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Where are the Lesbian Feminists?

By Cathy O'Grady

Once, almost all lesbians were feminists. What happened? Once upon a time, the words 'lesbian' and 'feminist' were wedded together in a beautiful civil union. Especially in the USA which is the one country in the world which can lay claim as the founding mother of the worldwide feminist movement.

Back in the day, if you were a lesbian, then by Sappho, you were also a feminist.

That's no longer true.

Lesbian feminists once were the backbone of lesbianism. They created record labels and music festivals, opened bookstores and presses, and worked hard to raise the consciousness of all women, gay and straight.

Then they all but vanished. Hardly any lesbians classify themselves as feminists these days, especially if they're under 30, and feminist events in the queer community are few and far between.

What happened?

Theory #1: Feminism has always been evolving. This is just the next step.
We tend to think of feminism as an immutable political philosophy. However, just like the needs and political desires of the gay and lesbian movement have evolved over time, feminism has been transfigured by changing laws, events and culture.

In the 1960s and 70s, the idea that women were intellectually equal to men and should have the same kind of political power was just starting to gain traction. Lesbians were a tiny minority of women - so tiny that they were rarely studied and certainly not counted.

"1970s lesbian feminists were really radical in their thinking", said Dona Yarbrough, director of a LGBT center and a lecturer in Women's Studies at an American University. "The idea was that feminism is the theory and lesbianism is the practice. Sleeping with men is sleeping with the enemy. They were separatists".

In other words, a lot of 'lesbian' feminists of those years were actually straight women who were sleeping with other women because they felt it was morally wrong to have sex with men. Women were not just better than men - they were superior.

By the beginning of Third Wave feminism in the 1990s, this had changed. Women were no longer restricted from getting credit in their own name, or kept from playing sports in school. Wages, though not equal, were at least equalising. Most lesbians no longer thought of sexual orientation as a political choice.

Depending who you talked to, feminism was about women having total control of their bodies, the concept that women and men were equal in all aspects of life, or a combination of both. There was also a feeling that all women were sisters, and that women should make it their mission to help women and girls first and foremost. Certainly there was an understanding that lesbians were on the vanguard of the women?s movement.

"Today", says Yarbrough, "Queer women don't usually call themselves feminist, but they are still feminist in their thinking".

Today's younger generation may not look like feminists to early Third Wavers (and may not call themselves feminists at all) - but then again, Third Wavers didn't seem like feminists to early Second Wavers of the 60s and 70s, either.

Theory #2: The Right Has Won
The backlash against lesbian feminism started early. In 1970, the media generally dismissed a Women's Lib protest by declaring that its advocates were "ugly manhaters and leftwing radicals", according to the Feminist Majority Foundation. Later that year, Time magazine discredited writer Kate Millet as a spokeswoman for the feminist movement because she had said she was bisexual.

In 1977, famous American gay hater, Anita Bryant, as part of her campaign to kill a regional American gay anti-discrimination bill, exhorted people to "kill a queer for Christ". Feminists were left of center, but lesbian feminists were so far on the margins. Even feminists themselves thought of lesbians as being on the radical edge. Betty Friedan called them "the lavender menace". When the National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977 was considering adding a 'sexual preference' plank, leaders worried that if lesbians were included in the women's rights platform that the public would revolt and NO women would advance.

Today, lesbians and feminists have switched sides on the spectrum. Feminists are sometimes called 'femi-nazis' to emphasize their radicalness, while lesbians are portrayed in tv shows as beautiful socialites, less radical than their feminist sisters. Perhaps that's why a recent online poll said that only 26 percent of women identified as feminist.

"Why are straight women and queer women leery about the word feminist? Because of the Right's successful campaign in defining it as radical and man-hating", Yarbrough said. "As lesbians become more mainstream, there is less need to be associated with radical politics". In other words, even to lesbians, the word 'feminist' seems radical. On that point, the Right has won.

Theory 3a: Complacency. Women are equal, so feminism is unnecessary.
It's possible, though, that the Right has had less influence on the disappearing of feminism than the Left. That is, as women gained more and more rights, there became less urgency and anger among women to organise as feminists for specific legal and social rights.

"What happened to lesbian feminists? They broke through the glass ceiling and started putting money into their investment portfolios from their six-figure incomes", said one self-described 'former feminist'.

Yarbrough says that her students look at her quizzically when she tries to explain why feminism is important. One student, she says, told her that believing that women were equal to men wasn't feminist - it was just what a rational human being thinks.

Theory 3b: Complacency. The lesbian pool is bigger
This complacency might also be a result of more and more women coming out. In the 1960s and 1970s the women who came out were marginalised - to come out, they needed to be political, partly because the only way to meet other lesbians was at political functions. Now, women can come out and socialise in any number of ways without ever having to think about politics.

"You can be a hardcore lesbian and do social queer things in town without ever having any sort of political opinion", said Jessica Halem, an American LGBT activist and the former executive director of a Lesbian Community Cancer Project.

She added, "This is what we wanted, right? To be obsolete? Feminism should be integrated into everyday life, into everyone's perspective, and that's what's happening".

Theory #4: Gender discussions now include men.
Not long ago, a theater group wanted to provide a space for young lesbians to exchange basic information about their bodies, about their fears about sex and issues around stereotyping.

But queer girls said, "We're attracted to each other, I'm not going to open up in front of someone I'm attracted to. And then they said that their best friends are gay boys, and they didn't want to be in a group like this without their best friend", Halem said. Halem works with students at the University of Chicago, and she said that girls today are just not experiencing what girls in previous generations experienced.

"So a girly lesbian might feel like she has more in common with a flaming gay boy than with a butch lesbian", Halem said. "I always understood feminism to be a conversation about gender, and young queer women are having a conversation about the construction and oppression of gender that includes men, too".

Theory #5: What are you talking about? Lesbian feminism is still here.
Even though there isn't the same proliferation of bookstores and journals, lesbian feminists are still here and still active.

"The nature of all activism is different in this century", Jewelle Gomez, a writer and activist, wrote in an email. "I think you'll find a great number of lesbian feminists toiling in a wide variety of fields, from health, to aging, to youth, to anti-violence. I think the political philosophy is now being taken into the world instead of simply being formulated within a single community."

Lesbian feminism might not be central on the political stage, but lesbian feminists themselves are still working for the sisterhood, fighting to make the individual lives of women better, as well as increasing women's voices in the political sphere.

These women might not always call themselves feminists. But some activists say that they should. As Gomez says, "It may be different between the generations, but without the word 'feminist', it's not a movement - it's just an identity."

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