Feminist separatism is the theory that feminist opposition to patriarchy can be achieved through women's separation from men.[1][2] Much of the theorizing is based in lesbian feminism.

Author Marilyn Frye describes feminist separatism as "separation of various sorts or modes from men and from institutions, relationships, roles and activities that are male-defined, male-dominated, and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege – this separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women."[3]


Cultural critic Alice Echols describes the emergence of a lesbian separatist movement as a response to homophobic sentiments expressed by feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women. Echols argues that "...the introduction of (homo)sex troubled many heterosexual feminists who had found in the women's movement a welcome respite from sexuality." Echols considered separatism as a lesbian strategy to untie lesbianism from sex so heterosexual women in the feminist movement felt more comfortable.[4]

Cell 16, which was founded in 1968 by Roxanne Dunbar, has been cited as the first organization to advance the concept of separatist feminism.[5][6][7] Cultural historian Alice Echols credits Cell 16's work for "helping establishing the theoretical foundation for lesbian separatism."[8] Echols cites Cell 16 as an example of heterosexual feminist separatism, as the group never advocated lesbianism as a political strategy.

In No More Fun and Games, the organization's radical feminist periodical, members Roxanne Dunbar and Lisa Leghorn advised women to "separate from men who are not consciously working for female liberation."[9] Instead, they advised periods of celibacy, rather than lesbian relationships, which they considered to be "nothing more than a personal solution".[9]

Meaning and purpose

Proponents of feminist separatism have varied opinions on the meaning of feminist and lesbian separatism; major debates include the degree to which women should separate from men, whether it is a strict ideology or a strategy, and how it works to benefit women.

General feminist separatism

In a tract on socialist feminism published in 1972, the Hyde Park Chapter of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union differentiated between separatism as an "ideological position" and as a "tactical position".[10] In the same document, they further distinguished between separatism as "personal practice" and as "political position".[10]

In lesbian feminist Marilyn Frye's (1978) essay Notes on Separatism and Power she posits female separatism as a strategy practiced by all women, at some point, and present in many feminist projects (one might cite women's refuges, electoral quotas or Women's Studies programmes). She argues that it is only when women practice it self-consciously as separation from men, that it is treated with controversy (or as she suggests, hysteria). Male separatism on the other hand (one might consider gentleman's clubs, labor unions, sports teams, the military, and more arguably decision-making positions in general) is seen as quite a normal, even expedient phenomenon, while it is mostly not practiced self-consciously.

Some feminist separatists believe that men cannot make positive contributions to the feminist movement and that even well-intentioned men replicate the dynamics of patriarchy.[11]

Lesbian separatism

Charlotte Bunch, an early member of The Furies Collective, viewed separatism as a strategy, a "first step" period, or temporary withdrawal from mainstream activism to accomplish specific goals or enhance personal growth.[12]

In addition to advocating withdrawal from working, personal or casual relationships with men, The Furies recommended that lesbian separatists relate "only (with) women who cut their ties to male privilege"[13] and suggest that "as long as women still benefit from heterosexuality, receive its privileges and security, they will at some point have to betray their sisters, especially Lesbian sisters who do not receive those benefits."[13] This was part of a larger idea that Bunch articulated in Learning from Lesbian Separatism (1976), that "in a male-supremacist society, heterosexuality is a political institution,"[14] and the practice of separatism is a way to escape its domination.

Separatism has been considered by lesbians as both a temporary strategy and as a lifelong practice. Lambda Award winning author Elana Dykewomon has chosen separatism as a lifelong practice.

In her 1988 book, Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value, lesbian philosopher Sarah Lucia Hoagland alludes to lesbian separatism's potential to encourage lesbians to develop healthy community ethics based on shared values. Hoagland articulates a distinction (originally noted by lesbian separatist author and anthologist, Julia Penelope) between a lesbian subculture and a lesbian community; membership in the subculture being "defined in negative terms by an external, hostile culture", and membership in the community being based on "the values we believe we can enact here".[15] Bette Tallen believes that lesbian separatism, unlike some other separatist movements, is "not about the establishment of an independent state, it is about the development of an autonomous self-identity and the creation of a strong solid lesbian community".[16] Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman describes the separatist impulses of lesbian feminism which created culture and cultural artifacts as "giving love between women greater visibility" in broader culture.[17] Faderman also believes that lesbian feminists who acted to create separatist institutions did so to "bring their ideals about integrity, nurturing the needy, self-determination and equality of labor and rewards into all aspects of institution-building and economics".[17]

Lesbian separatism and radical lesbianism

See also: Queer nationalism, Lesbian feminism, and Radical lesbianism

Separatist lesbianism is a type of feminist separatism specific to lesbians.[18] Many lesbian separatists bought land so they could live separately from men and heterosexual women.[18]

Radical lesbianism and other similar movements represent a rupture with the broader feminist movements. They offer an attempt by some feminists and lesbians to try to reconcile what they see as inherent conflicts with the stated goals of feminism. Many of these conflicts and ruptures are a result of issues arising from broader and nationally specifically cultural narratives around women. Some of them are created independently in response to these needs, while others draw inspiration from radical movements in other countries. This results in no single history of radical lesbianism, but of separate national struggles.

Internationally, radical lesbians often took advantage of convergent international spaces to create their own events to increase the visibility of lesbianism. Examples of this include the 1994 lesbian march in New York on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. Another example was at the 1995 Beijing hosted World Women's Conference. A third example took place during the 1997 Amsterdam hosted Gay Games.

In the United States, the movement started in 1970, when seven women (including lesbian activist Del Martin) confronted the North Conference of Homophile Organizations about the relevance of the gay rights movement to the women within it. The delegates passed a resolution in favor of women's liberation, but Del Martin felt they had not done enough, and wrote "If That's All There Is", an influential 1970 essay in which she decried gay rights organizations as sexist.[19][20] The Furies formed a commune in 1971 open to lesbians only, where they put out a monthly newspaper called The Furies. The Furies consisted of twelve women, aged eighteen to twenty-eight, all feminists, all lesbians, all white, with three children among them.[21] These activities continued into the early part of the decade.[21][22][23] Other well known lesbian separatists groups include The Gutter Dykes, The Gorgons, and The Radicalesbians.[24]

In a United States context, the practice of lesbian separatism sometimes incorporates concepts related to queer nationalism and political lesbianism. Some individuals who identify as lesbian separatists are also associated with the practice of Dianic paganism.[25][26]

In Francophone countries, the term radical lesbian movement is used instead of lesbian separatism. It is roughly analogous to English-language lesbian separatism. Inspired by the writings of philosopher Monique Wittig,[27] the movement originated in France in the early 1980s, spreading soon after to the Canadian province of Quebec.[27] Wittig, referencing the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, challenges concepts of biological determinism, arguing that those in power construct sex difference and race difference for the purpose of masking conflicts of interest and maintaining domination.[28] She and her allies saw heterosociality as well as heterosexuality as aspects of hetero-power, strongly to be resisted.[29]

Latin American radical lesbianism developed during the 1970s, and like other parts of the movement, resulted from specific national conditions. Radical lesbianism began to develop in Mexico in 1977, led by the group Mujeres guerreras que abren caminos y esparcen flores (Oikabeth). Radical lesbianism arose in Chile in 1984 in response to national conditions resulting from the dictatorship.  Costa Rica developed a radical lesbianism movement in 1986.[30] During the 1980s and 1990s, life for lesbians in Latin America was difficult because of lesbophobic repression across the region. Consequently, the communities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Brazil began working more closely together on shared goals.[31]

Culture and community

Lesbian and feminist separatism have inspired the creation of art and culture reflective of its visions of female-centered societies. An important and sustaining aspect of lesbian separatism was the building of alternative community through "creating organizations, institutions and social spaces ... women's bookstores, restaurants, publishing collectives, and softball leagues fostered a flourishing lesbian culture."[32]


During the second-wave of feminism, women created a network of publications, presses, magazines, and periodicals, known as the women in print movement.[33] Some designated their periodicals and books "for women only", or "for lesbians only".


One historical example is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist novel Herland (1915). Contemporary examples include Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) and Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1993).

The Wanderground (Persephone Press, 1978), is a separatist utopian novel written from author Sally Miller Gearhart's personal experience in rural lesbian-separatist collectives.[1]

Wild Mares: My Lesbian Back-to-the-Land Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) documents author Dianna Hunter's experiences in a lesbian separatist collective.

Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (Simon & Schuster, 1973) is a collection of essays written by Jill Johnston, that were originally printed in The Village Voice, where Johnston discusses elements of breaking off from the male-dominated institutions.[34]


For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology (Onlywomen Press, 1988), edited by Julia Penelope and Sarah Lucia Hoagland, is a collection of writings on lesbian separatism.


Main articles: List of lesbian periodicals and List of lesbian periodicals in the United States

Notable US lesbian separatist periodicals include Common Lives/Lesbian Lives (Iowa, 1980–1996), Lesbian Connection (Michigan, 1974–present), Sinister Wisdom (California, 1976–present), Lesbian Tide (California, 1971–1980), WomanSpirit (Oregon, 1974–1984) Conditions (New York, 1976–1990), and Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians (New York, 1971–1980).

Other examples are the London lesbian magazine Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics,[35] Lesbian Feminist Circle, a lesbian only journal collectively produced in Wellington, New Zealand,[36][37] the Australian periodical Sage: The Separatist Age,[38] Amazones d'Hier, Lesbiennes d'Aujourd'hui, produced for lesbians only in Montreal, Quebec,[39] and the Killer Dyke a magazine by the "Flippies" (Feminist Lesbian Intergalactic Party), based in Chicago.[40][41] The Furies was an American newspaper by The Furies Collective which intended to give a voice to lesbian separatism, and ran from January 1972 until mid-1973.


Main article: Women's music

The early 1970s was an active period in womyn's music, a genre mostly originated and supported by lesbian separatists. Maxine Feldman's Angry Atthis and Alix Dobkin's Lavender Jane Loves Women were two early examples of this phenomenon.[42]

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, or "Michfest", was a yearly music festival that took place every summer until 2015. Michfest was established in 1976 and was active supporter in the need for women to be separated at times from the "politics, institution, and culture of men. Michfest offered women not only the chance to 'live' feminism, but, as the quotes above testify, also acted as a way of educating women about feminist forms, in ways that can challenge the vilification of 'radical lesbian separatism'."[43]

Olivia Records was a separatist business in Los Angeles that produced women's music and concerts. Olivia Records was founded in 1973 by Jennifer Woodhul, Lee Schwing, Ginny Berson, and Helaine Harris and was originally located in Washington, D.C. Olivia Records sold nearly 2 million copies of albums with women performers and artists that were marketed to women.[44] The record company eventually shifted from music to travel, and is now a lesbian travel company called Olivia.[45]

Community projects

See also: Womyn's land and Feminist bookstores

Womyn's land has been used in America to describe communities of lesbian separatists, normally living on a separate plot of land.[18] Some lesbian lands have practiced the idea of ecofeminism on these separate plots of land, which is the connection between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature by men. Access to temporary free land was often found through women's music festivals, where lesbians would network and strategized their plans for lesbian land.[46] Lesbian separatism provided opportunities to "live their lives apart from ...mainstream society",[47] and in the 1970s, "significant numbers of lesbian feminists moved to rural communities."[48] One of these lesbians, Joyce Cheney, interviewed rural feminist separatists and lesbian separatists living in intentional community, land trusts and land co-ops. The result was her book, Lesbian Land (1976).[49][50] Cheney describes the reason for many of these separatists' move to lesbian land as a "spatial strategy of distancing ... from mainstream society".[50]


In a 1982 published conversation about black feminism and lesbian activism with her sister Beverly Smith, Barbara Smith, co-author of the Combahee River Collective Statement, expresses concerns that "to the extent that lesbians of color must struggle simultaneously against the racism of white women (as against sexism), separatism impedes the building of alliances with men of color". Smith writes that race places lesbians of color in a different relation to men as white lesbians as "white women with class privilege don't share oppression with white men. They're in a critical and antagonistic position whereas Black women and other women of color definitely share oppressed situations with men of their race".[51] Smith makes a distinction between the theory of separatism and the practice of separatism, stating that it is the way separatism has been practiced which has led to "an isolated, single-issued understanding and practice of politics, which ignores the range of oppressions that women experience".[52]

In 1983, anarchist Bob Black wrote: "Separatism may be absurd as a social program and riddled with inconsistencies. But semi-isolation makes it easier to indoctrinate neophytes and shut out adverse evidence and argument, an insight radical feminists share with Moonies, Hare Krishna, and other cultists".[53]

While advocating a broadly separatist policy, feminist Sonia Johnson points out that feminist separatism risks defining itself by what it separates itself from, i.e. men.[54]

Lesbian poet Jewelle Gomez refers to her intertwined history with black men and heterosexual women in her essay Out of the Past and explains that "to break away from those who've been part of our survival is a leap that many women of color could never make".[55]

See also


  1. ^ a b Shugar, Dana R. (1995). Separatism and Women's Community. University of Nebraska Press. pp. xi–xvii. ISBN 978-0-8032-4244-9.
  2. ^ Christine Skelton, Becky Francis, Feminism and the Schooling Scandal, Taylor & Francis, 2009 ISBN 0-415-45510-3, ISBN 978-0-415-45510-7 p. 104.
  3. ^ Marilyn Frye, "Some Reflections on Separatism and Power". In Feminist Social Thought: A Reader, Diana Tietjens Meyers (ed.) (1997) New York: Routledge, pp. 406–414.
  4. ^ Echols, Alice. "The Eruption of Difference", from Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, 1989, University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2, p. 218.
  5. ^ Saulnier, Christine F. Feminist Theories and Social Work: Approaches and Applications ,1996, ISBN 1-56024-945-5.
  6. ^ Bevacqua, Maria Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault ,2000, ISBN 1-55553-446-5.
  7. ^ Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75, University of Minnesota Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2, p. 164.
  8. ^ Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–75, University of Minnesota Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2, p. 164.
  9. ^ a b Dunbar, Leghorn. "The Man's Problem", from No More Fun and Games, Nov 1969, quoted in Echols, p. 165.
  10. ^ a b Chicago Women's Liberation Union, Hyde Park Chapter. Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women's Movement, 1972 (booklet).
  11. ^ Sarah Hoagland, Lesbian Ethics: toward new value, p. 60, 154, 294.
  12. ^ Davis, Flora. Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America since 1960, University of Illinois Press, 1999, ISBN 0-252-06782-7, p271
  13. ^ a b Bunch, Charlotte/The Furies Collective, "Lesbians in Revolt", in The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, vol. 1, January 1972, pp.8–9
  14. ^ Bunch, Charlotte. Learning from Lesbian Separatism, Ms. Magazine, Nov. 1976
  15. ^ Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Towards a New Value, Institute for Lesbian Studies, Palo Alto, Ca.
  16. ^ Tallen, Bette S. Lesbian Separatism: A Historical and Comparative Perspective, in For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology, Onlywomen Press, 1988, ISBN 0-906500-28-1, p141
  17. ^ a b Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-07488-3, p220
  18. ^ a b c Kershaw, Sarah (January 30, 2009). "My Sister's Keeper". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 26, 2015.
  19. ^ Mark Blasius, Shane Phelan We are everywhere: a historical sourcebook in gay and lesbian politics, Routledge, 1997 ISBN 0-415-90859-0 p. 352
  20. ^ Vern L. Bullough Before Stonewall: activists for gay and lesbian rights in historical context, Routledge, 2002 ISBN 1-56023-193-9 p. 160
  21. ^ a b Dudley Clendinen, Adam Nagourney Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, Simon & Schuster, 2001 ISBN 0684867435, p. 104
  22. ^ Bonnie Zimmerman Lesbian histories and cultures: an encyclopedia Garland Pub., 2000 ISBN 0-8153-1920-7, p. 322
  23. ^ Penny A. Weiss, Marilyn Friedman Feminism and community, Temple University Press, 1995 ISBN 1566392772 p. 131
  24. ^ Levy, Ariel (February 22, 2009). "Lesbian Nation". The New Yorker. Retrieved May 10, 2016.
  25. ^ Empowering the Goddess Within Archived February 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, by Jessica Alton
  26. ^ Goddesses and Witches: Liberation and Countercultural Feminism Archived 2014-10-26 at the Wayback Machine, by Rosemary Ruether
  27. ^ a b Turcotte, Louise. (foreword) The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Monique Wittig, Beacon Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8070-7917-0, p ix
  28. ^ Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Towards a New Value, Institute for Lesbian Studies, Palo Alto, Ca.
  29. ^ Claire Duchen, Feminism in France (1986) p. 23-4
  30. ^ Falquet, Jules (2004). Breve reseña de ALGUNAS TEORÍAS LÉSBICAS [Brief review of some lesbian theories] (in Spanish). Mexico. pp. 32–33.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  31. ^ Falquet, Jules (2004). Breve reseña de ALGUNAS TEORÍAS LÉSBICAS [Brief review of some lesbian theories] (in Spanish). Mexico. p. 39.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  32. ^ McGarry & Wasserman, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, Studio, ISBN 0-670-86401-3, pp.187–188
  33. ^ Travis, Trysh (2008-09-12). "The Women in Print Movement: History and Implications". Book History. 11 (1): 275–300. doi:10.1353/bh.0.0001. ISSN 1529-1499. S2CID 161531900.
  34. ^ Grimes, William (21 September 2010). "Jill Johnston, Avant-Garde Cultural Critic, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2 February 2018. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  35. ^ "GEI to HUZ – Serials List – Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand". Laganz.org.nz. Archived from the original on 2010-06-02. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  36. ^ Covina 1975, pp 244–245.
  37. ^ "CAP to CUT – Serials List – Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand". Laganz.org.nz. Archived from the original on 2010-06-02. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  38. ^ "S.E to SQU – Serials List – Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand". Laganz.org.nz. 1988-01-09. Archived from the original on 2010-06-02. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  39. ^ Warner 2002, p 179.
  40. ^ "Special Identity Women's Periodicals: 1963–1983". Wifp.org. Archived from the original on 2010-12-05. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
  41. ^ "CLGA: Lesbian and Gay Periodicals". Archived from the original on 2005-12-03.
  42. ^ Garofalo, Reebee. Rockin' the Boat, South End Press, 1992, ISBN 0-89608-427-2
  43. ^ Browne, Kath (2011). "Lesbian separatist feminism at Michigan Womyn's music festival". Feminism & Psychology. 21 (2): 248–256. doi:10.1177/0959353510370185. S2CID 145055941.
  44. ^ Enszer, Julie R. (2016-02-25). ""How to stop choking to death": Rethinking lesbian separatism as a vibrant political theory and feminist practice". Journal of Lesbian Studies. 20 (2): 180–196. doi:10.1080/10894160.2015.1083815. ISSN 1089-4160. PMID 26914821. S2CID 7984028.
  45. ^ "Olivia Lesbian Travel: Lesbian Cruises, Lesbian Resorts and Lesbian Vacations". www.olivia.com. Retrieved 2018-10-07.
  46. ^ Anahita, Sine (2009). "Nestled into Niches: Prefigurative Communities on Lesbian Land". Journal of Homosexuality. 56 (6): 719–737. doi:10.1080/00918360903054186. PMID 19657932. S2CID 28508292.
  47. ^ McGarry & Wasserman, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, Studio, ISBN 0-670-86401-3, p190.
  48. ^ McGarry & Wasserman, Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America, Studio, ISBN 0-670-86401-3, p187
  49. ^ Cheney, Joyce. Lesbian Land, Word Weavers Press, 1976
  50. ^ a b Valentine, Gill. Contested Countryside Cultures: Otherness, Marginalisation, and Rurality ed.: Paul J. Cloke, Jo Little, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-14074-9, pp109–110.
  51. ^ Smith, Barbara and Beverly Smith. 1983. "Across the Kitchen Table: A Sister-to- Sister Dialogue", anthologized in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, p121
  52. ^ Smith, Barbara. Response to Adrienne Rich's Notes from Magazine: What does Separatism Mean?" from Sinister Wisdom, Issue 20, 1982
  53. ^ Bob Black (1986). The Abolition of Work and Other Essays. Loompanics Unlimited. ISBN 978-0915179411.
  54. ^ Johnson, Sonia (1989). Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution.
  55. ^ Gomez, Jewelle. Out of the Past, in David Deitcher's The Question of Equality:Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall, Scribner, 1995, ISBN 0-684-80030-6, pp44–45.

Further reading