How Lavender Jane Loved Women: Re-Figuring Identity-Based Life/stylism in 1970s Lesbian Feminism

Article excerpt

This paper explores the innovative, elaborate means devised by lesbian feminists in the 1970s to fashion a distinctive politics of life/style and identity formation. This involves attention to the diverse features that came to signify the manufacture of Lesbian Nation in Toronto: clothing, living arrangements, vegetarianism, downward mobility, sexual democracy. Lesbian activists challenged the trappings of patriarchal artifice that produced heterosexual femininity, and devised a platform that was anti - style at the same time that they advanced the radical specificity of "out" (in contrast to closeted) lesbian identity. Interviews with 32 lesbian feminists who were active in feminist, lesbian, gay and left movements in the 1970s form the basis of this study. A central contradiction is the attempt made by movement activists to expand membership while regulating the enactment of politically and morally correct modes of lesbian feminist behaviour. The paper concludes with reflection on the shifts and tensions that surround "queer" life/styles and anti - heterosexist strategies in the mid - 1990s.

In her discussion of the rapidly expanding body of scholarship that examines new social movements, Barbara Epstein argues that ideology and culture have become major arenas of contest in western, post - industrial societies.(f.1) Extending the insight of Antonio Gramsci, she claims that the defense and construction of identity, a critique of personal life, gender and sexuality, and efforts to realize a utopian vision of community have characterized lesbian and gay women's liberation and direct action movements from the 1970s to the present. Indeed, a pre - occupation with symbolism, theatre and aesthetics, like the emergence of the feminist maxim "the personal is political," has been ascribed new meaning internal to identity - based political struggles.(f.2) Indebted to the advances of social movement theory, feminist social history, queer theory and cultural studies, this paper examines one feature of English Canadian (white, middle class) lesbian feminism: the politics of life/style and identity formation as consolidated by members of the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) in the mid - to - late 1970s.

By interrogating lesbian feminist texts (manifestos, music, clothing, etc.) and the narratives of lesbian feminist interview subjects, I have been able to particularize conformity to the principles that governed inclusion and exclusion in relation to the Lesbian Nation.(f.3) I also aim to make visible the ways in which conformists chose, on occasion, to depart from the credo of "right - on - ness." As such, my approach differs from Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (1991) and similar studies that equate lesbian feminism of the 1970s with either a misguided and idealized woman - identified fanaticism or a humourless, drab and dreary, nun - like puritanism.(f.4) Rather, by emphasizing texture, nuance and contradiction, I hope to extend feminist post - structuralist engagement with the complexities of identity and community formation.

Styling Dissent

In the 1970s lesbian feminists in Toronto (and elsewhere) sought to invent their own distinguishing forms of cultural currency. Borrowing from late 1960s hippie culture and from the women's and peace movements, and blending in the pro - racial and cultural pride of civil rights, Black power and gay liberation activists, members of LOOT assumed a uniform of short hair, unshaved legs and armpits, no make - up, flannel shirt, blue jeans and Kodiak workboots.(f.5) Clothing was used, argues former LOOT member Chris Bearchell (in Foucauldian speak) as a "mode of species recognition" and as an attack against prescribed gender appearance, consumerism and the cult of individualism. Drawing on the body as a visible cultural form, clothing served as one means to attract and mobilize like - minded lesbian activists. …