Or: some reflections on hierarchy, non-hierarchy, control and letting things go.
After a succession of intense and mind-blowing discussions with friends, recent events and several weeks of trying to get to the bottom of why I find radical lesbianism so misogynist, I’ve just experienced a major shift or breakthrough in my feminism. One thing led to another, and I realise that the essential problem i’m trying to talk about is much larger than radical lesbianism, and relates to separatist communitarianism as a liberation strategy – the idea we should form a small, elitist community separate from women as much as from men, rather than focus on our potential to bond with all women and on all women’s potential to wake up to our reality.
Thanks to the women who have made this post possible and for their contributions to these insights.
Even though radical lesbianism is a condensed form of separatist communitarianism, it isn’t exclusive to lesbian separatist communities at all and aspects of such attitudes and beliefs can be found in many different feminist groups, to various degrees. So i’ll use this term as a really broad set of attitudes and beliefs of contempt over women outside of the small feminist group and making this the basis of our group identity.
A friend just sent me the definition of epiphany (wiki):
An epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is an experience of sudden and striking realization. … It can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.
I do have the impression of having having found a missing link which now helps me to see the whole picture with much more clarity and depth. Therefore my focus will no longer be on radical lesbianism and identity politics as such, but on the wider phenomenon of separatist communitarianism, whether it be radical lesbian, lesbian feminist, radical feminist, “intersectionalist”, etc.
When our bonding with women is based on the exclusion of other women, then we aren’t really bonding with women but erecting a fictitious shield of “us” vs “them” to protect ourselves from persecution (a threat in which we include women), but which prevents the spreading of feminism to other women by preventing our contact and bonding with such women. We reproduce a shadow of male bonding or homosociality which is cemented by the exclusion, contempt and putting down of women. We also participate in a very normal – but colonised – survival reaction, reminiscent of our coping strategies at school, which is to gang up in a small group of women and create an artificial group identity based on assimilation to certain behaviours and dress codes as well as exclusion or even mockery of other girls, in order to escape the psychological devastation of extreme isolation, social persecution and scapegoating. Separatist communitarianism bears some resemblance to this strategy. It is understandable, but I realise it isn’t feminist and can’t liberate us as a class.
Separatist communitarianism based on fear and dissociation.
Why fear? Separatist communitarianism, as mentioned above, is a natural reaction to anti-woman social persecution and isolation. Social persecution orchestrated by men is so total that we experience rejection and misogyny as the wiping out of our soul, as psychic annihilation – it’s what it is. We want to escape the real threat of being killed, the end-point of social erasure and persecution.
Separatist communitarianism also is based on the terror of being abandoned or betrayed by women. Putting a distance between ourselves and other women by feeling superior or outside (claiming the most oppressed status is part of it) is an unconscious way to cope with the unbearable isolation of being amongst misogynist women, or a way to cope with the terror of being rejected by the women we love or place our hopes on. We put an emotional distance between us and women in the hope that it will prevent ourselves from being hurt.
This emotional distance comes at the cost of losing empathy with women and empathy for ourselves, and losing touch with ourselves and other women, which is the basis for misogyny. It’s a form of anaesthetic which gives an impression of invulnerability and strength but which isn’t quite true, since the reason we do this is because we’re vulnerable, oppressed, and we’re traumatised by persecution and rejection by people who were supposed to care for us. This distance provides temporary relief or (false) sense of security, but doesn’t prevent rejection unfortunately since it’s based on rejection. If that makes sense.
Our first source of security as humans (females) comes from women, that is, as a child, from our mother. We relate to women and to the world in part according to how our relationship to our mother was structured: our basic psychological development and survival in the first several years of our life is essential and entirely dependent on our close bond and care from the mother or female surrogate.
Men break this security by oppressing both mothers and daughters, taking control over women and girls. They create a state of abandonment and forced betrayal by the mother which they then take advantage of to organise trauma-bonding to men.
Once we become feminist though, it’s easy to separate ourselves from men because our bonds to them were never a source of safety, were always fake. We realise men don’t represent anything to us.
However with women this is different because #1: we know that a true bond is and has been possible therefore it hurts more to lose it and #2: once we become feminist and no longer interact with men, we’re more likely to associate women with the fear of being abandoned and betrayed once again and #3 our liberation is dependent on our connections with women, which makes rejection even more intolerable. I don’t think there’s a more excruciating emotional pain than that of being rejected by women we love or count on. It also triggers the traumatic memory of first abandonment, more or less pronounced in women.
So I think separatist communitarianism, by way of putting lots of distance, statuses, hierarchy and barriers between me/”us” vs “other” women (lesbians vs het, radical vs colonised, “real” victim vs. “false” victim, “star author and academic” vs anonymous blogger, etc.) is an unconscious way to protect ourselves from the risk and fear of the pain of future betrayal by women (which we may consciously rationalise as a way to protect ourselves from women’s misogyny infiltrating in our groups or minds). It also explains in part the bottomless anger we can feel against women when our needs and expectations of safety and sorority aren’t met, on top of male reversals etc.
Anyway, I don’t think separatist communitarianism works as a liberation strategy – as in dissociating from “other” women and from oneself on top of separating from men, however appealing the idea of escaping patriarchy may sound: It isn’t viable as a way to liberate all women.
Recruitment is not a feminist strategy
The obsession with recruiting masses (or even smaller numbers) of women into a more or less purist elite club doesn’t work. Recruitment is based on the wrong perception that we are already outside or above other women and that they need to make the effort to heave themselves up to our ranks; not the other way round. While it’s true that women who’ve escaped individual appropriation by men have escaped the worst of oppression and that freeing ourselves from men is the major part of liberation, it’s not true at all that we’ve reached some kind of pinnacle, a “there yet” land outside of patriarchy or outside of the influence of colonisation by male perversions. The fact is that separatist communitarianism is a very product of oppression. The very fact of feeling superior to this or that “other” woman is a colonised reaction. There’s nothing to feel guilty about, but it just isn’t feminist.
Recruitment into a movement is a male tactic. It requires the use of force, even minimally: that is the use of persuasion. It requires controlling speech and interaction (out of fear of hearing misogynist or anti-feminist things), not really listening to the woman in front of you, not paying attention to where her position comes from and on what violence against her it’s based. Even if it’s well-intentioned, it requires treating her as a target for your explanation and recruitment rather than as a person and requires treating women as numbers. We forget the bond we can create with this woman and that she too has the potential to originate feminist insights and participate genuinely in the movement. It’s alienating, both for the recruiter and recruitee. Women don’t need to be “taught” but to find the means to wake up to our own reality, we can’t bash or brainwash the truth into a women’s head: liberation can’t be imposed on.
We want to recruit because we are desperate, we are isolated as radical lesbian feminists, and we can’t stand the constant backlash against feminism or how dire the situation is. But the irony is that recruitment and putting ourselves above or outside women reinforces isolation, anger and desperation more than anything else. It puts in a perpetual state of frustration, dissatisfaction and disappointment because we’re always waiting for and expecting something that doesn’t yet exist and isn’t happening now. It fuels resentment on both sides because it’s based on unrealistic expectations of what women can accomplish given their current situation. So when women aren’t capable of meeting these expectations (for instance that all women call themselves lesbians in solidarity of lesbians, or that they all leave their boyfriends NOW, etc.) this causes feelings of guilt and shame of being a failure in the “othered” women, and causes feelings of being betrayed and let down in the “aboved” women.
But being impatient about women not ‘freeing themselves fast enough’ is like asking women to run when their feet are still chained and to leap when their minds are still bound. It’s a mindfuck. It’s like requesting someone to swim now when they’ve never learnt how to swim. We should see things the other way round. It’s up to us swimming experts to spend time with women and show them how to swim and help them overcome their fear of water, and once they are ready we’ll dive in together as naturally as fish. If we want our sisters to “join” us, we have to come to them. Reach out to them. Help create emotional and material conditions for all of us in which they can free their minds from the male mindbindings – and once such conditions are met the mindbindings will unpeel naturally one after the other, the magic will unfold, there will be no great effort to produce as the magic of consciousness raising is that change happens viscerally. As women lucky enough to understand the workings of patriarchy, the onus is on US to do the work of consciousness-raising. It makes complete sense to me.
Feminism is about bonding with women
(I know, I know this is being repeated again and again and sometimes in so many vacuous contexts but I just uncovered a new meaning to it)
Creating divides between women and treating women as “other”, divides us. It’s not feminist. I realise how strongly feminism is dependent on the inter-individual connections we create with women since the only alternative to patriarchy is the world we create between ourselves. And for our world to be truly alternative it has to be based on relationships that are sustaining, safe, nourishing and feminist. This can happen online, IRL, etc, but I don’t see any other way. Otherwise we automatically fall back into dissociation, denial, fragmentation, division, anger against women, etc. I find it important to interact with women from as many backgrounds as possible, talk to them, listen to their stories.
Feminism just can’t happen or flourish in conditions where we put ourselves above other women or castigate them for not being feminist enough, are frustrated when they don’t meet our expectations of what a good radfem should be, or distrust women’s potential for change and leaps. It doesn’t mean that we never make any mistakes, that there are never any tensions, conflicts and obstacles, but if we can understand that, there’s always room for adjustment and cooperation according to our needs and circumstances.
Feminism can only spread by creating genuine horizontal relationships with women and genuine bonds in which we trust each other’s capacity or potential to participate in radical feminism and freedom of all women. When we take each other into consideration it’s easier to respect our pace and rhythm, to be aware of what we’re capable of doing right now, of the level of danger we face and reward each other for the small (yet big) steps we’ve made.
One day all our bonds will form a web so tight that I hope nothing will be able to break it again.
As a radfem / lesbian feminist, creating a trusting relationship with a woman is in itself a concrete material condition which makes leaps possible. Feminist-centred woman-bonding has to be experienced directly in order for it to be conceived as an alternative, in order to be able to live this alternative. It can’t be explained if the woman has never experienced it. This is another reason why woman-bonding is the driving force of feminism. Sparking can only happen in a situation of true equality and horizontal exchange.
It really doesn’t mean we should accept misogyny and violence from part of women and I never will, but the response to it isn’t by going against such women. The only way to share feminism is within a context (discussion group, gathering) defined by radical feminist principles, by really taking women into consideration rather than trying to distance ourselves from them by one means or another. Once we stop viewing women as an “other” camp, once we’re in empathy with how they’re being trapped by embedded misogyny or men and trust in women’s capacity to free themselves, once we trust women’s potential; it really takes the tension and desperation away, relieves us from the feeling that we have to control the interaction and from the perceived burden of having to free all women. We no longer see the world as resting on our shoulders, and just let things flow.
Non-hierarchy is truly the most amazing thing to experience: that is when you come to the point where you can rely on your feminist peers, follow the flow, and everything you create is intimately intertwined with the creations and input of other women. Where you trust that everything they will say will be mindblowing, witty, and bring a new light and dimension to what we are discussing, or what we are co-creating. Where ideas that aren’t as good are naturally discarded for the better ones.
I now much better understand the profound meaning of women being naturally anarchic. We really are. And when it happens, it’s just magical. When we let ourselves be carried by the flow, It feels like witnessing bursts of life, the very movement of life, and participating in it too.
Anyway, I don’t know if any of this makes sense.