Feminist Separatism — The Dynamics of Self-Creation

by L. J. “Tess” Tessier

L. J. “Tess” Tessier is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH 44555. She specializes in philosophy of religion and is the editor of Concepts of the Ultimate: Philosophical Perspectives on the Nature of the Divine. Her current research focuses on lesbian feminist spirituality and identity formation.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 127-130, Vol. 18, Number 2, Summer, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author discusses the paper “Radical Relatedness and Feminist Separatism” by Nancy R. Howell. The more inclusive our actual world, the more expanded our potential for novel creations. However, there may well be a time and place for worldless dissociation.

In responding to this article, I wish first to make my own perspective clear. I am not a Whiteheadian scholar, and my limited understanding of process thought has been developed primarily through contact with feminist scholars writing from that perspective. I bring to this issue of relatedness and separatism a blending of my own particular interests in feminist theory, identity formation, and the dynamics of creation. My own work in cosmogonic myth and the various images of creation and chaos these myths depict seems to me to connect with Howell’s discussion of the contact between radical relatedness and feminist separatism.

Perhaps the crux of the matter has to do with the way we understand creativity. The process of creation has generally been conceived in patriarchal culture as a solitary one. The lone God speaks, and the universe unfolds. This is the story we have been told. The realization that God was already in relation to the deep upon whose face was (and is) darkness generally goes unrecognized. In one Egyptian cosmogony, the creator God stands alone upon the primeval hillock which has emerged out of the waters of chaos. Once his place to stand has been established, he commences the cosmogonic project. So, from the perspective of hetero-reality, the creator hero stands alone. He creates by himself, out of his solitude.

But what if the object of the creative process is a Self? This is the creative process of woman-identified women which Janice Raymond describes as becoming "Self-created," an "original woman, not fabricated by man" (OFF 7). Common sense would indicate that another image of creation is required. As women in the process of Self-creation, we cannot go it alone, because without an original Self there is (to paraphrase) no "here" here, no place to stand, no solitary self to divide and conquer the chaos, no lone hero to speak the creation. As Raymond also observes, this is the process of a woman who

searches for and claims her relational origin with her Self and with women. She is not ‘the Other’ of de Beauvoir’s Second Sex who is man-made. She is not the relative being who has been sired to think of herself always in intercourse with men. And she does not deny her friendship and attraction for other women. She is her Self. She is an original woman, who belongs to her Self, who is neither copied, reproduced, nor translated from man’s image of her. She is, in the now obsolete meaning of original, a rare woman. (GFF 7)

Nancy Howell’s incorporation of Whiteheadian concepts seems to me very helpful here, because the process of creation is understood as always already a relationship. And Self-created women create themselves in the context of their friendships and attraction for other women. In affirming these relationships, an original woman dis-covers, re-members, her Self

Catherine Keller has also conjured these images in a vision of "wholeness not derived from separation at all, but growing organically within the flexible, infinitely complex web of relations -- within and without" (WKM 93). Most fundamentally, then, as women creating our Selves, we do not speak our creation with a solitary word. Rather, we create within the web of women who, as Nelle Morton so vividly describes, hear us into speech. (See, e.g., BI 127-128).

Separatism, understood as a woman’s creation of Self in passionate connection with others like her, is, in a sweeping reversal of patriarchal values, fundamentally relational. Howell’s incorporation of the doctrine of internal relations emphasizes the creative power of this relationality. "In the process of self-creation, we exist by virtue of our relationships." It seems clear to me that the feminist assertion of the interconnectedness of all things moves in the direction of perceiving this Self-formation process as emerging out of our relationships with other women.

With all this radical relatedness, it may be difficult to see the separation in feminist separatism. We know that to separate is to set apart, but if feminist separatism involves a parting of the ways, what is it that separatist women are leaving behind? As Howell notes, Raymond rejects the view of "scholarly proclaimers of hetero- relations" that the theory and reality of feminism starts with woman’s relationship to man (GFF 11). She rejects a limiting view of feminism as the quest for women’s equality with men in favor of radical feminism’s focus on "the autonomy, independence, and creation of the female Self in affinity with others like the Self’ (GFF 11).

This grounding of feminist separatism in women’s relationality with one another emphasizes the power generated when women affirm the strength of the "original and primary attraction of women for women (GFF 7). Audre Lorde makes this power explicit in her essay on the "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." Exploring the functions of the erotic, she emphasizes "the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy" (UE 56). She celebrates the vision of "women-identified women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic’s electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange" (UE 59). Here again, biophilic women are affirming the relationship between gynaffection, female power, and creativity.

Still, I find myself wishing to take seriously the separation which is such a significant aspect of this self-creation process. If it is not men from whom self-creating original women are separating, what are they leaving behind? An image comes to me of a time when I felt as if my own life had no meaning or value. As is probably typical of such times, I remember feeling deeply alone. And I also felt as if I were falling apart. The phrases are familiar, reflecting the "undoing" that is perhaps a key component of separation -- going to pieces, coming unglued, feeling all undone, having a breakdown. I was separating from myself, disintegrating. As old structures of my life no longer fit together in a coherent whole, I felt the fragmentation of the collapsing center. And in concert with so many women whose similar experiences had been invisible to me, I sought and found the tender support of a few close woman friends.

After a time, I experienced a realization that arrived with remarkable force and clarity. I came to understand that it is impossible to be alone, because I am in fact deeply connected with everything that is. And two emotions accompanied this realization -- the first was relief; the second was a deep sense of responsibility. Everything I do has an effect on everything. I had best be aware of what I do.

I believe that my personal experience reflects the relationality of feminist separatism which Howell addresses in this article. And I believe that my experience also reflects the self-creative process of the original woman, from coming apart, through relatedness with other women, to self-creation in the context of deep interrelatedness. It is important to affirm the relatedness. It is also important to acknowledge the experience of coming apart, of self-separation, which I believe is often a part of leaving patriarchal bondage behind.

It seems to me important to recognize that many women who commence this parting journey do not go away whole, happy, or hopeful. Although I greatly value the power of choosing separation in order to "release the flow of elemental energy and Gynophilic communication" (Daly), many separating women begin by just going away. Dis-membered, denied and disconnected, there may be little sense of energy to release. It seems to me that this is a critical, and perhaps too little affirmed, moment in the Self-creating process. Before we wake to the solidarity and gynergy of gynaffectionate women, we may need to dis-cover the healing that comes with just being left alone. Of course, as Daly makes clear in her assertion that everything that IS is connected with everything else that IS, there really is no "alone," but being relational for women does not mean that we know how to relate. It only means that we want to. And before we explore the deep connections of Be-Friending, we may need to sever the ties that bind.

In her pivotal article on "Compulsory Heterosexuality," Adrienne Rich highlights the isolation that many women feel as they risk this separation:

The fact is that women in every culture and throughout history have undertaken the task of independent, nonheterosexual, woman-connected existence, to the extent made possible by their context, often in the belief that they were the "only ones" ever to have done so (last emphasis mine). (CH 635)

As Howell makes clear, women’s relationality in patriarchal culture has been a function of hetero-relations. Woman has been for man. And, as both Daly and Raymond have observed, man in patriarchal culture is homo-relational. He is also for man. Who, then, is for her? Rejecting the estrangement from self and other women enforced by the patriarchal agenda, gynaffectionate women are dis-covering themselves in and with one another. But it is important to acknowledge that we do not thereby rid ourselves entirely of estrangement. As woman-touching and woman-loving women, we are cutting at the root of patriarchal power, a process which gynophobic culture finds very strange (and threatening) indeed. And all of the discussion about political correctness, all of the evidence we see of internalized woman-hatred and gynophobic attitudes in women, clearly reveal that gynaffectionate feminist separatism, while loosening our bonds, does not remove all that is alienating. As Daly observes, the deep differences among women reflect our terrible, powerful uniqueness.

Be-Friending involves the radical affirmation of woman-love that does not deny the differences but celebrates the power of reuniting with our own and other Female Selves. In order to accomplish this, we must be open not only to the erotic power we experience within ourselves but also to the erotic energy that moves among women. Such an affirmation raises issues concerning the nature of woman-touching and woman-loving relationships. The discussion concerning whether all women who reject hetero-reality are Lesbians does not seem to me to take us very far. I concur with Raymond that affirming all woman-identified existence and affection as Lesbian diminishes the particular journeys and choices of Lesbians while patronizing women who choose to remain in heterosexual relationships but do so "with clarity of mind, moral integrity, honest scrutiny of hetero-relational coercion, and with Gyn/affection" (GFF 15). However, these criteria present a challenge. I believe that Be-Friending requires a deep opening to the erotic bonds among women, so that even women who do not choose to identify as Lesbians feel and acknowledge the passion of woman-loving.

I finally wish to address, from my own non-Whiteheadian perspective, Howell’s Whiteheadian interpretation. First, it seems that coming to consciousness (awareness that reality is not hetero-reality) provides to women-identified women not only a place to stand from which to make judgments but also from which to engage in a new cosmogonic endeavor. We are not only dis-covering the universe; we are involved in universe-making. This realization highlights the importance of novelty in response to the world -- the introduction of an alternative potentiality. Gynaffectionate women are accomplishing more than the dis-covery of women’s Selves. We are functioning as co-creators.

A final word about worldlessness. It would seem that the more inclusive our actual world, the more expanded our potential for novel creations. However, there may well be a time and place for worldless dissociation. If feminist separatism involves, as I suspect it often does, coming apart as well as coming together, a rest in worldlessness may constitute for some a restoration of power which can then be transformed in radical relatedness to "expand the dimensions of the world, multiplying creative options for the future." But I do believe that there are times when what women need most is just to get away.



BI -- Nelle Morton. "Beloved Image." The Journey is Home.

CH -- Adrienne Rich. "Compulsory Heterosexuality." Signs (Summer 1980).

GFF -- Janice Raymond. "A Genealogy of Female Friendship." Trivia (Fall 1982).

UE -- Audre Lord. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press, 1984.

WKM -- Catherine Keller. "Wholeness and the King’s Men." Anima 11:2.