Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Angered by the homophobia and heterosexism of the resurgent women’s movement, a small group of lesbian-feminist activists “zapped” a women’s rights conference in New York in 1970. At the protest, they distributed copies of their manifesto, “The Woman Identified Woman,” which argued that lesbianism was central to feminism. The manifesto remains one of the classic works of lesbian-feminist theory, activism, and history.

Summary of Event

In the mid- to late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many young lesbian activists—some of whom had been involved in the pioneering lesbian group the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) or had published essays in DOB’s monthly magazine The Ladder—were forming or joining local and national women’s groups, from New York Radical Women to the National Organization for Women National Organization for Women;and Radicalesbians[Radicalesbians] (NOW). The women often found that while their organizational talents and political skills were appreciated in these organizations, their sexuality and sexual identity were disparaged or ignored. Some of the women were veterans of battles over sexism within gay rights groups; they now found themselves fighting homophobia and heterosexism in the women’s movement. [kw]Radicalesbians Issues The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto (May 1, 1970) [kw]Woman Identified Woman" Manifesto, Radicalesbians Issues The (May 1, 1970) [kw]Manifesto, Radicalesbians Issues The Woman Identified Woman" (May 1, 1970) "Woman Identified Woman" manifesto (Radicalesbians)[Woman Identified Woman manifesto] Lesbian feminism Feminism;Radicalesbians and Protests and marches;Radicalesbians National Organization for Women Heterosexism in women’s movement Feminism;National Organization for Women and [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1970-1971: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto[0780] [c]Marches, protests, and riots;1970-1971: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto[0780] [c]Organizations and institutions;1970-1971: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto[0780] [c]Publications;1970-1971: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto[0780] [c]Feminism;1970-1971: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto[0780] Brown, Rita Mae Jay, Karla Shelley, Martha Abbott, Sydney Love, Barbara Hart, Lois Shumsky, Ellen Funk, Cynthia Hoffman, March

After a few years of trying to change within NOW the oppression of lesbians and the suppression of issues of same-gender sexuality, and after numerous women (including New York chapter president Ivy Bottini) Bottini, Ivy resigned or were “purged” from its leadership, many lesbian activists began to look for other groups to join. Some NOW members, such as writer and activist Rita Mae Brown, quit NOW for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

Brown’s break with liberal feminism came in 1969 after the name of the New York chapter of the DOB had been left off the press release announcing the first national Congress to Unite Women. Congress to Unite Women While still part of GLF, Brown and former DOB-New York member (and The Ladder essayist) Martha Shelley, along with Karla Jay, Sydney Abbott, Barbara Love, Lois Hart, Ellen Shumsky, Cynthia Funk, March Hoffman (Artemis March), and other lesbian feminists, began organizing smaller groups of women to discuss their experiences as lesbians separately from the larger GLF mixed-gender group.

An article by writer Susan Brownmiller, Brownmiller, Susan downplaying the importance of lesbians in NOW, appeared in The New York Times Magazine in March, 1970, igniting a protest for the opening night (May 1, 1970) of the second Congress to Unite Women, held in New York City during the first few days of May. Wearing hand-dyed purple T-shirts with the words “Lavender Menace” Lavender Menace;protests by stenciled on them, Brown, Shelley, Jay, and more than one dozen other women launched a surprise protest. They addressed NOW president Betty Friedan’s Friedan, Betty comments that the presence of lesbians in the women’s movement would harm the movement. As they prepared for the protest, they began to write a statement that would be distributed to conference attendees, explaining their lesbian-feminist philosophy.

The “zap,” or surprise political action, took the conference by storm. It also produced a commitment from NOW by the end of the conference to officially recognize the importance of lesbians to the women’s movement. In her memoir Tales of the Lavender Menace, Tales of the Lavender Menace (Jay) Karla Jay writes that a handful of the women involved in the Lavender Menace action worked to draft the collective statement they distributed at the protest. (However, in the August/September, 1970, issue of The Ladder, Ladder, The (periodical) where the manifesto was published just two months after it was distributed at the New York meeting, “The Woman Identified Woman” manifesto shows Rita Mae Brown’s signature only.)

Starting with the now-famous words “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” the manifesto was intended to educate heterosexual women about the revolutionary nature of being lesbian and of lesbian sexuality. Placing their emphasis on the political and personal importance of women loving themselves and one another, whether as sexual partners, friends, or comrades, the Lavender Menace women—who adopted the name Radicalesbians shortly after their protest action—called upon the women’s movement to create a revolutionary political sensibility, starting with their most intimate, personal relationships.

“The Woman Identified Woman” manifesto called upon women to work together to develop their “authentic selves” as well as build their collective power, promising a radical new way of thinking and being.

For the next year, Radicalesbians in New York continued to meet, organize consciousness-raising groups, and work to create a nonhierarchical organization that relied on decision making by consensus. Radicalesbian groups also formed outside New York City—including ones in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Madison, Wisconsin—for short periods of time. The intensity of the group members’ radical demands upon one another, including their increasing separatism from gay and heterosexual men, bisexuals, and heterosexual women, began to cause difficulties. Some members moved to other cities or drifted back to other lesbian and gay or women’s rights groups. By the end of 1971, the group had disbanded.

Significance

The Radicalesbians’ groundbreaking manifesto, “The Woman Identified Woman,” challenged feminists and other activists to name and examine their heterosexism, that is, the institutional and ideological dominance of opposite-gender sexuality and relationships. The manifesto, with its emphasis on the social construction of sexuality and sexual and gender roles, helped define the causes and effects of homophobia, heterosexism, bigotry, and discrimination against lesbians and gays. “The Woman Identified Woman” also helped explain how systems of male supremacy are maintained by denying women, and all sexual nonconformists, self-definition and agency. "Woman Identified Woman" manifesto (Radicalesbians)[Woman Identified Woman manifesto] Lesbian feminism Feminism;Radicalesbians and Protests and marches;Radicalesbians National Organization for Women Heterosexism in women’s movement Feminism;National Organization for Women and

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine, 2002.
  • 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">Miller, Neil. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radicalesbians. “The Woman Identified Woman.” Duke University, Special Collections Library. http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/womid/.

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

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

May 1, 1970: Lavender Menace Protests Homophobia in Women’s Movement

March 22, 1972-June 30, 1982: Equal Rights Amendment Fails State Ratification

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