If you were to think back to the major feminist movements in American history, what images of women come to mind? Do you think of women of color from various gender, sexuality and class backgrounds? Or is your initial image of middle to upper class, straight, white women? If your answer was the latter, don’t feel bad.
Throughout all of the Women’s Rights Movements in American there has been a noticeable lack of diversity among the women. For the most part, the issues brought fourth by the marches affected primarily white, straight, upper-class women and excluded issues affecting women of color, lesbian women and women from lower economic classes.
While all women should be commended for standing up for their rights in the face of injustice – we need to remember that many of the women involved in the leadership of the Women’s Rights Movements in the 1920s and 1970s used the same tactics as their male oppressors to silence the voices of their fellow marginalized women.
And that was their biggest mistake. Silencing the voices of women across gender, sexuality and economic backgrounds led to the movements problem with inclusivity that follows the movement today. It’s the voices of the collective woman who will propel us forward toward equality for all women.
While researching this topic, I was interested to hear the complaints from the women who were silenced and hear their perspective on the issue of diversity within the movement. And that led me straight to the Radical Lesbians.
In 1970, a group called The Radical Lesbians distributed a letter “The Woman Identified Woman” to declare how angry they were about lesbian speakers being excluded from the Congress to Unite Women in New York City and the social structure of lesbians and people of color from being excluded from a movement that directly affected them.
The letter came out in the years following the civil rights movement when women were empowered by the social and political change they had seen happen for the African American community. But at the time, the voice of the women’s movement didn’t include women of color or women from various sexual and gender identities. And the Radical Lesbians had enough.
“It should first be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy,” the letter read.
The letter was a call to arms for women to stop excluding lesbians and people of color from the movement and to break down the barriers men created to tear apart women because lesbians weren’t seen as “real women.”
“For women, especially those in the movement, to perceive their lesbian sisters through this male grid of role definitions is to accept this male cultural conditioning and to oppress their sisters much as they themselves have been oppressed by men.”
Reading the letter forced many feminists re-evaluate their intentions and the broader role of their mission – to make major changes to society that sought to oppress all women. One could argue that this is the exact reason the Radical Lesbians chose their name because they believed that the feminist movement would not be successful if they played by the rules and continued to exclude women from the mission.
“It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation, and the basis for the cultural revolution.”
Just as the Radical Lesbians said, women relating to women and coming together to be a voice for change is the heart and soul of the women’s liberation movement. It is my hope that in the years to come, when we see more women’s rights movements popping up around the county that women from all backgrounds choose to empower the voices of their sisters who have historically been silenced by men and women alike.