Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.
A long overdue, but powerful statement by a rare assemblage of the nation’s feminist leaders was made here today at the Washington Square Methodist Church in Manhattan:
“We take this occasion to express our solidarity with the struggle of homosexuals to attain their liberation in a sexist society …. Women’s liberation and homosexual liberation are both struggling towards a common goal: A society free from defining and categorizing people by virtue of gender and/or sexual preference. ‘Lesbian’ is a label used as a psychic weapon to keep women locked into their male-defined ‘feminine role.’ The essence of that role is that a woman is defined in terms of her relationship to men. A woman is called a lesbian when she functions autonomously. Women’s autonomy is what women’s liberation is all about.”
The relationship between feminism and lesbianism has been a frequent subject of speculation in the press ever since this second wave of the struggle for women’s equality began, and the discussion has intensified this year as both the gay and women’s liberation movements have taken on increasingly high profiles. But it was a statement in the December 14th edition of Time magazine that proved to be the final catalyst for today’s press conference, and the decision by feminist leaders to finally confront the issue of using prejudice against lesbians as a weapon to fight the liberation of all women.
In the Time magazine article entitled “Women’s Lib: A Second Look,” it was said that:
“Kate Millett herself contributed to the growing skepticism about the movement by acknowledging at a recent meeting that she is bisexual. This disclosure is bound to discredit her as a spokeswoman for her cause, cast further doubts on her theories, and reinforce the views of those skeptics who routinely dismiss all liberationists as lesbians.”
Today Kate Millett was chosen to read the statement of feminist solidarity with lesbians, and was repeatedly applauded by the approximately 50 women who surrounded her. Many then chose to make their own personal statements as well. Gloria Steinem was there, as were Ruth Simpson, president of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, lawyer Florynce Kennedy, Sally Kempton and Susan Brownmiller of New York Radical Feminists, as well as Ivy Bottini, Dolores Alexander and Ti-Grace Atkinson of the National Organization for Women.
Barbara Love, of the Gay Liberation Front, epitomized the fighting spirit of the gathering: “People must speak up as lesbians. I am a lesbian. We’ve got to come out and fight, because we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t.” Dolores Alexander noted that even today: “It’s such an explosive issue. It can intimidate women. Many women would be reduced to tears if you called them lesbians.” She then added that the feminist movement was quite diverse and made up of those who are “heterosexuals, homosexuals, tall, short, fat, skinny, Black, yellow and white.” Florynce Kennedy called for a “girlcott” of all products and major advertisers in Time magazine. Kate Millett called the article “a malicious attack on the movement” and said: “The time when you could call a woman a lesbian and expect her to drop dead is over.”
Many of those who couldn’t make the press conference sent statements of support, such as Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY), and Caroline Bird, author of “Born Female.” Aileen Hernandez, president of the National Organization for Women sent this statement:
“The National Organization for Women, Inc., has no formal statement on lesbianism. We do not prescribe a sexual preference test for applicants. We ask only that those who join NOW commit themselves to work for full equality for women and that they do so in the context that the struggle in which we are engaged is part of the total struggle to free all persons to develop their full humanity.
The effort by frightened, unethical individuals in the media to discredit the movement for the liberation of women by linking all its leaders to lesbianism (and all that word connotes in the minds of the public) is despicable and diversionary. It attempts to turn us away from the real business of the movement and towards endless and fruitless discussions on matters which are not at issue.
Let us –– involved in a movement which has the greatest potential for humanizing our total society –– spend no more time with this sexual McCarthyism. We need to free all our sisters from the shackles of a society which insists on viewing us in terms of sex.”
Today was a proud day for the revitalized feminist movement. Many of those at the forefront of the battle for women’s liberation personally and publicly confronted a controversial issue, and did so in a way that was consistent with their philosophy and goal of liberation for all. But despite the solidarity expressed today, decades of hard work are certain to be ahead in the battle to eliminate prejudices and stereotypes based on sexual orientation. However, the recognition that the two struggles are related, and that those who oppose one of these forms of bigotry should unite with those who oppose the other, will make the day of total liberation arrive much sooner.