Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich: Recognizing Difference

audre lorde 1

AUDRE LORDE: “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (from Sister Outsider, 1984) Lorde is a crucial figure in second-wave feminism. The title of her book Sister Outsider was a criticism of the feminist movement’s definition of “sisterhood” (and a dialogue with Robin Morgan’s landmark book Sisterhood is Powerful. In this essay, she exposes the tendency of white feminists to “ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone.”

  1. According to Lorde, why are Black lesbians (or “women-identified” Black women) interpreted as a particular threat to Black nationhood?
  2. Lorde reminds us that “white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color…for white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools.” What does Lorde mean by “pretended choices”?
  3. How might Black men also be vulnerable to a similar pitfall? Consider the following quote from Hurston in your answer.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character’s grandmother gives Janie the following speech about relationships between Black women and Black men:

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n_____ man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n______ woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fur it tuh be different wid you”(Hurston, 14).

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer's workshop in 1980.

A photograph of (from left to right) Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, and Adrienne Rich at a writer’s workshop in 1980.

ADRIENNE RICH: “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) Rich’s essay argues that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a life path that women are “innately oriented” to.

Like Lorde, Rich is also concerned with the ways that we may participate in our own oppression. Think back to Lorde’s “pretended choices – ” Rich quotes Kathleen Barry, who explains that identifying with patriarchy means “internalizing the values of the colonizer and actively participating in carrying out the colonization of one’s self and one’s sex” (Rich 646).

  1. What stereotypes of lesbians does Rich identify in her article? Can you think of examples of any other inaccurate or harmful images of lesbians in our contemporary culture?
  2. What does Rich mean by “compulsory heterosexuality”?
  3. How are unmarried women, “spinsters” and widows also harmed by the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?
  4. Rich names and defines 8 characteristics of male power in a patriarchy. What are some of the methods used to maintain these powers?
  5. How does the myth of the “all-conquering male sex drive” harm women? How is it a product of the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality?

Consider this recent example of “compulsory heterosexuality” from the President’s second inauguration:


Now think back to this section of Judith Lorber’s article, “Night to His Day”:

“At a rock and roll dance at West Point in 1976…the schools administrators ‘were reportedly perturbed by the sight of mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,’ and a rule was established that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab, 1990, 53)…This feminization  is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly distinguishable from men Marines.”

Question: Can you think of other examples of “compulsory heterosexuality”?


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