Guest Blogger

Recovering 70's Lesbian-Feminism, on Its Own Terms

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 12, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement

Editors' note: Emily Douglas is editor of Formerly an editor at RH Reality Check, she has written on reproductive health, LGBT issues, women's rights and the law for The American Prospect, The Nation, The Women's Review of Books, RH Reality Check, and other publications.

Picture 6.pngA montage of faces--"Women We Remember"--looking at turns impish, contented, self-assured, and reflective appeared one after another on a screen. After the slideshow concluded, people in the standing-room-only audience shouted out names of other women they'd lost. As the chorus of voices died down, Sarah Chinn, director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), exhorted the audience, "Hug the lesbian next to you!" And a sea of gray-haired women leaned over seats to embrace each other.

So began "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 1970s," a conference to celebrate the lives and cultures of seventies lesbians, held at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan this past weekend. About 450 people--lesbian-feminists, dykes, women-identified women, trans women and men, bisexual lesbians, genderqueers, sports dykes, therapy dykes, and doubtless others--gathered to remember, recover and reconsider an oft-maligned, even-oftener neglected decade of lesbian activism and cultural production.

Seventies lesbian life was given its due in an event marked by such huge questions as "What did we think we were doing?" "What of our imaginings have come to be?" and "What are our greatest disappointments?" A hunger for continued conversation--and the sense that this part of American history is too infrequently given a chance to speak for itself, on its own terms--marked the proceedings, with panels running long and rooms overflowing.

Panels focused on everything from women's communities on lesbian land, black and Jewish lesbian lives, lesbian mothers of the seventies, women's theatre, lesbian representation in Our Bodies, Ourselves, sex work, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, lesbian spiritualities, aging and lesbian identities, to lesbian periodicals, women's bookstores and lesbian community, lesbian-feminism and the Third Wave, and much, much more. Many of the sessions focused on recovering lost history with an eye to the conscious creation of a living, growing archive; panels often featured a younger academic presenter paired with two or three women who were activists or cultural workers during the 1970s, with earnest and much-needed dialogue ensuing.

After Lin Daniels and Shoshana Rothaizer presented stories and photographs of the rural lesbian communities they'd participated in during the seventies, PhD candidate Katherine Schweighofer offered a critique of some of the animating tropes of lesbian land communities, including the twinning of reproductive womanhood with "Mother Earth," and the stereotyping of who lived in, rather than moved to, the country; in the question-and-answer session that followed, other women who'd lived on lesbian land refuted her analysis, arguing that lesbians were in fact grappling with such representations of womanhood and inhabitants of rural lands while they were living on the land, and that these conversations became a part of their community life. This exchange--in which a student of the decade tested her theories about it against the testimony of those who lived through it--typified the conference, putting academics and their primary source material on relatively equal, if distinct, footing, and opening up a window on the process of the creation of a historical narrative.

As the women's land panel wrapped up, Ann Cvetkovich, professor of women's and gender studies at UT Austin, encouraged conference-goers to inhabit the voice of both critic and participant, remaining open to critique while understanding personal attachments to institutions and being aware of the audiences for whom the critique was being developed.

Two remarkable plenaries took up the animating questions of the conference with humor and verve; on Saturday, Sarah Schulman, Lisa Duggan, Joan Gibbs, and Urvashi Vaid trained a wide-angle lens on the revolutionary goals of lesbian-feminism. Joan Gibbs, now general counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice, noted that her biggest disappointment was nothing less than "that we failed to realize our fundamental goal: a world of peace and justice free of class, race, and sex." For those who weren't alive, alert or political in the 1970s lesbian-feminist scene, it was an opportunity to understand just how heady those days were, and just how expansive the lesbian-feminist imagination was.

As Vaid, a former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force put it, "The seventies were not about gay liberation. They were about believing I could bring down capitalist patriarchy and bring about an egalitarian society."

But panelists were pragmatic about challenges facing activists today. Charlotte Bunch, a founder of the Furies, now professor at Rutgers and a plenary speaker on Friday, said, "I don't want my students to do what we did in the seventies. We don't live in the seventies." Lisa Duggan, professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, acknowledged a contraction in the amount of space, physical and psychic, available for radical cultural imagining; she explained that "changes in larger economic structures...are undercutting the capacity of people to meet collectively and to develop imaginative politics."

At times, longstanding debates--particularly about the legitimacy of trans identities, and their place within lesbian-feminist space--flared up unproductively, and painfully. After Sarah Schulman took a straw poll of how many plenary speakers were boycotting the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival until its trans-exclusive policies are changed (none were, officially, though none made a regular practice of attending), a number of audience members spoke defensively about their need for "woman-only" space as they define it. But many older attendees demonstrated openness to learning about how younger people identify, organize and live their politics. Young attendees spoke repeatedly about appreciating what they had inherited from lesbian-feminist politics, culture, and ideals, while challenging older women to think anew about biological essentialism and determinism around concepts of gender.

At times panels offered a glimpse into an almost unimaginable past; as 29-year-old photographer of lesbian lands and the Michigan Festival Angela Jimenez commented, the conference was "filling in all these gaps in the mythology"--which, it turned out, wasn't mythology after all. At one time, not so long ago, "open women's land was really a phenomenon, where any woman could come," as Shoshana Rothazier put it. One hundred and twenty-four feminist bookstores dotting the United States acted as gathering spaces for lesbian-feminist communities. Azalea, a journal for "Third World lesbians," was published four times a year. And yet this moment was hardly one of singularity in any way--of vision, identity, politics, or community. Kristen Hogan, author of a dissertation on women's bookstores, emphasized that nostalgia for "easy lesbian community"--before the pressures of fundraising, or splintering--was misplaced; women's bookstores, for example, were under financial pressure from the beginning, and were sites where issues like race and class had always been grappled with. But these struggles and disagreements marked strengths, not compromises. Simply "having a space to contest [over issues of inclusion] is valuable," she added.

In her plenary address, Duggan explained that the seventies were a decade of both consolidating and exploding lesbian identity, with political tactics to match. "In our analyses, we often try to say that this follows that, or this group did this not that," Duggan said. "But really, in the 1970s, lesbians were doing every freaking thing."

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Thank you for reporting on that event. I was curious when I heard about it - curious to know how it went, what happened, what was said. I came out in the 80s so I'm not a 70s dyke - although I was politicized by them in the early 80s - but I remember once having one of those generational moments. I was working at a feminist bookstore in the early 90s. We had just brought in our first lesbian erotica, dildos, that kind of thing as part of our stock. I was feeling hugely self righteous because it had been somewhat of an uphill battle among the collective based on different ideas of erotics and representation. As I was saying something probably completely annoying to a coworker - something about 70s dykes in a dismissive way as in how silly, no penetration, and other such stereotypes, the store manager who had been out since the mid 60s leaned over and said to me: "you are very young right now. you think you have created the world. when i was your age we were using dildos and demanding an end to monogamy. we slept and fucked communally because we believed it negated ownership. We did the same things, we just used different words and theories to justify it." I am still so grateful for that moment.

Congratulations to the conference organizers, presenters, and attendees.

two observations:

Also represented at the conference -- butch and femme lesbians who have been in the forefront of activism and organizing since the working-class bar days of the 50s.

One thing that seemed to be missing as a topic: lesbian activism in the battered women's movement.

Emily Douglas | October 12, 2010 5:25 PM

Thanks so much for these comments, Susan and Heart. Heart--I heard one activist who lived in northern England in the 70s talk about the role of lesbians in the battered women's movement (during the "On the Streets, Between the Sheets" panel). A really interesting discussion--she talked a lot about the role that raw anger, in response to violent expressions of women's oppression, played in fueling political work at the time. Susan--that exact conversation played out many times at the conference, and the conference drew many "80s dykes" or "2010 queers" or others who also identified strongly with the politics articulated by 70s lesbian-feminism. One thing that I wish had gotten into the piece was something Charlotte Bunch said: "We tended to have conversations as if there was one right way to do things." I think this tendency may have masked a lot of the disagreement and dissent and colors our understanding of 70s lesbian political culture. So, it was great to hear a panoply of voices remember what was really going on then.

Charlotte is on the mark. I remember the Fascinating Women's group that I belonged to along with Arlene Raven and several others. The rub always came with women of color and conflicts about where their first loyalties should go; race or sexism. I think these issues still remain and we are in a work in process.
My book on Romaine Brooks is an attempt to return her to the mainstream of modernism and to disclose her aesthetics as an new woman, lesbian feminist and conservative. There is strength in diversity

Emily, Thanks so much for posting this. I hadn't heard of the conference, or I would have been there. I came out in '79, a little late, but still everything you describe sounds very familiar. I find that I'm still shocked that we (a) didn't change the world as much as we had ridiculously hoped and (b) that we're not still twenty and thirtysomethings wimmining the barracades. Once again, many thanks!

I hung out around the Women's Building on North Spring St in LA.

I was a photographer and studied Tae Kwon Do. I was on the Lesbian Tide staff as a photographer and production artist.

They were good years those years before Reagan.

I remember Sisterhood Books and the feminist book stores of Oakland and San Francisco, Olivia Records.

Things like potlucks with vegetarian dishes, food collectives.

Learning how to use tools and make things, how to change the oil and my spark plugs in a 150$ Datsun 1200 that got 40+ MPG.

I remember some not so pleasant things too like trashings, the sex wars, the transwars.

I remember marching bare breasted in leathers in the SF Pride Parade with Samois because they were the outcasts and because they supported transsexual women when no one else seemed brave enough to do so.

And as an old woman I am proud to have been a part of all that history.

rapid butterfly | October 13, 2010 7:12 AM

I appreciate the article and am always happy to see history, especially living history, shared and examined and considered.

It does sadden me to hear that the "legitimacy" of trans identities was "debated." The sheer offensiveness and the implicit privilege of what is expressed in that sentence - though I'm sure you're right that it is an accurate description of (a small part of) what happened - is absolutely staggering.

Our identities and our legitimacy are not for others to debate. We deserve the same courtesy we extend to you: we are who we say we are.

For me the most interesting thing was the encounter between scholars and subjects. Most of the younger women were academics and a handfull of the older women didn't feel addressed by the language and lack of direct contact- ie that scholars are not encouraged to talk to their subjects- which really needs to change. Interesting that scholars from the 70's were fully integrated into the community, but the younger scholars had much more of an academic frame and less integration outside of the academy and into the community. There were many many great papers from the young scholars, who are smart and taking risks to do lesbian research. Sadly, some of these interesting works were greeted with knee-jerk criticisms that were rude, but also class-based, and came from lack of experience with academic frames. At the same time some of the young scholars were thin-skinned, in that they had NO experience with the over-wrought style of accusation/complaint that often accompanies political movements, and couldn't put it into context. Many of the older women had had profound oppression experiences and had created something out of nothing, only to see it be demeaned by the larger culture and the consequences of that are hard to understand. There is a town/gown split, and that's something academia can address.

The second thing was that there is a virulent transphobia among a small group who has decided not to rethink. This was hard to see. Transfeminism and the deep and broad range of thinking coming from Trans community and the academy are unknown to them and - while I think the people refusing to re-think are few are far between- it would be beneficial for this to be visibly addressed in an organized way. There is a real demeaning and diminishment of lesbian ideas, history and experience - mostly from gay men, but the focus of anxiety about this was projected onto trans people by a small group. And it was depressing to those who couldn't contextualize. The absence of men was very annoying. I counted 7 men at the conference of over 400 women. Considering how many men have careers in LGBT Studies, Queer Theory and WOmen's Studies, the indifference is really depressing.

Overall it was a very real and therefore positive experience. I hope that younger scholars continue to do lesbian research, but break the wall between scholar and subject, that Transfeminism becomes a more dominant trope, and that gay men get it together and create some kind of reconciliation with women. And that the wounds of early life are both recognized by others and faced and dealt with in an on-going way by those who have experienced the worst of it. Projection and indifference are two sides of the coin of disrespect - that's my general conclusion.

At times, longstanding debates--particularly about the legitimacy of trans identities, and their place within lesbian-feminist space--flared up unproductively, and painfully.

That anyone considers the legitimacy of trans identities and their place within women's space to be in question, and that people think this actually needs to be politely discussed even today is a grim reminder of just how deeply entrenched in society transphobia still is. It also demonstrates how utterly hypocritical and morally bankrupt 70s feminism was.

"Trans identities"?

I don't think trans identities were challenged back then.

Our femaleness was. Our being women was but even then it wasn't as wide spread as mythology would have it and like trashing for other reasons tended to impact certain individuals and not others.

It is helpful to remember that folks who were trashed often shared a common trait of being overly dedicated and being the one in groups who was considered the spokesperson. Sole authoring a book or starting an organization. Gloria Steinem was trashed. So was Susan Brownmiller.

At the same time transsexual women were also protected by small collectives. The other women of Olivia supported Sandy. The other women of the Lesbian Tide supported me.

The trashing often happened from without and generally was led by people who were building their own name and often for reasons that bore a highly dubious relationship to either lesbianism or feminism.

I had a wonderful time at the conference. I went to a few workshops, notably the one with Fran Winant, Ellen Shumsky and Flavia Rando, The Radical Roots of Radical Lesbians. I had just arrived at the conference and walked in to a room filled with older Lesbians, many of whom - most of whom - I had known when we were all activists in the 70's but had not seen for decades. Just seeing all those beautiful old faces was worth the whole weekend. What a joyful reunion.

I also had the pleasure of presenting at the Lesbian Periodicals session, and again, the room was filled with old faces, as well as some amazing new ones. Su Friedrich from Heresies, Margy from Lesbian Quarterly. Fantastic. Sitting there, talking, laughing, remembering. Wonderful.

The Sunday afternoon concert with Alix Dobkin and Linda Tillery was as good as it gets: wonderful music by superstars of Lesbian music, as well as fascinating and illuminating stories from both of them. A thrilling experience.

I hope that the young scholars got a lot from the conference. It was a pleasure to meet some of them, if only briefly. I loved seeing the young faces and hope they are encouraged to delve deeply into the Lesbian Archive, in the fullest sense.

I invite scholars and activists to use and enjoy the online annotated archive I am creating for the magazine I edited in the 70's, DYKE, A Quarterly. Find it online at and leave a memory, a question or a comment.

Suzan - thank you for your perspective. I found in Feminism the language I needed to understand my life and the tools to critique and dismantle oppressive institutions. I have since left "Feminism" in no small part to it's history of trans-baiting, erasure, and the eternally popular "questioning transgender politics".

It's good to have a first-hand observation and perspective.

Paige Listerud | October 21, 2010 12:47 PM

There's one thing I have to ask: was there any discussion of the shunning and exclusion of bisexual women during the heyday of lesbian-feminism. If not, this conference missed an essential part of its history and once again bisexual erasure has taken place.

Bisexual women were a part of lesbian feminism and some of them contributed to their own erasure. JIll Johnston, who wrote Lesbian Nation, castigated bisexual women and yet she herself had affairs with men after she came out as lesbian.

What is the point of bringing this up now, in an era when lesbians and bisexual women, at least at an activist level, acknowledge each other as allies. On a personal level, I will never forget the wounding I received from lesbian women in the name of political correctness. To this day, at least in my city, on a personal level, lesbian women will still treat me with distrust, disdain and totally disregard my identity.

Bisexual erasure from lesbian feminist history perpetuates the stigmatization of bisexual women in the lesbian community. Continued silence from bisexual feminist women will not bring about change in this area.