There’s the Gay Rights Movement, there’s Stonewall and there’s Elton John’s wedding…
And there’s the Women’s Liberation Movement, suffrage and equality for women in the workplace…
You always hear about these events and movements. But what about lesbians? Where do gay women fit into this dynamic of liberation movements and visibility in America in the 1960s and 1970s?
Lesbians had a minor role in the male-dominated Gay Rights Movement during this period and so they had to find their voice within the Women’s Liberation Movement. The ‘gay’ in Gay Rights Movement was identified with the homosexual male and further, the movement failed to address the patriarchal attitudes embedded in the movement itself. Lesbians found themselves faced with the same assumptions about coffee-making and secretarial duties as their heterosexual sisters did elsewhere.
Similarly, the Women’s Liberation Movement, led by the likes of Betty Friedan, leader of the National Organisation for Women, excluded lesbians from the movement. Heterosexuality was a requirement in order to participate fully within society, particularly within the movement where the main issues were “birth control, bad fucks and abortions” – clearly issues only relevant to heterosexual women. Hence, the daily experience of a lesbian was one of subordination within a system that privileges heterosexuality.
Betty Friedan feared that the credibility of the movement was at risk due to the presence of lesbians in their ranks, labelling them as ‘the Lavender Menace.’ Mainstream media had already dismissed the movement as “a bunch of bra-burning lesbians,” and so Betty Friedan and the National Organisation for Women were openly hostile towards lesbians, disassociating the movement completely from lesbianism through exclusive policies and purges within the ranks of the organisation. Influential lesbian activist and author, Rita Mae Brown, stated that “lesbianism is the one word which gives the New York NOW Executive Committee a collective heart attack.”
Further, Lesbians were placed within an unnatural category of the ‘third sex.’ This ‘third sex’ was associated as a gross abnormality which violated female anatomy, heterosexual desire and gender behaviour by associating masculine features upon the female body. In this sense, lesbians were not considered ‘real women,’ and stood outside the category of ‘woman’ in a physical, sexual, personal and political sense. Lesbians had to find an effective way to address the accusation that their masculinity was somehow complicit with men and the patriarchy, and that lesbian influence would not in fact dismantle strict heterosexual categories as it was widely believed. Heterosexual feminists excluded lesbians from the feminist movement in the 1960s based on this discomfort towards their sexuality.
Despite this discrimination and exclusion from the movement, lesbians attempted to find a place within the movement in order to have their voices heard. The movement was essential for lesbians who lived without the support of a male partner, so they desperately needed women’s rights in order to overcome their oppression and live independently and equally. The Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970 was a turning point for lesbians in their attempts to have their voices heard. The newly formed lesbian activist group, the Lavender Menaces infiltrated the congress to initiate discussion and educate feminists on the importance of lesbianism in the movement and the political obstacles they faced due to their oppression. They sought to unite the movement against internal prejudices. The Lavender Menaces attempted to find common ground within feminism for all women by creating the label ‘the Woman-Identified Woman,’ which enabled heterosexuals to feel comfortable relating to their lesbian sisters through a political (as opposed to sexual) identification. Hence, lesbian feminists downplayed their sexuality because the understanding of lesbianism conjured up images of perversion and not political activism.
In spite of these attempts to integrate into the highly heterosexual movement, a growing number of lesbians segregated into a separatist lesbian feminist movement due to feelings of isolation. This movement provided lesbians with their own political agenda and path towards an equality of rights concerning sexuality and gender. Lesbians had not ‘given up’ or ‘left the ranks’ according to popularised media, but had made the decision to commit only to women who shared their lesbian identity. This movement aimed to transcend the culturally understood deviancy of lesbianism and reinscribe it as the pinnacle of the feminist movement.
These separatist groups, such as the Radicalesbians and the Furies Collective, redefined feminism in more radical terms, segregating not only from male influence, but also from heterosexual feminism. Lesbians redefined themselves as the true bearers of feminism as they were not involved with men on any emotional or physical level. This was contrasted to heterosexuality which was reconceptualised as consorting with the ‘enemy.’ Rita Mae Brown stated that “You can’t build a strong movement if your sisters are out there fucking the oppressor.” Hence, heterosexuality was labelled as the primary underpinning of male supremacy and perpetuated the straight woman’s social, economic, emotional and sexual dependence on men.
Overall, the lesbian feminist domination of the Women’s Liberation Movement occurred due to their consistency between theory and practise. The voices of Betty Friedan and her followers in the National Organisation for Women were diminished as a result.
 written by Sharon Deevey, a Furies Collective member, in her article “Such a Nice Girl…” – Furies Collective Newspaper, January 1972, Vol 1, Issue 1, (Retrieved from: Historical Society of Washington’s Kiplinger Library), p.2