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Lesbian Feminist Performances of the Culture Wars


This dissertation analyzes lesbian feminist performance in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s to critically interrogate how this period has been narrativized in histories of feminism. When considering the history of feminism in terms of decades, the 1970s are often idealized as feminism’s zenith, while the 1980s and 1990s are marred by feminist in-fighting, rising conservatism on the national stage, and the culture wars. Clare Hemmings refers to this version of the history of feminism as a “loss” narrative which unwittingly serves those who would mark feminism as over. This dissertation brings together performances that disrupt this loss narrative by advancing ideas that have been associated with 1970s lesbian feminism into the 1980s and 1990s, or by emphasizing common goals over divisive issues. These performances range from plays such as Shirlene Holmes’s A Lady and a Woman to museum installations such as Kiss & Tell’s Drawing the Line. Together, these works unsettle the loss narrative of the history of feminism by perpetuating lesbian feminist ideas, even in the face of conservative backlash.

This dissertation examines lesbian feminist performances that comment on feminist and LGBT issues of the 1980s and 1990s, with each chapter focusing on a different debate. Chapter 1 examines how the sex wars get taken up in lesbian feminist performances and museum installations while considering the perspectives of lesbians of color on questions of sexuality. Chapter 2 turns to issues of kinship and the figure of the lesbian child in performance, which lesbian feminists advanced in the face of conservative family values. Chapter 3 examines lesbian performances that reify the heteronormativity of national identity and considers how state heteronormativity manifests in state-funded arts contexts. Finally, Chapter 4 focuses on performances that extend a lesbian feminist anti-capitalist sensibility and commitment to community into the 1980s and 1990s. These performances address the issues of gentrification, homelessness and cuts to social services. By addressing these social issues and the lesbian feminist performances that respond to them, this dissertation looks back at 1980s and 1990s lesbian feminist ideas in order to inform contemporary feminist and LGBT movements.

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