By Susanna J. Sturgis

Reading and reviewing The Feminist Bookstore Movement, by Kristen Hogan, I was surprised by how it downplayed and evaded a fact was obvious to me as a onetime feminist bookseller: that most feminist bookstores, publishers, and periodicals were brought into existence and sustained by all-women groups—groups in which lesbians were prominent far out of proportion to our numbers in the female and maybe even the feminist population. The omission is worth pondering. When I survey the feminist scene today the dearth of women-only spaces is obvious, and so is the way that lesbians often seem invisible in the organizations and projects that we’re an active part of.

As I write, the US seems to be on the verge of electing its first woman president, and one who doesn’t shrink from the word “feminist.” But at the same time feminists must still fight to safeguard and expand women’s access to birth control, abortion, and health care in general on our own terms—battles we seemed so close to winning thirty and even forty years ago. And Hillary Clinton’s successful candidacy seems to have unleashed blatant sexism not only on the right but among the liberals and progressives we thought were our allies.

I believe there’s a connection between the glaring absence of women-only spaces and the fact that feminism is everywhere on the defensive, pouring money, time, energy, and even blood into keeping women’s health clinics open and women safe from sexual violence.

The Combahee River CollectiveThe strands that coalesced into the women’s liberation movement began with women talking among ourselves. Middle-class white women talking about what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name.” Women in the New Left talking about the ways they were marginalized by their male comrades. Women in workplaces comparing notes about salary, promotion prospects, and sexual harassment. And feminists of color talking about their intersecting identities and how they were marginalized by white feminists.

Small, safe spaces were crucial. Even the more confident among us can get derailed if others keep interrupting, contradicting, distracting, or telling us what we really mean. It’s also hard to keep challenging our own thinking if we’re stuck answering the same questions over and over again.

Eventually we become ready to take our ideas and insights out in public and even put them before hostile audiences—but letting the potentially hostile audience in too soon makes it hard to hear ourselves think. Defense lawyers don’t have prosecutors hanging over them while they prepare a case. Theatergoers aren’t admitted to the earliest rehearsals of a play. Same principle.

From the late 1960s onward, those ideas and insights coalesced into stories and essays, pamphlets, and entire books. Those works were made available to a wider audience by feminist periodicals, presses, and bookstores. New works were conceived and came to fruition because the women in print network existed. That network was brought into existence and sustained almost entirely by women, with lesbians always visible and often in the forefront.

Nevertheless, talk of women-only space makes moderates, liberals, and progressives—and all too many feminists—nervous. It implies exclusion, and exclusion is seen as illiberal.

But men excluding women from positions of power is not the same as women excluding men from groups aimed at empowering ourselves. This sort of exclusion is crucial to identifying oppression and organizing against it. Workers trying to organize a union don’t want bosses and owners in on the process. Black people organizing against Jim Crow did not solicit support from white segregationists.

Once the word gets out that the powerless, whether they are workers or people of color or women or all three, are talking about things that directly and indirectly challenge the status quo, those in power become uneasy. They infiltrate meetings. They even bomb the places where meetings are held. Women organizing on our own behalf face a challenge that many other groups don’t: we’re often living under the same roofs as those whose privilege is challenged by our work.

Choosing to affiliate with other women made feminists suspect, not only to men but to many women. Who could possibly prefer the company of women to that of men? We were called “man-hating dykes” and worse.

Liberal, heterosexually inclined feminists and the mainstream organizations they dominated sometimes demonstrated theirRita Mae Brown (right) and others demonstrate at NOW meeting. acceptability to those in power by throwing lesbians under the bus. Betty Friedan famously referred to lesbians as “the lavender menace,” a moniker that lesbian feminists gleefully appropriated for ourselves. Liberal feminism not only welcomed men, it prided itself on welcoming men. Note that the women in print network did not grow out of groups like NOW.

These days progressives and the LGBT coalition are just as uneasy with the prospect of women organizing as women. These days all good liberals and progressives are expected to support same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in general; the word “homophobic” is on everyone’s lips. But “lesbophobia” is a word you rarely hear in the left-of-center these days. LGBT is commonly seen as a homogeneous community marching under a big rainbow flag. But, if you think about it for even two seconds, you’ll realize that Ls and Gs have as much and as little in common as women and men, because that’s what we are.

The default setting for “human” is still male. This affects all of us, because defaults are easy, right?. Changing this kind of bedrock cultural assumption takes hard work, constant vigilance, and lots of practice. Democrats, liberals, progressives, and members of the LGBT coalition claim that women’s issues are on their agenda, but unless feminists keep pushing our issues, and our perspectives on all issues, we get pushed down the priority list or off to the peripheries somewhere. The same is true for every constituency that isn’t well represented within the inner circle. We need to be active within those coalitions, but in order to do that effectively we also need to organize outside them, in spaces where we are not constantly under attack.

Feminism is as diverse as the work that needs to be done, and the work that needs to be done is never-endingly diverse. There is plenty of room for organizations and projects that welcome male participation. But feminism as a movement needs spaces that are women-only by design, because that’s where so many of our insights and theories and grassroots projects have come from.

Not for nothing does the first amendment to the US Constitution include “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The founders knew from experience how important this was, and how it was and still is among the first things to go when the powers that be want to stifle dissent. Any threat to it must be scrutinized carefully.

At the same time the right to peaceably assemble rests uneasily beside the liberal myth of the level playing field. The most serious threats to women-only space generally come from liberals, progressives, and members of the LGBT coalition, women as well as men, who find the notion intolerable because it’s supposedly intolerant. But feminism isn’t always liberal. It can’t afford to be infinitely inclusive. No movement aspiring to change the status quo can, because those who benefit from the status quo are generally reluctant to change it. If the privileged truly want society to become more fair, more just, and more inclusive, they need to support the right of those less privileged to meet behind closed doors.

sturgis.docSusanna J. Sturgis was the book buyer at Lammas, Washington, DC’s, feminist bookstore, from 1981 to 1985. Always a political animal, she was never all that interested in electoral politics, but she can’t keep her eyes off the current US presidential campaign. She supports herself as a freelance editor while working on her second novel and maintaining a blog, Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going.

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