The Complexity of Lesbian Identity Following Second-Wave Feminism

Second-wave feminism is credited as a catalyst for women’s liberation in the workplace and in broader society. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling are milestones attributed to the efforts of mainstream feminists — most of which were cisgender and heterosexual. LGBTQ+ women, particularly lesbians, were widely excluded from feminist organizations and disavowed by prominent feminist figures whose influences are still present today.

In 1966, twenty-eight feminist activists, including Betty Freidan and Pauli Murray, co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), frustrated by the government’s failure to enforce new anti-discrimination laws. NOW’s Statement of Purpose, penned by Freidan and Murray, stated that the organization’s purpose was to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” Evidently, Freidan, a straight woman, and Murray, who had lifelong relationships with other women, interpreted this statement differently.

Lesbians have long been contributors to the feminist movement; NOW’s logo was designed by openly lesbian artist Ivy Bottini in 1969 and is still used to identify the organization today. Bottini and other lesbian members of NOW attempted to bring attention to issues facing them, who lived at the intersection of experiencing misogyny and homophobia at a time when both ran rampant, to straight leaders’ attention. Bottini, then the president of NOW’s New York Chapter, held a seminar in 1970 with that purpose, titled, “Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue?” Freidan, who vehemently opposed the inclusion of lesbians and their concerns within the feminist movement, was deeply angered by this action. In response, she cleansed lesbian members of the New York chapter of NOW, including Bottini and Rita Mae Brown, an openly lesbian author, and the editor of NOW’s newsletter. The mainstream feminist movement, made up of straight women, was not concerned with lesbian issues but with their own liberation. Phyllis Schlafly and her anti-feminist campaign dismissed NOW and other feminist organizations as militant, man-hating lesbians; Freidan and other leaders distanced themselves from this viewpoint by alienating lesbian women.

In response to NOW’s purge, Brown and other lesbian feminists branched out and created their own groups. One such organization was the Lavender Menace, named after Freidan’s infamous comments at a 1969 NOW meeting asserting that the group did not associate themselves with the radical threats to their goals that lesbians were determined to be. Shunned from the women’s liberation movement and frustrated by the misogyny present in male-dominated gay rights groups, the Lavender Menace, and its daughter organization Radicalesbians, as well as The Furies, the Salsa Soul Sisters, and others held demonstrations at straight feminists’ meetings, marches, and other forms of protest to garner the attention and respect of heterosexual society. They produced manifestos outlining their views of lesbian identity and persecution, and for the first time, they were able to forge unified selfhood separate from straight feminists and the male figureheads of mainstream gay activism.

Their efforts received a response: a year after Freidan’s famous New York purge, NOW’s national convention members issued a statement assuring that “NOW recognizes the double oppression of women who are lesbians… NOW acknowledges the oppression of lesbians as a legitimate concern of feminism.”

In 1973, the NOW Task Force on Sexuality and Lesbianism was established, and Del Martin became the first openly lesbian member of NOW’s board of directors. She and her wife, Phyllis Lyon, became the first openly lesbian couple to become involved with NOW. However, much of the damage was necessary to create a permanent rift between mainstream feminism and the lesbian community. Much of lesbian feminism revolved around the idea of separatism — solely interacting with lesbian-owned organizations and businesses, and not forming friendships or relationships with anyone not involved in the lesbian feminist movement, a sort of way to cope with societal rejection and surround themselves with people who they knew were affirming of their struggles. The extremely insular nature of many lesbian communities that resulted from this proved to be detrimental to the very sisterhood and inclusion that many groups attempted to advocate for.

During the time that lesbian feminism and mainstream feminism were at odds, some radical lesbian feminists accepted a different definition of lesbianism than we know today. As opposed to a sexual orientation separate from factors like subjugation to patriarchal values, some lesbian feminists argued that lesbianism was “the most complete form of feminism,” the choice to put relationships with women, whether romantic, sexual, or platonic, above relationships with men. Leaders of the Furies in Washington D.C. asserted that every woman was born a lesbian, and exposure to America’s male-dominant society destroyed their ability to only love other women. “Political lesbianism,” the idea that heterosexual women should swear off all romantic and sexual relationships with men and become celibate in the name of fully practicing feminism by completely removing themselves from institutions like marriage. Therefore, lesbianism was viewed as a political identity and a choice, rather than an innate characteristic that cannot be changed — a view now regarded as homophobic and incorrect. These radicals’ appropriation of lesbian identity perpetuated the idea that lesbianism is not a valid orientation and deep down, lesbian-identified people harbor an attraction to men, an idea that still exists among many today.

In their crusade for community and acknowledgment of concerns pertinent to them, some lesbian groups participated in the alienation of others, namely transgender women. In 1991, a transgender woman who wanted to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was expelled by a security guard. Following this instance, the festival instituted a “womyn born womyn” only policy excluding transgender women from attending. Some activists even began referring to women assigned men at birth as the “Transgender Menace,” adopting a term used to offend and alienate themselves to estrange transgender women from their movement. Now, many self-appointed radical feminists still hold the views that women’s oppression is solely based on their ability to reproduce and push a new brand of “feminism.”

As somebody who grew up already possessing many of the social and legal privileges that my predecessors afforded me, I cannot pretend to understand the disaffection and persecution that lesbians faced throughout the twentieth century.

However, I can attest that lesbian existence continues to be difficult due to our estrangement from the patriarchal space we occupy: our inability to fulfill the societal expectations put on us to find a man and bear his children. Our very existence invalidates the preconceived notions pushed on us about women’s place in relation to men, undermining the basis of gender roles that are foundational to our society.

I know that being a lesbian is an experience distinct from every other sexual orientation in the ways in which we are subjugated to the twisted forms of misogyny and homophobia that make up the lesbophobia present in many Queer and feminist spaces. I find the system formed by mainstream feminists’ exclusion of lesbians from their message to radical lesbians’ exclusion of transgender women from their spaces to be indicative of how cycles of oppression function. Lesbian feminists were so scarred by the dismissal of their experiences by mainstream feminists that they pushed that malice forward towards the transgender community in an attempt to preserve their insular and family-like community. This is by no means acceptable, but it offers insight into how some feminist groups became so exclusive of transgender women.

Progress has been made in the ways in which lesbian communities articulate our place within society. Many lesbians struggle with our lack of place within societal gender roles and discover that we are more comfortable presenting ourselves in a way that honors our unique position by altering our gender presentation and pronouns. As our definitions of gender, the construction of gender roles, and intersectionality evolve with the help of Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Smith, so does our understanding of how they play out in the real world and affect the human interpretation of identity.

It is my sincere hope that the feminist movement continues to become more inclusive to lesbians and that transgender women and people whose essences don’t fit the predetermined gender binary become more welcomed by mainstream lesbian communities.

Maeve Korengold

Maeve (she/her) is a freelance journalist based in Alexandria, Virginia.

One thought on “The Complexity of Lesbian Identity Following Second-Wave Feminism

  1. Hello,
    Do you have your sources? I am trying to write a high school history paper and I would love to quote you I just need some footnotes, or references!
    Thank you!
    -Laurel (softmore)

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