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social sciences

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Lesbian Feminism  
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Separatists may have advocated withdrawing women's energies from men, but only so as to bring down patriarchy and create a new society in its wake. By essentializing women's qualities as biologically determined, cultural feminists did not offer anything beyond the creation of a separate culture for women. In many ways, this was exactly what separatist feminists had so successfully accomplished. For this reason, one is often mistaken as the other.

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American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich is most frequently associated with the cultural strain of lesbian feminism. Her writing on motherhood was highly influential among feminists of all political stripes, but especially important was her 1980 article "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Rich's critique of heterosexuality continues to influence theories of sexuality today, but it was her construction of a lesbian continuum that gave voice to the new cultural feminism.

Unlike separatists who argued that "lesbian" was a political position strategically mobilized to undermine patriarchy, Rich and others characterized the lesbian continuum as a connection shared by all women across time and space, but which was undermined by men's demands upon their labor. Women could find strength, personal fulfillment, and, ultimately, liberation by reconnecting with women.

Although she later clarified her position in light of the critical response, Rich's continuum was widely interpreted to suggest that all women who had emotionally intimate relationships with other women could be considered "lesbian." This model can be found in the work of historian Lillian Faderman whose descriptions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American female companions as lesbians were criticized for obscuring the significance of physical intimacy in shaping experience and identity.

Reaction and Criticism

In time, lesbian feminists' claims of universal sisterhood came under increasing attack. Women of color and working-class women had long felt that race and class oppression, and the women who experienced them, were given little more than lip service by lesbian feminists.

Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) exposed how lesbian and other feminists had failed to understand the complexities of intersecting and multiple oppressions, and argued that the movement perpetuated the very race and class structures it purported to dismantle. These criticisms forced an important, though often fractious and painful, debate in feminist activist and intellectual circles, and ultimately led to the creation of new political strategies that rejected separatist politics for coalition-building efforts.

In the late 1970s, frustration with lesbian feminism's rigid sexual politics led to a series of watershed confrontations centered on sexual expression and issues. Samois, a group of feminist sado-masochists, were refused the right to use the facilities at the San Francisco Women's Union. In response, Samois member Patrick Califia-Rice (then Pat Califia) publicly denounced lesbian feminist sexual politics as a form of sexual repression.

Shortly thereafter, a group of lesbian feminists attempted to shut down a conference held by a group of academics to explore ways of introducing more nuanced analyses of female sexuality, an action that gained the movement a reputation for intolerance and censorship. In the 1990s, male-to-female and queer activists regularly protested against policies that prohibited non-biological women from joining or participating in "womyn-only" organizations and events.


Lesbian feminism had a tremendous impact on the personal and political experiences of more than one generation of women. In 1972 a woman could be institutionalized for having sex with another woman; by 1973 she could buy lesbian records, read lesbian books, and attend women-only lesbian events. It is little wonder that many continue to identify with lesbian feminism.

But the internecine conflicts over racial and sexual politics forced lesbian feminism to confront its own ideological limitations. In the 1990s, a new generation of feminists calling themselves the "third wave" set out to preserve some of the movement's original insights while prioritizing anti-racist, anti-colonial, and queer- and gender-based theories and struggles. Despite these changes, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival continues to thrive, suggesting that a desire for "womyn-only" spaces persists. However, lesbian feminism is a political ideology that resonates among significantly fewer women today than it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Elise Chenier

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social sciences >> Overview:  Butch-Femme

Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

social sciences >> Overview:  Compulsory Heterosexuality

Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that women and men are innately attracted to each other emotionally and sexually and that heterosexuality is universal, a view that leads to an institutional inequality of power that privileges heterosexual males and denigrates women, especially lesbians.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay Rights Movement, U. S.

The U.S. gay rights movement has made significant progress toward achieving equality for glbtq Americans, and in the process has become more inclusive and diverse, but much remains to be done.

social sciences >> Overview:  Lesbian Sex Wars

The lesbian "sex wars" of the 1980s, centered on issues of pornography and s/m, constituted one of the most significant debates among second-wave feminists in North America and Europe.

arts >> Overview:  Music Festivals

A cultural institution among lesbians, women's music festivals are community-based events that celebrate women's space as much as women's music.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Women's

Stylistically diverse and continually evolving, women's music has broadened over time, but it remains committed to lesbian visibility and feminist values.

social sciences >> Overview:  Patriarchy

Patriarchy, literally "the rule of the fathers," is a social system in which men hold positions of power and women are oppressed and glbtq people are treated negatively.

social sciences >> Overview:  Separatism

Separatism refers not only to attempts to create alternatives to straight society, but also to exclusionary practices within the glbtq community itself.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

literature >> Anzaldúa, Gloria

American Latina lesbian editor and writer Gloria Anzaldúa connected racism and homophobia to posit a political queerness that interconnects with all struggles against oppression.

arts >> Bechdel, Alison

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is best known for her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which has run in alternative gay and lesbian newspapers for nearly two decades.

literature >> Brown, Rita Mae

Lesbian poet and novelist Rita Mae Brown, best known for the highly successful Rubyfruit Jungle, resists neat categorization.

social sciences >> Bunch, Charlotte

American activist and academic Charlotte Bunch is a key player in the movement for international human rights for women.

literature >> Califia, Patrick

Controversial for defending sadomasochism and pornography, gender outlaw and sexual anarchist Patrick Califia, who recently underwent gender reassignment, is widely admired as a defender of individual freedom.

social sciences >> Lesbian Nation

Inspired by Jill Johnston's collection of essays of the same name, the term "lesbian nation" became a rallying cry for political lesbians of the 1970s.

social sciences >> Lyon, Phyllis, (b. 1924) and Del Martin (1921-2008)

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were among the founders of a lesbian liberation movement that developed and enlarged the very definition of lesbianism.

literature >> Moraga, Cherríe

In her own works, CherrĂ­e Moraga defines her experience as a Chicana lesbian; and in her capacity as editor/publisher, she provides a forum for traditionally silenced lesbians of color.

social sciences >> National Organization for Women (NOW)

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 with the goal of bringing about political, social, and legal equality for all women.

arts >> Near, Holly

Activist, singer, and songwriter Holly Near has been a tremendous influence in the formation and promotion of the women's music movement.

social sciences >> Radicalesbians

A short-lived but important group, the Radicalesbians was instrumental in bringing visibility to lesbians in the American feminist movement of the early 1970s.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

social sciences >> Woman-Identified Woman

A cornerstone of lesbian activism in the 1970s, the concept of the woman-identified woman expressed the need for women to define themselves without reference to male-dominated societal structures.


Bechdel, Alison. "Michigan Womyn's Music Festival." The Advocate 876 (November 12, 2002): 63.

Bunch, Charlotte. "Lesbians in Revolt." The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly 1 (January 1972): 8-9.

Califia, Pat. "Feminism and Sadomasochism." Heresies 12.2 (1981): 30-34. Rpt. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1994. 165-175.

Echols, Alice. Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

_____. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York : Morrow, 1981.

Jeffreys, Sheila. "Butch and Femme: Now and Then." Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History, 1840-1985. Lesbian History Group, eds. London: The Women's Press, 1989. 158-187.

Johnston, Jill. Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Koedt, Anne. "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm." Radical Feminism. Anned Koedt, Ellen Levine, and Anita Rapone, eds. New York: Quadrangle, 1973. 198-207.

Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/woman. San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1972.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983.

Radicalesbians. The Woman-Identified Woman. Pittsburgh: Know, Inc., 1970.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (Summer 1980): 631-60.

Ross, Becki L. The House that Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Chenier, Elise  
    Entry Title: Lesbian Feminism  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated July 25, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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