Lesbian Feminism: Rejecting the Patriarchal Idea of Heterosexuality as the ‘Norm’

Being the ninth part in a series on different feminisms, the eighth part was, “Anarcha-Feminism: Rejecting Assimilation as Liberation.

It is often thought that the cornerstone of Lesbian Feminism is the refutation of heternormativity. Lesbian Feminists refute the assumption that everyone is straight and that society should be structured to serve heterosexual needs.

The roots of Lesbian Feminism can be traced back to the early 1970s and was born out of a dissatisfaction with second-wave feminism and the Gay Liberation Movement. In Unpacking Queer Politics, Sheila Jeffreys, a professor at the University of Melbourne, discusses the beginnings of the Lesbian Feminist movement:Lesbian feminism emerged as a result of two developments: Lesbians within the WLM [Women’s Liberation Movement] began to create a new, distinctively feminist lesbian politics, and lesbians in the GLF [Gay Liberation Front] left to join up with their sisters.”

According to poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, one key theme of Lesbian Feminism is the analysis of heterosexuality as an institution. Lesbian Feminists attempt to denaturalize heterosexuality as well as explore its (heterosexuality’s) roots in such institutions as the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. Lesbian Feminism advocates lesbianism as a rational result of the alieantion and dissatisfaction women feel within those heteronormative institutions. Rich also stresses the importance of having feminist theorist be inclusive of lesbianism: “Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of ‘lesbianism’ as an ‘alternative life-style,’ or make token allusions to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue.” Furthermore Rich argues that the core of Lesbian Feminism lies in maintaining men’s “right” to women:

“But whatever its origins, when we look hard and clearly at the extent and elaboration of measures designed to keep women within a male sexual purlieu, it becomes an inescapable question whether the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple ‘gender inequality,’ nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere ‘taboos against homosexuality,’ but the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access. One of many means of enforcement is, of course the rendering invisible of the lesbian possibility, an engulfed continent that rises frequently to view from time to time only to become submerged again. Feminist research and theory that contributes to lesbian invisibility or marginality is actually working against the liberation and empowerment of women as a group.”

Jeffreys, a promininent Lesbian Feminist, created a list entitled the “Seven Key Themes of Lesbian Feminism” which consists of the following:

1. An emphasis on women’s love for one another

2. Separatist organizations

3. Community and Ideas

4. Idea that lesbianism is about choice and resistance

5. Idea that the personal is political

6. A rejection of social hierarchy

7. A critique of male-supremacy (which eroticises inequality)

Where some feminisms aim to work with men, and to create equality, fairness, and realistic standards of being for all, Lesbian Feminists, it would seem if following the list above, do not want either assimilation or co-habitation. Instead, the end goal would be a communal environment wherein social, romantic, and emotional relationships are lesbian, and in which those with male anatomy are turned away. In practice, some Lesbian Feminists are willing to go to any extreme to be separate from the heteropatriarchy. According to C. Maria in her essay Separatism is Not a Luxury:

“The Lesbian Separatist has chosen to defy men, to hate men,(16) in order to be for women and for our freedom to be our Selves. The price to maintain our integrity is often poverty, violence, degradation, and the denial of basic necessities. Despite the poverty suffered and the obstacles placed in front of us, we know we are right.(17) And because of the joy and freedom we radiate, our enemies know we are right.”

Some may be tempted to, then, call this female patriarchy, and while it is exclusive, it is far from the repressive, abusive, violent, aggressive, and suppressive entity (reality?)  known as patriarchy.

Lesbianism, in separatist feminism, is posited as a key feminist strategy that enables women to invest their energies in other women to allow create new spaces and dialogue about women’s relationships, in addition to limiting dealings with men (Hoagland, Penelope).

In the most extreme of forms, Lesbian Feminist theory has put forward male genocide, or androcide, as a strategy for achieving women’s emancipation, as in Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. And while androcide may be a small and isolated view, there has been a specific flourish of scholarship and literature pertaining to whether or not men are really necessary. One example of this is Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, which looks at reproduction.

Other canons look at different things, from histories of male violence and the historic femicides (female genocide) perpetrated upon groups of women (i.e. witch persecutions) to the general preference for male offspring throughout most, if not all, of human history. In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, ” Rich argues that as early as 1656, the New Haven Colony prescribed the death penalty for lesbians, and that gynocide included “burning and torturing millions of widows and spinsters during the witch persecutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and the practice of suttee on widows in India.”

It is important to point out that the use of preference for male children mentioned above, is not equivalent to the modern, more passive, preference that parents have toward having a child that is one sex or the other (as convoluted as the perpetuated idea of a simple sexual binary is). Instead, the preference mentioned above is a systematic problem that exists across cultures and time of killing female babies, of making women smaller (binding their feet, or wrapping them in corsets), of suppressing them, of making and keeping them financially dependent, etc.

Marilyn Frye, retired professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, in her Notes on Separatism and Power posits female separatism as a strategy practiced by all women at some point, and is present in many feminist projects (such as women’s refuges, electoral quotas or Women’s Studies Programs). Frye furthers her argument by suggesting that it is only when women practice it, self-realized as separation from men, that it is then treated with controversy or hysteria..

Contrary to the stereotype of “man-hating butch dykes,” there is at least a vein of Lesbian Feminist theory that does not support the concept of female masculinity. Jeffreys argues that “all forms of masculinity are problematic.”

Co-Founder of popular feminist magazine Ms. Gloria Steinem had this to say about masculinity, “The cult of masculinity is the basis of every violent, fascist regime. [. . .] We need to raise our sons more like our daughters, with empathy, flexibility, patience, and compassion.”

For a woman to be masculine, in this vein of Lesbian Feminism, is to assimilate into the patriarchy, to accept the privilege that masculinity can offer.

Lesbian Feminists are credited with producing terms such as “Womyn,” “Wimin,” and “Womin,” in attempts to distinguish themselves from men and masculine, or phallogocentric, language.

The ways in which Lesbian Feminists attempt to set up and exist in alternative spaces from men, masculine visual aesthetic, masculine behavior and masculine language really emphasize their efforts to be separatist.

There is a specific Lesbian Feminist canon (see Sheila Jeffreys Unpacking Queer Politics) that rejects transgenderism, transsexualism, and transvestism. This part of the Lesbian Feminist theory posits that trans people are, at best gender dupes, and at worst, shoring up support for traditional (read: violent) gender norms. Lesbian Feminists continue their rejection of transgender people with an opposition to sex reassignment surgery, some seeing it as a form of violence akin to S&M and other seeing it as a mutilation and a violation of human rights (Jeffreys).

By means of summation, Lesbian Feminism appears to overlook biopsychological orientation, insteading, building their argument on of the socio-cultural idea that orientation is a social phenomenon.

As Rich states, “Yet the failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness.”

Thus, one way in which to subvert the social hierarchy, and oppressive force of patriarchy, is for one to choose instead of a hierarchical heterosexual relationship, a communal lesbian relationship. Or, as Rich explains through her theory of the “Lesbian Continuum:”

“If we consider the possibility that all women – from the infant suckling her mother’s breast, to the grown woman experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child, perhaps recalling her mother’s milk-smell in her own; to two women, like Virginia Woolf’s Chloe and Olivia, who share a laboratory; to the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women – exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.”

Lesbian Feminists of Note:

Charlotte Bunch

Rita Mae Brown

Adrienne Rich – “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”

Audre Lorde

Marilyn Frye – Notes on Separatism and Power

Mary Daly – Gyn/Ecology

Sheila Jeffreys – Unpacking Queer Politics

Monique Wittig

Bonnie Zimmerman

Valerie Solanas

Works Cited

Bunch, Charlotte. “Lesbians in Revolt”. The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, Vol. 1. Pg. 8-9. January 1972.

Dubois, Ellen. “Feminism Old Wave and New Wave”. The Feminist Ezine. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/modern/Old_and_New_Wave-Feminism.html

Frye, Marilyn. Notes on Seperatism and Power.

Ed. Hoagland, Sarah Lucia & Penelope, Julia. Revolutionary Lesbians: “How to Stop Chocking to Death Or: Separatism”. For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology. Pg 22-24. Onlywomen Press. 1988.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Terry College of Business. University of Georgia.

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