Investigating the Lesbian Klan: The Rise of Cultural Feminism

Not all lesbians are members of the anti-transsexual Klan.  Nor are all lesbian feminists or even many lesbian separatists.

There is nothing inherent in the left/liberal precepts of lesbian feminism that requires the systematic bigotry that a minority within the lesbian community have deployed towards transsexual and post-transsexual women.

In spite of their claiming the label “Radical Feminists” their over all policies share little or nothing with the original “Radical Feminists” who grew out of the left and had more in common with the women of Weatherman, and the Trotskyites than they do with with those who claim that label today.  In the early 1970s to be a Radical Feminist meant that one acted radically rather than sitting around theorizing and engaging in vicious word games.

As early as 1972 there was a divergence from that form of feminism, which tended to view women’s oppression within the context of the oppressions of race and class.  This meant erasing the contributions Marx and Engels made to analyzing the origins of the family.

One of the early demands of what Red Stockings came to describe as “cultural feminism” came in the form of Robin Morgan’s Good-bye to all that… *1

Women had played a major role in every aspect of left wing movements in the US since the days of  the Abolition Movement.  They were part of the Labor Movement (Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurly Flynn) They were part of the Communist Party (Dorothy Ray Healy).  The Anarchist Movement (Emma Goldman Lucy Parsons) The Black Civil Rights Movement (Angela Davis, Elaine Brown)  The Anti-war Movement, the Environmental Movement ETC.

In “Good-bye to all that” Morgan demanded women leave movements where they had worked for years, movements they had committed their lives to working with all to join what was at the time a middle class white women’s movement.  She laid out all the crimes of the alternative hippie communities yet never much focused on the misogyny of the mainstream media or corporate America.

This actually kept me from fully committing to feminism as I was working class and saw how oppressions of class and race meant that while all women were oppressed by sexism, many women carried much heavier burdens of oppression than others.

You see I was part of the anti-war movement and the counter-culture being trashed by Morgan, a well to do, former child star.  We were trying to build a new society and dealing with sexism wasn’t the only issue.

A couple of years later Jane Alpert, an acolyte of Morgan wrote Mother Right:

Letter from the Underground:

Dear Sisters in the Weather Underground:

I am addressing this piece to you, in spite of the fact that my concern at this point is with a far broader spectrum of women than your tiny band of forgotten leftists, because it was our arguments of the past year that convinced me to publicize my conversion from the left to radical feminism. I realized after these arguments that for me to keep silence would only support the illusion that the “underground” is united around the male politics which you still espouse, and these politics and practices are too reprehensible to me as a feminist to protect them by silence. I know that seeing this letter, which you thought you would receive as a private communication, here in print will shock you and that you will regard much of its content as a breach of the tacit code of honor among political fugitives. Nevertheless, my own politics demand that I share with all women my knowledge of the sexual oppression of the left, if only to warn other sisters against the pain that has been inflicted on us. Perhaps you personally will never open up to feminism; yet the experiences I am going to relate may speak more effectively to women involved in other branches of the left, from McGovern organizers to Socialist Workers Party members. And I have some hope that the impact of a public statement may do what none of my private arguments have succeeded in doing: persuade you to leave the dying left in which you are floundering and begin to put your immense courage and unique skills to work for women-for yourselves.

This letter and Morgan’s overt support of both Jane Alpert and this position struck me and many other left wing feminists as a betrayal on the order last seen by those who named names at the HUAC and the McCarthy hearings during the Red scare of the 1950s.

But even more insidious was another part of “Mother Right” which renounced the truly radical thinking of Shulamith Firestone while furthering the separation from the Left and counter-culture that had been started by Morgan.

“Mother Right” argued against the idea of women as female people  endowed with same abilities as male people.  While earlier feminists asserted that differences were not biological but  rather the result of patriarchal conditioning “Mother Right” introduced the idea of biological essentialism, the concept that men and women were completely different and didn’t share a wide variety of overlapping traits and talents.

For centuries feminists have asserted that the essential difference between men and women does not lie in biology but rather in the roles that patriarchal societies ( men ) have required each sex to play. The motivation for this assertion is obvious: women’s biology has always been used to justify women’s oppression. As patriarchal reasoning went, since “God” or “nature” or “evolution” had made woman the bearer and nurser of the species, it logically followed that she should stay home with the children and perform as a matter of more-or-less ordained duty all the domestic chores involved in keeping and feeding a household. When women work outside the home, we have the most menial and lowest-paid tasks to perform, chiefly because any labor a woman performs outside the home is thought to be temporary and inessential to her, no matter how she herself might be inclined to regard it. Naturally, then, the first healthy impulse of feminism is to deny that simply because women have breasts and uteruses we are better suited to wash dishes, scrub floors, or change diapers. As newly roused feminists, we retorted to evidence that women might be intrinsically better suited to perform some roles than others by pointing out that men have been forcing these roles on us for at least five thousand years. After such time, conditioning and habit are so strong that they appear to be intrinsic and innate.

However, a flaw in this feminist argument has persisted: it contradicts our felt experience of the biological difference between the sexes as one of immense significance To begin with, it seems obvious that biology alone would, in primitive societies, have dictated different roles and different powers as appropriate to each sex. And biological scientists have indeed assumed, for the most part, that the physical passivity of the female mammal during intercourse and the demands of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing clearly indicate a role of women as biologically determined, and inferior. In response to this, Shulamith Firestone, with the publication of The Dialectic of Sex in 1970, articulated the definitive feminist antithesis to this idea by denouncing biology as reactionary. Agreeing that biology had necessarily been an all-powerful determinant of social roles in the past, Firestone went on to argue that the advances of technology made this tyranny potentially obsolete. Women are still enslaved to their bodies not because of biology but because the patriarchy will not permit the use of technology to interfere with men’s power over women. However, in Firestone’s view, the dialectic of history, in which the sexual relationship underlies all other power relationships, indicates that A feminist revolution is inevitable. This revolution will put technology to work to literally free women from biology, from pregnancy, childbirth, and the rest, thereby eliminating the last difference of any importance between the sexes and ultimately causing the sexual difference itself to wither away, in the course of evolution, together with all forms of oppression.

I think that Firestone is visionary in perceiving the sexual relationship as the basis of all power relationships, and in predicting that feminist revolution will therefore result in the end of all oppression. However, the evidence of feminist culture, which has accumulated largely since the publication of her epochal book, suggests that her analysis of the role of biology was deficient and that a third possibility, which is indeed a new synthesis of the previous views, may well be correct. The unique consciousness or sensibility of women, the particular attributes that set feminist art apart, and a compelling line of research now being pursued lay feminist anthropologists all point to the idea that female biology is the basis of women’s powers. Biology is hence the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution.

The root of this idea lies perhaps in buried history. It has increasingly been acknowledged that the most ancient societies worshiped a female diety or deities, and that menstruation, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and all other phenomena associated with female biology were surrounded with taboos. Furthermore, a number of these ancient societies were matrilineal: property and social identity were inherited through the mother rather than the father. Whether women had any secular power in these societies is a subject of dispute, and most archaeologists and anthropologists have felt that women didn’t have any power except over a few religious rites. But most archaeologists and anthropologists have been men, whose imaginations could not quite grasp a society in which women held real power, even a pretechnological society. (For example, the section on “Amazons” in the authoritative Oxford Classical Dictionary spends all of one sentence dismissing the notion the Amazon tribes ever existed–though these tribes were acknowledged by nearly every ancient historian who wrote about preclassical times.) Feminists in many branches of science and historical research have been reexamining the evidence for the existence of ancient gynocracies, or women-ruled societies. Among the more visionary and lyrically persuasive (if somewhat factually problematic) of these recent studies is The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis. Davis hypothesizes that patriarchal society began only after barbarian male tribes violently overthrew the ancient, peaceful, and relatively advanced gynocracies, in which women were not only worshiped but were actually temporal rulers. These ancient gynocracies may have existed throughout Asia, northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Mediterranean area and persisted as late as 2,000 B.C. in some areas, such as Crete. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Davis may be proved correct in the near future, and her thesis has been stated in a more tentative style than hers by several other highly respected scientists.

Those of us who considered ourselves radical feminists in the original sense of the term i.e. left wing Marxist-Leninist feminists felt utterly betrayed by the direction Morgan and others seemed to be moving in.

Eventually our branch of feminism became known as “Liberal Feminism”.  The branch that goes out and demonstrates for rights.  Some times in a manner that is reformist and sometimes in the case of those who fight globalization and the corporatocracy, radical.

Cultural Feminism, also referred to by some as “gender feminism” diverged from political feminism which was denounced as “reformist”. Something I always found strange given the reactionary positions masquerading as radical thought one found in in the writings of the cultural feminists.

As an atheist, I found it very difficult to get caught up in and devote much energy to the whole goddess worship movement that seemed to be an essential part of cultural feminism.  If the concept of a sky-god already seems absurd, it doesn’t much matter if that god is male or female.  Honestly I found some of the “research” on pre-historical matriarchies to be sketchy at best and requiring the same level of skepticism I used in reading Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods”

Dancing naked around a fire with a bunch of other women was edifying in terms of fun and a fuck of a lot less work that working to elect a candidate that would support the ratification of the ERA. Except, it somehow seemed less relevant to smashing the patriarchy than doing the hard work of organizing.

Yet the cultural feminists started using their essentialism to dominate the political discourse.  They did this by claiming ultimate victimhood and wearing that ultimate victimhood as a badge of honor that gave them veto power over the political feminists and lesbians.  After all it was their goddess ordained, mother right, to have the voice of authority.

This essentialism along with ultimate victimhood became a tool of personal power and dominance.  A tool for shutting down the politicals and assuring the destruction of any sort of broad based feminism that worked on a wide scope of issues.

The attacks on transsexuals starting with Beth Elliott showed the basic elements of what became cultural feminism.  Particularly the essentialist elements.

There was a popular feminist button in 1969 that read, “Biology is not Destiny”.  I remember this button because I had one and wore it.  It was a statement of liberation that said one was not limited by their biology to specified roles.  In those days we talked about the sameness of men and women, the overlapping of talents, skills etc.  How male dominance was a product of social engineering.

Incidentally Dr. Benjamin and others who pioneered the treatment for transsexualism reinforced the idea of an over lapping of the sexes rather than a sharp dividing line.  Dr. Benjamin spoke of the many criteria of sex differentiation.

The essentialism of cultural feminism on the other hand was very much into the “Women are from Venus/Men are from Mars”  dialectic.  This like any other fundamentalist line of thinking  requires that ideology trump any possible form of contradictory evidence. Even when that contradiction is a living, breathing, thinking person standing there messing with your theory.

Transsexuals mess with Cultural Feminism’s Essentialist Theory

In later posts on this subject I will go into some of the contradictions the existence of transsexuals create for the Cultural Feminists prime theory of essentialism.  Like creationists they tie themselves in knots, presenting arguments not supported by evidence.  They will resort to lies, slander and false accusations to gain support for purging not only post-transsexual women from the ranks of lesbian feminism but anyone who supports post-transsexual women.

Who can blame them.  Transsexuals are the contradiction that devastates their ideologically self contained world.

1.  I confess to a love hate relationship with Robin Morgan.  Many of the books she compiled and edited are and have been a part of my essential feminist library since the early 1970s.  On the other hand I have felt that Morgan’s claiming to be a lesbian while in a heterosexual marriage and enjoying heterosexual privilege was an insult to actual lesbians.  While other women who wrote the works featured in many of Morgan’s anthologies were being trashed as seeking stardom for the mere act of putting their names on the writings they worked to produce, Morgan was never shy about putting her name on the anthologies she produced and edited.

6 Responses to “Investigating the Lesbian Klan: The Rise of Cultural Feminism”

  1. edith Says:

    This is fascinating, especially coming on the heals of Carl Oglesby’s death. I have to say I have vivid memories of seeing Mark Rudd speak in 1969. He was wearing jack boots and had a cross armed body guard standing on either side of him. I was eighteen at the time. I sympathize with what Morgan has to say about him and those like him in Good-Bye To All That. Yuck. Jerry Rubin, the repentant stockbroker is dead but Rudd’s still kickin’ around. He says he’s seen the light, has regrets, you know? Ego freak. I don’t know. I’ve been reading about Paul Krassner the last few days. I didn’t realize what Morgan’s relationship with him was. I don’t know. There were some people I remember from back then that really did seem to have a little bit o’ soul. I hope Andrea doesn’t chide me for this but Bernadette Devlin, relatively glamor free, her father didn’t own a big power company, she wasn’t a child t v star and she didn’t go to Columbia, Swarthmore or U Chicago – what she had to say about the powerful, manipulating the working class and divide and conquer schemes still makes a lot of sense to me. I saw her speak around the same time I saw Rudd. I don’t know about Krassner. I can understand how someone like him would be unintentionally though reflexively sexist but he hasn’t seemed to have turned on any of the ideals he held in the past. For someone like me, I think it is important to understand this history. I had trouble relating most of these people to myself but I was very strongly influenced by them and very much disillusioned by the wealthy, well educated radicals, many of whom have landed on their feet in tenured teaching positions in the same universities they said were so corrupt and irrelevant. I took all of this very seriously and I have paid a dear price for it. For the average person, post transsexual or otherwise, I suppose all this late sixties/early seventies history shouldn’t matter but none of this is that simple. Actually, it would be delusional to think it doesn’t. Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Suzan Says:

      I like Mark Rudd better than either Jane “The Rat” Alpert or Robin Morgan.

      As for Paul Krassner. He is a someone I have have long liked for his willingness to poke a very sharp stick into the soft white underbelly of propriety.

      I would rather bid Good bye to Robin Morgan the user and manipulator who fanned the flames of the hate campaign against a friend.

      I wish Jerry, Abbie and Stew were all still alive and messing with the system. I wish there were a million Yippies and a million Weathermen out there.

  2. Beth Elliott Says:

    Essentialist … that’s the word. Later scholarship appears to confirm what you’ve said, that societies with goddess religions were not necessarily full-blown matriarchies, and that there were no “All That Glitters” role reversal worlds. Maybe one or two here and there, but cultures in which women had high status were usually just matrilineal rather than mirror images of pre-feminist Western cultures.

    The thing was, the “gender feminists” (a term still in use, by feminists and skeptics alike) kind of got lost in the dream. With the concept that every woman is a daughter/reflection of the Goddess, they kind of started expecting to get to be goddesses themselves, didn’t they?

    One thing is, on a generational basis, we’ve kind of reached the limits of that pull between biological essentialism and biological reductionism via technology. We don’t have womb machines. We do have women looking to make trade-offs between career and family that a lot of men don’t; it’s as though new generations are seeing things differently because they didn’t have all-or-nothing choices. Or demands they stay home, without any individual legal or economic power.

    And yet, seeing everything through that victim lens continues, and there are “liberated,” accomplished women who are skeptics of gender feminism who get savaged for deviations from the orthodoxy.

    I think you’re on a roll …

  3. Hannah Howard Says:

    dear suzan,

    for someone under 40, this is super important and valuable history. thank you so much. i do my political work in the tradition of what I thought was called socialist feminism (i.e. marxist feminism / race+class centered feminism), but which I’m fairly sure now was once radical feminism before it was usurped by the essentialists. the concept of “reactionary positions masquerading as radical thought” and using victimhood for power over others is a really important political concept as well — it’s something i’ve seen happen in a number of arenas, but never quite knew how to name it. Again, thank you so much for such an amazing, amazing history 🙂

  4. Gemma Seymour Says:

    Thank you, Suzan, for this fascinating and important post. My own relationship with Feminism was stnuted in its early stages by exactly the sort of false logic you highlight here. I have a lot of catching up to do!

  5. edith Says:

    I didn’t read Mother Right until just now. I didn’t realize that Rudd was featured the way he was in Alpert’s piece. I had been reading about him, SDS, Oglesby, Todd Gitlin’s piece about Oglesby in the New Republic, etc., in the past few days, before you wrote about Alpert and Morgan. Its just oddly coincidental how Morgan and Alpert fit into all this, or maybe it really isn’t.

    I don’t want to give the impression I side with Morgan’s or Alpert’s essentialist views but this scenario is so familiar. My mother chased my father from Providence down to Tennessee three months before I was born. I am reminded of Tim Buckley’s, I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain. To all of this and to anyone, I will say, I know the dues I have paid. I was faced with the family/career tradeoff. I was the one who made the sacrifices. The way it went down, you wouldn’t believe. I know what a 3:00 am feeding is all about, being alone, up all night with a colicky baby for months on end , being tethered to a diaper bag and fitting MY work schedule around everyone else’s. If things are as simple as the “nurturing gene” making one “genetically female”, then I certainly am. I know it isn’t that simple, however. The whole notion that a woman should be pre-programmed for childbirth and nurturing sounds awfully sexist to me.

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