Separatism is Not a Luxury

By C. Maria

In Lesbian Ethics Vol 4 No 1 Spring 1990

Julia Penelope, in “The Mystery of Lesbians,” asks, “HOW, in spite of derision, incarceration, violence, and poverty, do we find the courage TO CREATE OURSELVES??”(1) This question rekindled my anger at having been unemployed for two years following college graduation in 1986, as well as at the poverty many women are forced to endure. But as an Afra-Latina Radical Dyke living and working in racist heteropatriarchy,(2) I was next brought to consider the current phallocratic system and wondered how possible it would be for Lesbian Separatists to move beyond a focus on class.

My point in this paper is that socialist feminists are wrong in insisting Lesbians focus on class. They dismiss the connection between economic deprivation and the sexual caste system, where men make women’s lives almost unlivable. We live in a world that is ready to prepare our funeral pyres daily.(3) Many Lesbians, in focussing on class, have missed the importance of separatism, which is to make our Lesbian lives livable in the present. This is not living “one day at a time.” Rather, Lesbians must be active, creative, and rigorous participants in our present reality. To that end I conclude with A Proposal.

Socialism Is Not the Answer

Most women could care less about separatism. This purposeful ignorance not only comes from non-feminists and anti-feminists, but also from feminists who should know better, yet choose to ignore separatism even as a possibility. Some of this ignorance is caused by the fear of male reprisals. But fear alone has not stopped many Lesbians and Radical Feminists from envisioning a world free from male oppression and violence. So what else is behind this ignorance?

The only way to account for this dismissal is the belief among liberal and socialist/left-wing heterosexual and lesbian feminists that some men, particularly poor men and ethnically different men, are more oppressed than women in general. They say these men do not benefit from the sexual oppression of women. bell hooks even goes as far as to justify male sexual crimes committed against women and to argue that men are the real victims.

Alienated, frustrated, pissed off, he may attack, abuse, and oppress any individual woman or women, but he is not reaping the benefits from his support of sexist ideology. When he beats or rapes women, he is not exercising privilege or reaping any positive rewards; he may feel satisfied in exercising the only form of domination allowed him [emphases mine].(4)

In fact, physical and sexual abuse that come from male heterosexual privilege are so pervasive and oppressive, that less privileged and LEAST privileged women often DO become Lesbian Separatists.

Those who see Lesbian Separatism as classist and racist deny the lives of Lesbian Separatists, most of whom are not privileged. For example, hooks sees separatism as purely a class issue.

Most women do not have the economic freedom to separate from men because of economic interdependence. The separatist notion that women could resist sexism by withdrawing contact with men reflects a bourgeois class perspective.(5)

hooks assumes all Separatists are white and privileged. But if Separatism derived from a “bourgeois class perspective,” most of the more privileged lesbians would be Separatists, or at least give separatism some serious consideration. And there would be few racially and ethnically different Separatists or less privileged Separatists.

Yet Separatism IS an economic issue. Lesbian Separatists are painfully aware it is racist heteropatriarchy that keeps women poor. No woman, however wealthy, has unrevocable power. All men however poor, have some unrevocable power.(6) In patriarchal heteroeconomy,(7) ALL women are economically bound to men. Jeffner Allen explains this dilemma:

Although we choose to live as lesbians, we are obliged … to stand in relation to the patriarchal economy … We are obliged to stand in relation to men, especially to secure food, water, shelter, clothing, and frequently, for the goods and money that must be exchanged for such commodities.(8)

Any woman who separates, however partially, from a man or men, will suffer economically. Living as a Separatist entails taking the risk that racist heteropatriarchy can, at any time, withdraw the only means of support available to us for obtaining basic necessities and maintaining any quality of life. Becoming a Separatist means that a Lesbian has placed integrity above any other consideration that would unnecessarily bind her to men.

Socialist feminists, however, would say less privileged women must remain allied with men IN OUR GROUP, because it would be in “our” best interests. But less privileged men still equate their interests with the interests of “our group.” If women follow the socialist feminist prescription, they will remain the economic and sexual slaves of the men they are forced to serve. “Freedom,” for socialist feminists, means keeping solidarity with less economically privileged men no matter how sexually, physically, or psychically abusive they are to the women who have the misfortune to be around or involved with these men. Women are not allowed to separate from men for any reason.

According to Alison Jaggar:

What the politics of total separatism ignores, however, is that some groups of women have interests in common with some groups of men. Working-class women have interests in common with working-class men; Jewish women have interests in common with Jewish men; differently able women have interests in common with differently able men; and women of color have interests in common with men of color.(9)

What Jaggar doesn’t explain is how women of color, Jewish women, working-class women, and differently able women, despite a strong commitment to ending all oppression, still have the fortitude to be Separatists. Yet socialist feminists call working-class, Semitic,(10) differently able, Afra-Amerikan, Latina, Native Amerikan, and Asian Amerikan Lesbian Separatists racist, classist, antisemitic, ableist, and ageist.

Jaggar continues:

… a politics of total separatism is necessarily classist and racist no matter how far classism and racism are eradicated inside womanculture. In part, it is classist and racist because access to the womanculture is more difficult for poor women and women of color, just as it is more difficult for such women to be exclusively lesbian. On the most fundamental level … total separatism is classist and racist because it denies the importance of class and race divisions … Consequently, it can never be effective in bringing about far-reaching social transformation [emphasis mine].(11)

Jaggar contradicts herself immediately in this statement. If classism and racism are done away with in “womanculture,” why does she still see it as classist and racist? The contradiction doesn’t bother her, or else she would have given this comment more thought. Everything desirable is more difficult for less privileged women to obtain. But she chose to focus on the idea that less privileged women are supposedly unable to be Lesbians. Her mentality is the same as that of many socialist countries, such as Cuba, which proclaim Lesbians are the result of regressive, perverse, bourgeois influence. They uphold compulsory heterosexuality by making criminals out of Lesbians.

Socialist feminism suffers from a lack of moral and ethical intelligence. When socialist feminists tell us we are classist and racist for being Lesbian Separatists, they are hiding their own moral failure to consider the same for themselves. Socialist feminists assume economically, racially, and ethnically oppressed women are not intelligent enough to make our lives as livable as possible, or to choose our beliefs and how best to act on them. They assume we must be “rescued” and placed back in the “graces” of racist heteropatriarchy.

It is impossible for Lesbian Separatists, especially racially and ethnically different Lesbian Separatists to ignore race and economics because these are our daily reality. We understand very well what divides us. And however real many of these dichotomies are, we NAME the agents responsible for the imposed FALSE differences.

While Lesbian Separatism cannot afford to ignore race and economics, it is the strength of our diversities AND similarities that will bring about a REAL social transformation, one far beyond the reach of socialist feminism.

The Bottom Line

Many feminists, particularly liberal and socialist feminists, will defend working in the male economy on the basis that doing so will increase our socio-economic standing. But, as Jeffner Allen states men, not women, achieve a monetary advantage.(12)

Class status is something possessed by men working in patriarchal heteroeconomy. Women do not have class status. The male class structure defines and prescribes women’s economic, emotional, and sexual servitude to men, while the patriarchal heteroeconomy constructs the concrete basis for women’s economic oppression. Patriarchal heteroeconomy, by paying women the lowest wages, coerces us into remaining under racist heteropatriarchal domination. Sexual terrorism in the workplace extends women’s continued servitude beyond the realm of the phallocratic household. In turn this terrorism forces women into the “private” sphere, where the terrorism can continue in secrecy. Like rape and pornography, sexual terrorism in the workplace tells women what men think of our presence, our existence, and our place in racist heteropatriarchy.

Women do not acquire class status on our own merit, but rather as socio-economic, political, and sexual attachments to males. Any woman who refuses to be a male attachment loses the “benefits” of the male economy. The Lesbian Separatist is not part of the patriarchal heteroeconomy. Nor is any woman who is not attached to a man.

Poverty is something not fully belonging to patriarchal heteroeconomy. The levels of the class structure imply that members have “upward” mobility.(13) This mobility is a phallic mobility. Women, not phallic beings, are automatically excluded. In order to survive, unattached women, including Lesbian Separatists, work in the male economic system performing tasks that define our lack of class status. We are forced to live like stationary migrant workers, who must earn our keep and never protest our condition, lest we sink further into degradation.

Women’s lack of our own class status can be seen most clearly in the “service” industries, such as restaurants and diners, corporate offices, and retail stores. Women are the majority of low-level workers in these industries. We often work 8 or more hours a day, frequently at minimum wage. Some jobs, particularly in restaurants, pay below the minimum, forcing women to live on tips received for smiling, being courteous, and being compliant.(14) These jobs require little educational training and offer few opportunities for promotion or increased wages. It is not surprising that these jobs have the highest turnover rates, because the women who do them are easily expendable.

By having women perform degrading and repetitive tasks, men in control of the patriarchal heteroeconomy can continue to do whatever they choose without thinking about the consequences. Men continue, with total confidence, to waste and destroy, knowing they have conditioned women well to clean up for them. Women

…take on the dirty work, to take charge of the material and psychic rubble … [to] yield simply another variation … of female self-sacrifice and female housework: sweeping up the ruins of patriarchy.(15)

The Lesbian Separatist has chosen to defy men, to hate men,(16) in order to be for women and for our freedom to be our Selves. The price to maintain our integrity is often poverty, violence, degradation, and the denial of basic necessities. Despite the poverty suffered and the obstacles placed in front of us, we know we are right.(17) And because of the joy and freedom we radiate, our enemies know we are right.

Consider the case of the Masai warriors, a group of pastoralists that live in Kenya and parts of Tanzania. Although the women take care of the cattle, the source of the group’s wealth, their husbands are the owners, and the cattle are passed down to their sons. If a woman gives birth only to daughters or is unable to give birth, she is ostracized and is forced to live on her own. She is not valued as a woman in her own right. She is valued only if she takes care of the cattle and gives her husband sons. Her daughters will not be able to take care of her when she is old. They must leave when they are married off to men in neighboring villages, forced to repeat the same pattern their mother suffered when she was younger.(18)

Since power given to women by men is revocable, no woman can be said to be economically wealthy, because she does not live in an economy or a society based on female values.

A Proposal

Many feminists do not want to acknowledge how comfortable they have become with their heterosexual privilege within the oppressive system that many other women want to leave behind. They continue to ask for a few privileges for themselves, while conditions for most women remain unchanged. Few feminists any longer propose the abolition of racist heteropatriarchy, because to do so they would have to confront their own complicity and the painful subordination men have forced upon women through terrorism, indoctrination, deprivation, and lies.(19)

We can start, even in modest ways, to disrupt the male economy. Lesbian Separatists and Radical feminists have already begun, by refusing to be with men, or to cater to their needs, desires, and whims in our personal/political lives. Although heterosexual women can also contribute to this disruption, through sabotage, it is unlikely they will place themselves and other women above male priorities.

Lesbian Separatists can do much more:

We can disrupt patriarchal heteroeconomy through the barter system, where goods and services are exchanged directly for each other rather than for money. For example, if I need to have my broken window replaced, I would have a friend who is an expert glazier replace my window in exchange for my fixing her car when needed, in the present or the future. We both obtain what we need without the exchange of money. We can also create our own monetary system through the use of a voucher system only Dykes networking together would recognize. These vouchers could be used to obtain basic necessities and services from Dykes with specialized skills.

A similar form of disruption is to refuse to pay taxes. Most of the tax money paid goes directly to the phallo-military waste machine to invent more weapons to annihilate sentient life. The rest is used to keep so-called elected and appointed “officials” and corporate “officers” in the death-dealing, white, heterosexual male system wealthy. The two most recent, blatant examples are the theft of millions of dollars of federal housing money and the theft of billions of dollars by savings and loan executives. The system of taxes is another form of male parasitism, draining women’s energy through degrading work to feed their insatiable greed and hatred for life.

There are “illegal” methods that can be pursued, such as counterfeiting money, tapping into the money supply, which is regulated by computers, disrupting business on Wall Street and other financial centers where the business of patriarchal heteroeconomics is conducted each day.

We can organize ourselves into cadres of thieves and shoplifters to steal basic necessities and money for our daily living. With increased skill, we can also teach other Dykes how to steal.

We can squat in abandoned buildings and renovate them for living and/or political action purposes. Lesbians are often denied space, even by feminists. Renovating buildings would be a good way to re/claim our much needed space to think and act toward our well-being.

For those who have female children, we can refuse to send them to public and so-called private schools. We can instead create our own Radical Lesbian schools. Some fundamentalist christians have resisted sending their children to public schools, because, in their opinion, racist heteropatriarchal values are not promoted enough. They actually want to take control of the public school system by taking away the few “reforms” education has been allowed to make. Christians notwithstanding, most schools continue to teach racist heteropatriarchal values and to promote “great” white men, while women are ignored or shown only in stereotypically “supporting” roles. The agents of the monetary tax system are running a protection racket on the educational system, so that it will accept money on the agents’ terms. A Radical Lesbian education would be based on values that maintain our moral intelligence and integrity. We can learn about our foresisters’ lives, struggle, and achievements and about what is being done in the present.

Some feminists have proposed destroying the system by working within the male economy, especially at a bank or large corporation, but giving the money to our causes. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking the money we earn from our jobs in patriarchal heteroeconomy and using it for Lesbian causes. It is a good strategy to give back energy to our Selves and each other. We need to find every possible way to get money from the male economy for our well-being. But we must understand that any such strategy is short-term and must contribute to long-range goals. It also must be understood that it is very difficult, although not impossible, to work in a corporation, a large business, or government, and simultaneously maintain Radical Dyke perspective and anger.

The corporation, the state, and the heteropatriarchal family all have the same hierarchy and “relational” lines of superiority and subordination. Dissenting women, especially Lesbian Separatists, are removed for not deferring to and being for men. Dissenting women are also held up by the male corporate structure to all other women as examples of what their fate will be if they challenge the system. Women’s reason, intelligence, and anger are fragmented, dissipated, and purposely misaimed(20) in order to maintain corporate power. The male economy needs female complicity, at any expense, up to and including the destruction of women’s knowledge and passion. The corporation is part of the phallic upward mobility scheme. And as we have seen, women cannot achieve upward mobility in patriarchal heteroeconomy.

We must realize that as long as we work in the male economy, females will not benefit from the work men have told us to perform. A crucial step to ending patriarchal heteroeconomy, and ultimately racist heteropatriarchy has been proposed by Susan Cavin and must at the very least be considered by ALL Lesbian Separatists. That is to stop working for men in any capacity.

.. it is when the oppressed stop working for the oppressors … that liberation solutions are actualized. As long as women work in patriarchal economies, they will remain oppressed.(21)

We can be very creative in our methods of disruption. But we have to end the phallic heteroeconomy that perpetuates the male class structure and the male value system. Thus we can continue to create the gynocentric society we have already begun. We must act now, because we have recognized the racist heteropatriarchy for what it is; we must “… render it harmless and … see how one goes about living without it.”(22)

Lesbians and our liberation are, and must be, the most important considerations in our lives. To assign our Selves and each other lesser value is to the peril of us all.


  1. Julia Penelope, “The Mystery of Lesbians: IL” Lesbian Ethics 1:2 (1985), p. 53.
  2. It is impossible to conceive of patriarchy as NOT racist as well as lesbophobic. Therefore I have chosen to expand on the Original insight Julia Penelope had when she coined the term heteropatriarchy, which I first encountered in her article, “WHOSE Past Are We Reclaiming?” Common Lives, Lesbian Lives 13 (Autumn 1984), p. 19.
  3. The Inquisition in Europe has been referred to by Starhawk as The Burning Times. The truth is that since the beginning of racist heteropatriarchy, women’s bodies, minds, and spirits have been immolated in the phallocratic death pyres. The evidence of woman-burning is global because phallocracy is global.
  4. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), p. 73.
  5. ibid., p. 77.
  6. Although this insight/incite has been around the Feminist movement for some time, it is always Original. Among those who have dis-covered this is Anna Lee in her article, “One Black Separatist,” Innerviews 5:3 (1981), p. 31.
  7. A term I have coined to show how the exploitation of all women by men is connected to the economy that maintains heterosexuality as the “standard” and forces women to remain in relation to men.
  8. Jeffner Allen, “Lesbian Economics.” Trivia 8 (Winter 1986), p. 40.
  9. Alison Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983), p. 296.
  10. I have purposely not written “Jewish.” This is not done out of disrespect to Jewish Dyke Separatists, but to include our Arab sisters who are Lesbian Separatists.
  11. Jaggar, Ibid.
  12. Allen, p. 49.
  13. I am not proposing any form of “downward” mobility. When women are earning 0.73 to every dollar men earn, when women who are college graduates earn LESS than men with an eight grade education, when women cannot afford day care for young children, when it is estimated that by the year 2000 virtually all of the poor will be WOMEN AND CHILDREN, we are not “downwardly” mobile. We are IMMOBILE!
  14. A personal/political point After working in several varieties of restaurants in the past years, I have made this observation: Although many men also work in restaurants, they generally are not working in the local greasy-spoon diner or fast-food restaurant. As restaurants become more “up-scale,” catering to the clientele they want to attract, men are seen in these establishments as employees, where pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement are much better. Women are never seen as employees in these restaurants. Do YOU support this instance of oppression by eating in these restaurants anyway?
  15. Christina Thurmer-Rohr. “From Deception to Un-Deception: On the Complicity of Women.” Trivia 12 (Spring 1988), p. 69.
  16. See Jeffner Allen’s discussion on man-hating in her essay, “Remembering: A Time I Will Be My Own Beginning.” In her Lesbian Philosophy: Explorations (Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1986), pp. 19-24.
  17. Marilyn Frye, “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power.” In her The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg: The Crossing Press, 1983), p. 98.
  18. I first heard about the lives of the Masai women from a movie I saw in a sociology of gender class in April 1985. Their plight is the plight of many women throughout the world including Amerika, where older women, after making many self-sacrifices to raise children and maintain the house, often find themselves with nothing to show for their hard work, especially if the husbands die or divorce them.
  19. There is also an interesting story told about the male ownership of the cattle. In pre-patriarchal history women were the owners of the cattle and were responsible for making all decisions. But a drought came during the summer season and killed all the cattle. Although the drought could not have been prevented, the men blamed the women for the death of the cattle. When they were able to replenish the livestock, the men took everything away from the women, from positions of responsibility to ownership of the cattle. Here we have more evidence that we have not always lived in a patriarchal society.
    Yet the fact that this story, assigning women blame for a natural disaster, was told by a woman shows female complicity in justifying and maintaining male lies and male control.
  20. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), p. 217.
  21. See Mary Daly, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 206-7, for her discussion on women’s passions and knowledge and how they are fragmented and dissipated by racist heteropatriarchy.
  22. Susan Cavin, Lesbian Origins (San Francisco: Ism Press, 1985), p. 153. 22Thurmer-Rohr, p. 74.
  23. Thurmer-Rohr, p.. 74.