Posted on | July 10, 2014 | 59 Comments
“Both femininity and masculinity are heteropatriarchal terms that establish the boundaries of what is ‘acceptable,’ ‘permissible’ appearance and behavior for females, Lesbians included. Heteropatriarchal semantics equates femininity with femaleness and masculinity with maleness, as though behaviors and personality traits were determined by biological sex. On the basis of that equation, heteropatriarchy values femininity in females and masculinity in males. . . .
“What is Lesbian identity? What does it mean to be a Lesbian, live as a Lesbian, think as a Lesbian, in a Lesbian context? So we have to begin by identifying how we differ from heterosexual women and bisexuals and make our deviance the core of our identity. Lesbians don’t fuck men. We are the only group in the world that refuses to place men at the center of our lives. We are the only group whose lives are focused on women.”
— Julia Penelope, Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory (1992)
Some people are ahead of their time, and Julia Penelope Stanley — who dropped her heteropatriarchal surname early in her career as a radical feminist academic, author and activist — was an angry lesbian man-hater before being an angry lesbian man-hater was cool.
Her eccentricities of style, grammar and orthography are very reminiscent of Mary Daly, and make her work difficult to quote because apparently freedom from heteropatriarchal oppression requires that nobody is permitted to edit your work for ease of reading. Admirers of the late Ms. Penelope’s radical feminist work will therefore take umbrage at the tiny bits of editing I’ve done to the quote above, but her abbreviation of “heteropatriarchy” as “HP” struck me as silly, and at least I didn’t change her habitual capitalization of “Lesbian,” a quirk that seems to have had some significance to her.
She described herself as a “fat, butch dyke who never passed,” which is to say she was the perfect stereotype of a feminist, and thus viewed as something of an embarrassment to the movement. Despite the fact that her writings were (and to some extent, still are) influential within radical feminism, that she participated in the founding of important feminist organizations and suffered in her academic career on account of her early status as an “out” lesbian, Ms. Penelope was largely forgotten by the time she died last year.
Born in 1941, she developed her lesbian identity at an early age and, by the time she was 16, was hanging around lesbian bars in her native Miami. Her lesbianism led to her being kicked out of college twice (first at Florida State and then at the University of Miami) before finally getting her bachelor’s degree at New York’s City College when she was 25, then getting a Ph.D. at the University of Texas. She taught English for more than a decade at the University of Nebraska, and blamed her lack of promotions on sexist homophobia, which we might accept as valid, except that (a) she was hired as an English professor and (b) apparently her publications consisted entirely of writing about lesbianism. This was many years before angry lesbians could get their Ph.D. in Women’s Studies and spend their academic careers publishing treatises on Queer Theory, so if Julia Penelope suffered the usual fate of those who are ahead of their time . . . Well, whatever.
Unlike some of the “political lesbians” of the 1970s — who became lesbian only after feminist “consciousness raising” convinced them they were oppressed by men — Julia Penelope was a “stone butch” lesbian for more than a decade before joining the feminist movement. Also unlike most Second Wave feminists, who were aligned with the antiwar New Left, Ms. Penelope’s politics were idiosyncratic and even right-leaning: She became a devotee of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism in the late 1950s and, in New York in the 1960s, was a libertarian conservative at a time when all her close friends were either Communists or Socialists. Furthermore, unlike most feminists, she had a sense of humor and a reputation as a joker, describing herself as a “cunning linguist.” Her friend Anne T. Leighton recounted an occasion when Ms. Penelope used LSD:
“Julia, delightedly addled on acid, standing mesmerized in the bakery section of a Midwestern supermarket, fondling a package of rolls. While we worried about security guards, Julia remained amazed. With a shyness she rarely let others see she gestured with the rolls, offering her pronouncement then beaming at our understanding. ‘Breasts’ she whispered. Julia: alive to the wonder of a world filled with breasts.”
Her lesbian separatism was rooted in a simple logic: Women’s oppression by men (i.e., patriarchy) was the result of heterosexuality, hence the term “heteropatriarchy” to describe the male-dominated system she opposed. Furthermore, anticipating the arguments of Third Wave feminist gender theory, Ms. Penelope saw the sex/gender categories of “masculine” and “feminine” as inherently related to women’s oppression. In an autobiographical essay from her book Call Me Lesbian, she wrote:
“I believe that, as Lesbians, instead of using our energies trying to transform what we’ve learned from heteropatriarchal cultures, trying to squeeze ourselves into their framework or bending it until it feels comfortable for us, we should be actively unlearning what we’ve been taught by heterosexuals, and busy transforming ourselves. . . . Everything we believe, we’ve learned from the heteropatriarchy — every single bit of it. We have no experience to call our ‘own,’ because, from the day we’re born, our experiences were described for us by heterosexuals, starting with our parents.”
Thus, according to Ms. Penelope, even the beliefs and attitudes of lesbians are shaped by the male-dominated system of heteropatriarchy, so that these attitudes must be unlearned. And this is especially true of femininity:
The United States is a heteropatriarchal society, a culture that assumes that heterosexuality is “natural,” that male dominance is “natural,” and that female subordination is “natural” . . . The words masculine and feminine exist only because they express concepts essential to the maintenance of heteropatriarchal reality. But the existence and continual use of these words doesn’t mean that they denote “real” or actual things. . . .
Sexual dimorphism is the foundation of heteropatriarchal semantics, politics, and personality. Personality, according to heteropatriarchy, is based on biological sex. Biology determines behavior, mannerisms, appearance, emotional style, and how one thinks. This is a monocausal ideology. . . . Contrary to popular thinking, it’s not at all obvious that biological sex or reproductive potential should be the basis of personality. . . .
If one is female, then one must be a heterosexual and a breeder, and behave in appropriate, “feminine” ways. If she doesn’t . . . she isn’t a “real woman.” . . .
It’s way past time for Lesbians to stop using heteropatriarchal words as though they were meaningful. Any Lesbian who defends femininity and compares another Lesbian to a man by labeling her “masculine” subscribes to heteropatriarchal “consensus reality.” . . .
If Lesbians want to deny the “naturalness” of heteropatriarchal categories, and assert the positive value of our deviance, adopting femininity doesn’t make any sense. . . .
Lesbians who can pass as heterosexuals must understand and admit that they acquire specific social privileges because they can hide their Lesbianism. The privileges and rewards of femininity, in addition to money and social approval, are a false sense of worth and self-esteem because they are grounded in hypocrisy and pretense. Furthermore, Lesbians who prize femininity either believe they are superior to “obvious” Lesbians or they sexualize the difference. . . . Because femininity in women is so highly prized by men, femininity cannot be positively valued in a Lesbian context.
This hostile rejection of the values of what we would call normal or traditional society — where the masculinity of men and the femininity of women are accepted as natural — is striking. Ms. Penelope’s claims make sense, however, if instead of viewing them as political analysis, we consider them as psychological symptoms.
Her theories were an elaborate, jargon-laden “sour grapes” rationalization: Being very un-feminine herself, she knew she had no access to the “privileges and rewards of femininity” she described. Within the context of “heteropatriarchy” (i.e., the normal world), these feminine qualities were “highly prized by men,” and her condemnation of “femininity . . . in a Lesbian context” was an attempt to prevent herself (a clearly “masculine” lesbian) from being reduced to an inferior status within her own community.
Feminism has always attracted malcontents and misfits, offering them political theories to explain their unhappiness with the normal world. Yet even as the influence of feminism has changed the world, the grievances of the malcontents persist. In order to explain this — why feminists remain unhappy, despite feminism’s success — the evils of men must be continually exaggerated, and insidious power must be attributed to the male-dominated system of patriarchy. Whatever women are unhappy about must ultimately be blamed on men, even the unhappiness of lesbians within their own lesbian culture.
Therefore, Julia Penelope accused some of her fellow lesbians of adopting the value systems of heteropatriarchy. Similarly, although for different reasons, Ms. Penelope was hostile to the arguments of liberal “mainstream” feminists:
Liberal feminists have made the word choice so attractive, as though all women were capable of acting as autonomous, self-determining beings. “We must respect all women’s choices,” they say, as though our choices are made in a vacuum, as though every single woman knows what her choices are or might be. Humanism ignores the fact that our choices, such as they are, are made in the context of heteropatriarchy. . . . If there is a “politics of liberal feminism,” it’s nothing more than a way of rationalizing the fact that women continue to choose men. . . .
Many Lesbians cannot “go back” to men because we didn’t start there. One can “go back” only to something she’s previously “left.” The metaphor of “returning” to men or heterosexuality reveals the heterosexism of liberal feminism, because it assumes that ALL women are or have been heterosexuals, first. Heterosexuality becomes the touchstone of their identity. . . .
We’re not engaged in a dialogue with heterosexuals. Most of us, however reluctantly, have decided that our energies must go to other Lesbians; attempts to talk to heterosexual feminists are usually frustrating and depressing. Lesbians are the focus of our lives. . . .
What does it mean to say that one “loves a man” and, at the same time, to acknowledge the male violence experienced every day by millions of women? What does it mean to “love our oppressors”? Women have been loving men for millennia, and I can’t see that it’s done anything but worsen our situation. What does it mean, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to believe that men, now, today, can be “rehabilitated,” and to commit one’s life to that belief? . . .
Here’s what I believe I know: Men rule the world. Men rape women. Men rape all females, their daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, granddaughters, and any other female unlucky enough to be accessible to them when “the urge” strikes. Men beat women up, cripple them, maim them, starve them, kill them. Men make money and war. Heterosexuality ensures that men will always have a ready and willing supply of females for their uses.
That’s what I see around me every day I live, and some days are worse than others. I would welcome anyone who can demonstrate to me that I’m wrong, that my perceptions are distorted by where I stand in the world. But don’t trot out your “exceptional man” to show me; everyone has one or claims to have one, including me. But I’m not willing to base my entire political analysis on his existence. I wish I had a dollar for every heterosexual feminist who’s challenged my Separatism by claiming that “her man” is “different,” and, then, after she’d become a Lesbian, confided to me that he was a rapist, a batterer, a violent misogynist.
Well, gosh, ma’am, why don’t you tell us how you really feel about men? As extreme as Julia Penelope’s lesbian separatism was, though, isn’t her universal condemnation of men — written in 1985 — fundamentally the same argument promoted by the #YesAllWomen hashtag campaign? In case you’ve forgotten, #YesAllWomen was about making the deranged killer Elliot Rodger a symbolic representation of all men as complicit in misogynistic violence. It’s the same rhetorical abracadabra involved in “rape culture” discourse, where anyone who disputes feminist claims about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is accused of being “anti-woman,” if not indeed “pro-rape.”
That this mode of discourse has, in the past three decades, migrated from the extremist fringe of lesbian separatism to become a staple of “mainstream” feminism — and no one seems to have noticed the migration. Nor, for that matter, does any critic of feminism dare point out the source. If you mention that the anti-male rhetoric of feminism echoes the claims of radical lesbians, you will be accused of being a homophobic bigot recycling ignorant stereotypes — even if you cite your sources by name!
Is it “anti-woman” to tell the truth about feminism? Do I examine Women’s Studies textbooks and Women’s Studies curricula because I hate women? Is it ignorance, homophobia or misogyny that leads me to the conclusion that feminism is a journey to lesbianism? No, it’s simply a recognition of the undeniable truth that radical feminists reached by a process of intellectual circumnavigation. The unabashed male-hater Julia Penelope recognized that the differences between men and women — the masculinity of males and the femininity of females — are necessary to their normal relationships.
Ms. Penelope angrily denied that these traits are “natural” — a reflection of basic biological differences — even while paradoxically insisting that all men are naturally violent, oppressive and sexually predatory. She accepted that there is such a thing as male nature (evil!), but insisted that what is considered natural for women — “femininity . . . so highly prized by men” — is actually an artificial imposition of the heteropatriarchy. Yet if there is nothing “natural” about women’s femininity, why would a lesbian like Julia Penelope be attracted exclusively to women? If differences between men and women are just figments of our imaginations, imposed by society, shouldn’t all of us be basically bisexual? Why is it that only traditional heterosexual relationships — and the cultural and social norms associated with these relationships — are subjected to this kind of criticism by intellectual theorists?
Julia Penelope died in January 2013 without ever answering those questions, and probably never even thought to ask them. She also died a few months before the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, which declared as a matter of law that a lesbian relationship is no different than the marriage between a man and a woman — and one wonders what Ms. Penelope might have said about that.
She was a critic of lesbians who sought to assimilate (to “pass”) within the context of a society she condemned as “heteropatriarchy.” It is therefore difficult to see how a lesbian separatist who urged lesbians to make deviance the “core” of their identity could have reconciled that philosophy with the Supreme Court’s declaration that lesbians are just like everybody else. But being a feminist means ignoring contradictions between radical theories and the reality of most women’s lives, and in that regard, Julia Penelope was quite typical. R.I.P.