Sexism and the women’s liberation movement. Or why straight women sometimes cry when they are called lesbians

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Camp Ink Vol 3 (2) pp 8-12. March 1973
Paper from the Hobart Women’s Action Group. Presented to the Women’s Liberation Conference at Mount Beauty, Victoria, on the Australia Day weekend, 27-29 January 1973. [Note: This paper was very controversial, and the discussion following the presentation was long and very passionate.]
A.S: Do you think that female homosexuality as the most radical form of the exclusion of men – could be a political weapon at the present stage of the struggle?
Simone de Beauvoir… I haven’t thought about it. I think that in principle it’s good that there are some very radical women. The lesbians can play a useful role. But when they let their judgement be obscured by their preconceived notions, they run the risk of scaring off from the movement women who are heterosexual. I find boring and irritating their mystique of the clitoris and all those sexual dogmas that would like to impose on us.” (1)
As with so many anti-lesbian comments, the real nature of this statement may be revealed by comparing it with similar statements by left-wing men about women in ‘their’ political movements. In both, the oppressed groups – women or lesbians – are acceptable as long as they subordinate their demands or individuality to the ‘broader’ aims of the movement. Just as women in left-wing movements became dissatisfied with waiting in the wings until the socialist revolution solved everyone’s problems, lesbians have become increasingly dissatisfied with the women’s liberation movement that demands the same of them. (See Mejane no.9 Lesbians and WL in England and an article in Woman in Sexist Society by Love and Abbott on the ‘Lavender Menace’ in ‘Is W.L. a lesbian plot?’). There is, however, one significant difference in this parallel. Women will become equal with men ‘after the revolution’, but lesbians (poof) will disappear.
We see the unfortunate position of lesbians in W.L. as a symptom of W.L’s failure to come to grips with sexism inside the movement itself and therefore in society as a whole.
This paper is an attempt to demonstrate this in two ways:

  1. Through our own experience in women’s liberation

  2. Through an examination of directions and tendencies which W.L. thinking has been taking.

This will take us, not into a reinterpretation of W.L. theory in order to include the lesbian, but back to a restatement of what we see as basic W.L. theory which depends for its validity on the inclusion of all women and on an understanding of sexism.
We feel it necessary to clarify what we mean by the sexist society. The sexist society is not necessarily a patriarchal society – it could equally well be a matriarchy or bisexual dominated (bi-sexuarchy) or a society in which the sexes have equal power and influence providing that their spheres of action are different and defined and enforced as different. Patriarchy is not a precondition of sexism. Sexism means organizing people according to sex and sexual behaviour and attributing various behaviour, personality and status traits to people on the basis of sex. For radical feminists, sex is the principle by which society is organized, which precedes all other organizing principles, ie, power, wealth, status etc. Without sexism, patriarchy is deprived of its organizing principle and of its ideology of consent. Sexism then is sufficient basis for patriarchy but does not necessarily lead to it. In other words sexism is a way of structuring society; patriarchy and matriarchy point out who gets the goodies at any particular time. Unlike capitalism it doesn’t tell us both how society is structured and who benefits from it.
Lesbians are discriminated against personally in a variety of ways inside women’s liberation, but more importantly the nature of some of the basic women’s lib institutions are discriminating by their very structure.

  1. Consciousness raising: c.r. is a very heterosexually based institution, insofar as, as well as translating the personal into the shared into the political, it assumes two things; that personal relationships can be honestly discussed because the other person in the relationship is not there – which is often not true in lesbian relationships; it also assumes that what is personal is also shared, and this will bring women themselves (normally divided against each other by class, competitiveness, etc) closer together. How this works when lesbians are involved is difficult to say. In lesbian groups, c.r at the very personal level seems unnecessary. In mixed groups, not only is the lesbian’s experience likely to be purely personal an not shared, but the lesbian is being asked to assume a degree of vulnerability before other women, not expected of them. At present, few lesbians feel enough confidence in their ‘sisters’ to risk consciousness raising. More importantly few feel it particularly relevant to their situation or to the exploration of patriarchal relationships.

  2. Sisterhood: Sisterhood is based on the idea that women have for so long competed against each other for men that they now have to learn to appreciate each other as people. Lesbians do not appear to be so handicapped and theoretically should fit perfectly into the sisterhood ethic. In fact, tendencies in WL. literature have been towards using lesbians to illustrate this. At one level, showing women how to lover other women, or simply to discussions about women by stressing the shared situation and minimizing differences (eg, language, colour). The attempt to do this with lesbians has been very clumsy and has hinged on the emphasis on ‘natural bisexuality’. (See Altman’s discussion of the polymorphous perverse). The jump from discussing homosexuality in the present to discussing the panacea, a bisexual millennia, is conspicuous in writers as normally rational as Firestone and Koedt, as well as in Altman. Note the confusion and intolerance in this sentence:

As a matter of fact, if ‘Freedom of sexual preference’ is the demand, the solution obviously must be a bisexuality where the question becomes irrelevant.” (2)
A variant more common in Australia is to evade discussing homosexuality in the present altogether, by discussing bisexuality in the present, a much easier proposition because it takes the conversation back to heterosexuality again. (Bisexuality, whatever its meaning, is used at present to describe extensions to the behaviour of heterosexuals.) This seems to be a typically Australian reaction to any problem of minorities – to be only able to envisage a happy society as one in which everyone will eventually behave in the same way.
The use of ‘natural bisexuality’ (3) as a concept which will help transform lesbians into ‘real women’ has only succeeded in ignoring lesbians qua lesbians (see experience No.10). It is as irrelevant as talking about black problems in terms of melting pot theory.
While lesbians have tended to stress their relevance to the feminist movement by running the gamut from ‘special skills’ to the special position of lesbians as the vanguard of WL, other commentators have suggested that the ‘abnormality’ of lesbians gives them no relevance to a discussion of feminism. (The doctrine of real women – see Camp Ink Vol 1 No 9, ‘Lesbians are Women’)
Feminists have reacted in the same way by evaluating what lesbians have to offer in terms of special skills or special experiences (Anne Koedt) or by restating WL views so as to exclude lesbians altogether. Many of the letters written in the Atlantic Monthly in reaction to Midge Dexter’s “The New Chastity” (reprinted in Australia in The Bulletin) illustrates the latter reaction:
“The main impetus of the women’s rights movement is so obviously a heterosexual desire to combine sexual, family love with participation in the mainstream of the world’s work that I am surprised to see the ‘Atlantic’ in 1972 publish a cartoon cover with castration as its joke and an article by Midge Dexter, hooting “Lesbian! Lesbian!”
Two articles of interest are contained in Notes from the Third Year; ‘The Woman Identified Woman’ by Radicalesbians and Anne Koedt’s ‘Lesbianism and Feminism’. While the title of the Radicalesbian article unfortunately lends itself to ambiguity and the feminist strategy mapped out in the last paragraphs is of dubious value, it is useful for its description of the links between lesbianism and feminism.
…lesbianism like male homosexuality, is a category of behaviour possible only in a sexist society characterised by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy… Lesbian is the word, the label, the condition that holds women in line. When a woman hears the word tossed her way she knows … that she has crossed the terrible boundary of her sex role.” (4)
… a lesbian is not a ‘real’ woman …which is to say the essence of being a woman is to get fucked by men.” (4)
Anne Koedt’s article, while it contains some confusion about bisexuality, makes the useful delineation between the civil rights nature of much of Gay Lib concern and the radical nature of the concern of groups such as Radicalesbians who go beyond the request for tolerance, developing an essentially feminist outlook which rightly sees the root of anti-homosexuality in sexism.
Apart from these articles (and some other radical lesbian writing including that of Martha Shelley) there is more truth about the linkup between lesbianism and feminism compressed in Midge Dexter’s use of “lesbian” as a way of abusing feminists, than in most of the other feminist writing on the subject. Rather than learning to cope with name calling (set face like flint and count to 10) feminists need to examine why being called a lesbian hurts them.
New Uncertainties
Feminists are always talking about getting rid of the male cultural baggage they’ve been forced to carry but the most oppressive and least readily relinquished are the concepts of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. The crucial use of these arbitrary categories has been effectively examined by feminists such as Kate Millett (see Chapter 2, particularly pp 26-33) who have demonstrated the use of them as the ideology by which patriarchal society is maintained. Millet points out that ‘sexual politics’ “obtains consent through the socialization of both sexes to basic patriarchal politics with regard to temperament, role and status. But Millett’s section on sexism can be confusing because her poor expression makes it possible to interpret it as a relegation of sexism to a position of lesser importance. Because she is primarily concerned with sexual politics (ie ‘power structured relationship’) she is able to state that of the two spheres, division of personality is of secondary importance in her discussion of status. That is, because she is concerned with talking about power, she is going to talk about power.
There is no suggestion that gender conditioning is not crucial, in fact, she states:
“the arbitrary character of patriarchal ascriptions of temperament has little effect upon their power over us. Nor do the mutually exclusive, contradictory and polar qualities of the categories ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ imposed upon human personality give rise to sufficiently serious question amongst us. Under their aegis each personality becomes little more and often less than half, of its human potential.”
A fuller examination of the cultural character of gender can be seen in Ann Oakley, Sex, Gender and Society.
While feminists have been largely concerned with the power structure of patriarchy, they have tended to ignore sexism, the means by which patriarchal power is underpinned, making something of a mockery of their statements that WL equals people’s liberation. What they seem to be asking for is not liberation (of human potential) in the sense that Millett’s sentence implies, but a power (or more nicely) an esteem shift, in which the masculine/feminine divisions remain, but power is spread more equally – a society that is still sexist, but less patriarchal. Apart from the irrationality of expecting that patriarchal society can be disposed of without relinquishing belief in the values that support it, this whole approach looks suspiciously like a new Victorianism, in which women’s and men’s virtues, temperaments and thus spheres remain distinct. What has changed? There is a new, liberal heterosexuality; a return of women to the workforce and some consequent attempt to break down job division in the home – a Betty Friedan world with the biggest for the most intelligent, but with sex roles basically only renovated.
Why are people so selective in what they choose to select from W.L. theory? No one has bothered to repudiate any of the strong anti-sexist literature, so that no one presumes that at least superficially what has been said here has been agreed with. However, from attitudes to homosexuality and from some new trends evident in W.L. it appears that this tacit acceptance has had less effect on attitudes and practice than one would expect.
A look at three writers who accept the idea that masculinity and femininity are culturally conditioned concepts will indicate how difficult it is even for those who have thought about it, to free themselves from sexist thinking, let alone those who have not yet considered the implications of these concepts. Mailer is useful here because, two steps ahead of most feminists, he maps out guidelines for a possible new sexual counter-revolution.
Simone de Beauvoir manages, in her chapter on lesbians, to be both highly perceptive and quite fuck-witted. Believing as she does that lesbianism can be a rational response to the position of women, an attitude ‘freely chosen in a certain situation’ which can be the ‘source of rewarding experiences’ her discussion of the lesbian is one of the sanest in feminist writing because it delineates most clearly the restrictions of the polarization of the personality into masculine and feminine spheres. She sees that the true woman is an ‘artificial product’ and points out that it is not natural for the female human being to make herself a feminine woman.
“Woman feels inferior because, in fact, the requirements of femininity do belittle her. She spontaneously chooses to be a complete person, a subject and a free being with the world and the future open before her; if this choice is confused with virility, it is so to the extent that femininity today means mutilation.”
On the other hand in contradiction to this, she sees the lesbian as neither a normal nor complete woman; she calls her a castrate and makes this comment: “she is unfulfilled as a woman, impotent as a man and her disorder may lead to a psychosis.”
These apparent contradictions can exist side by side because, while de Beauvoir sees the choice itself as valid, she also believes it to be a wrong choice because it confines women to the ‘female universe’. ‘Wishing not to be confined in woman’s situation, she is imprisoned in that of the lesbian. Nothing gives a darker impression than these groups of emancipated women.’
One’s authenticity, therefore, can only be seen to exist if one exists in the ‘man’s world’. ‘Men are people. Women are castrates’ and although she sees the iniquities of this situation, she maintains that women can only become ‘human beings’ by relating to men, identifying through men and accepting men as the norm. She doesn’t reject lesbians because of their sexual preferences, but because of their social dissociation from the real, ie man’s world and the powerlessness which she sees arising from this.
The ambivalence in Simone de Beauvoir is a key to understanding some of the confusion in W.L. attitudes at the moment.
Sisterhood basically attempts to invest the old values of the ‘female world’ with a new status, so rejecting de Beauvoir’s denigration of the female world. At the same time, they still share many of the attitudes of de Beauvoir by the rejection or dismissal of lesbians, not in terms of their sexual preference, but in terms of their lack of relationships with men and so their irrelevance to women’s liberation. This accounts for the emphasis placed on bisexuality. For straight women, this leads to closer relationships with women, but it asks lesbians to move out of the ‘feminine’ sphere, to ‘de-emphasise’ the bonds felt with other women and to establish real relationships with males. (“Lesbians are Women” Camp Ink Vol 1, nr 8). This whole way of thinking still assumes a sexist division of society. All it aims to do is alter the balance of power and esteem between the sexes. It continues to assume the differences between the masculine and feminine worlds. The lesbian is still a misfit in this situation.
Like Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer in “Prisoner of Sex” accepts that masculinity and femininity are culturally conditioned concepts, but unlike de Beauvoir he attempts to invest the masculine and feminine with a spurious equality. Because of this, there is no need for women to reject the female world. In this he is closer to W.L. than Simone de Beauvoir. The threat posed by the anti-sexist theory of Millett is that sexual polarity will be broken down. Because he accepts masculinity and femininity as culturally conditioned but also valuable, he is concerned about their continuation, especially the continuation of masculinity which he sees as the more vulnerable. Convinced that masculinity and femininity are prizes to be wrenched from the world of polymorphous perverse failure, Mailer insists that men must work to become men and women must take a creative leap into becoming women – not take the easiest way and develop into ‘some middling mix of box sexes.’ It is through coming together in ‘the full rigours of the fuck’ that men become more male and women more female. Homosexuals, deprived of the awe that like can be conceived out of their ‘transaction’, can only pass their qualities over to one another. Mailer despises homosexuality because he sees it as an avoidance of the struggle and as leading to a general weakening of the polarity between the sexes. He has been clever enough to see the implications of sexism and its relevance to homosexuality, but his reaction is (like de Beauvoir’s earlier) simply a sign that where one goes from there is the important thing.
An article that further illustrates this point and has particular relevance to the WL movement at present is Bardwick and Douvan’s “Ambivalence: the socialisation of women’ in “Woman in Sexist Society”. Discussing again the role conditioning of women, the authors are concerned not with the existence of sex role divisions, but with the adequacy of the traditional roles and the superior status associated with masculine qualities and achievements. There is no suggestion that they are dissatisfied with what they describe as the ‘egalitarian ideal in which the roles and contributions of the sexes are declared to be equal and complementary’. Bardwick and Douvan succeed in giving clear insights into the W.L .movement as at least partially the product of a wish to modernise the masculinity/femininity stereotypes in response to the changed educations and work roles of many women. ‘The stereotype persists because there is always cultural lage.’ – and W.L.’s job is to catch up by providing new and more appropriate role stereotypes. The situation is described precisely in this way:
“…an era of change results in uncertainties and the need to evolve new clear criteria of masculinity and femininity, which can be earned and can offer an increase of self esteem to both sexes.”
The new roles they see evolving entail men being ‘more nurturant’ and women becoming freer to ‘participate professionally without endangering the male’s esteem’. Their concluding remarks show the real predicament.
“Role freedom is a burden when choice is available but criteria is unclear; under these circumstances it is very difficult to know whether one has achieved womanhood or has dangerously jeopardized it.”
We have attempted to show by an analysis of the literature of W.L. and by personal experience with W.L. groups that W.L. has so far failed to come to grips with sexism either inside or outside the movement and in fact there are signs that it is moving further away from grappling with this problem to (perhaps) updated stereotypes of masculinity/femininity and by merely attempting liberation through attacking some of the symptoms of sexism evident in patriarchal society, they have avoided basic questions and a commitment to basic ideology.
This is illustrated by the situation in which lesbians are seen as having no particular relevance or as something of an embarrassment. The panacea of bisexuality only offers a situation where lesbians will no longer exist as such and this has been used to avoid discussing the real problems now.
It may be that most of the women in the movement have a vested interest in not delving too deeply into the reasons for their oppression and that we, as lesbians, have no such vested interests because we have no stake in the present sexist set-up.
If neo-Ruskinism triumphs and W.L. acquiesces in the creation of new stereotypes of masculinity/femininity, it will simply have failed in what should be its major aim, that of turning sexist controlled robots into people.

  1. Interview by Alice Schwartzer with Simone de Beauvoir in Le Novel Observateur, March 1972

  2. Anne Koedt, ‘Lesbianism and Feminism’, Notes from the Third Year.

  3. There is an interesting article on the use of ‘natural’ in ‘Natural law, language and women’ by Christine Pierce in Women in Sexist Society, edited by Gornick and Moran

  4. Radicalesbians, ‘Woman identified Woman’ in Notes from the Third Year

From the Personal… A Catalogue of Experiences

  1. Being called a bull dyke for speaking out at a Gay Lib/Womens Lib session on sexism

  2. Having one’s consciousness ‘raised’ by a discussion on how to cope with being called ‘that horrible name’ at our first women’s lib meeting.

  3. Being told to keep out of the movement because ‘some women won’t come if lesbians are there and those women shouldn’t be put off because W.L. is for all women’.

  4. Having to change the pronouns at consciousness raising meetings (or just shut up) for the above reason.

  5. Being told you’re simply a media problem. (Remember?)

  6. Standing on the edge of the dance floor at a W.L. party knowing that sisterhood is only for straight sisters.

  7. Throwing yourself into child care centre/pram bus struggle to prove you haven’t got any interests of your own.

  8. Being told to ‘come out’ and risk your job (if you’re honest) and then working flat out to help other women to get jobs of their own.

  9. Being told lesbianism is a ‘passing phase’ in women’s lib.

  10. Finding out that the lady you’re in bed with is a ‘real woman’ (liberated variety) and you’re only a hardened lesbian (sick variety).

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