Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory

by Kathy Rudy
Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory
Kathy Rudy
Feminist Studies
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License


Lesbianism is a constantly shifting construction in the women's movement. There is not "lesbianism" but rather many "les- bianism~" and similarly many "lesbians." The one word situates a number of constructions, each bound in a specific moment, a polit- ical moment, a moment in time and place.

-Katie King, Theory in Its Feminist Travels

Captivated by the ideals of separatist lesbian feminism, I moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 1980, in order to take a full-time job at Ladyslipper (a nonprofit company devoted to the distribu- tion of women's music and women's culture) and to live in the lesbian community thriving there. From the vantage point of twenty years later, it has become clear that many women were flocking to urban and progressive locations across the nation in the late 1970s and early 1980s for similar reasons; a movement had emerged which relied heavily on the idea that women consti- tuted a unique identity, that we had special moral attributes, and that being or becoming a "woman-identified-woman" was the best and most effective way to express feminist politics. In moving to Durham to participate in its lesbian culture, I was one of many women who found a kind of separatist hope at that partic- ular moment in history.

I have set myself on the difficult task in this essay of writing about a number of contradictory positions and experiences simul- taneously. The first and perhaps simplest agenda addressed here expresses how and why life in this community was both exciting and life giving, at the same time as being constraining and nar- row. Several studies of local lesbian U.S. and Canadian cornmuni- ties in the 1970s and 1980s have emerged recently, and the Ur-nar-

Feminist Studies 27, no. 1(spring 2001). O 2001 by Feminist Studies, Inc. 191

rative underpinning most of them is quite similar: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' That's exactly how I now feel about my years as a lesbian separatist in central North Carolina. That period of my life provided me with dreams and politics that have lent a character to everything that followed. I also ended up in conflict with just about every person in the tight-knit, claustro- phobic community. A full-fledged oral history or ethnographic study of the Durham community along the lines of Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Becki Ross, or Nancy Whittier is called for, but this essay does not perform that work. Instead, I use my own historical experiences to ground a different kind of inves- tigation, an investigation that asks why we moved to these enclaves, what we thought we were doing there, and what became of it all. Although I want to acknowledge my own privileged posi- tion as a white woman with many different kinds of safety nets surrounding her, I also feel that my experience of lesbian sepa- ratism was shared by many. This brings me to my second task.

"Radical feminism," "essentialism," "woman-identified-woman," "lesbian separatism," "cultural feminismu-these are all terms that share borders around the territory of a similar set of lived political experiences. In this essay, I try to bridge some of the gaps between disciplinary approaches in the study of this collection of connected terms. As a subject who both lived through these experiences and desires to theorize about them, I am dissatisfied with historical accounts that operate as if essentialist positions were still viable and equally impatient with theoretical works that could have taken place anywhere and could have been informed by any set of experiences. I want to write about essentialism in the U.S. context here, what it felt like to live it, how confusing it felt when we aban- doned it (or felt forced to abandon it), how it shaped the ways we saw the world. I undertake this task both as a historical summary of essentialism and as an effort to solve the problems its absence has produced. I write here, to put it another way, a history told by a subject within history, aware that my own constructedness has helped to form the theories I advocate. As a white, young woman coming of age, lesbian separatism is the world I inherited; it is not necessarily the world I would have chosen, but it grounded ferni- nist politics for me and many others for over a decade and left behind a unique and complex set of problems.

Before I can go further, I need to say a word about terminology.

Any name I use to represent the kind of feminism that dominated many communities in the late 1970s and 1980s will be unsatisfacto- ry. To call these communities essentialist is to impose on that time a theory configured largely in the 1990s; to call them lesbian femi- nists or lesbian separatists focuses too deeply on sexual preference when most believed that the underlying political commitment was to feminism (and many understood themselves as bisexual or asexual); to call them cultural feminists-a term employed by Alice Echols to signal what she believes is the depoliticization of 1960s' feminism (a thesis which I will investigate further below)-seems to close off the possibility that in their own ways, these communities did participate in some form of political involvement. I am set- tling, therefore, for the term "radical feminism." Admittedly, this term has been used by different groups with different ideologies at different times; in general, usage of the term implies that adherents believe that the ideology and strategies of their particular group will ultimately lead to revolution and reconstruction (although plans for these upheavals can be very different). I use "radical fem- inists" in large part because it was what we called ourselves. It does not delineate precise boundaries. It does not describe the par- ticular beliefs that placed women at the center of our theorizing and political action. I'm not sure now that we were as radical as we hoped we were. It does, however, evoke, at least for me, the revo- lutionary consciousness that fueled our visions, a consciousness that I hope to capture and examine in this essay.

I moved to Durham in 1980 for a variety of reasons. In the late 1970s, I had a rather dead-end job working in a community men- tal health center in Detroit. Although I had been sexually in- volved with women in college, I had never made connections to any sort of lesbian community; indeed, I didn't even know one existed. If you had asked me, say in 1978, how I identified myself sexually, I'm not sure how I would have answered the question. I feel certain I would have been aware of the fact that I wasn't inter- ested in dating men but probably would not have been able to articulate any viable or cultural alternatives.

In 1979 a lot of that changed when one of my colleagues at the mental health center lent me my first Holly Near album. The issue I was supposed to connect with was farmworker rights (Near wore a UFW union button in the cover photo), but the moment I listened to her articulation of alternative sexualities, I was hooked. Her resistance to heterosexual norms, her presence as a strong independent woman who loved other women, the fierceness of her politics-these things called to me, pulled me out of my cloud of unknowing, and helped me identify my true self. (Later I would theorize it differently; the words, the music, the comrnuni- ty, the experience "constructed" that identity. But that's certainly not how it felt at the time.) Immediately I sent away to Redwood Records for all of Near's other works. From there, it was a very short journey to Olivia Records for artists Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, and Linda Tillery, and from Olivia it was a short dis- tance to find the Ladyslipper catalog, the most comprehensive clearinghouse for women's (read lesbian) music. I spent every available penny I had on those records. Through the mail, I found my way into a lesbian community and a lesbian identity.

When it was time to change jobs, it seemed economically pru- dent to get a job where I could get a discount on these records. From the vantage point of a university professorship, relocating to get a discount on record albums seems frivolous, embarrass- ing, silly, and irresponsible. But at that point in my life, these recordings were changing my consciousness, opening new hori- zons of possibility, showing me new utopias. Following these dreams, I believed then, was not at all frivolous but an exercise in courage. I wrote to Ladyslipper, told them I would come work for minimum wage, and landed in Durham in spring of 1980.

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan insightfully opined, "for women to have full identity and freedom, they must have eco- nomic independence. Equality and human digruty are not possible for women if they are not able to earn. Only economic indepen- dence can free a woman to marry for love, not for status or finan- cial support, or to leave a loveless, intolerable, humiliating mar- riage, or to eat, dress, rest, and move if she plans not to marry."' Although I could not have named it then, bound up with my nascent lesbianism was the desire to pursue the career and eco- nomic independence I so value now. Couched in race privilege, my primary desire to live my life with women, I believe, encour- aged me to pursue goals and interests; where most of the girls in my high school and college classes married quickly and settled down primarily on their husband's income, I knew, even then, that I needed to develop marketable skills to survive. While sell- ing "women's music" records may not have led to an exciting career for life, it was in integral step in asserting the indepen- dence that would later lead me to graduate school.

I also moved quickly into the lesbian community because there was a growing sentiment in feminist discourse that lesbianism was the most legitimate way to act out our politics. In the process of developing feminist theories rooted in the unique, caring na- ture of women, many theorists suggested that the best way to demonstrate such female sensitivity is by caring exclusively for other women. Thus, other ways of defining lesbianism emerged that were not always grounded in or defined by sexual activity; these definitions gave me many ways to understand my own desires. From the perspective of prefeminist or nonfeminist les- bians (e.g., the working-class butches and femmes who commu- nicated largely through bar culture), a sexual identity rooted only in feminist politics was inherently suspicious. (From the radical feminist perspective, the older prefeminist lesbians were prob- lematic because they reproduced heterosexual normativity in their femininity and butchness.) Definite tensions existed be- tween those who choose lesbian life for reasons of desire and those who choose it for feminist politics; each group imagined the other was inauthentic. For some lesbians, feminism (and its rage against men) were the reason behind the sexual preference, the ground of possibility for loving women. For others, feminism was the enemy, the movement that sought to eliminate maleness from culture and butchness from lesbian culture. In the early days of my coming out, I distinctly remember being aware of the conflicts between these worlds and being aware of the fact that both fac- tions drew me in. I remember going to lesbian feminist meetings at various women centers, and then to the local lesbian bar to hang out with the women who wore slicked-back hair and black penny loafers. For the most part, I think I hid my dual involve- ment from both sides as much as possible (even from an older butch I dated for several months). I was young and both commu- nities were willing to let me try out their worlds for a while. I think if feminism hadn't been there to legitimate lesbianism for me, I would have found my way to those bars and those butches eventually anyway. But feminism did find me; it gave me yet an- other way to understand the politics behind my sexual prefer- ence, and eventually it won me over.

I moved to Durham in 1980, then, precisely because the wom- en's community there was thriving. In the first five years of my life in the triangle area, I witnessed the birth or existence of the following: a women's health center, which provided services from abortion to feminist therapy; a rape crisis center; a battered wom- en's shelter; women's studies programs at all three major univer- sities in the area; an alternative medicine center; women-owned businesses, including an auto mechanic, a bookstore, several self- defense gyms or organizations, printing presses, carpentry com- panies, restaurants, and snack shops; as well as social and spiritu- al organizations such as a lesbian twelve-step meeting, Wicca and other women's spirituality groups; and many, many radio shows, much music, films, dance, poetry readings, and other performing arts. Not all these establishments were peopled exclusively by les- bians, but a definite acceptance and perhaps even valorization of lesbians circulated. Many of us thought that by avoiding men and building a parallel, alternative culture, we were changing the world. I moved into a neighborhood in west Durham that was known for its progressiveness and was very quickly absorbed into the network of friendships, meetings, potluck suppers, and dances that existed there. I managed to live most of my daily life avoiding men all together, and spent most of my social time read- ing, dreaming, planning, talking, and writing about the beauty of a world run only by women.

Throughout the early 1980s, I lived in various settings, mostly sharing households with other lesbians. In every room I lived in, one thing was constant. Among my books and (growing number of) records, I had a framed sign quoting "The Woman-Identified Woman," written in 1970 by Radicalesbians, a New York group that predated the radical feminism I was living in the middle of but one that presaged sentiments to come. I have it still, packed away in a trunk in my garage. I pull it out now; it reads:

A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society cares to allow. These needs and actions, over a period of years, bring her into painful conflict with people, situations, the accepted ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, until she is in a state of continual war with everything around her, and usually with her self. She may not be fully con- scious of the political implications of what for her began as a personal necessi- ty, but on some level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society-the female role. . . . To the extent that she cannot expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female, she can never truly find peace with herself. For she is caught some- where between accepting society's view of her-in which case she cannot accept herself-and coming to understand what this sexist society has done to her and why it is functional and necessary for her to do SO.^

I am stirred by this plaque (it almost feels like a framed diploma, a recognition of some duty performed), I am captured by the places and desires it conjures. I go looking for more information about the Radicalesbians and other groups that set the stage for the radical feminism that engulfed me. I pull down my dog-eared copy of Alice Echols's Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, and once again go searching through this text to find an ancestry that does not blame my cohorts for its downfall.

Echols's Daring to Be Bad traces the ways that early radicals broke off from the New Left in order to extend leftist arguments to women. Groups such as New York Radical Women, Cell 16, Redstockings, Radicalesbians, and The Feminists formed sponta- neously all over the country and were active in bringing socialist politics into women's issues. Mostly heterosexual (but very pro- sex), these women were invested in refashioning the sexual revo- lution to be more friendly toward women. They didn't object to lesbianism in the same way that many liberals did; in fact, many early radical feminists identified as lesbian. However, according to Echols, lesbianism was not for them a way to manifest feminist politics. Indeed, Echols argues that in focusing their politics on lifestyle issues, the activism of feminists after 1973 was void of serious structural potential. In her words,

[B]y the early '70s radical feminism began to flounder, and after 1975 it was eclipsed by cultural feminism-a tendency that grew out of radical feminism, but contravened much that was fundamental to it. With the rise of cultural feminism the movement turned its attention away from opposing male supremacy to creating a female counterculture-what Mary Daly termed "new spaceM-where "male" values would be exorcised and "female" values nurtured. Although this woman-only space was envisioned as a kind of culture of active resistance, it often became, as Adrienne Rich has recently pointed out, "a place of emigration, and end in itself" where patriarchy was evaded rather than engaged. Concomitantly, the focus became one of personal rather than social transformation.

One of the radical feminists that Echols interviews remembers the moment when women began 'boasting, 'we worked on our car all weekend,' as though it were an act of great political sigruficance." For Echols and others, when feminism began to turn inward and focus on gaining independence from men, it lost its political po- tency. As Echols concludes from this car illustration, 'by 1975 rad- ical feminism virtually ceased to exist as a movement." As she comments on the attitudes that emerged in the late 1970s "more than ever, how one lived one's life, not one's commitment to polit- ical struggle, became the salient factor. . . . In the end, both the women's movement and the larger Movement suffered as the idea that the personal is political was often interpreted in a way that made questions of lifestyle absolutely ~entral."~

I do not disagree with Echols's analysis of the competing ide- ologies here. I do not even disagree with her descriptions of the differences. What I do disagree with intensely is her interpreta- tion and evaluation of the world of late 1970s' and 1980s' radical feminism (what she calls cultural feminism). We were not social- ists, because we believed that too much focus on things like workers and owners would suck us into the muck of patriarchy. We were not Marxists because we believed that true liberation accompanied the transcendence of men and the material realities they had created. We were not interested in building coalition with men around leftist issues; we wanted only to organize our lives to be free of their patronizing dominance.

Mary Daly's writing captured, for me, the hope involved in this women-centered organizing: What is happening is an emergence of woman-consciousness such as has never before taken place. It is unimaginative and out of touch with what is happening in the woman's movement to assume that the becoming of women will simply mean uncritical acceptance of structures, beliefs, symbols, norms, and patterns of behavior that have been given priority by society under male domination. Rather, this becoming will act as catalyst for radical change in our culture. . . . What is at stake is a real leap in human evolution, initiated by women5

Indeed, in her later works, Daly explicitly challenged the validity of materialist and socialist politics from a radical women-centered point of view. For her, feminist activism should be centered on the poetic quest of finding a female reality deeper than that created by men. In a world where all men-and their words, materialities, and ideas-constituted the biggest threat to women and to wom- en's liberation, the greatest political action that could be con- ceived was to separate from all men and put our energies solely into women. As Shane Phelan summarizes, "by sleeping with women, lesbians [of the 1970s and 1980~1 expressed their commit- ment to a world that values women. One's body and its desires became a more reliable guide to one's loyalties than words or pub- lic deedsu6 Marilyn Frye captured the sense in which this turn to women was perceived to be the action by which a new world would be built, noting that "the event of becoming a lesbian is a reorientation of attention in a kind of ontological conversion. It is characterized by a feeling of a world dissolving, and by a feeling of disengagement and re-engagement of one's power as perceiver. . .. Woman-loving, as a spontaneous and habitual orientation of at- tention is inimical to the maintenance of reality."7 Echols's claim that later lesbians were nonpolitical seems absurd to many of us who lived through this period. In the frame of our ideology, we were more political and more radical than earlier feminists who had been associated with materialism.

Additionally, Nancy Whittier argues that her research in the les- bian community of Columbus, Ohio, resists the declension narra- tive found in Echols's work.8 If the ideology of radical feminism is opened up to include the kind of feminist politics I experienced in Durham in the 1980s, the difference Echols perceives is no longer of central import. Whittier argues that if we focus on the presence of women organizing rather than explicit commitments to materi- alism, radical feminism looks much more like a continuous move- ment. Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp agree with Whittier. Also work- ing in the lesbian community of Columbus, Taylor and Rupp sug- gest that the cultural feminist communities that Echols critiques have in fact "forged a rich and complex resistance culture and style of politics that nourishes rather than betrays the radical feminist vision." Taylor and Rupp note specifically that cultural feminist communities are more adept at addressing many sigruficant social issues, such as domestic violence, rape, and disability than earlier radical cultures were; as they argue, "rather than squelching mobi- lization, we see lesbian feminist communities as sustaining the radical feminist tradition and bequeathing a legacy to feminists of the f~ture."~

Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable report similar findings for the lesbian community in Atlanta; as they see it, cul- tural feminism developed the material basis to keep feminism alive and circulating for decades.'' In refusing to confine the idea of radical to socialist politics, these scholars are tracing complex lines of lineage between the women in the late 1960s and later strands of feminism, and claiming that later strands have made important contributions to radical politics.

The point here is that essentialist ideology was, for many of us for a very long time, a very viable politic. It was not a theory that only a few crazy people believed, it was not espoused by only a few authors (that have since become the essentialist straw figures). Rather, the ideas that women were superior and that a new world could be built on that superiority dominated feminist politics, at least in Durham and I suspect in many other locations as well, for fifteen years. Moreover, the people who believed in the impor- tance of women-centered analysis put feminism on the cultural map of America. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most feminists organized themselves around bookstores, concerts, readings, dances, and other cultural events (much more so than around the legislative work of liberal feminists). We cannot understand the history or theory of contemporary feminism without a deep appreciation for the infrastructure built by radical feminism.

The radical feminist community that existed in Durham was white, middle-class, and had tacitly agreed never to disagree about most issues. People dressed mostly the same, ate the same foods, cut their hair the same, had the same social activities; the strength of our community was built on the very vulnerable as- sumption that being lesbian was enough to hold us all together. By claiming the shared status of victim in male, heterosexual cul- ture, we thought we could overlook or deny racial, ethnic, reli- gious, class, geographic, and many other differences.

However, although the community in Durham at first seemed to me like a seamless, safe haven from patriarchy, it became clear very quickly that fractures and problems existed at many differ- ent levels. The first signs of these fissures appeared several years after I moved to Durham and manifested themselves in conversa- tions about what counted as a real radical feminist. Around 1983, we started asking each other to declare primary or even sole alle- giance to "the women's community." Class, race, regional, or reli- gious issues and struggles were forced into secondary positions or overlooked entirely. We began policing ourselves in order to guarantee that our members were faithful to the principle of putting women first.

By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that most generalizations about women did not hold true especially across racial, class, or ethnicity lines. African American lesbians and other lesbians of color told white radical feminists in no uncertain terms that the female nature they had theorized did not represent difference. As white, middle-class lesbian feminists read their works, we began to realize that the things we thought of as essential to womanness- and upon which our lesbian feminist politics had been built-large- ly described white, middle-class women. Thus, throughout the 1980s, the lesbian feminist idea of a unique female nature slowly began to grow thin, to lose substance and texture.

Not surprisingly, then, the first site of fracture in Durham oc- curred primarily over race. By 1984, my particular friend group- which at that time included two Black women-was locked in struggle over racial issues. As long as Dee and Sandy identified themselves primarily as women, we all were in harmony. When, however, they began to use race as a category of political analysis, when they declared that they-as Black lesbian women-were more oppressed than the rest of us, things began to deteriorate. Draw- ing our attention to racism meant putting us white lesbians in the role of oppressor, a role with which we had no experience or his- tory. Ow:community was founded on the belief that we-as women-were oppressed, so much so that identification as the oppres- sor then seemed impossible. For us at that point, the equation was simple; men dominated and oppressed women. The question of race (and later ethnicity) challenged this simple formula and the seamless social world we had built on it.

I do not mean to imply that we were in any way morally right to question or deny the power of racism. I do want to show, how- ever, that our resistance to more complex systems of analysis that could include race rested on our attachment to the purity of our political analysis: men dominated and oppressed women. Com- plexifying this equation to include race meant identifying our- selves as white oppressors; it meant, therefore that our politics were now less absolute, we ourselves less pure. This move was quite painful. Here is Marilyn Frye, to take just one example, writing about her attempts to incorporate race into her thinking: "[Elvery choice or decision I make is made in a matrix of options. Racism distorts and limits that matrix in various ways. My being on the white side of racism leaves me a different variety of op- tions than are available to women of color. It becomes clear why no decision I make can fail to be an exercise of race privilege. Does being white make it impossible for me to be a good per- son?"" For us in Durham, similar questions emerged. Could we stand to see ourselves as oppressors and still exist in such an ide- ologically pure community? Could we purge ourselves of racism by loving Black women but not Black men? Dee sold her things and moved to Florida in late 1984; I lost touch with Sandy the next year. We were drifting apart. Later analyses of this moment would describe it like Caren Kaplan does here: "Racism and homophobia in the US women's movement brought such painful splits between women that white feminists were forced to turn their attention away from assertions of similarity and homogene- ity to examinations of difference.'"' To us, however, it felt like the world was coming apart; we were not only losing our friends, we were losing the basis of our political existence as well.

I look through my bookshelves now and easily pull down a dozen titles written between 1981 and 1990 on race or ethnicity and radical feminism. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color; Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology; Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology; Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About; Making Face, Making Soul-Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color; Compane- ras: Latina Lesbians; Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology; Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by Asian American Women- these and other titles swirled through our lives, producing and re- counting experiences of difference at a dizzying rate.13 As Biddy Martin suggests, "the writings of Moraga, Anzaldua, and others attend to the irreducibly complex intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that contest any assumption that there are no differences within the 'lesbian self' and that lesbian authors, autobiographical subjects, readers, and critics can be conflated and marginalized as self-identical and separable from questions of race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity." The writings of these wom- en demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the special at- tributes we had associated with womanness actually described only the womanness of whites. They also demonstrated that the lesbian communities we were building on essentialist ideology were unstable, perhaps even unviable. As Martin argued in 1987, "the feminist dream of a new world of women simply reproduces the demand that women of color (and women more generally) abandon their histories, the histories of their communities, their complex locations and selves, in the name of a unity that barely masks its white, middle-class cultural referen~e/referent.'"~

One book that helped me crystallize the fractures we were liv- ing through was Elizabeth Spelman's 1988 Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Spelman's was one of the first texts worried about a unified category of woman from a philosophical point of view; although her work addressed femi- nism in general, her points drove to the heart of what we were ex- periencing in most radical feminist communities. I examine her here at some length because, for me, she shed new light on the problems associated with a unified politic in an environment of difference. "The apparent logic of feminist inquiry," she writes,

directs me to disregard what differentiates one woman from another, to see be- yond what is peculiar to a woman or to a group of women who can also be identified as middle-class or working-class, or Jewish or Catholic, or white or Black, or lesbian or heterosexual. After all, if I am interested in the abstract cate- gory of woman then I best not be distracted by differences among women, for it is their womanness I said I was interested in, not their shape or their color. Any attempt to talk about all women in terms of something we have in common undermines attempts to talk about the differences among us, and vice versa.

Spelman continues by arguing that in order to talk about this womanness, one group of women must be held up as the ideal: "The solution has not been to talk about what women have in common as women; it has been to conflate the condition of one group of women with the condition of all and to treat the differ- ences of white middle-class women from all other women as if they were not differences. The real problem has been how femi- nist theory has confused the condition of one group of women with the condition of all." Indeed, Spelman persuasively demon- strated that this conflation was not dissimilar to the way that phi- losophy (as well as other many other disciplines) had virtually erased women by simply conflating them with men. She writes that "most philosophical accounts of 'man's nature' are not about women at all. But neither are most feminist accounts of 'woman's nature,' or 'woman's experience' about all women. There are star- tling parallels between what feminists find disappointing and in- sulting in Western philosophical thought and what many women have found troubling in much of Western feminism."15

If what Spelman argued was true, radical feminist ideology was just as oppressive to Black women as Western philosophy had been to women in general. It was a politically retrograde fantasy to think that all women could exist under the sign of "woman" with no references to other realities, other experiences, other identities. And if the sense of woman circulating in our radical feminist com- munities was inherently white and therefore inherently racist, how could we talk about woman in a way that wasn't? How could we escape the problems of our own theories? What was to be done? At first, many of us thought that we needed to find representations of every possible, marginal identity that exists for lesbian women, and by bringing all these together, we would have (or at least be striving for) wholeness. Thus, the more oppression an individual woman represented, the more her voice was valorized. This con- figuration splintered the essentialist identity politics of radical fem- inism into a quest for multiple or additive identities. If one identi- ty-based oppression was bad, two or three or more was worse.

In some locations, this kind of methodology of additive identity politics often functioned as a response to the concrete failings of the liberal system; additive identity politics attempted to shore up the system by accounting for those who seem to be falling out. Proponents of this methodology in disciplines from political sci- ence to theology suggested that oppressed peoples should be rein- corporated into the structure of the system under provisos such as "epistemological privilege of poor," "preferential option for the oppressed," or "standpoint epistemology." Oppressed people were addressed by these new methods and incorporated into the system as special or unique cases. The incorporation of minorities func- tioned in a way that validated both the power and the privilege of the system. That is, the inclusion of the oppressed person verified the idea that, although certain people may at times be inadvertent- ly overlooked, essentially the system can be made to work for all. Once marginalized perspectives are contained, a given worldview can again be said to represent the whole of one, unified reality for all people. The voices of the oppressed now contained within the system reinforce the illusion of a wholeness and unity that can be objectively measured and defined. Within additive identity poli- tics, wholeness follows from studying all the pieces. If we can only incorporate the views of enough Black, female, gay, poor, and so forth, people, we will then be complete.

However, within radical feminist communities, this formula- tion of politics began to fail almost immediately. First of all, we were not interested in verifying other institutions or systems by incorporating marginalized identities into them; indeed our goal was to resist all male, patriarchal powers. Instead, we sought a more organic way to understand the interconnections of sexism and racism. As Spelman wrote, "an additive analysis treats the oppression of a Black woman in a society that is racist as well as sexist as if it were a further burden when, in fact, it is a different burden. To ignore difference is to deny the particular reality of Black ~omen."'~

Additionally, additive identity politics was built on the ideal of tolerance for all difference; no matter how unlike ourselves someone was, we should accept her and her experiences as valid and important. This ideology directly clashed with the central tenet of radical feminism, that is, that all men regardless of race were bad and that male behavior should not be tolerated but rather should be avoided. A posture of openness to all was diffi- cult to take up in a community built on exclusionary politics.

Additive identity politics failed in radical feminist communities because it challenged the central tenets upon which many of these communities were built. Radical feminism used an essentialist notion of identity to ground its politics in what was thought to be the superior nature of women. Essentialism saw female identity as an ontological ground, a truth about nature itself and the virtuous nature of women specifically. The experience of being women, we argued, led to a unified identity that could ground politics. Thus, even though women of color were in some sense configuring a similar or parallel argument-that is, that certain racial, class, or ethnic experiences led to an identity that could ground politics- the (unintended) effect of this argument was to challenge the validity of the primary assumption of radical feminism, that is, that being a woman (of any color or ethnicity) was a clear and strong political foundation. The introduction of difference between women pointed out the weaknesses inherent in building a politics on a cross-racial, cross-cultural, unified identity of "~oman."'~

Finally and on a very pragmatic level, additive identity politics failed precisely because the experiences and backgrounds of the women were so different, and conversation became difficult and sometimes impossible. Whole communities split apart; even national groups such as the National Women's Studies Associa- tion experienced conflicts which left lasting schisms. For many, the outcome of these struggles was often segregation; additive identity politics allowed us to feel comfortable only when talking with people from our own ethnic, racial, class, sex, and gender backgrounds. Subgroups began to form in Durham, not only Black radical feminists, but lesbians from a Catholic background, lesbians over forty, lesbians with children, Jewish lesbians, and so forth. By the late 1980s, there were few meetings or groups that you could participate in as a whole self (or even as a plain-old, garden variety lesbian). The fractures were beginning to grow and cover the entire map of radical feminism.

It is at this point in my narrative that I enter graduate school, in part because the unified community I had sought was dissolving and in part because I myself was experiencing wider identifica- tions than the narrowly defined lesbian community allowed. Even though in 1989 I still identified publicly with radical feminism, pri- vately I felt stifled and confined. For nine years, I had lived in an exclusively female, exclusively lesbian world, where the require- ment for membership was lesbian identity. And it was the only requirement. Month after month, potluck after potluck, we met; because we had little else in common besides the gender of our partners, conversations invariably circled around how and when we came out, how our parents were taking it, and so forth. It was a world that marginalized itself with its hypertrophied attachments to lesbian identity. It wasn't only that I hated cotton clothing and Birkenstocks, and it wasn't that I desired contact with men (sexual or otherwise), but it was the constant pressing feeling that I was being left out, that I was missing something. Moreover, the contin- uing problem of scarce material resources, competing ideas about oppression, name-calling, policing, no tolerance of difference or, conversely too much awareness of difference (which lead to segre- gation)-these and other phenomena created a great deal of tension in our community. By the late 1980s, the peaceful ideal of a unified woman-loving-woman world had all but fallen apart.

Through movies, TV, and novels, I found that my identifica- tions would wander through a much wider terrain than this com- munity would allow me to live in. I began to feel the need to chal- lenge the presumption that my lesbianism influenced and affect- ed everything I did and thought; I felt that sexual identity was no longer, for me, a seamless, monolithic, unfractured whole. I tried to escape the prison created by lesbian separatism by going to graduate school. I would rather be a lesbian in a bigger world, I told myself, than a citizen of many worlds and identifications who had to hide those components from the view of lesbian sepa- ratist ideology. The transition out of the lesbian community was painful. Many people told me that I was selling out to seek suc- cess in the male-identified institution of academia. Others told me that I wouldn't be able to exist inside an institution that had never accepted gays or women. I lost most of my anti-institutional, counterculture, radical feminist friends in this passage.

In graduate school, however, I found new friends and newly emerging theories in postmodern feminism that reflected for me the serious limitations of a politics based solely on racial, ethnic, gender, sexual preference, or class characteristics. Around 1989, the entire world of feminist theory had become suddenly energized with deconstruction. Works in the emerging field of queer theory, such as Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Eve Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, and Diana Fuss's Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Drference marked the beginning of an era which directly attacked, from feminist per- spectives, the essentialist presuppositions circulating in radical feminist communities. These works were critical of and opposed to identity-based political change. In critiquing the basis of identity politics, these theories help me name my dissatisfaction with polit- ical assumptions based on common physical or cultural traits and orientations. It would be hard to overestimate the influence that these texts and subsequent conversations had on my thinking; they made me realize that social oppressions were usually much more complex than identity politics made them appear.

A complete review of the works of Butler, Fuss, Sedgwick and others is both impossible and unnecessary here. Instead, I want to summarize a few points primarily as they relate to radical feminist ideology. These antiessentialist queer theorists argued in short that biological sex and gender are socially constructed. They noted that the system of gender construction that inhabited us wrongly pre- sumed that everyone has either an obvious penis or vagina, that every person has an uncomplicated relationship to that biological entity, and that owning that piece of equipment necessarily corre- lated to certain ontological characteristics. The concept of gender, they suggested instead, exists on an unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both "women" and "men." We can no longer appeal to the transhistorical concepts of "woman" or "woman's essential nature" as a grounding for contemporary feminism, for to do so is to assume the validity of the very idea that creates the oppression in the first place. As Butler articulated it, 'an uncritical appeal to the system which constructs gender for the emancipation of 'women' will clearly be self-defeating.""

These queer theorists reminded us that there are no fool-proof scientific tests for gender; there is no hormonal, chromosomal, or anatomical test that can be administered which in every case guarantees that the subject being tested is either a woman or a man. If gender does not equate or reduce to chromosomes, genes, genitals, or hormones, it can only be "produced," they suggest, by a wide variety of social events, strategies, and fantasies: who makes more money, who wears a dress, and so forth, all work to help us organize all people into these two tracks. Being a "wom- an" or being a "man" are unfortunately the only options available to us; these identifications are constructed not by biological or natural "facts," but by a culture that constantly and consistently places us in one category rather than the other. Gender (and par- ticularly the idea that there can only be two of them), then, is a matter of social construction; whether one acts as female or male is a matter of performance-that is, doing the things a woman or man does and thereby coding ourselves as such-not ontological certainty. The more we do the things that-say, as in my case-a woman does, the more we feel ourselves to "be" a woman at our core. Our gender, then, is not a function of an ontological or even biological certainty. Rather, it is established through a widely ac- cepted social grid that teaches even young children to identify themselves and behave as either a grl or boy. It is something we (as part of culture) "do," not something we "are." Again, as Butler expresses it, "there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expression' that are said to be its result^."'^ Gender isn't some- thing we're born with, it is something that we are born into; it consists of a catalog of performances which organize experiences based on the binary man/woman.

These feminist theorists prodded us to question our attachment to radical feminism's stable category of woman. To think of wom- en's liberation as an event involving "women only," they said, was not only to miss the complexities of oppression, but it was also to assume and posit the very category that itself perpetuates injus- tice. The lines should not be drawn between women and men, they said but, rather between those who espouse progressive pol- itics, especially around the issues of sexuality, and those who don't. They defend a reconstruction of a multiplicity of genders as a way of disrupting the binary which keeps us locked into the hierarchical madwoman system. They point to concrete social locations where bifurcated notions of gender are currently prob- lematized-such as in the activities and self-presentations of trans- gendered people-and suggest that such practices subvert the dominant paradigm precisely because they remind us that gen- ders are performances rather than a biological facts. Without a binary system of gender, we could experience neither sexism (how could we know what a woman is?) nor homophobia (how could we imagine partners of the "same sex" if there were an un- limited number of options?).

Deconstructionists suggested, in short, that human beings did not necessarily remain within the confines of one identity. Sys- tems of knowledge compete for our attention and allegiance, they suggested. We may grow up in one of the rather unified worlds of, say, democratic liberalism, radical feminism, or, for that matter, fundamentalist Christianity, orthodox Judaism; but if we circulate in other communities, we run the risk of being infected or forti- fied by different systems of language, structures which at times might render our language of origin unintelligible. These systems of knowledge and power compete on the site of the human sub- ject, and they divide the abstract idea of "the human being" into fractured, ontological increments.

These theories also accounted for the experiential realities of many lesbians of color. Black lesbians, for example, often lived a dual or triple kind of identification, seeing themselves as Black on certain issues, female on others, and gay on still others. Theirs was often a fragmented existence; forcing them to take up the unified subjectivity associated with radical feminism seemed, from this new perspective, like asking them to leave part of them- selves behind. Moreover, this conversation about multiple and fragmented identities helped to further clarify dissatisfactions with the ideology of the radical feminist community. For me, it wasn't only the fact that our politics were based solely on essen- tialized womanhood that was troubling. It was also the related fact that by the mid-1980s my community had become dangerous in its narrowness and policing. The role of a radical feminist was scripted in such a way that many of my own pleasures were de- nied. Watching detective shows on TV, going to church, eating meat, wearing polyester or high heels, shopping, feeling femi- nine-these and many other activities had to be hidden from the larger group in order to maintain membership in good standing in the lesbian community.

Theorists such as Elspeth Probyn and Diana Fuss, to name just a few, articulated a model of subjectivity where pleasure could not and should not be boxed in along the lines of any one single iden- tity. According to them, the very desire that produced an interest in sexual pleasure with other women was being stifled and repressed in the box of lesbian identity. Rather than evacuating radical politics, these theorists saw the unfixing of our identities as leading to a richer mode of political action based on the principles of identification, pleasure, and desire. Probyn writes, "[Dlesire is productive; it is what oils the social; it produces the pleats and the folds which constitute the social surface we live on. It is through and with desire that we figure relations of proximity to others and other forms of sociality. It is what remakes the social as a dynamic proposition, for if we live within a grid or network of different points, we live through the desire to make them connect differently." Throughout her work, Probyn argues that the kind of identity I took up in the radical feminist community in Durham was unviable. She argues that we cannot live our lives within the boundaries of such categories; the specificities of our identifica- tions and desires spill over the boundaries of any category. As she states it, her goal is to "turn identity inside out so that instead of capturing us under its regime of difference as a negative measure, the desire of belonging becomes a force that proffers new modes of individuation and being."" Thus, rather than the closed, policed lesbian communities many of us created in the early 1980s, Probyn would have us open these worlds, widening ourselves to include anyone who experiences-even temporarily or only imaginative- ly-lesbian desire. By acknowledging such instances of lesbian desire as part of a wider community, a political effectiveness could be enjoyed that would never have been possible in a closed, smaller community. The lesbian "community" thus would no longer consist of a small number of militant people who are com- pletely identified as lesbian but, rather, would include a wide, de- centered, and imaginary circle of people (both women and men) who experience these desires and act on them at various levels.

Diana Fuss makes a similar point about the power of desire and identification in the circulation of ideas and ideology.21 For Fuss, as for Probyn, the contained, seamless, individuated subject of radi- cal feminism was a strategically impoverished way of building community. Not only was it problematic to base our politics on an essentialized notion of woman, but these texts also made it clear that building our politics on a unified sense of identity was limit- ing and dangerous. Thus, many radical feminist communities were dangerous not only because they built their politics on the unstable notion of unified woman but also because they thought of all members as belonging solely to one lesbian identity and to one community; no sense of complex identity was allowed, and therefore many desires and circulations were either overlooked or outlawed.In these ways, deconstruction had crippled radical fem- inist ideology for me.

During my graduate education, from 1989 to 1993, I, like many graduate students, buried myself in classes and in the library. I was not at all active in the Durham lesbian community (although I did my Ph.D. at Duke). Upon completion of my degree, I took a job at Princeton and stayed busy commuting the northeast corri- dor to get back to my partner, our daughter, and our dogs every weekend. My avoidance of the radical feminist community seemed like the most natural and painless way of evading both the real conflicts roiling in the community as well as the personal shortcomings I had associated with it. By fall of 1994, however, I managed to land my dream job in women's studies back at Duke and began, after five years and mostly through my students, to make some informal connections with the lesbian community in Durham again. It shouldn't have come as such a surprise to me that the antagonistic radical feminist community I had left behind in 1989 had, at least from the perspective of my students, all but disappeared. To start with, there seemed to be no more "women's music," or-to be more accurate-you could now buy women's music, that is, Melissa Etheridge, K.D. Lang, Michelle Shocked, and the Indigo Girls, at any mall. Gone were the days when Alix Dobkin records were sold only at basement concerts or through the mail. Indeed, the lesbian community of 1994 seemed to have as many men, albeit gay men, in it as women. The dominant causes were no longer battered women's shelters or rape crisis centers but, rather, AIDS services and domestic partnership legis- lation. There was no more women's bookstore in Durham, no women's concerts or dances, no young lesbian separatists taking up the fight for women-only space. While I was away in the acad- emy, new lines of identification had been drawn. In the remainder of this essay, I want to examine the composition of these new communities, compare them with older configurations of radical feminism, and draw some conclusions about their possible contri- butions to feminist theory.

Through informal interviews, attendance at various meetings, substantial reading, and general integration into this newly config- ured community, I set out to discover who these new lesbians were and what they believed in. Informed by new texts in the emerging field of queer theory (many of which coincided with the feminist deconstruction texts I had studied in graduate school), these lesbians identified not as gay, nor even as women, but rather as queer. Queer culture was scattered around Durham in pockets: coffeehouses, tattoo and piercing parlors, used clothing stores spe- cializing in cross-dressing, transgendered twelve-step meetings, Triangle ACT-UP, Lesbian Avengers, and other institutions marked the emergence of a differently inflected politics. No longer housed in identifiable, "woman-only spaces," these new-style les- bian communities, as Arlene Stein notes, are increasingly "decen- tered" and increasingly queer." Although the term "queer theory" was first used in print (by Teresa de Lauretis) in the summer of 1991, by 1994 it had become a recognizable, coherent political sign.23 By 1997, even the gay undergraduate student alliance at Duke had changed its name from Duke LGB to Gothic Queers.

Just as the texts I had read in graduate school suggested, being queer in Durham was not necessarily a matter of being gay or les- bian but, rather, of being committed to challenging that which is perceived as normal. There was no foolproof membership criteria for queerness other than the willingness to interpret anything and everything as deviant. Indeed, queers were invested and involved in the deconstruction of both sexual preference and gender.

Rather than centering their politics on a transcultural notion of woman, queers attempted to disrupt the stability of these cate- gories. Where categories such as female and male, gay and straight stand in the position of normal, queer theorists look for places where this normality breaks down, where it is shown to be inadequate. Queer theory stands against the policy of categoriza- tion and is invested instead in building coalitions of difference along political lines.

Without question, serious distinctions exist between these queer politics and the lesbian separatists involved in radical femi- nism ten or fifteen years ago; examining a few of these distinc- tions will help develop a fuller picture of the new queer lesbian world. The first, perhaps most noticeable difference between radi- cal feminists and queer lesbians can be seen in varying associa- tions with men. For most radical feminists, men-even gay men- were the enemy and thus coalition with gay men was difficult or impossible. Many preradical feminist lesbians had built coalitions with gay men around many issues, but the woman-centered, rad- ical feminist lesbians simply dismissed them.24 The current queer environment is radically different. Not only did the theoretical foundation of separatist analysis prove unviable, but the AIDS epidemic made gay men seem much more vulnerable and less like the enemy. The door was opened for many lesbians to work in coalition with gay men on certain issues. In their eagerness to eliminate the foundation of woman-centeredness, young queers are able to exist within multiple identities and move in and out of various communities without the policing associated with identi- ty politics. (A whole phenomenon exists in queer communities, for example, of lesbians who sleep with men.) This is a world that is infinitely more flexible about community, coalition, and identi- ty than the lesbian communities associated with radical feminism.

In the process of this queer coalition, many lesbians have en- joyed access to material resources traditionally associated with gay men. These financial and social resources have allowed many queers to engage in more aggressive and confrontational style politics. In organizations such as Queer Nation, ACT-UP, and Sex Panic, queers take to the streets with non-accommodationist, anti- assimilationist, "in-your-face" techniques designed to draw atten- tion to issues of sexuality and sexual preference in the public sphere. Queers demonstrate against the Roman Catholic Church's repressive policies on condoms by disrupting Catholic masses; they protest the wedding of heterosexuality and capitalism by staging "kiss-ins," where same sex-partners engage in heavy pet- ting in suburban malls. They defend and promote cross-dressing, uninhibited displays of sexuality, tight black leather, spikes, and body piercings. Queer politics are explicitly and intentionally de- signed to make "straight" people feel extremely uncomfortable in order to make them think about how contingent the foundations of the repressive "normal" world really are. Because gay men have had more experience organizing and have more access to material resources and channels of political power, queers make use of these assets to make political points in cultural contexts.

It is worth pointing out that the aggressive in-your-face style of organizing associated with queer theory stands in stark conflict with the political strategies of most radical feminists. An excerpt from Sarah Schulman's My American Histoy illustrates this point nicely. "Pre-ACT UP lesbians," Schulman writes:

had difficulty finding efficient, empowering tactics, setting winnable concrete goals, and having a clear idea who was supposed to be affected by our orga- nizing efforts. There was something in the amorphous, generalized nature of our politics that guaranteed defeat. But it was only through ACT UP that [we] understood how to sequence political action. First make a demand that is pos- sible. Then propose it brilliantly. When there is no response hold direct actions until your target is forced, through embarrassment or necessity to respond in some way and then work with them to see the proposal through, whenever possible. Not only can this kind of focus bring you closer to your ultimate goal, but it creates positive and satisfying experiences for fellow activists and moti- vation for strategizing for political change. I remember the first time I particivated in an ACT UP demonstrations where vrotesters sat in at government


offices, and I realized that while the early 80's feminist movement encircled the Pentagon, we never walked in through its front door."

As Schulman's description demonstrates, in the early 1980s, we thought we were changing the world by leading more peaceful lives, by not eating meat, by not being sucked into consumerism, by imagining a world runby women. We thought we were in the midst of a sort of psychic-spiritual revolution, but from today's queer perspective, as Shulman notes, we never even got in the front door.

Another critical difference lies in varying attitudes toward sex. Earlier radical feminists made it clear, as I discussed above, that lesbianism was as much about politics as it was about sex. Al- though sex-positive attitudes certainly existed in pockets of les- bian discourse throughout the last thirty years,26 I believe that skepticism about sexual activity dominated much of radical femi- nism. There was very little explicit sexual discourse in my experi- ence of the lesbian community in Durham; for example, we rarely talked about what we did in bed and never entertained the idea of using pornography to enhance our sex lives. Indeed, some les- bians suggested that any penetration during sex was patriarchal and needed to be eliminated.27 In my experience of the Durham radical feminist community of the early 1980s, we were, by today's standards, totally vanilla.

In contrast, queers today suggest that all sex at least when it is mutually consensual, is good. Because "queerness" in the pejora- tive sense has always been defined by its negative relation to a particular moral code, the new queer theorists today assert that it is time to eliminate all barriers to free expression of sex. Like their idea of building political coalitions independent of identities, queers want to build a sexual underground completely free of any confining strictures. Sex is good, they argue, because it makes us feel good, because it gives us pleasure. Thus, many aspects of queer culture show intense interest in alternative sex practices such as sadomasochism, pornography, man-boy love, group sex, cross- dressing, leather bars, and other erotic subcultures that exist in America today, affirming in every case the perverse, the chaotic, and the nonrnonogamous. Queer theory challenges not only the construction of female and male as "normal," but it also disputes the idea that sexuality has any "normal" parameters at all. From their viewpoint, because sex itself is liberating, new and innovative ways of expressing sexuality are to be explored and encouraged.

I am attracted to and involved with queer theory on many dif- ferent levels. Although I have moments of nostalgia for the fixed identities and subtle articulation of desires associated with radical feminism, the new queer world supplies me with new and excit- ing ways of orienting myself within feminism. First and maybe most drastically, queer lesbians have made female desire and sex- uality much more visible. Queer theory has challenged the largely phallocentric and androcentric way that pleasure is constructed in our culture by representing women as active sexually. It challenges the radical feminist predilection that nurture of children and the preserves of home and neighborhood are naturalized women's activities. For me, this development opens up and makes visible realms of desire that have been repressed for decades.

Also, queer communities are much more open to racial, class, and ethnic differences and are infinitely more successful than sep- aratists in building coalition across a wide variety of social issues, especially around concerns of race and class. Partly as a result of the AIDS crisis, lesbians in the last decade have united with gay men and many different kinds of people of color to build a strong community of political resistance in Durham. Lesbian involve- ment in Durham's queer community stands in welcome contra- distinction to the inability of earlier separatists to address the problem of difference. Queer communities are less dependent upon mechanisms that police membership, less dependent on similar identifications and identities. In the new queer world, it is expected that people will have multiple and often conflicting identities; indeed, a unified subjectivity is often suspected of being nostalgic and politically problematic. I can now watch police shows on TV, go to church, watch porn, have male friends, work in coalition around race and class issues, flirt with straight women, circulate in both the centers and on the margins of many institutions, in short, live the complicated life of human subjectiv- ity. Queer theory and practice provide a much greater amount of freedom than radical feminism.

However, although new queer communities are much more open and inclusive about both sexuality and racial and ethnic dif- ferences, I want to highlight the fact that several feminist theorists have identified tensions within queer practices that are troubling. The queer desire to break open the dichotomy between women and men, they suggest, often inadvertently leads to the valoriza- tion of those things associated with the male, public sphere. Rather than challenging the division of the world into those two, narrow categories, queer theory has sometimes unmindfully eliminated or ridiculed many of the attributes associated with women. To be queer, they argue, often means to be public, hard, aggressive, "in-your-face"; those attributes historically associated with women which reproduce both children and daily life, such as relationality and caretaking, are sometimes dismissed as soft and accommodationist by the new queer discourse. An unintentional association takes place between being genderless, being powerful and aggressive, and being male. The deconstruction of gender often means that women are no longer restricted by domestically based ideologies; we, too, can have access to (male-dominated) public spaces and (male-oriented) aggressive political power.

For example, Suzanna Danuta Walters argues that queer theory essentially valorizes men. As she sees it, theorists such as "Sedg- wick, Butler, and Rubin share a problematic perspective on femi- nism and the women's movement and have engaged, in different ways, of course, with gay male identity as the site of privileged subjectivity." From her perspective, queer theory overlooks lesbian specificity and the difference that gender makes; it downplays the importance of feminism as a liberatory movement. As she argues,

In a culture in which male is the default gender, in which homosexual is all too often imaged as male, to see queer as somehow gender neutral is ludicrous and willfully naive. Feminism has taught us that the idea of gender neutrality is not only fictitious but a move of gender domination. I applaud queer theory's expansion of the concept of difference but am concerned that, too often, gender is not complicated but merely ignored, dismissed or transcended.

Walters concludes from this that

the part of queer theory that hinges on a separation from feminism seems mis- guided at best. . . . Playing with gender may engage in destabilizing it some- what but will not, in itself, stop the power of gender-a power that still sends too many women to the hospital, shelter, rape crisis center, despair. . . .I would prefer queer theorists spend a bit more time on the mundane figure of the working-class lesbian mother and the horrifying spectacle of the removal of her child than on the endless rhapsodies for drag and dildos.28

Shane Phelan similarly notes the need for feminist analysis within queer theory: "[Ilf the lesbian feminists of the 1970s and 1980s were excessively narrow in their quest for community, the 1990s paradigm of 'lesbian and gay' too often heralds a return to male dominated politics. When 'lesbian feminist' is a simple code for outdated theory in a way that 'gay liberation' is not, there is a need for strong feminist voices."29 And in an essay examining queer theory, Biddy Martin writes, "some of our recent efforts to introduce desire into the definition of lesbianism and distance it from imperatives to identify with and as women have cast femi- nine gender as mere masquerade or a constraint to be escaped, overridden, or left aside as the more radical work of queering the world proceed^."^^ Similarly, Pat Califia suggests that the issues most often brought to our attention by queer actions are related to AIDS and therefore to men:

while the AIDS crisis is a dire emergency that every thinking, caring person must address, it alarms me to see queer men blindly absorb women's caretak- ing without making much of an effort to reciprocate. The majority of gay men remain woefully ignorant about feminism, and too many are contemptuous of women's bodies and hostile toward lesbians. When I see a mass movement among queer men to raise money for breast-cancer research, or a volunteer army of queer men who are taking care of women with chronic and life-threat- ening illnesses, this resentment will be appeased.31

Walters, Phelan, Martin, and Califia are not opposed to decon- struction or sex positivity or aggressive politics; indeed they are generally in concert with many of the abstract positions that queer theory wants to take, so much so that each of them has-in different ways-taken up a queer identity. However, they disagree with what they see as male-dominated and male-centered ten- dencies within queer communities. As they claim, although in theory queerness transcends or deconstructs gender, in reality it sometimes feels like another way that men are allowed to wield the power, set the agendas, and be taken care of.

Sometimes I catch glimpses of what they're saying in my experi- ences in the new queer community in Durham. The old "woman- centered" networks of care and compassion have given way to a more task-oriented organizing. Meetings are scheduled and con- ducted more formally; it feels like there is less of a network than there was in the 1980s. Membership in organizations around issues of AIDS are mixed gender; organizations around "women's issuesH-from breast cancer to infertility-are almost always consti- tuted by women. There seems to be less of a sustained interest in children, ecology, and natural health than there was before. Thus, although the foundations of radical feminism are irredeemably problematic, I believe we learned certain things during that era that might help us think through these problems with queerness today. People in my community today seem more to more easily dismiss the domesticity and emotionality associated with the pri- vate sphere (and so well addressed by radical feminism) in favor of the dynamism, development, and aggression of the public. The problem, then, is not that queer theory deconstructs gender but, rather, that it sometimes tacitly assumes that liberation is synony- mous with participation in a narrowly defined "public" life. In their focus on frank discussions of sexuality, some queers have virtually eliminated the need for caregiving and other elements historically connected to the realm of women. Radical feminists articulated a sense of sexuality (or at least sensuality) which was intrinsically tied to (what was thought to be) women's moral nature. In rejecting that notion of womanhood, queer theorists have thrown out also the need or desire for many attributes asso- ciated with woman's worlds.

I believe that contemporary lesbians associated with queer theo- ry must maintain associations with a revitalized feminism in order to correct these problems. Radical feminism taught us that gender was a critical part of any analysis and that the things associated with women's lives were valuable, worthy activities for human communities. Although contemporary feminism needs to update its methodologies and be more accommodating around issues of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, it seems to me that radical feminism's commitment to care and connection should be carried over into new queer communities. This methodological shift is critical for the well-being of both women and queer communities.

Sustained attention to all the activities associated with the pri- vate realm (not just sex) is important because many of these tasks reproduce daily life for most human beings. The cooking, the cleaning, the washing, the childcare, the errands, the g.lft buying, the grocery shopping, and so forth, must be done in order for peo- ple to continue on with the more public life of work and politics. Somebody has to do these things, and if they're not done by queers, they will be done by women, and if some "women" man- age to get out of these tasks by idenhfying themselves as queer, then the work will be done by women of color and other disen- franchised people who cannot afford the luury of an identity like queer. The social reproduction of daily life is hard work, and our culture has consistently passed those "unwanted," unglamorous jobs off to minorities (paying them very little) and women (and not paying them at all). Queer theory's valorization of the public and political parts of life and dismissal of the tasks associated with the home, I suggest, often leads not only to sexism but to racism and the exploitation of the working classes as well.

As feminists interested in using and identifying with queer the- ory, I suggest that we don't discard the things historically associ- ated with women in this new move to queerness. In deconstructing "women" and "men," it is vital that we not inadvertently dis- avow those things that have historically been associated with women's sphere. It is critical that we hold up and take seriously the emotional and connective work that has been traditionally assigned to women (and that was valorized in radical feminist communities) and that we understand that this is the work that all must now participate in. If the new queer nation hopes to be truly strong, it will need to esteem activities such as preparing safe and comfortable homes, cooking for others, raising and teaching our children, being hospitable, thinking about how to be a good friend and neighbor, and organizing social activities. Although we may not need the ontological categories of "women" and "men," we do need to recover and value the work historically assigned to women's realm.

From a certain angle, these strategies might appear contradicto- ry-why focus on women or women's sphere if that's the very cat- egory we're trying to free ourselves from? My point here is that we need to live with this contradiction for some while, that we need to focus both on women and beyond them in order to pre- vent a new queer world from becoming another cover for the dis- crimination and disregard of women. Queer theory can provide us with interesting visions of a nongendered, politically progres- sive world but only if we recognize the need for feminist analysis as well. To my thinking, feminists today need to attend both to new queer analyses as well as to feminist methodologies if we hope to pursue a world that strives to be truly beyond gender dis- crimination rather than one which simply hides it. Queer dis- course on academic and popular levels can help us avoid config- uring gender as an ontological necessity and see it instead as something we construct and perform. Moving beyond the male/ female binary will free us from unnecessary gender discrimina- tion currently present in many aspects of social life. We also need feminism, however, to help us consciously focus on and recover "women's work as a central concern of the new queer discourse. As feminists striving to live beyond gender, we need to actively remember the important relational and emotional work that has been done throughout the ages by the people called "women." Seeing "women's work as engaging, important work throughout history will reshape the landscape of our own lives today.

I suggest that what we need is a "feminist version of queer theo- ry," which would see itself not as a set of instantaneous, decon- structive moves but, rather, as a collection of staggered events and uneven developments which pursue two conflicting goals simul- taneously. In this feminist version of queer theory, we must strive to pay as much attention to the functions of (what we used to call) women, as we do to overcoming or rising above such categoriza- tion. By understanding a feminist queer agenda not as one move but as a process, we can then see that both types of work help us reshape the world. Rather than struggling over whether an event or text is either queer or feminist, we need to recognize that both interpretations are necessary and ought to exist side by side. In building a new feminist queer theory in this dialectical fashion, the struggle to recover women and to move beyond them emerges as an agenda which can offer a better world for people of all sexual and gender indentifications. This version of queer theory under- stands finally that without feminism, queer theory will simply be another fight among boys.


Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1993); Nancy Whittier, Feminist Genera- tions: The Persistence of the Radical Women's Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995); Becki Ross, The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995); Arlene Stein, Sex and Sensibility: Stories ofa Lesbian Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Kath Weston, Render Me, Gender Me (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Brett Beemyn, ed., Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories (New York: Routledge, 1997); Trisha Franzen, "Differences and Identities: Feminism and the Albuquerque Lesbian Community," Signs 18 (summer 1993): 891-906; Saralyn Chesnut and Amanda Gable, "'Women Ran it': Charis Books and More and Atlanta's Lesbian-Feminist Community, 1971-1981," in Carrying On: In the Lesbian and Gay South, ed. John Howard (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 241-84.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Book, 1963), 370-71.

Radicalesbians, "The Woman-Identified Woman," in Radical Feminism, ed. Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, and Anita Rapone (New York: Times Books, 1973), 240-41.

Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1989), 4-5,240, 18.

Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973),14,37.

Shane Phelan, Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 49.

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1983), 171.


Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp, "Women's Culture and Lesbian Feminist Activism: A Reconsideration of Cultural Feminism," Signs 19 (autumn 1993): 50,53.

Chesnut and Gable, 250.

Frye, 113.

Caren Kaplan, "The Politics of Location," in Scattered Hegemonies, ed. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 140.

Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldiia, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1981); Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983); Evelyn Torton Beck, ed., Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982); Carla Trujillo, ed., Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (Berkeley: Third

Women Press, 1989); Gloria Anzaldua, ed., Making Face, Making Soul-Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books, 1990); Juanita Ramos, ed., Companeras: Latina Lesbians (New York: Latina Lesbian History Project, 1987); Makeda Silvera, ed., Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology (Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1990); Asian Women United of California, eds., Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

Biddy Martin, Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian (New York: Routledge, 1996), 142,151.

Elizabeth Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1988), 3,4,6.

Ibid., 123.

Another way of stating this claim is that most lesbians of color were not explicitly trying to challenge the claims of radical feminism. (Indeed, if that had been their goal, radical feminists would have been able to easily dismiss such women as oppositional.) Instead, they were simply trying to get their realities included in the project of essential feminism. In doing so, the inclusion of different female realities demonstrated that the value of "woman" as a foundation for political change was limited. These writers showed us that in the lives of many people, gender was one among many oppressions.

18. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 2.

Ibid., 25.

Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (New York: Routledge, 1996),13,3.

Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1995).

Arlene Stein, "Sisters and Queers: The Decentering of Lesbian Feminism," Socialist Review 22 (January-March, 1992): 33-55, and Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Teresa de Lauretis, introduction to differences 5 (summer 1991): iii.

See, for example, Fryers Politics of Reality.

25. Sarah Schulman, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years (New York: Routledge, 1994), 67-68.

Sex-positive radical feminists existed throughout the 1980s but, in my experience, circulated effectively only in cities larger than Durham. My claim here is entirely experi- ential: the work of theorists such as Gayle Rubin and Ann Snitow, when it was read in my small-town 1980s' radical feminist community, was dismissed as male-identified propaganda. This is not to say that Durham can represent the experiences of those liv- ing in larger cities. See Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R[app] Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), and "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carol Vance (New York: Routledge, 1984). See also Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

See, for example, Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice Raymond, eds., The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990); Esther Rothblum and Kathleen Brehony, eds., Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships among Contempora ry Lesbians (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993).

Suzanna Danuta Walters, "From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace (Or, Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Fag?)," Signs 21 (sum- mer 1996): 836,845,864-66.

Shane Phelan, Getting Specific: Postmodern Lesbian Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), xi.

Martin, 45.

Pat Califia, Public Sex: The Culture ofRadical Sex (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1994), 25.

  • Recommend Us