Some Perspectives on Female Separatism

Lesbian separatism has gotten a really bad reputation in the last 15 years or so; we’ve been accused (by people who should be our allies!) of being racist, classist, unrealistic, man-hating, woman-hating, and just about every other ugly thing you can imagine. While I’d like to address all this more fully (and hopefully will in a later post), for now suffice it to say that most of the criticisms of lesbian separatism as a theory and a movement are hypocritical, contradictory, illogical, or all three, and they’re usually made by people who don’t know any separatists and who’ve never read anything separatists have written.

As a lesbian is a woman who does not voluntarily have sexual relationships with men, then a lesbian separatist is a woman who has social relationships with men only under conditions of necessity. These conditions vary depending on our individual situations. We may have relationships with fathers and brothers that we are not willing to sever, though these may grow less close over time. Many of us must have jobs to support ourselves, thereby coming into contact with men as bosses, coworkers, clients or customers. We may have male landlords; if we are in school, we probably have male teachers and are in classrooms with men. Because of discrimination in employment and training, we must often hire men to work on our homes or land, since women have been barred from learning trades. However, separatists hire women whenever we can; we learn to do things ourselves as often as possible, and sometimes do without, rather than relying on men.

What’s important to keep in mind in discussions of separatism is the radical, revolutionary potential for love and solidarity between women to undermine male supremacy–even if that potential is not acted upon by very many women.

The separatists I know are women of integrity. They are willing to accept the social sanctions that come along with rejecting attachment to men and male privilege–relative poverty, limited employment opportunities, social isolation. They are nevertheless women who are committed to eradicating all forms of oppression, through political work of various forms and through examinations of personal relationships and interactions. One of my favorite comments about separatism is what Julia Penelope says in this article:

Separatist Lesbians think of ourselves as living outside HP [heteropatriarchal] society (although this is seldom true). Accepting the HP description of Lesbians as outcasts, we have chosen to stand in an antagonistic position to the HP, and it’s Separatists who identify ourselves as Lesbians first and last. Whether never-het or ex-het, Separatists put our Lesbian selves first politically. The essential ingredient of Separatist politics is a rejection of everything vital to the structure of HP, which requires that all assumptions be challenged and examined. Whereas Humanist or Feminist Lesbians believe that behaviors and attitudes can be justified by appealing to the way they feel, Separatists (and Radical Feminists) want to know where these “feelings” originate. We’re not interested in stopping our analysis with how we feel, because appealing to feelings is one way of resisting change. If we’re going to change ourselves and unlearn HP’s version of reality, then we’re committed to examining our feelings and finding out why we have them and where they originate in our experience.

This is an exhausting way to live and I’ll be the first to admit that often separatists are intense, preferring political discussion and the reading of nonfiction to less serious pursuits. Separatists are also often victims of male abuse and trauma (like lots of women who aren’t separatists) and we struggle with the damage this has caused. However, I feel wealthy when I meet a woman who gets separatism, because lesbian separatists prioritize our relationships with women. We try to unlearn the woman-hating that patriarchy teaches, as well as the other oppressive attitudes and behaviors such as prejudices based on race or class.

Separatism isn’t for every woman; neither is lesbianism. While early separatist writings often asserted the opposite, I know lots of heterosexual feminists who struggle valiantly in their involvements with men to create feminist relationships. I respect their efforts, but that’s not where I want to expend my energy. Women who are working against multiple oppressions, such as women of color and disabled women, often choose to incorporate similarly oppressed men into their political work, and I have no argument with this. In fact, I’ve been reminded lately that I feel a great deal more despised as a fat person than I ever have as a woman or a lesbian. However, I also can’t divide these parts of who I am from each other or from my other values and beliefs about justice, so I’m not willing to work on fat liberation with men who are unapologetically (hetero)sexist or racist–and there are very few who aren’t. My fat liberation work is just as valuable and effective when I do it in concert with other fat lesbians. To think otherwise is to reveal that you believe the true work, the best organizations, the real center of life is where the men are.

So although there’s plenty more to say on the subject, for this introductory post, I’ll leave you with this sweet little article, “Lesbian Separatist Basics” by K. Hess, Jean Langford, and Kathy Ross, from 1980:

The term lesbian separatism has been used to express many different politics. To us it means, most importantly, not a way of promoting exclusively lesbian concerns, or a way of protecting lesbians from heterosexism in political groups, but a possibility of prioritising feminism. We want to distinguish clearly between women’s interests and men’s interests so that we can act in women’s interests. The institution of heterosexuality blocks this process by encouraging women to see our interests as identified with men’s instead of opposed to them. Women are not going to be able to persuade men as a group that it is in their best interests to set women free because it isn’t. Men get material benefits from women’s oppression: better pay, better working conditions, free labor in the household, more status, greater control over sexual relations, et cetera. As one radical feminist wrote: “I fully recognize that some radical males have on occasion baked a tray of brownies to celebrate May Day. This does not alter the fundamental structure of American life.”(1)

Economically and emotionally men’s interests are best protected by the oppression of women. It is pure idealism to imagine men as a group rising above their interests in order to be charitable to women. Men will make room for women’s interests only if and when women are strong enough to force the point. As separatists we choose to oppose men rather than try to reform them, not out of a belief that men can’t change but out of a belief that they won’t change until they understand that they have to.

We may fight alongside (we do not say with) men in certain situations like the anti-Nazi and anti-Initiative 13 marches in Seattle in the summer of 1978 but in these situations we insist on our political independence.(2) We will not put it aside in order to emphasize unity. Men are not allies in feminism which is the framework of our political position on any issue. Lesbian separatism is not about asserting lesbianism as a superior lifestyle but about making use of its potential for political independence from men.

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(1) Olah, Suzie, “Economic Function of the Oppression of Women,’ Notes from the Third Year: Women’s Liberation, 1971.
(2) Initiative 13 was a city-wide initiative designed to severely limit the civil rights of lesbians and gay men. It didn’t pass.

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