Julia Penelope on quantity vs quality in political movements

The erosion of radical feminism in the U.S. has been gradual, and time may prove that it was inevitable as well. Individual experiences may differ from mine, but each of us can, I think, supply examples of her own that illustrate equally well the processes of internal destruction. I’ll describe my perception of what has happened as starkly as I can: During 1977, International Women’s Year, the organizations and “leaders” of the U.S. WLM [women’s liberation movement] saw an opportunity to build a large political constituency, a movement of NUMBERS of women. The urge to count bodies, the belief that numbers is a more significant index of political strength than political consistency, required that feminism be made more palatable to women in general, but especially to the conventional, particularly housewives and others to whom the Eagle Forum had more appeal. Note that, when feminist recruitment strategies were being formulated, it was never suggested that LESBIANS should be the focus of active recruitment. No. The concern has always been “attracting” heterosexual women into WLM. (In a sense, recruiting heterosexual women into the movement has served to recruit Lesbians, because so many wimmin shed the facade of heterosexuality once they’re given permission to love themselves and other wimmin. Hence the felt “need” to continually find and bring in more heterosexuals as their numbers dwindle.)

Once the QUANTITY of bodies took precedence over the QUALITY of one’s commitment, feminists wholly adopted the male definition of “politics,” thereby committing the U.S. WLM to issues formulated within the context of heteropatriarchal power games. “Feminist politics” became identified with issues sanctioned by the male political framework, and, by focusing on the passage of the ERA to the exclusion of all other issues, feminists tied the fate of the WLM to the whim of male politicians and their female cohorts. Once bound to the limitations imposed by heteropatriarchal definitions of the “political,” feminism, as a politics independent of male concerns, could only evaporate. Steadily, in bits and pieces, radicalism, and its proponents, have been silenced within the WLM as the media personalities (most visibly) set about to redefine and, thereby, dilute the very ideology on which the movement itself was founded and through which it has grown. The emphasis on female autonomy and independence from men is simply discounted; Lesbianism is trivialized and heterosexuality reaffirmed as equivalent “preferences,” or Lesbianism is made invisible as one among many “alternate lifestyles”; being a feminist no longer means that one is pro-abortion. In short, any woman can call herself a “feminist” if she wants to without having to change any of the assumptions she’s grown up with and without seriously altering the structure of her life.

Julia Penelope, “The Mystery of Lesbians: I” in Lesbian Ethics Volume 1, No 1, Fall 1984.

Originally published on FR on 1/25/2008

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