BACK IN THE '70S, AMERICA'S FOUNDING FEMINISTS dreamed of a future when a woman could run for president. Fewer than 10 election cycles later, those feminist dreams are coming true. As we watch girls with I CAN BE PRESIDENT pins cheering for front-runner Hillary Clinton, it's hard to comprehend just how far we've come. Yet for all the symbolic power of her candidacy, Clinton is still grappling with America's ambivalence on the status of women. The very word feminism remains so divisive that Clinton dared not speak it at a recent debate, instead evoking feminism as "this great movement of progress that includes all of us, but has particularly been significant to me as a woman."
In contemporary America, a successful woman still risks being seen as a threat to male power. And she can still be damaged by judgments about her heterosexual allure or lack thereof. Witness the speculation that has dogged Clinton throughout her career: Where powerful women go, lesbian rumors often follow.
This is perhaps one reason that National Organization for Women cofounder Betty Friedan took the stage at a NOW meeting in 1969 and announced that lesbians posed "a lavender menace" to the progress of feminism. Women needed to get out of the nursery and into the manager's chair, insisted Friedan, and anything that might distract from that goal-messy issues like challenging homophobia or questioning heterosexuality--were a threat to women's common concern.
Her words crystallized a homophobic sentiment that would both haunt the women's movement and serve as a call to arms. By singling out lesbians, Friedan unwittingly set the stage for the emergence of lesbian feminists, a parallel political identity that was to 1970s feminism what Dennis Kucinich is to the Democratic Party today-a leftward-pushing force toward more progressive and comprehensive justice.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find an out lesbian in the '70s who didn't also consider herself a feminist. For me, they go hand in hand," says Katherine Acey, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, founded in 1977 to fund projects directed at female empowerment. "The feminist movement was a lifeline for lesbians--it's where we found each other, mustered the courage to come out, and shaped a collective voice."
Friedan's homophobic gaffe became a call to action as author Rita Mac Brown and other activists descended on NOW's Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970--which had conspicuously left lesbian issues off its agenda. In a crowded room full of women, they cut the lights, and when they came back up, Brown and company wore purple LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts and passed out their manifesto, "The Woman-Identified Woman." A year later, NOW officially expanded its policies to include lesbian rights, eventually making it one of the organization's six key issues.
It was a heady moment for lesbians, who enjoyed the righteous position of being both the wronged party and the radical, witty, empowered activists. The "Me Decade" bloomed with a renaissance of lesbian theater, political theory, literature, and music. On the streets and in the universities, lesbians created women-centric and women-only enclaves like the revolutionary (and controversial) Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.
As the lesbian movement took off, feminism also prospered. By the 1980s a majority of American women called themselves feminists; support for the Equal Rights Amendment reached an all-time high; and women seemed poised …