About Denise Thompson


Lesbian Feminism

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Lesbianism as political practice

(January/February 2004): As I acknowledged at the time I gave this paper, the theory contained in it is undeveloped and consequently highly compressed, even at times labyrinthine. Although it never did get developed to my own satisfaction, the main argument is clear enough - lesbian feminism felt so central to the feminist enterprise and could lay claim to being the most radical practice of second wave feminism for two reasons - it posed a threat to the chief mechanism of women's subordination, heterosexuality, by refusing to be implicated; and it involved women focusing on each other, not on men. That the threat was more symbolic than real is obvious, and not only with hindsight. (We were vaguely aware of it at the time too). In fact it was wildly improbable, as indeed it turned out. But that makes the question of why it was being said, not to mention the strength of the negative reactions it evoked, even more interesting. 

I have supplied a summary below, paragraph by paragraph, which may help to clarify matters somewhat. 

The paper starts (paragraphs 1 and 2) by setting out what I saw as the crucial conflict within lesbian feminism - between the importance of lesbianism on the one hand, and the comparative silence about it in the public arena of feminism on the other. It is this latter point that the more coherent of my critics kept disagreeing with - lesbianism hadn't been silenced, they said, and it was only my ignorance of what had been done that led me to say so. 

In paragraph 3 I suggest that the reason why lesbianism was not discussed to the extent it should be, might be in order to avoid outright conflict among feminists. Paragraphs 4 to 9 suggest a number of reasons why lesbianism might be important in feminist terms, eventually finding these reasons inadequate. Paragraphs 10 to 12 cast the issue of the current situation of women under capitalist patriarchal conditions in Marxist terms (because there was a hope around at the time that feminism and Marxism might be found to be compatible). What I was talking about here was not lesbianism but  the social problems to which lesbianism was being posited as a solution.

Paragraph 13 starts with the statement that I was concerned with 'the ideological mechanism whereby that exclusion of women from the process of material production is effected'. That statement needs unpacking and updating. What I was trying to do in this paper was to clarify the feminist meaning of lesbianism, so the crucial phrase in that statement is 'ideological mechanism' (that is, dealing with the question of how meanings come to be imposed even though they are against people's best interests). But coupling it with 'material production' meant that I was accepting, at least in part, the 'ideological'/'material' distinction that bedevilled so much of the Marxist theorising at the time. What I went on to talk about, however, involved two concepts centrally concerned with the notion of meaning, 'discourse' and 'ideology'. I concluded in paragraph 16 with an argument in favour of a theory of ideology with which to theorise social relations of domination. This was a plea for a theory of meaning which would allow for a distinction to be made between ideological and non-ideological systems of meaning. (I developed this further in my thesis, 1993-1996 - see Radical Feminism Today).

Paragraphs 17 to 20 contain a discussion of the notion of 'subject' (starting from a statement by Foucault), using the term in two senses, 'class' (as in the Marxist insistence that classes, and not individuals, were the true subjects of history) and 'the individual'. The discussion of 'class' pointed out that men didn't constitute a 'class' in any sense resembling the Marxist one (and neither did women). The argument seems pretty pointless now. The discussion of the individual was more cogent, cautioning against a politics that targeted different types of individuals (in this case, 'men'). It recommended instead exposing the ways in which ideological individualism 'nullifies collective interests by "personalising" them as "individual problems" to be punished/cured, and "universalising" hegemonic interests as the "general social good"'. 

This is a very compressed statement indeed, and I'm not sure I could simplify it even now. Many years after I wrote this paper I would return to this problem of ideological individualism, first in my thesis (see Radical Feminism Today), and then in a research project resulting in a number of papers, and which is still ongoing as I write (see 'Feminism and the Problem of Individualism', 'The Trouble with Individualism ...: A Discussion with Some Examples', 'Social Welfare Policy and "the Unemployed": A Case Study in the Ideology of Individualism' and 'Individualising the Social: or, Whatever Happened to Male Domination?'). It was in the course of this research project that I came to realise how extraordinarily difficult it is to disentangle oneself from ideological individualism, so hegemonic is it, much less convey the force of the critique to anyone else.

The last two paragraphs, 22 and 23, contain the theory of lesbian feminism as I saw it at the time. I don't disagree with what I said then, although I wouldn't use the Marxist terminology, e.g. 'class society' would become social relations of domination. I would also bracket off the assertions about lesbian feminism rather than making direct statements, stressing that this is what lesbian feminism meant, not what it did, or even what it could do. It wasn't possible to decide what to do unless we were clear on what was already happening. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

Click here for the full paper.

As I mentioned in 'Introduction to Lesbian Feminism', this paper created something of an uproar. Some echoes of the fuss can be found at these links.

Click here for reply no. 1 - Melbourne Lesbian Newsletter

Click here for reply no. 2 - Refractory Girl

Click here for two letters and an article


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