- From the Straight Mind to Queer Theory:Implications for Political Movement
I recall the first time I read Les guérillères: for a week I was in an ecstasy of rage, savoring the image of a glorious war where, for once, "elles" won. It was 1975, and the American feminist movement was making great strides in abolishing unjust laws. Three years later I was in a huge room packed with people to hear a lecture by Monique Wittig titled "The Straight Mind." I was as astonished as most of the audience when Wittig dramatically concluded with the now famous phrase: "Lesbians are not women." People did not quite comprehend what she was saying. Wittig's mission to eliminate the very concepts of sex and gender, so clear to her and a small group of other French feminist thinkers, made no sense to me. It was only later, when Wittig began to publish her philosophical articles, that we could see the radical implications of that little phrase.
If I begin with these personal memories, it is to remind us of the context in which those articles appeared in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. With a few notable exceptions, American feminists accepted biological sex as a given and sought to alter gender roles to end the oppression of women. At the time, almost nobody was talking about postmodernism; it appeared self-evident that women formed a socially oppressed group; and lesbians were "women-loving women."1 Only a few American feminist theorists, such as Shulamith Firestone, dared imagine abolishing sex and gender differences altogether.2 At the same time, the gay liberation movement, in collaboration with feminist and socialist thinkers, was articulating a radically anti-assimilationist and anti-essentialist theory of sexuality. In fact, as Gary Lehring notes, "The guiding thread of gay liberation was a rejection of enforced heterosexuality, marriage, traditional gender roles and family arrangements, and sexual privacy—all built upon an understanding of sexual identity as [End Page 489] something other than fixed."3 It is in such a context that Wittig's assertion that lesbians are not women takes on meaning. Wittig was at least fifteen years ahead of what would become queer theory. And, like most prophets, Wittig has been often ignored in her own "country," in this case not France but queer theory.4
My goal here is to sketch in broad strokes what links and what separates Wittig's philosophy from queer theory, while recognizing that the latter includes a number of often conflicting and contradictory strands.5 Although the relationship of feminism, gay liberation, and queer theory has been tortuous, it is clear that, as Annamarie Jagose notes, many important queer theorists self-identify as feminists (119). Judith Butler herself declared in a 1993 interview that she considered herself more as a feminist than a queer or gay/lesbian thinker.6 As Teresa de Lauretis reminds us, like queer theorists, the majority of feminists hold that gender is not innate but is instead a sociocultural construction.7 Wittig's radical anti-essentialist feminism is explicitly recognized by queer theorists, including Butler, Jagose, Diana Fuss, and others, as a significant influence on their ideas.8 Indeed, Jagose affirms that the theories of sexual identities developed in the 1990s incorporated Wittig's understanding of the power of discourse, the fact that the categories of man and woman are cultural formations, and other aspects of her redefinition of lesbians.9
Yet, tellingly, where these and other theorists reject Wittig is at her conclusion that lesbians are not women. On this point, Butler has accused her of autocratic tendencies: "In a self-consciously defiant imperialist strategy, Wittig argues that only by taking up the universal and absolute point of view [of lesbians], effectively lesbianizing the entire world, can the compulsory order of heterosexuality be destroyed."10 Jagose, for her part, charges Wittig with both essentializing the lesbian and with placing her as a "third term" in a utopian move that, far from threatening compulsory heterosexuality, reaffirms it.11 Fuss has similarly accused Wittig of that most mortal of sins, essentialism, in her conception of lesbianism.12
As influential as many of...