Maybe what feminism needs is separatism, not inclusion

no men

In a time where inclusion has become one of feminism’s key priorities, a founding idea has fallen particularly out of favour: separatism. The mere accusation of not being “intersectional” (something that actually is imperative but is mostly misapplied by the same liberals calling for “inclusiveness”) is enough to shutter events, spaces, and organizations that center women. The idea of separatism, even among many feminists, calls to mind the dreaded hairy-pitted second-waver who spells women with a “y,” or those unfuckable dykes, buzz cuts and all (LOL, amirite?). You’ll see prohibitions against separatism any time any group of women tries to organize anything, ever. “This event is for anyone marginalized by patriarchy,” liberals will say. Thank you, but literally everyone is “marginalized” by patriarchy in some way.

Liberal feminists and leftist dudes alike have lost the plot — feminism is separation from a system that keeps women subordinate to men and funnels resources straight off women’s backs into men’s hands. The reason this tactic is cue for a laugh track is because our Patriarchy knows that separatism is a legitimate threat to male supremacy. In fact, it is the first bralatov cocktail lobbed.

If you want the real story, read Marilyn Frye’s pamphlet, “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power.” First published in 1977, it’s only 10 pages long. Since you’re a modern woman, you’re probably reading this on your cell phone in the bathroom, at one of your jobs, so I’ll summarize it for you as directly as possible.

Marilyn Frye
Marilyn Frye

Feminism is separatist

Frye explains that feminism is a philosophy, not for, but against inclusion. The dominant paradigm says, “Men have a right to women’s bodies, to women’s labour. Women are invited to participate in public life to the degree that we, men, decree.” Feminism says, “No. That is not the natural or inevitable order of life on Planet Earth.” We don’t want to come to your capitalist imperialist hegemony party.

Male separatism is status quo — from petty public space (Manspreading on the train! Catcalling!) to the highest halls of power ­(scant representation of women in government and industry). This means that feminist separation is rebellion — women excuse ourselves from “institutions, relationships, roles, and activities which are male-defined, male-dominated, and operating for the benefit of males and the maintenance of male privilege.”

And here’s the really important part: “This separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women [emphasis original].” It’s not about advocating for an island of lesbians cut off for eternity from half the human race (OK, I wouldn’t turn it down, but I’ll admit it’s not practical), rather, it means we say when the walls go up and for how long, who passes through the gate and who waits outside.

Men are parasites

Maybe the thing that would get Frye in the most trouble today is the assertion that males and females live in a relationship of parasitism. The wisdom of patriarchy says that the female is subordinate to the male because he protects and provides for her. But women have always contributed to our own material support — in fact, in whatever capacity men provide or protect us, it is because the circumstances of patriarchy itself “are designed to make it difficult for women to provide for [our]selves.”

All sorts of studies concerning the happiness of heterosexual marrieds show that the men in these relationships are significantly happier and healthier than unmarrieds, while the reverse is true for women. Women involved with men report greater depression, worse health, and less stability than the men with whom they’re partnered.

It’s super unpopular to say this, since most of us have men in our lives who we like, and who we’d like to call our feminist allies if not also brother, father, husband, pal. The fact is, however, that male privilege makes men thieves of our mental, spiritual, and physical energy, or as some of my favorite sisters like to call it, our gynergy. Sometimes you just need a break, even from the good ones (#NotAllParasites).

Access is power

Frye lays it out thusly:

“Differences of power are always manifested in asymmetrical access… The super-rich have access to almost everybody; almost nobody has access to them. The resources of the employee are available to the boss as the resources of the boss are not to the employee. The parent has unconditional access to the child’s room; the child does not have similar access to the parent’s room… Total power is unconditional access; total powerlessness is being unconditionally accessible. The creation and manipulation of power is constituted of the manipulation and control of access.”

Throughout patriarchal history, men have had virtually unlimited access to women’s bodies. They have engineered and maintained this through marriage, denying access to abortion, and undervaluing women’s labour, among others too numerous to list off. When women cut off that flow of benefits, we begin to assume power, and it drives men bonkers (and too often, murderous).

Definition is power

Under patriarchy, women are defined as beings unable to say no. Whether overly sexual or nurturing and indulgent, “woman” is a person who has boundless capacity for self-sacrifice. In fact, she exists only in relation to a man. Men are the default people, and women are both men’s reflection and their shadow. A woman who separates defies this definition.

In the act of separation, women expand the idea of what females are capable of, what we look like, and who we love. Women come up with new language with which to self-define, but we often can’t change the language of those around us. “Generally,” says Frye, “when renegade women call something one thing and patriarchal loyalists call it another, the loyalists get their way.” But while saying something does not make it so, creating one’s own community makes space for shared language.

“When we take control of sexual access to us, of access to our nurturance and to our reproductive function, access to mothering and sistering, we redefine the word ‘woman.’”

What separatism looks like now

Men, of course, are the master separatists. They refuse to make room for women even in relative trivialities like movies and video games. Just look at what MRAs say about Mad Max: Fury Road and Gamergate.

When women try to separate, to create space for ourselves to think, to relax, to heal, to organize, to learn, all fucking hell breaks loose.

Men terrorize and stalk their wives even once they are in domestic violence shelters. Elliot Rodgers broke into a sorority to kill women because he felt rejected.

In 31 states, rapists can sue for custody of their children. Not even women who have been legally victimized by men are granted separation by the state.

My local lesbian bar, The Wild Rose, is full of straight bros looking to sitesee in Homodelphia. About as many “cis-het” dudes marched in Seattle Dyke March this year as nonbinary/genderqueer/butches/femmes/or otherwise-identifying lesbians.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is over. At its peak, it was the largest gathering of dykes and woman-loving-women in our solar system. Think about that for one fucking minute. Think about what it would feel like to come from all over the world, from countries where it’s illegal to be a lesbian, from small towns in the Midwest where you’ve never even seen a woman in Butch regalia (except in your dreams), to come to a place and suddenly see yourself everywhere, and suddenly feel safe to be your authentic self. Now, liberal feminists, MRAs, family-values types, and — hardest of all to swallow — the queer community, delight in its destruction. No matter where you stand on what makes a woman-born-woman, the fact is that the MichFest community struggled in earnest with self-definition (which, one more time for the record, included transwomen). However, women, and especially lesbians, are not allowed to self-define, so we cue up that laugh track again and share some Everyday Meninism articles about how awful and evil Michfest was.

The thing that all separatist spaces have in common is that all of them are at-will spaces for women to retreat to. They all have different reasons for separation. They all define for themselves the separation criteria, i.e. what folks inside should share in common. And in each case, they are threatened and attacked, mostly by men and sometimes by loyalist women.

Arguments against separatism are post-feminist. They pretend our work is done and that men are not responsible for and complicit in the subjugation of women as a class. Not only do they harm women, they also harm those men who would be our allies, because these arguments suggest that men are too fragile to be denied access to women. They suggest that women benefit from a relational identity to men, when really, women are fine as entities unto ourselves. For courageous women, for feminists, what lies in the woods of Michigan, or the halls of the Seven Sisters, or behind whatever wall women have put up, is the opportunity for self-love.

Jocelyn MacDonaldJocelyn Macdonald is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and podcaster.

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  • Derrington

    So true, very thought provoking.

  • Princess Mononoke

    I am feeling this, this week. Many great points and much to consider.

  • owleyes27

    Outstanding & well-written piece!

  • Dawn Smith

    Thank you very much.

  • oh the hue manatee

    Great piece. I would push further to say the modern push for “inclusiveness” is, in the grand patriarchal tradition, a brazen reversal. It’s about men maintaining the right to *exclude* un-masculine males from their big bad man box.

  • What I find hilarious is when men feel the need to create men-only clubs and spaces… as if the entire world isn’t tailored to cater to their needs and whims already. They created a world in which women’s reproduction is controlled with marriage, economics, etc making us dependent on them completely yet they feel the need to take time away from US lol. How about stop exploiting and oppressing us and then we’ll be “out of your hair”.

  • Bev Jo

    Lesbian Separatism terrifies men and the assimilationist women. How dare we say no?

    In spite of how Separatism has been slandered by many feminists and other Lesbians, it still was the basic politics that build feminist culture and our movement. Women only space was a given — and a relief from the men perving on us. (But they figured out another way that involved getting women to do their work for them by supporting the many het men identified as “transwomen” who are demanding access to Lesbians.)

    This article is a good change, but still seems a bit embarrassed and of course brings out the usual Separatist-hating stereotypes.

    For more information, there’s the Separatist anthology, For Lesbians Only.

    And also the book I co-wrote, Dykes-Loving-Dykes: Dyke Separatist Politics for Lesbians Only, now updated 25 years later at my blog — https://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/

    I’ve been a Separatist since 1972 and we are still here, all over the world, all ages. I keep meeting more in the Radical Feminist (not “radfem”) facebook groups I moderate.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hey Bev Jo!

      Just wanted to note that the stereotypes were intended, by the author, as sarcasm… As mocking those who buy into said stereotypes…

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

      • “Just wanted to note that the stereotypes were intended, by the author,
        as sarcasm… As mocking those who buy into said stereotypes…

        I would actually like seperatists better if they did reject prettiness norms. What is the point of seperating yourself from male dominated society if you are just going to do the same thing that women are expected to do in such societies? I agree with Shelia Jeffrey’s critique of butches and femmes in the lesbian community (she made it in Unpacking Queer Politics and I am surprised that I have not heard more political lesbians acknowledge it). They are basically just copying heterosexuals (though they are by no means worse than gender conforming heterosexuals). I am all for lesbian relationships, but lesbianism should not be an excuse to practice anti-egalitarian sexualities. That is how we ended up with a situation in which extremely sadomasochist women got to claim that they were radical lesbian feminists, while having zero understanding of the ideology. Maybe there is something I am missing about butches and femmes, but if so please inform me. I will not make the liberal assumption that any deviation from conventional heterosexuality is automatically revolutionary.

        As a general response to the article, this is a case in which is disagree with what is being said, but will defend to the death the right of the author to say it and practice it. The boundaries of spaces and especially their bodies are to be respected, in the sense that they should not be violated even if one disagrees with them. In my view, neither seperatism nor blind inclusivity are effective political strategies (at least not on their own or in all circumstances).

        What I would advocate in such situations is the creation of ideological boundaries. If you agree with the ideology of a movement and do a good job of promoting it then you should be allowed into the movement. If you disagree with the ideology of a movement or behave in a way that is clearly contrary to the aims of the movement (e.g. self proclaimed male feminists, defending their right to watch pornography or acting aggressively towards women) you cannot be part of the movement How horribly uninclusive, right?

        Most men will probably fail my criteria for being involved in feminism, but that is not my problem or the problem of the feminist movement. Men should be held to high moral standards. The moral standards of a movement (or a society) should not be lowered so as to include them.

        And that basic concept is, ironically, the reason I do not believe in seperatism as a political strategy. By assuming that seperating women from men is the only way to stop men from behaving violently towards women, it fails to hold men to high moral standards, thus giving them permission to behave that way.

        And whether women seperate themselves from men or men seperate themselves from women, the result is likely to be more male dominated environments which are breeding ground for misogyny. How can we transform male dominated institutions (e.g. science, medicine, law, economics etc.) if we do not encourage women (with feminist consciousness) to enter into them? Of course, there are irredeemable male dominated institutions, such as pornography and the beauty industry, but I think we need to analyse all social institutions to determine which are redeemable or which are not. Assuming that all institutions (currently) dominated by men are evil strikes me as somewhat simplistic.

        “The thing that all separatist spaces have in common is that all of them are at-will spaces for women to retreat to.”

        The retreat part is actually the part I have a problem with. Women should be fighting male dominance, not retreating from it. In the course of a bigger battle, retreating may be a valid tactic at particular points in time (e.g. women escaping abusive relationships so that they can form connections with other women which will in the long run enable them to pose more of a threat to abusive men). We retreat so we can regroup and come back with stronger forces, but I do not want retreat to be the overall strategy, much less the objective, of the women’s movement.

        The second wave feminist movement was far more militant than the current one. For them, such retreats may in fact have been a means of gathering forces, but I am worried that the type of seperatism being advocated in this article is seperatism for the sake of seperatism, instead of seperatism carried out with the aim of launching a movement to transform society.

        Maybe I am wrong and either way, I defend the right to seperation. I certainly do not want to be lumped in with the angry, aggressive people (mostly biological men) who are outraged any time biological women attempt to meet with them. I am not outraged and offended, just disappointed that the feminist movement has declined into a battle over territory rather than a fight to change the world. Perhaps this is an outcome of the decline of genuine, radical feminism, but the movement will never be able to bounce back if it is constantly on the defence. It needs to be active beyond its own borders (this means fighting the sex industry, the beauty industry and gender in general) if it is to win over new supporters.

        • vagabondii

          In terms of tactics I think you have some good points here, but for me the idea of separatism is not only a means but also an end. If we have the revolution, and then afterwards I have to be around men all the time and can’t escape from them, I will consider the revolution to have failed. Maybe after there won’t be as much reason to need to escape, but still. I like women. I am a lesbian. Men don’t add anything to my enjoyment of humanity.

          As for your argument that separating from men allows them to get away with bad behavior… Again, as a tactical point you may be right. But if we have the revolution, and then we have to perpetually surveil men to make sure they’re not backsliding, and we don’t have time off to just relax around women, then they’ll still be consuming our energy, just in a different way, and the revolution will have failed.

          I don’t just want men to behave themselves. I mean, I want that, but I want to be liberated from men. I want it to be OK for me not to be around them. If I am forced to interact with men forever against my will, just like i am now, what’s the point?

        • Jocelyn Macdonald

          Many lesbian separatists reject butch/femme dynamics. I appreciate Jeffreys’ contributions critiquing those dynamics, and I would say that all the political lesbians I know are very critical of gendered behavior popping up in women-loving relationships. I do take issue, though, with the idea that butch/femme copies heterosexual dynamics. Being in a relationship with a woman has never been in any way similar to relationships with men, in my experience. I have never experienced parasitism with a female partner, for instance, because parasitism is a result of male privilege. I’ve never had a woman leverage power over me the way men wield their privilege daily.

          I also get the sense from your comments that you associate butch/femme with SM. If you think butch/femme copies hetero dynamics, you may be inclined to believe that butches, because they present in what society would call masculine clothes, mannerisms, etc, are likelier to be tops, to be abusive, to act like men basically. This is not only untrue, it’s a woman-hating line of thinking. Women who embody butchness are still women. They are gender nonconforming and we can’t make sweeping claims about the connection between their clothes and haircuts and how they assume or defer power under patriarchy. All women, butch and femme, take considerable risk to say no to heterosexuality and feminine socialization. So while we should always subject ourselves and our community to critical analysis, I think we need to make room for women to work out things like presentation and relational dynamics. The thing is, women can only do that in woman-only space. Lesbians cannot struggle with these issues with men around, pirating language, culture, access to capital, and everything else and also being generally violent and threatening.

          Frye says, as I tried to summarize, that separatist spaces are more than a retreat. They are not primarily a place where we go to get away from men, they are a place where we go to become ourselves. We then leave woman-only space stronger, braver, more capable of either decolonizing those institutions that currently belong to men, or dismantling them completely. Some don’t leave separatist spaces. That’s perfectly legitimate too. Any space women have made man-free is an experiment in non-patriarchal ways of being. We cannot do the work of feminism without imagining and then creating non-patriarchal ways of being.

          The feminist movement has not declined into a battle over territory ~rather~ than a fight to change the world. The territory in question is our bodies, and now more than ever they are under attack by patriarchal men and their institutions. When we have control of our bodies, that would be a completely radical and world-changing thing. When we create woman-only space, in whatever context, we are claiming our bodies as our own, we are claiming our right not to be invaded.

        • Bev Jo

          When any group of people are forbidden to be shown in the media, except to be ridiculed and lied about, that says something about what a threat that group is.

          Butches are not allowed to be shown anywhere. The few who are, are a grotesque parody played by het women or Fems (like Lea DeLaria.)

          Why are Butches so terrifying? Butches have nothing to do with role-playing, sado-masochism, playing male. Butches are closer to what all females would be without patriarchy, and is a choice made in girlhood to refuse male identified femininity. Most women use femininity to fit in, pass as het, be in competition with other women for men, and to get privilege. But because that is the “norm” for women as men have decided in patriarchy, it’s not challenged. Women who say no to men are a threat.

          So when thinking about the horrible stereotypes of Butches, remember how terrible general Lesbian stereotypes were before 1970.

          We explain more in our chapter 4: https://bevjoradicallesbian.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/chapter-four-2015-update-25-years-later-supporting-butches-supports-all-lesbians/

          • Yisheng Qingwa

            I love you, Bev Jo… you’re amazing. I quote you all the time.

            xoxo

  • Susan Hawthorne

    In 1976, I wrote a 10,000 word thesis entitled “In Defence of Separatism” in Philosophy (called the Honours year in Australia). I was punished in several ways. It remains a good piece (the first sustained piece of writing I did) but I was marked down for it and so ended my career in Philosophy (as it meant I could not go on to a higher degree). No one would publish it. When the call out For Lesbians Only came, I sent it, but it was refused on the grounds that it came from Australia! This struck me as a very odd editorial decision. Odd also because much of the material I relied on was from USA (when I looked at the final book contributors come from the USA and France). But there was nothing I could do about that. A short version was published in 1990 in Feminist Knowledge Reader, edited by Sneja Gunew, Routledge,
    London.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Wow!!! I am appalled (but not surprised, I suppose) that this happened to you, Susan. What utter bullshit!

      • Susan Hawthorne

        Unfortunately, the colonial empire still rules, sometimes even amongst the best feminists.

        • Bev Jo

          I’m sorry and really surprised at that, Susan, since I’d thought they wanted it inclusive of other countries. Dyke Separatism by definition should be inclusive.

          I was included in an odd way, as part of the writing I did with two others in Dykes and Gorgons in 1973, but our names weren’t included, just our collective, Gutter Dykes.

  • “All sorts of studies concerning the happiness of heterosexual marrieds
    show that the men in these relationships are significantly happier and
    healthier than unmarrieds, while the reverse is true for women. Women involved with men report greater depression, worse health, and less stability than the men with whom they’re partnered.”

    Indeed!

  • Sabine

    I’m not a lesbian but I so often wish I was! An island of just women sounds pretty good to me….

    • Misanthropia

      I wouldn’t wish to be a lesbian at all cause homophobia

  • Astrid

    Yes and married men live longer, married women shorter. So men literally steal your life when you marry them.

    • Franco Gallus

      There’s a simple explanation to that.
      If you look at the data it is women who died married and women who died single : those who died single were mostly widows outliving their former husband, those who died while married were the exceptions to the usally longer female life expectancy.
      Most women in the world die single thanks to genetic privileges and cultural behaviors that increase their life expectancy.

  • Zuzanna Smith

    I like this piece a lot, except this part, “No matter where you stand on what makes a woman-born-woman…” The only woman is one born female, went through girlhood and made it to womanhood, that is it, no compromise. We have to make a stand, and stop mollycoddling mentally disordered men and calling them she, her, and woman, it has to stop. You can’t separate or even have women only spaces when you give concession to sex fetishists (men) who want to embody the objects of their fetish (women) and who have society’s compassion and loving arms wrapped around them because oppression! Have people ever really wondered why men are touted as brave and courageous for putting on dresses and makeup and going out into public, declaring themselves women? Is it because in society’s eyes they are lowering themselves to the oppressed inferior class of female? Slumming it as the lower caste? It should offend every woman to have men call themselves women, it really should.

    • Jasper Martin

      Agreed.

    • Nancy Lee Segal

      I think this is so well-written that I have copied and pasted it to refer back to for both validation and clarification thank you so much for your perceptive accurate utterly Female Vision

      And absolutely yes the only criteria for Femalehood is to have survived the sacred state of girl-being in this contra-female hell we never created and refused to except

    • Just Passing Through

      It offends me to no end and we can’t go soft on this topic. I’m noticing some backing off a bit on this and it needs to stay front and center. Women(bw) need MUST have our own spaces and places free of males. I’m sick to death of the coddling of men at the expense of women. Men have taken away enough from us, it’s time to take back.

  • Susan Hawthorne

    I started to retype it up some time ago. Maybe it’s time to put it out there again. The publisher was Onlywomen Press run by Lilian Mohin. No US publisher would touch it. Not sure how far I got in the retyping.

  • Chaia

    Thanks for the article, women need to know that men are predatory toward women, that the penis is a weapon men use to control us and we’re living in a rape culture. They walk around with a “gun” in their pocket that can be used against us at any time. The further away I stay from them the better. Just self preservation. Separatism forever, we MUST protect ourselves from men. Put your fists up.

  • Zuzanna Smith

    Amen!!

  • pandora50

    Well said and excellent points, thanks.

  • Bev Jo

    Lesbian Separatism never ended. Combining the very feminine who play at being Dykes (buzz cuts) and putting down women who don’t obey male rules is cheap ridiculing. But Separatism is still what will save the earth, unless it’s too late.

  • Just Passing Through

    It makes me physically ill. I want a new world.

  • Just Passing Through

    I am totally feeling this comment and agree 100% ..Men seriously suck. I fkn hate ’em… There I’ve come right out and finally said it. I fucking hate men with a level of hate I never knew I had in me. They terrorize women across the planet and have throughout all of history and the “good ones” stand by and watch it happen and do NOTHING… I want a new world without men. Seriously, a new planet…I just read a story about a disgusting man with half a head try to rape a woman then burn down her house, (I guess the half head part of him is what made him fail at the rape, but it almost happened)….the picture of him just made me want to throw up, even without the majority of his brain, he still has the need to kill, maim, rape etc…it’s what they do, it’s what they are…they’re animals…they are fkng mutants, I’m so convinced…I want a male free planet. NOW. Nuclear war wouldn’t even be a threat if it weren’t for men. The world and all life on earth will probably end because men need to assert their dominance over all living things and everyone in the world. It’s the ultimate dick wag! At least one guy “gets it” about how fucked men are: George Carlin with his “Male Disease” act….but that’s about it. I seriously hate men.

    • genny

      I squealed with joy when reading your comment. I always like to hear from women who hate men as much as I do. It makes me feel less alone in the world.

  • wincky59

    You are so right. Excellent article.

  • annrpharrison

    Excellent!

  • StanUlam

    Brave, empowered and nakedly truthful.