NB: If you are reading this for a course, please make sure to click on the scans of the magazine pages for full text.
The following are excerpts from "Separatist Symposium" in DYKE A Quarterly, published in the Summer of 1978. You can read the full article on the scans below, which you can enlarge by clicking on them. The articles by Penny House and by The Gorgons will be posted later.
This section was written by Liza Cowan.
We sent this questionnaire to approximately ten groups and/or individuals. One group wrote to tell us that they did not want to answer the questions because straight women and men might see the magazine. Another group, the Gorgons, sent us a collection of previously written essays which speak to many of the points we raised. We received no other answers.
I have worked on my own answers to the questionnaire on and off for about three months. The questions we posed were difficult and requite a great deal of time and thought. We tried to ask the questions in such a way that would elicit responses not so much about the ideology of Separatism, but about who separatists are. We have been feared, scorned and most of all misunderstood. We thought it was important for all Lesbians to understand that Separatists are not a bunch of hard-line weirdoes, women with no feeling and no doubts. This is the impression given by anti-Separatists. We hoped to show what a diverse group of Lesbians call themselves Separatists; to show that Separatism has no centralized laws, no rules and regulations. Unfortunately, since I am the only one who has responded to the questionnaire, we are not able to show our diversity. We hope that those of you who call yourselves Separatists will write your own answers to the questions and we will print them in a future issue.
In answering these questions, I have tried to be as open and honest about my life and my feelings as possible. I have done this to help explain what Separatism means in my day- to -day life; how my beliefs and politics affect my dealings with my family, my community and my work.
How do you define Separatism?
Lesbian Separatism is a vague title that explains only about 1/1000 of the way I think and behave. Last year Alix, Penny, Janet and I decided to quit calling ourselves Separatists because it was too imprecise, it seemed to mean too many different things to different women. Unfortunately, when word got around that we were no longer calling ourselves Separatists, , many women began to think that we were no longer going to be stubborn about having women-only spaces, it meant that maybe we no longer hated men, that we were going to be nicer and not so threatening to be with. It was quite terrifying to get the feeling from all over the country that we used to be monsters but that now we were going to be “good.” When, on a concert tour, Alix announced from stage that she was no longer calling herself a Separatist, some women actually clapped and cheered. It made us realize that it was our duty to call ourselves Separatists because the word had become identified with issues and emotions that touched a raw nerve in the women’s community – gender and sexual politics.
It seems that it is still too frightening for many Lesbians to realize that they have the right to be exclusively with women, whether it is for a concert, a conference or a business, and that it is a right that must be fought for. I have travelled around the country meeting Lesbians who live in a more Lesbian world than I do, Lesbians who live, work and socialize almost exclusively with other Lesbians, who will say to me that they are not Lesbian Separatists, and they do not agree with Lesbian Separatists. The “personally” prefer to live with women, and to socialize with women, and yet they will not call themselves Separatists. The are not willing to commit themselves even to the idea of working to maintain the life they enjoy so much. There are Lesbians who will fight, lie, get sick or leave town rather than commit themselves to such a seemingly simple act as claiming a concert is to be for women only. Why is this so? The label “lesbian separatist” has become the hot line to everyone’s flushing-boy-babies-down-the –toilet fantasy, and they run away from it screaming. How did Separatism get such a terrible reputation?
When I say Lesbian Separatism I am talking about the analysis and observation that there is a profound difference between male and female, and the understanding that women have the need and right to be together without males and to define the world in our terms. Men “rule” the world, but Mother Nature is a Lesbian. Men try to control Mother Nature and they try to control women. Lesbian Separatism is an analysis which shows women that it is possible to withdraw support from men, and a belief that withdrawal of women’s support will dissolve the patriarchy.
Connecting the dots between patriarchy and climate change. Design Liza Cowan
Men, and most women, do everything in their power to make life uncomfortable for women who challenge the patriarchy. Most women do not really want to rock the boat; it is too frightening, and we are taught thoroughly to be passive. It is hard not to cooperate with the patriarchy - everything is involved. Every single piece of information, every action has to be understood and frequently challenged. Everything sent from the patriarchy tells us that this world was created by, for and about the male. All information from the patriarchy is colored by a male point of view. Challenging and dissolving the patriarchy means withdrawing support from male assumptions. Take for example, the energy crisis. Men have decided, and informed the world via all their media, that there is a terrible shortage of energy, that is a crisis. There is no shortage of energy. The sun can give us an abundance of never-ending energy, and there are at least 25 other simple, organic solutions to the “energy problem. “ Rather than explore these possibilities -most of which women would probably utilize in about fifteen seconds if we had the learning and access that men have - men prefer to fight each other for the money, power and domination that comes with scrambling for oil, threatening out health and our lives with nuclear power plants, spilling wastes into the waters and throwing junk into outer space. It is clearly and S&M power game that they would prefer to play to the end of their days. By accepting the assumption that an energy shortage exists, we allow, even help, the “crisis” to continue. That is just one example of how we support the patriarch by giving power to their beliefs. We can begin to withdraw support with as simple an act as saying “I don’t believe it; I refuse to give “power” or “energy” to this assumption. Without women’s energy and power men will truly have and “energy crisis”
Another assumption that must, I believe, be challenged is the assumption of “human being.” When I first became a feminist, I rejected the notion that there was any basic difference between men and women. I saw how the patriarchal analysis of the difference between women and men only served to keep women enslaved, and I believed that women and men had just been socialized badly…that the world could be a better place if men and women were socialized differently. But I also realize that it is men who have been in control of the socialization, no matter how often or how loudly men scream that it’s “all mom’s fault.”
After I came out and started to spend more time and energy in exclusively female company, I began to realize just how different men and women really are. I realized, too, that seeing everybody as “human” would help men stay in control and would keep women enslaved. It is in the interest of the patriarchy that women not realize that it is men, and not “human nature” that have created pollution, racism, the energy crisis, agribusiness, fast food, and every other symptom of the agony of life in the patriarchy. Men and women have known all along that there are enormous differences between the sexes, but t I think that when it seemed clear from the first and second waves of the women’s movement that women were going to make public this best known secret, and were actually going to do something about it, that men quickly realized that they had better hide behind the collective title of “human”, thereby not having to take the blame for their crimes. Women, for many complex reasons have, for the most part, accepted this and are frequently grateful for being recognized as “human, too.”
Once I became conscious of the fact that men and women are so different, - a realization that came from feelings, observation, analysis and support from other Lesbians who were making similar discoveries - it became clear that we know very little about what it actually means to be a woman. In order to explore the difference, to learn what it means to be a woman, and to exorcise that which is male from our own patriarchally trained brain-patterns, it seems obvious that we have to remove ourselves from men. Hence the title, Lesbian Separatist. The natural separation between male and female. The separation is as much emotional and intellectual as physical withdrawal. In order to take control of my own life, I separate myself in varying degrees from men and their influence. I try to be constantly aware, on guard, alert to recognize, understand and challenge all patriarchal assumptions, attitudes and actions, whatever their source. This is a full –time job.
How do you act with the men you have to deal with in everyday affairs, such as supers, shopkeepers, servicemen, neighbors, men at your job? How do you feel about them?
Sometimes I surprise myself at how well I get along with so many of the men I have to deal with in my life. But I have had to spend more time and energy on men since I moved to the country four years ago than I had to in the city. I have heard from women who say that it is easy for me to be a Separatist because I live in the country. I guess they thought that I could isolate myself on my own land and never have to deal with landlords or supers or men on the street. This common fantasy is wrong in two ways: first of all you can be a Separatist and still speak to men; second, being in the country does not mean moving away from men, since men live in the country too. When I rented an apartment in the city all dealings with trades people were taken care of by the super, but now that I own my own house and land, everyone has to deal directly with me. When our furnace starts choking and farting I know one or two things to do to relieve it, but usually I have to get on the phone and call the plumber. Our hundred year old house had wiring that was almost as old and we were afraid that all the extension cords and old wires would start a fire, so we had to call an electrician man to rewire the house. When the car breaks down we have to call the garage, which is run by men. The gas for our stove is delivered by a man, the fuel for our furnace is delivered by a man, the UPS driver who comes t our house a few times a week for pick-ups is a man. When the roads are covered by a foot of snow and we haven’t seen the plow all day, we have to call the highway department, which is run by men. All these men have to be dealt with.
...The same man delivers the fuel oil each time, the same man delivers the bottled gas, the same plumber comes, etc. Soon we learned that this one was born right down the road, that one went to school with one of our friends, another one’s wife works in the post office and so on. We have developed a nice, courteous, friendly rapport. We have, after all, joined their community.
...At first we were not sure how people would take to us. Being Jewish Lesbians in a straight white Christian community could cause some problems. Much to our relief and delight, we found that as far as we can tell everyone has very nice feelings about us, and we discovered we have very nice feelings about them too. They like us because we keep our house and yard looking clean and neat and we are working to improve the land. We are polite, courteous, and respectful of them. We are “good girls.” We don’t live with men. We are not hippies. We help each other in times of trouble. We are nice people and they are nice people. We don’t intrude in their lives and they don’t intrude in ours. We have managed this without betraying our principles and we are very happy about it. We love our neighborhood.
What is your relationship with your family?
….When I was first a Separatist I thought that to be consistent with my politics, I had to abandon the notion of blood family. I learned years ago that the nuclear patriarchal family is bad for women, bad for society, bad for the world at large. Nevertheless, no matter what system we have for propagating the species we will always have relatives. Family, after all, is not man-made, it is woman-made. Having a family satisfies a great need in me, a need I suspect we all have, Separatist or not. Because I was born into a patriarchal world I make due with what I have. I can be friends with my siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts and still be a good Separatist. I don’t bring my Lesbian business to my family and I don’t bring my family business to Lesbians. Each satisfies a need and can remain quite independent of one another.
Is there any political work you do or would do with men?
In a crisis, for a short- range project I would work with men. Otherwise, no. I want to change the world to a place where femaleness is the primary assumption. It is not possible for men to create this change.
Is there any political work you do, or would do, with straight women?
Yes, I am currently working with a local Planned Parenthood group to design and erect a pro-choice abortion billboard in a local town. A few months ago we were driving on a road not too far from our house and we saw a billboard showing a baby with the headline, Never to laugh….never to taste sunshine…fight abortion. It was at that moment that I realized that something had to be done, and that I had better help. Right To Life and anti-ERA forces are powerful and destructive and must be stopped. A while ago Alix and I went to Albany, NY to lobby to keep Medicaid abortions and there were women from all over the state. It was the first time in years that I had done anything political with straight women and it was very interesting. It think it is vital to work with whichever women want to work on such issues. If women lose the right to abortion we are back to square one.
Do you, or would you, do Lesbian work with non-Separatists?
My main Lesbian work is DYKE. Not everyone who works for DYKE is a Separatist, so the answer is yes. I would not, however, do Lesbian work with a group that was anti-separatist. I have found that I prefer to do most of my work via the US mail, and basically I only work with my close friends, who are all Separatists. I am not a group joiner anymore, because all the groups I have ever been involved with ended with horrible fights, mainly over Separatist issues.
How is Separatism expressed in your Lesbian work?
My main work is DYKE A Quarterly. DYKE is sold only to women and only at women’s and gay stores. We do not sell subscriptions to men. We are aware that once in a while a man sees it, but after a certain point there is nothing that can be done about it.
As important as directing our circulation only to women is that fact that we write directly to Lesbians. DYKE is a magazine for Lesbians and we have never had, nor will we ever have one that is written for straight women, although we do not mind if straight women read the magazine. In all the articles is the presumption that a reader is a Lesbian. We think that this is revolutionary. Women-only space is a fight I am willing to dedicate my life to.