Radical lesbianism

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Radical lesbianism is a lesbian movement that sought to challenge the status quo of heterosexuality and mainstream feminism. It was started by lesbian feminist groups in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. A Canadian movement followed in the 1970s, which added momentum.[1] As it continued to gain popularity, radical lesbianism spread throughout Canada, the United States, and France. The French-based movement, Front des lesbiennes Radicales, or FLR, organized in 1981 under the name Front des lesbiennes Radicales.[2] Other movements such as Radicalesbians have also stemmed off of the larger radical lesbianism movement. In addition to being associated with social movements, radical lesbianism also offers its own ideology, similar to how feminism functions in both capacities.


Radical lesbianism has roots in twentieth-century feminist and queer movements. Though radical lesbian movements may exist in other countries, those that contributed most heavily to this ideology include Canada, France, and the United States.

The United States[edit]

see also: History of lesbianism in the United States Radical lesbian organizations grew in number in the U.S. in the mid to late 1960s. Second-wave feminism, which began in the early 1960s and continued into the 1980s, was one of the larges influences on the development of this ideology. Moreover, the creation of radical lesbianism was directly linked to other left-wing social movements such as the New Left, the Vietnam-era Antiwar movement, and the American civil rights movement.[3]


After gaining momentum in the U.S., radical lesbian made its way to Canada in the 1970s. Quebec and Toronto were the predominant cities in which the Canadian movement took place. [1] Lesbian organizations in Canada focused on building up lesbian culture and making service available to the Canadian lesbian community.[1] The Lesbian Organization of Toronto, for example, established Amethyst, which provided services for lesbians who were struggling with addiction.[1]


Following the 1970s Canadian movement, a radical lesbian movement in France began to take shape in 1981. Front des Lesbiennes Radicales was proposed as an organization in June 1981. In a way similar to the American and Canadian movements, these radical, French lesbians sought to carve out space for themselves within feminism and within politics as a whole. They focused on the representation of lesbians and excluded heterosexual women, although they differentiated themselves from lesbian separatism. [4]

Influence of Monique Wittig[edit]

The Front des lesbiennes Radicales [fr], were inspired by the words and writings of French philosopher Monique Wittig,[5] and their philosophic inquiries began through a Paris-based group including Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir who published the journal Questions féministes.[6] Wittig's 1981 essay, One is not Born a Woman, titled after Simone de Beauvoir's observation, posits that "Lesbians are not women," as "what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation, ... a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual".[7] Wittig also believed that "lesbianism provides ...the only social form in which (lesbians) can live freely".[7]

In the encyclopedia Who's Who in Lesbian and Gay Writing, editor Gabriele Griffin calls Wittig's writing "part of a larger debate about how heteropatriarchy and women's oppression within it might be resisted."[7]

Radical lesbian ideology[edit]

Radical and liberal movements[edit]

Though both radical and liberal movements seek social change, there is a distinctive difference between the two. Radical movements such as radical lesbianism seek to dismantle the status quo whereas liberal movements seek to reform it. Additionally, radical movements align with liberation whereas liberal movements focus more heavily on equality. Radical lesbianism specifically sought to challenge male domination and male-centered definitions of gender and sexuality.[3]

Radical Lesbianism and lesbian separatism[edit]

The principles of radical lesbianism are similar to those of lesbian separatism, however, there are some important differences.[5][8] In her preface to Monique Wittig's The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Quebec radical lesbian Louise Turcotte explains her views that "Radical lesbians have reached a basic consensus that views heterosexuality as a political regime which must be overthrown."[5] Turcotte notes that Lesbian Separatists "create a new category" (i.e., complete separation not only from men but also from heterosexual women)"[5] and that the radical lesbian movement aims for the "destruction of the existing framework of heterosexuality as a political regime".[5] Turcotte goes on to discuss Adrienne Rich's landmark essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, noting that Rich describes heterosexuality as a violent political institution that has to be "imposed, managed, organized, propagandized and maintained by force".[9] Rich sees lesbian existence as an act of resistance to this institution, but also as an individual choice, whereas the principles of radical lesbianism see lesbianism as necessary, and consider its existence as necessarily outside of the heterosexual political sphere of influence.[5]

Radical lesbianism and feminism[edit]

Radical lesbianism is separate from other feminist movements because it exists in opposition to the exclusion of queer women from mainstream feminism. For example, The Lavender Menaces formed in response to Betty Friedan's declaration that lesbians should not be involved in the feminist movement.[3]

Problems within radical lesbianism[edit]

Radical lesbianism arose in part because mainstream feminism did not actively include or fight for lesbian rights. Despite this, Radical lesbian communities often excluded those who identified as transgender or held other nonlesbian, queer identities.[1]

Creating a culture[edit]

The end goal of many radical lesbian groups was to create a new lesbian culture outside of the confines of heterosexuality. One way of doing this was through the written word. The 1980s and 1990s saw the development of a number of Francophone lesbian periodicals in Quebec, Canada, including Amazones D'hier: Lesbiennes D'aujourd'hui, Treize, and L'evidante lesbienne.[10] This was also a period of strength for French-language lesbian presses such as Editions nbj and Oblique Editrices, and lesbian bookstores like Montreal's L'Essentielle.[10]

Lesbian activists also began cultivating their own material economy. Although radical movements seek to challenge the status quo, producing material goods such as art, music, and other consumable goods. This kind of consumerism led to tangible representations of identity.[11]

See also[edit]






  1. ^ a b c d e Ross, Becki (1990). "The House That Jill Built: Lesbian Feminist Organizing in Toronto, 1976-1980". Feminist Review (35): 75–91. JSTOR 1395402.
  2. ^ Martel, Frederic. The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968, Stanford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8047-3274-4, p119
  3. ^ a b c Poirot, Kristan (2009). "Domesticating the Liberated Woman: Containment Rhetorics of Second Wave Radical/Lesbian Feminism". Women's Studies in Communication. 32 (3): 263–292. doi:10.1080/07491409.2009.10162391.
  4. ^ "La Scission Du "Front Des Lesbiennes Radicales"". Nouvelles Questions Féministes. 1 (2): 124–126. June 1981.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Turcotte, Louise. (foreword) The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Monique Wittig, Beacon Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8070-7917-0, p ix-x
  6. ^ Duchen, Claire. Feminism in France: From May '68 to Mitterrand, Routledge, 1986, ISBN 0-7102-0455-8, p24
  7. ^ a b c Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-8070-7917-1. OCLC 748998545.
  8. ^ Kramarae & Spender. Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0-415-92089-2, p785
  9. ^ Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Signs 5, no.4, Summer 1980
  10. ^ a b Gammon, Carolyn. Lesbian Studies in Francophone Institutions and Organizations, in Gay and Lesbian Studies Henry L. Minton, Ed., Haworth Press, 1992, ISBN 1-56023-021-5, p155
  11. ^ Murray, Heather (2007). "Free for All Lesbians: Lesbian Cultural Production and Consumption in the United States during the 1970s". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 16 (2): 251–275. doi:10.1353/sex.2007.0046.