The Feminist Movement in the USA went through three waves- the second wave was heavily influenced by Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique. Her book gave the average, middle-class American woman a voice. Her book spoke to millions of American women who felt a stirring sense of dissatisfaction and yearning in the middle of the twentieth century. Friedan pointed out that the fault was in the system. She campaigned for women to be encouraged to work to find self-worth and identity. Thus, Friedan was at the forefront of the second wave of American Feminism.
But there was a problem- lesbians.
Friedan coined the term ‘Lavender Menace’, and openly used it at a meeting of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in 1969. She claimed that lesbians were a threat to the feminist movement, and would hinder their goals of achieving economic and social equality for women. Many feminists, including straight women, criticized Friedan at the time. As a result, many lesbians left NOW and other traditional feminist organizations and joined other groups. Ironically, this exclusion of lesbians would go on to be a major contributor to the formation of lesbian feminist groups.
In 1970, Rita Mae Brown, an ardent feminist, showed up at a meeting of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was a radical gay rights organization, formed as a result of the Stonewall Inn Riots. She announced that she was starting a lesbian-only consciousness raising group. Consciousness-raising groups were essentially small groups of women sharing their experiences about a particular cause. Brown recruited women from the GLF to pen down a statement articulating the necessity of a unique lesbian feminist position, which they would present at an upcoming NOW event, the Second Congress to Unite Women on May 1st 1970. Their manifesto, which opened with the line “a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” was titled “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Because the piece was written collectively, they listed the author as “Radicalesbians.”
Inspired by the Gay Activists Alliance, whose members infiltrated the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera and shouted gay slogans at the mayor as he and his wife made their entrance in April 1970, Brown decided her group would take over the Second Congress to Unite Women. The group, now referring to themselves as “the Lavender Menace” in a reclaimatory fashion, had forty T-shirts printed. Ellen Broidy and Louise Rhodes offered up their apartment where they dyed the freshly printed shirts a pale shade of purple in the bathtub. They also printed copies of their manifesto and made signs bearing slogans such as “You’re Going to Love the Lavender Menace” and “Women’s Liberation IS a Lesbian Plot.” The Lavender Menace was ready.
The Radicalesbians cut the lights and the microphone as soon as the first speaker was about to start at the Second Congress to Unite Women. In the darkness, lesbians wearing Lavender Menace t-shirts filled the auditorium and yelled out calling the members of the audience to join them. Lesbian Karla Jay, a plant in the audience, stood up and yelled “Yes, yes, sisters! I’m tired of being in the closet because of the women’s movement,” as she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Lavender Menace T-shirt. After this, the lesbians took to the stage to discuss their exclusion within the Women’s Movement. This act of the Lavender Menace surely made an impact. In the next meeting of NOW, which was held in September 1971, a resolution was adopted which recognized lesbian rights as a “legitimate concern for feminism”.
Lesbians were no longer to be silenced within the Women’s Movement.