The Ideological Effects of a Failed Constitutive Rhetoric: The Co-Option of the Rhetoric of White Lesbian Feminism

By Tate, Helen | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Ideological Effects of a Failed Constitutive Rhetoric: The Co-Option of the Rhetoric of White Lesbian Feminism


Tate, Helen, Women's Studies in Communication


Attempts by white lesbian feminists of the second wave to define feminism resulted in a failed constitutive rhetoric of feminist identity. This rhetoric opened a rhetorical space for antifeminists to launch a critique of feminist activism, specifically the Equal Rights Amendment. The study provides an account of how the ideological effects of a failed constitutive rhetoric may be co-opted and ultimately undermine the social movement in which it operates.

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"Sisterhood is powerful. It kills sisters," mocked Ti-Grace Atkinson after she resigned as president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1968 (qtd. in Echols 184). The solidarity suggested by the "sisterhood" of early second wave feminism buckled as feminists grappled with identity politics and the framing of the political identity of "feminism." The rhetorical unity of "sisterhood" developed in the early years of second wave feminism was a highly contested site of political identity, and building a coalition of diverse women proved an exacting challenge. Discussion of differences often resulted in emphatic attempts to redefine and own feminism. This essay examines the rhetorical struggle to define and claim feminist identity by white lesbian feminists of the early years of second wave feminism. Lesbian feminists offered their own constitutive rhetoric of feminist identity as the ideal for women's liberation, reducing feminism to liberation from heterosexual oppression and calling for the rejection of heterosexuality. (1) At the same time, they sought unity with heterosexual women by expanding the definition of "lesbian" to the "woman-identified woman," which called for heterosexual feminists to devote their lives primarily, even exclusively, to women. This constitution of feminist identity defined the political motive of women who would seek feminism as a political identity and set the stage for competing feminist ideologies. I argue that while the ideology of lesbian feminism proved a liberating discourse for many lesbian feminists, the rhetoric failed as a constitutive term of feminist identity as the telos implied by the narrative of lesbian feminism redefined feminism according to a narrow and rigid terminology. Further, I argue that while the discourse of white lesbian feminists failed as a constitutive rhetoric of feminist identity, such narratives opened a rhetorical space from which antifeminists could launch a critique of feminist activism. Indeed, the rhetoric of white lesbian feminism was co-opted in antifeminist discourse and used to discredit and deface feminism in general and the social movement in support of the Equal Rights Amendment specifically, as antifeminists capitalized on the homophobia of the larger rhetorical culture to discount feminism. This study, as other studies of the constitutive rhetorics of social movements have done (Charland, Delgado), highlights the significance of a constitutive rhetoric to define the ideology of a social movement, but it also provides an account of how the ideological effects of a failed constitutive rhetoric may play out in the larger public arena in which that social movement operates.

The Lesbian Challenge to the Second Wave Feminism of NOW

In order to understand the development of the constitutive rhetoric of white lesbian feminism, I first trace the historical roots of second wave feminism specifically highlighting the tenuous relationship of feminism and lesbianism in the early days of second wave feminism. The relationship of feminism and lesbianism generated a site of intense discussion and uneasiness for women of second wave feminism as they forged a feminist political identity and ideology. In the late 1960s, lesbians seeking legitimacy in a homophobic society had two choices: they could join with gay men to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation, or they could align themselves with other women involved in the emerging women's liberation movement. …

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