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Fear of Flying...
To the White House

Fear of Flying...
To the White House

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In the heady first years of feminism, lesbians crashed the party, forever bonding the two movements. To win the presidency, Hillary Clinton must reckon with both.

Back in the '70s, America's founding feminists dreamed of a future when a woman could run for president. Fewer than 10 election cycles later, those feminist dreams are coming true. As we watch girls with i can be president pins cheering for front-runner Hillary Clinton, it's hard to comprehend just how far we've come. Yet for all the symbolic power of her candidacy, Clinton is still grappling with America's ambivalence on the status of women. The very word feminism remains so divisive that Clinton dared not speak it at a recent debate, instead evoking feminism as "this great movement of progress that includes all of us, but has particularly been significant to me as a woman."

In contemporary America, a successful woman still risks being seen as a threat to male power. And she can still be damaged by judgments about her heterosexual allure or lack thereof. Witness the speculation that has dogged Clinton throughout her career: Where powerful women go, lesbian rumors often follow.

This is perhaps one reason that National Organization for Women cofounder Betty Friedan took the stage at a NOW meeting in 1969 and announced that lesbians posed "a lavender menace" to the progress of feminism. Women needed to get out of the nursery and into the manager's chair, insisted Friedan, and anything that might distract from that goal -- messy issues like challenging homophobia or questioning heterosexuality -- were a threat to women's common concern.

Her words crystallized a homophobic sentiment that would both haunt the women's movement and serve as a call to arms. By singling out lesbians, Friedan unwittingly set the stage for the emergence of lesbian feminists, a parallel political identity that was to 1970s feminism what Dennis Kucinich is to the Democratic Party today -- a leftward-pushing force toward more progressive and comprehensive justice.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find an out lesbian in the '70s who didn't also consider herself a feminist. For me, they go hand in hand," says Katherine Acey, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, founded in 1977 to fund projects directed at female empowerment. "The feminist movement was a lifeline for lesbians -- it's where we found each other, mustered the courage to come out, and shaped a collective voice."

Friedan's homophobic gaffe became a call to action as author Rita Mae Brown and other activists descended on NOW's Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970 -- which had conspicuously left lesbian issues off its agenda. In a crowded room full of women, they cut the lights, and when they came back up, Brown and company wore purple lavender menace T-shirts and passed out their manifesto, "The Woman-Identified Woman." A year later, NOW officially expanded its policies to include lesbian rights, eventually making it one of the organization's six key issues.

It was a heady moment for lesbians, who enjoyed the righteous position of being both the wronged party and the radical, witty, empowered activists. The "Me Decade" bloomed with a renaissance of lesbian theater, political theory, literature, and music. On the streets and in the universities, lesbians created women-centric and women-only enclaves like the revolutionary (and controversial) Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

As the lesbian movement took off, feminism also prospered. By the 1980s a majority of American women called themselves feminists; support for the Equal Rights Amendment reached an all-time high; and women seemed poised to make real, lasting change in American politics. In a speech at Yale University in 1981, Gloria Steinem captured the optimism when she spoke those famous gender-bendy words: "Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry."

But instead of securing all its triumphs, the movement suffered a devastating reversal of fortune. Helmed by Ronald Reagan in the White House, a new conservative climate renewed America's emphasis on traditional family, and almost overnight feminism fell out of fashion. What's more, the feminist bust became a mainstream boom for lesbians in the 1990s -- but with a twist. In 1993, New York magazine fashioned its "Lesbian Chic" cover with a sultry, tuxedo-clad k.d. lang winking at all of America. Lang, the poster child of the stylish lesbian, also graced the cover of Vanity Fair, tipped back in a barber chair with bare-legged and orgasmic p

Cindy Crawford shaving lang's cream-covered face. Yes, the sexual connotations were rich, but they weren't intended for lesbians. Somehow we were back to square one. Lesbian and hetero alike, women were posing for an audience of men.

"Personally speaking, when mainstream publications were describing lesbianism as sexy, I thought it was wildly offensive," says Jessica Stern, a 30-year-old researcher for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights program of Human Rights Watch. Stern was just coming out when "lesbian chic" became all the rage. "Even though there was a certain importance to having our images out there, they felt similar to pornographic images of us that have been there all along."

As lesbian titillation reached its apex, Time magazine was driving the final nail into feminism's coffin with the 1998 cover that asked, "Is Feminism Dead?" It was illustrated by ghostly black-and-white head shots of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem--even as the latter two continued to fight for the cause. Next to the anointed feminist ghosts was a full-color head shot of TV's Ally McBeal. The flighty, emaciated lawyer was Time's new prototype of the American woman. And that new woman, apparently, wanted no part of the movement that had helped her win her new job, her new freedom, and her new credibility.

It's a long way from Ally McBeal to Hillary Clinton. But America's schizophrenic relationship with women's rights continues even as the women's movement has unraveled far beyond its original factions of gay and straight. Embracing our female identity was such a huge part of the early feminist movement that many lesbians failed to leave room for their own range of gender and sexuality. Nowhere perhaps has gender diversity been more hotly debated than within lesbian circles, whether it's trans women being barred from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival or trans men being shunned from lesbian communities they used to be a part of.

And feminism has become a dirty word -- in spite of its successes. "By and large, the feminist movement has achieved basic legal equality," says Stern, who points out that basic civil rights for LGBT people still lag. Here's what frustrates her: "A lot of people will espouse feminist politics--but won't use the word because it's perceived to be too radical."

For all that, feminism has remade the world. Little girls are now growing up in an America where Hillary Clinton can deflect criticism by saying, "They're piling on not because I'm a woman but because I'm winning."

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