I have the privilege of having radical lesbian feminism ‘work’ for me. I can’t explain why it does – but it does – it just works for me. I am not of the same generation as most feminists who experienced and awakened to radical feminism during the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s in the United States. I am not white nor was I middle-class when I encountered it (though I probably am middle class now). But nonetheless, as I encountered radical lesbian feminist writing, and eventually some of the women who wrote them, it spoke to me in the depths of my being and rattled my very core. Radical lesbian feminism liberated me and birthed me into a whole new way of Be-ing…and that is a privilege I must not take for granted and must hold loosely.
The fact that radical lesbian feminism works for me is a privilege. And in as much as that privilege affords me entry and participation to particular tables and places of conversations or offers me friendship and connection with particular communities and networks of women, I have the responsibility to use that privilege in a way that contributes to the empowerment and liberation of other women as well, especially women (and even men) who are ‘othered.’ I must never lose sight of the fact that just because something worked for me, does not mean it has worked for all. Just because I have experienced the embrace and welcome of feminist communities of women, does not mean other women have. The reality is that there are some women who have been made ‘other’ in an alienating way by both the world and by feminists. I must never forget that within any circle of people, there is always the danger of further alienating and excluding those who are already on the margin. But forget I did…
This past weekend during one of the lesbian feminist sessions at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, I failed to hear my sister to speech. One of the presenters made reference to the exclusion and lack of welcome she would receive in some lesbian feminist circles. She also made reference to how lesbian feminism is designed and written for white middle class women – of which she is not one. Instead of truly listening, instead of inquiring about the ways she had encountered this to be true, I got defensive. I got defensive on behalf of my lesbian feminists foresisters whom I have experienced as inclusive and embracing. But that is just it – that was my experience and clearly not her own. In the moment of her courage and vulnerability in which she called out the fact that lesbian feminists do indeed have blind spots, short falls, and plain old prejudices that have directly impacted her…I got defensive. I got defensive and went on and on singing lesbian feminist praises. By getting defensive though, I was unable to truly hear my sister.
I probably got defensive out of fear – the fear that my most beloved lesbian feminism may be blemished; that it might actually have faults that hurt and ‘other’ some of my own sisters. The reality is that my beloved lesbian feminism does have faults and will hurt some of my sisters– of course it does and will! Any human endeavor will always be incomplete and faulty. The important thing is how we respond in light of those faults and blemishes. Do we close our eyes and ears and refuse to see and hear it? Or do we face the reality of the limits of our efforts and do everything we can to listen and learn from them, ever widening the circle of inclusion so that we may more successfully work toward the liberation and empowerment of all women and men?
Emily Culpepper told me a story while at AAR this weekend. She told me about the blank page in her dissertation. From the very beginning of her dissertation she insisted that her dissertation include a completely blank page. The blank page in her dissertation served as the visual reminder and physical representation of all the silenced voices and suppressed sources that were simply not included and perhaps no longer available due to the long history of repression. The blank page is the page that reminds us that there is always someone missing from the table and that the table is not necessarily a welcoming place for all – and too often it is those who are already marginalized that end up experiencing further alienation and marginalization among the very circle of friends who should be there to hear them to speech.
Who and what are the blank pages of our feminism? Who are the sisters for whom feminism has not ‘worked’? And for those of us for whom it has worked, how do we use our privilege to make sure that feminism continues to expand and grow in ever more biophilic ways, not just for me, but for all? I aim to never lose sight of the blank page again or get too comfortable in the fact that radical lesbian feminism ‘worked’ for me. Instead I will continue to make room at the table, hear my sister to speech, and let myself be corrected by what she teaches me. Thank you friend for speaking up and for teaching me a most valuable lesson I will not soon forget.