Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence, 30 years later

What is wrong with feminism? Lately it seems like we’re getting it from all sides, including from inside. We’ve gone from “This is what a feminist looks like” to “I’m not a feminist, but…” Lesbian feminists have highlighted ‘mainstream’ feminists’ homophobia, while some heterosexual feminists have rushed to distance themselves from those “angry, hairy” lesbians. The feminist blogosphere, supposedly that great equaliser in feminist discourse, has faced repeated charges from within and without of reinforcing oppressions such as racism, classism and heteronormativity.

These are not new challenges. Feminism’s growing pains have been well-documented. Beginning in the 1970s and ’80s, heterosexual, middle-class, cis, white Western women feminists have been repeatedly called up on centring their own issues and forced to recognise that their needs just might not necessarily be the needs of say, a Black woman, a lesbian woman, a trans woman, a Muslim woman or a disabled woman.

In 1980, Adrienne Rich wrote the essay ‘Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence’ as an answer to the rifts that were developing between women in the previous decade, as an attempt to reinforce the personal and political bonds between women. As this year is the 30th anniversary of this monumentally important, monumentally beautiful work, it seems fitting – even necessary – to return to Rich’s words to see what wisdom they may have for us today. It was not Rich’s goal to encourage women to give up on men and sleep with women, nor is it mine. Her goal was to get women – both straight and lesbian – to reorient their lives around other women in ways that were available to some lesbian communities but not necessarily to other women.

Feminism has not given most women a picture of a feminist society that could replace the one grounded in patriarchy and all of the myriad systems that combine to divide women from each other – from classism and racism, to ableism, nationalism, homophobia and transphobia

Lesbian feminism/political lesbianism has a fraught history and its relations with ‘mainstream’ and/or ‘hetero’ feminism have always been strained. In the 1970s, some revolutionary feminists, seeing the widespread violence and oppression that seemed, to some, inherent in heterosexuality, began calling on all women to be(come) lesbians. A 2009 Guardian piece described the publication in 1981 of ‘Love Your Enemy: The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism’. ‘Love Your Enemy’ was authored by a group of Leeds feminists and said that “all feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.” It goes on to say: “We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality.”

Political lesbianism came under fire, as to be expected, from feminists and non-feminists alike. Lesbian feminists experienced hostility from heterosexual feminists, who took offense at being placed on a “lower order” of feminism because of their sexuality, as well as from lesbians who feared hostility from heterosexual feminists and a subsequent rupturing of the feminist movement.

Others thought that the classification of lesbianism as a political decision was cold-blooded and did not adequately describe the real emotions and relationships of and between women. Bea Campbell argued, according to The Guardian article, that political lesbianism was founded not on the love of women but on the fear and hatred of men. And Lynne Segal said that the media pounced on ‘Love Your Enemy’ and its authors, seeing an opportunity to identify it with feminism as a whole and thus derail the whole movement.

Although there are still women who identify with political lesbianism and praise its philosophy, today most young women and feminists do not consider this kind of feminism a viable or helpful social or political tool.

Indeed, some young feminists take active steps to distance themselves from lesbian stereotypes.

I think, however, that if we strip lesbian feminism down to its core – to its advocacy of women-oriented female spaces, women-identified women, and an appreciation of the inequalities and violences that still permeate the heterosexual institution – we might find a lot of things worth keeping around. What Adrienne Rich’s work did was to strip away a lot of the misconceptions and pre-conceptions of what lesbianism was – that you had to hate men, that you had to have sex with women – and to expand the definition of lesbian to, simply, a woman who loved women. And what is a feminist if not a woman who loves women? If we want to save feminism, and I do think feminism needs saving, we’ve got to get back to that basic simple truth. Women have got to start loving women again.

Feminists have not been doing a great job of being “women-loving women”. Even the most cursory glance through current feminist discourse reveals deep ruptures in feminism. Earlier this year, Chloe Angyal wrote an article in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section entitled ‘I’m not a Feminist….but’, in which she describes, and criticises, the fear of the ‘F-word’ that has afflicted so many modern women. Women are busting balls and busting down doors, they believe in women’s rights and equal pay, they condemn violence against women – but they are unlikely to claim the identity “feminist”.

Why is this? “In the popular imagination,” Angyal says, “feminists are still the ugly, angry extremists who killed chivalry and who seek not gender equality, but world domination.” Who would want others to think of them this way? Not I. Secondly, “Feminism demands a complete overhaul of how we think, how we behave, how we talk, where we work, what media we consume, how we vote and how we raise our families. For women and for men, feminism is a dramatic shift away from the way things have always been.” In short, so many women aren’t “feminists” because they don’t identify with popular conceptions of what a “feminist” is and because identifying as a feminist means dismantling everything they know.

How women should organise their emotions? Where – and to whom – do their loyalties lie? How should the family be organised?

I agree with Angyal. But I can’t really blame women who don’t identify as feminists. Women don’t turn away from feminism because they don’t identify with other “feminists” or because they’re afraid to make a splash; women turn away from feminism because the feminist movement, as yet, has not given most of them an alternative vision, a picture of a feminist society, a support network that could replace the one grounded in patriarchy and all of the myriad systems that combine to support patriarchy and divide women from each other – from classism and racism, to ableism, nationalism, homophobia and transphobia. Women do not have enough to identify with, or to turn towards, after they make, as Angyal says, the “dramatic shift away from the way things have always been”. They aren’t women-identified, they don’t have women-oriented spaces, and they still rely on heterosexual institutions to give them the love and fulfillment they need.

Wait, you might say: of course the feminist movement provides a woman-oriented support system. Well, read Renee Martin’s response to Angyal and you might change your mind. Martin explains that one of the reasons women eschew the term feminist is its history of white privilege. “I’m not a feminist”, she says, “because my life experiences led me to believe that feminism was not created for women like me.” That is, women of colour. Instead she chooses to identify with womanism, a term coined by Alice Walker as an alternative to feminism, on the basis feminism does not encompass black woman’s experiences (back in 1983, these are not new debates). Womanism values and recognises black woman’s experiences and relationships with one another, their relationships with black men, and, says Martin, comes from a place of self-love. According to Martin, when it comes to feminism, “sisterhood and camaraderie lasts only as long as you don’t insist on interrogating oppression from multiple sites” – in other words, as long as you don’t bring up issues such as race and class.

Okay, okay. But what, you might say, does any of this have to do with lesbianism? Well it does. Because what we’re really talking about – whether it’s how feminism should interact with race, with class, or with different sexual identities – is how feminism should be lived. And when you talk about how feminism should be lived, what you’re really talking about is how women should live with other women. What should the bonds between women look like? How women should organise their emotions? Where – and to whom – do their loyalties lie? How should the family be organised? What should they base their choices on? It’s not enough that we, as Angyal suggests, shift away from patriarchy – and other oppressions such as classism, and racism. We must shift towards something else entirely. It is in this respect that Adrienne Rich offers us a vision of feminist society in her concept of the “lesbian continuum”. Heterosexual and bisexual readers, before you say: “Well I’m not a lesbian, this doesn’t apply to me”… read on.

Rich’s conceived of the “lesbian continuum” as a “political affiliation that can re-establish those lost same-sex loyalties by uniting women – heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian – in a mutual, woman-focused vision”. She wanted to do away with “male-identification” – or the casting of allegiances with men – and patriarchy – in such a way that men become the primary signifier of meaning, value and possibility culturally, socially, intellectually and politically. She quotes Kathleen Barry as describing male-identification as “the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves in credibility, status and importance in most situations, regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation…interaction with women is seen as a lesser form of relating on every level.”

Right off the top of my head I can think of dozens of examples of male-identification that many women – and I include myself – do every day. There’s the need to be beautiful, sexy or desirable to a man to feel beautiful, sexy or desirable at all. There’s the valuing of romantic relationships over female friendships. Or the notion that you should make decisions about where to live, what job to take, when or if to have kids and how to raise them based solely on your spouse, instead of on your mother, your sister, your best friend. Or the drive to enter the male-world instead of transforming it, to achieve male-defined success instead of changing the definition of what a successful life is – for example, by rising up the corporate ladder by working 80-hour weeks, instead of changing the nature of paid work itself to be more family-life-woman friendly.

That being said, how can you expect straight women to act or to think any differently when so much of social, political and emotional life is organised around heterosexual institutions, including the nuclear family – to the detriment of other, enriching forms of social interaction.

Consider this: between 1985 and 2004 US citizens reported a marked decline in the number of people with whom they discussed important, intimate matters and fewer close relationships with co-workers, extended family members, friends and neighbors. The only person with whom more people reported a tendency to discuss intimate matters was their spouse. Two-thirds of British married people would turn to a spouse first when they needed emotional help. Only 13% would turn to a relative or friend first. Stephanie Coontz reports that the number of people who depended totally on their spouse for conversations about intimate, important matters – i.e. who had no other close, regular emotional ties – doubled from 5% to 9.4%. The number of people who reported that they didn’t have anyone to talk to – even their spouse – tripled. The number of US people socialising outside of work has declined by 25% since 1965.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. According to Coontz, even up to the Victorian era “men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate…and upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.” It was the influence of Freudianism that caused society to begin to suspect, and discourage, powerful same-sex friendships. The cult of marriage that developed in the post-WWII era – the notion that all fulfillment, friendship and intimacy could come through the nuclear family – didn’t help matters much. Now Coontz says, as people “lose wider face-to-face ties that built social trust, they become more dependent on romantic relationships for intimacy and deep communication, and more vulnerable to isolation if a relationship breaks down”.

The result of this is a real lack of places from which women can mobilise, politically and personally, against patriarchy. Using the Greek definition of the erotic as the “personification of love”, Audre Lorde argues that the erotic connects all women as women. It is patriarchy and heteronormativity, racism and classism that cuts these ties. In 2007, I produced a paper that studied the correlation between feminist identifications and social capital. I found that there was a strong link between having a strong social network of women – mothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, co-workers, friends – and identifying as a feminist. I was struck by how lonely the women who did not identify as a feminist were. They had far fewer regular contact with other women, who could act as role models or provide emotional support.

It seems necessary to me that we re-examine, as women, feminists or womanists, where our loyalties lie and how we organise our emotional life

Patriarchy has never operated alone. It has always used other oppressions such as racism and classism to subjugate women; one of the ways it has done so is to divide women from one another. Patriarchy throws divides up to distract women from its own operations and from the role it plays in creating those race/class divides. This is not to say that those divides aren’t real; rather, that they are constructed, that they have – in the most basic sense of the word – a his-story. We need to reorient our lives around women. As Rich says, woman identification is “a source of energy, a potential spring board of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality – the denial of reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimilation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other.”

So where do we go from here? In sum, it seems necessary to me that we re-examine, as women, feminists or womanists, where our loyalties lie and how we organise our emotional life. We need to develop and maintain ties with other women. We need to develop our cognitive connections with other women, including women who do not share our beliefs or experiences, or who come from a different race, class, sexuality, nation, religion, or ethnicity.

If we sequester exclusively ourselves within our race, class, religion, sexual identity – or any of the other identities that keep women from one another – then we doom ourselves to continually re-enact the sad, violent histories that created these identities. Lorde says that “the considered phrase ‘it feels right to me’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic” for “the erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” In other words, self-love yields self-knowledge, and self-knowledge yields love for others. My self-knowledge, my self-love, and my love for other women, as women, tells me that there is more that unites us than divides us. It just feels right to me.

‘Rainbow flag’ photo from the No on 8 rally at Boston City Hall, November 15, 2008, taken by Flickr user qwrrty. Picture of Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich (1980) taken by Flickr user K. Kendall. Picture from Greenham Common from Flickr user Your Greenham.