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A Woman's Place: Lesbian Feminist Conflicts in Contemporary Popular Culture

  • Author(s): Pruett, Jessica Lynn
  • Advisor(s): Alexander, Jonathan
  • et al.

Feminist theorists have chronicled lesbian feminists’ role in developing a theoretical and political foundation for the academic fields of gender studies and queer theory. Many queer theorists have critiqued lesbian feminists’ rigid policing of lesbian identity, noting that this often resulted in the exclusion of women of color, trans women, and sex radicals from lesbian communities. However, there is little work that chronicles the political, racial, and gender diversity among lesbian feminists. As a result, lesbian feminism is frequently depicted as a social movement solely comprised of white, cisgender women, erasing the major political, theoretical, and cultural contributions that women of color and trans women made to these communities. Such depictions fix lesbian feminism’s political legacy and minimize its significance to contemporary social movements.

“A Woman’s Place” traces the relationship between lesbian feminist history and contemporary popular culture in the U.S., illuminating lesbian feminism’s influence on the queer and feminist political movements of today. This cultural history draws from my archival research at the Lesbian Herstory archives, the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives, and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, along with the special collections at Michigan State University and Smith College. In addition to archival research, my methods include textual analysis, political economic analysis, and ethnographic interviews. Through critical readings of letters, newspapers, and organizational documents chronicling major political conflicts from lesbian feminist history, I argue that the persistent tension and disagreement within lesbian feminist communities was a mark of their political diversity. I contrast these historical conflicts with contemporary depictions of lesbianism in popular culture, which circulate and reinterpret lesbian feminist political legacies. Using a range of examples, including an indie pop band, an Amazon original television series, and a viral Instagram account, I analyze how lesbian feminist conflicts over race, gender, and sexuality play out in contemporary contexts. I argue that the political questions and concerns animating lesbian feminism remain relevant for queer and feminist thinkers and activists today, particularly regarding the persistence of a gendered division of power and the importance of building alternative social and economic institutions for women. Focusing on this history of collaborative struggle helps to both illuminate our political present and map a path forward for the future.

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