“The supersensitivity of the [Women’s Liberation] movement to the lesbian issue, and the existence of a few militant lesbians within the movement, once prompted [NOW founder Betty] Friedan herself to grouse about ‘the lavender menace’ that was threatening to warp the image of women’s rights.”
— Susan Brownmiller, New York Times, March 15, 1970 (quoted in In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution)
“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. …
“It should first be understood that lesbianism … is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. … In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.”
— Artemis March, et al., “The Woman Identified Woman,” May 1970
No one can honestly discuss feminism without addressing the enduring question, “Which feminism are you talking about?” From its inception as the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s, modern feminism has been fractured by schisms that its would-be mainstream leaders have sought to conceal from the larger public.
Many women who today identify themselves as feminists have never examined the history of these conflicts and are unfamiliar with the militant personalities and radical ideologies that have influenced feminism for the past half-century. When confronted with the extremist rhetoric of feminists — vehement denunciation of males, condemnation of heterosexuality, claims that men (collectively) oppress and victimize women (collectively) in ways comparable to the Holocaust — the average woman is understandably startled and, if she thinks of herself as a feminist, she quickly shifts into denial mode. The anti-male passage you’ve just quoted to her is an aberration, an anomaly, an expression of fringe beliefs that does not represent the feminism that she endorses. Sheis not a Marxist, she is not a lesbian or a man-hater, she is not the kind of pro-abortion fanatic who views motherhood as male-imposed tyranny. The question thus arises: Is she actually a feminist?
Any honest person who undertakes an in-depth study of modern feminism, from its inception inside the 1960s New Left to its institutionalization within Women’s Studies departments at universities, will understand that without the influence of radicals — militant haters of capitalism and Christianity, angry lesbians who view all males as a sort of malignant disease, deranged women who can’t distinguish between political grievances and their own mental illnesses — there probably never would have been a feminist movement at all. Yet no matter how many examples of radical feminism we may cite, or how crucial the connection between ideological extremism and the rhetoric of “mainstream” feminists, many women (and men) will continue to insist that the evidence offered is irrelevant to the kind of feminism they endorse and advocate.
Unthinking acceptance of simple slogans, a superficial discourse built around glittering generalities — “equality,” “choice,” etc. — is not an ideology, nor could this bland kind of feminism ever have been enough to inspire an enduring political movement. Even while they ignore the chasm between radical theory and their own feminism, however, women seem surprised to find that real life contradicts even the least controversial understanding of “sexual equality”:
I have always found it hard and confusing to be both a feminist and happily married. Why? Because in a good marriage, where both parties are equally happy, no one is keeping score. Feminists emphasize equality of roles, but in a real life marriage, this isn’t always realistic.
If women make equality the measure of their happiness, they are hopelessly doomed to misery in real life, if their ambitions include men, marriage and motherhood. Somewhere, there may be a perfect Feminist Man acceptable to the egalitarian ideal, but feminists generally mock that possibility. “Not My Nigel” is feminist shorthand for the claims of women that their man — their boyfriend, their husband, their son — does not engage in the sexist oppression that feminist rhetoric attributes to the male-dominated system of patriarchy. Feminists scorn the idea that any man can be an exception to their general condemnation of men, so that the acronym NAMALT (“Not All Men Are Like That”) is deployed to ridicule any woman who takes offense at feminist claims about the ubiquitous villainy of males.
Even if a woman is certain that she herself is not being victimized by her husband, even if she refuses to accept the claim that all men are violent oppressors complicit in “rape culture,” however, she will find that the routine conflicts and misfortunes of her everyday life are characterized by feminists as proof of women’s universal victimhood. If she heeds the voices of feminism, she will mentally magnify her problems into evidence of a pervasive pattern, and view the men in her life — her husband, her father, her male co-workers — as participants in, and beneficiaries of, the system of “male supremacy” denounced in the 1970 manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman”:
Lesbian is a label invented by the Man to throw at any woman who dares to be his equal, who dares to challenge his prerogatives . . . who dares to assert the primacy of her own needs. To have the label applied to people active in women’s liberation is just the most recent instance of a long history. . . For in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman — she must be a dyke. That in itself should tell us where women are at. It says as clearly as can be said: women and person are contradictory terms. For a lesbian is not considered a “real woman.” . . . [W]hen you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realize that the essence of being a “woman” is to get fucked by men.
Is this brief excerpt taken out of context? Read the whole thing and see for yourself if the “context” attenuates the meaning. Nor can this manifesto be dismissed as an obscure fringe document irrelevant to feminist history. It was published less than two months after Susan Brownmiller’s important New York Times article about the nascent Women’s Liberation movement had mentioned the effort of Betty Friedan to prevent “the lesbian issue” from “warp[ing] the image” of feminism. Brownmiller herself dismissed Friedan’s fears, playing on the phrase “red herring” to mock the “Lavender Menace” as a “lavender herring,” only to see that clever jest thrown back in her face by the collective that published its manifesto as “Radicalesbians.”
“Well,” replies the defender of “mainstream” feminism, “those lesbians were just a bunch of extremist kooks nobody ever heard of.”
Except they weren’t, and their kooky extremism did not hinder their influence. The “Radicalesbians” collective included Rita Mae Brown, a former staffer at Friedan’s National Organization for Women. In January 1970, Brown and another lesbian NOW staffer, Michela Griffo, resigned and joined forces with Ellen Shumsky and Artemis March (neé March Hoffman) to form a lesbian faction within the male-dominated Gay Liberation Front. In a series of meetings in Brown’s apartment, they formed a conspiracy to stage a disruptive protest as the Second Congress to Unite Women in May 1970. “The Woman-Identified Woman” was a statement largely written by March on behalf of the collective, and no one can say that either the manifesto or its authors were “fringe” obscurities.Artemis March, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and was awarded a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, without ever repudiating her militant anti-male ideology (here’s an example from 2010). Rita Mae Brown became a best-selling author whose 1973 lesbian novel The Rubyfruit Jungle is often featured in high school reading lists (e.g., Belmont High School in Massachusetts). Ellen Shumsky became a psychotherapist; her 2009 book, Portrait of a Decade 1968-1978, featured an introduction by lesbian historian Flavia Rando. Michela Griffo became an artist and was recently a featured Gay Pride Month speaker in Boston.
The authors of “The Woman-Identified Woman” were not as famous as celebrity feminists like Gloria Steinem, but even if they were completely unknown, their radical manifesto would continue to be influential, because it is routinely included in the curricula of Women’s Studies courses across the United States: Michigan State University, the University of Oregon, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Minnesota, to name a few. It is not difficult to trace the influence of this early radicalism down to the present day, or to cite similarly influential treatises – e.g., “Lesbians in Revolt” by Charlotte Bunch (1972) and“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” by Adrienne Rich(1980) — commonly included in the syllabi of Women’s Studies programs. Any attempt to separate this kind of explicitly anti-male/anti-heterosexual ideology from “mainstream” feminism would require us to argue that the most eminent academics in the field of Women’s Studies (including the lesbian editors of the widely used textbook Feminist Frontiers) are not “mainstream.”
Once we go beyond simplistic sloganeering about “equality” and “choice” to examine feminism as political philosophy — the theoretical understanding to which Ph.D.s devote their academic careers — we discover a worldview in which men and women are assumed to be implacable antagonists, where males are oppressors and women are their victims, and where heterosexuality is specifically condemned as the means by which this male-dominated system operates.