Appx 1,700 words
Lesbian Feminism in Its Prime
The House That Jill Built:
A Lesbian Nation in Formation
by Becki Ross
University of Toronto Press, 1995
James Fraser Library call number: 4.3 ROS
Review by Amy Gottlieb
Centre/Fold (Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies)
# 10, Spring 1996
The Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT, active from late 1976 to the spring of 1980) thrived during a distinct historical moment in relations between gay men and women. Lesbians, too often outnumbered and ignored in mixed organizations, formed groups of their own, separate -- and often separatist.
Inspired in part by Jill Johnston's 1973 book Lesbian Nation, they created not just organizations but spaces (LOOT's was an actual house, at 342 Jarvis Street) where they could explore, nurture (and sometimes enforce) a distinct lesbian identity.
Separatism was a thorn in the side of those seeking solidarity with (or assimilation of) lesbians in wider gay or feminist causes. But it was also a bulwark behind which lesbians could find not only identity but power: independent strength, both personal and political.
Lesbian separatism faded as an ideological force in the 1980s, but many of the women strengthened by it went on to play influential roles in lesbian and gay community groups, in broader social movements, and in academic work. Becki Ross, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, interviewed many of those women for this book.
Among the key figures to be found in its pages are: Nancy Adamson, Virginia Adamson, Rosemary Barnes, Chris Bearchell, Gay Bell, Naomi Brooks, Varda Burstyn, Ruth Dworin, Lynne Fernie, Pam Godfrey, Natalie LaRoche, Pat Leslie, Donna Marchand, Philinda Masters, Margaret Moores, Pat Murphy, Fiona Rattray, Konnie Reich, Deb Stinson, Mariana Valverde, Lorna Weir, Eve Zaremba -- and Amy Gottlieb, author of this review.
In the late 1970s, Amy was simultaneously a member of LOOT, the Revolutionary Marxist Group, and the International Women's Day Committee, as well as a typesetter at Pink Triangle Press, publisher of The Body Politic. In 1997, she is a video artist, co-editor of MIX, a magazine of artist-run culture, and co-founder of Lesbians Making History, an oral history project. Her review appears below in its entirety, with subheads added to guide reading on-screen.
(Note: Most records of the Lesbian Organization of Toronto are held in the Canadian Women's Movement Archives Collection, Morriset Library Special Collections, University of Ottawa. Some LOOT records are also at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.)
Rick Bébout, May 1997
As I sit writing this review of The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation, I hear news of the Commissioner of Human Rights Max Yalden scolding the federal Liberal government for not making good on its promise to enshrine sexual orientation protection in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
A minor skirmish, but one that pulls into sharp focus how much the political landscape has evolved and yet how little has changed structurally in the almost twenty years since the Lesbian Organization of Toronto was created.
After twenty years, federal legal protection, for whatever it's worth (and that is debatable), has just become a reality. Yet, two decades ago a federal human rights bureaucrat publicly criticizing the government for lack of action on lesbian and gay rights would have been unthinkable.
The House That Jill Built sets out to "stem the corrosive tide of amnesia" by piecing together and analyzing the high-spirited, ground-breaking and contradictory three-and-a-half year history of LOOT.
Through in-depth interviews with women and a review of a multitude of primary written and cultural sources, Becki Ross examines the context, ideology, and practice of "lesbian feminism" as it was experienced through an organization whose short history belies its significance and paradoxical influence on the shape of Toronto lesbian politics.
Historical players "still very much alive and feisty"
The project of remembering and reconstructing this particular piece of lesbian history is a bold and courageous one. The development of Canadian lesbian history is still in its infancy, and it was brave of Ross to look at an organization around which swirled such strong and differing views, as well as to interview participants whose lives are still connected to projects dreamed about at LOOT.
While there is a tremendous burden to interpret history with no possibility of talking to people who have been part of making it, it is a different and as strenuous a challenge to be responsible to the memories of numerous women who are still very much alive and feisty -- women who can tell you you've got it all wrong.
As one of the LOOTers Ross interviewed, I read her book with mixed emotions. I feel an overwhelming sense of being acknowledged as part of making a piece of Toronto lesbian history -- a feeling few of us are awarded very often. It makes me feel both relieved that I don't have to live through those times again, and a touch nostalgic. But most of all, I find it difficult to be dispassionate about this book.
Ross has made a major contribution to understanding the development of a complex and multi- textured history of lesbian identity and political action in the Canadian context. While elaborating the urgent need to redress the historical absence or stereotypical presence of lesbians in official histories, she doesn't get stuck in uncritically celebrating 1970s dykedom.
And like every good scholar worth their weight in polymorphous perversity, Ross is also very clear about the connection between doing this kind of history and grassroots activism. Not only does this project examine the complexities of the past and its continuities and discontinuities with the present, it also stands as "an expressly political project devoted to creating a history and a sociology for lesbians, gay men and other oppressed peoples, with the broader purpose of transforming the world we live in."
The paradox of identity politics
With this broader purpose in mind, the central paradox around which the book turns is how an organization whose express desire was to meet the social and political needs of all lesbians, created codes and orthodoxies which were exclusionary and limited membership and participation in LOOT to a largely young, white, middle- class group of lesbians.
As Ross says, lesbian feminism "became the ideological heartbeat of a new and potent identity- based politics" and LOOT was one of the vehicles for the development of this emerging lesbian identity and visibility.
Ross deals critically and with great skill with the prevalent 1990s feminist and lesbian dismissal of 1970s lesbian feminists as "shrill and humourless sexual prissies, fanatical about political correctness," by revealing a more complex process.
At the same time she charts the development of very real attitudes and practices which, although dynamic tools for resisting oppression and creating a proud and powerful identity, limited LOOT's membership and cut off the organization's members from the realities of lesbians unlike themselves. While Ross makes mention of scholarly research on the strengths and weaknesses of identity politics, her book could have examined this conundrum in greater depth.
Oral history: the rewards -- and risks -- of memory
On the issue of methodology, I feel Ross should have been more conscious of the limitations of oral history as a method of research (not that oral history is more flawed than any other method; each has its own difficulties and inadequacies).
Who you interview, how involved they are, their social, economic and political identities and locations all determine much of the outcome of oral history research. Beyond these more obvious factors, interviewees often remember the coherence of their lives rather than the contradictions and conflicting experiences and emotions.
How we remember particular events in our lives also depends on the context in which we are asked to remember. In similar ways, the written materials Ross has consulted have most likely skewed her research to create more coherence to LOOT ideology than may have really been there.
For lesbian and gay histories, oral history has been and will continue to be a very powerful tool for uncovering and reconstructing our lives. All the more reason to analyze both its strengths and its weaknesses.
'90s queers on '70s lesbian-feminism
An article Ross published in FUSE magazine in 1993 on lesbian- feminist response to the politics of The Body Politic, particularly focusing on intergenerational sex, was not nearly as skilled at balancing these competing perspectives.
Although, in the end, I may have agreed with some of Becki's analysis, the article tended to fall into the trap of dismissing lesbian- feminist politics in the 1970s, without exploring the context and the need for an identity- based politics at the time. The article felt more like it was in the service of a particular queer political alliance between 1990s feminism and gay men.
In the context of a longer book, I was impressed with how, in response to criticisms, Ross was able to strike a balance which feels both truer to the memories of activists she interviewed, and more useful in embracing and analyzing a history with all of its messy legacies.
Theory vs practice (even in bed)
Neither dismissive nor embracing of lesbian feminism, Ross explores the dominant ideas that permeated LOOT. She detects differences between ideology and practice, such as in the arena of sexuality, where sexually correct standards and the real sexual practices women engaged in were sometimes very different.
Lesbian feminism starts to break down as a coherent category for organizing meaning and experience. And I say thank goodness! Thank goodness there is no longer a dream of an overriding lesbian- feminist identity with all its attendant meanings and regulations.
For some, the crumbling of that "utopian" vision may be painful, but it feels far more revolutionary to recognize our differences (both identity-based and political) and to create multi-sex, multi-gender, multi-racial and anti-capitalist movements.
In our ever-changing political landscape, the challenge is to recognize the power and necessity of collective identities in resisting our oppression, while contesting notions of sameness and separatist practices that result in narrow political vision.
A history to arm us for the future
Despite having made modest but insufficient progress building alliances, these questions remain front and centre because lesbian oppression is no less powerful and destructive, and the forces that would erase or appropriate our lives and culture continue to press on.
My hope is that The House That Jill Built has already begun and will continue to inspire community- and academic- based history projects exploring social movements, sexuality, and the development of lesbian and gay identities. We need our stories to be remembered. We need a history which will arm us with the necessary wisdom to understand the present and to imagine a different future.
[List of online documents] [Victories & defeats chronology / 1976 page]
[TBP / PTP Inventory: Published sources]
[TBP &Visions of Community: p 13]
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