In Defence of Separatism Review – A Fierce Lesbian Feminist Manifesto

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In Defence of Separatism is a powerful lesbian feminist manifesto. It was written by Susan Hawthorne in 1976, when the second wave of feminism was in full flow, as the thesis of her Honours degree in Philosophy. And now – over four decades later – it is more relevant than ever before.

As co-founder of Spinifex, Australia’s longest-running independent feminist press, Hawthorne published the book with a preface and afterword updated for 2019.

This manifesto is fiercely political and meticulously researched. Hawthorne’s intellect and her commitment to woman-centric politics make In Defence of Separatism an illuminating read. Although short, this book packs a strong punch. Power imbalances in society, community, and family are dissected with precision. With unflinching honesty, Hawthorne shares key truths about how gender is socialized and maintained. Her writing is unapologetically woman-centric, which is refreshing in a climate where even the word woman is being problematized.

The book is divided into three sections. During the introduction, Hawthorne outlines how power, oppression, and domination function in a patriarchal society. Within ‘Things Peculiar to Women’s Oppression’, she critiques the heterosexist values underpinning countless cultural norms. And in ‘Strategies’, Hawthorne highlights the value of lesbian relationships and community as resistance to patriarchy. It’s a rigorous interrogation of gender and sexuality.

Because Susan criticizes the power dynamics of patriarchy, because she embraces lesbian feminist politics, her work never found the acclaim it deserved within the academy. Woman-focused study was even more stigmatized in the 1970s.

And yet, for all In Defence of Separatism rejects patriarchal power structures, it inadvertently props up the status quo. In Hawthorne’s analysis, power only ever flows in one direction. This is the book’s main flaw. There is no meaningful acknowledgment of how hierarchies of race and class intersect with that of gender. Hawthorne doesn’t engage with the reality that, in certain contexts, a woman who is white and middle class may hold more socioeconomic power than a man who is neither of those things.

More importantly, her vision of separatism doesn’t address structural power disparities between women. And, given that power is this manifesto’s central theme, it’s too great an oversight to be overlooked. After all, the Combahee River Collective – Black lesbians who changed the course of feminist thought– rejected separatism as a political strategy because it failed to challenge race and class hierarchies.

It is commendable that the majority of quotes within In Defence of Separatism come from women. When women’s voices have been written out of the canon for centuries, this continues to be vital work. But the overwhelming majority of women cited are white. By my count, more men are listed as sources than women of color – which raises questions about which women In Defence of Separatism can claim to represent.

Although In Defence of Separatism is not wholly convincing, this book contains countless valuable insights into patriarchal society. It’s impossible to read Hawthorne’s manifesto without questioning power dynamics that are so deeply ingrained in our society as to appear almost invisible. Her work is a must-read for any lesbian figuring out feminist politics.

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