Lesbian Rebellion and the Lavender Menace

The Lavender Menace, which later reformed as Radicalesbians, was a group of lesbian feminist activists. It was created as a response to famous feminist author Betty Friedan’s assertion that lesbians were a “lavender menace” and that they would undermine the women’s movement. Her statement led to the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in May 1970.1 The Lavender Menace group would not allow this exclusion to happen, and planned an act of direct lesbian activism – an infiltration of the Congress. The group and this event are interesting to look at from the perspective of lesbian dress history because it revolved around t-shirts: the lesbian body and the garments that clothed it were the base for the Lavender Menace’s activism. 

The Lavender Menace t-shirts were not all the same because they were all customised by hand by members of the group. The general look of the t-shirts, however, was an all-over pale purple with the words “LAVENDER MENACE” in stencil letters, printed in a darker purple. Karla Jay, who was a member of the group, wrote about the creation of the t-shirts in her book ‘Tales of the Lavender Menace’: 

Several Menaces hand-dyed T-shirts in a bathtub. They then silk-screened enough purple t-shirts with the words “Lavender Menace” for the entire group. No two shirts looked exactly alike; the color of each depended on how long it had been in the tub. All the shirts were the same size, however, since we could only afford one box.2

Figure 1: Lavender Menace t-shirt. 1970. The Lesbian Herstory Archive, New York City, USA. Posted on Instagram (@lesbianherstoryarchive) 1st May 2020. Web. 15th June 2020. 

The above picture is of one of the Menaces’ t-shirts, currently housed in the Lesbian Herstory Archive in New York City. That it has been customised by hand is evident – the words are printed slightly off-center and the colour of the lettering has bled. Their hand-customised qualities are, however, part of what made them so powerful. Part of the Lavender Menace’s activism was in the processes of making and crafting the t-shirts before they were even worn at all, because it represented the time and energy that they were willing to put into their lesbian activism. This energy was well used; the t-shirts had their intended effect. The Second Congress to Unite Women was successfully infiltrated by the lesbians’ agenda. 

Figure 2: Judy Reif, Fran Winant and Martha Shelley, Members of the Lavender Menace, at the Second Congress to Unite Women, 1st May 1970. Photograph by Diana Davies, Courtesy of New York Public Library. Via www.nyclgbtsites.org 

Karla Jay’s recollection of the infiltration is wonderful to read. She recounts how the lights in the Conference hall were turned off for enough time for the Menaces to line the aisles, wearing their t-shirts. She says that then the lights came back on, and she stood up from where she sat in the audience and “unbuttoned the long-sleeved red blouse I was wearing and ripped it off. Underneath, I was wearing a Lavender Menace T-shirt. […] Then Rita [Mae Brown] yelled to members of the audience, “Who wants to join us?” “I do; I do,” several replied.”3 

After this event, lesbian issues could no longer be brushed under the carpet at the Congress. Lesbians were out in the open, and they took the chance to speak, to take to the stage, to voice their concerns and have a presence. This was only one event, but it had a lasting impact. The group evolved into Radicalesbians, which was a space for lesbian specific activism separate from Gay and Women’s Liberation. While lesbian liberation belongs in both of these areas, it was prioritised in neither. The Lavender Menace, with their group messaging and lasting iconography, made room for lesbians. This room was built by clothing, by the visual and the uniform, by what is seen and worn. Lesbians in matching purple t-shirts existed en masse and existed unavoidably on that May day in 1970. Their clothing spoke when they were unable to, and the insult that had been thrown at them – “Lavender Menace” – was reclaimed as a weapon. 

The space that they were in was a feminist space, but it was hostile – at least, its programme and organisers were – to the many lesbians who were part of the feminist movement. This is clearly not to say that lesbians were not in that space, as the audience members shouting that they wanted to join the Menaces testifies. There was a general belief at the time, however, that lesbian activism and feminist activism were two separate spheres with two separate goals. This is not the case, and is something that still remains relevant today as we traverse the landscape of mainstream, commodity feminism. 

Figure 3: NOW Women and Rita Mae Brown, wearing a Lavender Menace t-shirt, at the Second Congress to Unite Women, 1st May 1970. Photograph by Diana Davies, Courtesy of New York Public Library. Via www.nyclgbtsites.org 

The Lavender Menaces were proud of their lesbianism and defiant in the face of those who would have it erased from the feminist movement. Lesbianism and lesbian-specific space is necessary to feminism despite this erasure because it exemplifies the possibility of an existence free from men. Heterosexual feminism can never be free of the patriarchy on its own; women who are attracted to men may be the majority of feminist movement, but lesbians hold a unique political position within it that is too often ignored. I assert here that to wear a reminder of lesbian identity – particularly lesbian identity as something that has been oppressed, called “lavender menace” or “dyke” – is to refuse erasure. It is also, in a contemporary setting, to refuse to be assimilated. 

I think a lot about creating space for lesbian feminism within contemporary feminism and queer activism. That is probably why I am drawn to the Lavender Menace. Perhaps I wish I could be part of a crowd of lesbians, appearing literally from the darkness and shouting for liberation. Lesbian feminism has now garnered a reputation for being uninclusive, for excluding other queer realities. Sometimes, this comes in the form of transphobia. However, lesbian feminism is not itself inherently transphobic because there are lesbian feminists who have been transphobic. I believe that lesbian feminism – and lesbian specific analysis – is still a radical activist position that has not has its chance to bloom. In Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life she wrote:

By holding on to the figure of the lesbian as full of potential, we are not giving up on queer; rather, we are refusing to assume being queer means giving up on lesbian feminism.4

What she means here is that lesbians, particularly as political subjects, cannot become despecified within queer discourses. Instead, various queer existences can learn from each other and our respective histories. Lesbian feminism has not finished adding to the conversation. Similarly, lesbians must also remain present in feminist discourse, like they made themselves be at the 1970 Congress. In Kathy Rudy’s 2001 article ‘Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory,’ she wrote that “feminists today need to attend both to new queer analyses as well as to feminist methodologies if we hope to preserve a world that strives to be beyond gender discrimination rather than one that simply hides it.”5 As I mentioned earlier, feminism without a consideration of lesbian lives, devoid of men, is unlikely to ever free itself fully from the patriarchy. Queer-lesbian-feminisms must all come together going forward, or all of them are at risk of becoming only tokens. 

You may be wondering how I have strayed so far into a theoretical discussion when this post began as a historical account of the t-shirts worn by the Lavender Menace. In all honesty, it is because I believe that the work they started with their activism is not yet done. We continue to learn and grow and free ourselves, even now, 50 years later. To quote one last analysis, I turn to the 2016 article ‘Reclaiming lesbian feminism: Beginning discussions on communities, geographies and politics’ by Kath Browne, Marta Olasik and Julie Podmore. In it, Browne said the following:

What lesbian-feminist separatisms (and, of course, lesbian feminisms are not necessarily separatist) remind us of is that these utopias may need to be […] created through generations of discussions, trials and errors, and a feminist ethos of collaboration and cooperation.6

Lesbians were excluded from the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970, but they made space for themselves anyway. Lesbian issues met feminist issues and realised that they had more in common than that which divided them. We must continue to meet, to listen, and to work together. We are all a lavender menace, but we can still paint the world red. 

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Endnotes

1: Karla Jay, ‘Tales of the Lavender Menace,’ The Stonewall Reader, The New York Public Library, ed. (USA: Penguin Books, 2019.)

2: Jay, ‘Tales of the Lavender Menace,’ 190.

3: Jay, ‘Tales of the Lavender Menace,’ 191.

4: Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017) 224.

5: Kathy Rudy, ‘Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory,’ Feminist Studies 27.1 (2001), 220.

6: Kath Browne, Marta Olasik and Julie Podmore, ‘Reclaiming lesbian feminisms: Beginning discussions on communities, geographies and politics,’ Women’s Studies International Forum 56 (2016), 118.

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