Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Lesbian-feminist protesters at the second Congress to Unite Women in New York challenged their exclusion from the program as well as the disparaging comments about lesbians made by Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, or NOW. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Lavender Menace,” nearly two dozen activists mocked Friedan’s fears that NOW was threatened by lesbian visibility.

Summary of Event

Under pressure from such prominent female Democratic Party leaders as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy established, shortly after his election, a national commission to evaluate the status of women in the United States. By 1963, after accumulating mountains of data from women around the country, the new commission issued a report reaffirming women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers while documenting the economic inequities they experienced. [kw]Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement (May 1, 1970) [kw]Homophobia in Women’s Movement, Lavender Menace Protests (May 1, 1970) [kw]Women’s Movement, Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in (May 1, 1970) Lavender Menace Lesbian feminism Protests and marches;Lavender Menace National Organization for Women [c]Marches, protests, and riots;May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement[0790] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement[0790] [c]Feminism;May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement[0790] Friedan, Betty Hernandez, Aileen Brown, Rita Mae Jay, Karla Martin, Del Lyon, Phyllis

Betty Friedan had been the focus of the Lavender Menace’s protest of homophobia in the women’s movement.

Inspired by the national commission’s work, local feminists organized state commissions on the status of women and began holding national conferences to discuss their goals and objectives. Women such as labor activist and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader Addie Wyatt began calling for a women’s organization modeled on the NAACP to fight for gender equality.

By 1966, despite the passage of two significant pieces of legislation (the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which created the landmark Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC), feminists who had been working within the structures of government were disenchanted with the results. When the new EEOC ruled in August, 1965, that sex-segregated help-wanted ads were legal and refused to take action to rectify widespread sex discrimination in the United States, legislators such as Martha Griffiths, civil rights attorney and legal scholar Pauli Murray, former EEOC commissioner Aileen Hernandez, journalist Betty Friedan, and other activists formed a new women’s rights group, the National Organization for Women National Organization for Women;and Lavender Menace[Lavender Menace] (NOW), in Washington, D.C., in October, 1966.

Friedan had become a spokesperson for gender equity after publishing her landmark book The Feminine Mystique in 1963, when she exposed “the problem that has no name”: the intense dissatisfaction felt by well-educated middle-class white women who were unfulfilled by their socially prescribed roles as wives and mothers. Friedan assumed leadership of the new organization, with former EEOC commissioners Hernandez and Richard Graham serving as vice presidents. The new organization’s statement of purpose consciously included men and declared the group’s commitment to “equal partnership of the sexes.” In its first few years, NOW received little serious media attention while it went about its work of organizing, lobbying, and litigating on behalf of women’s rights, focusing on economic equity.

Despite the organization’s resistance to embracing their issues, lesbians had been active in NOW from the beginning. San Franciscans Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders in 1955 of the first national lesbian organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), joined NOW immediately upon hearing a radio interview with NOW organizer Inca O’Hanrahan in 1966. Martin and Lyon availed themselves of NOW’s “couple’s membership”—the first lesbian couple to do so—and inadvertently caused a crisis among the new group’s leadership. The joint membership option was quickly rescinded.

In New York, chapter president Ivy Bottini Bottini, Ivy worked to challenge the homophobia of the national NOW leadership but finally was driven from her post in 1969. Lesbian author and activist Rita Mae Brown also felt silenced in NOW. When DOB’s name was omitted from a NOW press release listing the sponsors for the first national feminist Congress to Unite Women Congress to Unite Women in 1969, Brown left NOW and joined the newly formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF), where many “refugees” from the women’s movement hoped to find a home. Soon, a number of lesbian-feminist activists had formed a collective. After an article appeared in The New York Times Magazine by Susan Brownmiller, Brownmiller, Susan quoting Friedan’s comments in the early days of the movement that lesbians constituted a “lavender menace” to feminism, the collective planned a protest for an upcoming women’s conference.

At the second Congress to Unite Women, held in New York City on May 1, 1970, lesbian activists including Karla Jay, Martha Shelley, Brown, and more than two dozen other women staged a historic confrontation. On the opening night of the congress, while hundreds of people waited for the beginning of a scheduled panel session, the auditorium suddenly plunged into darkness. When the lights were turned on, seventeen women wearing purple T-shirts proclaiming themselves the Lavender Menace stood on stage. The hall was decorated with signs proclaiming The Women’s Movement Is a Lesbian Plot and similar slogans.

The group of women, who soon began calling themselves the Radicalesbians, Radicalesbians also distributed a statement they had drafted titled “The Woman Identified Woman.” The drama of the protest and the clarity and strength of the women’s demands first shocked the attendees but eventually carried the day; the Lavender Menace got a resolution passed by the end of the weekend conference calling for the validation and affirmation of lesbians and lesbian sexuality. Friedan herself was not present when the protest took place, but news of it quickly reached her and others who had been determined to keep the issue of women’s sexuality off NOW’s agenda. Lavender Menace Lesbian feminism Protests and marches;Lavender Menace National Organization for Women

Significance

As Martin and Lyon recounted in their book Lesbian/Woman in 1972, the 1970 Lavender Menace action helped break through NOW’s nervousness about lesbianism, due in large part to the collaboration between local activists and new national leadership from a black woman who understood the importance of inclusion. Aileen Hernandez, the seasoned San Francisco labor and civil rights activist who had been named by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as the only woman member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was a friend of Martin and Lyon and a mentor in the women’s movement. She had asked Martin and Lyon to help organize educational programs on lesbians and lesbian sexuality for the national NOW conference held in Los Angeles in 1971.

Martin and Lyon agreed, and as the conference opened, they found in the official packets “a beautiful statement” from the host chapter about the importance of lesbians to NOW. There were many statements of support from NOW chapters all over the country, from Atlanta to Detroit to Los Angeles, testifying to the crucial role lesbians had played in the organization at the local level. According to Lyon and Martin, “They said lesbianism was pro-feminism and [NOW] couldn’t throw out lesbians and still have a movement.”

Although Friedan maintained her personal and public opposition—continuing to fight lesbian leadership in the organization and even questioning whether the Lavender Menace action was designed by U.S. government agents to undermine NOW—the attendees at the 1971 NOW conference had produced a resolution affirming the importance of lesbian rights. The largest national women’s rights organization in the United States had for the first time expressed solidarity with lesbians, although it would take several more years before it would take action on lesbian issues.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Rita Mae. “Take a Lesbian to Lunch.” In The Lavender Herring: Lesbian Essays from “The Ladder,” edited by Barbara Grier and Coletta Reid. Baltimore: Diana Press, 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jay, Karla. Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. 1972. Reprint. Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Women’s Movement Changed America. New York: Viking Press, 2000.

July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention

1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States

May 27-30, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes

May 1, 1970: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto

November 28, 1970: Del Martin Quits Gay Liberation Movement

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

November 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes

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