We Need To Talk About Separatism

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had no idea what separatism was.

Doing some long-overdue digging, I learned it’s at the root of the weed that’s choking modern politics.


Ugh, I should have pulled these ages ago!

Research Is Safe And Fun!

I quickly found myself lost in a dense, dry old bramble. Kathy Rudy’s tale of joining a ‘radical feminist’ group is littered with breadcrumbs along the trail into the political wilderness.

She describes the lesbian community she joined in North Carolina in 1980. They put separatism first, theorizing among themselves about an ‘essential female nature’ that inevitably reflected their own experience.

The fate of their community is a perfect example of the destructive potential inherent in building our politics on identity.

This snapshot of separatist lesbians is a portrait of the familiar cultural character: “People dressed mostly the same, ate the same foods, cut their hair the same, had the same social activities.

“The strength of our community was built on the very vulnerable assumption that being lesbian was enough to hold us all together.” 

A Case Of Mistaking Identity For Reality

But right from the beginning, their pool was impossibly shallow – “By claiming the shared status of victim in male, heterosexual culture, we thought we could overlook or deny racial, ethnic, religious, class, geographic, and many other differences.

“It became clear very quickly that fractures and problems existed at many different levels.” 

No one’s identity can be completely contained by one label. Political movements should not try to define people this way, because it doesn’t work!

A movement without roots in physical reality (lesbian is more something you do than something you are) has no external definition. Founding your politics in subjective identity is sowing seeds in sand.

“The first signs of these fissures … manifested themselves in conversations about what counted as a real radical feminist.” This sounds very familiar. The quickest way to reinforce a social group is to draw a big, black line between Us and Them. 

Both sides of the larger political argument have been preoccupied with this for ages.

“We started asking each other to declare primary or even sole allegiance to ‘the women’s community.’ We began policing ourselves in order to guarantee that our members were faithful to the principle of putting women first."

Modern liberal feminism and Queer theory! The parallel is uncanny.

As the torrent of difference continued, smaller tributaries overwhelmed their shallow unity: “It had become clear that most generalizations about women did not hold true, especially across racial, class, or ethnic lines.

“African American lesbians and other lesbians of color told white radical feminists in no uncertain terms that the female nature they had theorized did not represent difference.”

I never caught how exactly they defined this ‘female nature,’ but I may have missed it tangled in the bramble. Maybe she didn’t think it was worth including, since apparently the existence of black women shattered it completely!

“Thus, throughout the 1980s, the lesbian feminist idea of a unique female nature slowly began to grow thin, to lose substance and texture.”

Pink Bouquet

I don’t get it – Every time I isolate them in this bowl, they die!

This is what happens when you behave as if what you want overrides what is. As if observation is what makes the world. It strikes me as pretty narcissistic, but that flows with every stream from that period.

The extreme version of individualism that was fashionable at the time put blinders on the psyche. How else do you explain such jaw-dropping naivete? “The writings of these women demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the special attributes we had associated with womanness actually described only the womanness of whites.”

I cannot imagine how they managed this but, their amazing trick exposed, the community crumbled pretty quickly. Kathy went to grad school, and spent some time having what had happened figured out for her.

She lists many books from the late 1980s and early 90s and quotes them extensively.

First, Kathy brings in Alice Echols as her adversary, saying Radical Feminism Is Dead. Then, without realizing it, she tells us how radical feminism died.

How Radical Feminism Classic Died

"Echols argues that in focusing their politics on lifestyle issues, feminism after 1973 was void of serious structural potential.

“By the early ’70s, radical feminism began to flounder and, after 1975, it was eclipsed by cultural feminism” – The creation of women’s communities like the one our author joined.

“Although this woman-only space was envisioned as a culture of active resistance, it often became an end in itself, where patriarchy was evaded rather than engaged.

“The focus became one of personal rather than social transformation."

Yep, that sounds like pretty much every insular group ever. A distant threat becomes a memory, and the urgency fades. But Kathy identifies with none of it.

“Echols comments on … the late 1970s, ‘More than ever, how one lived one’s life, not one’s commitment to political struggle, became the salient factor.'” Political struggle meaning push for material change in the physical world.

This turn inward sucked all the life out of RadFem Classic.

Kathy defends RadFem Lite by describing their shallow isolationism, We were not socialists, because we believed that too much focus on things like workers and owners would suck us into the muck of patriarchy.

“We were not Marxists because we believed that true liberation accompanied the transcendence of men and the material realities they had created.”

No shit! But how does turning your back on the problem solve anything?

Black Pussy

Don’t worry, Lady Ravenclaw – We don’t need anybody!

“We were not interested in building coalition with men. We wanted only to organize our lives to be free of their patronizing dominance." Politics is hard! Let’s skip to the good part!

But she brings in her favorite writers as backup. “In her later works, Mary Daly explicitly challenged the validity of materialist and socialist politics from a radical women-centered point of view.

“For her, feminist activism should be centered on the poetic quest of finding a female reality deeper than that created by men."

Ok, I think I’m starting to see what those black women were talking about.

Personal Identity Excludes Everyone

Which brings us to the spot where feminism intersects with the larger political world.

I am definitely not black, but I have spent my life bobbing in and out of the working class. I recognize the blind privilege of insisting the most important thing women can do for our liberation is to search for female reality.

Female reality is the reason liberation is necessary! Kathy does a great job describing the problem without ever recognizing what she’s looking at.

“The introduction of difference between women pointed out the weaknesses inherent in building a politics on a cross-racial, cross-cultural, unified identity of ‘woman.'” Introducing race and culture into the equation is the mistake, not the woman part! Blunting the edges of material analysis with personal identity padding turns a scalpel into a club.

Politics shouldn’t be about your personal background, no matter how big your group is. Political movements need to focus on the material effects of the system.

Material Reality vs. Personal Reality

Many black people live in poverty, but many of them don’t. They are not even the majority of poor people, but ‘poor’ has become code for black.

Set aside for now how this completely ignores poor people of any other shade –  This is the kind of confusion that grows from rooting your politics in what kinds of people are affected by the system instead of what’s happening to them.

This gives asshole politicians language to rile up poor whites against their black neighbors. Harping on the differences (which are only sorta real) while distracting from the uncomfortable truth of their own situation.

And coding social issues along racial lines causes an overall decline in civic engagement.

To cultivate real change, we need to draw a hard line between the identity politics salting the ground of public discourse, and material politics rooted in quality of life.

The Physical World vs. Our Perception Of It

We can see the difference between the physical realm of politics and the mental realm of social movements in the persistence of their effects.


Observing cause and effect without personal judgement lets us manipulate things!

Something like race only affects your life as much as people think it does. Race doesn’t actually make a person smarter or stronger. Science has shown race to be a phantom of the human mind, a lot more cultural and not as real as people once thought.

The material aspects of our lives, on the other hand, don’t depend on how people perceive us. Class has measurable effects on intelligence and health. Sex obviously has a big impact on our lives, and its existence is definitely not subjective.

But Kathy is unable to find a straight path, so her studies only lead her further into the weeds.

“These feminist theorists prodded us to question our attachment to radical feminism’s stable category of woman.” Then you should have thrown them away! Woman is such a stable thing that we all came out of one!

We clearly exist, and this woman did not get her money’s worth from her graduate degree.

“To think of women’s liberation as an event involving ‘women only,’ they said, was not only to miss the complexities of oppression, but it was also to assume and posit the very category that itself perpetuates injustice"

Way to blame the victim. Kathy went from lesbian separatist to queer theorist in a decade, and it’s really fascinating.

Radical Feminist, Political Lesbian, Or Queer Theorist? …Who Can Choose?

One of the most interesting things is that she describes radical feminism and political lesbianism as basically the same thing! “Marilyn Frye captured the sense in which this turn to women was … [how] a new world would be built … becoming a lesbian is a reorientation … a kind of conversion.”

But this sexy diversion was extremely important: “Rather than squelching mobilization, we see lesbian feminist communities as sustaining the radical feminist tradition and bequeathing a legacy to feminists of the future.”

She tries real hard to link her experience to the blooming Queer community ten years later, but all of it begs the question – Who is making these future people?? 

Other women, of course! But we’ve seen how alternative perspectives are too much for her to handle.

The end of the story is sad, but very instructive: “For many, the outcome of these struggles was often segregation.

“Additive identity politics allowed us to feel comfortable only when talking with people from our own ethnic, racial, class, sex, and gender backgrounds."

True Unity For Real Progress

But class cuts across all the others. Like sex, it touches everyone. It physically, literally shapes our lives, whether we like it or not. The resources available to us growing up have a cascading effect on our entire lives.

But like race, class is only as real as we make it.

The blurring of ‘poor’ and ‘black’ created cover for nurturing hidden racism. Desperate people have been lied to for generations, and robbed while they yell at their neighbors. But give poor kids better food and the differences between them and their richer peers start to disappear.

Give the world better food, healthcare and living conditions, and the stratifications begin to erode. But comfortable people have time to start talking about Justice and stuff.

Identity politics destroyed Kathy’s isolated lesbian community because that’s what it does. Dividing us up into smaller and smaller niche categories until we are each an Army of One.

Building our politics on material change is how we unify the movement. It’s also how we shield ourselves from Woke woo. It streamlines our message and simplifies our goals.

And separatism can be a useful tool for this.

What Is Separatism, Really?

Separatism is not living away from all men and centering everything on our identity as women – Because each of us will experience that a little differently. Separatism is establishing strong boundaries that keep men out of certain physical spaces.

You know, like we already do.

Important Meeting

Well, now that’s settled… Where were we??

The completely reasonable and practical approach outlined in Jocelyn MacDonand’s 2015 Feminist Current article is to broaden and strengthen this.

She also quotes Marylin Frye, “Frye explains that feminism is a philosophy, not for, but against inclusion.

“The dominant paradigm says, ‘Men have a right to women's bodies, to women's labor. Women are invited to participate in public life to the degree that we, men, decree.’

“Feminism says, ‘No. That is not the natural or inevitable order of life on Planet Earth.'”

This is a pretty good summary – We want our say in the world as equals. “And here's the really important part: "This separation being initiated or maintained, at will, by women."

“It's not about advocating for an island of lesbians cut off for eternity from half the human race,” No, apparently this pesky vine has its roots in the disintegration of politics over the past 50 years.

“Rather, it means we say when the walls go up and for how long, who passes through the gate and who waits outside.”

This is power. This power wielded by women is feminine power, no special costume necessary.

Because when we focus on the material world, our course of action becomes clear. We need to build a wall between the political movement of women’s liberation and the many social movements we’re invested in.

Your experience of womanhood is as integral but distinct as the rose on the bush. Watering blossoms isn’t going to get you anywhere.

If radical feminism is about getting at the roots of female oppression, let’s be clear what we’re digging for. Just one of many tools, separatism is elemental to our liberation.


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