Lesbian Politics and the Limits of Liberalism

Women’s economic dependence on men historically ensured that women married. Marriage was, and is still today, seen as aspiration for women and a way to access material wealth and secure basic sustenance. Though in the last half century due to the women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s, women’s ability to sustain themselves economically has greatly improved within the West. Regardless, marriage is still considered a key goal and important milestone for women. Ideology plays a role here, with romance and heterosexuality advertised to women as central to their happiness, and materially ‘the couple’ (what Alexandra Kollontai called the ‘bourgeois couple’) is still the most economically advantageous unit, with married couples still the most desirable property buyers for mortgage lenders, etc. That material basis exists in tandem with ideology to create a coercive social system. Family’s break out cold hard cash to pay for their daughters weddings daughters (in other parts of the world ‘a dowry’ is exchanged to secure the marital arrangement), with weddings pitched to women as the “happiest day of your life” since childhood. All of this contribute towards cultivating the heterosexual couple and family’s often support couples, married or unmarried, to live domestically (lending for deposits, mortgage support, etc.) i.e relatives invest in the physical space – the home – where a woman will sexually reproduce their family line for them. 

In the West heterosexuality is overall less institutionalised, so talk of romantic ‘love’ as a dream for every girl once older, and marriage as the end conclusion of ‘dating’ is vital. In the Global South heterosexuality is much more institutionalised with women bought and sold through dowrys between men (usually father and groom, though it can be a deal between the fathers of bride and groom), with the prospective bride negotiated on, her age and subsequent fertility taken into account (just as it  is here within the marriage market), alongside the status of whether she’s a virgin (is she has already been another man’s sexual property and is second-hand goods).

Therefore, we can plainly see that whilst lesbianism or heterosexuality are sexual preferences, they are also different kinds of social systems. The problem for our heterosexually organised society is that lesbianism is overwhelming the refusal to be a compliant unit of sexual reproduction. Lesbians do not contribute to reproducing society as heterosexual women do. Whilst a gay man may be despised and resented for rejecting his social role as husband to a wife and key benefactor of the family as head of a household, it is not men’s sexual capacity and domestic labour that society reproduces itself through within the familiar home; it’s women’s. It is not a gay man’s body that can produce a baby, it is women’s bodies that society requires to reproduce itself through. Women must be subordinated, domesticated, and controlled in order to secure the appropriate amount of female sexual appropriation and social reproduction to happen. The social relations that requires – male dominance and female servitude – is what we mean by gender being socially constructed. Those gendered relations sustain society through sexual and social reproduction via women’s reproductive capacity. Gender is therefore a hierarchy and oppressive for women, but not men. 

Lesbians are considered abominable because we so often defy our social gender role, overwhelmingly unlikely to ever become wives and mothers even in today’s modern world of reproductive technology. 

But due to the incursion of liberal ideology we now see more representations of lesbian couples marrying and raising children, entirely modelled on the heterosexual couple. It makes lesbian couples more acceptable because the patriarchal idea that women are designed to be mothers (as if it is a biological drive) is not challenged.

Women’s role in sexual and social reproduction as wives and mothers is the core venture, life goal, and identity offered to women. A woman is rarely considered a success unless she has been one or the other. It is still consensus that a woman cannot really find true happiness without marriage or motherhood. Most lesbian couples do not replicate the domesticity of the heterosexual household of raising children and one partner as main breadwinner, but as liberalism has seeped into gay politics, we do see more and more lesbian couples replicating those heterosexual ideals. 

What use to a male dominated capitalist society are lesbians? Bar the reproductive potential (having children) all women are assumed to have, lesbians are of little social value inside the private domestic sphere. Outside of it, lesbian sexuality is increasingly eroticised and objectified through pornography, our sexuality replicated and performed for the heterosexual male gaze. 

Lesbianism has to navigate all the complexities that anything socially disavowed faces. Unlike sex, which is immutable, lesbianism can be denied and repressed by an individual woman – mirroring its wider repression and denial by society. Society already coerces all women materially and ideologically to contour our sexualities to exist in service of men, so many lesbians do indeed stay closeted, with some only discovering their lesbianism later in life after marriage and children with a man. 

That might sound surprising to readers who believe we live in a fair and free society. Indeed, we in the Western world, the Global North consisting of West Europe and its successful colonial states of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, do live in a liberal society. But liberalism has limitations and contradictions inbuilt as part of the way it exists to sustain capitalism. Liberalism has a fluidity inherent to its condition that means institutions such as the family can absorb variations, such as same-sex families, that help perpetuate the family institutionally. Liberalism in many ways is a kind of ideological lubricant, adapting to dominant forms of power and reinventing itself to justify and secure its continued domination.

The idea there can be gay and lesbian families has maintained and modernised the family for the 21st century. Alternatives to sexual reproduction, such as collective feminist childrearing, pale in comparison in terms of viability once lesbianism is assimilated into the family structure. Lesbians no longer need to build new social forms outside the family if the family can include us ideologically, despite how lesbianism in practice goes against the grain of the heterosexual family, the foundational unit required for society to reproduce itself. The nuclear family status-quo can go on unchallenged by same-sex relationships if same-sex relationships simply replicate heterosexuality (same-sex couples tend to perform a weakened version of heterosexual marriage, with a lower birth rates, and a higher divorce rate). 

Whilst marital and property ownership rights have been achieved under law for lesbians, these are mere liberal achievements and demonstrate the political limitations of liberalism. Despite these accomplishments, lesbians are still marginalised (both within the newly formed and ill thought out LGBT acronym and wider heterosexual society) and today face cultural extinction.

Liberalism has an emphasis on individual rights and political equality, corroborated with an understanding that actions are permissible provided they do not conflict with the rights of others. For many, that is a deeply held belief system and a thin line between civility and barbarism. Yet, liberalism despite its aspirations for equality, by the very nature of its condition, facilities the likelihood of inequality. It is also the case that lesbian marriage and reproductive technologies have helped funnel lesbians into reproducing the nuclear family and diverting us away from any politically revolutionary activity.

The limitations of liberalism as a political philosophy has been subject to debate for over a century. Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question and his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (both 1844) encapsulate a very similar discussion that we have about lesbian rights today. Specifically, that despite the state legislating equal rights for a minority group (in this case lesbians, but for Marx’s essay Jews), that demographic still suffers marginalisation. Back in 1848 Marx was responding to Bruno Bauer who argued that Jewish people must give up their cultural and religious commitments to become primarily loyal to the German state and only then would they be considered equal citizens and benefit from full rights (this mirrors almost exactly the same situation Muslims today face in France). That conundrum, that despite advances in legal rights, lesbians and lesbianism, are regardless facing cultural genocide and oblivion. It is inbuilt into the very logic of our heterosexual misogynist society that we do. 

The institutions that fundamentally oppress women do not change under liberalism, whilst the family remains intact.

A liberal advocate might suggest that it is a flaw in institutional arrangements rather than justified through liberalism, that liberalism actually provides the opportunity of applying the rules of justice (as with domestic violence), but in reality there is no family re-organisation or intervention that would overturn its status as a key a site of women’s oppression. Partly women’s oppression under liberalism is difficult to address because liberalism so rigidly separates the public sphere from private life so the oppression of women can be hidden from political consideration (this false division spurred feminists to proclaim the ‘personal is political’ during the second wave). Liberal politics in fact expands the possibilities of women’s oppression through the laissez faire ‘anything goes’ core of liberalism, extending to prostitution and pornography. Both are justifiable within the liberalist framework as they involve freely contracting parties engaging in mutually beneficial trade, thus why should this not be permissible? 

From its 17th century conception, Liberalism was the brainchild of wealthy white men and it continues to favour the liberty of the male (with purchasing power) over the liberty of the female who sells her labour (or literally her body in the cases of surrogacy and prostitution). Liberalism cannot address oppression because choices are not made in a vacuum – the focus on freedom leaves no room for discussion of cultural or financial coercion. 

The reality of lesbian erasure remains because the material basis of society has not changed: the family, as an institution, is still central and revered, and the long march of capital remains strong as ever. Neoliberal measures since the 1980s have led to an increase in private property and decrease in social housing and state property, creating sky rocketing rents since the turn of the century. Neoliberal destruction has led to the closure of bars and bookshops as gentrification and property prices spiralled in all major Western cities. Lesbian spaces were by and large ‘bought out’ by wealthier competitors who saw an investment opportunity to turn a lesbian cafe into a maisonette or some other much more lucrative building use. The rule of the market has ensured the closure of lesbian space and increased overall economic precariousness for women. Economic scarcity is not the only threat to women cultivating a life without men, but economic independence itself is increasingly hard to secure, as seen in the increase of young adults living at home into their late twenties and thirties. Economic independence is a prerequisite for freedom from men, and thus a prerequisite for being able to live a lesbian life. A planned economy, therefore, is paramount to any real shot at women’s sexual freedom and the viability of lesbianism for the majority of women.

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