History of LGBT: Women’s Studies and Feminist Studies

Aryana F Bates. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Women’s studies and feminist studies first took shape as academic concentrations in the 1970s. Scholar-activists established the first women’s studies program at San Diego State University in 1970 and founded the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) in 1977. A constellation of factors fed into the environment generating women’s studies and continued to influence the discipline as it grew. The majority of teachers and scholars coming to women’s studies at its inception brought extensive experiences as political activists from civil rights, antiwar, antipoverty, and New Left campaigns. Developing hand in hand with the broader women’s movement, women’s studies and feminist studies began theorizing the experiences, roles, and statuses of women in various sectors of society, in multiple regions of the world, and in historical contexts. Feminist studies brought to this general focus on women a critique of all forms of domination, an emphasis on cooperation, and a belief in the integration of theory and practice. While somewhat different in purpose and focus, women’s studies and feminist studies generally function as a single discipline within academia.

Much like the diverse women and multidimensional culture of feminism it seeks to analyze, women’s studies coexists in complex relationship with LGBT cultures and LGBT studies. The two sets can be described as both distinct and overlapping, each defined by a range of concerns and conflicts particular to its population but intersecting where the concerns and conflicts are shared. Within academic institutions, for instance, LGBT studies, queer studies, and sexuality studies now often exist as separate concentrations from women’s, feminist, and gender studies, but in many cases LGBT, queer, and sexuality studies concentrations are housed in women’s, feminist, and gender studies units. And in some instances women’s, feminist, and gender studies programs and departments have been renamed to reflect heightened attention to LGBT, queer, and sexuality issues.

Theoretical tensions and cultural conflicts characterize the history of these relationships. Beverly Guy-Sheftall notes in her 1995 report to the Ford Foundation on the status of women’s studies that despite the important work of the women’s studies movement since its inception, many advocates, especially women of color and lesbians, have found themselves frustrated by persistent assertions of universal sisterhood that fail to capture the diversity of women’s experiences. Nevertheless, the activists, scholars, theorists, artists, and others populating LGBT and women’s studies environments frequently exist in and influence both places. Lesbians in particular have both contributed to and critiqued women’s studies since the early 1970s. The Lesbian Studies Caucus, in fact, emerged at the founding convention of the NWSA when, in a dramatic moment, student and faculty representatives took the podium, demonstrating to the assembly that lesbians were diverse, nonstereotypical, and deserving of organizational representation.

The 1970s

The heteronormative, white, and middle-class conceptual frameworks typifying first wave and early second wave feminist public discourse in the women’s movement carried over into early women’s studies scholarship. Marilyn Frye, in her speech for the Lesbian Perspectives on Women’s Studies panel at the 1980 NWSA conference, described women’s studies as basically and pervasively heterosexual, a fact that she, as a lesbian, found over-whelming and deeply disappointing. From the beginning, women’s studies attracted a diverse population of women, but the predominant discourse during the first decade assumed a single reality that ignored difference. In particular, the dominant paradigm privileged the concept of gender over other categories of analysis such as sexuality and race. This conceptual framework subsumed the experiences of lesbians, women of color, and women who were members of both groups under a universalizing and inaccurate sign of white, heterosexual womanhood.

The organizational development process and trials of the NWSA offer a window on the relationship between women’s studies and LGBT concerns. Several years after Catherine Stimpson called for a national women’s studies organization in 1973, the NWSA founding convention took place at the University of San Francisco. Amid the excitement and enthusiasm for the project, tensions that would characterize the NWSA for years to come immediately flared around organizational structure and along sexuality, race, and class fault lines.

Attention to representation was, from the beginning, very important to the NWSA, but proved difficult to work out practically. Women in the Third World Women’s Caucus (now Women of Color Caucus) and the Lesbian Caucus had difficulty with the association and also with working together. Theoretically, the overall intention at the founding convention was to resist any tactics that would divide participants. For example, the organization was called on from the beginning to defend women’s studies against lesbian baiting, or blaming lesbians for social backlash against feminism. Despite these efforts to maintain solidarity against homophobic censure, members of the Lesbian Caucus found themselves silenced and denied participation in the process of countering such attacks on the NWSA. They also encountered blame and disapproval within the women’s studies movement. Lesbian issues were repeatedly tabled as dangerous to the legitimacy of women’s studies and of secondary concern to the primary objective of establishing women in academia and fighting for women’s rights in the wider society. Feminist academic and public discourse revolved primarily around male violence against women, sex discrimination in education and the workplace, sexual exploitation through pornography, and women’s reproductive health, including birth control and abortion rights. It also tended to use a gender-binary framework that categorized people as essentially female or essentially male, without recognizing fluidity, ambiguity, and change in sex, gender, and sexuality.

Homophobia and heterosexism within women’s studies inhibited lesbian leadership, forcing deeper into the closet many people who were active in furthering the goals of women’s studies. Even so, by the end of the 1970s a great deal had been accomplished. Although there were tensions between the two constituencies, women of color and lesbians were vocal in pushing the NWSA to take greater organizational responsibility and in challenging the organization’s normative environment. Women of color (including lesbians) critiqued the elision of racial-ethnic, class, and cultural difference in definitions of womanhood, and lesbian feminists (including women of color) began critiquing institutionalized heterosexism and the invisibility of lesbians within the new scholarship on women. Both groups generated scholarly networks and publications. For example, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s groundbreaking essay “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” was published in 1975 in the first volume of the feminist journal Signs. Two other examples of early publications, both produced by the Feminist Press, are the collection Lesbian Studies (1982), edited by Margaret Cruikshank, and the foundational volume in black women’s studies, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave (1982), edited by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith.

Scholarship and research by and about lesbians and women of color created critical oppositional discourses that challenged mainstream women’s studies. The Combahee River Collective outlined the reasons for black lesbian feminist solidarity with black men (1977), Adrienne Rich framed the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” (1980), and Lillian Faderman rediscovered lesbians in history (1981). Esther Newton described the transgressive identities of female impersonators and the character of women-centered community (1972, 1973). Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis began ethnographic explorations of the intersections of race, class, and sexual identity (1993). Nevertheless, lesbian epistemology and concerns remained largely in the shadows of academic analysis and sociopolitical focus during the early second wave of the feminist movement. Academia certainly did not yet offer a safe space for LGBT people to be open about their sexual and gender identities.

The 1980s

Privileging gender over race and sexuality fractured women’s studies and the feminist movement. Identity politics, later reincarnated as the politics of difference, became influential in women’s studies during the 1980s. Lesbians of color theorized various approaches to women’s studies that accounted for the multiple and intersecting dimensions of identity and oppression. During this same period self-defined sex-radical lesbians along with gay men began to forge a paradigm of sexual freedom articulated to some extent in opposition to what they framed as “big mother feminism” (mainstream feminist discourse), sparking the so-called gay-straight split and the sex wars.

In the 1980s, grassroots activism, theorizing, and scholarship by women of color concerned about civil, women’s, and lesbian rights began to find a greater audience in academia. African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native critiques challenged the universalizing methods of white women’s studies scholars for eliding race, racism, and questions of economy from analyses of patriarchy. They also criticized “additive” models, emphasizing, for example, that the experiences of African American women could not be captured simply by adding together the experiences of African American men and those of white women. While activists countered homogeneity in the women’s movement, cultural and academic presses published a variety of influential works written by women of color and/or incorporating analyses of race-class-gender interaction.

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), edited by Latina lesbians Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Home Girls (1983), edited by Barbara Smith, represented a sea change within women’s studies. In 1987 Juanita Ramos brought out the first Latina lesbian anthology, Compañeras: Latina Lesbians. Other volumes addressing Latino-Latina and African American LGBT issues followed, including Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (1991), edited by Carla Trujillo, and Makeda Silvera’s Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology (1991). The first Asian Pacific Islander lesbian anthology, Between the Lines, was published in 1987. Paula Gunn Allen’s Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986) includes a chapter on lesbians in Native American cultures. In 1988 Menominee poet Chrystos criticized homophobia, sexism, and white women’s racism in a scathing and beautiful collection titled Not Vanishing (1988).

During this period many lesbians left mainstream women’s movement organizations, including the NWSA. Simultaneously, sex-radical lesbians expressed growing tension around the privileging of gender over sexuality and began treating the two as autonomous or partially autonomous from one another. Gayle Rubin marked this shift most notably in her influential essay “Thinking Sex”(1994). Many lesbian sex-radicals felt that they had more in common with gay men than with heterosexual women and that the key axis of their oppression was sexual orientation rather than sex-gender. They were concerned that sexuality not be conflated with or subsumed by gender in theoretical, scholarly, and political work.

They were also concerned that women’s studies had conceptualized sexuality as something dangerous and hurtful rather than liberating and pleasurable for women, and that much women’s studies scholarship on rape, pornography, sex work, and sadomasochism conceptualized women as sexual victims rather than agents. Often aligning themselves with gay men and transsexuals, sex-radical lesbians struck out against “revolutionary feminist orthodoxy.” Feminism, as a result of its censure of “unacceptable” sexual behavior, was labeled by many sexradicals as erotophobic and antisex. Over time, a split emerged between revolutionary feminism, dedicated to women’s liberation and gender theory, and sex-radical lesbians, dedicated to LGBT liberation. Among the better-known figures in the first group were Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon; the latter group included, in addition to Rubin and Moraga, Pat Califia, Amber Hollibaugh, Joan Nestle, and Carol Vance. While in many respects these were distinct groups with different purposes and mutual animosity, there continued to be lesbians in the gender-theory camp and sex-radical lesbians who considered themselves feminist. And although problems continued, women’s studies scholars and theorists increasingly addressed LGBT issues, and many LGBT studies scholars and theorists engaged in productive dialogue with women’s studies.

The 1990s

While lesbians of color, lesbian feminists, and sex-radical lesbians were re-visioning feminism and women’s studies, the NWSA reached a critical point. Having attempted a nonhierarchical governance structure during its first two decades, the organization transitioned to a hierarchical, democratic structure following its meltdown at the 1990 Akron, Ohio, conference. The Akron episode centered on the firing of an NWSA staff member and black woman, Ruby Sales, an action that brought to a head a longstanding sense among both women of color and lesbians that they were marginalized within the NWSA. It pushed everyone, especially lesbians of color, into an emotionally and ontologically painful position. Many women of color left the NWSA at this point, while others stayed with the organization. Over the ensuing years, intensive work and negotiation were required to salvage the organization. Since 1997 the NWSA structure has been reconfigured to include permanent seats on the governing board for both the Women of Color Caucus and the Lesbian Caucus. This move finally eased the competition between the two for representation, although not necessarily the loyalty dilemma for lesbians of color.

The decade also witnessed the rapid development and consolidation of LGBT studies in colleges and universities, as well as a trend for transforming women’s studies programs into gender studies programs. While LGBT studies focused on analyzing sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity, gender studies expanded the domain of women’s studies to incorporate analyses of the constructed gender of men, gender relations, and gender’s role in shaping society, culture, and politics. Important contributions by Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, Gayle Rubin, and Monique Wittig, among others, helped to develop new conceptions of sex, gender, sexuality, and their interrelationships. In so doing, they helped to redefine relationships between women’s studies, gender studies, and LGBT studies.

These changes coincided with an increasing deployment of the term “queer,” a concept unaligned with any specific identity category and meant to circumvent, subvert, and radically challenge the stability of the categories “heterosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian.” Shortly after Queer Nation started advocating in 1989 that “Fags and Dykes Bash Back,” queer theorists Butler and de Lauretis, as well as Leslie Feinberg, David Halperin, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, offered analyses of an increasingly complex configuration of genders and sexualities. Even as comedian and actor Ellen DeGeneres contributed to the mainstreaming of lesbian and gay identities as relatively stable categories by coming out on national television in 1996, Annamarie Jagose published Queer Theory: An Introduction (1996) to explain a line of thinking that aimed at radically transgressing any concrete forms of identity.

The lines of critique initiated by people of color, LGBT studies scholars, and queer theorists during the 1980s and early 1990s have since gone global in the form of postcolonial feminisms that frame the analysis of sexism, patriarchy, and identity within the context of colonial history and neocolonial power relations. Trinh T. Minh-ha in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989) was an early representative of this approach. The New Lesbian Studies: Into the Twenty-First Century (1996), edited by Bonnie Zimmerman and Toni A. H. McNaron, is a collection of essays that queries the intersections of queer theory, lesbian studies, and post-colonial feminist critique. In one of the essays, “Lesbian Studies and Postmodern Queer Theory,” Harriet Malinowitz discusses the impact of queer on lesbian identity. Jo Whitehorse Cochran speaks in another essay, “From a Long Line of Contrary Folks,” of an innate drive among Native American lesbians for family, tribe, and community for the sake of survival. Connie Chan in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Know: Sexual Identity and Expression among East Asian–American Lesbians,” theorizes cultural differences in expressions of sexuality and sexual orientation. The essays in this collection build on at least two decades of women’s studies scholarship on sex, gender, and sexuality outside of the United States.

The Twenty-First Century

The founding mothers of the women’s studies movement have recently taken steps to chronicle the development of their field. Nevertheless, the history remains relatively obscure and the dimensions complex. On approximately 615 college and university campuses in the United States, women’s studies now enjoys program or departmental status. The movement has made its mark on nearly all subject areas, even as the bulk of academic funding continues to be funneled toward older, male-dominated disciplines. Moreover, the NWSA has survived ideological and fiscal trauma. Bonnie Zimmerman’s 1999 presidential address in Albuquerque described the NWSA as an organization that created a space in which the intellectual work of the women’s movement, the lesbian movement, the transgender movement, the queer movement, and the women of color movement could take place.

Third wave feminism and women’s studies still wrestle with the category of gender. Frameworks for recognizing, analyzing, and addressing the ongoing second-class status of women in the world are still needed, but the challenges of racial-ethnic, class, and sexual difference must also be addressed. Women’s studies debates over dimensions of identity and power relations have become increasingly sophisticated and also frequently overlap with LGBT discourse. Indeed, since the 1960s, LGBT issues have shifted from having marginal status to being an area of focus within feminist academia. Feminist theorists addressing LGBT issues have the task of reconciling several currents in LGBT culture. Queer theory offers insights into the fluidity of sex, gender, and sexuality and a promise of freedom from externally imposed categories of identity. The long struggle for civil rights seems finally to be affording LGBT people an eddy in the mainstream, allowing some to have greater access, acceptance, and social power. Patterns of unjust economic and racial power relations referenced by postcolonial feminisms and by such social critics as Smith (1998) persist, however, maintaining the socially marginalized status quo for many LGBT people.

Despite the years of debate and the growth of a transnational feminist critique, the relatively marginal status of women of color, even within lesbian academic circles, still persists. Willa Taylor, former chair of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, challenged participants in the NWSA First Lesbian Institute, held in 2000, to address the ongoing omission of women of color from the national agendas of lesbian, gay, and women’s organizations. She pointed out, in particular, the invisibility and absence of lesbians of color and the fact that discussion at the national level fails to address the chief concerns of women of color. The prevailing focus of lesbian and gay rights groups on gays in the military and on marriage rights, for instance, obscures the issues of child care, jobs, equitable housing, and redistribution of wealth that weigh more heavily on women and men in communities of color than does the right to marry.

Women’s studies in the new millennium continue adapting and evolving. While third wave women’s studies incorporates transnational issues and concepts of hybrid identity in ways not fully articulated by second wave theorists, contemporary analyses reflect the radical critique of sex, gender, and sexuality that arose out of the second wave sex wars and queer theory and activism. The contemporary subject is a third wave queer identity born of the issues that have spurred women’s studies through nearly half a century of growth. Poet Staceyann Chin, recently firing up the LGBT cultural scene, is one example of this complex identity and the constant negotiations to which women’s studies has struggled to be accountable. A Chinese-Jamaican-American hybrid, wearing hair reminiscent of radical black-is-beautiful 1970s activists, Chin pounds out in spoken word a searing critique of American racism and xenophobia. Tensile and sometimes barefoot, body draped in androgynous clothing, she breaks down persistent homophobia and the necessity of passing as straight into clear, ugly truth. Detailing experiences of partner violence, Chin ends her performance with a flourish, unzipping her drab clothing to dazzle her audience with a high-femme scarlet bustier. Chin’s identity is mutable, multiply positioned, and critically grounded in social dynamics of oppression and resistance. So, too, is women’s studies.