Leigh Star

Leigh Star's Works Published in Sinister Wisdom

Remembering Leigh Star (July 3, 1954-March 24, 2010)

by R. Ruth Linden
All photographs of Susan Leigh Star © Lynda Koolish
(Originally published in Sinister Wisdom 87: A Tribute to Adrienne Rich)

Susan Leigh Star, known to her friends as Leigh*, died unexpectedly in her sleep on March 24, 2010. Leigh was the founding poetry editor of Sinister Wisdom and an internationally renowned scholar in science and technology studies, feminist studies, and library and information studies. A sociologist of scintillating intelligence and playful wit, Leigh’s eye was trained, for more than three decades, on the production of scientific knowledge in a vast array of arenas from the natural sciences to computing. She was interested in ordinary – but often silenced or hidden – processes such as infrastructure, systems of standardization and classification (for example, the International Classification of Diseases), and invisible work. Leigh was the author or editor of seven books and dozens of articles and chapters; her volume of poems, Zone of the Free Radicals (Berkeley, California: Running Deer Press), was published in 1984.

In the two years since her death, Leigh’s life and intellectual legacy have been remembered and celebrated by colleagues and friends from around the world. Symposia in her memory were convened at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of California, San Francisco; and friends gathered for two days at the home she shared with her life partner and scholarly collaborator of 22 years, Geoffrey Bowker, in Bonny Doon in the mountains above Santa Cruz, California. Several dear friends and colleagues wrote reflections on her scholarly contributions in the months following her death.

This remembrance will not revisit the ground so ably tended by others. Instead, my comments recall the five-year period between 1976 and 1981 when Leigh was affiliated with Sinister Wisdom as a writer and editor, and provide a context for her contributions to the magazine. This is a time I remember well. Leigh and I met in Santa Cruz, where I was a student, in 1976, and developed a friendship that spanned 35 years, six states, and two continents.

Leigh joined Sinister Wisdom as poetry editor in 1978 during its second year of publication, but she was part of the magazine from its inception. Two poems, written in her early twenties, found a home in the pages of the first issue: “the rape our lack of language” and “for Jeanne d’Arc, burning.” They likely represent her first published work. Both poems are ablaze with images of patriarchal violence and the erotic. They helped to set the tone of the magazine, grounded as they were in these leitmotifs of lesbian-feminism. In “the rape our lack of language,” Leigh confronts the instructor of her freshman writing class at Harvard, who declared, “you can’t write poems about sunsets, the ocean, or love.” Here is her imagined, triumphant retort:

sunsets are nonlinear Isis
squats over the water Her
thighs opening Her
great angry Uterus heaving writhing
bloody scarlet streams of clouds
sun splitting sky birthing dying
curved over latitudes
to a different dawn
a different set of suckling stars.

Leigh’s lengthy autobiographical footnote to her Jeanne d’Arc poem comments on the differences she experienced between writing poetry and writing social science theory, which she conceptualized in terms of the activity of the brain’s right and left hemispheres:

Writing my [undergraduate] thesis in psychology, for example, meant days of linear, slow connections – “logical” by the male definition of the word. Poems come in an instant, for the most part; they “brew” for weeks or years in some section of my right brain and then burst forth in a very nonlinear fashion. But there is some sharing on each side (the creative flash in theory writing or the slow reworking of lines of poetry to make them “talk” right), which gives me a hope of integration someday. I cherish both modes for myself and would like to see them appear together in my work and in my world.

During the following two years, Sinister Wisdom published Leigh’s two-part essay, “The Politics of Wholeness” and “The Politics of Wholeness II,” in which she developed a critique of New Age spiritualities based on her previous engagement with “meditation, yoga, and people who were committed to ‘natural’ life styles.” The “Wholeness” essays defined lesbian-feminism as a cognitive state – a location irreducible to politics, sexuality, spirituality, or any single constituent element. Rooted in rich, autobiographical detail – then, and always, Leigh recognized that the personal is political – and tempered by theory and analysis, the first of the essays mapped the key premises of patriarchal spiritual systems. “For me,” Leigh wrote,

the way a system of control becomes apparent is through the presence of alternative models, other worlds. The name that my other world has right now is witchcraft, which means:


In “The Politics of Wholeness II,” Alice Molloy’s remarkable book, In Other Words, is the touchstone for Leigh’s articulation of a model of lesbian-feminist consciousness beyond the structures of patriarchal reality and awareness. In an elaborate diagram, Leigh visualized consciousness as a pentacle with a five-way energy channel at the center: a star enclosed in a circle whose five points symbolized sex/desire, passion, pride, power, and humor/creativity. Inside the pentacle, chosen silence and chosen language circled around an inner core of self. The pentacle – consciousness – is surrounded by an outer circle representing the boundary with patriarchy. A highly-charged energy field circulated between the inner and outer circles. A fluid representation, it encompassed time, mobility, love, process, and agency without reifying any of the elements of the whole. Leigh described the model as a theory, “a statement of how I perceive, how I perceive myself and others.”

The essay ends on a reflexive note in which Leigh, once again, mused on the act of writing theory:

Writing theory is for me an intense dialogue with myself: the integration of all my experience, all of my transformations. I don’t cover everything of course in writing something; but I am committed to a methodology of honor – not ignoring any relevant questions in order to impose my view of reality in a dishonest way. I see this as what “science” has proposed, but the antithesis of what it has become in men’s hands and minds.

The next year, Leigh reviewed Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology for Sinister Wisdom. She had studied with Mary, a feminist philosopher and theologian at Boston College, and worked as Mary’s research assistant during her undergraduate years in the Boston area. Deeply influenced by Mary’s ideas, particularly the notion of boundary dweller (an apt description of Leigh herself) and her inimitable style of word play, Gyn/Ecology prompted Leigh’s early insights on feminist methods:

Without freezing, without staticness of any sort, this book is the total confluence of method and content, of the personal and the historical, of the reach for change and the unflinching examination of suffering that I have come to know as feminism. … The naming of our own methods as feminist scholars is vital because it involves understanding our very ways of thinking, strengthening and communicating the ways we have developed for unraveling the deceptive models presented as “reality” by patriarchy …. The more we understand and can communicate about the processes by which we do our own scholarship, the more we will avoid having to unravel our own new creations.

Leigh’s thinking about the primacy of method, which she first articulated here, was a persistent thread in her writing for thirty years.

Also in 1979, Leigh guest-edited a special issue of Sinister Wisdom with the theme On Being Old and Age. Her brief engagement with issues in aging and the academic field of gerontology coincided with her Sinister Wisdom years. In 1978, Leigh had transferred from an interdisciplinary doctoral program at Stanford – a mismatch, as it turned out – to the program in Human Development and Aging at U.C. San Francisco. (She left this program after a short while as well to study sociology with Anselm Strauss, also at U.C. San Francisco, who became her mentor and lifelong friend, and completed her doctorate in medical sociology in 1983.)
Leigh’s interest in aging was linked to her experience of age nonconformity as a child and into young adulthood – something she and I shared, and a source of the deep understanding between us. This excerpt from her journal at age 14 brings the oppression of young girls to life:

To those of you who would seek to be young once again – no, you do not know that which you would have. You choose only to remember the smiles, the young body, the energy perhaps… remember also the pain, the real, real, real anguish of not knowing the unsureness the limbo the limbo… very, very rarely are young people accepted as whole people.

On Being Old and Age explored interconnections between “the bitters of youth” and the horrific isolation many elders – mostly women – face in “the concentration camps that are nursing homes,” examining how the weapon of ageism is turned on women of all ages – particularly lesbians – to marginalize, silence, ridicule, and censure. The issue also celebrated “visions of new kinds of oldness, love of the old, love of the process of becoming old, claiming the pride and wisdom of age.”

The autobiographical poem, “I Want My Accent Back,” appeared in Sinister Wisdom in 1981. This was the final issue in which Leigh had an editorial hand. After five years, Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines, the magazine’s visionary founders, turned the editorship over to Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich in Montague, Massachusetts and Leigh stepped down as poetry editor. In this poem, Leigh traced her path from the working class town of Lincoln, Rhode Island to Harvard College – where “I never belonged” – and back to her younger sister, Cindy (who had herself returned home after college):

My first week of college, sitting on the floor
with Andover, Exeter and Taft,
stoned, I said,
“nawh wida than a bon doah.”
Andover turns to me, be
mused: “What
is a “bon doah”? A musical instrument …?”
By 9:00 the next morning my accent disappeared. Except when I talk too fast, or to you

Though brief in duration – it spanned just three years – serving as poetry editor was a remarkable opportunity in which Leigh thrived. The magazine was robust – alive, like an organism – and Leigh had come of age as a writer. She delighted in corresponding with and publishing the work of emerging poets, like herself, alongside celebrated poets – some of whom she would later meet at conferences and other events. Her Sinister Wisdom network became woven into projects in other parts of her life, as when she interviewed Audre Lorde in 1980 in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom for an essay published in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, which she and I co-edited (with Diana E. H. Russell and Darlene Pagano); and invited Adrienne Rich and other notable lesbians to speak on a panel she organized with the feminist philosopher of science, Sandra Harding, at the 1979 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Leigh had published Rich’s “Nights and Days” in 1978, the year that The Dream of a Common Language was released, while excerpts from Lorde’s The Cancer Journals first appeared in the special issue of Sinister Wisdom that she edited.

♀ ♀ ♀

Leigh’s final work was an article, “This is Not a Boundary Object” and a poem, “Mourning Light: The Ethnography of Science and Love.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, a leading journal of which Leigh had been an editor at the time of her death, published them as companion pieces in 2010. Just last month, the journal’s list of “Most-Read Articles during June 2012” ranked the article #1 and the poem #5 (“based on full-text and pdf views”). Leigh would have been amused by the very idea of a most-read articles list – a marketing tactic of highly questionable meaning employed by the industry that publishes academic journals. While I don’t think she’d have taken her double standing in the top five very seriously, I’m certain she would have been pleased that her poem had reached a wide audience of colleagues in science and technology studies.

“Mourning Light” is dated Samhain eve, 2009 (also All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween), just five months before Leigh died. The poem is dedicated to her friend, Eevi Beck, on the death of her husband. The unity of the poetic and analytic modes “in my work and in my world” for which Leigh had wished in the note to her 1976 Jeanne d’Arc poem is expressed in these elegant lines:

The rape our lack of language

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 1)

last night Boston November
the river flat pewter veined with light

“you can't write poems about sunsets, the ocean, or love”
explained my Expos teacher freshman year


sunsets are nonlinear Isis
squats over the water Her
thighs opening Her
great angry Uterus heaving writhing
bloody scarlet streams of clouds
sun splitting sky birthing dying
curved over latitudes
to a different dawn

a different set of suckling stars.

-Susan Leigh Star

For Jeanne d'Arc, burning

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 1)

in the end
the fire is all that we will see.
already its glow shames my fear of death:
I close my heated eyes,
smote against
Her indigo sky.

I have found another of us)
our life the struggle torn
and melted, wounds suspended

she too has trained to burn in silence
who moved in dry and aching quiet
who loves with deadly grace.

At every rape
at every stake
incessantly whispered into
incessantly scraped across
each of our body's sacred openings
moment by moment for all the days of our lives
We hurl molten suns
and slide and tear to kiss
containing movement
and slowly finish screaming:
We rip ourselves
into each other's blood,
a union of liquid and blazes
burnished with aloneness

there are no echoes anymore in what is named love

I speak her name clearly into your eyes

ashes melting: out

of the flames, unraped eyes
there was never
a time when
we did not know
the stakes
are high
our silence whole

you cannot hear a scream

we also wound by naming

for which we have no language we

also wound by naming tear

open to


tigre mariposa*
we do not fear
your winged
poison your petalled
poise of
for some

now poised to perceive
with my arched uterus.

a great arc
stretches from your eyes
through my spine
across which the faintest
rustle of thought
rocks my cervix my center with
tremors which are not different from the nuzzle
and bulge of the moon


slipper perfect silence travels between us
who knows how long I waited to feel
to see to hear
as a panther walking
picks her way
across a shelf of thin crystal glasses:

your hands lurk with that quality
soft searing pulses

*Literally, “tiger butterfly”

in Spanish; the most deadly type

of Venezualan snake, whose bite

is alleged to kill in thirty seconds.

“Mariposa”, it may be noted, is

vernacular for Lesbian.

Susan Leigh star is a name I chose for myself – taking the first two which are my birth-names and the last from a special Tarot reading in which the Star came up as the card of self/highest ideals.

My writing first of all is divided up sharply – a reflection of “them”, not us – between poetry and social science theory. It's easiest for me to conceptualize the difference in terms of right brain-left brain activity: writing my thesis in psychology, for example, meant days of linear, slow connections – “logical” by the male definition of the word. Poems come in an instant, for the most part; they “brew” for weeks or years in some section of my right brain and then burst forth in a very nonlinear fashion. But there is some sharing on each side (the creative flash in theory writing or the slow reworking of lines of poetry to make them “talk” right), which gives me a hope of integration someday. I cherish both modes for myself and would like to see them appear together in my work and in my world.

I live in Somerville with March, who is often the subject, sometimes the object, and always a participant in my writing. We are radical lesbian witch spiritual sexual political personal feminists, none of which labels can beat my favorite characterization of myself as a true deviant (True deviants do not deviate from any norms – and, therefore, another name for us is “normal”).

-Susan Leigh Star

The politics of wholeness: Feminism and the New Spirituality

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 3)

Susan Leigh Star

In recent years, patriarchy has expanded to accept as “normal” experiences of altered states of consciousness, meditation, dreams, yoga, biofeedback, perception-altering drugs, "enlightenment." That is, the basic structures of patriarchy have remained constant, while the repertoire of “permissible” experience has been expanded under the guise of change.

Closely allied with the above-mentioned altered states of consciousness are apparent changes in “life-style” like communal living, humanistic, transpersonal and “androgynous” interpersonal relations… again, things which are billed as leading to a better way of life, but which are ultimately imprisoning if unquestioned.

The more experiences a system expands to include without changing its basic structure, the fewer people will be able to stand outside the system and criticize it. The change required to get outside will be more far-reaching. At the same time, the system itself will provide what looks like change to most people through its own expansion.

From brown rice to lesbian separatism: one girl’s true story

Several years ago I was heavily involved with meditation, yoga, and people who were committed to “natural” life styles. I became a teacher of TM, in fact, and taught it for a couple of years. I know that I initially began these practices in an effort to heal a split I felt within myself, for which I had no name. When Zen Buddhists or Tibetan Llamas pointed out that life is an empty shell, full of illusion, something in me resonated. I did want a way to unify things, to lose my separation and isolation.

The same feelings, a little later but overlapping in time, led me to come out and begin feminist consciousness-raising. Eventually, the contradictions between woman-identification – or female completeness, self-sufficiency, and spirituality – and the male systems deepened. Starting from when I was still inside of the systems, I began to develop an analysis and a gut-level intuition of their danger and insidiousness.

The critique I offer here grows out of my experience (or that of close friends) with Zen, TM, Buddhism, Hinduism, hatha yoga, macrobiotics, and several forms of guru-following. I lump them together and, (when I'm being polite), call them “new mysticism”, “new spirituality”, or “spiritual psychologies”.

Many currently prevalent systems have similar goals (of self-actualization, unity, harmony) to the above: humanistic psychology, Jungian psychology, "personal growth groups", indeed, humanism of almost any sort. Taken broadly, this critique will be useful for these things as well.

Know thy enemy

The recent plethora of language (books, jargon, labels) for "spirituality" conveys the fact that mysticism, however watered down, is now a locus of concern/control on a mass basis. The TM movement alone claims 600,000 American initiates to their system. Beyond that, the influence of the new mysticism in general extends beyond the numbers of participants – to a point where it is incorporating itself in a major way into the Western ethos. For example, it has become commonplace to refer to something as one's “karma”, to talk about the yin or yang of something, to think brown rice is good for you, to talk about the “guru” (There are even commercials starring humorous gurus).

Fundamentally, what I mean by the terms mysticism, new spirituality or spiritual psychologies are those developmental systems which purport to lead to a higher, more "unified," or harmonious state of consciousness (nirvana, alpha states, samadhi, enlightenment, etc.) in a (more or less) structured fashion. They mayor may not have one central male figure who is the focus for disciples: Sri Chinmoy, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ram Dass, Yogi Bhajan, Guru Maharaji, Hare Krishna people, who provides “guidance” or a “channel” for “reaching these states” (Maybe I should just put the whole article in quotation marks).

Some systems, for example Zen and macrobiotics, do not really depend on devotion to a master, although there are male leaders. However, the lasting goal of all these systems is to eventually provide, through devotion, a technique of “purification”, meditation, etc., a permanent state of "non-duality" or oneness with the world.

For me, there is a crucial difference between duality and difference, as they apply to males, females and the constructions/perceptions of patriarchal society. My assumption is that there is a male/female difference which is at least biological, and which has been construed as a duality by males. This has given rise to philosophies and systems of dualism. Since I believe it is not possible or desirable to transcend male/female difference, I refer to transcending dualities and dualism, that is, to getting beyond the control of women at all levels. Women are the primary objects/subjects of patriarchal control. It is natural and logical [p.38] that this getting beyond is inextricably linked with, and in fact, could define, feminism.

Androgyny, or how to create a disease, patent a quick cure, and market it as enlightenment

One aspect of the state of non-dualism is supposed to be the transcendence of sex-role stereotype; the enlightened person may thus incorporate into her/his personality any qualities, those typically masculine or those typically feminine. For example, Jesus has been called an androgynous symbol by Christian theologians such as John Cobb; in Transcendental Meditation, the movement's spiritual leader may be called either Guru Dev (masculine) or Guru Deva (feminine). Buddha was said to have been “androgynous”.

Interestingly enough, this proliferation of androgynous gurus is coincidental with a new “androgynous” image being touted for Western women.
Themes of androgyny, "psychic wholeness," and transcending of sex and gender recur again and again in the new mysticism. The language used is "yin" and "yang" or feminine and masculine; the idea is that within each person are both masculine and feminine qualities, which can be “realized” (Although, most hasten to add, it just happens to be more likely that women will self-realize as mothers, supporters of men, nurturers of males; and men as active participants in the world they created).

The last time I read about the concept of androgyny, my hands began trembling with anger and I threw the magazine across the room. The magazine was Womanspirit, the article a review of June Singer's book Androgyny written by Ruth Mountaingrove:

The path to androgyny/gynandry is open to everyone: celibate, lesbian, gay man, heterosexual, whenever the urge for wholeness pushes us into the risky, long, hard work of a lifetime. The outcome is unforeseeable, bound as we are by cultural gender definitions, but surely it is more than woman, more than man. A whole person will embody both, and until this is actualized, we cannot know…

Goddness, give me the strength to say this clearly enough:

I have scars and a deep anger about that in me which has been fought or raped by men, by their world. Removing the scars, the split, is my self-loving task as a Lesbian feminist.
The result will not be more than woman, more than man – but fully WOMAN for the first time. And that will come completely only with woman-identified revolution – psychic, psychological, social, material.

Overcoming the Yin-Yang duality, or, winning the war in Vietnam

Patriarchy creates and inculcates dualism. It is common for patriarchs to create needs and then manufacture a product to deal with them – like the medical patriarchs who manufacture a disease for which they must consequently find a “cure” (i.e. Thalidomide babies, vaginal cancer from DES). Since the late 1960’s, what we are witnessing in American society is the selling of a “cure” for a disease which is endemic to male-centered society – the disease of dualism, of alienation from the “true self”.

This disease has always existed, but has not always been widely perceived as the problem per se. Only a small, unusually sensitive and/or intense segment of the population ever dedicated themselves to understanding any dualism: the ahistorical phenomenon of mystics, saints, visionaries. I believe that these people always had hold of some kind of basic issue, and that that is why they were often ostracized, insulated from the mainstream of religion and society; why what they said was often misinterpreted or suppressed; why the image comes through of the mystic as a wild-eyed “crazy man” (sic). But it is important to see that the societal context within which they lived and interacted, if only the one they carried in their heads back to their cave, was male-dominated, male-supremacist, and anti-feminist. Not to ignore this would have been to generate a spiritual-political earthquake.

The union of female self-identification and mysticism is witchcraft. Politically, it has been/is ultimately threatening in its implications for the radical restructuring of man's world. It was once subjected to brutal control under patriarchy; now it is being subjected to extremely subtle control.

The kind of widespread "dealing with" issues of wholeness which we are now seeing is a kind of cooptation of the perceptions of male-identified mysticism on a very wide scale. It is being done in a manner which ensures that the connections between feminism (Lesbianism) and wholeness will not be made.

The new mystics are presenting a male-identified worldview to women who perceive the dualism in patriarchy, but who may not yet have formed their tactics for creating a non-dualistic life, a woman-centered “oneness”. They have, unfortunately, done a superb job of masking the male identity beneath a guise of androgyny (More about this below).

On a social level, these forms and controls are quite new and not yet rigidly institutionalized, but they are certain to escalate within the next couple of decades if the present trend continues.
Amidst the escalation, it is vital for us to understand that the new mysticism has to do with the control of women; that it may be seen as a sexual as well as spiritual phenomenon; that it represents a subtler form of oppression, not a form of liberation.

Without being overly simplistic, I feel it is possible to talk in quite general terms about several beliefs which all of the "new mysticisms" share, and how these beliefs function to short-circuit woman-identification:

1. Belief that by doing some technique, one can attain an ideal state.

Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself as a flight.

– Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

There are two kinds of problems deriving from the belief that doing a technique will bring you to an (the) ideal state of being, as the above quotation suggests. The first problem is with using a technique for growth; the second, with the function of the goal of “ideal state”.

The maxim “capture tile kingdom of heaven and all else shall be added unto thee” is the underlying basis for those mystical systems which say something like: “Just do this practice (i.e. TM, yoga, or Zazen) and enlightenment will eventually be yours”. Essentially, I have seen this idea function to absolve participants of all social responsibility for their own psychological growth “on the way to enlightenment” It fosters the belief that one can buy one's way out of the ambiguity of existence by putting in some "x" amount of time.

The logic of this concept, in simplified form, goes something like: a) we are all in an impure, unreasoning or somehow out-of-whack-with-the-universe state; b) all our actions are mediated by this disharmonious state; c) therefore, the only valid action is to meditate (or whatever the technique is) to achieve harmony and happiness. Also, as long as one is meditating, essentially one is on the right track and other things (like moral decisions and social action) will “be taken care of” in the process. It is a kind of existential cowardice, the deliberate avoidance of contradictions and decisions.

It manifests itself in such ridiculous situations as that of General Franklin Davis, who is a practitioner and ardent supporter of TM. He goes around lecturing about TM, and is often cited by other TM lecturers as an exemplar of the ability to integrate a secular career with a spiritual discipline. Obviously, Gen. Davis believes that he is developing spiritually through meditation; just as obviously, this "development" has not caused him to examine his participation in a sexist, rapist organization, the U.S. Army. I would suggest that in this case the General probably uses the fact of his involvement with TM to avoid facing his responsibility – perhaps he feels that the facet of his personality under [p.41] the heading “growth” is adequately covered by doing TM. And while the General may be an extreme example, the phenomenon varies only in degree whenever any formula is substituted for holistic change.

2. Belief that certain individuals have achieved a permanent level of insight – the ideal state.

The “masters”, in mystical traditions, are, as the label implies, generally always male. They are credited by followers with almost supernatural powers, and often function in the same symbolic fashion as the reified male-god in other religions.

In a dualistic society, it is the nature of symbols for God to represent what is good, regardless of protests to the contrary on the part of their followers (or of the symbols). Women who relate to male gurus as masters, i.e. as the epitome of good, cannot but feel themselves to be "bad" or lacking in some degree if they are trying to imitate him.

But the “master” can exercise a more insidious form of psychic control than a god-substitution. Gurus can control the language we have about wholeness – and women control themselves at this level by responding to the idea of non-duality and freedom. Gurus set themselves up to “teach” (which should be “evoke”) Selfhood and wholeness, non-dualism. They are therefore deeply desacralizing, psychically insidious for women. By blocking self-definition, they provide the ultimate substitution of male-defined reality for female self-perception.

The technique of reserving some mystical authority to a few choice men can be (and is) used to create a bureaucracy based in sexism, dealing in spiritual growth. Whatever the masters say can be used to justify any injustice or illogic on the grounds that it will help those involved get to that higher state, too. In some types of yoga, for example, the developmental schema depends on perfect love and obedience to a guru — one’s own judgment and experience are necessarily abandoned in order to be a disciple and experience “perfect love”. For women, this bears a suspicious resemblance to the self-surrender to males demanded by marriage, Christianity, etc. The masters, following what their masters taught, usually perpetuate sex-role stereotypy in the name of “it’s inexplicable, but it must be nature’s way”. Women in the TM organization, for example, are informally (secretly) disallowed from teaching meditation in prisons or mental hospitals. The rationale is that Maharishi has said that women are “more delicate” than men and couldn’t stand to be in such stressful environments.

The next premise concerns the nature of the so-called transcendence:

3. Belief that the world is fundamentally dualistic (yin-yang); this dualism can be transcended by expanding insight and perception.

The Eastern concept of yin and yang posits two basic and antithetical tensions present in all things. It is possible, goes the theory, by asceticism or meditation to transcend this duality and perceive an underlying unity. At the same time, one never really loses the aspect of being a part of the dualistic world altogether; the inner unity is incorporated into activity, the “kingdom of Heaven within” forming a solid base for “non-attached” activity on the “earthly plane”.

From a feminist perspective, this philosophical twist, which prevents mysticism from becoming an absolutely simple rejection of the world for a kind of paradise, is unconvincing. The theory is that once one arrives at this ideal-state-which-is-always-here-anyway, certain dualities are transcended. However, this process usually takes many years, and in the meantime most mystics are going about perpetuating the most basic dualism, that of sexism. Misogyny and oppression of women (and given the facts of women's oppression, “neutrality” about feminism is misogyny) do not fall away like scales with a “mystical” experience. St. Augustine, for example, who was “enlightened” by certain standards, did his share to contribute to the upkeep of gynocidal dualism in the world.

To reiterate what was said in t he introduction, it is impossible to talk about transcending duality while contributing to and failing to acknowledge the position of women as “Other” in the world. Patriarchal society inculcates duality, and in order to truly reach non-dualism it must be confronted.

The next belief seeks to avoid confrontation:

4. Belief that the world is maya, an illusion, transitory and not-to-be-invested in or attached to.

In an androcentric culture women are “sex”; we represent genital sexuality for heterosexual males. Sexuality is identified as one of the major worldly attachments and desires by mystical systems. Women, therefore, have historically represented the chief temptation of “the worldly” – that which is to be rejected, that which invites desire, which should ultimately inspire a total indifference in the mind of the true seeker. This belief is still widely held in modern systems where celibacy is recommended.

As Nancy Falk observed in an article on Buddhism , women do come to symbolize in the literature on enlightenment, “the ultimate bonds of samsara” (the world of change and impermanence). The last temptation of Buddha before his enlightenment is resisting the sexual advances of three beautiful women. When he successfully resists, he reaches nirvana.
I have seen sexism flourish within the context of asceticism and celibacy just as well as it does with the presence of sexual intercourse – heterosexuality is larger as an institution than genital relating or the lack of it.

Another aspect of the belief that the world is transitory is that it is easy to rationalize about what is so brief in the face of eternity. The responsibility for sex-based oppression is much diminished in the minds of the oppressor if the suffering of women is seen as a mere moment of pain in the fleeting reality of the world. This is an extension of trading proximate for ultimate, and thereby committing both absurdities and atrocities without responsibility.

An outcome of this interpretation of time is found in the next belief:

5. Belief in reincarnation: if you don’t make it this time around, you get to come back until you do.

The obvious result here can be one of not-doing – if you can always put off until tomorrow, literally, why do anything today? But a subtler consequence derives from a belief connected to reincarnation – the belief that you are reborn (or born at all) to finish out whatever karma you didn't do in the last life. This is (in simplified but accurate form) the basis of the whole Indian caste system: you are born and live where you deserve to be; it's all your “karma”. If you are rich, you deserve to be, etc. The only way to escape the cycle of rebirth and karma is to transcend the world as it is, usually through meditation or some other path.

This kind of Calvinistic nonsense perpetuated by ideas of Karmic Justice serves of course quite well to perpetuate the caste system according to gender. Social change itself is invalidated in such a context, as is a radical new self-defining for women. Some systems even say you have to come back as a man to be enlightened.

The following belief can also suppress positive becoming:

6. Belief that the ideal state is a universal, “natural” state.

Most mystical systems have stereotypic descriptions of the enlightened state, “ways to tell” if you're having certain advanced “spiritual experiences” – quite statically defined states of consciousness or alterations of states of consciousness. The end goals are precise, described in a linear rather than processual fashion.

And subsequently, old stereotypes about masculinity and femininity are maintained and reified. For example, a recent issue of the East-West Journal, a magazine about the new spirituality, ran an article denouncing abortion on the grounds that there are all these souls out there waiting to come back, and we can't deny them the change; women, in the new spirituality, are to be passive, maternal, devoted to husbands and “naturally” heterosexual – in order to facilitate a return to the idyllic “natural” state.


The women say that they have been given as equivalents the earth the sea tears that which is humid that which is black that which does not burn that which is negative those who surrender without a struggle. They say this is a concept which is the product of mechanistic reasoning. It deploys a series of terms which are systematically related to opposite terms… They joke on this subject, they say it is to fall between Scylla and Charybdis, to avoid one religious ideology, only to adopt another, they say that both one and the other have this in common, that they are no longer valid.

It is not possible to retain the old forms of these systems in a “non-sexist” way.

Men keep finding more and more subtle ways of assuring women that we can be whole, happy, fulfilled and true human beings without being political, and while continuing to give energy and primacy to men.

Most of all, they find more and more ways of assuring us that we need them, that in order to be permanently happy we need to find our “masculine complements”, whether in our heads or in a male body.
The definition of “wholeness” offered through new mysticism is bounded by male presence. Self-realizing women are not mental hermaphrodites, Earth mothers, yin, androgynes, free animae relating to their animi, “in touch with their bisexual nature”.

Another model, or Lesbianism as necessary if not sufficient condition for enlightenment

“How can I constrict this message so it will be understood uneasily?”

– Robin Morgan

For me the way a system of control becomes apparent is through the presence of alternative models, other worlds. The name that my other world has right now is witchcraft, which means:


The Politics of Wholeness II: Lesbian Feminism as an Altered State of Consciousness

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 5)
Susan Leigh Star

REVIEW: In Other Words by Alice Molloy Oakland Women's Press Collective, 1977

In Other Words: Notes on the Politics and Morale of Survival is a Whole Lesbian Catalogue of Delights and Challenges; one of those rare books that is a tool and a resource. For three years Alice Molloy wrote down, clipped out and annotated her own ideas and a wide range of information about consciousness, feminism, attention and the structures of “reality”. The result, thanks to the cooperation of Oakland Women's Press Collective (and hours and hours of patient typing and layout by Alice) is a book whose form and content are congruent, are nonlinear, with power to alter.

One of my goals has been to transmit information
and attitudes in a manner such that the
process its self is transmitted/received, not
just the end product. The process, a process, a
way of seeing. hearing. a way of processing.
(p. v)

There is no point in setting out a whole trip
where i say this is
my theory, here's the proof,
building up a ediface, no point in laying my trip
on people.…
it's simply because it doesn't work. it just
gives people some thing, an other thing, to build
up resistance against. and go away with enough
information to build up an opposing structure.
(p. vi)

In Other Words is an accurate title; and one of the impacts of the book is to show that “in other words” means “in other worlds”. Alice Molloy grabs the English language by its roots and shakes: how has this language structured our (patriarchal) reality? How can we pay more attention (at tension) to it?

....so we talked feminism, anarchism, and lesbianism, and discovered we were talking witch craft.
as, the craft of witches.
witch craft, the
technology of anarchy.
for example, the right to
prescribe for your self.
things got even more interesting. And
when we started talking witch craft, as
anarchist feminist lesbians, it turned
out to be paranoid schizophrenia. And
it feels good.
(p. iv)

Part of the craft of witches is learning to be aware of what is holding your attention. Alice provides instructions on how to be aware, to notice what is holding your attention: the structure of language, body language, interpersonal politics.

In the issue before last I wrote an article entitled “The Politics of Wholeness: Feminism and the New Spirituality", which criticized male systems of “spirituality” and stated that Lesbian feminism is a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for “enlightenment”.

Enlightenment is a bald and dangerous word although I did mean it quite seriously in the humorous context above. Most of me abhors writing about “spirituality” or psychic powers. I'm afraid to produce writing about instead of tools for; afraid of freezing on paper the lineaments of a world that is new and that is, above all, motion.

With this in mind I offer the following as a tool, a story and an ideal. I see it as the beginning of a map for a Lesbian feminist psychology: that is, a political awareness of our own psyche-logic that cannot be translated or symbolically imposed upon.


The language and metaphors for the changes we experience as becoming Lesbians have often been reflections of patriarchal reality: a reality which may bend and stretch around the edges to include us as a “sexual preference” or “gay women”; as “out of the closet” or “into only making love with women”, but which cannot include us if we articulate our experience as a different and incompatible reality. One way I have found to do this is to describe Lesbian feminism as an (or the) altered state of consciousness.

To talk about consciousness is to talk about structures of awareness: energy that is channeled through paths of attention. The term “altered state of consciousness” has been used in psychology and religion to imply a very deeply changed (from some baseline or “normal” state) system of mental-physical structures.

To add the word “politics” means that the baseline from which the alterations take place is a socially-created, coercively maintained power structure.

I find it useful to think of Lesbian feminism as an altered state of consciousness in some of the same ways one would think of tripping, meditative states, hypnosis, visions or hallucinations as “alterations” of a “baseline” state of consciousness. Both Lesbian feminism and states like tripping take place outside of the everyday structures that habituate* one to living. They occur in a place where taking- for-granted stops; where ordinariness and custom dissolve.

The basic reaction from status quo society toward both of them has been that they represent a type of madness; something beyond the pale, untranslatable. Given enough time, the system tries to find a way to reduce the threat to [p.85] itself that the presence of this other world creates. Thus, for example, the initial potentials for radical change that perception-altering drugs caused were quickly ripped off into the language of humanism, love, peace and brotherhood. It became fashionable to study marijuana and LSD in the laboratories; to use the drugs to alleviate the boredom of living inside the social structures without challenging them.

Power Versus Energy

(or: I Don't Need Life I'm High on Dope)

The reason for the cooptation of these altered states of consciousness is that they remained apolitical. Drug users and meditators became alienated from the system, or perhaps decided to work to “change” it; but no one articulated what it is about the system that works to suppress altered states of consciousness, or what the cultural investment in containing those states as private individualized experiences is.

The theory that was written in the late sixties and early seventies that addressed “altered states of consciousness” (sometimes called the ‘psychology of consciousness’) leaned heavily on the idea of “energy”: tuning into cosmic energy, re-channeling psychic energy, aligning one's vibrations with the universe. Psychologists like Robert Ornstein and Charles Tart developed elaborate diagrams and explanations for how mental energy (consciousness) changes within a person's mind while under the influence of drugs or during meditation.

One key concept which underlies all theories about altered states of consciousness is quite simply that a changed state implies change from something into something else. Unfortunately this simple fact has been widely ignored among psychologists of consciousness; it is not uncommon to read whole books of theories about consciousness-altering and never find the slightest mention of what the consciousness has been altered from. What is missing, of course, is an exploration of the “normal” state of consciousness; the very thing that is so taken for granted that it is nearly impossible to see.

Tart mentions the baseline state of consciousness in his work, and I think he does intuit the importance of exploring its dimensions in order to chart changes from it. But he never does more than mention its existence, and never its content.

By designing theory which purports to explain changes of consciousness, but which ignores who invests in the status quo and how they teach us to ignore cosmic energy in the first place, the psychologists and philosophers of altered states of consciousness contribute to the idea that the authorship of reality is arbitrary. Tart could even make the following statements about the “social construction of reality”:

One of the greatest problems in studying consciousness and altered states of consciousness is an implicit prejudice that tends to make us distort all sorts of information about states of consciousness. When you know you have a prejudice you are not completely caught by it, for you can question whether the bias is really useful and possibly try to change it or compensate for it. But when a prejudice is implicit it controls you…
The prejudice discussed in this chapter is the belief that our ordinary state of consciousness is somehow natural. It is a very deep-seated and implicit prejudice.
(States of Consciousness, p. 34)

I stress the view that we are prisoners of our ordinary state of consciousness, victims of our consensus reality, because it is necessary to become aware of this if we are to have any hope of transcending it, of developing a science of the mind that is not culturally limited.
(States of Consciousness, p. 48)

And then use the generic “he” all through his writing; and not hint that consensus reality requires a consensus – real people who believe in the prejudices mentioned above, and who react when those prejudices are challenged. He assumes that reality-creating and maintaining is arbitrary, and that “transcending” it can be done apolitically.

As a Lesbian feminist, I make no such assumption. I want to examine the politics of reality maintaining, and answer the following questions:
In whose interest is it to maintain the consensus reality? If we are “prisoners”, who is guarding the prison and what means of coercion are used to keep us there? Who threatens the existing created reality? Why, and under what conditions? What is involved in creating an alter* reality?
I want to name names.

Patriarchy as a state of consciousness and a consensus reality has depended upon the silence of Lesbians

It's vitally important that we begin to name (and therefore create and strengthen) our reality-changing for the depth change that it is. In order to talk clearly about our changes and possibilities, we need a language that can say in no uncertain terms: this new world challenges everything. Its potential goes as deep as perception itself, as wide as a totally new political structure. When seen from the baseline, it throws us into madness, into chaos, into an other world.

Language is like an oil that slips through consciousness and its attendant structures; almost imperceptible while the machinery is working unquestioned. Lesbian feminism is an alteration from the structures – linguistic, neurological, emotional, historical, physical – that reflect our experience back to us and which we are coerced into accepting through “female socialization”.

Perception, Cognition and Lesbianism

My favorite sign in the Gay Pride March in San Francisco read: “Lesbianism is More Than a Sexual Preference”. As I mentioned above, one of the ways that we are tolerated is to be defined as women with tastes that run a little counter to the usual. Women who have certain feelings the origin of which may be uncertain but which can be included in the smorgasbord of sexual “preferences” that “happen” to “people”.

I propose that there is a vital component of Lesbian feminism that has been theoretically ignored in descriptions of the “etiology” of Lesbianism: a perceptual, cognitive [p.87] component. I think that Lesbian feminists see and think things that are counter to patriarchal descriptions of reality, as well as feeling that which is forbidden.*

The implication of this view is that Lesbian feminism is created as an altered state of consciousness (cognition, perception) by women who are willing to question the perceptual bases of our worlds. It doesn't just come out of feelings, or just out of political analysis.

And when something “happens” that is an alternative to a coercively enforced social structure (heterosexuality in this case), it doesn't happen without someone making it happen, making decisions, saying no to coercion, resisting, creating. I don't just prefer to do something that requires a challenge of reality to do; and when I give language to my reality-challenging, I destroy old worlds and create new ones.

Whenever a Lesbian writes or speaks about herself it is a political act, because it is our silence that has underpinned patriarchy for centuries. Because we do not fit into patriarchy's basic structures, our language has both the power to shatter and to expose. Conjoined, the words of Lesbian feminists represent the politicization of the deepest structures of consciousness.

Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other's sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other. Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.
from Adrienne Rich's Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.

When I speak directly I feel it throughout my whole body. The sensation of not translating is quite distinct; a new experience for me. As most of us, I have always been a Lesbian a witch a madwoman inside. But until I began to speak directly (and can't always do that all the time yet) from that experience, it was not empowered with reality. It had neither the power to be reality or to challenge the static reality handed to me growing up.

Naming the Content of Lesbian Feminist Consciousness

By “state of consciousness” I mean something more precise than mood, feelings, or passing perceptions. A state of consciousness is “a unique, dynamic pattern or [p.89] configuration of psychological structures, an active system of psychological subsystems”. Although each of the substructures, or any of them, can change from time to time, the overall patterns of a state of consciousness remain recognizably the same.

The unique, dynamic configuration of consciousness that is Lesbian feminism is both individual (personal) and generalizable as a recognizable common state of consciousness (political).
In order to more clearly communicate an “alter reality”, I'll describe how I conceptualize several matrices or components of my own awareness/consciousness. They are names of parts of myself; a personal/personal configuration. But they are also me as a Lesbian feminist witch spiritual sexual political, etc. The names are drawn from common experience, and perhaps can reflect back out toward that experience for other womyn.

The matrices are layered in varying thicknesses around a core of silence and language, of inner “space” (sometimes that I'm aware of, sometimes not) and are constantly shifting, in motion. They are political, real, and material.

1. language, which encircles and roots in all the others
2. habituation (awareness and attention)
3. intensity/courage/time
4. nonreification/systems sense/ambiguity
5. relationship to patriarchy
6. witchcraft/psychic tools/history
7. identification
8. physical being
9. love/romance/sex
10. grace/wonder

Notes for the Model:

This is my visual conceptualization of Lesbian Feminist consciousness. At the center is a five-way energy channel whose five points symbolize Sex/Desire, Passion, Pride, Power and Humor/ Creativity (self-perspective). I’ve found it useful to think of these as parts of a system without confounding them. The points circle around an inner core of Self, chosen silence and chosen language. The outer circle represents the boundary of our consciousness with patriarchy: the inner arrows suggest mobility and a highly-charged energy area. The outer area, patriarchy, is symbolized by the larger arrows (coercion).
The reason for the “individual-transpersonal” notation on the top of the chart is that while this model is drawn in terms of an individual womyn’s psyche, it is also a composite of womyn’s (Lesbian feminists’) consciousness as I've perceived it in a general way. This, like any theory, is a statement of how I perceive, how I perceive myself and others.
Because of my limitations in drawing, the model is frozen in time and space. Remember while looking at it that an accurate model would have many thousands of circles overlapping and in different relations to patriarchy and to each matrix.

The chart above shows that several of the matrices have a boundary-maintaining or filtering aspect as well as a creative aspect. The chart can't grasp the element of time or of social interaction, the changing layers and dimensions of consciousness, but should be imagined within patriarchy as a mobile and creative strategy for its destruction. At the same time, it is affected by its presence wilhin that coercive social structure, and thus is historically placed in the present, at a time when our social reality is still precarious.

Below, I describe the function/structure of each of the matrices – again, they can only analytically be separated. In reality, they function as an interlocking system, irreducible.


… the fundamental coerciveness of society lies not in its machineries of social control but in its power to constitute itself and to impose itself as reality. The paradigmatic case of this is language.

To deny reality as it has been socially defined is to risk falling into irreality, because it is well-nigh impossible in the long run to keep up alone and without social support one’s own counter-definitions of the world. When the socially defined reality has come to be identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, then its denial takes on the quality of evil as well as madness.

(from The Sacred Canopy)

The first and most important matrix is language. As far as we can extend language is as far as our imagination goes.

The first and most important matrix is silence. As far as we can extend silence is as far as our imagination goes.

Language arises from necessity and from power: the need to name and the political power to do so. The need and the power function together to shape a reality bounded by the language. The worlds, the realities are not contained in the language; rather, the language reflects and in turn shapes them in a changing and systemic way. The farther limits of language are thus the farther limits of reality, but neither is causal. If the language incorporates and reflects mobility, change, and non-reification (i.e., Lesbian feminist language) the reality need not be “bounded” in the usual sense.

Unchosen silence can come from either a lack of language or a lack of hearer. As Lesbians we have experienced all three: lack of language, lack of audience, lack of both words and listeners.
The three lacks produce different kinds of madness, madnesses which are maximized and accentuated by patriarchy in historically changing patterns.


Marking the passage of time in new ways could be a method of uttering ourselves. Celebrating solstices and moon phases instead of Christ's birthday and wartime victories and capitalist work-weekends; expressions of rage and power on the anniversaries of things like the banning of The Well of Loneliness or the vandalism of Diana Press; honoring menarches and menopauses.


Dreams can provide new language. I had a dream of a world in which there were only three words to describe different ways of being:
labyris – cutting, incisive, warrior-womon;
labyrinth – complex, weaving in and out, mystery;
labia – unfolding, wonder, gentleness;
from which I wrote this poem:
I have dared to spin your name into the small hollows
tucked beside my cervix
I have plaited your open soul between my hands
my core of language.
am Amazon,
left breast unscathed.
speaker and essence
this truth leaps from my brain:
we are the first and last structure of madness;
its constituent form.
And from our silence
are woven all the cycles in which madness
its nature.
We re-order priorities, we choose to use certain words more and more frequently. We name what we use, what we have, what we care for. It begins with the body, reclaiming territory, and extends to the imagination, creating territory. Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body is thus a stake in “irreality”, in madness that way: an initial defining of territory, hitherto silenced.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of changing the language we are habituated to is a collective undertaking. Here are a couple of instances I have experienced.


Are you allright?
Do you sleep at night?
Do you have enough time
to use your mind?
Do you remember
your own name?

– Meg Christian

Our names are basic. I took back a great deal of strength and power when I decided to choose my own name, and can still be reminded when I use it that it is a symbol, an aspiration, a source of self (the Star is a Tarot card representing integration of inner and outer, dreams and action).
The names that womyn choose represent a rite of passage into Lesbian feminist culture; a refusal of the naming of the child (non-person) by the adult (in power), and of the womyn and children by the father.

Habituation (Attention and Awareness)

“What holds my attention has my energy”.
(lOW, p. 5)

We are habituated to patriarchy. Femininity is a habit – learned.

In psychology, habituation is a precise term that applies to the inability to perceive a stimulus after it's been presented to you a number of times. Your brain waves literally flatten out and stop responding to it after a short period of time.

There are Zen monks who have trained themselves, by controlling their attention patterns (maintaining their awareness), never to habituate to anything. In other words, they notice every time a stimulus is presented to them. In one experiment, a tone was presented to them a number of times and their brain waves registered at the same intensity each time. Subjects without the training became habituated to the tone quickly; within three or four times, they stopped being able to really notice or perceive the tone.

I have always been particularly struck by this experiment. I know the one way “they” can really get to me is to bore me to death. Patriarchy produces an endless drone of empty words, of sameness, of contentless messages that have linear and monotonic rhythms. I usually “tune out” the messages, try to ignore them in order to have some sanity. But I'm actually not convinced that this is the best thing to do – the drone does take some of my energy even by doing this. The hum and buzz of noise, even where I do not perceive it as sound (i.e., as meaningful), requires a portion of my attention. And, like it or not, some of the messages do get in. Am I more well-guarded if I try to ignore them, or if I can pay a controlled amount of attention to them and not be drugged by them? A further lesson to be learned from the Zen monks is that while they noticed each tone, and registered it in their brains, they did not physiologically react much to each tone. In other words, they knew precisely (i. e., just so much but not more) what was being presented to them, but were not affected by it beyond the noticing.

the rhythm, the beat, the tempo, if it is
different from mine, i will begin to feel
agitated. or, i can be lulled into the other
rhythm. babies are lulled to sleep more openly, the
lulling to sleep of adults is more covert

(lOW, p. 8)

Calmly, lucidly, I repeat (and I cry, and I rail, and I pronounce, and I explain, by speech and by writing, to the end): I believe in the generality in the profundity, of the fact of misogynism: yes, always and everywhere, in the home of the capitalist, or of the proletariat… I believe in phallocratism at every second, of everyone, in each class and each country…
The fact of misogynism, as with all repressive relations, is not created from the good will of Tom, Dick and Harry. It stems, cruelly, from individuals. It is the starting point for institutions, it maintains mental structures. One will not be able to understand the feminine state of wretchedness if one does not fundamentally grasp it as such: a community, historical, general, daily, world-wide phenomenon, a fundamental relation between women and non-women….. It affects all cultures… it is at once the most intimate of our particular life and the most common of our collective. It is the air we breathe.
– Le feminisme ou La mort (Feminism or Death) by Francoise d'Eaubonne (my translation)

I think the most strategic survival skill is to neither be agitated by the input of patriarchal energy nor to be lulled into ignoring it. We should know precisely what is being put out at us; and I am not saying to defect from our anger or to “plan” our responses. We must learn not to let them deploy our attention into mindless structures; and learn to turn our own attention into mobile, political, exciting structures.


Alice speaks of “becoming literal” as a way of counteracting the lulling effect of patriarchal language. Good examples of what she means by literalness can be found in Alice in Wonderland – much of the humor of the book hinges on taking the metaphors of language literally.

Going into the puns, as well as into the etymology of the language, does help to dishabituate from it. For example, Alix Dobkin takes a step away from the language by emphasizing the “coincidental” construction of certain words:

if we don't let maneuvering keep us apart,
if we don't let manipulators keep us apart,
if we don't let manpower keep us apart,
or mankind keep us apart
we've won –
what i mean is
we ain't got it easy –
but we've got it.
(from “Talking Lesbian”, Lavender Jane Loves Women)

and so doing refuses to partake of a linear or “serious” same form refuting of oppression.

Which turns into my next point, that another way to sidestep boredom is to put our arguments into surprising form:


Humor is a way of confronting people indirectly – of dishabituating them. Patriarchy has used ridicule and reduction to cripple us and stop us from taking ourselves intensely; but we use humor to defend ourselves from being lulled into their structures.

Humor consists essentially in being outside of ordinary structures. An apocryphal story was circulating at one point when Susan Saxe gave her T.V. message: “I will fight on as a womon, a Lesbian and an Amazon” – the FBI had seized on the word “Amazon” and was frantically running it through their computers, trying to decode the “secret message” Saxe had presented to the womyn of the world.

“Your friend is not a warrior”, he said. “If he were, he would know that the worst thing one can do is to confront human beings bluntly”.
“What does a warrior do, don Juan?”
“A warrior proceeds strategically”.
“I still don't understand what you mean”.
“I mean that if our friend were a warrior he would help his child to stop the world”.
“How can my friend do that?”
“If one wants to stop our fellow men one must always be outside the circle that presses them. That way one
can always direct the pressure”.
(Journey to Ixtlan)

To be outside the circle that presses them.

To be authors of our own open circle.


“The thing to do when you're impatient,” he proceeded, “is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you…”
He replied that the issue of our death was never pressed far enough. And 1 argued that it would be meaningless for me to dwell upon my death, since such a thought would only bring discomfort and fear.
“You're full of crap!” he exclaimed. “Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, I haven't touched you yet."
(from Journey to Ixtlan)

We have refused, or begun to refuse, a great deal of the institutionalized death that is dealt to womyn. We feel it so deeply when we see other women accepting the death: a gutlevel horror of living death.

Claiming one's intensity is a profoundly feminist act. We each have a history as Lesbian feminists of being told not to take it all so “seriously, dear” – I'm certain. “You can't have everything”, they say. But as Lesbians we refused to settle.

Why we did not settle is a better etiological question to ask about Lesbians than “how did this pathology occur?” But the most useful question for us is: how did we not settle? Each of us has extricated herself from some or all of the gender system, and each of us has had (and some of us nearly alone) to figure out a strategy for doing so. What were the strategies?

When asked once why certain people were self-actualizing, psychologist Abraham Maslow couldn't answer. He finally came up with something called the “chutzpah factor”: an extra bit of spunk coming from no one knows where.

We need to name the silent strategies by which Lesbians have used our chutzpah factor to affirm self: to name, share and teach it as resistance to bullshit; the power to question authority; the refusal to settle for less.


One of the heaviest tactics of muting our intensity and courage is anchoring and imprisoning the way we perceive age and aging. Ageism and sexism/patriarchy stand in incredibly complex relation to each other, and there isn't space here to more than mention it. The motif I carry in my mind is that men have found it necessary to reduce the three- fold nature of womyn – Virgin, Crone and Mother – which was once found (or could be found) in all wimmin at all times to only one or another, frozen in time.

An essay/story by River Malcolm helped me imagine the consciousness-shattering/building possibilities of an ageist-less world:

They say we do not occupy a part of time, that each of our lives is a consciousness which extends through the whole of time. Each of our consciousnesses is a way of knowing, a knowledge, a conception of the whole of time. Therefore there are many times, and not one. Therefore we are each elder to the other.
They say elder is the term of greatest respect, with which we remind ourselves that we are listening to a sovereign and separate truth which we can never reduce or contain within our way of knowing…
(from "The Women Talk About How They Live")

Nonreification/Systems Sense/Ambiguity

The women say that they perceive their bodies in their entirety. They say that they do not favour any of its parts on the ground that it was formerly a forbidden object. They say that they do not want to become prisoners of their own ideology.
(from Les Guerilleres)

To form a movement that is really movement. By questioning every assumption, a really mobile vision.

To build into our ideology a nonreification clause:

one must have a vision:
but then put the vision
out of the way. so to speak. of the vision
that is actually created
(step by step) in the outer
world. Otherwise, the vision
blocks the vision.
(IOW, p. 41)

In 1948 Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity – an incisive statement of the sameness of all political formulae and how they interact with the psychology of the individual. She proposes there a mode of politics that sidesteps simplicity without negating political action; a way of creating a vision, as the quote from In Other Words suggests, while not idolizing the vision or proselytizing for it.

Lesbian feminists are uniquely advantaged to opt for ambiguity, complexity, mobility, change. Balanced on the edge of patriarchy, we see the danger of falling into it, or falling out of it into a mirror image of it. Mary Daly's concept of “boundary dwelling” describes a high-energy state, an interface which demands constant self-scrutiny and change, motion. And maintaining an ethics of ambiguity also requires a systems sense – seeing that all the parts work together; anyone thing affected affects the whole system. The personal is the political is the everything else. Patriarchy is systematic: thorough, one by one, linear. Feminist analysis is systemic: of the whole, nonlinear, from the perspective of the outsider.

TO BE (left brain) AND NOT TO BE (right brain)
(IOW, p. 58)

Maintaining the vision, opting for complexity is difficult and exhausting. All of us have been trained to think in terms of simple solutions, formulas which produce cause-and-effect changes.

Much of what is narrowly termed “politics” seems to rest on a longing for certainty even at the cost of honesty, for an analysis which, once given, need not be re-examined. Such is the dead-endedness – for women – of Marxism in our time.

Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad just to lie down with the sherds we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. Often I feel this like an exhaustion in my own body.

The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper.
(from Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying)

To reify any part of our complex vision is to jeopardize both our honor and our viability as a world.

Relationship to Patriarchy

the awareness of rape
spoken or unspoken, the
threat of violence
lies at the periphery of my consciousness during even the simplest act

the line between rape and rapefreedom

circumscribes our lives. We must begin to image/imagine a world where rape is unthinkable, impossible.

The idea that the perceptual interpretations that make up our world have a flow is congruous with the fact that they run uninterruptedly and are rarely, if ever, open to question. In fact, the reality of the world we know is so taken for granted that the basic premise of sorcery, that our reality is merely one of many descriptions, could hardly be taken as a serious proposition.

It has been important for me to begin describing patriarchy (the system wherein rape is possible) to myself as a constructed reality; as one of many possible descriptions of the world. But again, not as an arbitrary description: someone(s) authored and continue to author (an ongoing verb, not one-time) the structures. Invested in, authored by, those who profit from it.

we should at least understand just what it is the system has been doing to us, and the extent to which they are getting better at it. “better” doesn't begin to describe it; they are making a qualitative leap in their ability to keep us locked in our places.
definitely a challenge. an occasion to rise to.
(lOW, p. iv)>

I think that how we conceptualize ourselves in terms of fighting or “trying to change the world/create a new one” is vitally important. One of the values of thinking about our lives as altered states of consciousness is in helping us to conceive the outrageous, the unthinkable, the mad: the very things that will surprise them. In terms of our own consciousness, we must become chameleons, quick-change artists, while avoiding deception and lack of identification with ourselves. For a long time now I have thought in terms of guerrilla warfare; that I am a resistance fighter. What we are facing is a massive war being waged against us at every level (physical, moral, psychological and spiritual), and in that context it is difficult to talk about the “ideal” shape of a “politically correct” plan of action. I feel the need to give full credence to our battle scars, to trusting that each of us will do what she can where she is with the tools that she has (Not to ignore the possibility of coopting or pouring our energy out for nothing; not to ignore the utter necessity for visions and possibilities).

What I am saying here is that what I am habituated to is precisely what makes me dangerous to myself and to other wimmin, and also what makes me predictable in terms of the system. I cannot imagine myself out of patriarchy in terms of wishing away the violence and the brainwashing; but I must imagine myself out of patriarchy in order to know what my bottom line is, and how to make it bottomer.

The more serious (and Less Serious) I become, the more ways I become alter in the deepest sense with relation to patriarchy, and at the same time alter with relation to old selves. Thus, the ways we do that are both individual and political; for me, writing theory is a way of envisioning (en – to place within; vision – placing my perception within a vision). The theory I wrap with alter visions is a weapon/ tool/defense/grace and meaning.

Witchcraft/Psychic Tools/History

I take the word witch as seriously as the word Lesbian in talking about myself. Historically and politically, the word has had many meanings: as a female-centered religion, as an ancient form of social organization based on agricultural and lunar cycles, as a resistance to patriarchy/Christianity, as healer, wise womon, as knower and user of psychic skills/power.

For myself, now, I center the word in a combination of historical/ traditional meanings and new feminist ones implying strong, powerful, self-identified womon. There exists still a small pagan community, hidden for the most part, now male and female, who have preserved some part of the old traditions handed down through and before the burning times. They are linked by a common choice of female symbolism and energy in their rituals (the Goddess), preserved in a fragmented, pluralistic (not that pluralism is negative) tradition. Part of the pagan community is in contact with the “spiritual feminist community” in some places.

I am learning what I can of the old traditions, rooting myself in a goddess-centered religion. There is no counterpart in god-centeredness nor in what is usually called religion – just as maleness is not the counterpart for femaleness.

I'm very scared of institutionalization of any of this.

A womon in my coven pointed out that Wicca (witchcraft) means “knower of changes or changer”. Fundamentally, to be a witch means to have the ability to transform energy, embedding the transformations 1)in a knowledge and respect for the natural rhythms of the earth, and 2) in a five-fold energy system, symbolized by the pentacle. The five points of the pentacle stand for sex, for self-awareness, for passion, for pride and for power. These points rest, in turn, reflexively, on change and transformation, and understanding them as a system negates the possibility of power-over or of fetishizing anyone of them. The ability to transform, to change, to create refers always back to a core self:

and you who think to seek for me
know that your seeking and yearning
shall avail you not
unless you know the mystery:

that if that which you seek you find not within you
you shall never find it without

for behold, I have been with you from the beginning
and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.
(Invocation to the Star-Goddess)

Myra Love has expressed some of the self-referent power of witchcraft in her poem “Sister-witch”:

pure will:
focus in transforming
flame burns on
finely narrow fierce flame
rages up from her source
witchcraft is not an exercise of
but a focusing in the will and through
indrawing to the center and outward
shooting forth to connect to encompass to effect
(quoted in part, unpublished poem, with permission © 1977 Myra Love)


Berger has described, unconsciously, the politics of feminist witchcraft with relation to patriarchy:

The sheltering quality of social order becomes especially evident if one looks at the marginal situations in the life of the individual, that is, at situations in which he (sic) is driven close to or beyond the boundaries of the order that determines his routine, everyday existence. Such marginal situations commonly occur in dreams and fantasy… Whatever the epistemological status of these constellations (usually decided upon much too sanguinely by psychiatry, precisely because it is firmly rooted in the everyday, ‘official’, social definitions of reality), their profound terror for the individual lies in the threat they constitute to his previously operative nomos (constructed world)…
…in other words, the marginal situations of human existence reveal the innate precariousness of all social worlds. Every socially defined reality remains threatened by lurking ‘irrealities’. Every socially constructed nomos must face the constant possibility of its collapse into anomy.

A hunch: psychic skills are like any others, it's 99% practice and taking it seriously while practicing. Crafting. Paying attention to all of the input from the environment: dreams, hunches, “funny feelings”, all the things that you might dismiss as nonsense (and some might indeed be nonsense!).

The system you embed your psychic skills in can be looked at separately from the skills. In other words, the CIA and the Russian KGB can learn to do mind control and ESP experiments. But the system also gives form and shape to the skills: there is a function and structure to the politics of witchcraft.

Alice has a drawing in the front of her book that says, witch or feminist alone, or Lesbian alone, or anarchist alone is fascist.

I wouldn't choose to use that word – I feel it belongs to an whole other order of murderers and politicians and torturers. But I think I know what she means. When all of those potentialities – witch, Lesbian, anarchist and feminist – come together, something very different happens from anyone or two of them separately. I would rather look at them when they're connected, and compare that to patriarchal status quo, than to take one element at a time and compare it to what it's not. Uff.

visionary ecology
political joy
individualistic collectivity
a tradition of constant change

and always the question:
what knowledge was destroyed with the
nine million burned?
with what was it replaced?


“Have you had sex with girls much before?”
“Only since I've been at the Rubber Rose. Between Miss Adrian and Delores, every eligible male's been scared away from here, and there's usually trouble of one kind or another if we fool around with the hicks in Mottburg. That leaves your fingers or other women, and at least half the cowgirls on the ranch have been in each other's pants by now. There's not a queer among 'em, either. It's just a nice, natural thing to do. Girls are so close and soft. Why did it take me all these years to learn that it's okay to roll around with 'em? It's 'specially good when it's somebody you really like a lot”. She hugged Sissy and sugardoodled a few kisses around her neck and ears.
(from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)

Consciousness is rooted in experience but altered by linguistic awareness.* The statement “I am a Lesbian” could describe the womyn's awareness of their experiences. Robbins chooses to say, “There's not a queer among 'em”. The difference is one of worlds, of reality, of cognition and of consciousness. By choosing to deny the interrelatedness of the women's actions with the gender system, Robbins annihilates the political, patterned nature of their silencing. He coats the women's sexuality with a phony glaze of acceptance – effectively silencing for the naive reader any awareness of the reality of Lesbian oppression, the blood-struggle each of us has made, going from aloneness to Lesbian-identification.

As most of us, I spent high school immersed in silence. The womon I loved and toward whom I directed all of my emotional energies was not my lover in a genital sense; yet, even had we been, I doubt that the linguistic category of “friendship” could have been cracked open in our minds – we never talked about sexuality and making physical love wouldn't have altered that.

Lesbian is the word, the label, the condition that holds women in line. When a woman hears this word tossed her way, she knows she is stepping out of line. She knows that she has crossed the terrible boundary of her sex role. She recoils, she protests, she reshapes her actions to gain approval. Lesbian is a label invented by the man to throw at any woman who dares to be his equal, who dares to challenge his prerogatives (including that of all women as part of the exchange medium among men), who dares to assert the primacy of her own needs.
(from The Woman-Identified Woman)>/p>

The womyn's movement forced me to a choice between silence and naming: the word Lesbian compelled me like a moth. And as soon as I spoke the words, I am a Lesbian, I knew there was no going back. The alteration of our consciousness through the identification of ourselves as Lesbians is in some ways the profoundest alteration of all, it is the keystone of our arching consciousness.


Romance is the bottom line for change for many of us, the place where we abandon honor and the reality of our own perceptions. All of the creations (community, politics, friendships, work) we build can be jeopardized by the betrayal which results from love-relationships (romance- relationships) we commit ourselves to.

as in, hand over

The romance can't be simply analyzed in terms of “monogamy” or “nonmonogamy”, although the romance is usually placed within the overlaid structure of monogamy. Our consciousness is bounded within the limits of our ability to conceive of ourselves as alone and healthy – I.e., not “involved” in a “relationship” which delimits our sexuality, or our sense of ourselves.

We are taught to sexually respond rather than sexually create.

The state of falling in love can obscure our ability to love.



Emotion-binding that is like footbinding and mindbinding.

But the openness, the vulnerability, the power and passion and pride. The sex. The selfawareness – also parts of our consciousness in an opening way.

open-open to another person: the willingness to
let that person put me through changes, as most
clearly indicated in body-loving. I will let
you touch me. My body armor will be down.
I wiIl let the feelings happen, permeate me. I
will be vulnerable.

I want to put you through changes. rare for me.
Don't yet understand the wanting or the non-wanting.

But for me the result of this, when both parties
are open-open, is that they can then begin to
exchange what i've been calling secrets; the
thoughts, feelings that one hardly says to
one's self; these thoughts can not be elaborated
on, expanded – until they are spoken to an other
person. For our revolution to move forward,
they must surface.

(lOW, p. 24)

Physical Being

Many of us, and me not least of all, are held by Western medicine. Even at feminist health centers a lot of the health care is based oftentimes on Western premises: i.e., drugs “cure”; diseases are “caught”; you “naturally” get “sicker” as you get older, etc.

I don't know enough to convey much useful information here that can't be found elsewhere easily (information on herbs, acupuncture, fasting, nutrition, psychic healing). I have been able to heal myself of fairly serious illness several times; enough to know that I can take care of myself if I want to.

Some general discoveries: we need to learn that everything that goes into our bodies (energy in any form)* has an effect. Bodies don't let you get away with anything permanently. Ever.
Mostly what Western medicine provides is a temporary and speedy suppression of symptoms. Which living in speeded-up U.S. many of us need to use to keep up. Self-healing requires a different time orientation and a great deal of responsibility (not delegating any of the responsibility out to a doctor or another – they can't cure).


In order to be a sorcerer a (wo)man must be passionate. A passionate woman has earthly belongings and things dear to her – if nothing else, just the path where she walks.…

“Only as a warrior can one survive the path of knowledge”, he said, “Because the art of a warrior is to balance the terror of being a woman with the wonder of being a woman.”

I gazed at the two of them, each in turn. Their eyes were clear and peaceful.… For an instant I think I saw. I saw the loneliness of woman as a gigantic wave which had been frozen in front of me, held back by the invisible wall of a metaphor.
(from Journey to Ixtlan)

Perceiving the enormity, the monstrosity of what has been done to womyn – and feeling the wonder of being alive and loving womyn. As a Lesbian, a monster, I create degrees of freedom that are magical.

Lesbian feminism: terror and wonder in dialectic. The Beast and the Goddess.

I cannot write about the wonder yet without putting it into relation with the struggle it took/takes to create the space to feel it. Yet the joy, the magic, the unfolding is central to our consciousness, in whatever counterpoint to the death culture trying to destroy it. We create a genuinely passionate wonder.


In the first issue of Sinister Wisdom Julia Stanley wrote of her experience of writing as a personal dialogue, with oneself, as a way of creating a challenge and new honor for oneself:

…. I believe that every speech act involves personal risk on the part of the speaker or writer, if she is being honest with herself. And I believe that taking this risk is necessary and healthy.… As I wrote the fable, and as I spoke it at the GAU conference, ‘I was shaking, shaking because my self was “on the line”. I was frightened; and I am still frightened when I read it, because I cannot match my words. But I was writing out of my self, writing of a self that does not yet exist, a self that has not been born. But I am engaged in dialogue with her.

Writing theory is for me an intense dialogue with myself: the integration of all of my experience, all of my transformations. I don't cover everything of course in writing something; but I am committed to a methodology of honor – not ignoring any relevant questions in order to impose my view of reality in a dishonest way. I see this as what “science” has proposed, but the antithesis of what it has become in men's hands and minds.

The state of consciousness I've tried to give language to here exists as an ideal, not a “fact”. At best, I catch glimpses of it in its totality: moments of self-awareness in the middle of busyness and change.

To dwell among ourselves

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 8)

A review of Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism by Mary Daly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978; $14.95,485 pages, hardcover.

There's a web like a spider's web,
made of silk or light and shadow,
spun by the moon in my room at night.
It's a web made to catch a dream;
hold it tight to lie awake with,
and it will tell you,
that dream ends allright.
– Old Folk Song

You can fly
High as a kite
If you want to
Faster than light
If you want to.
Speeding through the universe…
Thinking is the best way to travel.
– “The Best Way to Travel,”The Moody Blues, from In Search of the Lost Chord

Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.
They can rule the world while they can persuade us
our pain belongs in some order.
– Adrienne Rich, “Hunger”, from The Dream of a Common Language

Context. Since reading Gyn/Ecology, my nerves have been humming with new meanings for this word, seeing it as a verb for the first time. I am profoundly contexted by this work. Placed. Seen. With its reading, I experience newer and newer navigations of my own consciousness. Without freezing, without staticness of any sort, this book is the total confluence of method and content, of the personal and the historical, of the reach for change and the unflinching examination of suffering, that I have come to know as feminism. Where this book is, there is feminism.

If this book/Voyage could be placed neatly in a “field” it would not be this book. I have considered naming its “field” Un-theology or Un-philosophy. Certainly, in the house of mirrors which is the universe/university of reversals, it can be called Un-ethical. [P. XIII]

In a deeply Un-ethical and passionately Unmoral, compassionate way, Gyn/ Ecology wends its way through and Webs itself across vast expanses of thought, the spatial and temporal dimensions of which are familiar to us as cohabitants of the dimension. Gyn/Ecology is an experience of recognition.

Like a spider's web, Gyn/Ecology has qualities that are both aerial and earthy, deadly for enemies and vital for inhabitants. Like a spider's web, its qualities encompass both location, as home, as connectedness, as creation; and locomotion, as change, movement, spanning; both vertical and horizontal. And like a spider's web, it has an integrity, a geometry that cannot be unraveled without destroying its meaning. Approaching Gyn/Ecology, then, in writing, I trace threads in fact so deeply intertwined that they have annealed to each other like the sticky silk of a real web.

Methodicide and Context

In Beyond God the Father, Mary* spoke of the need for methodicide – killing the gods of method in academia which have determined the shape and focus of knowledge. Gyn/Ecology commits methodicide at many levels; as Mary says in the introduction: “This book is a declaration that it is time to stop putting answers before the Questions” (p. xv).

Fundamentally, her method for committing methodicide is the specification of context, of social and psychological realms out of which “knowledge” arises, knowledge which comes legitimated and delivered with the stamp of approval of patriarchal scholarship.

The clarity and intensity with which she specifices the context of patriarchal knowledge expands and transcends the term “sociology of knowledge”. Loosely defined, the sociology of knowledge is the description of social conditions which give rise to theory and to everyday knowledge. But the methods or foci of these writers have never extended beyond the boundaries of the patriarchal paradigm, and thus never really broken out of the "sacred canopy" of assumptions they thought they were challenging . Gyn/Ecology, by specifying more broadly and deeply than any scholarship to date, the background, origins, and assumptions of patriarchal scholarship, creates for the first time a feminist sociology of knowledge.

Mary's focus is on patriarchal scholarly legitimation of atrocities, particularly against women and including the Nazi-authored Holocaust of the Jews. Looking at the facts, historically past and present, of, foot-binding, suttee (the Hindu practice of killing widows after the husband's death), infibulation/female circumcision, the Witch-burnings, and American gynecology (both body-gynecology and therapy, which she calls “mind-gynecology”), and of the Nazi death camps, she illuminates seven common steps in “sado-ritual”, which have all ended in ritual legitimation b'y "objective" male scholarship:

1) obsession with purity;
2) erasure of responsibility for the atrocities;
3) tendency to catch on and spread, since they "appeal to imaginations conditioned by the omnipresent ideology of male domination";
4) the use of women as token torturers;
5) compulsive orderliness, obsessive repetitiveness, fixation upon minute details which divert attention from the horror;
6) normalization/normatizing as a consequence of conditioning through the ritual atrocities; and
7) the scholarly legitimation.

As Mary herself states, doing the kind of scholarship we need requires that we become boundary-dwellers: we must both understand the “masters”, seeing commonalities in their self-proclaimed “objectivity”, and go beyond them. In Beyond God the Father, Mary turned this method on anti-feminist criticisms; there, she talked about common dimensions of reactions to feminism (“resistances to consciousness”), and went beyond to envision new methods of be-ing with each other as feminists.

The naming of our own methods as feminist scholars is vital because it involves understanding our very ways of thinking, strengthening and communicating the ways we have developed for unraveling the deceptive models presented as “reality” by patriarchy. Much of the time this unraveling is almost instinctive, sublingual, psychic; Mary talks at one point about “books almost jumping off the shelf” in her process of preparing to write. The more we understand and can communicate about the processes by which we do our own scholarship, the more we will avoid having to unravel our own new creations… we will be creating, writing, researching on a totally different methodological basis . Also, the better we understand our methods, the more centered and strong we will be in the face of attempts to delegitimize* our scholarship (what feminist scholar has not frequently questioned her own sanity and intelligence-especially those of us physically located within academia). As Mary says:

Since it seeks out the threads of connectedness within artificially separated/segmented reality, striving “to put the severed parts together”, specious specialists will decry its “negativity” and “failure to present the whole picture”. (p. xiii-xiv)

Seeking out "the threads of connectedness" involves what Mary calls "journeying into the Background," that is, looking in a new way at our everyday reality:

I have coined the term metapatriarchal to describe the journey, because the prefix meta has multiple meanings. It incorporates the idea of “postpatriarchal”, for it means occurring later. It puts patriarchy in the past without denying that its walls/ruins and demons are still around. Since meta also means “situated behind”, it suggests that the direction of the journey is into the Background. (p. 7)

Describing the “positive paranoia” of feminism, she names part of our method of survival/scholarship “pattern discovery”:

Spinster-Spooking is both cognitive and tactical. Cognitively, it means pattern-detecting. It means understanding the time-warps through which women are divided from each other – since each woman comes to consciousness through the unique events of her own history. (p. 318)

Violence and Context

Gyn/Ecology, as an example of this pattern-detecting, shows that radical feminist method is a matter of looking again, of de-anesthetizing our numbed and battered senses, of dishabituating ourselves from patriarchal monotony in order to see their underlying strategies for gynocide:

We are finding ways of “breaking set” – of focusing upon different patterns of meaning than those explicitly expressed and accepted by the cognitive majority…. physically confined in oppressive set-ups, we can concentrate on implicit patterns in styles of communication, such as clothing, postures, gestures, eye-contact, speech intonation, choice of vocabulary, use of “humor”, facial expressions, and – perhaps most importantly – silences. (p. 341)

After I read Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating in 1974, I walked around in a stunned state (or what I would now call an unStunned state!), muttering to everyone I knew that we live in Dachau, in Auschwitz-how can people not see the emergency of this time, how can we be blind to the gynocide? As I began to meet others who understood the emergency and its nature, my horror did not lessen, but my panic about my sanity did. It is one thing to be interned in a death camp, and to deal with that daily reality – rape, death, batterings, mutilations, ridicule, the denial of one's being – and another to live among interned others who believe that nothing is wrong. After seeing thousands of killings, woundings, mutilations on TV, it is hard not to become inured to the violence, difficult not to normalize it. My definition of violence has come to include this normalizing, the anesthetization to violence.

Deepening the work of feminist scholars such as Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich (and her own earlier work), Mary pierces through the last remnants of normalizing of violence against women.

This is an extremist book, written in a situation of extremity, written on the edge of a culture that is killing itself and all of sentient life. (p. 17)

In writing about atrocities, one runs a double-edged risk: that the information will either anesthetize, through the sheer numbing horror of the facts, by repetition; or that the information will be aestheticized, that is, be presented so “artistically” that one actually forgets that one is reading about/looking at human misery . What skill does it take to present page after page of this material without either anesthetizing or aestheticizing? The language, and the method, from which the book comes must pierce through itself, continuously, to resonate with some other place in us than the worn perceptual structures that echo only hopelessness and despair. It must be written with a double-edged ax – presenting hope without erasing horror. We must dwell in another frame of reference without ceasing to live here. This is precisely what Mary does, clearly presenting and performing the choice against any level of consent to violence (what she calls “surviving”) and for a profound healing/creation – the spinning forth of our own truths (surviving):

Spinsters are also Survivors. We must survive, not merely in the sense of “living on”, but in the sense of living beyond. Surviving (from the Latin super plus vivere) I take to mean living above, through, around the obstacles thrown in our paths. This is hardly the dead “living on” of possessed tokens. The process of Survivors is meta-living, being. (pp. 8-9)

Survival, then, grows out of a simultaneous awareness of the details of normalized violence, and the pattern/context which makes the perpetuation of the details possible, thinkable.

… when the whole is hypocrisy, the parts may not initially appear untrue. To put it another way, when everything is bizarre, nothing seems bizarre. (p. 17)

The effect, in reading Gyn/Ecology, is to again and again see new sets of “Emperor's new clothes” – there's nothing there but the invisible beliefs and deception that create the social fabric of patriarchy.

What links the Emperor's-new-clothes phenomenon with violence? That is, under what conditions do the consequences of these beliefs in “nothing” lead to violence systematically directed against women? I believe that the answer has to do with the manipulation of context, with belief systems which are covert and which allow bits and pieces of “rationale” to be taken out of context and then covertly placed in another context by those in power. Pointing out, for instance, that many psychoanalytic studies were done on the prisoners in the Nazi death camps, Mary notes that most of the psychoanalysts maintained that the prisoners “regressed” to “infantile behavior”. This analysis ignores the physical and material coercion that created the “regression”.

The restoration of context to violence is a major task for all feminists: naming names, seeing social patterns, piercing through the pseudo-rationales of patriarchal reversals (for example, the claims about “reverse discrimination”, which ignore historical and social patterns).

An important part of the way that this de-contexting is perpetrated is the reversal of saying that we as feminists see “men as the enemy”:

This is a subtly deceptive reversal, implying that women are the initiators of enmity, blaming the victims for The War. Its deceptive power is derived from the fact that the Fury in every woman does fight back against males and male institutions that target her as The Enemy. The point is that she did not create The War, but rather finds herself in a set-up in which fighting is necessary for Surviving. (pp. 364-65)

or that we are “intolerant” and those giving silent consent to gynocide are liberal-minded:

This attitude of "different strokes for different folks," while appearing to support originality, is in fact often repressive. The tyranny of tolerance is often the source of silencing/erasure of strong-minded Hags – who are labeled “intolerant”, “extreme”, and “narrow”. However, if we look at Merriam-Webster's first definition of tolerance, we find an interesting clue for an analysis of genuinely gynocentric respect for difference. Tolerance… is defined as “capacity to endure pain or hardship….” The variety which Crones respect in each other has as its basic precondition and common thread the endurance/fortitude/stamina needed for persevering on the Journey. (p. 381)

Of all the reversals perpetrated by patriarchy, the one that is most bitter for me is the naming of our Journeying as lack of compassion, as coldness, “hardlining”. The constant urgings to be tolerant and to “open up our hearts” are such perversions of the idea of love that sometimes it seems like any language for compassion, for loving has been rendered obscene. I know that what we are about as feminist Journeyers is deeply loving precisely because there is so much (violence/obscenity) that we refuse to tolerate. I think of these lines from Adrienne Rich's “Natural Resources”: “But gentleness is active/gentleness swabs the crusted stump/invents more merciful instruments/to touch the wound beyond the wound/does not faint with disgust” .
There is no way to be gentle without comprehending the dimensions of the atrocities, and there is no way to survive without this comprehension. As an assertion of active, courageous gentleness, Gyn/Ecology points the way toward a new kind of survival. Surviving, in this sense, also means naming the context, the source of all forms of oppression. For example, of the Nazi holocaust, and of crimes against humanity in general, Mary says:

The Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany was a reality of indescribable horror. Precisely for this reason we should not settle for an analysis which fails to go to the roots of the evil of genocide. The deepest meanings of the banality of evil are lost in the kind of re-search which shrinks/localizes perspectives on oppression so that they can be contained strictly within ethnic and “religious group” dimensions…. The paradigm and context for genocide is trite, everyday, banalized gynocide. (p. 311-12)

The discussion of “ethnic and religious” “customs” above refers to the fact that many “scholars” have overlooked the pain and torture in practices indigenous to culture other than their own in the name of “cross-cultural” relativism. In their desire not to impose the standards of one culture on another (or perhaps their inability to see women as human), they have often named practices like African genital mutilation of women as religious “beliefs and customs”. Mary renames this refusal to see as sexism, racism, and as an active participation in the atrocity itself. She also brings this analysis to bear on American “customs”: “American women, like their African sisters, are also lulled into pain-full captivity by the prevailing beliefs and ‘customs’” (p. 261). Gyn/Ecology cuts cleanly through liberal mushiness to make the strongest possible statement about crimes against women: moral relativism has no place in the face of torture. No one nowadays would call the Nazi persecutions a “custom” based on “religious beliefs”, yet, when similar things happen to women, they are often ignored, by social scientists and other scholars. Silence about gynocide is violent – and Mary places the responsibility for this silence, this collaboration, fully with the “scientists” who have failed to name names in the course of their studies.


The courage to be and to speak, in the au of the holy ghosts of gynecology, is, in the final analysis, the Courage to Blaspheme. (p. 264)

Some of the most delightful blaspheming in Gyn/Ecology occurred for me in the section on therapy, or “mind-gynecology”. Mary's critique of psychotherapy expands some of the earlier feminist critiques of therapy, and some of the criticisms of orthodox therapy made by the anti-psychiatry movement (those of the Radical Therapy group, for example). But Mary goes one step farther by bringing her criticisms to bear upon all forms of therapy which come to replace originality and Amazonian creativity with categories and formulae:

Like religion, it (therapy) tends to replace transcendence, assuming/consuming all process, draining creative energy, eliminating Originality, mislabeling leaps of imagination, shielding the Self against Self-strengthening Aloneness. The Self becomes a spectator of her own frozen, caricatured history. She is filed away, misfiled, in file-cabinets filled with inaccurate categories. Thus filed, she joins the Processions of those who choose downward mobility of mind and imagination. (p. 283)

She questions the structure of therapy:

I suggest that the god of therapy is therapy itself. Moreover, as in the case of all religions, there is a fixation upon the act of worship itself, which tends to function as a shelter against anomie, against meaninglessness. For this reason, any criticism of therapy threatens/terrorizes the therapeutized. (p. 281)

and she calls into question its tautological nature, the way it has names and labels for all experience:

One who strives for Gyn/Ecological vision may be accused of “not dealing with” therapeutic problems (just as Lesbians/Feminists generally are accused of “not dealing with” men). Yet to satisfy the accusers' often insatiable need to "deal with" this issue would require falling into the very therapeutic trappings/trap which Gyn/Ecology transcends. (p. 282)
Mary states that Gyn/Ecological Journeying is not feminist therapy, but “rather is itself an entirely Other Way” (p. 282).

Her critique does not exclude counseling in extreme situations, although I get the feeling that she would definitely prefer that even crises be handled by a circle of sister-Voyagers rather than by “professionals”:

I am not saying that genuinely woman-identified counseling cannot and does not take place…. My criticism concerns therapy as a way of life, as an institutionalized system of creating and perpetuating false needs, of masking and maintaining depression, of focusing/draining women's energy through fixation upon periodic psychological “fixes”. … It concerns the woman-crippling triumph of the therapeutic over transcendence. (p. 280-81)

I find Mary's description of the cognitive processes associated with “therapy-as-lifestyle” fascinating. I'm currently a graduate student in a program affiliated with Langley Proter Institute at the University of California, one of the major training centers for psychotherapists in California. I'm not studying to be a therapist, but I have had more than enough opportunity to study my fellow and sister students who are. The descriptions in Gyn/Ecology of the patient's process of “indoctrination” into therapy are also good descriptions, mirror-imaged, of the socialization process for student therapists and psychology students:

Perpetually pushed into this revised past, the patient patiently re-learns her history…. The patient learns to fixate upon herself as an object, to objectify and label happenings in her process until process is re-processed into processions of thoroughly impersonal, explainable events. She becomes the therapeutic watcher [p.94] of her reinterpreted Self…. Her sense of transcendence/wildness/adventure is tamed…. To the extent that therapy mutes the call of the wild Self to transcendence, she fixates more and more upon the observation of details. If totally “cured” she is “terminated”. Otherwise, she is maintained in her state of depression”. (p. 285)

In light of this critique, I find it striking that most therapists in training are themselves required to undergo psychoanalysis, or some sort of psychotherapy. Many of the classes which I had to take as a psychology major were “encounter group” models-looking back, I wonder if the hidden agenda was to enclose us in the therapeutic language/lifestyle as Mary describes it.
Besides the process of fixating on details, and learning to classify every activity according to the theoretical model chosen by the instructor or therapist, another, more subtle process operates to create therapy as reality: the conversion of everything into a homogeneous symbol system . I howled at many things in Gyn/Ecology, but have been chuckling for weeks over the following passage which describes this conversion so succinctly:

Symptomatic of such pseudo-feminist downward mobility is the Soap Opera Syndrome, whose one basic Program can be entitled, “How to Deal with Relationships”. Like the heroines of the 1940s radio soap operas and 1970s television soap operas, the therapeutized actress deals with her programmed problems before an audience of dealers. Like the radio and television heroines, she rehearses but does not create the script. She may tryout for different roles, since everything can be coopted by therapy. Thus writing is therapeutic, swimming is therapeutic, painting is therapeutic, demonstrating is therapeutic. The script-follower forgets that writing is writing, swimming is swimming, painting is painting, demonstrating is demonstrating. (p. 283)

Reading this passage, I was reminded of my hilarity on hearing two students of Freudian psychology earnestly debating about dream symbols: one held that a pencil in a dream was always a penis symbol, and the other (a reformist, I took it) said that no, a pencil in a dream can really just be a pencil . This incident from withinside the therapy paradigm is illustrative of Mary's point about the stifling of growth and transcendence. When there is no such thing as common sense, when every action is “interpreted”, life ceases to have freshness, serendipity:

Instead of creating, she deals and deals, struggles and struggles, relates and relates. She finds that her problems are endless, having the infinity of a closed circle. Everything becomes a problem. The situation of being Feminist and/or Lesbian adds to the problems but does not break the circle. Only Journeying breaks the circle. In Journeying/process, therapy is not the priority. (p. 283)


Mary exposes patriarchal myth as the act of heuristic naming. The repetition of models (both what patriarchal scholars have seen as myths, archetypes, legends, and everyday “myths”, repetitions, and stereotypes) is what we as feminists refuse. In Beyond God the Father, Mary envisioned “a world without models” . This was not, as she went on to point out in her introduction to The Church and the Second Sex, an ahistorical world; she affirmed there the necessity for continuously re-understanding our own lives and the lives of foresisters in light of history, affirming their/our contributions and elaborating/revising mistakes. In Gyn/Ecology, she contrasts the codes of the fathers, or the sterile models of patriarchy, with “more ancient, more translucent myth from gynocentric civilization” (p. 44). The translucent myth here is conjoined with transcendence, with Wildness:

For what women who have the courage to name our Selves can do is precisely to act on our own initiative, and this is profoundly mythic…. When I speak of gynocentric myth and feminist myth-making I do not refer to tales of reified gods and/or goddesses but to stories arising from the experiences of Crones – stories which convey primary and archetypal messages about our own Prehistory and about Female-identified power. (p. 47 and 47n)

The crucial difference between patriarchal and feminist myth is thus the difference between organic and imposed; between that which arises from and is continuously subject to the experience of the subject; and the pre-formed, other-authored directives that resonate only with gendered, nonfeminist imaginations. Of patriarchal myth, Mary says:

On a level that passes as “sophisticated”, scholars from various fields generally agree on certain components of what they perceive to be myth. Myths are said to be stories that express intuitive insights and relate the activities of gods. The mythical figures are symbols. These, it is said, open up depths of reality otherwise closed to “us”. It is not usually suggested that they close off depths of reality which would otherwise be open to us. (p. 44)

In contrast, feminist myth opens, unfolds.

Spinning, Spooking, Sparking: Zen and the Science of Radical Feminism

The last part of Gyn/Ecology focuses on the breaking-through/celebrating of Hags, Harpies, Crones, Spinsters, and Searchers (delightful new names for the overburdened “Lesbian feminist” designation). The celebration/breaking-through incorporates a threefold process Mary calls spooking, sparking, and spinning the exorcism of old and destructive ways of being and thinking; the interpersonal and transpersonal sparking and joining of minds and bodies of Hags, Harpies, and Crones; and the spinning-out of tapestries of creativity, in connection with each other and all of life.

In creating her web of language around the ideas of spinning, sparking, and spooking, Mary uses words that have had profound meaning for me in my life, but which I have often felt embarrassed to talk about in a “political” environment: hope, innocence, courage, gentleness, compassion, sacredness. Gyn/Ecology frees up some of the coopted language and silences associated with these ideals, gives them new strength.

Spinning is creating an environment of increasing innocence. Innocence does not consist in simply “not harming”.This is the fallacy of ideologies of nonviolence. Powerful innocence is seeking and naming the deep mysteries of interconnectedness. It is not mere helping, defending, healing, or “preventive medicine”. It must be nothing less than successive acts of transcendence and Gyn/Ecological creation. In this creation, the beginning is not “the Word”.The beginning is hearing. Hags hear forth new words and new patterns of relating. Such hearing forth is behind, before, and after the phallocratic “creation”.(p. 413-14)

The term profane is derived from the Latin pro (before) and fanum (temple). Feminist profanity is the wild realm of the sacred as it was/is before being caged into the temple of Father Time. It is free time/space. (p. 48)

Gyn/Ecology refuses all dichotomies of anger and gentleness, innocence and knowledge. It will be a useful tool for asking some of the basic questions about life's meanings and values that we need desperately to ask of each other and ourSelves. It has helped me to ask some of these questions in non-cliched, fresh ways.

Because patriarchal language is dichotomized, and because we still must use it for some forms of communication, it is necessary to almost turn it on itself in order to burst its confines. Mary does this repeatedly, employing paradox, oxymoron, and reversing the reversals to explode and spin:

Journeying to the Center is undoing the knot, not cutting the knot. To try to cut the knot is merely to take a misleading short-cut. It is to remain fixated in the foreground, the place of the patriarchal War State. (p. 406)

In the beginning was not the word. In the beginning is the hearing. Spinsters spin deeper into the listening deep. We can spin only what we hear, because we hear, and as well as we hear. We can weave and unweave, knot and unknot, only because we hear, what we hear, and as well as we hear. Spinning is celebration/ cerebration. Spinsters Spin all ways, always. Gyn/Ecology is Un-Creation; Gyn/ Ecology is Creation. (p. 424)

This passage, which ends the book, brings one face to face with the very context of one’s own s/Self. I felt my mind whirl on her own heels as I read this, spinning from me even as I closed the book. Our knotting/unknotting as Lesbian feminists, Hags, Harpies, and Crones, is realming, worlding – the placing of self in conjunction with time and space:

As each friend moves more deeply into her own Background she becomes both her earlier and her present Self. At times this re-membered integrity makes her appear Strange to her friends, and since the latter are also re-membering, the encounters of these older/younger Selves can be multiply Strange. (p. 382)

For the next many years, as we encounter the Strange, beautiful, spun unfolding of ourselves and each other, Gyn/Ecology will be a vital part of the poetry from which we learn, and to which we give, our methods. Without formulae, without rhetoric, Mary gives exquisite, joyful voice to many of the realms through which we as Voyagers have passed, and creates new others in the voicing. And in the Hearing of this book are the Questions which weave and compel us:

… our rough Voyage, which has proved – for those who have persisted – strange, difficult, unpredictable, terrifying, enraging, energizing, transforming, encouraging. For those who have persisted there is at least one certainty and perhaps only one: Once we have understood this much, there is no turning back. (p. 368)

How to read this book

How do you read a spider's web? It took me several weeks. I picked it up, and put it down after a few pages. Sometimes I couldn't continue reading because my hands were shaking with rage. One afternoon, sitting in Golden Gate Park, I read the part in Chapter Nine about how patriarchs have reversed the meaning of tolerance, and called feminists intolerant. I burst into tears, and wept out my outrage, pain, and horror at remembering how our most idealistic actions are twisted into mismeanings.
Another sense in which Gyn/Ecology was difficult to read is that the language Mary uses is thick, convoluted at times, filled with word games and puns, coining new words and phrases. When I began the book, I had a great deal o f resistance to these. I would throw the book down and declare it to be so much rhetoric – until several hours or days later, then I found the “word games” coming back to me in some other context, illuminating some aspect of my daily life; working, almost like yeast, on other levels than those at which I am used to reading.
I have begun to recognize this resistance on my part as a resistance to change, as a reflection of my habits of mind and reading that are linear, which make me almost prefer to plod through familiar and unchallenging territory than to think/ read in new ways (whatever it is that makes us like to read mystery stories or watch TV or eat junk food, I think it's the same). I had the same reSistance/reaction to Bertha Harris’ Lover, to Monique Wittig's Lesbian Body. It almost hurt to read them, like using a cramped leg muscle for the first time-ultimately, it's wonderful, freeing, moving… but hard to get used to at first, at least for me.

Introduction: Notes for a Magazine

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 10)

“‘It's the special quality of age that it alone has available to it, to its brain, its recall, the majority of the person's life. Only in age can one brain be all ages. Because a woman in the middle can look forward and backward, she will naturally see that youth is to anticipate, to expect, and age is to possess, to claim, to have available.’
‘A decade in the memory is worth two in the hope,’ Su said.
‘Because the life of the mind is more intense, more complete than the life of the body everyday and because the novelist creates by rounding out, filling in, and rearranging everyday, the old mind is the complete novelist, or the completed rounded-out fllled-in novelist is the old mind, with every past age and day at its mindtip. The truly free is she who can be old at any age. Now you know, Su, that it's not necessary to be old to think old. It has been said that geniuses are forever old. And it is true, you 're only as old as you feel. Or as you look.’”
-June Arnold, in Sister Gin

“… experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration.”
– Thomas Hardy, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles

“To those of you who would seek to be young once again-no. You do not know that which you would have, you choose only to remember the smiles, the young body, the energy perhaps… remember also the pain. the real, real, real anguish of not knowing the unsureness the limbo the limbo… very, very rarely are young people accepted as whole people.
I am dead dead. oh my god, all there is, is loneliness.”
– from my journal, age 14

The first crack in the carapace of “the world” – the rural New England town where I spent my first seventeen years – was the disjuncture between what I was told about my age and my inner experience. I wanted to read serious books, explore my spirituality, and most of all find other people like me to talk to and experience with: all of these invoked the ridicule and censure of the adults around me, or a kind of bemusement and tolerance at my “precosity”. As D. B. Turner and Robin Linden write in this issue, I was not alone in my experience. Between 10 and 17, I was in an agony of waiting, of feeling tortured, invisible, held in place by something which had no relationship to me. It became very important to me during this time that I remember later what it was like – the nostalgic, sweetly-colored descriptions I read of youth seemed like sadistic burlesque. As the quote above from my journal shows, I often had to fight even to feel alive.

But once I began to know that I was not too young to feel and think, other questions came easier. As the experience of loving women is a spring-board into understanding patriarchal lies and deception, seeing the lies about age helped me understand other coercive social fictions.

The first person I found to talk to, who saw me as a peer and shared her life and friendship with me openly, was a woman ten years older than I – I was fifteen. She was a teacher, someone with freedom and a job, thus power in the world that I could hardly imagine. In our loving, my relationship to age was indelibly altered – I became a being in my own right, with the power to attract, speak, move, act and make choices – because she had chosen to see me as myself, she helped open the possibility of a world in which 1 could question ageist assumptions.

If someone had said the word “Lesbian” to me then I would have just looked at them blankly – I literally didn't know the meaning of the word. As I think is true of many girls growing up in isolation, I was incredibly ignorant of even the biological facts of what it meant to be a sexual female being. Though I would get physically aroused with Mary, I named the warmth and wetness I felt love. It was only later, when I learned to distinguish sexual feelings from love, that I realized how deeply disenfranchised from sexual knowledge I had been.

I was born with six grandmothers (four great and two regular), and knew all of them. In our extended family, all of these women were a daily part of my life as a child and teenager, and my two grandmothers are still. At a time when I felt stranded and betrayed by the world's perceptions of my age, I was enveloped in a positive web of old women – Crones – who passed along their wisdom and love to me, and never tried to restrict me. I learned the old skills from them: sewing, planting, telling the weather. One was a poet who composed poems for family gatherings. There was always a sense of rightness for me about sitting with the old women and listening to stories of the past. Their lives were real to me: their travels, girlhoods, loves. I took the stories in as parts of myself; heritage. I believe that I learned from them the tricks of suspending time, to experience the past simultaneously with the future.

One of my grandmothers has spent the past thirty-five years as the close friend and companion of another “widow” (read: free woman). Several years ago, visiting the two of them down on Cape Cod with a lover, my grandmother's friend Meredith pulled me over and whispered to me, “I see that you've found a special friend. That's good, very good. Rachel and I have been together for thirty years, and we've never even had a fight”. Lunch was a treat that day – crabmeat salad on paper plates – and they took us to “their” places, beaches they always went to when alone and free of the rest of the family. Watching the two of them, rotund, short, seventy-five years old, in polyester pantsuits, I felt ashamed of my sometimes thoughtless politics that would insist on my/ our language for woman-identified relationships. In wondering silently about their “Lesbianism”, I had often been unable to hear forth my grandmother's fires of female friendship, had held myself back from all that richness. Later, when I read Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's article on female friendships in the nineteenth century, I came to understand and appreciate the Victorian, same-sex world of meanings that Rachel and Meredith shared. When I imposed my own 1960's and 70's sensibilities upon them, it was a mistranslation that might have cost me my respect for and understanding of them.

The sparks for this issue began with a series of remarkable conversations about age and ageism over a period of two years with two friends, Baba and Risa. Risa came out ten years ago at the age of twelve. The Lesbian world of New York City was hostile and degrading to young Lesbians. At twenty-two, [p.6] she is still with her lover of seven years, and we have shared deep understandings about the dehumanizing of young people, both within and without the Lesbian world. That Risa could not go to a bar, the main place to meet other Lesbians at that time, for the first nine years of her activism in the Lesbian feminist movement, fills me with rage and shame. We have not chosen, for the most part, as a movement, to meet whenever possible in places accessible to young women.

Baba is almost sixty now, and we have together explored many meanings of time and age. Her house was the meeting place for a “consciousness raising” group of sorts, a weekly discussion group about consciousness, language, time, and Lesbian feminism. From that group, which included Myra Love and Alice Molloy, we developed a language for our mutual distance from the normal concepts of “age”. We fought, reached, loved and were both brave and tentative in creating an agenerational friendship. I moved with her from denying her age (you're not old, look at how young you think), to being awed or distanced by her age (how much experience you have, how little we have to talk about), to envying her age (everyone listens to you, you have the force of age-authority, you've been through this already), to sharing her anger about ageism towards elder women, and accepting her age and mine as wonderfully changing, central parts of us, involving me because it is of us, because wherever two women touch, all of our complexities are relevant.

This issue encompasses many of our conversations. We talked many times of the need for images of strong Lesbian/feminist women in their nineties and eighties, strong seers who can scry for us a future, a council of heretics who can stand on the edge of multiple experience, looking forward and backward, to help us crack open our frozen present-centered sight. If we have no idea of boundary-dwelling at ninety, then we really have no idea about it now, because our lives will have an end-point, a telos, a linear stopping-place. Whenever we measure our time linearly, we place a screen between ourselves and our real experience. As Audre Lorde explores in her essay on cancer, even the experience of disease that can come with aging need not become that screen, either: as long as we experience our lives, we are whole. Audre's article has helped free me from the fear of my body's age and my fear of disease, restoring me to vision.

The word for “age” is the word for “always” in Old English; “old” derives from the Latin for “to nourish, to grow high and deep”. This etymology has become a patriarchal mockery for many elders, particularly in the United States, and particularly for old women. It is no accident that mostly women are in nursing homes, and that nursing homes are what they are.

The semantic derogation of elders is deeply connected with the semantic derogation of women. “The elderly” (or: senior citizens, the aged, old folks, the aging) is a humanistic term (both men and women) which renders invisible old women somewhat like the phrase “Blacks and women” renders Black women invisible. When we talk about “the problems of the elderly”, we are talking about a form of oppression of women. As Mary Daly says in Gyn/Ecology: the paradigm for genocide is trite, everyday gynocide. I echo her insight for what amounts to the psychic/physical genocide of elders in this society. As Marcia Black and Gayle Pearson elucidate in their writings here, it is the murder [p.7] and dismemberment of the Crone aspect of the Goddess that forms the mythic basis for the genocide of old people.

The process of editing this issue has been an extraordinary one for me: I feel oldered, enriched by it. The women whose work appears here have taught me to prefer the chaotic reality of my life to the image – to experience, as Myra Love names it, lived intensities, real age. I feel restored to my own age by the example and courage of the women of all ages whose lives and perceptions, freed from static images, appear here. I have become all of my ages more fully.

The articles, poems, photographs and graphics in this issue explore many strands of aging, age, and time. Visions of new kinds of oldness, love of the old, love of the process of becoming old, claiming the pride and wisdom of age. The bitters of age, and of youth; the way that patriarchy has fragmented our experience into a monotonously broken nonflow; the concentration camps that are nursing homes; the way we have been separated from each other, stranded in our respective ages. The process of “intergenerational” sparking between Lesbians: respecting the special experience with which each era imbues us, and wanting that to be a basis for sharing and for individuation – moving from intergenerational to transgenerational to freely agenerational anarchy, where we designate what is relevant, where we leap times together, explode the continuity of history by refusing to see ourselves in terms of a “life cycle”, and moving instead into a life layering, a “succession of brief, amazing movements/each one making possible the next”.

It was impossible to print all the words of all the women who sent in work for this issue. I feel that the work that does appear is a distillate of a collective effort of consciousness. This issue would have been impossible without Robin Ruth Linden and Lynda Koolish, who have helped with every phase of it, intelligently, patiently, and with vision. Baba Copper, Myra Love, Deborah Wolf, Carol Jean Wisnieski, Judith Musick, Barbara DuBois and Sarah Hoagland have all shared their insights about age with me. June Arnold's Sister Gin (Daughters, 1975) and Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet (Pocket Books, 1977) were vital sources. And this editing experience has given me an even deeper respect for the work of Catherine and Harriet. I marvel at how they manage to maintain their loving vision in the midst of all these bizillions of details! They have been, as always, wonderfully trusting and encouraging.

My dreams often inform me about how I am changing and growing. The following two dreams helped me further the process of erasing ageist images, replacing them with real experience, and gave me mind-poems for the process of becoming restored to mySelf while editing this issue:

Some people in a fancy part of Boston are renting an apartment. This is a very desirable apartment – rent incredibly low, beautiful location, charming. It also has some other mysterious appeal that's not clear to me. In order to judge the worth of competitors for the apartment – and there are many – the owners/renters decide to have a race. You have to run from their “office” to the apartment, open the door, have a short interview with the current tenant, and return. The one to return soonest gets the apartment. The realtors tell me, “Well, the young lady that lives there now has really made it beautiful. Her name is Dolly. She's sort of the owner”. I go to where the race is, and then look down at my feet and realize that I can't possibly start running in the ridiculous shoes I'm wearing; they 're what my friend Sandra, a professor, calls ‘tenure shoes’, open, with low heels. I’ll just have to take them off and run barefoot. I see all the men around me with their running shoes and big muscles, also wanting to compete for this apartment. I can't see the women as clearly. We discuss routes there. Someone tries to find a shortcut, then gets lost. The next thing I know I'm in the apartment. It is hung with lovely, handmade, unfinished quilts. It is like a gallery of women's art. Indeed, I think, Dolly must have loved this place. Suddenly, though, it becomes clear to me both that I'm going to lose the race and I don't want the apartment, can't have it, isn't right. An old woman is sitting there near the quilts – I assume she's interviewing instead of Dolly – and I walk past her, not really even caring to be interviewed. I get out the door and something hits me (did she reach out her mind and tap me?) – she is Dolly. Not a “young lady”, but old. I walk back in and face her: “Dolly”. She turns her blind face to me and smiles. I know suddenly that I have passed the test. “They are making me get out of here. I'm 93. I want to keep making my quilts”. I touch her, run my hands over her smooth, soft, strong shoulders and arms. “Yes, I will take you from here”, I promise, not really knowing how, “we will go together. It's time to go. Well live together. You’ll finish your quilts”. As we walk out, we become the same person. I do not know exactly where we will go, but we will not be separated ever again.

I am to give a poetry reading with a friend of mine, a poet who is exactly twice as old as I. I somehow have forgotten that it is already the night of the reading, and I am frantically trying to find my way to the hall, late, as I remember that it's tonight. There is a terrible rainstorm outside, and I stumble in, wet, bedraggled. My friend is sitting in the hall, and I go and sit beside her. She helps me try and find some old copies of SW to read from, and comforts me. As we are sitting, she changes and becomes very old – her hair whitens and becomes very wild, her fingernails grow long and white. I am not even sure it's really still her until someone else in the room calls her name and she answers. Then we start to have a conversation about photography, softly, hurriedly, before the reading begins. She says to me, “I love photographs because each print is so individual, it's so chaotic, you never know really how it's going to turn out. So much goes into each print”. I look at her with love, laughing, half teasing, “Only you would prefer the chaos to the image”. She looks back at me, we have a moment of perfect understanding.

Susan Leigh Star

San Francisco, August 1979

Poem: who refuses to be history

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 10)


who refuses to be history
she wears her face she
not be
an ancestor
except for herself.

who refuses to be   elderly
she is up to the last
living moment
by day
she appears in her soft

by night, she's a witch.
the woman who refuses

to touch her
is dying smug

in her young
painted boots


I eat cat food
she snarls at me
stay away my
cane will hook you stay
away my
granny eyes will
rake you old will
tremble your



touch me.

oh grey oh white   could I know your hair
could billow could sheen could steel
bunch brush blow
oh soft
of under your eyes
  your wrists
pulling up gravity


she wears the ages like a claw necklace
conches whales
nest in her skin   the whorls of her face
speak ikons:

    break me bare
    upon the waters   like a skin
    upon the waters   like the day
    upon the waters

  -Susan Leigh Star

I want my accent back

(Originally printed in Sinister Wisdom 16)

Halloween, October 31, 1979

for Cindy, my sister, and for Cher’rie Moraga Lawrence, also my sister


it is cold in Rhode Island today.   Here San Francisco blooms blue
and gold/sunlight burns
it is the last day of the old year.   tonight
we share the Feast of the Dead   begin the silence the move   into dark
toward winter light.

I have been dressed in black   for days
I am finally getting ready to mourn
my difference from you.


it turned out so dry here, cindy.   beached
on a clay that slips with my own wetness   i deluded
in the movement   i moved
away   and away   and away.   queer
how the beach kept receding   queer
how there was never a way to hold
on to the changes
all around me
and never
a name that would make sense queer


my first class
way of being
had no accidents.   it never fit me before, so now that I know how to say
class   it don't fit no better.   and the word “token”, like a light bulb
peeling apart from its center   strips lonely white glare from lonely white
glare until
only a thin
sten wire   remains.

I can't lie to you.
we laughed together too many times; plotted
escape too trustingly   took too many baths   in the same
used water.   Seventeen years
we shared a room
though I never saw you   naked.
there is no escape.   I am wired to you like sound
putting on airs
is impossible


Radcliffe College, Class of 1976, magna cum laude.
Stanford University, graduate studies.
currently pursuing PhD at California.   Publications.

I never knew we had an accent.
My first week of college, sitting on the floor
with Andover and Exeter and Taft,
stoned, I said,
“nawh wida than a bon doah.”
Andover turns to me, be
mused:   “What
is a ‘bon doah’? A musical instrument ...?" I laugh nervously...casually –
“you know, the doa   of a bon.”   Andover laughs: a barn door. A good natured
hearty chuckle  the others join in   pahk the cah in havad yahd   the conversation

by 9:00 the next morning my accent disappeared.   except
when I talk too fast, or to you
my soft r's my dull t's my idears
are invisibIe   I clip
my speech

and when I have tried to imitate a New England accent
my tongue stumbles:   it comes out Southern or British. I have sat
in my room
nights   trying to get it back
face burning girl

help me goddam it help me get it right
talk to me.   talk to me.
talk to me.


get your nose out of that book.   get some fresh air.
what happens in those books is not the reality.   Just because you read
about it doesn't mean it's so.   Your father and I have been around
longer than you have, don't be so smart.

my nose is stuck in this book.   It seems to be some kind of
epoxy   I tug and tug there's blood on the pages I can't read the writing anymore
my whole face is flattened into white paper
print on me.


dyke my cousin Sally's a dyke   they locked her up in McClean's
where those Harvard doctors practice to learn to be mental doctors

day after day she slashed at her hands with knives
she lived with a woman before that
auntie Beulah says, she's lazy, wants a free ride gram went to see her anyway
my mother said, ‘don't you go
all the way to becoming a man with this women's lib stuff’ and i
never went
to see her because i had heard that she was jealous
i went to college
before they locked her up, I made several of my own
slashes with a kitchen knife   four
neat slices, and later, a long   jagged one.
I told the Harvard doctors
I got caught
in a machine.   They never
pressed it.
Later, I would dream that they had   and locked us up next door to each other
Sally and me
when I'm tense or angry now, my left hand still stings, turns red at the scar.

would we have held each other   stopped bleeding
would we wash our hands
o f love would we talk to each other


there's no back to go to.
backed up backed in backed down   backed around

I never belonged.

This amnesia of place is like a death.
thirst once you move away   it turns out
so different   so queer

the blending in had seemed easy, bleaching
my teeth my freckles the big black holes in my
nightmares that didn't keep up with the rest of me
but you look
just like them   talk
like them soften soften a working
girl femme white in whiteface will it cover the bad skin?

well ma I'll never be a gentleman and a scholar
when i saw that woman that stone butch i wanted to run to her and hide in her
no i said to my lover
she doesn't offend me   she don't.
my father cried at graduation.
i haven't gone all the way
sink or swim,   they said   the Harvard board of overseers is giving you this
opportunity your college board scores indicate   equality
last year they offered me a job making more than both my parents put together
she used to lock me out of the house so
get my
nose out of that book
fresh air
when I have a kid I'll never treat her like this, and we were never more
fierce, cindy, than vowing this, small fists curled blue eyes matched, locked
just let me go   just let me go   just let me go   just let me go

once you move away


once you move away


at least I can type.

or wait tables.
think you're too good for us here, now, huh sue?
when are you coming back this way? cindy.
i will be your maid of honor. don't do it oh don't don't please be different
you'll get caught   there


there is rach   in this place   we will talk   we will talk
there is danger in this place.
dear cher’rie you write of your own life, a brown girl   gone white gone
brown, brown:
“The danger lies in ranking the oppressions.   The danger
lies in failing to acknowledge
the specificity of the oppression
for years I have lived with the inexactness of oppression
among labels simple analyses
but I never knew I had an accent.
I want to say this so clearly:
it was annihilation I feared. There is nothing in the words
working class that tastes of this confusion   this clear Rhode Island winter
light this sister now hold me touch me I'm done with talking hold me

nothing in the words to break this clear


"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

“And the metaphorical lenses we choose are crucial, having the power to magnify, create better focus, and correct our vision.”
― Charlene Carruthers

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

“It’s revolutionary to connect with love”
— Tourmaline

"Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught."

― Leslie Feinberg

“The problem with the use of language of Revolution without praxis is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. “
— Leila Raven