking at the newsletters and journals of the 1970s and 80s, for a book I am going to write on lesbian feminism in the UK 1970-1990. I have been interviewing women who were lesbians at that time about what lesbian feminism was, what it meant to them, and, crucially, why it declined, with the effect for many that their hearts were broken. Some of them are here today.

One of the things I want to show in this book is the extraordinary range of activities, groups, institutions, festivals, enterprises, that lesbian feminists created. The sheer scope of this movement makes what is taking place in feminism just now look like a tiny tributary compared with the great Amazon river of lesbian feminism at that time. The newsletters and interviewees speak of a range of activities that were created by lesbian feminist energy and commitment. Firstly, lesbian feminists created campaigns and institutions such as women’s centres, which were for all women, not just lesbians, and continue to form the bedrock of women’s services today, though many disappeared in the terrible wave of extinctions from the 1990s onwards that still persists to this day.

I shall look first today at the activities lesbian feminists were involved in to give a sense of the scope of second wave lesbian feminism, starting with general feminist campaigns in which lesbians were heavily involved and going on to the activities that were specifically lesbian feminist.

The violence against women campaign

Women who became involved in the campaign against male violence in the 1970s, if they were not lesbians already swiftly became so. The London Revolutionary Feminist Anti-Pornography Consciousness-Raising Group, for example, began in 1977 with mainly heterosexual members. After we had examined and analysed pornography, mainly magazines because videos were still quite new at that time, only 1 of the 8 women in the group was still heterosexual. I was one of those group members who chose to become a lesbian after a few short months of looking at what men thought of women and sex in porn magazines.

Lesbian feminists created facilities and campaigns against violence against women, setting up rape crisis centres, shelters, and campaigns such as Feminists Against Sexual Terrorism, which had a newsletter (FAST). The Central London group of Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), at its peak in the early 80s drew 40 or so women to meetings to plan demos and direct action against sexually violent films, and advertising. There were several groups in London itself, and in all major cities across the UK. My interviewees recall, as I do, that the vast majority of women involved in these activities were lesbians, or became lesbians very quickly after becoming involved. WAVAW, in particular, was overwhelmingly composed of lesbians. In the early 1980s lesbian feminists set up specifically lesbian groups against forms of violence that were harming lesbians and the lesbian community. These included, in London, Lesbians Against Pornography (LAP), and Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM).

The interesting thing about the great representation of lesbians in the organisation of this massive campaign against male violence is that it was for the benefit, largely, of heterosexual women. When we went to do talks to women’s groups about male violence we were frequently asked by heterosexual women, but aren’t you just a bunch of man-hating lesbians. We had learnt to say, as we said to journalists who asked the same question, there are lesbian and heterosexual women in our group. That was not true, but our lesbianism had to be concealed lest it invalidate everything we said. Unless women are allowing men to penetrate them they lose all credibility.

Why was it lesbian-dominated? My interviewees suggest this is because analysis of male violence is much more straightforward for lesbians. They do not have boyfriends in their heads standing in the way of radical ideas. They do not have to keep saying, or thinking, what about Nigel?

One of the features of the second wave campaign was that we put it all together theoretically. The 1980 conference on violence against women in Leeds organised mainly by lesbians, had papers on woman battering, rape, child rape, sexual harassment at work, everyday sex in heterosexual relationships, pornography, prostitution, sexual fantasy and much more. We sought to understand male sexuality so that we could understand why they engaged in this onslaught of violence, which is, arguably, more extensive and varied in its forms today. As lesbians we could afford to be profoundly critical of the way in which male sexuality was constructed, and put it all together. For heterosexual women this is likely to be very much harder, because of their investment in relationships with men.

Today, on the other hand, the vast majority of those involved in campaigns such as Object in the UK, seem to be heterosexual, and not flocking to become lesbians. This needs explaining, and it might have negative effects. It might mean that the radical edge, and profundity of analysis, that such organising had in the 1970s will not be forthcoming.

Women’s culture and community

Another area in which lesbians dominated was in creating women only culture and community. It was mainly lesbians who set up lesbian publishing houses such as Onlywomen Press in London, and feminist bookstores such as Sisterwrite in Upper St, Islington, or Silver Moon in Charing Cross Road (both gone now). It was lesbians who set up the Women’s Monthly Events, and organised countless discos and benefits. Women’s dances were a main way to raise funds for feminist activities. They were, of course, women only, and no one thought that odd or complained. Heterosexual women attended and they did not want their boyfriends to attend, as is likely to happen today. Many women were able to become lesbians because of these spaces, because for women afloat in the warmth and eroticism that are created in women only spaces, the possibility of becoming a lesbian is hard to resist.

Lesbians set up theatre groups and bands, wrote music and songs. They played to women’s and to mixed audiences but they were women only ventures, focusing on feminist and lesbian material.
The last remnant of this extraordinary outburst of creative activity in the US, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, has been for decades under siege, literally, by male-bodied transgenders and has had to modify its women only policy (and will no longer operate after 2015).

Lesbians set up women’s lands, festivals, conferences. There were no men allowed and this was not controversial. All the spaces, organisations, and activities were women only, and this was the source of the extraordinary energies and creativeness. In those times there was no question as to whether men should be invited, it was out of the question. I saw in a box of my papers in the Women’s Library in London, the advertising for a 1982 launch by Andrea Dworkin of her book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, by the Women’s Press, which was part of a mainstream publishing house. It was clearly stated that is was to be Women Only. The Radical Feminist Conference that was due to take place in the same building in 2012 suffered a sustained campaign against it by men who laboured under the delusion that they were women, with the effect that it had to meet in a secret location. How times have changed!

It was lesbians who set up the women’s housing coops like Seagull, and provided collective housing spaces for women in squats. It was lesbians who recognised the importance of getting women into manual trades so that they could enjoy high status work and earn good money. Women in Manual Trades set up training courses for women as motor mechanics, electricians, carpenters, plumbers. In the 1980s women’s trade directories offered a wide choice of women who would come to paint our homes, do building, electrical or carpentry work, or to whom we could take our cars for repair. This was ground-breaking stuff. I don’t know what it is like in the UK, but as I understand it women are still a tiny minority of train drivers, 3.2 percent. Fewer than two percent of construction, automotive and electrical tradespeople in Australia today are women (Australia, 2013). The percentage is probably lower than it was two decades ago. It seems that feminists have been quite successful at getting women into professions, such as medicine and the law, but have had no success at all in getting women into the bastion of male working class pride and confidence. Trade jobs are well paid, and develop physical strength. Women cannot wear high heeled shoes while working in construction.

And of course it was lesbians that wrote the poetry and feminist theory that inspired a generation of women, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, Kate Millett, Janice G. Raymond. Other most important radical feminism writers were lesbian feminists in the early part of their lives.

Principles of lesbian feminism

1. Lesbian feminists started from their love for women

The title of a piece by Adrienne Rich in her 1979 anthology On Lies, Secrets and Silence, articulates the task of lesbian feminism very well, ‘The meaning of our love for women is what we have constantly to expand’ (Rich, 1979). Lesbian feminists added a wealth of meaning to the way in which women could love women, and politicised the concept. The basis of lesbian feminism, as of the radical feminism of this period, was woman-loving. Lesbian feminists understood woman-loving to be fundamental to feminism. As Charlotte Bunch expressed it in 1972:

We say that a lesbian is a woman whose sense of self and energies, including sexual energies, center around women – she is woman-identified. The woman-identified -woman commits herself to other women for political, emotional, physical, and economic support. Women are important to her. She is important to herself. (Bunch, 2000 1st published 1972: 332)

As feminist philosophers have pointed out, male supremacist philosophy and culture is hostile to women’s love and friendship towards other women. Janice Raymond explains, ‘In a woman-hating society, female friendship has been tabooed to the extent that there are women who hate their original Selves…’ (Raymond 1986:6). The creation of woman-loving was a task necessary for the very survival of feminism. If women did not love themselves and each other, then they had no basis on which to identify and reject atrocities against women. For a feminist movement, solidarity of the oppressed was a necessary basis for organising. But woman-loving was always seen as constituting more than a woman’s version of comradeship.

Night Stage raising crew, lifting. 2006. ..Image from the book project Welcome Home: Building the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, self-published First-Edition 2009...Photo by Angela Jimenez.copyright 2009 Angela Jimenez Photography

Night Stage raising crew, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 2006.

Marilyn Frye, the US lesbian philosopher, in her essay on the differences between gay male and lesbian politics sees male homosexuality as the apogee of the masculine bonding that forms the cement of male supremacy. The bonding of lesbian feminists, however, is heretical:

If man-loving is the rule of phallocratic culture, as I think it is, and if, therefore, male homoeroticism is compulsory, then gay men should be numbered among the faithful, or the loyal and law-biding citizens, and lesbian feminists are sinners and criminals, or, if perceived politically, insurgents and traitors. (Frye 1983:135-6)

Lesbian feminists, unlike all the other denizens of male domination, refused to love men. Woman-loving does not survive well in male dominated queer politics. In a mixed movement the resources, influence and just sheer numbers of men give them the power to create cultural norms. As a result some lesbians have become so disenchanted with their lesbianism, and even their femaleness, that there are presently hundreds if not thousands of lesbians in UK and US in the 1980s who have ‘transitioned’ i.e. adopted the identity not just of males but, in many cases, of gay males with the help of testosterone and mutilating operations (Jeffreys, 2014).

2. Separatism

Lesbian feminism is distinguished from other varieties of lesbian politics by its emphasis on the need for some degree of separation from the politics, institutions, culture of men. Such separation is necessary because lesbian feminism, like its foremother radical feminism, is based on the understanding that women live, as Mary Daly describes it, in the ‘state of atrocity’ (Daly 1979). The state of atrocity is the condition in which women have for centuries, in different parts of the world, survived terrible violence and torture from men.

The lesbian feminist critique of the whole system of male supremacist thought is far reaching in its vision and originality, its courage and creativity. When I speak of radical feminism and lesbian feminism in the same breath that is because most often the leading thinkers of radical feminism have also been lesbians (Kate Millett, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Janice Raymond) and lesbian feminism grew from a radical feminist foundation.

The visionary thinking required to create the new world-view of lesbian feminism could not easily be developed from within a mixed gay liberation movement. The creation of space in which to imagine a new world-view was one crucial reason for lesbian separatism. Lesbian separatism is the separation of lesbians from mixed gay organising, and in some cases in the US in particular, from the women’s liberation movement. The basis of lesbian feminism has always been the separate lesbian feminist culture and institutions. The importance of women’s/lesbian culture is well expressed by Bonnie Zimmerman, ‘I would go so far as to say that without a culture and a politics, we wouldn’t have lesbians, only women who have sex with women’ (Zimmerman, 2008: 46-7). The crucial importance of women’s space which excludes men is explained by the lesbian feminist philosopher, Marilyn Frye:

​Our existence as females not owned by males and not penis-accessible, our values and our ​attention, our experience of the erotic and the direction of our passion, places us directly in ​opposition to male-supremacist culture in all respects, so much so that our existence is ​almost unthinkable within the world view of that culture (Frye, 1983: 145).

She explains that when women forbade male entry into their groups and activities it denied them important goods and sources of power, ‘Female denial of male access to females substantially cuts off a flow of benefits, but it has also the form and full portent of assumption of power’ (Frye, 1983: 103).

The contemporary rage of men’s rights extremists and male-bodied transgenders at being denied entry to women’s spaces, and the reluctance of women to give them cause for anger, can be understood with reference to Frye’s useful insight that ‘conscious and deliberate exclusion of men by women, from anything, is blatant insubordination, and generates in women fear of punishment and reprisal’ (Frye, 1983: 103). Men’s right of entry, she says, is conferred upon them by their position of dominance and women’s lack of any right to deny this to them as a result of their subordinate position, ‘It is always the privilege of the master to enter the slave’s hut. The slave who decides to exclude the master from her hut is declaring herself not a slave’ (Frye, 1983: 104). The entryism of male-bodied transgenders to women’s spaces has helped to fracture lesbian communities by extirpating the environments that have nurtured women’s resistance and rebellious thinking, and their ability to love one another.

3. Lesbianism as choice and resistance

Whilst gay liberation men might say ‘I am proud’, lesbian feminists have gone so far as to say ‘I choose’. Janice Raymond expresses it thus: ‘women are not born Lesbians. Women become Lesbians out of choice’ (Raymond 1986:14). This does not mean that all those who chose to identify as lesbian feminists consciously chose their lesbianism. Many had been lesbians before lesbian feminism was first thought of, but, as my interviewees expressed it, their lesbianism was transformed and given meaning by lesbian feminism, it became a politics. As Adrienne Rich pointed out, choice for heterosexuality was not a possibility because heterosexuality was enforced upon girls and women throughout their lives. But lesbianism could be genuinely chosen as an act of resistance.

Lesbianism as an act of resistance

But, whether lesbian feminists were lesbians before they became feminists, or chose to become so thereafter, they have a common understanding of their lesbianism as what Cheryl Clarke, in This Bridge Called my Back, the historic anthology by US Women of Colour has called ‘An Act of Resistance’. Clarke explains, ‘No matter how a woman lives out her lesbianism …she has rebelled against becoming the slave master’s concubine, viz. the male-dependent female, the female heterosexual. This rebellion is dangerous business in patriarchy’ (Clarke 1999:565).

Political lesbianism

Political lesbianism was the name given in the UK, in the 1979 Political Lesbianism paper (Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, 1981), to the phenomenon in which thousands of women who chose to become lesbians for political reasons or chose to have no further sexual relations with men. Many feminists had been lesbians before they became feminists and adopted a political interpretation of their lesbianism, but many others became lesbians as a result of feminism. Bonnie Zimmerman quoting Sarah Schulman’s The Sophie Horowitz Story in order to express the extraordinary excitement and momentum of this time, ‘It’s so strange, you know, in the early seventies, one day, half the women’s movement came out as lesbians. It was like we were all sitting around and the ice cream truck came and all of a sudden I looked around and everyone ran out for ice cream’ (Zimmerman, 2008: 40). She comments, ‘That was me. I ran out for ice cream one day, and I’m still addicted’. That was me too. In 1977 I became a political lesbian as a result of being challenged by the lesbian feminists I met as to how my heterosexuality was consonant with my revolutionary feminism. As it was put to me at that time, why put all your best energies into the problem, men, rather than the solution, women. That made sense to me, and I asked my boyfriend and my male lodger, Nigel, (yes, really, and ‘Nigel’ was the term I and others began to use at the time for anti-sexist men), to move out.

For lesbian feminists, lesbianism is understood to be a political practice, a form of activism in itself. The 1970 lesbifesto from Radicalesbians expresses this well with their statement: ‘Lesbianism is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion’ (Radicalesbians, 1970). The many women who were exploding into lesbianism in the 1970s did so not just out of a powerful attraction to women, but out of rage. No way would they accept the conditions of women’s lot under male domination, one aspect of which was compulsory heterosexuality. But neither would they put up with the other constraints on women: sex roles, femininity, learned helplessness. Radicalesbians stated that even those women who were lesbians before they were feminists and said that lesbianism was not a politics for them, were kidding themselves. Part of their lesbianism, too, was their refusal to put up with the conditions in which women were expected to live.

To be continued Tuesday, August 4.

Today’s music:

Amazon by Maxine Feldman

New Ground by Alix Dobkin

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Tomorrow, Terre Spencer writes about why pronouns really, really matter.

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News from…. The Scallion

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Female-Only Event Still Not Kicked Out Of Venue

Hart, MI–Three area organizers of a women-only event remain wistful on this Friday morning, nursing a familiar but somewhat distant feeling of Women-Only Event PTSD (WOE-PTSD) — musing about how things were different when they weren’t organizing within the last woman-only venue left in the country.

Conference co-coordinator Amanda Cooper remarked, “By this time last year, I was on my third venue, begging to use their oversized janitorial closet, and asking if attendees could enter through the back.”

Danisha Williams , a survivor of extreme workshop scheduling, added, “Just last year, I had fielded one thousand rape threats and four graphic accounts of how the e-mailer would molest and slay my cat. Only my closest companions even know about this cat,” she laughs. Then silence.

After the chill in the room subsided, Williams softly added, “It always starts out the same. You send an email to the venue contact saying you are going to do something really off the wall and hold a women-only event. They say ‘of course’ and draw up an ironclad contract about cancelling on you. Well, within a week, the venue contact’s children are being escorted by police to school, and all the venue utility companies have cancelled service, and their neighbors won’t look them in the eye anymore.’”

“I asked once if the venue’s windows could withstand the blow of a Molotov cocktail,” says Cooper. “The venue did not understand.”

When asked why venues do not anticipate this kind of response to a women-only event, radical feminist writer and conference contributor Alexa Cohen explains:
“Venue contacts are staffed by well-meaning people who still recall a sliver of time in women’s history where females were a protected and distinct class. Holding these kinds of events did not trigger bomb threats, or all sponsors pulling funding.”

“Things have changed. More people are women now, apparently. Just recently I was invited to a sleep-over called ‘Lesbians with Penises: how to de-cis your bigoted front hole.’ I turned down the invitation and someone mentioned how a lesbian-with-a-penis had been murdered that night because of my non-attendance. The learning curve is steep.”

Cohen : “But it’s not like all historically protected classes are losing ground. Most of the venues I have attempted to reserve hold private events for people who gather around a set of experiences that not all people can logically share.”

“I think it may have more to do with whether or not females are people?” one asks. They all think on it.

Suddenly one of their cellphones rings. “I don’t know this fucking number!” the woman exclaims and they all jerk to a stand, scanning the surrounding area. “The last time this happened it was a gender studies student who was tapping my phone, stalking me, for her capstone called ‘How to catch and kill a TERF’.”

“My last unknown ring was from a formerly convicted rapist who had obtained my number from the local GBTQI Center, after transitioning to a woman and thus an innocent person.”

Another woman adds: “My last unknown number was from someone who said they were going to detonate my phone for using it to organize women. It blew up 5 minutes later.”

They are all backing away slowly now, looking at each other, exchanging familiar glances and nods. A hand gesture is made.
“The meeting place. Tomorrow.”
“Yes.”

And like that they are off, each in different directions, making their way to the farthest corners of sight, until they are no longer visible.

MichFestGateErinEnglishFrontgate

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Coming Soon!

Saturday, August 1
Sheila Jeffreys talks lesbians, feminists and revolution.

Sunday, August 2​​​​​​​
Terre Spencer on why pronouns really, really matter

Monday August 3​​​
Miep Rowan finds the ladies of the canyon
Ann Foland is a Lesbian Crone
Meghan Murphy reminds us to get personal
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Tuesday, August 4​​​​​​
Sheila Jeffreys doesn’t give up

Wednesday, August 5
Bev Jo asks twenty-five questions and The Scallion reports on even more

Thursday, August 6​​​​​​​
Samantha Berg smashes porn

Friday, August 7​​​​​​
Vee Esselar declares war
Lierre Keith on the girls and the grasses
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Saturday, August 8​​​​
Rebecca Whisnant on pornography and humiliation

Sunday, August 9​​​​​​​​
Vlet Tiptree asks about Teh Menz, and radical feminism welcomes Kaye Murdoch home

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