“Presence in Our Own Land:” Second Wave Feminism and the Lesbian Body Politic

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“Presence in Our Own Land:” Second Wave Feminism and the Lesbian Body Politic

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This dissertation reconstructs the political theorizing of lesbian feminists ranging from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. It argues, in contrast to the popular “wave narrative” of feminist theory, that theirs was a uniquely intersectional and coalitional politics; moreover, it suggests that the wave metaphor both covers over and forecloses many of the intersectional and coalitional insights that lesbian feminists developed during this period. Since the early 1990s, queer theorists have raised serious concerns about lesbian feminism, arguing that its central assumptions are essentialist, exclusionary, and homogenizing. In contrast to this commonplace reading of lesbian feminism, however, I argue that lesbian feminism was neither essentialist nor exclusionary; in fact, lesbian feminists promoted a political praxis grounded in confronting and repairing the harms of racism and inequality within their movement. I develop my argument in three parts. First, I show that not only is the widespread view of lesbian politics as reactionary and undemocratic largely inaccurate, but that queer theorists’ central argument – that queer theory is a more exemplary approach to intersectional politics – paradoxically erases and reduces the contributions of lesbians of color, even as it claims them as antecedents. Second, I reconstruct the diverse political claims made by lesbian feminists by turning to archives often overlooked by political theorists, such as the magazine Sinister Wisdom. I show that the practice of racial responsibility developed in the pages of Sinister Wisdom by lesbian feminists such as Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maria Lugones, Adrienne Rich, and Monique Wittig, among others, offers valuable insights for theorists grappling with how to imagine more radical and accountable coalitions. Finally, I argue that while the political challenges posed by lesbians have historically been considered less sophisticated than queer theories, the lesbian conception of accountability is a point of contact with contemporary theories of grounded responsibility that contest central concepts of political theory such as the social contract. I conclude by arguing that by challenging these central concepts and by advocating for a politics of grounded responsibility, lesbian feminism offers a promising path towards exceeding some of the intractable impasses of contemporary political theory.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2019. Major: Political Science. Advisor: Nancy Luxon. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 338 pages.

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Gambino, Elena. (2019). “Presence in Our Own Land:” Second Wave Feminism and the Lesbian Body Politic. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/209062.

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