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Lesbian feminism is a political and philosophical strand of feminism that emerged in the US, Canada, and Britain in the 1970s. It holds as central tenets that heterosexuality is the seat of patriarchal power; lesbianism is a political choice and not an essential identity; and lesbians occupy a unique and empowered position vis-a-vis sexism and patriarchy because they do not rely on men for emotional, financial, or sexual attention and support. Lesbian feminism developed out of radical feminism and in reaction to sexism within gay liberation movements and homophobia within feminist movements of the 1960s. In response to Betty Friedan s 1970 characterization of lesbians as the ”lavender menace, lesbians began to advocate for recognition from feminist movements. Out of the ensuing debates, groups like the Washington, DC-based ”Furies formed. In ”The Woman Identified Woman (1970), the first political statement of the lesbian feminist movement, the New York Radicalesbians, originally known as ”Lavender Menace, argued that ”lesbian as an identity was not just a sexual object choice, but rather a chosen identity.
Approaching lesbian as a political identity, not just a sexual one, required a radical redefinition. In ”Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence, Adrienne Rich (1980) argued that sexuality was a socially constructed tool of patriarchy. She asserted that there was a lesbian continuum that opened up space for all women to be lesbians, including women who identified themselves sexually, spiritually, emotionally, or politically with other women, and that this was the cornerstone of dismantling patriarchy. Two related but distinct branches of lesbian feminism emerged in the 1970s. Cultural feminists argued that the creation of counter-institutions (such as women s bookstores and music labels) was a way to resist the sexism implicit in dominant institutions. The other branch that emerged – lesbian separatism -took this a step further and argued for a complete withdrawal from men and male-dominated institutions in order to effect significant social change.
Many scholars like Adrienne Rich, Charlotte Bunch, and Lillian Faderman merged academic theorizing and lesbian feminist ideology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, providing gendered critiques of heterosexuality and patriarchy. For women of color and poor women who experienced gender, class, and race as interconnected identities and oppressions, however, lesbian feminism s emphasis on an essential shared womanhood erased and invalidated their experiences. More recently, notions of essential womanhood (and exclusion based on this) have also been challenged by trans-gender communities, which continue to argue for a place within lesbian feminist and separatist spaces like Michigan Women s Music Festival. The emergence of queer theory in the 1990s, characterized by the theoretical decentering of identity, has led to a dismissal of much of lesbian feminist research as outdated. As many feminists have argued, however, that identity politics have been and continue to be central to lesbian and feminist organizing. Despite these criticisms, lesbian feminism continues to influence contemporary feminist and lesbian movements and many of the institutions founded in the 1970s and 1980s by lesbian feminist communities continue to thrive.
- Rich, A. (1980) Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (4): 631-60.
- Johnston, J. (1973) Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution. Simon & Schuster, New York.
- Staggenborg, S., Eder, D. & Sudderth, L. (1995) The National Women s Music Festival: collective identity and diversity in a lesbian-feminist community. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 23 (4): 485-515.
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