Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

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The death of Adrienne Rich leads Colin Wilson to recall the lesbian feminist politics of the 1980s

Adrienne Rich, who died in March, will be remembered chiefly as a poet who was part of the radical movement.

Her writing recorded the personal impact of the struggles of the 1960s, such as those against racism and the war in Vietnam. Rich came out as a lesbian and depicted love between women in her poems from the mid-70s on. In her seventies she continued to be politically active - opposing the war in Iraq - and to publish poetry.

But Rich's death also made me think back to a long feminist article she wrote in 1980, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", which was hugely influential. Its strong argument touched a nerve for many women - yet its political impact was almost completely negative.

Context
It is vital to understand the piece's context. The movements of the 60s and 70s had seen huge riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The revolutionary Black Panthers had patrolled the streets carrying arms in California. Conscripted US soldiers in Vietnam killed dozens of officers rather than obey their orders to fight. But by 1980 this movement was on the wane. Struggles continued, but a watershed had been reached, marked by the election of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Revolution, it seemed, was no longer on the agenda.

This combination - the radical experiences of the previous decade meeting the wrenching disappointment of the present - is at the heart of "Compulsory Heterosexuality". The article starts from two positions, both entirely valid. Firstly, women are oppressed, and have been oppressed in many different ways for thousands of years. Second, women are constantly encouraged to form relationships with men, and assumed to desire men. This is the compulsory heterosexuality of the title. Sexuality is not simply a matter of personal preference: it is a part of a system of ideas which encourages appropriately "masculine" and "feminine" behaviour and oppresses same-sex desire.

Rich's account of women's oppression is wide-ranging, referring to class and race, and in some ways resembles a mirror-image of Engels's attempts to explain how women were first oppressed. But it also reflects the bitter disappointments of the 1980s. Rich lists many examples of women's oppression, including rape, prostitution, foot-binding, arranged marriage and the burning of witches. Each example is valid in itself, but the overall effect is to suggest that women's oppression is age-old and inescapable. And, while Rich mentions workplace issues and equal pay, the list is dominated by examples of oppression from women's personal lives.

This stress on personal experience fits an understanding of women's oppression as the result of "male power". Rich's account implicitly denies that working-class men have, like working class women, few opportunities to shape the values which dominate society. Rather she claimed that all men, because of their inner psychological inadequacy, depend emotionally on women and seek to oppress them.

Women should therefore withdraw from men, practically and emotionally. Women should concentrate on developing practical, political and emotional links of solidarity between themselves. To all these supportive connections between women - not just overtly sexual ones - Rich applies the term "lesbian". The political strategy of undermining women's oppression through personal and political withdrawal from men is lesbian feminism.

Thousands of women - like Rich herself - had made a journey from marriage to life as a lesbian. Lesbian feminism was a utopian vision - a society could be transformed in the same way.

Yet it was hugely divisive. Political work involving men and women - such as campaigning together against Tory cuts - was to be rejected. Gay men were no better - too fond, Rich explained, of impersonal sex. Bisexual women were literally sleeping with the enemy.

Divisions

Lesbian feminism even divided lesbians. Bitter conflicts broke out between committed feminists who had rejected men as a political strategy, and women who simply desired sex with other women, some of whom were into leather or sadomasochism.

Related currents within 1980s feminism had a similar negative impact. The camp against American missiles at Greenham air force base, for example, was a women-only protest, because women were peaceful while men were violent. Gender stereotypes were thus reinforced by feminists. US feminists like Andrea Dworkin sided with the Christian right to ban pornography.

Lesbian feminism had faded away by the year 2000. The trauma of Aids brought lesbians and gay men together, and a renewed level of struggle undermined separatism - for the last ten years there has been a strong desire in the movement for unity. But it's important to be clear about our ideas to avoid similar disasters in future. As Rich argued, sexism and homophobia are structured into society.

But that means they are not created by individual men or straight people. Women and men, LGBT and straight, can and must unite to fight oppression, while separatist strategies have shown themselves to be a dead end. Rich's article, so influential 30 years ago, is by now a historical curiosity. Her poetry, let's hope, will be remembered for much longer.