I want to tell you about my friend Jane. She is a working class cockney from the East End of London. She had 5 kids. I met Jane, in the early 1990s, at a university lesbian group, when she was in her late 40s. After years of her husband raping her every night and physically abusing her, she escaped to a women’s refuge. The refuge was run by radical lesbian feminists and, slowly, over time, her consciousness was raised and she realised there was an alternative to daily abuse from a man. She’d never considered the possibility that she could choose to be a lesbian. In the refuge, she chatted with radical lesbian feminists and developed a feminist understanding of her life. She came out, she went to university to get a career-based degree. She is a political activist and in a long-term relationship with a woman. She never looked back.
This is a sister companion to my entry on July 22 about political lesbianism. The blog post described the theory of compulsory heterosexuality and why it is relevant to radical feminists today (https://sisterhoodispowerful.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/lesbian-feminism-or-political-lesbianism-in-2012/). This blog makes the links between theory, activism and our personal lives.
In her recent speech at Reboot (US radical feminist 2012 conference) Lierre Keith talked about the importance of activism for radical feminists. She said that some separation is important in order to form a “cultural resistance”. “Cultural resistance” is about having a loyalty to “our own kind”, it offers a permanent support structure from which to launch our struggle. It’s about dismantling systems, she said, “brick by brick”, using the solid foundation of that “cultural resistance” to plan, organise and resist.
During the UK 2012 radical feminist conference, sisters of the 1970s and 1980s told their stories of past feminist struggle. They said that lesbian feminism was the foundation from which long-term projects were developed. Refuges, rape crisis centres, women’s health organisations, campaign groups, direct action groups, were often set up and developed through the efforts of lesbian feminists or political lesbians, fresh out of consciousness-raising groups. Importantly, our sisters tell us that it is love for, and from, other women; friends, political allies, lovers and ex-lovers, which sustained them from political burn-out.
I can feel the magic of the 2012 radical feminist conferences from my computer screen. New women are on fire with the power of sisterhood, of finding out what it feels like to love other women, and put them first. They are hungry to channel their passion into that “cultural resistance” knowing their fights will be sustained by the new loves and connections they have made.
This year, I have met many women, face-to-face, in their 20’s and 30’s who have told me that political lesbianism has personal and political meaning for them. They have felt the fire of sisterhood and realised it does include “erotic charge”, the power and passion of women in struggle. They had previously identified as lesbian, heterosexual or bisexual. Political lesbianism makes sense to them as part of this new radical feminist resurgence. I cannot tell their stories because they are all on unique, new journeys and their stories are not mine to tell.
For every Jane, there are numerous other radical feminists, over the decades, who have chosen, or are in the process of choosing, to love other women as part of their activism. We believe every woman can be a lesbian, can find the joy of loving other women. That has hugely significant meaning if you’ve grown up believing that heterosexuality is innate and natural, as most of us have. Women who make connections between lesbianism and feminism feel passion, love for women and determination to fight oppression. It’s an understanding which isn’t moulded on heterosexual sexual norms. It’s born out of love for all women, out of turning our internalised self-hatred for women into political understanding. In a patriarchal world where women are taught to compete, fight and dislike other women, this is a powerful context.
Our 21st century resurgence is new. Revolutionary change takes time and so does creating our support structures on which we build our “cultural resistance“. We have taken baby steps with our conferences and our meet-ups. In the 1980s, there were women-only bookshops, cafes, squats, centres, collectives, and press. There were books and films which reflected our activism and mirrored our daily feminist lives. These were our support structures and they have to be rebuilt again.
It amazes me that when women, even some radical feminists, read blogs, like mine, about political lesbianism, they see restrictions, impositions, directives, feelings of superiority towards other women, in the words. In response, they must come up with third-hand tall tales about how lesbians can be “as bad as men”, with lesbian-hatred, disguised in political language, and with tangent arguments to obscure the meaning and importance of political lesbianism. It is hetero-patriarchy which systematically destroys any concept of sexual “choice” for women and the theory names this. With the naming of hetero-patriarchal control over women, comes new possibilities.
Political lesbianism offers choices, options, opens up doors which many thought were closed. We know that not all women can make this choice. Some women may take years to make it, some may never do so. All of us operate with some incongruence under patriarchal rule, practices we struggle with, contradictions which don’t quite add up to us. No one is judging other women for grappling with those difficulties. Far from judging them, many lesbian feminists spend time supporting heterosexual women when they experience betrayals and abuses from men they have trusted and loved. The support is unconditional and without pressure because it comes from a context of political love for women.
The potential freedom and liberation of political lesbianism is in the naming, not necessarily the doing. It offers a door to freedom from a cage. Political lesbianism, by itself, can be liberating for individuals but it’s also important on a political level. Herstorically, when groups of lesbian feminists worked together, they built the centre of the “cultural resistance” which radical feminists needed. In 2012, clusters of radical lesbian feminists are rebuilding our foundations again. It is wanted. It is needed.