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social sciences

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Lesbian Feminism  
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In the United States, Canada and Britain, lesbian feminism was the dominant ideology among politicized lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s. Based on the premise that lesbianism and feminism were inextricably linked, the two words were often hyphenated.

Lesbian feminism offered a trenchant critique of patriarchy and the institutionalization of heterosexuality, and claimed that its political impact resided in resistance to male domination. Put into practice, lesbian feminism quickly evolved into a personal style that influenced everything from hairstyles, clothing, and even sexual behavior. Overall, its influence was enormous, though with mixed results.

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In the social and political ferment of the late 1960s, lesbians emerged as one of many social groups seeking liberation from oppression. Those who joined gay liberation groups were often frustrated by sexist attitudes among the predominantly male membership. The mainstream feminist movement proved equally unwelcoming. Though many lesbians filled the ranks of feminist organizations, they were openly discouraged from becoming part of the public face of the feminist movement.

In 1970 the issue came to a head when Betty Friedan, the President of the National Organization of Women (NOW), characterized advocates for the inclusion of lesbian issues in NOW's platform as a "lavender menace." Gloria Steinem responded by arguing that feminism was a revolution, not a public relations movement; and in 1971 NOW members voted overwhelmingly to affirm the legitimacy of lesbian oppression as a concern of feminism.

Woman-Identified Woman

However, Friedan's 1970 remark elicited an immediate response from a group of women who first called themselves "Lavender Menace" but later came to be known as "Radicalesbians." Their short manifesto The Woman-Identified Woman is generally recognized as the first articulation of a lesbian-feminist politics.

Its authors claimed that lesbians and lesbianism are of central, rather than peripheral, importance to the feminist movement. The woman-identified woman, they contended, undermines patriarchy by withdrawing her energy from men, by affirming a connection with other women, and by validating women on their own terms, independent of men. So long as women seek the approval of men and male institutions, they argued, they cannot become autonomous human beings.

Significantly, the authors regarded the categories lesbian and homosexual as by-products of heterosexual patriarchy, not an expression of an essential identity. They believed that if the sexual oppression of women did not exist and one lived true to one's feelings, such categories would be rendered meaningless.

The Woman-Identified Woman and other works that followed established the primacy of sexuality in feminist theory and practice. Lesbian feminists were able to draw upon the wider feminist movement's efforts to politicize private activities such as domestic labor, child care, and birth control. They extended their analysis to include not only a positive re-evaluation of female homosexuality but also a trenchant critique of heterosexuality.

For example, popular Village Voice journalist Jill Johnston's highly influential book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973) described romance as "dope" and monogamy as a means to trap women into a permanent condition of domestic slavery, a process captured by the sardonic observation: "It begins when you sink into his arms, and ends with your arms in his sink." Johnston urged all women to reject femininity and its corollary passivity, to refuse monogamy, and to be more aggressive in the pursuit of sexual pleasure. It was her contention that such actions would enable women to discover their true autonomous selves.

Political Lesbians

Conceding that sexual attraction cannot be politically mandated, lesbian feminists emphasized lesbianism as a political choice. "Political lesbians" were not required to have sex with other women, but it was expected that they remain celibate. Influenced by Anne Koedt's political analysis of vaginal versus clitoral orgasms, lesbian feminists urged lesbians to refrain from or at least minimize vaginal (and presumably other types of) penetration, and similar "male-stream" acts, including the consumption of pornography.

Lesbian feminists also adopted an aesthetic style intended to signal their rejection of femininity and materialism. Short hair, jeans, work boots, and plaid shirts became de rigueur, particularly among younger urban women. Liberating for some and oppressive for others, the style effectively expressed lesbian feminists' commitment to the repudiation of heterosexual and class privilege.


Lesbian feminists also distanced themselves from butch and femme bar culture, the only other public lesbian culture then in existence. From a lesbian feminist point of view, butches were male-identified and femmes were trapped in passive female roles. Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Jill Johnston, and British author Sheila Jeffries criticized those who practiced butch-femme roles for "aping" heterosexual relationships. According to them, butch-femme roles perpetuated patriarchy and were therefore inimical to feminism.

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