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.
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!