- Feeling Women’s Culture: Women’s Music, Lesbian Feminism, and the Impact of Emotional Memory
What is women’s music? It is a song, rising from the footsteps of seven million women who were burned at the stake in the Middle Ages. Or songs that make love; oh, please do listen to the songs that make love. Maybe it is music for those who love or want to learn to love women amid misogyny. It represents our brazenness as well as our tenderness; our brilliance as well as our moments of weakness; our passion as well as our despair; our bravery as well as our fear; our desire to be mothers as well as our choice not to have children; our lesbianism as well as our heterosexuality, bisexuality, or celibacy; but especially our lesbianism, for even if we don’t actively live lesbian lives, understanding the desire to make love with a woman is divine approval of making love to ourselves.1—Holly Near, “Fire in the Rain”
This essay considers lesbian feminist cultural production in the 1970s as an activist project fueled by potent, newly expressed emotions, which has yet to be given its due in feminist or LBGTQ scholarship. As an erstwhile lesbian feminist myself, I’d like to recuperate the visionary cultural work which, I believe, was caught in the crosshairs of political and academic history, falling victim to the poststructuralist theoretical critique and becoming a scapegoat for a new academic field trying hard to establish itself as legitimate and serious. Given this constellation of historical pressures, lesbian feminist cultural production—women’s music, women’s coffeehouses and restaurants, women’s theatre and performance, and women’s presses and periodicals, in all of which “women’s” was a thinly veiled substitution for the less easily spoken “lesbian”—were too quickly dismissed as essentialist and retrograde by 1980s and ’90s feminist and queer theorists who adopted poststructuralism’s suspicion of experience and identity politics. [End Page 205]
My goal is to retrieve 1970s lesbian feminism from the dustbin of queer history, where it languishes as a relic of a time when “lesbian” was supposedly a coherent, and as such, exclusive identity, too white, too middle-class, too sexually conservative, critics say, to serve as an historical model for the new queer sex radicalism and its rejection of bounded identity categories. As queer theory and activism propelled itself away from feminism and from gay and lesbian studies’ more stable definitions of gender and sexuality, lesbian feminism became a convenient whipping post in the academic progress toward new interpretations of subjectivity and subjection. I recall 1970s lesbian feminist cultural and political activism as vital, lustful, intellectually acute, and more culturally diverse than it’s been described during the last twenty or twenty-five years of US academic and activist discourse. I aim to launch this reconsideration by trying to evoke how it felt to be part of that moment in history.
I continue to find myself jolted by thirty-five-year-old memories that still inspire my activism, simply through the depth of feeling the events I recall inspire. Affect studies, which has become such a vital area of inquiry in feminist and queer theory over the last decade, provides a useful framework for my investigation.2 I’m interested in how the sharp feelings that motivated my own politics—along with those of so many other lesbian feminists in the ’70s—have been discounted before scholars really had a chance to analyze what all those heightened emotions, often in community-organized moments of performance, accomplished. My goal in this essay is to describe those emotions here in some detail, so that I can tease out how the feelings provoked by dancing in lesbian bars and attending women’s music performances, especially, moved me and many of my contemporaries into the political activism and systems of belief that transformed our lives.
Women’s music albums and performances were among the most audible, visible, powerful examples of emotion-fueled 1970s underground cultural production. In late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century examples of US popular culture that caricature women who adopted lesbian feminism’s credo and that represent...