The ‘lesbian continuum’ was a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich in her pathfinding essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980, reprinted in Rich 1986). Rich’s notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ here extends the definition of lesbian beyond that of sexual identity to encompass the homosocial bonds between women. In order to counter the numerous ways in which lesbian experiences and existence have been made invisible, and because of the difficulty of unearthing distinctly ‘lesbian’ experiences and events from the past in the wake of ‘heteroreality’, Rich proposes that a ‘lesbian continuum’ could include all women-identified experiences that women encounter in their lives.
This notion became an important one in lesbian feminism, even as it was highly controversial: it provides a way of envisaging a lesbian history without putting sexual encounters at the heart of sexual identity. The main criticism of it is the possibility that it effectively serves to desexualise lesbianism and therefore appears as just one more form of political lesbianism; additionally, it might be seen as allowing other feminists to claim to be a part of the ‘lesbian continuum’ without perhaps examining their own heterosexism. Since feminism provided such a homosocial space for women, might the idea of a lesbian continuum simply be used rhetorically in ways that serve no political purpose for a lesbian critique of the hegemony of straight feminism? In an Afterword to her original essay Rich defends the concept of a lesbian continuum, even though she agrees it can be misused to suggest that lesbianism as a sexual choice is inseparable from female friendship and that heterosexual relationships are inseparable from rape. She also recognizes the ways in which it might conveniently be hijacked by heterosexual feminists
who have not yet begun to examine the privileges and solipsisms of heterosexuality, as a safe way to describe their felt connections with women, without having to share in the risks and threats of lesbian existence. What I had thought to delineate rather complexly as a continuum has begun to sound more like ‘life-style shopping.’ Lesbian continuum – the phrase – came from a desire to allow for the greatest possible variation of female-identified experience, while paying a different kind of respect to lesbian existence – the traces and knowledge of women who have made their primary and erotic and emotional choices for women. (Rich 1986: 73-4)
Rich’s term was not produced in a vacuum and owes much to Radicalesbians’ early manifesto, The Woman Identified Woman (1970). A lesbian is defined as the ‘rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion’ (in Koedt et al. 1973: 240); they explore the ways ‘lesbian’ as a word has been used as a term of abuse and held as a threat over women and an admonition to behave or face the consequences. They use this image to argue that unless women divert all their energies towards other women there can be no shift in current relations between the sexes. Where this manifesto differs is that it seems to offer a starker ‘political lesbian’ solution, arguing that ‘[u]ntil women see in each other the possibility of a primal commitment which includes sexual love, they will be denying themselves the love and value they readily accord to men, thus affirming their second-class status’ (in Koedt et al. 1973: 243), even though it looks forward to a future where ‘the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear’ (Koedt et al. 1973: 241).
From the beginnings of the Women’s Movement, lesbians felt torn between a feminist politics and that of Gay Liberation – neither of which seemed to offer them the space to deal with their felt oppression as a woman and as a lesbian. For many, their experiences in feminism became more and more conflictual, not least because of the fear by some in the movement that ‘ordinary’ women would believe feminism to be overrun with lesbians; Betty Friedan, author of the classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) and founder of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) dubbed them the ‘lavender menace’. Much of the substance of the ideas behind the Radicalesbians’ manifesto and Adrienne Rich’s essay were therefore profoundly challenging in an atmosphere of sometimes covert hostility. Writing in 1973, Jill Johnston is clearly grasping a notion similar to the lesbian continuum, which is also a concept that might release lesbians from the taint of being only to do with sexuality:
The word lesbian has expanded so much through political definition that it should no longer refer exclusively to a woman simply in a sexual relation to another woman. The word has in fact had pornographic implications as though lesbian was a woman who did nothing but enjoy sex, an implication employed as a tool of discrimination. The word is now a generic term signifying activism and resistance and the envisioned goal of a woman committed state. (Johnston 1973: 278)
Rich’s essay emerged in the mid-1980s, a time of much more intensive conflict in feminism. Rich might have also intended to provide a point of connection, a shared history, in a movement riven by identity politics. The lesbian ‘continuum’, much as it desexualises feminism, also, conveniently takes the attention away from heterosexuality too. Ultimately the idea of the lesbian continuum is about re-establishing the importance of all women’s women-identified experiences in life, regardless of their stated sexual orientation. In common with Radicalesbians, Rich prioritises all communication with women, implying that men are incapable of being nurturant or supportive or able to sustain close friendships with men. Her model of male power accords completely with a traditional radical feminist definition of patriarchy and perhaps in this context slips into cultural feminism. This is a period during which, as Lynne Segal observes ‘lesbians also fell silent about sex and sexuality, except in their forcefulcritique of women “sleeping with the enemy”’ (Segal 1994: 172), but the next conflict was to emerge from within lesbian ranks.
During the late 1980s debates about the politics of sexual role-play within lesbianism were debated hotly. Some, like Sheila Jeffreys, averred that any engagement with butch/femme posturing was a fetishisation and re-enactment of patriarchal power. This can be set against the passionate fiction and essays of Joan Nestle who became the key champion of the eroticisation of difference asserting that ‘Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic statements, not phony heterosexual replicas’ (Nestle 1987: 100). Her view of sexual role-play in the 1950s is of showy resistance, the denial of invisibility, and her work, like that of queer theorist Judith Butler, honours the performativity involved in playing with gender.
Vestiges of the idea of a ‘lesbian continuum’ remain in the work of radical and cultural feminists, and in the politics of total separatism; yet many a younger lesbian/straight woman becoming accustomed to the colourful if commodified representations of ‘queer’ sex, finds the idea of sexual radicalism, the ‘queer’ way, more attractive.
Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.
The Radicalesbians’ manifesto is available in Koedt et al. (1973) or reprinted in Nicholson (1997) and, along with other essays in the Koedt collection, helps explain how lesbians perceived themselves in the movement, even as they were popularly perceived as taking over. This lays the ground for Rich (1986), whereas both Jeffreys (1994) and Nestle (1987) offer totally different visions of a lesbian politics beyond the lesbian continuum. Butler (1990) or Fuss (1991) provide the queer inflection on lesbian politics.