New feature: Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence, 30 years later

// 16 August 2010

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AJ Conroy looks back at what we can learn about the need to form ties with other women from Adrienne Rich’s famous essay

What is wrong with feminism? Lately it seems like we’re getting it from all sides, including from inside. We’ve gone from “This is what a feminist looks like” to “I’m not a feminist, but…” Lesbian feminists have highlighted ‘mainstream’ feminists’ homophobia, while some heterosexual feminists have rushed to distance themselves from those “angry, hairy” lesbians. The feminist blogosphere, supposedly that great equaliser in feminist discourse, has faced repeated charges from within and without of reinforcing oppressions such as racism, classism and heteronormativity.

These are not new challenges. Feminism’s growing pains have been well-documented. Beginning in the 1970s and ’80s, heterosexual, middle-class, cis, white Western women feminists have been repeatedly called up on centring their own issues and forced to recognise that their needs just might not necessarily be the needs of say, a Black woman, a lesbian woman, a trans woman, a Muslim woman or a disabled woman.

In 1980, Adrienne Rich wrote the essay ‘Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence’ as an answer to the rifts that were developing between women in the previous decade, as an attempt to reinforce the personal and political bonds between women. As this year is the 30th anniversary of this monumentally important, monumentally beautiful work, it seems fitting – even necessary – to return to Rich’s words to see what wisdom they may have for us today. It was not Rich’s goal to encourage women to give up on men and sleep with women, nor is it mine. Her goal was to get women – both straight and lesbian – to reorient their lives around other women in ways that were available to some lesbian communities but not necessarily to other women.

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