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Separatist feminism is a form of radical feminism that holds that opposition to patriarchy is best done through focusing exclusively on women and girls. Some separatist feminists believe that men cannot make positive contributions to the feminist movement and that even well-intentioned men replicate the dynamics of patriarchy.
Author Marilyn Frye describes separatist feminism as "separation of various sorts or modes from men and from institutions, relationships, roles and activities that are male-defined, male-dominated, and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege – this separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women".
In a tract on socialist feminism published in 1972, the Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union differentiated between separatism as an "ideological position" and as a "tactical position". In the same document, they further distinguished between separatism as "personal practice" and as "political position".
Heterosexual separatist feminism
One of the earliest, and best known examples of heterosexual separatist feminism was Cell 16. Founded in 1968 by Roxanne Dunbar, Cell 16 has been cited as the first organization to advance the concept of separatist feminism. Cultural historian Alice Echols cites Cell 16 as an example of feminist heterosexual separatism, as the group never advocated lesbianism as a political strategy, instead promoting the idea of celibacy or periods of celibacy in heterosexual relationships.
In No More Fun and Games, the organization's radical feminist periodical, Cell Members Roxanne Dunbar and Lisa Leghorn advised women to "separate from men who are not consciously working for female liberation", but advised periods of celibacy, rather than lesbian relationships, which they considered to be "nothing more than a personal solution".
Lesbian separatism is a form of separatist feminism specific to lesbians. Separatism has been considered by lesbians as both a temporary strategy, and as a lifelong practice but mostly the latter.
Lesbian separatism became popular in the 1970s as some lesbians doubted whether mainstream society or even the LGBT movement had anything to offer them.
Lesbian separatism in the USA
In 1970, seven women (including lesbian activist Del Martin) confronted the North Conference of Homophile Organizations about the relevance of the gay rights movement to the women within it. The delegates passed a resolution in favor of women's liberation, but Del Martin felt they had not done enough, and wrote "If That's All There Is", an influential 1970 essay in which she decried gay rights organizations as sexist. In the summer of 1971, a lesbian group calling themselves "The Furies" formed a commune open to lesbians only, where they put out a monthly newspaper called The Furies. "The Furies" consisted of twelve women, aged eighteen to twenty-eight, all feminists, all lesbians, all white, with three children among them. They shared chores and clothes, lived together, held some of their money in common, and slept on mattresses on a common floor. They also started a school to teach women auto and home repair so they would not be dependent on men. The newspaper lasted from January 1972 to June 1973; the commune itself ended in 1972.
Charlotte Bunch, an early member of The Furies, viewed separatist feminism as a strategy, a "first step" period, or temporary withdrawal from mainstream activism to accomplish specific goals or enhance personal growth. Other lesbians, such as Lambda Award winning author Elana Dykewomon, have chosen separatism as a lifelong practice.
In addition to advocating withdrawal from working, personal or casual relationships with men, The Furies recommended that Lesbian Separatists relate "only (with) women who cut their ties to male privilege" and suggest that "as long as women still benefit from heterosexuality, receive its privileges and security, they will at some point have to betray their sisters, especially Lesbian sisters who do not receive those benefits".
This was part of a larger idea that Bunch articulated in Learning from Lesbian Separatism (1976), that "in a male-supremacist society, heterosexuality is a political institution" and the practice of separatism is a way to escape its domination.
In lesbian feminist Marilyn Frye's (1978) essay Notes on Separatism and Power she posits female separatism as a strategy practiced by all women, at some point, and present in many feminist projects (one might cite women's refuges, electoral quotas or Women's Studies programmes). She argues that it is only when women practice it, self-consciously as separation from men, that it is treated with controversy (or as she suggests hysteria). Male separatism on the other hand (one might cite gentleman's clubs, labor unions, sports teams, the military and, more arguably, decision-making positions in general) is seen as quite a normal, even expedient phenomenon.
In her 1988 book, Lesbian Ethics: Towards a New Value, lesbian philosopher Sarah Lucia Hoagland alludes to lesbian separatism's potential to encourage lesbians to develop healthy community ethics based on shared values. Hoagland articulates a distinction (originally noted by lesbian separatist author and anthologist, Julia Penelope) between a lesbian subculture and a lesbian community; membership in the subculture being "defined in negative terms by an external, hostile culture", and membership in the community being based on "the values we believe we can enact here".
Bette Tallen believes that lesbian separatism, unlike some other separatist movements, is "not about the establishment of an independent state, it is about the development of an autonomous self-identity and the creation of a strong solid lesbian community".
Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman describes the separatist impulses of lesbian feminism which created culture and cultural artifacts as "giving love between women greater visibility" in broader culture. Faderman also believes that lesbian feminists who acted to create separatist institutions did so to "bring their ideals about integrity, nurturing the needy, self-determination and equality of labor and rewards into all aspects of institution-building and economics".
The practice of Lesbian separatism sometimes incorporates concepts related to queer nationalism and political lesbianism. Some individuals who identify as Lesbian separatists are also associated with the practice of Dianic paganism.
The radical lesbian movement is a francophone lesbian movement roughly analogous to English-language lesbian separatism. Inspired by the writings of philosopher Monique Wittig, the movement originated in France in the early 1980s, spreading soon after to the Canadian province of Quebec.
Wittig, referencing the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, challenges concepts of biological determinism, arguing that those in power construct sex difference and race difference for the purpose of masking conflicts of interest and maintaining domination. She and her allies saw heterosociality as well as heterosexuality as aspects of hetero-power, strongly to be resisted.
Separatism was, as such, an opportunity for lesbians to diminish the impact of these constructed power differences on their lives.
In a 1982 published conversation about black feminism and lesbian activism with her sister, Beverly Smith, Barbara Smith, co-author of the Combahee River Collective Statement expresses concerns that, "to the extent that lesbians of color must struggle simultaneously against the racism of white women (as against sexism), separatism impedes the building of alliances with men of color". Smith writes that race places lesbians of color in a different relation to men as white lesbians, as "white women with class privilege don't share oppression with white men. They're in a critical and antagonistic position whereas Black women and other women of color definitely share oppressed situations with men of their race". Smith makes a distinction between the theory of separatism, and the practice of separatism, stating that it is the way separatism has been practiced which has led to "an isolated, single-issued understanding and practice of politics, which ignores the range of oppressions that women experience".
In 1983 anarchist Bob Black wrote that "Separatism may be absurd as a social program and riddled with inconsistencies (scarcely any separatists separate from patriarchal society to anything like the extent that, say, survivalists do — and nobody intervenes more to mind other people’s business than separatists). But semi-isolation makes it easier to indoctrinate neophytes and shut out adverse evidence and argument, an insight radical feminists share with Moonies, Hare Krishna, and other cultists."
Feminist Sonia Johnson, while advocating a broadly separatist policy, points out that feminist separatism risks defining itself by what it separates itself from, i.e. men.
Lesbian poet Jewelle Gomez refers to her intertwined history with black men and heterosexual women in her essay Out of the Past, and explains that "to break away from those who've been part of our survival is a leap that many women of color could never make".
Cultural critic Alice Echols describes the emergence of a lesbian separatist movement as a response to what she sees as homophobic sentiments expressed by feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women. Echols argues that "...the introduction of (homo)sex troubled many heterosexual feminists who had found in the women's movement a welcome respite from sexuality". Echols considered separatism as a lesbian strategy to untie lesbianism from sex so heterosexual women in the feminist movement felt more comfortable.
Separatism in literature and culture
An important and sustaining aspect of lesbian separatism was the building of alternative community through "creating organizations, institutions and social spaces ...women's bookstores, restaurants, publishing collectives, and softball leagues fostered a flourishing lesbian culture".
Lesbian separatism and Separatist Feminism have inspired the creation of art and culture reflective of its visions of female-centered societies, including various works of lesbian science fiction where new technologies in human reproductive strategy have created Lesbian utopias, eliminating the need to have men for human reproduction.
Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (Simon & Schuster, 1973) is a collection of essays written by Jill Johnston, that were originally printed in The Village Voice, where Johnston discusses elements of breaking off from the male-dominated institutions.
The Wanderground (Persephone Press, 1978), is a separatist utopian novel written from author Sally Miller Gearhart's personal experience in rural lesbian-separatist collectives.
In the 1970s, lesbians and feminists created a network of publications, presses, magazines, and periodicals designated "for women only" and "for lesbians only", a common sight in the 1970s through the 1990s, (see List of lesbian periodicals) including the London lesbian magazine Gossip: a journal of lesbian feminist ethics, Lesbian Feminist Circle, a lesbian only journal collectively produced in Wellington, New Zealand, the Australian periodical Sage: the separatist age Canada's Amazones d'Hier, Lesbiennes d'Aujourd'hui, produced for lesbians only in Montreal, Quebec, and the Killer Dyke a magazine by the "Flippies" (Feminist Lesbian Intergalactic Party), based in Chicago. The Furies was an American newspaper by The Furies Collective which intended to give a voice to lesbian separatism, and ran from January 1972 until mid-1973.
The early 1970s was an active period in Womyn's music, a genre mostly originated and supported by separatist feminists. Maxine Feldman's Angry Atthis, and Alix Dobkin's Lavender Jane Loves Women, were two early examples of this phenomenon.
The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, or "Michfest", was a yearly music festival taking place every summer, ending in 2015. Michfest was established in 1976 and was active supporter in the need for women to be separated at times from the "politics, institution, and culture of men. Michfest offered womyn not only the chance to ‘live’ feminism, but, as the quotes above testify, also acted as a way of educating womyn about feminist forms, in ways that can challenge the vilification of ‘radical lesbian separatism’."
The German vampire film We Are the Night explores the idea of separatist feminism. In the film, the female vampire committed a genocide against male vampire somewhere at the end of the 1800s after many of them already had been killed by humans. The female vampires agreed among each other never to turn another man into a vampire.
The Polish film Sexmission deals with a dystopian women-only society where all men have died out. Women reproduce through parthenogenesis, living in an oppressive feminist society, where apparatchiks teach that women suffered under males until males were removed from the world.
Separatist feminism provided lesbians opportunities to "live their lives apart from ...mainstream society", and, in the 1970s, "significant numbers of lesbian feminists moved to rural communities. One of these lesbians, Joyce Cheney, interviewed rural separatist feminists and lesbian separatists living in intentional community, land trusts and land co-ops. The result was her book, Lesbian Land (1976). Cheney describes the reason for many of these separatists' move to Lesbian Land as a "spatial strategy of distancing ...from mainstream society".
- Equity feminism
- Gender feminism
- Lesbian utopia
- Men's liberation
- Men Going Their Own Way
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