Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016
Adrienne Rich’s Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying was written in 1975. Her introduction said ‘It is clear that among women we need a new ethics; as women, a new morality.’ She went on to say, ‘I wrote Women and Honor in an effort to make myself more honest, and to understand the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women.’
I think I first read it in Newcastle on Tyne in the late 70s, and as I remember it was circulated widely among lesbian feminists in Tyneside at the time. Women mainly reached for it to quote bits to each other when they’d split up with a lover, or fallen out with a friend or a group. We focussed on ‘the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women’, and conveniently forgot AR’s assertion that she wrote it also ‘in an effort to make [herself] more honest’.
This reaction to the article points up the difficulty of establishing a lesbian ethics. A ‘new morality’ does involve making judgments about the attitudes and actions and politics of other lesbians, and we can fall into many traps in trying to do so.
I’m going to read out some significant passages from the essay, just in case you’re not familiar with it, and/or to give you the flavour.
Just a word – AR constantly refers to ‘relationships’; Julia Penelope – quoted in Changing our Minds, (p 116) says
‘Our relationships aren’t limited to those that are sexual; sexual intimacy isn’t the defining characteristic of a ‘relationship’. Our friendships are ‘relationships’, and our disagreements are relationships, too.’ (1990)
Can we think in terms of this wider definition?
Rich begins by talking about the male idea of honour, and how women in patriarchy have been expected to lie, and rewarded for lying. She then switches to our own relationships.
‘To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, however, leads one to feel a little crazy.’ etc.
- Read out a number of statements in her article.
- Note that within this dense series of dictums about how to conduct ourselves in relationships with other women, individually and in groups, inevitably criticism and judgments are involved.
In Changing our Minds (1993), Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins basically wrote another version of lesbian ethics, in that they mount a detailed critique of therapy and the way it has been taken up by lesbians, causing us to embrace being victims together, rather than enriching each other as activists changing the world. A major part of therapy ideology is establishing a cult of ‘the self’, so that every woman’s experience and opinions are valid, and equal. (‘You’re worth it.’) Perhaps therapy doesn’t have such a hold now, but what’s still relevant is the way the jargon and psychobabble has infiltrated our consciousness – and politics. For instance, ‘just as therapists are not supposed to be judgemental, angry or critical with us, so we are supposed not to be judgemental, angry or critical with each other.’
‘Criticisms are felt as “attacks” and disagreements experienced as “hostility.” (p 148)
Where I stand
I’m totally sympathetic to Women and Honor, and I’ve always thought Changing our Minds a ground breaking book, and dipping into it over the last few days 20 years later I haven’t changed my mind.
My difficulty is applying the ethics to the lesbian community, in a bid to change the world.
As long ago as 1981, I wrote an article entitled ‘Reflections on the break-up of a lesbian relationship’, in which I stated ‘Because of the confusions and lack of patterns for our behaviour, it’s very easy for us to accuse each other of acting like men, of not having rid ourselves of ‘the patriarchy within’, …for instance, the word ‘patriarchal’ can be used to apply to all kinds of lesbian feminist behaviour. We can call monogamy patriarchal because of all the associations of property/possession. But we can also call non-monogamy patriarchal when it’s expressed as ‘Why should I deny myself as many sexual partners as I want just because my lover feels hurt? Why should any of these women put demands on me? I’m free to sleep with them all’. In the latter case, we have the problem of morality. In trying to invent a new existence, we hurt others.’
I think I was saying we can play with words and concepts to our own advantage. (Friggin’ Little Bits, a lesbian singing group in Newcastle in the 1970s, wrote lots of songs that showed how lesbians tied ourselves in knots trying to invent new ways of relating, while not being able to discard notions and feelings of possessiveness, ownership and jealousy. – ‘I’m yours, you’re mine, fuck anyone else’ go the words of one song).
A list of devices lesbians use against each other in the name of ethics/morality roll off my tongue….
‘You’re aggressive/entitled/abusive…acting like a man’; ‘you’re silencing me/negating my experience’; ‘right and wrong are patriarchal concepts, smacking of Catholicism’; ‘let me discuss your racism with you’, etc. I’m sure you can all think of examples…
So, is there a relevance for lesbian ethics today?
- How do we begin to live up to it?
- Is it possible to be critical of other lesbians/ lesbian lifestyles/ politics without setting ourselves above them?
Note that as a political movement, being critical and asking questions has meant we are denigrated as the ‘thought police’, and now, of course, as TERFS.
Elaine Hutton, June 3rd, 2016
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