The Female World of Love and New Possibilities: Same-Sex Intimacies and the Reimagination of 1970s American Public Life

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:20 PM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
David Palmer, New York University
The specter of gender oppression saturated lesbian and radical feminist writing in the early 1970s. Whether the topic involved gender roles, sexual violence, or unequal pay, daily life for women appeared as an iron cage wrought by the excesses of male power. Yet, embedded within the grim environs of the everyday lay hope for a better tomorrow. That hope came in the form of imagined worlds free from male influence where women would unite in support and in love of one another.

This paper explores the various uses of same-sex intimacy as a feminist trope from 1970 to 1973. Focusing on the lesbian feminist monthly Lesbian Tide and radical feminist newspaper Everywoman, it finds that writers used discussions of same-sex intimacy—both erotic and platonic—to promote empathy among readers and to help them realize that the life that they led was not necessarily their choosing. Equally important, affirming discussions about same-sex intimacy positioned women as political agents. With men deemed untrustworthy, readers were goaded to draw inspiration from one another, transcend their expected places in society, and fight for their own liberation and eventually the liberation of all marginalized people.

This female world of love and new possibilities, as I call it, was central to lesbian and radical feminism. Yet, it was partly a fiction. Beneath the anti-male sentiments and separatist diatribes that animated calls for female same-sex intimacy was an underling commitment to promote the virtues of democratic pluralism under which such labels as “woman” and “man” were unnecessary. Far from being removed from the political mainstream, as scholars have suggested, lesbian and radical feminist writing elevated questions of love, happiness, belonging, and other cultural states to the center of political discourse at a moment when a nascent neoliberal consensus threatened to render them obsolete.