I’m a bit late to the party about this article, from the weekend NY Times, regarding a fading community of lesbian separatists in Florida. The portrait of these women, who made a choice you don’t see as often nowadays but which was perhaps more popular in an era of idealization of subsistence farming (i.e. the 60s and 70s), has been much discussed.
But it has surprised me how hostile people were about it, how they could not help themselves from reading a critique of their own lives into this narrative. I’m talking about the people who wrote things like, “But men can be feminists too,” or “I’m sorry, but I enjoy cock,” or “Why are these women mean to male babies?”
Because that was not my own reaction in the least. When I read the article, I actually – and I’ll deny it if you ask me in person because it totally dismantles the old-crone impression I’m trying to make – kinda teared up. These women found a way – and it was not an easy way for them, let’s be honest – to live their lives such that they felt more human. They felt more like whole people living apart than it seemed society would grant them.
And that’s fucking sad, but the reason it’s sad is not because they’re “wrong.” I’m just not willing to call these women deluded about their own experiences. They had, obviously, a kind of early life that turned them from men permanently – of being lesbian in a society that barely had a name for it, or of being raped or sexually abused, or of being told their worth was nothing absent marriage and the bearing of children. I wish everyone would keep in mind that it’s patriarchy that’s wrong here. It’s patriarchy that made these women feel this way. They did not make this stuff up, in short.
And as a feminist it is my job to recognize that such experiences exist, that it is important to listen to the women who lived through them, and not try to shame them or make their choices about mine. It is important to listen because they have something to contribute to my feminism, these lesbian separatists. They can tell me more about how scared they used to be. They make it real for me, all these notions I have from Douglas Sirk movies or what have you about the repression of the fifties.
I can cut their critics some slack, but only a little. Sometimes, when I am in the heat of an internet argument, I start to forget how much of my devotion to feminism is rooted in good old boring ordinary compassion. Because I am a person who enjoys talking about ideas abstractly, I can sympathize with those who want to synthesize the contributions of these women, read them down into a pithy statement like “Good feminists should live apart from men” that I can then refute with rhetorical razzle-dazzle.
But those discussions, they aren’t the whole truth of the matter. They aren’t about the women themselves. And though I’m always going to keep talking about feminism abstractly, I often wish everyone would keep their eyes on the ball. I got into feminism because the state of women in this world – and I do mean all women, old, black, poor, and queer included – makes me so incredibly sad. And because it always seemed (at least to me) that the task of feminism was, in the end, largely one of empathy, of reaching outside yourself to help someone else, even if only by listening.
Et tu, commenters?