In this post I started talking about separatism and how it can be seen as an approach or a strategy that one applies to many areas of her life and that it generally has to do with saying no to men. This presents separatism as a much bigger topic than just the idea of lesbian-only communities.
If separatism is a wide range of strategies to resist patriarchy, as Marilyn Frye described it, then I am somewhat of a separatist. I have a female partner and I no longer have sex with men, I rarely invite men into my home, I have very few male friends and I spend most of my time with women friends, I interact with male coworkers as little as possible, and I even interact with male relatives as little as possible. I remain focused on women as much as I can in my thoughts and actions. I try to ingest female culture rather than male culture as much as possible—I read books and blogs written by women, I listen to mostly female musicians, and I avoid most TV shows and films that focus on men. I’m not super strict about separatism—for me it’s more of an instinct that a hard and fast rule. I am involved in my community and I work with men sometimes, because they are there and I can’t really avoid them.
In Chapter 3 of Deep Green Resistance, Lierre Keith talks about withdrawal as a political strategy and this conversation intersects with lesbian separatism. Keith says that withdrawal can either be effective or ineffective as a political strategy and she gives examples of both.
“The main difference between withdrawal as a successful strategy and withdrawal as a failed strategy is whether the withdrawal is linked to political resistance or instead seen as adequate in itself.” (p85)
When withdrawal is an end in itself, then a community only has to leave society, set up their own farm, and live on their own, and their work is done. They don’t actually change the dominant culture, they just withdraw from it. This is a failed political strategy because it doesn’t create systemic change, it is only a personal lifestyle choice. The funny thing about this is that there are lesbian separatists who believe they are the most radical of the radical feminists and they are ironically promoting a liberal strategy of personal lifestyle changes. The true radicals are the ones whose strategies make material changes across society, not who just change their own lifestyles. Lesbianism cannot be chosen by all women, so this is not a far-reaching political strategy. To really emancipate women from male control, we need to acknowledge that most women are heterosexual, and we need to make heterosexuality safer for women by creating a world where women can control their own reproductive capacity and have equal relationships with men.
Withdrawal can also be an effective political strategy when it’s used to resist those with political power. Lierre Keith uses the example of the American Revolution to explain an effective withdrawal strategy. The American Revolution was when the American colonies rejected British rule and formed their own country. Keith describes the strategies used by the colonies to withdraw from Britain, one of which was resistance to the Stamp Act. The British created the Stamp Act to help them pay for their military, and it was essentially just a money grab where the colonies would have to pay extra for stamped paper. The colonies revolted against this by making it impossible for anyone to sell the stamps. Mobs of people committed property destruction and physical violence against anyone who sold the stamps, so that no one was willing to sell them anymore, the result being that the Act could not be enforced. That’s one example of the strategy of withdrawal that is not just withdrawal for the sake of it but withdrawal for a political purpose.
When you look at the goals of the feminist revolution, which is to emancipate women from male control and give us sovereignty over our bodies and our lives, you can identify withdrawal strategies that would work in a feminist context. One such withdrawal strategy is to reject the male-run medical establishment and put female health care in the hands of women. This is work that radical feminist midwives are currently doing. In addition, women need to learn how to perform abortions and teach each other this skill, like feminists did in the 1970s. Carol Downer was a part of a group of women who did just that, and in this article she talks about the importance of female-run health care clinics in emancipating women.
“A robust network of women’s health centers throughout the nation, staffed by women trained through self-help, would make it possible for any woman to use safer methods of birth control, or terminate an early pregnancy without having to go to a clinic. And when a significant number of women have access to this body of knowledge and use it, the State would be deterred from arbitrarily depriving women of access to health care. There would be general outrage, and the State would know that large numbers of women could defy it successfully.”
A combination of women doctors, midwives, and activists could work together to set up women’s health clinics so that women can bypass entirely the male-run medical establishment which is continuously seeking to limit women’s access to abortion. This would be a withdrawal strategy that works.
Separatism can either be effective or ineffective. Setting up your tent in the woods and staying away from society can feel good, but it’s a personal lifestyle choice, not a political strategy. Separatism that creates opportunities for women as a class to take control over our bodies and lives is an effective political strategy.