Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Notes From The Archive: Some Of Those Nasty Rumors You Heard About Some Feminists Are True

Every once in a while, as I plug away at my ongoing research on second wave feminism and anti-pornography activism, I come upon a piece of evidence that the rifts in women's liberation were far uglier than the accounts of them that have survived in many secondary accounts of the movement.

Not infrequently, some of these startling moments cause me to re-think central themes from the 1970s: racism, homophobia and what would come to be known as transphobia, among them. As one example, I realized today, while taking notes from one of the feminist memoirs I am reading, that I have underestimated the anxiety triggered by masculine women among some old-guard second wave feminists who were critical to the early years of the movement, anxiety that seems to have survived intact into the twenty-first century. In her autobiography Not One Of The Boys: Living Life As A Feminist (2000), activist attorney Brenda Feigen chews over the significance of clothing to the gender identification of lesbians, and comes to the conclusion that normal lesbians present androgynously. Noting that because they seek comfort, not the approval of others, Feigen states that it is "a well-known fact that most lesbians prefer pants to skirts" (emphasis mine). Reflecting that she never really understood her friend and comrade-in-arms Gloria Steinem's preference for "tiny skirts and non-functional heels," (Gloria is not a lesbian) Feigen goes on to observe:

at the opposite extreme, there are male-identified butch lesbians, who mimic men in the often swaggering way they carry and comport themselves. They don't seem happy being women (emphasis Feigen), and being a woman is, as far as I'm concerned, more a state of mind than a particular look. For the most part, this kind of lesbian will raise money for AIDS but not breast cancer. They are often caught up in role-playing, so that their relationships with more "femme" women (often helpless victim types) mimic the worst of extreme heterosexual behavior. I have trouble understanding the desire to be with a woman who tries -- whatever her method of doing so may be -- to look and act like a man. If I wanted someone manly in my life, I would be with the real thing.

In any case, fortunately, role-playing lesbians seem increasingly to be in the minority....Most lesbians I know are feminists who dress and act like normal/androgynous-looking women.

The use of the word "normal" is crucial, particularly in the construction of "normal" lesbians who are positioned as the opposite of queers (like me.) These butch and trans-identified women are, in Feigen's view, just perverts as well as enemies of true feminism, as are all transsexuals (I'm willing to bet this blog that FTMs do not count as "the real thing" from Feigan's perspective.) In case you missed her feelings on this matter, on the following page, Feigen shifts into full-bore transphobia. She slams MTF transsexuals who, in her view, "reinforce sex stereotypes about women," have a "thing about wearing women's underwear," and "are no friends of feminists, who have a serious mission on this planet -- not just play-acting and dress up." (134)

Well, alright then. Feigen, who worked with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project back in the 1970s, is currently an attorney in Los Angeles, specializing in entertainment and anti-discrimination law.


Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

Wait a minute: Anti-discrimination law? Are you kidding?

Bess said...

what a shame. It's interesting actually to think of how much 3rd wave feminism has brought personal style to the forefront. Previous generations may have acknowledged the importance of dress, style, etc (though not Feigen apparently) but it was not as explicitly addressed, leaving the door open for dismissive comments as if what you wear is "playing dress-up" -- whether it's non-functional heels or women's underwear or whatever.

Zach said...

Frustrating (and kind of amazing in just how "off" that writing sounds now) at her comments back then, but in reference to where she is now... I remember my freshman year, Spring 2003, our class erupting with anger over how awful Cheryl Clarke had been in the 80s. You reprimanded us for not recognizing her as a part of that historical specificity and understanding how she had changed since then. I have no idea what it was about Clarke's writing to which we were objecting, but I do remember the lesson about how to look at artifacts.

Tenured Radical said...

Yeah, I remember that class conversation. What was really amazing to me was that this book was published in the year 2000, so it's less an artifact of the 1970s than a contemporary text riddled with old-fashioned prejudices.

Val said...

As I recall, the class anger at Cheryl Clarke's piece was further fueled by the Queer Retreat that fall where we had a rather rough workshop with Cheryl Clarke.

I don't think it was until Queer Historiography the next year that I really got over my skepticism of that piece.

But anyway, to see something like this coming out now, as opposed to being some sort of historical relic is unsettling, though not unsurprising.

I want to connect this somehow to the recent Oprah magazine article, but I'm not quite there yet.

Janice said...

And it's obviously important to be (or appear) normal by her definition. That's a lot of anxiety to contain and project! And the outliers -- those who choose alternate styles of appearance or those whose appearance doesn't match the image that she wants to put with them, they're all wrong and need to be condemned? Straight women? You look like this. Lesbians? Look like that! Trans? Disappear, apparently, in her world. Bah!

The idiocy? It burns!

Sisyphus said...

I remember reading about the hostility to "role playing" in the butch-femme pairing in either _Stone Butch Blues_ or _Zami_ (or maybe both?), and we discussed how that intense gender bifurcation seemed very much a 50s working-class lesbian trend.

And one of my friends was just talking about the importance of the meaning "queer" as to upset people and destabilize gender assumptions, so, it seems like the queers are, in a way, having exactly the right effect on Feigen.

Digger said...

I'm with Janice on the burning feeling.

For the record, making universal generalizations about The Whole Entire World of Lesbians (or anything else for that matter) based solely on ones' circle of friends and acquaintances, does not make for a good argument. I hope her arguments as an attorney hold more water...

If, as she claims, being a woman (and therefore a feminist?) is a state of mind, and not a particular look, how does that exclude everyone who doesn't, per her rules, appear to be a woman? OH... because she said so.(Her seeming assertion that Real Lesbians don't wear skirts is also baffling).

This makes me all kinds of bent.

AcadeMama said...

I guess everybody has to pick on somebody to feel better about themselves...unsurprising, but too bad she can't that's really what this amounts to.

Anonymous said...

Well, that was really odd reading. A real control freak, I'd say. So, TR, if you position yourself as a queer and dress and behave in a not so acceptable manner then I apparently am more of a typical helpless victim-type heterosexual who dressed as I did sometimes because it got me lots and lots of male attention (not the same as approval seeking) sex babies husband and lots of other things that I liked to get from men for just dressing up-which I liked to do anyway. Those were hard times for me in the San Francisco feminism scene.
Chacun son gout, I said, and good riddance.

Anonymous said...

Time for her to read "Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold."

makomk said...

As far as I can tell, most of the feminist transphobes of note never actually changed their minds, though the attacks on butch/femme lesbians do seem to have largely died out.

For example, here in the UK we've had feminist transphobia published in the Guardian, a respectable left-wingish paper, as recently as 2007 to surprisingly muted reactions. In fact, if we include Germaine Greer's subtle transphobia last summer, it's happened within the last year. Both women still write for the Guardian regularly. Thankfully, the government managed to grant trans* people some protection under anti-discrimination law despite this.

Oh, and I've noticed that second wave feminism and anti-pornography activism indeed appears to have been a lot nastier than modern views on it suggest. There was the accusations of paedophilia and conspiring with paedophiles made against the important sex-positive activists, for a start...

(Still haven't managed to find published info the apparent crowbar attack on a London lesbian S/M nightclub and its patrons by feminist radicals some years ago, though. Unfortunately, the UK BDSM community is a secretive lot, and the fact I'm not an academic doesn't help.)

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