In the spring of 2013, my university is going to be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (W.W. Norton, 1963). It’s particularly fitting that we do it here at the New School for Public Engagement, I think, because a big part of our mission is to reach out to adults and non-traditional students who want to finish a college education that was foreclosed or interrupted. Although Betty Friedan was not that person, her activism and writing nonetheless caused women to finish their educations and get back in the workforce.
Betty Friedan was not so good on lesbians, however, causing people like Kate Millett and Ti-Grace Atkinson to abandon Friedan’s fledgling National Organization for Women in facor of the rock ‘em, sock ‘em world of radical feminism. Hence, let me be perhaps hte first to point out that 2013 will also be the fortieth anniversary of Jill Johnston’s groundbreaking Lesbian Nation: the Feminist Solution (Simon and Schuster, 1973), a collection of articles about lesbian separatism that Johnston (who died in 2010) originally wrote for the downtown alternative weekly, The Village Voice (which has since pretty much become an online fashion mag with the same name.)
Little did I know that the celebration of lesbian nation has already begun at the grassroots. As the F train was pulling into Broadway-Lafayette in the East Village this morning, I heard a stentorian male voice drowning out the chirpy recorded female voice that dominates the train’s PA system. “You think that the lesbians come in and out of town,” the Voice announced. “But New York is lesbian headquarters.”
This is, of course, why I moved to New York in 1980, having read Lesbian Nation at the suggestion of some radical feminist wannabes in college.
“Their lesbian generals are headquartered here,” the Voice continued as the doors binged shut. “All of their strategies are devised here.” I peered through the crowd but could not see where the Voice was coming from.
“West Fourth Street-Washington Square is our next stop!” said the chirpy train woman.
“That would be LES-bian Village,” the Voice corrected, emphasizing the first syllable in such a way that I wondered if he was, in fact, a former train conductor gone mad. I could now see that he was a rotund fellow, probably around my age, with the dark skin that typically comes from living on the street, and a big bush of white, frizzy hair. As we pulled into the first Greenwich Village stop, he announced: “We have arrived at Lesbian Village, the headquarters of World Lesbianism. This is Lesbian Headquarters. Please exit the train.”
Deny it if you can.
Bing! Bing! went the doors, and we proceeded on to my stop, 14th street. As we approached our station, the Voice announced: “Fourteenth Street! All lesbians change here for the L train.” (Of course!) “All lesbians change here for the L train that will take you to Lesbian Square. Change for the L train to Lesbian Square.”
At first I was puzzled, since Brooklyn — where the L train goes — has never been a hotbed of lesbian culture, and then I realized that the Voice was sending us in the opposite direction to Times Square! I got off the train and headed to my first appointment.
Prompted by this unusual encounter, when I arrived at my office I pulled my battered copy of Lesbian Nation off the shelf. Heavily informed by psychotherapy, Johnston’s essays advocated complete separation from men as the solution to gender equality, and coined the phrase “lesbian chauvinism” to describe “the aggressive control of one’s own destiny” and “the aggressive assertion of your sexual and sensual needs” as the mark of true women’s liberation (154). Anyone who wants to understand the theory behind, and the contradictions that plagued, lesbian feminism in the 1970s and 1980s needs to read, or re-read, this book.
Now I gotta go — the Lesbian General Staff is about to convene.