Rethinking Lesbian Separatism as a Vibrant Political Theory and Feminist Practice

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Julie Enszer, University of Maryland at College Park
For the past four decades, lesbian separatism has been a vibrant political theory and feminist practice. While much contemporary historiography situates lesbian separatism as a destructive force in feminism and in the Women’s Movement, lesbian separatism was and remains a productive ideology for lesbian and feminist organizing.

What is lesbian separatism? During the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian separatism had multiple meanings and practices. Radicalesbians defined separatism in 1970 as “the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other”; for the Radicalesbians, separatism was “the basis for the cultural revolution.” Similarly, Revolutionary Lesbians defined separatism as “working directly only with women” and dedicating “all our energy and time” to women to “further our liberation.” The Furies, in their first issue of their newspaper, identified lesbianism as a necessary choice for feminists and called lesbians to develop a “common politic.”

Beyond the initial political articulation of separatism, lesbians enacted a variety of experimentations with separatism. These experimentations included feminist living and working collectives like The Furiesoff our backs, and Sinister Wisdom, where social, political, and intimate relationships collided with potent effects, as well as commercial ventures.

Three lesbian separatist experimentations, Olivia Records, the music production company; Women in Distribution, a feminist print distribution company; and Diaspora Distribution, a lesbian-feminist distribution company that operated from 1980 through 1985, prioritize economic empowerment as a crucial component of lesbian separatism. Lesbian separatists linked the erotic and the economic to generate powerful feminist institutions that transformed what women imagined for their own lives. Re-examining lesbian separatism outside the convention frame of dogmatic political theory and within a frame of economic empowerment and intimate and erotic expression sheds new light on the positive influences of lesbian separatism today.

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