Friday, February 22, 2013

Reconciliation: Lesbian and Liberal Feminism

Sex, Homophobia, and Women: The Story of Lesbian Feminism
Part 3: Reconciliation: Lesbian and Liberal Feminism

General and Sexual Lesbian Politics]

Lesbianism was consistently thought of as a purely sexual action between women; however lesbianism can be seen as a political act according to radical Lesbian feminists. Charlotte Bunch, a member of the lesbian feminist group The Furies, argues that lesbians are extremely concerned with women. The lesbian “commits herself to other women for political, emotional, physical and economic support” and “has recognized that giving support and love to men over women perpetuates the system that oppresses her.”[1] By committing themselves to the “political, emotional, physical and economic support” of other women, the lesbian becomes a force by which women can depend upon each other and fosters a sense of community that circumvents the oppression that women find themselves under on a regular basis.

Bunch states that feminism is in part based on love as “If women do not make a commitment to each other, which includes sexual love, we deny ourselves the love and value traditionally given to men. We accept our second class status.”[2] By loving one another, lesbians challenge the notion that they are inferior in relationships as they truly value one another and see each other as equals rather than one woman being dominant and the other woman being submissive as is seen in heterosexual relationships.

Yet, Bunch takes lesbian politics even further as she argues that lesbianism itself threatens the patriarchal system in the US, stating “The Lesbian threatens the ideology of male supremacy by destroying the lie about female inferiority, weakness, passivity, and by denying women's ‘innate’ need for men.”[3] Lesbians are the living proof that women do not need a man to rely on for protection, both physically and economically, and thus threatens the status quo.


During the late 1960s and early ’70s, liberal feminists ostracized, ignored, and berated lesbians as a threat to their movement for equality. Yet, in the mid-1970s, a change occurred in liberal feminist circles that rethought lesbianism and created what was something of a reconciliation between liberal and lesbian feminists.

Lesbian feminist groups such as the aforementioned group The Furies, forces liberal feminists to “acknowledge that sexuality is socially rather than biologically constructed and to understand the centrality of institutionalized heterosexuality to women’s oppression,”[4] thus prompting a rethinking of lesbianism.

This had such a profound effect that even Ti-Grace Atikinson, who had previously stated that lesbianism was “based ideologically on the very premise of male oppression: the dynamic of sexual intercourse,”[5] eventually came to view that “feminism is the theory, lesbianism the practice.”[6] This reevaluation of lesbians within the larger feminist movement allowed for a certain amount of reconciliation to take place between the two feminist camps.

Yet, this was not without its problems as by embracing lesbianism, it led to a situation where “lesbian feminism exacerbated the feminist tendency to conceptualize sex in service of the movement”[7] which led to a heavy sexualization of the overall feminist movement. This was quite problematic as the roles in regards to lesbianism and heterosexuality had switched, with heterosexuality being identified as subjugating oneself to the patriarchy and thus forced many heterosexual women to denounce or conceal their sexuality and embrace lesbianism. Whoever did not embrace lesbianism made their feminist “street cred” suspect.

The sexualization of the feminist movement caused many heterosexual women to leave, but also took emphasis off of demanding and pushing for equality as the emphasis on sexual orientation took over. This actually harmed the feminist movement overall, but esepcially radical lesbian groups such as The Furies as they 

believed that lesbianism would inevitably lead to an intensification of the struggle against male supremacy, but it did not. With the rise of lesbian-feminism, the conflation of the personal with the political, long in the making, was complete and unassailable. More than ever, how one lived one’s life, not commitment to political struggle, became the salient factor.[8]

The rise of lesbian feminism represented a major triumph for the lesbian feminist movement. It signaled the acceptance of mainstream feminists that they had gotten beyond the viewing lesbianism through the lens of damaging the feminist movement, berating it for its homosexuality, and arguing that lesbians were not “real women.” 

When finally accepting lesbians as equals, the mainstream feminist movement became a revolutionary force in regards to feminism and sexuality as the sexualization of the movement, while it had its drawbacks with the main emphasis being on whether or not one was a lesbian and caused a massive exodus of heterosexuals, as it allowed for women to truly break free from the patriarchal system and started the very beginnings of a community in which they could depend upon one another physically, emotionally, and economically for support.

Yet, even here, there are still problems as the lesbian feminist movement still focused on the plight of middle-class white women and while it included sexuality, it excluded the poor, women of color, and transgendered individuals well. While the feminist and lesbian feminist movements should be commended for standing up for and demanding the rights of heterosexual and homosexual women, there must also be the realization that not everyone fits into the groups that these two movements were fighting for and that they were, in fact, exclusive to only a certain subset of the female population within the United States.

Lesbian Feminism and America

The effect that lesbian feminism had and continues to have on the United States is quite important. Lesbian feminism effectively challenged the collective mind of America on the issues of homophobia and patriarchy. It expanded the analysis of women’s oppression, resulting in the realization that oppression does intersect and overlap and that only in realizing this can we attempt to begin to analyze and think of ways to end that oppression.

Lesbian feminist thought challenged heterosexual women to change the manner in which they viewed their relationship with men as lesbians saw heterosexual women internalizing and validating the thoughts and views that men had in regards to them and in doing so forced the larger feminist movement to reevaluate itself.

Lesbian feminism was and is needed in the United States as the only people who can understand what it is to grow up a lesbian in a homophobic and misogynistic culture are lesbians. This understanding allows for lesbians to better advocate for themselves and for them to effectively communicate to others their plight. Just as with all oppression, the best people to understand where that oppression came from, how it works, and how it impacts someone on a personal level are people within that group who also experience that oppression.


 [1] Charlotte Bunch, Lesbians In Revolt, Feminist Reprise,
 [4] Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pg 238
 [5] Echols, pg 173
 [6] Echols, pg 238
 [7] Echols, pg 239
 [8] Echols, pg 240

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