Lavender Menace

Feminism Definition

Lavender field
Lavender field. Meriel Lland / Getty Images

Lavender Menace: Women's History Topic

with additional material, editing and updates by Jone Johnson Lewis

The phrase "lavender menace" was coined by NOW leader Betty Friedan, who used it at a NOW meeting in 1969, claiming that outspoken lesbians were a threat to the feminist movement, as they distracted from the goals of gaining economic and social equality for women. The color lavender is associated with the LGBT/gay rights movement in general.

  

Ironically, this exclusion of and challenge to those questioning heterosexuality was a major impetus for the creation of lesbian feminist groups and a lesbian feminist identity. Many feminists, not just Friedan, in the National Organization for Women (NOW) felt that lesbian issues were irrelevant to the majority of women and would hinder the feminist cause, and that identifying the movement with lesbians and their rights would make it harder to win feminist victories.

Many lesbians had found a comfortable activism home within the rising feminist movement, and this exclusion stung.  It called into serious question for them the concept of "sisterhood." If "the personal is political" how could sexual identity, women identifying with women and not with men, not be part of feminism?

At the time, many feminists, and not only lesbians, criticized Friedan. Susan Brownmiller, theorist about rape and later pornography, wrote in an article in Time that  there was "A lavender herring, perhaps, but no clear and present danger."  This article further infuriated many lesbian feminists, as they saw it as minimizing their importance.

A few lesbian feminists, agreeing that association of the movement with lesbians could delay the fights to win other women's rights, stayed with the mainstream feminist movement.  Many lesbian feminists left NOW and other general feminist groups and formed their own groups.

Lavender Menace: the Group

The Lavender Menace was one of the groups created as backlash to this exclusion of lesbians.The group formed in 1970.

The group, including Rita Mae Brown, disrupted the 1970 Second Congress to Unite Women, sponsored by NOW.  The congress had excluded any lesbian rights issues from the agenda.  The activists cut the lights at the conference, and when the lights came on they had shirts with the name "lavender menace" on them.  They handed out a manifesto they called "the Woman-Identified Woman."

NOW Comes Around

In 1971, NOW included lesbian rights among its policies, and eventually lesbian rights became one of the six key issues NOW addressed.

In 1977, at the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, Betty Friedan apologized for her promotion of exclusion of lesbians as "disrupters" of the women's movement, and supported actively a resolution against sexual preference discrimination.  (When this passed, the Mississippi delegation hoisted signs saying "Keep Them in the Closet.")

In 1991, newly-elected NOW president Patricia Ireland stated her intention to live with a female partner. She remained president of the organization for ten years.  NOW sponsored a Lesbian Rights Summit in 1999.

Pronunciation: ˈla'-vən-dər ˈ men'-us

Memoir: Tales of the Lavender Menace

In 1999, Karla Jay published a memoir she titled Tales of the Lavender Menace. 

In her book, she tells the story of radical feminism and lesbian feminism in New York and California, 1968 through 1972. She was part of the Columbia student uprising, several radical feminist, lesbian liberation, and lesbian feminist groups, and the takeover by women of The Ladies Home Journal, among her activities at the time.  Jay was later a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and worked with that institution for 25 years.