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Lesbian feminism is a cultural movement and critical perspective, most influential in the 1970s and early 1980s (primarily in North America and Western Europe), that questions the position of lesbians and women in society. It particularly refutes heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone is "straight" and society should be structured to serve heterosexual needs. Some key thinkers and activists are Charlotte Bunch, Rita Mae Brown, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Monique Wittig (although the latter is more commonly associated with the emergence of queer theory).
Historically lesbianism has been closely associated with feminism, going back at least to the 1890s. "Lesbian feminism" is a related movement that came together in the early 1970s out of dissatisfaction with second-wave feminism and the gay liberation movement.
In the words of lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffreys, "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 Judy Rebick, a leading Canadian journalist and political activist for feminism, lesbians were and always have been at the heart of the women's movement, while their issues were invisible in the same movement.
Like feminism, lesbian and gay studies, and queer theory, lesbian feminism is characterised by contestation and revision. Nevertheless, if one key theme could be isolated it would be an analysis of heterosexuality as an institution. Lesbian feminist texts work to denaturalise heterosexuality and, based on this denaturalization, to explore heterosexuality's "roots" in institutions such as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. Additionally, lesbian feminism advocates lesbianism as a rational result of alienation and dissatisfaction with these institutions.
Sheila Jeffreys defines lesbian feminism as having seven key themes:
- An emphasis on women's love for one another
- Separatist organizations
- Community and ideas
- Idea that lesbianism is about choice and resistance
- Idea that the personal is the political
- A rejection of social hierarchy
- A critique of male-supremacy (which eroticises inequality)
As outlined above, lesbian feminism typically situates lesbianism as a form of resistance to "man-made" institutions. Sexual orientation is posited here as a choice, or at least a conscious response to a situation.
See also queer nationalism.
Lesbian separatism is a form of separatist feminism specific to lesbians. Separatism has been considered by lesbians as both a temporary strategy, and as a lifelong practice but mostly the latter. In separatist feminism, lesbianism is posited as a key feminist strategy that enables women to invest their energies in other women, creating new space and dialogue about women's relationships, and typically, limits their dealings with men.
Lesbian separatism became popular in the 1970s as some lesbians doubted whether mainstream society or even the LGBT movement had anything to offer them. In 1970, seven women (including Del Martin) confronted the North Conference of Homophile [meaning homosexual] Organizations about the relevance of the gay rights movement to the women within it. The delegates passed a resolution in favor of women's liberation, but Del Martin felt they had not done enough, and wrote "If That's All There Is", an influential 1970 essay in which she decried gay rights organizations as sexist. In the summer of 1971, a lesbian group calling themselves "The Furies" formed a commune open to lesbians only, where they put out a monthly newspaper. "The Furies" consisted of twelve women, aged eighteen to twenty-eight, all feminists, all lesbians, all white, with three children among them. They shared chores and clothes, lived together, held some of their money in common, and slept on mattresses on a common floor. They also started a school to teach women auto and home repair so they would not be dependent on men. The newspaper lasted from January 1972 to June 1973; the commune itself ended in 1972.
Charlotte Bunch, an early member of The Furies, viewed separatist feminism as a strategy, a "first step" period, or temporary withdrawal from mainstream activism to accomplish specific goals or enhance personal growth. Other lesbians, such as Lambda Award winning author Elana Dykewomon, have chosen separatism as a lifelong practice.
In addition to advocating withdrawal from working, personal or casual relationships with men, The Furies recommended that Lesbian Separatists relate "only (with) women who cut their ties to male privilege" and suggest that "as long as women still benefit from heterosexuality, receive its privileges and security, they will at some point have to betray their sisters, especially Lesbian sisters who do not receive those benefits".
This was part of a larger idea that Bunch articulated in Learning from Lesbian Separatism, that "in a male-supremacist society, heterosexuality is a political institution" and the practice of separatism is a way to escape its domination.
In her 1988 book, Lesbian Ethics: Towards a New Value, Lesbian Philosopher Sarah Lucia Hoagland alludes to Lesbian Separatism's potential to encourage lesbians to develop healthy community ethics based on shared values.
Bette Tallen believes that lesbian separatism, unlike some other separatist movements, is "not about the establishment of an independent state, it is about the development of an autonomous self-identity and the creation of a strong solid lesbian community".
Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman describes the separatist impulses of lesbian feminism which created culture and cultural artifacts as "giving love between women greater visibility" in broader culture. Faderman also believes that lesbian feminists who acted to create separatist institutions did so to "bring their ideals about integrity, nurturing the needy, self-determination and equality of labor and rewards into all aspects of institution-building and economics".
The practice of Lesbian separatism sometimes incorporates concepts related to queer nationalism and political lesbianism. Some individuals who identify as Lesbian separatists are also associated with the practice of Dianic paganism.
The term 'womyn's lands' has been used in America to describe communities of lesbian separatists.
Strategies of lesbian separatism are also controversial within feminism. At its most extreme, male genocide (androcide) has been put forward as a strategy for achieving women's emancipation, as in Valerie Solanas' satirical work SCUM Manifesto. This is certainly a small and isolated view but nevertheless there was a specific flourish of scholarship and literature dealing with whether men are really necessary. Some of this looks at issues of reproduction, for example parts of Mary Daly's classic text Gyn/Ecology. Other canons explore histories of male violence and still others reference the historic femicides perpetrated upon groups of women. Witchcraft is the most obvious example, but one might also cite a general if variegated preference for male offspring, throughout human history.
Elsewhere, lesbian feminists have situated female separatism as quite a mainstream thing and have explored the mythology surrounding it. Marilyn Frye's (1978) essay Notes on Separatism and Power is one such example. She posits female separatism as a strategy practiced by all women, at some point, and present in many feminist projects (one might cite women's refuges, electoral quotas or Women's Studies programmes). She argues that it is only when women practice it, self-consciously as separation from men, that it is treated with controversy (or as she suggests hysteria). Male separatism on the other hand (one might cite gentleman's clubs, labour unions, sports teams, the military and, more arguably, decision-making positions in general) is seen as quite a normal, even expedient phenomenon.
Still other lesbian feminists put forward a notion of "tactical separatism" from men, arguing for and investing in things like women's sanctuaries and consciousness-raising groups, but also exploring everyday practices to which women may temporarily retreat or practice solitude from men and masculinity.
The woman-identified woman
If the founding of the lesbian feminist movement could be pinpointed at a specific moment, it would probably be May 1970, when Radicalesbians, an activist group of 20 lesbians led by lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown, took over a women's conference in New York City, the Congress to Unite Women. Uninvited, they lined up on stage wearing matching T-shirts inscribed with the words "Lavender Menace", and demanded the microphone to read aloud to an audience of 400 their essay The Woman-Identified Woman, which laid out the main precepts of their movement.
Contrary to some popular beliefs about "man-hating butch dykes", lesbian feminist theory does not support the concept of female masculinity. Proponents like Sheila Jeffreys (2003:13) have argued that "all forms of masculinity are problematic."
This is one of the principal areas in which lesbian feminism differs from queer theory, perhaps best summarised by Judith Halberstam's quip that "If Sheila Jeffreys didn't exist, Camille Paglia would have had to invent her."
The overwhelming majority of the activists and scholars associated with lesbian feminist theory have been women; however, there are a few exceptions. For instance, political theorist Eugene Lewis, whose critique of patriarchal society explores the parallels between the theatrical mockery of women in the works of C.S. Lewis (no relation) and underground male prostitution rings, describes himself as "a lesbian feminist in the ideological sense."
"Womyn" along with "wimin", "womin" were terms produced by parts of the lesbian feminist movement to distinguish it from men and masculine (or "phallogocentric") language. The term "women" was seen as derivative of men and ultimately symbolised the prescriptive nature of women's oppression. A new vocabulary emerged more generally, sometimes referencing lost or unspoken matriarchal civilisations, Amazonian warriors, ancient – especially Greek – goddesses, sometimes parts of the female anatomy and often references to the natural world. It was frequently remarked that the movement had nothing to go on, no knowledge of its roots, nor histories of lesbianism to draw on. Hence the emphasis on consciousness-raising and carving out new (arguably) "gynocentric" cultures. (Esther Newton's classic (1984) text "Radclyffe Hall and the Mythic Mannish Lesbian", although she was certainly not a lesbian feminist, is relevant here in exploring the substance of, and debates around lesbian histories prior to the 1950s in particular).
Bonnie Zimmerman is a lesbian feminist literary critic who frequently about the language used by writers from within the movement (see her 1978 text), often drawing on autobiographical narratives and the use of personal testimony. Lesbian feminist texts are often expressly non-linear, poetic and, perhaps, obscure.
Lesbians and mainstream feminism
As a critical perspective lesbian feminism is perhaps best defined in opposition to mainstream feminism and queer theory. It has certainly been argued[by whom?] that mainstream feminism has been guilty of homophobia in its failure to integrate sexuality as a fundamental category of gendered inquiry, and its treatment of lesbianism as a separate issue. Adrienne Rich's (1980) classic text "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" is instructive, but one might also cite the ambiguously reflexive Signs (Summer 1982) issue "The Lesbian Issue."
Lesbians have been active in the mainstream American feminist movement. The first time lesbian concerns were introduced into the National Organization for Women came in 1969, when Ivy Bottini, an open lesbian who was then president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, held a public forum titled "Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue?". However, National Organization for Women president Betty Friedan was against lesbian participation in the movement. In 1969 she referred to growing lesbian visibility as a "lavender menace" and fired openly lesbian newsletter editor Rita Mae Brown, and in 1970 she engineered the expulsion of lesbians, including Ivy Bottini, from NOW's New York chapter. In reaction, at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women, on the first evening when all four hundred feminists were assembled in the auditorium, twenty women wearing t-shirts that read "Lavender Menace" came to the front of the room and faced the audience. One of the women then read their group's paper "The Woman-Identified Woman", which was the first major lesbian feminist statement. The group, who later named themselves "Radicalesbians", were among the first to challenge the heterosexism of heterosexual feminists and to describe lesbian experience in positive terms. In 1971 NOW passed a resolution declaring “that a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle," as well as a conference resolution stating that forcing lesbian mothers to stay in marriages or to live a secret existence in an effort to keep their children was unjust. That year NOW also committed to offering legal and moral support in a test case involving child custody rights of lesbian mothers. In 1973 the NOW Task Force on Sexuality and Lesbianism was established. In November 1977 the National Women's Conference issued the National Plan of Action, which stated in part, "Congress, State, and local legislatures should enact legislation to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sexual and affectional preference in areas including, but not limited to, employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, public facilities, government funding, and the military. State legislatures should reform their penal codes or repeal State laws that restrict private sexual behavior between consenting adults. State legislatures should enact legislation that would prohibit consideration of sexual or affectional orientation as a factor in any judicial determination of child custody or visitation rights. Rather, child custody cases should be evaluated solely on the merits of which party is the better parent, without regard to that person's sexual and affectional orientation." 
In 2014 Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) issued an "Anti-Sexism Statement", which states, "Men run the world and women are supposed to serve according to the belief that men are superior to women, which is patriarchy. Patriarchy is the system by which men's universal power is maintained and enforced. OLOC works toward the end of patriarchy and the liberation of all women."
Tensions with queer theory
Queer theory's emergence in the 1990s built upon certain principles of lesbian feminism, including the critique of compulsory heterosexuality, the understanding of gender as defined in part by heterosexuality, and the understanding of sexuality as institutional instead of personal. Despite this, queer theory is largely set in opposition to lesbian feminism. Lesbian feminism is traditionally critical of S&M, butch/femme identities and relationships, transgenderism and transsexuality, pornography, and prostitution, whereas queer theory tends to embrace them without analysis. Queer theorists have critiqued lesbian feminism as having an essentialist understanding of gender that runs counter to their stated aims, and subsequently embrace gender fluidity. Lesbian feminists have critiqued queer theory as implicitly male-oriented, and a recreation of the male-oriented Gay Liberation Front that lesbian feminists initially sought refuge from; queer theorists have countered by pointing out that the majority of the most prominent queer theorists are feminists, and many (including Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, and Gayle Rubin) are lesbians.
Barry (2002) suggests that in choosing between these possible alignments (lesbian feminism and/or queer theory) one must answer whether it is gender or sexuality that is the more "fundamental in personal identity."
Views on BDSM
Because of its focus on equality in sexual relationships, lesbian feminism has traditionally been opposed to any form of BDSM that involve perpetuation of gender stereotypes. This view was challenged in the late 1970s, most notably by the Samois group.  Samois was a San Francisco based feminist organization focused on BDSM. Samois members felt strongly that their way of practicing SM was entirely compatible with feminism, and held that the kind of feminist sexuality advocated by WAVPM was conservative and puritanical.
Views on transgenderism
Views vary, but there is a specific lesbian feminist canon which rejects transgenderism, transsexualism and transvestism, positing trans people as, at best, gender dupes (or functions of a discourse on mutilation); at worst shoring up support for traditional and violent gender norms. This is a position marked by intense controversy. Sheila Jeffreys summarized the arguments on this topic in Unpacking Queer Politics (2003).
In 1979, lesbian feminist Janice Raymond published a book on transsexualism called The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Controversial even today, it looked at the role of transsexualism – particularly psychological and surgical approaches to it – in reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, the ways in which the medical-psychiatric complex is medicalizing “gender identity” and the social and political context that has helped spawn transsexual treatment and surgery as normal and therapeutic medicine.
Raymond maintains that transsexualism is based on the "patriarchal myths" of "male mothering," and "making of woman according to man's image." She claims this is done in order "to colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality," adding: "All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive."
These views on transsexuality have been criticized by many in the LGBT and feminist communities as extremely transphobic and as constituting hate-speech against transsexual men and women.
In The Transsexual Empire Janice Raymond includes sections on Sandy Stone, a trans woman who had worked as a sound engineer for Olivia Records, and Christy Barsky, accusing both of creating divisiveness in women's spaces. These writings have been heavily criticized as personal attacks on these individuals.
Lesbian feminism is sometimes associated with opposition to sex reassignment surgery; some lesbian feminist analyses see sex reassignment surgery as a form of violence akin to S&M.
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