Privileged Feminist By Xochitl Alvizo

 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.

Categories: Ethics, Feminism

Tags: , , ,

11 replies

  1. Xochitl,
    Can you please give me a working definition of “radical feminist lesbian”? I think the radical is what I’m mostly after.



  2. Hi Cynthie,

    There are probably two ways I am using the word radical. The first is simply in reference to the writings of certain feminists that identify or are identified as radical from the 60s, 70s and 80s , i.e. Mary Daly, Carol Adams, Andrea Dworkin, etc. Though often people refer to them as radical in order to signal them as feminists who are militant and man-hating, I understand them to be radical because they know that if change is going to occur in our world, then it must begin by getting at the root of things. It is in this sense that I understand certain feminists to be radical because they point to the fact that change must come from deep within if it is actually going to produce a new and different thing (relations, structures, writings, etc.)

    And that is the second way I use the word radical; as a reference to the fact that in order for a different world and way of relating to be possible, then society, structures, and institutions must be changed at their roots – that is, the change must be radical ‘of or relating to the root’. As a radical feminist I would not just want equality in the culture, systems, and institutions that are already in place, I desire the kind of change that makes possible wholly new and liberating realities.

    So when I say radical feminism ‘works’ for me, I think I’m trying to say that it communicates to me at a deep existential level that wakes me up and energizes me to live and love and work toward the deep radical changes that will make our world and our ways of relating more liberative and divine. And that is why every moment matters – when I failed to hear my sister to speech – when I fail to truly listen to another’s experience and to learn and be changed by it (and instead get defensive), I want to look at the root of what happened (my defensiveness, my minimizing of her experience, etc.) and work toward changing it…hopefully radically so.

    Hope that helps and thank you for asking – I really appreciate it!

    – Xochitl


  3. Thank you for your provocative essay, your honest remarks, and your challenging questions. We all need to remember our own vulnerabilities and privileges on a daily basis. Your blog was a good reminder of that. I may now put a blank page in all my syllabi as a reminder. In addition, I will leave an empty chair in class and at events as a reminder for the unheard in our midst.


  4. I must say it is a true delight to actually be engaging with radical lesbian feminism, which is my native religion. As with any religion, it has its strengths and weaknesses. It is not for every woman, and never will be… because well it combines two hated words… well three hated words actually… radical…. lesbian… and feminist… Right away, this is an exclusionary set up, because obviously het women aren’t included in this wording, and there are lots of women who don’t identify as feminists or radicals.

    Each group of women is responsible for crafting a version of the liberation universe. And in my case, I also need a very strong armor in which to literally do battle with patriachy every day in every way. It means that those women who can’t, won’t or don’t know how to go to the mat won’t be in my camp. It means that each path to liberation won’t be the same, in fact, it can’t be the same.

    Why would we have this expectation that all women are welcome everywhere? It is not a reality, never has been and never will be. And I can tell you that the most hated philosophy on the planet is radical lesbian feminism… it is the most marginalized in the academy, it is the most hated on in the Internet, and it is the most trashed within the LGBT “family.” To quote Mary Hunt in another context entirely, but with a phrase she used that I LOVE… “Tis every thus.”

    Radical lesbian feminism will work spectaculary well for women who do the reading, the work, the study, but most important the actual practice with the philosophy. For example, Mary Daly’s seven deadly sins of the fathers and reverse the reversals has worked very well in advancing my own best interests in a lesbian hating / woman raping / heterosexist world… she gave me tools to defeat my enemies in battle, and I do mean literally in battle.

    You’ll be called every name in the book if you identify as lesbian feminist, much more so if you say radical, and you’ll be ejected from every group if you say the “s” word… separatist. Anytime women of a special class claim private ground, we’ll be attacked. Anytime marginal women gain ground, the het middle class liberals are going to freak out, and they do even on this blog.

    So what is the purpose of radical lesbian feminism? It is for any woman who chooses to engage it.
    I learn from just about every kind of study…. I learn from women who figure out how to gain liberation. Or I can have detachment, and watch the pitfuls of straight women, and easily avoid the pit falls. My philosophy won’t be welcome in most places, and the more blunt and honest I am, the more “respectable middle class women” are going to freak out. The mother who tells me her 19 year old son watches internet porn, for example. This mother has no clue as to what really constitues internet porn, nor has she seen it. She thinks, “hey boys will be boys….” As a radical lesbian feminist, I can politely tell her that internet porn is about the eroticization of woman hatred, or that it is about watching real women get raped by men on film for the sexual enjoyment of boys just like hers. This bit of Dworkin Data will cause a lot of these women to freak out, and yet it is a radical lesbian insight… that radical straight feminists have also done work on… Catherine MacKinnon comes to mind here.


  5. But to address Xochitl’s concerns… yeah, every time there is an academic conference where radical lesbian feminists are gathering (rare as hens teeth BTW), some woman is going to feel excluded or marginalized. I don’t like any lesbian to feel left out, and I don’t like it when our great philosophy isn’t as widely available to all women. But I know, that just by the fact that it is THE most hated aspect of feminism on the planet, makes it hard.

    The charge of middle class and white is kind of interesting to me, because my radical lesbian feminism was launched in Japan in the late 70s, and the radical lesbians who gathered together to work for change in Japan were, well Japanese, not white. They were also Korean… a group already hated and marginalized by the larger Japanese culture. They were from the Phillipines and Thailand, and all of us worked together to stop prostitution tourism… something Japanese men did to other Asian women. So the only white women involved in this were the ones helping out with English translation, fundraising, and going to airports to snap photos of the male tourists returning from their prostitution buying sprees paid for by major Japanese corporations. You might say, we were the support staff, not the main actors.

    Our gang had a huge number of working class women in it. We had maybe two academics, and they were of a snobbish variety largely afraid of us out and loud types.

    Mary Daly was working class Irish American, who had to get loans to fund most of her education, she had to leave the country to get her PhDs because NO WOMEN were allowed to get degrees in Catholic theology in America back in the day. NO WOMEN IN AMREICA, NO CATHOLIC WOMEN. Was that privilege compared to het women? Doubt it. Middle class, well no. So there is a lot of mythology around radical lesbian feminists, because well, most women don’t have access to us, don’t really want to get to know us, and certainly aren’t apart of our circles unless they are well… lesbians.


  6. Dear Turtle Woman,
    As a “white, middle-class” feminist (radical is up for discussion as well as middle- class), I always find it interesting that somehow my class and race become monolithic against “the other.”

    Years ago I went to the GTU from San Diego to hear Rosemary Radford Ruether. The conference was affiliated with one of the schools. Of the women gathered together, I believe I was the only straight woman. I certainty felt judged and not welcomed. I remember calling my queer daughter in D.C. in order to get a grasp on what was up with the attitudes I was experiencing. The point is that was one group of lesbians who are (I hope) not part of the larger community of lesbian women. It would be short sided of me to lump all lesbians together as if their understandings of race, class, sex and gender are monolithic–which I know they are not.

    So why is it acceptable to make leaps and assumptions about white women who are feminist as if all are unable to accept and work with radical feminist lesbians? The diversity that exist in your community also takes place within the white community as well. It is counter-productive to the movement of feminism if we insist on camps of exclusion as a means of changing patriarchal structures.

    Thank you for your understanding and explanation. The metaphor and use of a blank page will become a stable in all my syllabus’. A great pedagogical tool to remind us all of our postions of privilege. Thank you!


  7. Well Cynthie, I think you have some interesting points. I can’t say if there is a monolithic lesbian feminist worldview out there. And since I wasn’t at the triple R conference, I can’t say how the “unwelcoming” of lesbians to the one or two straight women there might have felt. I don’t like to justify women being mean to each other, but I do know that class or race, while seeming innocent, can be a different culture.

    I do know that lesbians often are kind of “cool” or guarded. That this can often come across as rude to the unknowing. Think of the man who might say to you, “How come you’re not smiling?” To any feminist, this is a grave insult, because it really means, “how come youre not male pleasing?”

    When we critique white straight women, we do know where of we speak. And it isn’t going to feel very nice or welcoming. I don’t value agreement or niceness as social values, I see these behaviors as largely conditioning of female behavior under Pharoah, and it might be slightly analogous to Malcolm X calling out the Uncle Toms of his era.

    Imagine if every day of your life you had to deal with that all lesbian group at GTU. Imagine feeling judged everywhere you go. Now imagine if you knew that a lot of straight people out there could fire you, get you banned, get you excommunicated… and that this was an every day feeling?

    Oppressed people can boil with rage. The white middle class believes itself to be good and harmless. And for the most part, when I meet middle or upper middle class straight women, they are quite nice. No major problems. They are nice, just as they completely socially erase me, and they do this quite unconsciously. If I don’t bring up my partner on my own, they won’t ever ask, for example.

    Although you might not believe this, I think we might debate the point that white heterosexual women can truly challenge patriarchy if they are married to men. I think George Washingon might have cause to challenge all those colonialists who supported King George in the war.

    Just as it is hard for every white person to hear that our wealth is ill gotten, that we stole it from slaves who were black, and that our properity was built on the backs of blacks. Every dime we get, comes from the stolen dividends of generations of earnings taken from slave labor. Go visit the pretty capitol building or the White House… built by slaves. What do I do about this? Well, I acknowledge the theft of wealth, and I support reparations taken from white people’s wealth to rebuild all of black society, culture etc…. a tax if you will.

    And I don’t think you might understand the need lesbians always have for lesbian only space Cynthie. We literally want to hear our own within a lesbian centric circle. This doesn’t mean we hate or want to be mean to straight women. Just as when you are with straight women, you don’t notice that there are no lesbians there. You might not think that a setting like that might make us feel angry, lonely or left out. The only way to feel this, is to reverse the reversals. It’s the only way any white person in America can even get a clue as to racism… you have to be on the receiving end of it. Might not feel all that great, but experience is a great teacher.

    Again, I come from an interesting generation. I came of age during the rise of lesbian power, and my whole life has been about this struggle. It means that if I don’t have my own space with my own people, I’ll die of starvation. The straight het world can be nice, well mannered, and well off, but it still exhausts me. I’ve never met you, I can’t tell how people are from reading a blog, but I do know that we have 5000 years of patriarchy, and maybe some of us want it gone. How best to overthrow it? We radical lesbian feminists have our answers, but our tactics might not be very thrilling for you.
    I do know that straight women who have lesbian daughters these days are a little more with it, and less clueless.

    I do know that young white lesbians and young black lesbians are much more connected and in with each other, then my gang over 50. In more contemporary settings, there is more chance for a hetero person to actually meet a lesbian now. In the past, a lot of us were hidden, and we are quite good at hiding a lot from heteros.

    Hope this helps a bit. It would be interesting to see what would happen with straight women and radical lesbians collaborating…. I’ve yet to see groups where this is actually happening…might be in the academic world, but I can tell you it NEVER happens in my neck of the woods. NEVER.
    I have to conform to them, they get to erase me… I ask the questions about them, they “allow” me to be in their midst…. and that is how it appears to me a lot of the time. Most straight women are afraid to know lesbians for a variety of reasons. And as I said before, I really don’t feel all that connected to issues of primary importance to straight women. We have commonality over job issues, anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, access to worship space and places to meet… you might be able to go to your events in safe neighborhoods, I have to risk dangerous Los Angeles neighborhood to attend a lot of lesbian spiritual events. I don’t assimilate or look straight… I look very dykey, and very gender non-conforming… dapper yes, well educated yes, poloshed and confident yes


  8. Cynthie I think you have hit on something here. Sometimes it is not that the writing doesn’t address x or y, but simply the fact of being one of the few (women of color, lesbians, non-lesbians, etc.) in a group at a meeting that is uncomfortable.


  9. Xochitl,

    I always love reading your posts. You continuously work to ensure that all voices are heard and to recognize the full human dignity of every person. You are beautiful and an example to us all. I learn from you everyday.


  10. Discomfort is the minority position always.


  11. I was very moved by Emily Culpepper’s decision to have a blank page in her dissertation. We need to remember those who have been deliberately silenced or overlooked.

    But it is hard. If we speak only from a personal perspective, then we become fragmented. Yet, if we claim to be speaking for others we will get things wrong. I may claim to speak for humans, and only speak from a man’s experience. Women may claim to speak as part of the sisterhood of women, and in fact speak from a white North American standpoint. And so on. We can exclude and even oppress when we are trying to include.

    On silence, Tillie Olsen’s book “Silences” is great. And the science fiction writer Joanna Russ has a nice polemic on “How to Suppress Women’s Writing”/


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