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