Note from the author: The first half of this article originally appeared in the December–January 1970 issue of ComeOut! The second half was to have been published in a 1972 issue of ComeOut! Some time before production, the print shop that housed the galleys was raided (perpetrators unknown—at least to me) and the galleys were destroyed. The latter half of this article, tracing the rise and fall of Radicalesbians, never made it to press.
RADICALESBIANS BEGAN during the dreary months of the dying winter of 1970. A nucleus of Gay Liberation Front women, with a growing women’s consciousness, began to feel the need for an all-women’s GLF dance. They had previously been working on and attending GLF dances, which were overwhelmingly attended by males. The oppressive atmosphere was a simulated gay men’s bar—an overcrowded, dimly lit room where most human contact was limited to groping and dryfucking, packed together subway rush-hour style.
Earlier attempts by women and some men to create an ambience that encouraged group dancing and space for conversation were nullified by the “pack-’em-in” attitude of the GLF men running the dances. There were so many men at each event that the women felt lost to each other. It was intolerable to many, but the women put up with it, hoping it would change. Finally when it became obvious it was only growing worse as the weather grew warmer, GLF women decided to have an all-women’s dance.
This first dance was a great success: an environment of women —rapping, drinking, dancing, relating with fluidity and grace—was a new and beautiful phenomenon. That dance was followed by several more. Besides enjoying the events, the women had to meet and work together. Weekly meetings of GLF women became routine. This provided a fine opportunity to work collectively and to get to know one another. At the same time, something else was happening. Some GLF women, together with feminists from the Women’s Liberation Movement, had formed a consciousness-raising group. Out of these meetings two major accomplishments materialized: the writing of the lesbian feminist manifesto, “The Woman Identified Woman”; and a plan to confront the issue of lesbianism at the NOW (National Organization for Women)–sponsored 2nd Congress to Unite Women.
At the Congress, on May 1, 1970, twenty women wearing lavender T-shirts stenciled with “lavender menace” liberated the microphone from the line-up of planned speakers and initiated a forum on why lesbianism was the most threatening and most avoided issue in the Women’s Movement. The entire audience of 400 women related to the topic of lesbianism through their own personal experiences and feelings. This was followed by two days of workshops attended by more than 200 women. The paper “The Woman Identified Woman” was distributed. Our resolutions (we hope) became part of the report of the conference: “Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot. We are all lesbian.” Instead of purging lesbians from the Women’s Movement, we will proudly own and assert the woman-identified woman in all of us.
The aftermath of the congress coup is not so well known. We called for consciousness–raising groups and fifty interested women met the call. Four groups were set up—with new women from the NOW Congress and Lavender Menace lesbians participating in each group. Many of the women in these groups were straight–identified women who wanted to confront the issue of lesbianism and perhaps the lesbian in themselves. A very large majority turned out to be active lesbians, latent lesbians, closeted lesbians, one-beautiful-experience lesbians, freaked-out lesbians, spaced-out lesbians. From the ranks of the Women’s Liberation Movement they responded.
After having related for months and years to the broader women’s issues at the sacrifice of their own sexual identities, these women were ready now to come out—to use their energies to create a lesbian community and to make sure that the concepts of primary value and commitment between women, developed in the paper “Woman Identified Woman,” were taken on by the Women’s Liberation Movement. These sisters started coming to our weekly GLF women’s meetings, and as word spread through the grapevine, more and more unaffiliated women started attending those meetings.
At that point, the various groups of women had so thoroughly merged that the name GLF Women seemed inappropriate; it was obvious we were an independent, autonomous group and while there were some women who continued to relate to GLF, there were many feminists who felt they could not affiliate with a male-dominated organization that was in large part sexist. We decided to drop the name GLF Women and create a treasury to relate to our own needs and the needs of other gay women. The money was taken from the GLF community center fund—that portion that had been contributed by the women who had been attending GLF dances. It was enough to fund our first independent dance under our new name, “Radicalesbians.”
In this way, a movement of radical/revolutionary gay women organically coalesced—not artificially out of some theoretical political necessity, but through the natural flow of our experiences and changes in consciousness. Difficulties were anticipated because priorities differed. Some women felt themselves to be an arm of the Women’s Liberation Movement. They viewed the struggle as one waged by women against male supremacy. They experienced their primary identity as women (with a difference). Others felt themselves to be in close affiliation with GLF; they continued to relate to GLF and viewed the struggle as one primarily between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Still others saw their situation as unique—a struggle against sexism through the prism of a gay woman’s consciousness. Some women had not shaped or articulated their politics. They only knew that they liked to be with their sisters and wanted to help. With these differences we began meeting and working together, respecting if not loving each other.
BECAUSE of our past experiences in the Gay Liberation Front and other movement groups, we came together committed to finding an organizational form that would avoid the pitfalls of entrenched leadership hierarchies. We did not want a situation in which a few leaders represented and ran an organization in the interests of an apathetic community and ultimately in their own self-interest, as their community abandoned a boring, non-growth situation. A marathon weekend was planned, during which randomly arranged small groups of women talked about the issues they felt a gay women’s organization should address. The fifty or so topics that emerged from this marathon weekend were written up on poster boards that became our scrolls. These were ceremonially unrolled at meetings each week and became known as our “agenda.” In the course of discussing each item on the agenda, it was hoped that the shape of our organization would emerge. It was not to be pre-defined but to assume the shape of our collective needs.
Immediately adopted was the lot system for randomly selecting women to write up minutes, speak at colleges, and attend to the variety of tasks that are ordinarily dealt with by an election or a volunteer system. The lot system ideally would involve every woman in all the tasks of the organization and protect the group from domination by strong women with better-developed skills to the detriment of everyone else’s growth. Our discussions followed the procedure of each woman who spoke calling on the next woman to her left who wished to speak. Thus we avoided a chairwoman and the kinds of manipulation that are possible when one person becomes the center of an organizational universe.
However, in spite of all our efforts to keep a leadership syndrome from establishing itself, it became clear that one was emerging. Women with organizational experience and clearly articulated political ideas tended to dominate the discussions. They had the most to say and spoke every time during the circle go-arounds. They became vortices around which other women’s vague, ill-defined, or scarcely felt political inclinations flowed. And while their ideas were needed, women grew to resent them because it was felt that somehow they were responsible for this failing attempt at a truly participatory form.
When some of the most committed and articulate women decided to leave New York and stopped coming to the meetings, it became clear how much of the group energy had centered on their seeming political clarity. Their organizational experience, well-developed feminist consciousness, commitment, and dedication to the necessity of constructing a viable large-group political forum had fed and directed the group. In their absence the group floundered.
For a while, one woman, clearly committed to large group politics, functioned as an unacknowledged leader, but that caused conflict with the basic premise of the necessity for a non-leader, non-hierarchical form. A fundamental contradiction in the situation was brought into sharp focus. On one level the group took responsibility and understood that a leader was created and indulged out of fears and weakness. On another gut level, it was felt that this situation inhibited our growth and kept us locked into old oppressive forms.
Instead of dealing with these contradictions, the group began to direct its frustration and resentment at its most visible target—the leader. During this time, attendance at the meetings began to rapidly decline. Perhaps some women were disgusted at what seemed like an obvious hypocrisy. Perhaps they were disappointed and not committed enough to struggle. Perhaps they simply did not know what to do. But the fact was that numbers and energy were diminishing. Then the scapegoated leader, feeling frustrated and alienated in the face of group resentment, believing that she had clarified her priorities for herself and they were not being supported by the group, left to begin new work.
Meetings became more directionless, awkward, and unfulfilling. Radicalesbians gradually abandoned all the forms the agenda so gloriously extolled. Each week, instead of fifty or sixty women, only fifteen or twenty would appear, many of these new women coming for the first time, never to be seen again—they probably wondered what the desultory, unfocused meeting was all about. It was impossible to re-create the group history for these women. There was always some business to attend to that had practical currency, and it seemed impossible to explain all the twists and turns of our group process. It had been a process to be lived, not one to be described or prescribed.
At this time, some members were very much locked into the need for weekly meetings because they perceived Radicalesbians as an organization whose membership came together once a week and could be counted. There was also empathy for the women who were coming for the first time and trying to connect—lonely women, women with urgent needs for community and half-formed visions of a new lifestyle. It was felt that Radicalesbians had to provide a connecting point, a way of opening our embryonic community. Frantic efforts were made to keep the organization together despite the obvious absence of creative spontaneity. Trapped in an organizational mindset, unable to see any alternatives, some women became obsessed with revitalizing the weekly meetings that seemed to constitute the essence of Radicalesbians. Efforts were made to get the “dropouts” to return to meetings, and when that didn’t work, anger, resentment and self-righteous denunciations were directed at these sisters for their apparent abandonment of the struggle.
During this time, the so-called dropouts, disheartened and devitalized by the alienating atmosphere of the large group rhetoric, had not just stopped attending meetings but had re-centered themselves in their consciousness-raising groups, where there were feelings of warmth and trust. These women also began to move out into other groups and activities that spoke to their political needs: squatters’ actions, print-shop media centers, the Women’s Center, the now woman-controlled underground newspaper RAT, a newly formed Radicalesbian group in Philadelphia, campus groups. Because of their negative experiences in the Radicalesbian weekly meetings, they carried the awareness that a dynamic of engagement and affinity was essential to their work. More and more, in addition to doing actions, groups began focusing on their relationships as an area of primary concern for political struggle.
When dialogue was reestablished between “dropouts” and “hold-outs,” what we came to realize was that old conceptions of organization had blinded us to the evolutionary process moving through us. A new gestalt had formed in the shape of our own needs and the connections we were making with each other that no organization could contain. Radicalesbians had been trying to fit a life force into an arbitrary form. There was a new realization that Radicalesbians was not a thing but a process, a flow, a way of looking at life from our own centers and trying to live in accordance with that self-knowledge. We saw the flow all around us in the changes we made in our lives: quitting alienating, deadening, humiliating jobs; telling our parents and friends about our gay selves; moving into collectives to create chosen families; working on projects and activities that are alive and meaningful. Perhaps the voyage was launched from the weekly meetings, but the reality had become that women were leaving home and moving into new affinity and interest groups.
This is the herstory of the process that Radicalesbians underwent from 1970 to 1971 in New York City. During that time, spontaneously, lesbian feminist groups formed all over the country, each undergoing its own evolutionary process. This explosion confirms that we were not an organization but a movement—a consciousness that continues to live and grow whenever it awakens in the hearts and minds of gay women.
This piece is reprinted from Smash the Church, Smash the State! by permission of City Lights Books. Copyright 2009 by Ellen Shumsky.
Ellen Shumsky was a young, closeted Brooklyn-born school teacher studying photography in France when the Gay Liberation Front was formed in the summer of 1969. She immediately returned from France and spent the next three years immersed in GLF and Radicalesbian activism under the name Ellen Bedoz. Her photos appeared in the GLF newspaper Come Out! as well as in other underground publications and counterculture anthologies of the time. She was one of the authors of the lesbian feminist manifesto “The Woman Identified Woman” and a founding member of Radicalesbians. For the past thirty years, she has been a psychotherapist in private practice. She writes about and teaches postmodern psychoanalysis. Her Greenwich Village office is around the corner from the Stonewall Inn.