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The Lavender Menace was an informal group of lesbian radical feminists formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. Members included Karla Jay, Martha Shelley, Rita Mae Brown, Lois Hart, Barbara Love, Ellen Shumsky, and Michela Griffo, and were mostly members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the National Organization for Women (NOW).
The story of the origin of the phrase "Lavender Menace" is that it was first used in 1969 by Betty Friedan, president of NOW, to describe the threat that she believed associations with lesbianism posed to NOW and the emerging women's movement. Friedan, and some other straight feminists, worried that the association would hamstring feminists' ability to achieve serious political change, and that stereotypes of "mannish" and "man-hating" lesbians would provide an easy way to dismiss the movement. Under her direction, NOW attempted to distance itself from lesbian causes – including omitting the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis from the list of sponsors of the First Congress to Unite Women in November 1969. Friedan's remarks and the decision to drop DOB from the sponsor list led lesbian feminist Rita Mae Brown to angrily resign her administrative job at NOW in February 1970 (Jay 137-138, Brownmiller 82). On March 15, 1970, straight radical feminist Susan Brownmiller quoted Friedan's remarks about the "lavender menace" and dismissed her worries as "A lavender herring, perhaps, but no clear and present danger" in a New York Times Magazine article. While the term "Lavender Menace" originated as a negative term for lesbianism, it was later reclaimed as a positive term by lesbian feminists.
Brownmiller later said that when she wrote the article, she had intended to use a humorous quip to distance herself from Friedan's homophobia (Jay 140, Brownmiller 82), but some lesbian feminists (especially Michela Griffo) took her remarks as "a scathing put-down" (Brownmiller 82) and "evidence of Susan's homophobia or closet homosexuality--that is, that she was trying to distance herself from lesbians by insulting us" (Jay 140)—because they felt that the quip dismissed lesbians as an insignificant part of the movement, or lesbian issues as unnecessary distractions from the important issues.
Second Congress to Unite Women
Rita Mae Brown suggested to her consciousness-raising group that lesbian radical feminists organize an action in response to Brownmiller's comments, and the public airing of Friedan's complaints. The group decided to target the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970, which they noticed featured not a single open lesbian on the program (Jay 140). They planned a zap for the opening session of the Congress, which would use humor and nonviolent confrontation to raise awareness of lesbians and lesbian issues as vital parts to the emerging women's movement. They prepared a ten-paragraph manifesto entitled "The Woman-Identified Woman" and made T-shirts, dyed purple and silkscreened with the words "Lavender Menace" for the entire group (Jay 140-142). Karla Jay, one of the organizers and participants in the zap, describes what happened:
- Finally, we were ready. The Second Congress to Unite Women got under way on May 1 at 7:00 PM at Intermediate School 70 on West Seventeenth Street in Manhattan. About three hundred women filed into the school auditorium. Just as the first speaker came to the microphone, Jesse Falstein, a GLF member, and Michela [Griffo] switched off the lights and pulled the plug on the mike. (They had cased the place the previous day, and knew exactly where the switches were and how to work them.) I was planted in the middle of the audience, and I could hear my coconspirators running down both aisles. Some were laughing, while others were emitting rebel yells. When Michela and Jesse flipped the lights back on, both aisles were lined with seventeen lesbians wearing their Lavender Menace T-shirts and holding the placards we had made. Some invited the audience to join them. I stood up and yelled, "Yes, yes, sisters! I'm tired of being in the closet because of the women's movement." Much to the horror of the audience, I unbuttoned the long-sleeved red blouse I was wearing and ripped it off. Underneath, I was wearing a Lavender Menace T-shirt. There were hoots of laughter as I joined the others in the aisles. Then Rita [Mae Brown] yelled to members of the audience, "Who wants to join us?"
- "I do, I do," several replied.
- Then Rita also pulled off her Lavender Menace T-shirt. Again, there were gasps, but underneath she had on another one. More laughter. The audience was on our side.
- —Karla Jay, Tales of the Lavender Menace, 143
After the initial stunt, the "Menaces" passed out mimeographed copies of "The Woman-Identified Woman" and took the stage, where they explained how angry they were about the exclusion of lesbians from the conference. A few members of the planning committee tried to take back the stage and return to the original program, but gave up in the face of the resolute Menaces and the audience, who used applause and boos to show their support. The group and the audience then used the microphone for a spontaneous speak-out on lesbianism in the feminist movement, and several of the participants in the "zap" were invited to run workshops the next day on lesbian rights and homophobia (Jay 144). Straight and gay women from the congress joined an all-women's dance (a frequent organizing and social tool used by Gay Liberation Front men and women) (Brownmiller 98).
The "Lavender Menace" zap, and the publication of "The Woman-Identified Woman," are widely remembered as a turning-point in the second-wave feminist movement, and as a founding moment for lesbian feminism. After the zap, many of the organizers continued to meet, and decided to create a lasting organization to continue their activism, which they eventually decided to call the "Radicalesbians." At the next national conference of NOW, in September 1971, the delegates adopted a resolution recognizing lesbianism and lesbian rights as "a legitimate concern for feminism".
In 1999, Susan Brownmiller described the impact by writing that "Lesbians would be silent no longer in the women's movement" (98). Karla Jay described it in her memoirs as "the single most important action organized by lesbians who wanted the women's movement to acknowledge our presence and needs," and said that it "completely reshaped the relationship of lesbians to feminism for years to come" (137). "We felt as well," Jay wrote, "that the zap was only the first of many actions to come and that lesbian liberation was suddenly and unstoppably on the rise" (145).
- Brownmiller, Susan (1999). In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (ISBN 0-385-31486-8).
- Jay, Karla (1999). Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation (ISBN 0-465-08366-8).