Sex Trouble: Radical Feminism and the Long Shadow of the ‘Lavender Menace’
“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. She is 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 fu**ed 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 May 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.
“Heterosexual intercourse is the pure, formalized expression of contempt for women’s bodies.”
– Andrea Dworkin, 1989
“Fu**ing is a large part of how females are kept subordinated to males. It is a ritual enactment of that subordination which constantly reaffirms the fact of subordination and habituates both men and women to it, both in body and in imagination.”
– Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (1992)
“Male sexual violence against women and ‘normal’ heterosexual intercourse are essential to patriarchy because they establish the dominance of the penis over the vagina, and thus the power relations between the sexes. . . . Men’s sexual violence against women is the primary vehicle through which the dominance of the penis over the vagina is established.”
– Dee Graham, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives (1994)
“Male supremacy is centered on the act of sexual intercourse, justified by heterosexual practice.”
– Sheila Jeffreys, 2005
All these quotes are from authors and academics whose works are widely cited in feminist journals and included in Women’s Studies curricula. To say that these feminists are outside the “mainstream” is to invite the question of who has the authority to define feminism.
If lifelong activists and professors who have devoted their lives to feminism aren’t “mainstream,” who is? To understand this problem, consider the career of Charlotte Bunch.
In 1968, Bunch was one of the organizers of the first national Women’s Liberation conference and in 1971 — after being seduced by Rita Mae Brown — she divorced her husband and became a radical lesbian separatist, publishing “Lesbians in Revolt” in January 1972:
In our society which defines all people and institutions for the benefit of the rich, white male, the Lesbian is in revolt. In revolt because she defines herself in terms of women and rejects the male definitions of how she should feel, act, look, and live. To be a Lesbian is to love oneself, woman, in a culture that denigrates and despises women. The Lesbian rejects male sexual/political domination; she defies his world, his social organization, his ideology, and his definition of her as inferior. Lesbianism puts women first while the society declares the male supreme. Lesbianism . . . politically conscious and organized . . . is central to destroying our sexist, racist, capitalist, imperialist system. . . .
The only way oppressed people end their oppression is by seizing power: People whose rule depends on the subordination of others do not voluntarily stop oppressing others. Our subordination is the basis of male power. . . .
Lesbianism is a threat to the ideological, political, personal, and economic basis of male supremacy. The Lesbian threatens the ideology of male supremacy by destroying the lie about female inferiority, weakness, passivity, and by denying women’s ‘innate’ need for men. . . .
Our rejection of heterosexual sex challenges male domination in its most individual and common form. We offer all women something better than submission to personal oppression. We offer the beginning of the end of collective and individual male supremacy. . . .
Lesbianism is the key to liberation and only women who cut their ties to male privilege can be trusted to remain serious in the struggle against male dominance.
Is that an extremist statement? Do most feminists disagree with Charlotte Bunch? Did her radical lesbianism cause her to be ostracized, marginalized and excluded from the feminist “mainstream”?
Au contraire! Charlotte Bunch became one of the most influential feminists in the world. She is a professor and founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. She is a top advisor to the United Nations on women’s issues; she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1996; and in 1999, President Clinton bestowed on her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. Let us ask an obvious question:
Q. If Bunch’s radical ideas are rejected by “mainstream” feminists, where are the books, articles and essays by leading feminists denouncing her as an irresponsible extremist?
A. There are no such denunciations, because the feminist movement endorses Bunch’s radical anti-male ideology.
How “mainstream” is Charlotte Bunch’s radicalism? In 2010, the Young Feminist Task Force promoted an International Women’s Day symposium where Professor Bunch was not only a featured speaker, but the agenda included a “Tribute to Charlotte Bunch” that included a preview of the film documentary Passionate Politics: The Life & Work of Charlotte Bunch. Her advocacy of “rejection of heterosexual sex” as a necessary means to ending “male supremacy” is therefore not radical feminism or extreme feminism, it is simply feminism.
Nevertheless, every time feminists complain about normal women who refuse to identify themselves as feminists, it is claimed that “the negative view of feminism” as being an anti-male lesbian advocacy movement is a false stereotype rooted in ignorance. The same feminists, meanwhile, insist that one cannot oppose their radical gay agenda “unless you are part of the extremely extreme extremist right wing.” One almost wonders if these feminists have ever read any feminist literature, or even if they are capable of comprehending the logic of their own words.
More than four decades after Artemis March and her radical comrades took up the banner of the “Lavender Menace,” their rhetoric condemning “rigid sex roles and . . . male supremacy” is more influential than ever. University faculty devoted to the study of “Gender Theory” reject the categories of masculinity and femininity. What most people understand as the natural traits and normal roles of the sexes are, according to the proponents of Gender Theory, an elaborate deception into which we have been brainwashed by the anti-female, anti-gay social system called heteronormative patriarchy.
Such intellectual jargon strikes the normal person as ludicrous, yet it is taken so seriously on university campuses that no one who aspires to employment in academia would dare treat it as a joke.
The ferocity of campus feminists, most notoriously demonstrated by their destruction of Lawrence Summer’s tenure as president of Harvard University, imposes a fearful silence within the world of higher education. Unaccustomed to criticism or opposition, academic feminists are emboldened to speak in terms of hateful extremism. Seldom does anyone even notice the poisonous quality of this rhetoric, much less object to it. One of the rare critics, Professor Daphne Patai, spent a decade teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts, and exposed the problem in her 1998 book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism:
[M]uch of the zealotry we are seeing in the university (and out of it) on the issue of sexual harassment should be construed as an attack, quite specifically, not only on men but on heterosexuality itself. … [M]en are the main target and … the cessation of heterosexual expression — or even interest — seems to be the chief agenda of many feminists. … [T]he standard feminist critique … sees private heterosexual life, and heterosexual interaction in school and workplace, as a patriarchal imposition that must be resisted and transformed.
What Professor Patai recognized was that feminism’s rhetoric about sexual harassment was focused entirely on condemning male expressions of heterosexual interest in women. This was a manifestation of the complaint in Artemis Harch’s lesbian manifesto that “all women are dehumanized as sex objects” by men, and of Charlotte Bunch’s celebration of lesbianism as a rejection of “the ideology of male supremacy . . . by denying women’s ‘innate’ need for men.”
Does heterosexuality “dehumanize” women? Has the woman who thinks of her sexual interest in men as “innate” been brainwashed by “the ideology of male supremacy”? Mocking laughter would be the response of most women to such claims, and if you told them that they had to accept such beliefs in order to escape the oppressive impositions of patriarchy, normal women might think you were insane.
Yet the faculty in Women’s Studies departments are not normal women, and the concept of “sexual harassment” was popularized by a lesbian, Lin Farley, who was the first director of what became the Women’s Studies program at Cornell University.
A man who expresses romantic interest in a female has dehumanized her as a sex object, feminism tells us, and if this male expression of heterosexuality occurs in the workplace, the man is guilty of sexual harassment — he has violated her civil rights.
No such condemnation can be made of women expressing their lesbian interest in other women. In fact, any woman who objected to a lesbian’s sexual advances could be accused of homophobia — possibly violating the civil rights of her lesbian pursuer!
This attitude of hostility toward heterosexuality as male oppression of women, and the celebration of lesbianism as the feminist ideal, has become so mainstream that we scarcely notice its manifestations. Why was it, we may ask, that both the American Civil Liberties Union and Florida’s largest gay-rights organization sided with lesbian sex offender Kaitlyn Hunt when it was claimed that homophobia caused her prosecution for molesting a 14-year-old girl ? The idea of a “lesbian loophole” in sex offender laws is startling, as is the number of recent cases in which minor girls, some as young as 12, were victimized by women teachers and coaches. The tenured radicals on university Women Studies faculties have been notably silent about such criminal cases.
Traditional morality is now routinely denounced by feminists as a “social construct” of the “heteronormative patriarchy.” What has happened in the past four decades is that feminism has waged a war on human nature, and has striven (with remarkable success) to replace our normal understanding of Right and Wrong with a new system of values: Women, good; men, evil.
Thus we return to contemplate the schisms that have divided feminists since the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Women who claim to endorse only “mainstream” feminism are quick to reject as a “stereotype” the image of feminists as man-hating lesbians. Yet these “mainstream” feminists refuse to criticize or condemn the influential man-hating lesbians who rule the academic world where feminist theories are promulgated. These campus radicals are not content merely to rule their collegiate domain, however. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is now pushing to introduce “gender studies” to the high school curriculum, “creating innovative spaces for young people to engage in feminism and activism, equity, and social justice in today’s classrooms.” One of the leaders of this AAUW program is Ileana Jiminez, a lesbian English teacher from New York who is, among other things, an alumnus of elite Smith College, a founder of the New York Independent Schools LGBT Educators Group and a board member of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.
Perhaps someone should tell Ms. Jiminez that her feminism is not “mainstream.” Good luck with that. Feminism is no longer threatened by the Lavender Menace — now it is the Lavender Menace.
First published at TheOtherMcCain.com
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