I study lesbians.

When I first entered grad school I saw myself studying women of the Progressive Era. Suffragists/ettes especially. My advisor encouraged me down another path and these days I’m almost always glad she did. My abbreviated answer to the obligatory “what do you work on?” is, “I study lesbians” (read: professional lesbian). The proper answer is, I study lesbian feminism as a distinct social movement from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, examining California case studies and their relationship to the national grassroots network of lesbian separatist politics and culture.

For the foreseeable future, as I transition from dissertation to manuscript, this will continue to be my primary focus. I am, though, beginning to explore what will come next. With time I hope to share findings of my foray into the wider history of queer (transgressive? non-traditional? deviant?) womanhood. The spinster or single lady is a subject of much pop culture fascination these days but almost always she is examined through incredibly heteronormative frameworks. Yet what is more transgressive of normative gender roles than women who reject traditional marriage/home/family? As we consider the unique political potential of these women in contemporary society, we need to understand their pasts and ask better questions of their lives.

But for now,  I share a few pages from the dissertation that provide you entry into the historical world in which I currently spend most my time. I look forward to sharing more with you.


Excerpt from “‘That Women Could Matter’: Building Lesbian Feminism in California, 1955-1982,” pages 2-7.

During the height of lesbian feminism, roughly from 1969 to 1982, women found myriad ways to build community, advance politics, and create culture. I focus on those women who chose to organize within separatist lesbian-identified collectives but who continued to see their goals as tightly bound with the women’s movement.[1] As lesbian feminist ideology began to spread through local communities it manifested in sundry ways. The groups that built it into a distinct movement sought to support women in need, mobilize political activists, and celebrate women’s lives through the creation of issues organizations, women’s centers, housing collectives, health clinics, bookstores, cafes, credit unions, presses, record labels, and more. Women from around the country joined them in this work. At the same time that San Francisco GWL [Gay Women’s Liberation] began penning manifestos on the meaning of lesbianism, New York women embarked upon the same journey. Soon lesbians in Iowa City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and others were similarly engaged in this activity too. Together, these activists redefined lesbianism and through it the capacity of women’s (sexual) relationships to sit at the center of revolution. With time they created a national lesbian feminist network that operated independently of the women’s movement while still asserting the legitimacy of their feminist belonging.

In this project I explore the stories of lesbian feminist collectives that typify three distinct phases of the movement. In the first, from 1969-1973, lesbians claimed the authority to define their sexuality on their own terms and the right to organize around the dual nature of their oppression. GWL awoke this spirit in the Bay Area through an intersectional collaboration. Its founding moments were a first in the United States. By 1973 well-formed local communities understood lesbian feminism as something that united women around the country. Personal networks, grassroots periodicals, and movement conferences created a national network that linked local sites of activity. The growth of lesbian feminism empowered activists to see themselves as a distinct force with great potential. At the same time, this growth exposed the countless, often conflicting, interests at play in the young movement. From 1973 to 1977 lesbians pursued “project activism” that allowed them to enact their politics in ways most meaningful to them and their communities while accommodating the movement’s disparate ambitions. Collectively, this activism composed the growth of Lesbian Nation, a world of woman-identified institutions intended to bring about revolutionary societal change. While visions of such change varied, it commonly included the desire to see a world free from systems of gender and sexuality that restricted the ways women could live their lives. Women’s bookstores well reflected this period in the Bay Area. Towards the end of the decade a number of changes and conflicts complicated Lesbian Nation. In this third phase, beginning in 1977 and ending in 1982, lesbians increasingly found themselves questioning feminist futures. They strove to cope with a changing political and economic landscape, internal conflicts, and debates over long term structures of the women’s movement. Olivia Records, which relocated to the Bay Area at the start of this period, found itself at the center of these debates. These disputes revealed the successes and limitations of lesbian feminisms first decade of activity.

This is a study of lesbian feminism as a social movement – a local story situated in national context. The lesbian feminism of the San Francisco Bay Area was a product of its environment and I detail here institutions that were critical in developing the movement locally. And yet as the pioneering site of lesbian feminist activism, San Francisco played a unique role in growing and supporting the movement nationally, too. The women of this study also demonstrate the paucity of information on west coast feminisms in general. While we speak so frequently about the coastal biases within the histories of gender and sexuality, this study demonstrates how much work remains to be done in excavating the feminist narratives of California women. Looking to California disrupts the singular origin story of lesbian feminism emerging in New York.[2] Adding western voices to our understandings of this movement cannot help but alter its meaning. As such, I use this local study to propose a new framework that sees lesbian feminism as a distinct, national social movement. I began by asking, what would a social movement history look like with lesbians placed at the center? In histories of the gay rights movement and the women’s movement lesbians largely function as afterthought or foil. While lesbian voices are beginning to appear with greater frequency in the histories of gender and sexuality, lesbian feminism remains largely unstudied.[3] I enter into this conversation to question these silences. Through the voices of California lesbians I hear tell of a social movement that sought to radically transform all women’s lives and through them society as a whole.

Lesbian feminism had radical consequences that extended well beyond revolutionizing the lives of its most active participants. In the movement’s earliest years the simple act of speaking publically about lesbianism was a bold act. By celebrating lesbianism and speaking openly about women-centered sexuality, these activists exposed a generation of women to the idea that they had the option of sexual fulfillment without men. Yet the movement was scarcely about sex alone. More than anything, lesbian feminists hoped to demonstrate that revolutionary change was possible when women put one another first. They worked to eradicate an oppressive, hierarchical society by destroying patriarchy, which they believed was the root of all inequality. The most effective way to do so was by separating from men. Patriarchy would crumble without the myriad ways women’s labor served as its primary crutch. Once it fell, the new women-centered world that lesbian feminists were creating would serve as model for a new egalitarian society. By living among women, by redefining the meaning of womanhood, and by building institutions entirely on their own, lesbian feminists hoped to demonstrate that a different future was possible and to create the structures from which it would grow.

As much as this is a story of lesbian feminism it is also one of lesbians working alongside their straight sisters to support the broader women’s movement. The lesbians of this study saw their politics as distinct from that of straight women and opted to work in separatist collectives. Separatism did not mean disengaging from the women’s community, however. To the degree that they shared the same visions for a liberated future, they saw themselves as part of a shared venture. Rather than their separatism being isolationist, the activism of most lesbian feminist collectives, and the women I study here, worked to create opportunities for women to come together. They did so to encourage the growth of a world of woman-identified women, their terminology for women who put one another first in all parts of their lives. The lesbian feminist vision of liberation required all women coming together. It is through such political vision that lesbian feminist labor served centrally in sustaining the women’s movement. Women’s liberation coined “the personal is political.” Lesbian feminists took this to its furthest reaches. Lesbians challenged straight women to push their politics further and interrogate their most intimate relationships. For some this was liberating. Others found it a threat to their feminist politics. Still others remained committed to excluding lesbianism from their political worldview. No matter the range of (straight) feminist positions, lesbians were active feminist participants whose presence required ongoing negotiation as to the place of sex and sexuality in the project of women’s liberation.

 

[1] There were those feminist identified lesbians who made their activism home in other movements and those who rejected their straight feminist sisters. As I conducted my research it became clear that those groups that proved particularly influential and productive were those that saw their politics as best served by situating their work as part of larger world of women’s community.

[2] Works of this nature are discussed below in the historiographical section of the introduction.

[3] New studies, some coming from history but typically from English, women’s studies, and the like, are examining specific facets lesbian feminist activity, such as women’s music or print culture. They do not, however, take up lesbian feminism as a social movement in which diverse activities where woven together both locally and nationally. See, for example: Julie Enzser, A Fine Bind: Lesbian-Feminist Publishing from 1969-2009 (unpublished manuscript, in progress); Kristen Hogan, The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

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