Rebel Girls: On Building a Better Separatism

feature image via Unity Mississippi.

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

I’m a big fan of women’s spaces. I’m a big fan of all sorts of exclusive, self-seperatist spaces for marginalized folks, though, to be fair: I’m a fan of queer-only spaces, spaces designated for people of color, even spaces I’m not invited into. Space is sacred: carving it out, making it fit, and discovering it once it’s there. And space is revolution – or so our foremothers very strongly believed. After all, if they didn’t see an intrinsically revolutionary aspect to disavowing men and sometimes their own sisters, they wouldn’t have done it by the thousands.

In this lesson, I want to explore the history of separatism, insofar as its place and manifestation in the second wave of feminism. In doing so, I hope we can start thinking more critically about community and safer spaces.

Obviously, this is a concise overview — so please do share more reading or tidbits in the comments as you please! I also hope that this isn’t the last time we cover this topic in the column, so let me know if there are other things you’d like to learn about re: these things!

Where It All Began

Feminist and lesbian separatism took the nation by storm in the 1970’s, as not only the women’s liberation movement but also the civil rights movement and LGBT movement began to become tangible and powerful tiny sparks on the planet. Some folks involved in those social movements practiced separatism, be it permanent or temporary, and saw intentional isolation from their oppressors and the culture that had been complicit in that oppression as key to their liberation. Spaces designed by and for marginalized communities was part of the bread and butter of social justice movements during feminism’s second wave.

Feminist separatism, and within it, lesbian separatism, was often associated with radical feminism — the belief that patriarchy is both the root of all women’s oppression as well as the most powerful oppressive force in all women’s lives. Radical feminists believed that women could ultimately only be empowered and free in all-women spaces, where men were explicitly not allowed. It was in these spaces, radical feminists believed, that women could finally live free from male expectations and the male gaze.

And so, womyn’s lands were born. Straight women, such as those in the historic Cell 16, formed celibate enclaves in which they supported one anther and sustained their own communities without the help or infringement of men. Queer ladies, most often lesbian-identified women, who felt distant from straight women in the movement already and often saw their sexuality as being complicit with male supremacy, believed heartily during this period that their sexual orientations made them superior feminists — and also more capable of seceding from male society altogether. That was the jumping-off point for their own enclaves, co-ops, and womyn’s lands.

Twelve women came together in 1971 in a home in Washington, DC to live communally and without male influence and called themselves The Furies. The Van Dykes, a roving troupe of vegan lesbians who traveled together in a van for years and refused to engage with men, hit the open road in 1977. Thousands of women just like them followed suit, putting forward feminist theory and enacting feminist practice about isolation from men and the impact it could have on women’s lives. Some groups refused any male influence at all costs and some just resisted it when possible. But all were in agreement that lesbian nirvana was going to be found collectively, in spaces built for and by queer women and outside of the realm of men’s general existences on Earth.

Although some separatists were definitely all-in, man-hating lesbians, most women who participated in womyn’s lands saw their communities as simply a next step after impermanent actions of women’s isolation from men. Women’s colleges, businesses by and for women, and the feminist drive to support and lift up other women’s work in various mediums of media and art were all connected to — and prime examples of — common acts of separatism. The difference between women’s spaces and womyn’s lands was permanence, and the notion that the former was a part of someone’s life and the latter was the entire whole rest of it.

But for many of the women, queer and straight, who built and lived on womyn’s lands, the rest of their lives would see them move through a variety of queer communities and experiences not limited to separatism. And as their lands mostly disbanded and their communities struggled to survive in isolation, most of them witnessed a changing feminist and queer movement in which separatism was seen not as a solution, but as proof of some bigger internal problems.

How It All Went Down

For many separatists, and even women’s spaces that were impermanent, one of the harshest and most valid criticisms and obstacles they’ve faced have been along the lines of inclusivity, exclusivity, and intersectionality. And though some colonies persist — such as the Pagoda — they’re struggling in the modern age to both rack up new members and fight a changing movement built on togetherness and unity, rather than difference.

Barbara Smith, noted badass you can learn more about right here from a prior lesson, and her sister Beverly were two of many feminists of color who couldn’t make peace with the model of lesbian separatism that manifested in the second wave. Though they didn’t oppose the notion in theory, they felt that the way it was practiced in the seventies was catered toward the cultural experiences of white women. Because white women held power over women of color because of their race, and because the white men they saw as their oppressors weren’t also victims of oppression in the way that men of color were, the structures of separatism in the 70’s dismissed the need for racial justice for women of color and ignored the plight of communities of color which included men. Black feminists like the Smith sisters saw the struggles of their larger community as deeply connected to their own struggle for equality, and weren’t as enthusiastic as white feminists about severing themselves from a larger group that also faced systemic oppression. Although women of color have called out men of color throughout feminist history for refusing to acknowledge or end sexism, many Black feminists and other feminists of color in the second wave didn’t see an intrinsic value in separating from the mixed-gender communities that had raised and empowered them in a world run and dominated by white people in order to throw in their lot with white feminists who didn’t prioritize or understand their needs.

Separatism in the second wave was about pinpointing one part of yourself and giving the rest up, or rendering it useless. It was about wearing one big label and not paying any attention to any others. Women who lived in all-sexualities women-only communities struggled to have conversations about race, or to honor the experiences and needs of women of color. Instead, they were micro-focused on the impact patriarchy had on their lives — and often refused to or genuinely struggled to recognize and acknowledge the times they’d played the oppressor to other women in their own lives because of power imparted on them by race, class, or even sexuality. This was the same problem that had led queer women to their own separatist movement, after all: frustrated not only by patriarchy but with a feminist movement that saw same-sex attraction as more dangerous than male influence, they had left to form their own exclusive spaces.

It wasn’t just straight women of color, however, who were implicitly and explicitly denied access to separatist spaces. It was also bisexual women, trans women, and other members of the queer community who didn’t fit the larger social idea of what a “binary lesbian” looks like.

The exclusion of trans women from the feminist movement was, for the most part, a deeply held value in radical feminist and radical lesbian spaces in the second wave. Radical feminism, once a vanguard of the left, is now known only for its sub-sect of TERFs, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who refuse to see trans women as women and even go so far as to incite violence and harassment against them online and off. The radical feminist movement was largely defined by essentialism — the idea that differences from men inherent in women defined the female experience and all women, thus, shared the same differences. This kind of thinking fostered community among women who “fit” with essentials views of what womanhood looked like — and isolated and excluded folks who had different experiences, desires, and manifestations of their genders. Ironically, radical lesbians found themselves at odds with radical feminists for embracing masculinity and focusing on their own sexuality — both things radical feminists who weren’t queer-inclined saw as contrary to the empowerment of women. But rather than recognize the nuances and complexities that lay within that conflict, they all too often used the same line of thought to exclude women whose lives were contrary to their own idea of empowerment.

In seeking to build separatist spaces in the second wave, feminists had stumbled upon the greater problem of their own movement: that women of broad experiences can both share experiences but occupy different places in the big matrix of power and privilege, and that building communities around the shared experience of womanhood and male oppression means negotiating just who that community will ultimately serve — and who it will leave behind.

Looking Forward

The notion of a women’s space hasn’t entirely fallen to the wayside, even if the period of prominent separatism is now fodder for history books. As some women’s spaces fade out of history and others modernize their missions, we’re seeing a slow but powerful transition from the ideals of the second wave to the sight of a better future for identity-based spaces.

Many collectives, shelters, colleges, and even media and arts events that once excluded trans women or overlooked the work of women of color have since changed their ways. Admissions policies at some women’s colleges have been made explicitly trans-inclusive. Michigan Women’s Festival, long seen as the territory of TERFs, is shutting down, and other trans-inclusive women’s festivals are ready to take its place. Gender-neutral bathrooms are a staple in social justice spaces, and even in explicitly feminist spaces. Women’s spaces are become places where diversity and difference are embraced, not feared, and where women who live at the intersections of oppression are more central to their structure and values. In the last few decades, inclusive spaces like Camp Sister Spirit and, well duh, A-Camp, have proven that exclusive models of feminism aren’t the only ones that work.

A lot has changed since the second wave. Intersectionality as a theory first began being parsed out during the sixties and seventies, and didn’t even have a name until the ’90s — Kimberlé Crenshaw published her landmark paper “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” in 1993. After the second wave, the women’s movement finally came to more fully embrace queer women and a new, more inclusive brand of social justice — trans issues, queer issues, racial justice issues, and women’s issues have lately been perceived as more interconnected than ever.

And though the things that created separatism — the notions of a singular womanhood and a one-dimensional view of women’s oppression — have since faced critical thought, spaces for marginalized people don’t have to be a way of the past. We can honor these histories without praising their faults. We can acknowledge where separatism went wrong in the past without disavowing the idea of sharing time, space, and our lives around people who affirm and echo our identities. And we must. 

There is a power in building communities on our own terms as marginalized people. There is a freedom in escaping, even for a moment, the weight of oppression and the burden of society’s expectations for who we should be. And there is a revolution to be had in building better, more inclusive spaces for marginalized folks.

Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. This is perfect timing for me! I’m reading Lillian Faderman’s 20th-century American lesbian history “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers” right now, and while I feel like it’s a good overview, it’s driving me *crazy* in how dismissive she is of working-class butch-femme culture. She seems to imply they just weren’t smart or hip enough to get with lesbian separatism, when most accounts suggest the lesbian-feminists were really dismissive of them (“aping heterosexual culture”, “conformists”) and refused to make room for them in their movement unless they abandoned a cherished identity.

    Has anyone else read Faderman or similar, and had these thoughts?

    • Yes Ellie. I’m in my 50’s now and struggled in coming out as bi in the 80’s (I was actually lesbian identified then). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers was a rare, sexuality-affirming book in what felt like a sexually cold subculture, so I really loved it. However, as I further entered lesbian settings I learned firsthand that despite the discomfort I had around the butch-femme manifestations, there was a lot of great energy, sexual and otherwise, around women who showed strength and power: were they freaks in being “Butch” or were we misguided by labelling that charismatic power as “masculine?” Even though I found my attraction to such women disconcerting, I came to realize in some “Butch” women an energy that was real, undeniable and irresistible, regardless of labels.

  2. I agree this was a fascinating read. I just still find that some of these groups will not engage with men, but then have trans men in the orgs, and blame trans women for things. Like why? Trans men are men, and trans women are women.

  3. I feel that the history of violence perpetuated against trans women by cis radical feminsts, female spaces run by cis women have a responsibility to be outwardly inclusive of trans women. This history is still fresh too. Many of the people who were perpetuating that violence are still alive and active.

    I’m still really scared to enter spaces for queer women; I’ve just heard so many horror stories. I’m also not sure I’d feel safe in a survivor support group for women, despite how powerful a space like that could be for me at this point in my life. None of the groups near where I live are outwardly trans inclusive, so it’s kind of a crap shoot. I don’t want to open my heart to people, and then have to debate my right to even be in the circle. Basically if a space for women doesn’t explicitly say they’re trans inclusive I have to assume the worst.

    Idk. We still have a long way to go.

    • I was just reading something that made a lot of sense to me about how the concept of “inclusion” is a faulty one. Like when we say that cis women should be “inclusive” of trans women in female spaces, we are saying that cis women “own” the rights to those spaces, to dole out as they wish. When we say that feminism needs to be more “inclusive” of POC, we are saying that white people “own” feminism. Etc.

      Connected to that somewhat, I feel like I run into problems for myself around the idea of separatist spaces, because who are the gatekeepers to those spaces, and who is excluded? So often it seems so imperfect. So I’d rather inhabit a feminist space that welcomes all feminists, for instance, than a female-only space for people who identify as women (a space that might be richer if it had NB people or trans men amongst its members).

      • Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately cis white women have set up historically those spaces to have that dynamic.

        While the idea of women’s spaces is really appealing to me, I feel like there’s a bit of a false expectation of safety there, because of how intersectional our identities are. Even in trans spaces, I have a have had people shit on me for having mental health problems, and both witnessed and experiences policing of gender and presentation.

  4. I think one topic that is missing from this discussion is the place of the children in the spaces mentioned.

    As the child of a lesbian who wasn’t a separatist, but was friends with many who were (and venerated women who championed these notions) I think it is important to discuss the various ways children were handled by those who pushed for these ideas.

    Growing up, I baby sat for many women who were more involved in the movements and the ways that children were discussed and dealt with is something that is often skipped over.

    • I remember reading several articles about separatist communities that didn’t permit male children over the age of 5 to live with them, which I always found very unsettling. Especially the fact that there were women who went along with that kind of rule with respect to their own children.

      • Yeah, I baby-sat for a boy whose mother would leave him with relatives or friends for extended periods because of those rules. The boy just didn’t understand what he did wrong.

        • That’s absolutely awful. It makes sense to have separatist spaces due to how the patriarchy shapes men, but wouldn’t a man being raised in a woman positive space circumvent that?

          I also feel like there is a lot of gender essentialism at play. Like, just because a baby was assigned male at birth doesn’t really say anything about what gender they will eventually identify as. I didn’t get the courage to come out until my teens, so I would of been kicked out even though I’m a queer woman.

          • Sadly, when people are 100% certain in their view of reality… they often hurt those they are trying to protect. I have spoken to a lot of the children of lesbian parents (from the 80s and 90s) and there is a lot of heartbreak over the intolerance of that period.

      • Generally male children were tolerated until around 5 and then they were not allowed in separatist spaces. Since they were close minded when it came to gender and sex there was no consideration given to intersex or trans children.

        In some ways the worst thing was the reckless way that boys were talked about by lesbian separatists. Many times I overheard women speak of male children in fatalistic terms, that they were trying to raise their boys well, but saw it as hopeless. People love to claim that misandry has never been a thing, but sadly that is not true.

        It is difficult to talk about this because so many of my best childhood memories are of holidays around my mother’s friends, several of who were separatists: thanksgiving potlucks, winter solstice, picnics, etc.

        But I also can’t forget how my brother who was gay never felt welcome around the women my mom knew… and considering he was dealing with coming out in high-school (in the 80s!) it really seems like a betrayal that they were not more supportive.

        I know that separatists in the 80s thought they had the best of intentions, but sometimes that is not enough.

  5. Can we just let the idea of separatism die please? Spaces for women to be with other women, for LGBTQ people with LGBTQ people, for POC to be with POC, etc. are important – we all need a break from having to explain or justify ourselves sometimes. But enjoying time with those who are similar to us is a far cry from shutting entire categories of people out of our lives.

    It don’t think it’s possible to “build a better separatism”, since the entire concept is deeply flawed. Cutting people out your life based exclusively on their gender identity is essentialist bullshit. Your gender is a part of you, but it doesn’t define you and it definitely determine your moral value. The fact that some of our feminist foremothers embraced separatism is understandable, given the intense discrimination that they faced, but it isn’t something we should try to emulate.

      • Couldn’t agree more, though I couldn’t think of such a precise way to say it. I do like that Carmen made a distinction between “temporary” spaces and “permanent” spaces. The former I have no problem with, though I’d prefer not to call them separatist. On the other hand assuming liberation can only come from living completly-apart from everyone who isn’t “one of us” seems defeatist.

        Also, yes too for edit buttons.

        • I totally agree. To clarify, I enjoyed the article and didn’t feel like Carmen was actually advocating separatism. I just think it’s important to draw a sharp distinction between creating safe spaces for women, people of color, and other marginalized communities to be with one another and actually refusing to associate with people of a certain gender or race. The two are really not the same thing at all.

          Men don’t oppress women because they are men, (some) men oppress women because they’ve been raised in a patriarchal society that devalues women, and have learned to think of them as lesser beings. Sexist actions are learned behaviors, and they can be unlearned. Women shouldn’t cut men our of our lives, we should help them to see the error of their ways and work to create new feminist allies.

          • “Women shouldn’t cut men our of our lives, we should help them to see the error of their ways and work to create new feminist allies.”

            Respectfully disagree. Women are not men’s mothers. (Except for when they literally are.) It’s not our jobs to educate them in order to simply be treated like real human beings. If some women wish to spend their time and energy that way then that is that is their valid choice, but such emotional labor cannot be an expected duty.

          • I don’t think Dialethia was saying that all women needed to educate men about basic matters of respect, which I agree should happen at home (or possible at school). What I suspect she really meant is anyone with the time and energy, and knowledge to enlighten others would do more to fight oppression by challenging stereotypes and socitial norms than by creating societies which serve a single identity.

            I also enjoyed the article, partially because it illustrates the flawed logic in believing liberation comes from separating the “oppressed” from the “oppresser

          • CRAP, I hit summit before I could finish. What did someone say before about edit buttons?

            I also enjoyed the article, partially because it illustrates the flawed logic in believing liberation comes from separating the “oppressed” from the “oppressor.” That intersecting identities of biracialism, bisexuality, and transsexuality make it nearly impossible to exclude supposed oppressors without operating like an oppressor yourself. In trying to weed out enemies you lose allies, limiting the size and resource of your communities and making it even more vulnerable.

            Again I’m only thinking of separate space as a permanent solution, not a temporary refuge.

          • Ray: I don’t think women have any obligation to constantly educate men. However, if your goal is to advance women’s rights, educating men about feminism (and women and non-binary people – anyone can be sexist) seems like a much better strategy than separtism. It makes a lot more sense to actively work towards the creation of a world where people of all genders, races/ethnicities, and sexualities respect one another as equals than to just give up and only associate with individuals similar to overselves.

  6. I would appreciate it if you could please cite your sources. You have written this essay as if what you say is fact, but much of it is hearsay, or dependent on secondary or even tertiary sources. If you are going to write history, I urge you to back it up with facts. There is plenty of material about Lesbian Separatism and Lesbian politics in the 1970’s – written by the women who created lived in those times and created those spaces – available online. A few direct quotes or links to the material you have used to form your analysis would go a long way to making what you say valuable, or even credible. Thank you.

  7. “Women shouldn’t cut men our of our lives, we should help them to see the error of their ways and work to create new feminist allies.”

    Respectfully disagree. Women are not men’s mothers. (Except for when they literally are.) It’s not our jobs to educate them in order to simply be treated like real human beings. If some women wish to spend their time and energy that way then that is that is their valid choice, but such emotional labor cannot be an expected duty.

  8. All animals are created equal, some more then others. Animal Farm, George Orwell.

    The greatest dignity anyone can give another member of society is to simply see past their color, creed, religion, sexual orientation and to see them as a person to be respected.

  9. After Orlando, all I want is a separatist space to feel safe in. I really don’t care about all the opinions of people who don’t get it, gay or otherwise, especially those who expect our emotional labour to just go to making straight men decent human beings. I don’t have time. It’s not where I’m focused. Women are my priority, specifically lesbian women. I want them (us) to be able to heal and lay down their armour in a space that understands them and loves them (at least more than the culture at large). Apparently, to some this makes me a bigot and it makes me a problematic lesbian, to both lesbians and non-lesbians alike. M’kay.

    Not all people belong in all spaces and that’s okay. We need as many spaces as there are people, and I think many progressives agree with this, yet the most consistently attacked spaces I’ve seen have been those for lesbian women. We as women and as lesbians need to learn to be okay with saying no. We deserve our own spaces as much as anyone else.

    On the topic of male children in lesbian spaces, we need to have a frank discussion about misogyny and bullying between children. Children aren’t as innocent as we like to believe. How quickly we gloss over our own experiences as young girls and the cruelty we experienced at the hands of young boys (yes, even the boys of the most progressive and feminist mothers). Young boys do bully and assault young girls *because* they are girls. I fear for those young girls who are expecting the adult women in their lives to have their backs when they experience their first violations at the hands of a boy, violations and boys both big and small, and instead are met with incredulous adults who somehow believe that misogyny doesn’t take root until somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. It starts young and across all social strata, *especially* with someone’s little Aiden/Jaden/Brayden who has people in his life who are so convinced that he would *never* do such a thing. We’ve seen it time and time again and ultimately those young boys often grow up to be young men who attend Stanford and are on the swim team and become beyond reproach in the eyes of so many. It starts young and both our boys and our girls deserve better from us. They deserve our honesty.

    Furthermore, women are not responsible for men’s virtue, not their sons, their grandsons, their father’s, brother’s, or neighbour’s. Even the most wonderfully possessive and well meaning feminist women can have sons who are raging misogynists. A child is not an island and their socialization is not just from their mother. The dark flip side of this implies that if women can raise good sons by just their sheer force of will, then the eventual harmful behaviour of boys and men is ultimately because of some woman’s failings prior to that point. I don’t buy that. Women are not responsible for the perpetuation of misogyny and I’m not willing to sacrifice other lesbians and young girls because someone else doesn’t understand that. I’m sure that many male children *would* benefit from exposure to lesbian majority spaces but that’s not the point. A safe space for and by lesbians (and potentially their daughters) *is.*

    Frankly, there’s an awful lot of unsubstantiated information and several assumptions made here about the downfall of separatist spaces and I’m seconding the call for references and citations, not just hearsay. I realize that this is an old article and it won’t be acknowledged and that’s fine, but I think it’s sloppy journalism to just present the same tired narrative about this issue as fact with no citations to back it up and, to be honest, I’m assuming little to no personal experience with it, given the ages and dates involved. There’s lots of original source material out there on this topic so the decision to paint separatists and even radical feminists as bogeyman is inexcusable on a website that purports to be by and for gay women and feminists.

    If you don’t get it, fine, but please endeavour to understand a bit more of the nuance next time. Separatism does still have a place in our community and so long as we have events like Orlando and live in a misogynistic and homophobic society, we will still need a safe haven to go to to breathe, regroup, and love with our community (and only our community) around us. Lesbians deserve a room of their own.

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