There Is No Excuse, Really

To any young feminists, and especially young lesbians, out there who are asking questions, who do want to make a difference in the world, but have heard the horrible stories about that evil radical feminism, then here are some things to think about.

I was told the same stories as an undergrad about the Bad Old Days of the evil second wave. We were given extensive critiques on leading second wave texts, without ever being given one word of the original texts to read. Huh, I thought to myself, I smell bullshit. So off I went and read those bad, evil Untouchable books that apparently kill men and trans people just by existing in this world, and I thought, there’s a lot here that makes sense.

And then, there is also that little matter of lesbian erasure. Come on kids, think about it. In pretty much every subject you can study, there is an extensive ‘History of Blah’ where you study the evolution of thought going back at least several hundred years, if not several thousand years, all the way back to Greece and Rome.

But with feminism…you can’t read anything published before 1990? Really? Even if we accept the bullshit academic premise that second wave and, for that matter, first wave feminists got lots of stuff wrong, why is that the only subject where we are not allowed to study the evolution of thought?

Scientists got lots of stuff wrong, and so did doctors and psychologists, and tons of theologians and philosophers came up with whacky fringe theories that no one but a seriously unstable individual would find credible, and yet all of that is still considered essential reading for a full understanding of whatever the subject in question is.

So why are radical feminist texts considered beyond the pale? What is inside of them that is so dangerous it cannot be read under any circumstances? Are their words so tricksy and seductive that even the cleverest of critical readers will fall under their dark spell the moment they encounter them?

Let’s keep in mind that this is the same academy that considers it entirely appropriate to study books like Mein Kampf by genocide-orchestrator Hitler; or the Bible, which has surely been responsible for far more grief in this world than every single feminist book of every stripe put together, or classics-of-patriarchal-literature like Lolita that justify child rape.

Yes, all of that is fine, but for god’s sake don’t touch anything written by those filthy lesbians. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the frenzy to denounce radical feminist texts what often gets obscured is the fact that many of these texts were also written by the first generation of successful, out lesbian academics in the academy.

Mary Daly, Janice Raymond, Adrienne Rich, Sheila Jeffreys, Audre Lorde, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Susan Hawthorne, Renate Klein…I could go on.

Some of these women are even multiple PhD holders. Mary Daly had three, and spent her career in a conservative religious institution that did its best to oust her and eventually did – to the cheers of both the left and the right – though it’s radical feminists who are regularly accused of being in league with the right wing. Luce Irigaray has two PhDs, and originally lost her university teaching position and her professional membership to the Lacanian-driven Freudian School when she published her first book Speculum of the Other Woman in 1974. Her male colleagues were not terribly impressed with her feminist critique of male-centered psychoanalytical thought, and so did everything they could to destroy her career and her professional standing. Huh. Imagine that.

So, young lesbian students, budding MA and PhD candidates, whether you agree with what these theorists say or not, whether you think they are outdated or not, you owe them a hell of a lot because they blazed trails that all of you are following, whether you acknowledge it or not. They shone as brilliant academics despite every attempt the academy made to stamp them out.

And you might want to ask yourself why the previous generation of lesbian academics is being so thoroughly trashed, and why you are not allowed to learn about or from your lesbian academic forebears, and you might want to ask yourself whether the same thing is going to happen to you, because it probably will.

So, to go back to the title of this essay, there is no excuse really. You might think radical feminism is crap, but how can you really know if you have never even dared to read one word? Why are these books so unacceptable when others promoting rape and genocide are considered worthy of critical study? How can you actually have an understanding of feminism if you have never even studied its history? How are any of these attitudes compatible with intellectual rigour and integrity?

And finally, ask yourself why lesbian academics are being erased, why lesbianism itself is being erased. Lesbians are near invisible in this society already, and here is an entire vein of lesbian thought that you are being told you cannot access because it is sex negative or essentialist or transphobic or outdated or whatever other scary buzz words are being used to keep you away.

But seriously, what are you being offered as an alternative? BDSM? Porn? Transition? Defective alliances with misogynist gay men? Queer parties of bored straight wanna-bes? A no boundaries politics where lesbians are not allowed to have any control over who enters our space or who appropriates our lives? Where any attempt to create any kind of boundary at all is met with accusations of oppression; despite the fact that there are almost no safe spaces for lesbians either within the LGBT movement or the wider heterosexual culture. Despite the fact that lesbians are a politically powerless group who do not have the institutional clout necessary to oppress anybody.

Thanks, but I’ll pass on the co-option and erasure, and keep eating the forbidden fruit.

5 thoughts on “There Is No Excuse, Really

  1. Jan Kurth says:

    Unbelievable that in any decent college you wouldn’t have been assigned the original texts. I for one fully believe in engaging with the original material whenever possible, even if it’s something distasteful like Mein Kampf. And I, too, am always suspicious when you’re given a Cliff Notes-type summary of a book and told to “trust” that it’s even accurate.

  2. Barbara Di Bari Visconti says:

    From an old second waver, thank you for this. It is bookmarked.

  3. samberg says:

    Thanks for the sensible, evenhanded response to the swirled-up paranoia inflicted on radical feminist and lesbian women.

  4. weirdward says:

    Thanks for comments!

    Jan: Yeah, obviously I don’t think universities should shy away from studying difficult texts. But with 2nd wave feminist texts there are lots of distorted accusations thrown at them about how useless they are, and how damaging they are, and this is used to stop people from reading them and using them as sources in their work. I don’t think my experience was an unusual one – I have heard many similar stories from others at different institutions.

    This post was actually inspired by a seminar in which a lecturer gave a talk on rape in which she trashed Andrea Dworkin and others and then answered “I don’t know” when students questioned her at the end – even though the questions could have been easily answered if she’d sent her students off to read Andrea Dworkin, or one of the other second wave theorists who wrote on rape. I honestly don’t know if she was so ill-informed on the subject, or if it was some kind of horrific deliberate obstruction to knowledge, but either way, it was inexcusable. Particularly given the fact that women are in real-life danger of being raped, or have already experienced it, and have the right to access those texts that can actually help them make sense of their experiences and better arm them to cope with the dangers of living in a woman-hating rape culture.

    Barbara: Thanks – I guess I am seeing this happening from the other end as a young(er) lesbian who can see for myself what all of this erasure and lesbian-hatred and female-hatred is doing, and I really don’t like it one bit.

    Sam: thanks for reading!

  5. sirenpress says:

    Fantastic post. Thanks for your clear analysis. The above books are some of the texts that formed me as a women’s studies student decades ago…. Now these second wave classics are tragically falling out of print, but there are plans afoot to reprint some of them (Though getting proper distribution will be another matter). RFs don’t have to take this erasure of the herstory of our thought… Your and other blogs like this are the beginning of the fightback.

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