Whenever several different aspects of identity and politics intersect, a conflict of interest tends to be created. Within this conflict, a dynamic pursuit of interest can arise, leading to a more powerful social movement which can only help to serve the cause. In particular, the intersection between lesbianism and women’s rights can prove to be an energetic movement with a concentrated, determined focus. What’s important to remember is that the beginning of the women’s movement initially excluded lesbians, thereby making the union of lesbianism and women’s rights today that much sweeter. Women’s rights today are a combination of many different groups and sub-categories of social justice and movements coming together and exploding into a larger, more encompassing unit.
Women’s suffrage, in the 19th and early 20th century, was the iconic movement which marked first-wave feminism. Focusing primarily on political power, the core of first-wave feminism was made up of upper middle-class, heterosexual, white women. To include lesbians and their agenda for full equality would possibly mean the breakdown of their advances within the movement. By opening the movement up to alternate sub-categories, many of the suffragettes felt it would hinder their success and consideration. While this idea and framework originally stemmed from first-wave feminism, the separation of causes continued, “Lesbian feminism largely emerged in response to the women’s liberation movement’s exclusion of lesbians. As the Second Wave of feminism picked up steam during the 1960s, feminist discourse largely ignored lesbianism” (Westerband). What did this mean for lesbians who wanted to align themselves with the women’s movement but didn’t have a place to voice their own concerns, ideas, or beliefs? A new structure emerged with the women’s movement which was primarily lesbian-based. According to the essay “Lesbianism and Feminism,” by Anne Koedt, “One position advanced by some lesbians is the idea that lesbians are the vanguard of the women’s movement because 1) they broke with sex roles before there even was a feminist movement, and 2) they have no need for men at all. Somehow they are the revolution.” Clearly, a junction between lesbianism and feminism, particularly women’s rights, had been formed. This is the junction we find ourselves at today.
We’re able to see the obvious intersection between politics and social consciousness in literature, the art reflecting our culture, and within the sub-categories of a politically defined lifestyle. In Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg, the protagonist, Jess, is on a continued search for her own identity while living in the rigid constructs of a patriarchal world in which she doesn’t feel is right for her. In recognizing her difference, Jess remembers, “Charm school finally taught me once and for all that I wasn’t pretty, wasn’t feminine, and would never be graceful. The motto of the school was Every girl who enters leaves a lady. I was the exception” (Feinberg 23). For much of the novel, Jess feels stuck between two worlds: patriarchal repression and the repression as a “butch” lesbian in a world largely dominated by perceived, and expected, gender roles. Athena Nguyen, in her essay “Patriarchy, Power, and Female Masculinity“ states that, “Butch is often performed defensively, encompassing both the defensiveness that women within a sexually violent patriarchal society may feel, as well as the defensiveness of being lesbian within a violently heteronormative society” (671). So even within the larger framework of lesbianism, there is exclusion mostly aimed towards those lesbians who further “repress” the lesbian political agenda by adopting male gender roles and patriarchal domination. Many feminists, lesbian feminists particularly, feel that those who take on the role of “butch” harm the movement towards women’s equality for the rest of women as a whole. Even within the duality of lesbianism and women’s rights is an additional intersection of lesbian gender roles and feminism, “In struggles over the political implications of butch, lesbian feminists have often accused butch women of wanting to be “like men” and of attempting to access patriarchal privilege and power” (Nguyen 665). Along with this assumption, an additional political conflict arises, “Masculine behavior, masculine roles, and masculine beings are seen as antithetical to and the problem of the movement toward women’s liberation” (Nguyen 668). Within the larger context of lesbianism, the question poses itself: can butch lesbians be feminists? Are butch lesbians able to be a part of the women’s movement and help rally for the cause even if their masculine-like behavior is a direct correlation to the maintenance of the oppression of women? Adopting masculinity, and the perception of alignment with men, has brought butch women under attack as being unfaithful to their sex and to the greater good of the women’s movement. For Jess, this relationship is intimately related, “I wondered what I would be forced to sacrifice in order to survive” (Feinberg 76). In this sense, there is no separation of the personal being political and the intersection between lesbianism and feminism is amplified.
Many people wonder if to be a true feminist one must be a lesbian. Feminists that strive for women’s rights are divided on this idea, “Perspectives differ as to the relationship between radical feminism and lesbian feminism; a common view is that lesbian feminists are radical feminists whose lesbianism is part of their political resistance, while radical feminists may or may not be lesbians” (Nguyen 667). Does this mean that heterosexual feminists should be discredited because they are not “fully” encompassed in a female-identified lifestyle? Goodloe states, “The theory that came to dominate early lesbian feminism was that lesbians were those who resisted the regime of compulsory heterosexuality, that they, unlike heterosexual women, refused to become part of the male economy by choosing to identify only with other women; thus was born the concept of the woman-identified woman.” While this theory is certainly attractive in that lesbian is more of a political ideal and standard, I don’t believe that to be a true feminist one must also be a lesbian. The dichotomy of this theory presents itself as an additional political stand within the setting of lesbianism as it relates to the women’s movement.
Taking into consideration the many dynamic splits and junctures within the political framework, we can start to see that a more combined conscious movement is evolving, “A newer version of lesbian feminism, which has shifted away from an exclusive focus on gender towards an understanding of multiple oppressions, is a more “decentered” movement, which may present new democratic potential” (Goodloe). A good example of this dichotomy can be seen in the character of Molly in Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Molly, while she eventually identifies exclusively as a lesbian, has also sampled heterosexual life. She participates in activities that are gender specific to girls and also to boys. Molly lives and operates within the social framework that has been laid out for her, but she challenges it. Molly is a true feminist in that she outwardly rejects her gender role, questions formal identity, and disputes with the order of status quo. She knows there are gender injustices in the world and she doesn’t succumb to them, continuing to live her life the only way she wants to and getting other girls to think about their situations in the place of patriarchy. Molly’s cousin, Leroy, tries to put her in her place before he realizes later in the book that Molly is every definition of resistance, “I don’t know, Molly, you’re headin’ for a hard life. You say you’re gonna be a doctor or something great. Then you say you ain’t gettin’ married. You have to do some of the things everybody does or people don’t like you” (Brown 36). Molly’s opposition to the standard heteronormative, patriarchal ladder is similar to the feminists of today, “Much of the work of feminist social theory has consisted of showing that basic conceptualizations — ways of opposing home and economy, the political and personal, or system and lifeworld — presuppose and reinforce a paradigmatically male position” (Goodloe). To be a feminist and a lesbian is to challenge every role within one’s own personal life, and live politically, on a daily basis.
Inherently, there is no escape between lesbianism and feminism being intricately related. By mere construct, lesbianism is a political movement; an additional force behind the women’s rights issue. Amy Goodloe, in her essay “Lesbian Feminism and Queer Theory: Another “Battle of the Sexes”?, puts things into perspective, “Lesbian feminists do not see themselves as being part of a transhistorical minority… but as the model of free womanhood. Rather than wanting acceptance as a minority which is defined in opposition to an accepted and inevitable heterosexual majority, lesbian feminist theorists seek to dismantle heterosexuality, and one strategy is the promotion of lesbianism as a choice for women.” While there are conflicting interests and varied agendas within both lesbianism and women’s rights, respectively, together these political identities and interests are able to forcefully pursue the structure of patriarchy as it relates to everyone as a whole. Within every political movement, there are differences, but the most important aspect is that within those differences, there is a strong undercurrent of similar goals, where the focus should not be on segregation and isolation, but rather on union.
Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books, 1977. Print.
Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. New York: Firebrand Books, 1993. Print.
Goodloe, Amy T. “Lesbian Feminism and Queer Theory: Another “Battle of the Sexes”?”. Lesbian.org: Promoting Lesbian Visibility on the Internet. 1994. Web. 26 Nov. 2009. <http://www.lesbian.org/amy/essays/lesfem-qtheory.html>
Koedt, Anne. “Lesbianism and Feminism.” Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Website. 1971. Web. 26 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cwluherstory.org/CWLUArchive/lesbianfeminism.html>
Nguyen, Athena. “Patriarchy, Power, and Female Masculinity.” Journal of Homosexuality. Vol. 55, No. 4. 2008: 665-683. Print.
Westerband, Yamissette. “Lesbian Feminism.” University of Michigan Lesbian History. 2006. Web. 26 Nov. 2009. <http://sitemaker.umich.edu/lesbian.history/lesbian_feminism>