Warning: rare political over and undertones
Q: Can I be a lesbian without being a feminist?
– Confused and Searching for Answers
A: Dear Confused and Searching:
Do you mind if I call you Virginia? How about if I give you a two-cent tour through some definitions and highlights of history? I’ll keep it simple and without personal commentary. That way, you can see how I arrive at a provisional answer that you are free to use as a starting point to craft one that works for you. Please note that my answer has a margin of error of +/- 6 per cent, 27 times out of 10.
Definition of Terms
A feminist is someone who believes that women are entitled to political, legal, economic and social rights equal to men. By the basic definition you do not have to be a lesbian to be a feminist. Anyone, even a man, can be a feminist. There are those who say a man cannot be a feminist. And that is how a democracy works: you can have your say and eat it too.
There are those who have added to the definition of what a feminist is and believes. Depending on which theoretical source you use, the evolving definition includes references to justice, gender equality and ending the systemic, religious, patriarchal oppression of women. For the purpose of answering the question I’m using the simple, basic definition.
It should be noted that a person who does not believe women are entitled to rights equal to men is not a feminist. That person is a troglodyte.
The other part of the question is about a lesbian. The basic definition of a lesbian is: of, or relating to homosexual activity between women. That means a woman with another women as in sexually, as in together-together. (Resisting personal commentary.) While people anywhere along the spectrum of gender can hold beliefs that labels them a feminist, only women can be lesbians and when I say women I’m totally including those who become women through sexual reassignment surgery.
Flying through history and how the other F word came to be
A bit of historical background from a lay perspective. There are hints from as early as the 1500s that some women questioned the received wisdom which stated women had no right to equality. The trail gets much clearer from the latter part of 1700s. The lineage of early protofeminists to today’s feminists is colourful and still being researched. What we know is that it includes writings, speeches, meetings, marches, hard work and sacrifices in order to resist being defined, contained, silenced, enslaved, bullied by any mindset that used religious texts, laws, government policies and old-fashioned ignorance to support a belief that women are the weaker, inferior sex, incapable of thinking, incapable of making decisions, incapable of much except making babies, ideally boy babies.
As a formal movement what started as the women’s right to vote — the suffrage movement — evolved into the women’s liberation movement which itself evolved into the feminist movement. Because every action tends to get some reaction except the one you want, parallel movements sprung up to negate any change efforts. There was an anti-suffrage movement which lobbied against giving women the right to vote in elections. An anti-women’s lib movement sprang up and today is the anti-feminist movement, which remains politically active across North America.
For many reasons — the women’s liberation movement, the Pill, the civil liberties movement, to name a few — lots of stuff appeared to change for women; at home, in the community, in the working world, in universities, everywhere. In just over a generation, from the mid-1960s through to the early 1990s, it seemed that women had come a long way in their fight for self-determination and right to equality.
However, while public policy was changing for women and some barriers were indeed coming down for mostly white women, public support for the political and social movement of feminism was, at best, ambivalent. It didn’t help that there were internal issues, some surrounding concerns about lesbians being at the table, and straight women not wanting them there for a variety of reasons including creating a bad public perception that somehow the fight for women’s rights was being masterpersonminded by a bunch of lesbians.
By my calculation, feminism and all feminists lost the PR battle for the hearts and minds and support of the broader public when an American fundamentalist right-winger, channeling a judge from the Salem Witch Trials, unleashed this tidbit in 1992: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Like Ashley Judd.
Overnight, the word feminist became the other F word. Today, ask a regular, trying-to-live-her-life woman or lesbian if she’s a feminist and she’ll say, “no, not at all.”
Lesbian history is currently less well documented than feminist history. There are references from 2300 BCE about the daughter of a king who wrote “love songs in honour of the Inanna, the goddess of love and war.” The ancient Greek island of Lesbos housed Sappho, a teacher and writer of love poetry to women sometime around 630-650 BCE. Apparently it was a male writer in the late 1700s that capitalized on Sappho and Lesbos and coined the word Lesbian.
The rise of Christianity affected not only women, but lesbians, and in time lesbianism was actively condemned by the Church, but by the 16th century, there were whispers and writings and worried meetings about sexual activity between (OMG!) nuns. By the late 1700s in Europe, certain noblewomen were becoming known and notorious for their love of women.
Skipping a century and a bit, we land at Freud in the early 1900s. Freud invented theories as to why people are homosexual based on observations of his few homosexual clients. He actually didn’t do any research to prove his theories, nevertheless, his word was taken as psychiatric/psychological gospel for, like, ever!
Psychoanalysts and their colleagues in new and ever-so-scientific field of Sexology named homosexuality as a disease, a perversion and a mental illness, assuming it had a cause and therefore a cure. In the name of finding a cure for the love that dare not speak its name, people who were sick with homosexuality were lobotomized, drugged, institutionalized, given electrical shock therapy and far worse.
Despite Freud and the coolness factor of going into psychoanalysis at the time, it was radically en vogue to have lesbian affairs if you were an artist or aspired to be an artist or writer in the early 1900s, specially between the end of the First World War up to the time of the Great Depression. After that, not so much. Things went underground, at least until the Second World War ‘cuz there’s nothing like war to loosen sexual attitudes.
The freedom that gays and lesbians found during WWII came to a skidding halt after the war and some pretty mean things were done to homosexual through the late 1940s through to the 1960s. Raids on gay and lesbian bars were routine. By 1968, some in our tribes had had enough and the Gay Liberation movement started in the U.S.
One night in June 1969 in NYC, when the cops raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, homosexuals fought back and scored a place in history as the Stonewall Riots. It was a watershed moment in the history of gay liberation and launched Gay Pride marches and parades all over the globe. Through the 1970s, disco music made playing gay or at least lesbian cool again. Perhaps due to dancing or the total lack of scientific evidence, homosexuality was delisted as a mental disease/disorder in the DSM in 1975.
The late 1980s/early 1990s, saw a rise of identity politics and lesbians no longer wanted their realities to be invisible within or defined by the dominant gay male culture. In 1994, the first-ever Dyke March was staged by the Lesbian Avengers and pretty soon, Dyke Marches were happening in major cities across North America.
Today in Canada whether they are feminists or not, lesbian, straight or asexual, women have equal rights and freedoms enshrined in law. It’s certainly not perfect, but compare the rights of women and lesbians in 1971 to the rights of women and lesbians in 2011: there’s been significant work and significant movement.
Any woman who is working today, who has her own credit card, who makes her own decisions as a person with her own free will about her own life and who takes for granted that she has rights equal to men can do so because of many women and some men who worked hard to make it so.
Any women who pick up welding tools or work in mines, are firefighters, cops, astronauts, or run a company, or die on the battlefield, are de facto beneficiaries of the blood, sweat, tears and work of the women who called themselves feminists and devoted their life energy to change laws and practices. (Attitudes are a work in progress.)
Today, the word feminist is an epithet thrown at a woman to dehumanize and demonize her, discount her, silence her. When used in this way by people who spit or sneer when they say it, it’s about all women, and it seeks to deny every single woman’s personhood and humanity because feminists are really Feminazis don’tchya know: out to destroy everything man has worked so hard to create and maintain.
Lesbian might be the lesser of the two bad words to have thrown at you, although it’s still not something you want to be called depending on where you live because in many places it’s just not a safe if people think you’re a lesbian.
We use words to describe and define ourself and some of those words are labels and few labels come free of baggage. It takes courage to wear any label that sets you apart from the status quo. To my mind, letting other people choose words that define you is never a good strategy.
Both feminist and lesbian are perfectly good words and useful labels but turned inside out and ugly by people lacking civility and humanity and carrying an agenda to see a certain world order that is not amenable to diversity of thought or action in any form, specially by inferior women.
At the end of the day, any words any woman uses to define herself remains a personal choice which is interestingly what some women are saying about that modern feminism: that it’s more about women having choices to do whatever it is that they want to do and how they want to do it, without all that politically divisive stuff and so there’s no need for all that feminist theory and doctrine. (Resisting personal comment yet again).
So Virginia yes; you can be a lesbian without being a feminist label. In fact, you can be a lesbian without having any belief, or position or conviction about anything. At least now you have an informed answer when someone asks you, “you aren’t one of those feminist lesbians, are you?”