Rich's Lesbian Continuum
In 1976 Adrienne Rich described from both a personal and a scholarly standpoint the positive power of women's mothering in Of Woman Born. In writing this, she was ahead of the trend toward an emphasis on difference, but she was scientifically legitimating and making more popular a body of feminist thought that had appeared earlier. Carefully distinguishing between motherhood as an institution under patriarchy and motherhood as a relationship between a woman and her children, she draws on archeological, anthropological, historical, and other types of evidence to show the power that has been attributed to women's mothering in reality and in fantasy in other eras and even in the present. This power, however, has always tended to be undermined and controlled by patriarchal institutions.
Rich had three boys, and her observations support my view that mothers qua mothers do not respond to their children so much in terms of their gender as in terms of their being young children. Indeed, according to Rich, in loving their sons as human beings, mothers give sons their humanity even as they recognize that later on these sons will have to make choices between this humanity and the inhumane aspects of "the male group" (p. 209). Rich also maintains that it is not overweening mother love but rather the radical repression of dependency and humanity characterizing the male role that causes men to be emotionally dependent on women.
Although she had no daughters, Rich finds the mother-daughter relationship, in spite of its ambivalences and guilts, a basis for a vision of women's togetherness and strength. Even though most daughters in some ways feel that their mothers failed them, daughters nevertheless need their mothers in order to touch their own strength as women. This need becomes "the germ of our desire to create a world in which strong mothers and strong daughters will be a matter of course" (p. 225). Although many others have chronicled mother-daughter ambivalence and the role mothers have played in stifling sexuality, Rich calls on us to separate the mother-daughter relationship from the mother's response to a male-dominant world and to focus on the simple primal cathexis between mother and daughter. In Of Woman Born, she says, "before sisterhood, there was the knowledge, transitory, fragmented, perhaps, but original and crucial—of mother-and-daughterhood" (p. 225).
In 1980, Rich wrote her highly influential article "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." This article is not a celebration of motherhood but rather of lesbianism and the life-giving powers of sexual expression. In this work, Rich shifts her image of what might form the basis for women's solidarity from the image of the mother to the image of the lesbian. On the face of it, this may seem very strange indeed if only because concretely there are far more mother-identified women in the world than lesbian-identified women. Moreover, lesbians, as Rich herself notes, have been dealt with by heterosexual feminists as either invisible or deviant. When we look at what Rich means by lesbian identity, or by a lesbian continuum, however, we are brought back again to maternal imagery, but to a maternal imagery that has been taken out of its embedment in a system of marital and sexual relations with men. In describing the lesbian continuum, she puts maternalism, sensuality, and caring together:
If we consider the possibility that all women—from the infant suckling her mother's breast, to the grown woman experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child, perhaps recalling her mother's milk-smell in her own; to two women . . . who share a laboratory; to the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women—exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.
From this Rich goes on to show the continuity between identification experiences with each other that all women have had and the various resistances women, both individually and collectively, have put up against male tyranny throughout the ages.
By using the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, Rich attempts to help heterosexual feminists see the extent to which heterosexuality itself is an institution and an ideology that oppresses women. Far from being a mere choice or lifestyle, heterosexual relations as they are currently structured and have been structured historically constitute "a beachhead of male dominance" (p. 633).
Most heterosexual feminists, because of the emphasis in this society on sex and sexuality, have tended to take women's heterosexuality for granted to an even greater extent than they have women's mothering. Because of most people's unquestioning ac-
ceptance of heterosexuality, Rich has an uphill battle to convince women that it is the mechanism by which women are oppressed. She argues that each one of the various types of male power reflecting gender inequality outlined by the anthropologist Kathleen Gough are in fact ways of enforcing heterosexuality. These types include "the power of men to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them, to command or exploit their labor, to control their produce, to control or rob them of their children, to use them as objects in male transactions, to confine them physically" (pp. 638–39). Rich argues that "the issue we have to address as feminists is not simple 'gender inequality,' nor the domination of culture by males, nor mere 'taboos against homosexuality,' but the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" (p. 647). Rich draws on Kathleen Barry and Catharine MacKinnon for many of her concrete examples of the uses and abuses of women by men. Both authors attempt to widen the oppressive implications of heterosexuality by showing the degree to which sex objectification is built into almost all male-female relationships. Making oneself pleasingly subordinate to males permeates most heterosexual interactions wherever they take place.
If one thinks of lesbianism and heterosexuality in their narrowest, clinical sense, it becomes easy to dismiss Rich's argument as saying that all women have to do to end male dominance is start sleeping with women instead of men. If one takes Rich's argument more abstractly, however, one can see that she is concerned less with heterosexuality as a sexual proclivity than as a set of institutionalized practices governing the relations between men and women that are damaging to women and that prevail far beyond strictly sexual activities. The idea of compulsory heterosexuality then locates women's oppression in heterosexual institutions that have controlled and coopted women and their children. In turn, the image of the lesbian, at its most abstract, can stand for womenidentified women, women who bond with women, against these institutionalized practices based on the assumption of heterosexuality. Rich invites women to see "the lesbian" in themselves even though they may sleep with men.
Although the idea of a lesbian continuum may make sense in this society, the idea is less meaningful on a cross-cultural basis. All
known societies have a concept of marriage as a fundamental element in social structure, but heterosexuality as an orientation may be overlaid by any number of other considerations. This culture's emphasis on sexual orientation is related to marriage nowadays being based on personal, subjective feelings and preference; hence, sexual feelings become especially relevant. Although sexual intercourse is a universal symbol of marriage, the institution of marriage could exist even within a society that was not heterosexist or homophobic. In other words, we live in a society that has made sexuality and sexual orientation of great importance to personal relationships, and marriage is increasingly seen as such a personal relationship. The lesbian continuum implies that heterosexuality is the enemy, when in fact male dominance in heterosexual relations is the enemy. Heterosexual relations have embodied male dominance, but I do not believe that this connection is inevitable or absolute.
Many lesbian and radical feminists disagree with this position because they see heterosexual relations as unequal by definition. For example, Jill Johnston in Lesbian Nation notes with some sarcasm that it is difficult to conceive of an equal sexual relationship between two people when one is the biological aggressor. It is, she points out, the man who retains the prime organ of invasion. But just because the penis and sexual intercourse has been symbolized as invasion does not mean it must continue to be. Intercourse could mean destroying the penis in a vaginal vortex, or it could mean mutual pleasuring. The meaning of intercourse does not inhere in the act but in the mind. Ti Grace Atkinson argues that equal heterosexual relations are a contradiction in terms: how can one have equality between master and slave? But, again, the master-slave relationship is not inherent in men and women or in sexual intercourse but is socially constructed and symbolized.
Monique Wittig wants to do away with the term woman entirely because for her woman means a relationship of servitude to a man. I believe we lose too much by doing away with woman, which has connotations of strength. In my terms, what Wittig is saying is that woman has become the same as wife, and this is true. The lesbian insight is that the heterosexual couple is male-dominated and is expected to be male-dominated in spite of the egalitarian gloss we give to the idea of marriage. Wittig suggests we use the term lesbian to mean "not being in the service of a dominant male." Per-
haps what needs to be done away with instead is the term wife, not in the sense of heterosexual partner, but in the sense of underling.