- Parthenogenesis and Lesbian Separatism:Regenerating Women's Community through Virgin Birth in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s
Occasionally some young lady, puzzled and disbelieved on all sides, has become pregnant without even knowing how it happened.—Albert Rosenfeld, science and medicine writer for Life magazine, 19691
In 1981 at a conference on feminism and spirituality held in Cincinnati, Ohio, Julie Fullmoon Joy met a woman "who told me matter-of-factly that her mother had been born parthenogenetically!" The literal meaning of parthenogenesis is "virgin birth." Joy used the term to describe a pregnancy caused by an egg cell that spontaneously began the process of division. Having spent the previous several years researching methods for achieving parthenogenesis, Joy was thrilled. "This was the first time I'd heard a firsthand account of a parthenogenic birth, altho I'd believed for a long time that they do occur. It strengthened my belief that parthenogenesis is not just a process we can claim from the distant past for our futures, but one happening now that we can tap into."2
Joy was not alone in her passionate desire to believe in parthenogenesis. An anonymous woman wrote to the Yellow Springs, Ohio, newsletter Daughter Visions that Joy published with another lesbian, Sarah Feinstein, that she believed her lover was pregnant through parthenogenesis. "I know that I will be 'share mother' to more than one parthenogenetic child," she announced.3 Yet it is not only lesbians who have discussed immaculate [End Page 288] conception as a material possibility. In fact, a startling array of intellectuals, scientists, and scientific popularizers (including Rosenfeld, quoted above) have contemplated parthenogenesis and its potential impact on humanity, especially in the context of post-World War II advances in reproductive science and technology. But lesbians' excitement about parthenogenesis, with its promise of woman-only conception, is especially easy to understand.
For the lesbian feminists, cultural feminists, and lesbian separatists in the 1970s and 1980s who were working toward women's culture and all-female communities, parthenogenesis had a heightened significance.4 Producing only daughters, parthenogenesis offered a scientifically grounded argument for the possibility for a totally separate women's world.5 While parthenogenesis occupied a fringe position in lesbian and lesbian feminist thinking, it was a powerful idea that percolated and continues to percolate through lesbian communities and lesbian culture.
Lesbians' imaginative explorations of parthenogenesis are fascinating in part because parthenogenesis increasingly collapsed the space between science and science fiction. In the 1970s lesbians were excited about biological explanations of parthenogenesis and what could be drawn from them about the powers of the female body. These scientific ideas were richly entwined with spiritual and magical ones as the theoretical implications of parthenogenesis allowed women to rethink understandings of gender and sexuality, women's culture, and the possibilities for a future society. Even assertions about the superiority of "female" values and women's culture could be strengthened by claims for biologically grounded parthenogenesis.
By the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, however, there was a significant shift in feminist engagements with science. Modern science, and particularly reproductive technologies, underwent a scalding feminist critique that made it less attractive to radical lesbians. At the same time, lesbians who had been interested primarily in the metaphorical and philosophical power of parthenogenesis became increasingly determined to figure out how to make the procedure work, becoming captivated by the material, cultural, [End Page 289] scientific, and spiritual requirements for creating living, breathing parthegones, or parthenogenetic daughters. Thus lesbians found themselves torn by competing concerns: the desire for daughters and suspicion of the science that could help them produce those daughters. This conflict produced a powerful tension, one that brought to a head many of the themes that had existed within feminist parthenogenetic discourse since its emergence: the uses and limits of science as an aspect of "male" (patriarchal) culture; the potential untapped power of women's bodies; the meaning of gender and ultimately the definition of what it is to be human; the necessity for women's culture; and the role of sex, sexuality, and purity in "virgin" birth.
Though many women explored parthenogenetic ideas in...