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social sciences

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Lesbian Feminism  
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Interestingly, butch and femme women called themselves gay since the term lesbian connoted for them mental illness. For lesbian feminists, however, lesbian had a proud etymology that deserved to be reclaimed. They were the first to use the word as a positive marker of a socio-sexual identity. Indeed, one of the most significant accomplishments of the lesbian feminist movement was to facilitate a network of social and political support that helped lesbians cope with the isolation, stigma, and legal problems that many homosexuals battled.

Over time, the sexual component of lesbianism became less and less relevant. For example, Charlotte Bunch's 1972 article "Lesbians in Revolt" set out to establish lesbian feminism as the basis for the liberation of all women. Bunch argued that "lesbianism threatens male supremacy at its core," not because women were having sex together, but because they withdrew their energies from men. Bunch and others were influenced by other anti-oppression struggles, and believed the downfall of male supremacy would lead to the collapse of racism, capitalism, and imperialism.

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In 1973, Bunch and Rita Mae Brown, along with others, founded quest: a feminist quarterly, which published from 1974 to 1984. Intended to encourage debate and develop theory, the quarterly became the premiere theoretical journal of lesbian feminism.

Joint Action and Lesbian Separatism

The complementary struggles of the women's, gay, and lesbian liberation movements occasionally led to joint action. One of the most significant of these was the successful lobbying of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) whose diagnostic and clinical practices pathologized homosexuals. As a direct result of all three groups' activism during the APA's annual meetings from 1971 to 1973, homosexuality was removed from the association's list of mental diseases.

Co-ordinated actions became increasingly rare, however. In 1972, Rita Mae Brown called for a fully autonomous lesbian-feminist movement. She described the difference between heterosexual women and lesbians as "the difference between reform and revolution." According to her, to love and support women was lesbian; to continue to pursue intimate relations with men was tantamount to collaborating with the enemy. Brown's public declarations marked the beginning of lesbian separatism, one of the two most significant strains of lesbian feminism.

What had begun as a response to NOW's exclusionary tactics quickly grew into a widespread ideological and cultural movement that enjoyed enormous appeal among lesbians in Canada, Britain, Scotland, and Australia. Though lesbian feminists outside of the continental United States tended to be on better terms with women's and gay liberation groups, the creation of a distinct lesbian-feminist consciousness that promised liberation through woman-identification inspired and influenced women around the English-speaking world.

In the United States and elsewhere, women began building the Lesbian Nation by creating a wide range of cultural industries where women's skills and talent could be nourished and promoted. Founded in 1973, Olivia Records produced and recorded some of the most popular lesbian-feminist artists including Holly Near. Some like Lorraine Segato performed for women-only crowds. Naiad Press (1973-2004) published and distributed lesbian fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Collectively-run women's bookstores and volunteer-run community centers appeared in major urban areas.

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was one of the most successful efforts to bring culture and politics together in a lesbian separatist venue. First staged in 1976, it runs every August on land purchased and maintained by a small group of lesbians. Thousands of women travel from around the world to camp during the festival.

Men are not permitted on the land, and participants are required to contribute to the festival's day-to-day operations by cooking, cleaning, or performing other tasks. They can also attend workshops on political and personal issues, and buy women-positive art and jewelry made by female artisans. Sliding scale fees are offered, and day care is provided, but male children over the age of 6 are cared for in a separate, sex-segregated area. This policy, along with decisions to exclude sado-masochistic practitioners and people not born biologically female, have been the subject of intense controversy in recent years. Nevertheless, popular cartoonist Alison Bechdel describes the festival as a "perennial utopia" for women.

Cultural Feminism

Although cultural feminism, the second strain of lesbian feminism, veered in a different direction, its roots lay in some of the unwritten assumptions made by its more radical predecessor. The conviction that rejecting male culture and identifying solely with women would lead to the end of all forms of oppression was based on the belief that once unchained from patriarchy, women will emulate the utopian visions of anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist movements.

Among cultural feminists, this claim was largely theorized on the basis of women's assumed biological capacity to bear children. According to the logic of cultural feminism, the very act of raising children led women to prefer pacifism to war, was antithetical to the profit motive, and engendered unconditional love. In other words, women's superiority was a fact of nature.

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