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PRINT Summer 2019

LET’S GO, LESBIANS

Jill Johnston and an unidentified woman embrace onstage during “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” Town Hall, New York, April 30, 1971. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

"ALL WOMEN ARE LESBIANS,” the writer Jill Johnston told a packed house of rowdy New York literati in the spring of 1971, two years and forty blocks removed from the violent queer riots that consecrated the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn as Ground Zero of gay liberation. Johnston was fighting the same war in a different theater—the Town Hall theater on West Forty-Third Street, to be exact, now bristling with cultural elites who had paid twenty-five dollars a head to hear a debate on the women’s movement. “All women are lesbians,” Johnston told them, “except those who don’t know it, naturally.”

Johnston—dungarees and all, the token degenerate on a panel on women’s liberation headlined by noted man-fucker Germaine Greer and moderated by noted man Norman Mailer—was one of the ones who knew it. Over dinner in Chinatown, the Theater for Ideas organizer had advised the panelists, among them literary critic Diana Trilling and National Organization for Women chapter president Jacqueline Ceballos, to craft their remarks in response to Mailer’s controversial “The Prisoner of Sex,” recently published in Harper’s. The book-length essay had commandeered most of the issue, ending with a smug parenthetical in which the author boasted of ending the piece with a parenthetical. Johnston couldn’t get through the thing.

Now, in bell-bottoms and a rose-trimmed denim jacket, Johnston read in the limber, free-associative style she had been developing in weekly dance and art columns for the Village Voice, which Mailer himself had cofounded in 1955. She was arriving somewhere between a Beat poem and a tight five. “Who vants the Moon ven ve can land on Venus?” Johnston asked the raucous crowd. (Mailer had written 115,000 words about the moon landing for Life.) Soon, another coup: “He said, ‘I want your body.’ She said, ‘You can have it when I’m through with it.’” Howls of laughter filled the auditorium.

It was here, in the penumbra of someone else’s star, that Mailer decided to interrupt, claiming that Johnston had had “fifteen minutes already” and that it wasn’t fair to the other panelists. (In the documentary Town Bloody Hall [1979], shot that evening by D. A. Pennebaker, Johnston would appear to speak for about eight minutes before Mailer stuck in his oar—the same amount of time taken by Ceballos and Greer.) Suddenly, mistaking Johnston’s stunned pause for her cue, a long-haired woman in shiny brown pants slipped swiftly out of the wings and began necking with Johnston onstage; a second confederate soon joined them, the three women collapsing into a sapphic pile behind the rostrum.

Flustered and flush with anger, Mailer got mean. “Now come on, either play with the team or pick up your marbles and get lost,” he spat into the mic. “Come on, Jill, be a lady.” Later, Susan Sontag would ask him from the front row why he kept using that word, lady. Some members of the audience, whose constituents were already confabulating wildly with one another, urged Mailer to let Johnston continue. “What’s the matter, Mailer?” a woman shouted. “You threatened ’cause you found a woman you can’t fuck?”

As she would reflect two years later in her memoir Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973), now a canonical text of lesbian separatism, Johnston had agreed to take part in the debate against her better judgment. In retrospect, the affair had clearly been engineered to promote Mailer’s new book. The New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, present that evening, would declare it Mailer’s best. As the male moderator of a dialogue on women’s lib, the forty-eight-year-old novelist and failed mayoral candidate had deposited himself at the center of attention, flanked on either side by two “ladies of the Liberation,” as he called them in Harper’s. “Better to expire as a devil in the fire than an angel in the wings,” he wrote there, expressing the sentiment of a man who had burned through so many wives by this point that it was getting hard to remember which one of them he’d stabbed.

Heterosexual feminists alleged that lesbians were imitating male chauvinism and using the movement as a louche excuse to pick up chicks; the lesbians shot back that heterosexual feminism was plainly a contradiction in terms. (No one liked the bisexuals.)

Things were only made worse by the presence of Greer, who would, the next month, grace the cover of Life magazine under the caption “Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like”—a “giant godiva rising out of the celtic mists,” Johnston calls her. “Many people although nobody actually said it were looking forward to the town hall affair as the great matchmaking epithalamium of the century,” quips an irritated Johnston, to whom Greer had already commented that she “wouldn’t mind fucking” their esteemed moderator. (Greer was hot in the 1970s, but that was nothing time and transphobia couldn’t fix.) Greer’s very person—to the Town Hall she had worn a sleeveless black dress and a fox stole (“cost a pound she said afterwards”)—seemed to prove that, when you got right down to it, heterosexual feminism was nothing less than an elaborate mating ritual.

This was Johnston’s diagnosis, but it was also, interestingly, Mailer’s. “The angry feminists after all all they needed was a good fuck might be a line you’d expect to find in the very article that brought us all together,” Johnston writes of his Harper’s piece. The two species of chauvinist—male and lesbian—could find in this intuition their common ancestral bone: namely, contempt for the weak-willed heterosexual woman who couldn’t follow the logic of women’s liberation all the way to the end. The idea gratified the novelist but radicalized the dance critic. “The lesbian is the revolutionary feminist,” Johnston asserts in Lesbian Nation, “and every other feminist is a woman who wants a better deal from her old man.”

And so it fell to Johnston to holler out one last nuptial objection from the back of the church. The brief, amorous zap, for which the writer had enlisted two of her friends, was in her estimation “the most satisfactory plan short of bombing the place.” A self-described exhibitionist, Johnston rarely passed up an opportunity to épater la bourgeoise. The summer prior, the Voice had dispatched her to a Women’s Strike for Equality lawn party at art collectors Ethel and Robert Scull’s chic monochrome bungalow in East Hampton—“the ultimate sort of party where nobody shows up except the people who write about it.” Accosting organizer Betty Friedan, the cofounder of NOW, Johnston asked her point-blank if she thought gay liberation and women’s liberation were connected. “Her eyes went big ’n bulgy and her lipstick leered crimson and she said crisply enunciating each word that ‘it’ is not an issue.” Later, as Friedan addressed the assembled guests in a polka-dot dress that slipped off her shoulders as she spoke, Johnston ditched her pants and dove into the Sculls’ swimming pool, removing her top after the second length. “I always say if you have a pool, you have a pool,” a resigned Ethel Scull told the Times.

The lesbian question had by then been roiling women’s lib for months. That spring in New York, the Lavender Menace, so named for a disparaging phrase of Friedan’s, had hijacked the Second Congress to Unite Women to protest the exclusion of lesbians from the movement. Heterosexual feminists alleged that lesbians were imitating male chauvinism and using the movement as a louche excuse to pick up chicks; the lesbians shot back that heterosexual feminism was plainly a contradiction in terms. (No one liked the bisexuals.) In short, everyone was busy accusing everyone else of trying to get laid. This was the hairy, horned heart of it, a generalized anxiety that women’s liberation would be unmasked as sexual politics in the worst sense of Kate Millett’s famous phrase: sex transvested as politics, a Russian doll of policy proposals and radical protests that nevertheless housed at its center a single four-letter word.

This was the needle that Johnston would try to thread in Lesbian Nation, asserting that revolutionary lesbianism wasn’t just about who you balled, but that it wasn’t not about that either. “Feminists who still sleep with the man are delivering their most vital energies to the oppressor,” she writes more than once. Like heterosexual feminists, Johnston was duly suspicious of butch-femme roleplaying, which she saw as a survival tactic that developed among half-closeted, politically unconscious lesbians in the ’50s. But no diesel dyke was half as embarrassing as a boyfriend. “If radical feminism is addressing itself to the ‘total elimination of sex roles’ while still talking sex in relation to the man who defines these roles in the sex act by a certain historical biological-cultural imperative,” she writes, “they are going in circles of unadulterated contradictory bullshit.”

No one was more vulnerable to charges of ulterior motives, however, than Johnston herself. If she was less of a lothario than Mailer, it wasn’t for lack of trying. “Until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution,” Johnston declares—a battle-ax of an idea that, when brandished in one hand, left the other one free to wander up the movement’s skirt. No reader of Lesbian Nation will emerge without the impression that Jill Johnston, bless her, was one frisky motherfucker. At the Sculls’, she requests a dance with Gloria Steinem, who later told a mutual acquaintance that Johnston was the first woman who had ever made a pass at her. (“It sort of threw me. But on the other hand I really liked her.”) She feels up Ti-Grace Atkinson through a bulky sweater on New Year’s Day before the latter loses her nerve. “I liked her below the chin,” she writes of Friedan. And that’s to say nothing of all the broads she actually beds in Lesbian Nation, from an heiress named Polly to the pair of women she spotted one evening necking in a Volkswagen. So what if this wasn’t the revolution? Then again, so what if it was?

As for separatism, well, nice work if you can get it. Johnston plays the militant, but the “fugitive Lesbian Nation” of the title is a flying castle, not a political program. “I mean the man is paying me to write this book,” she concedes in parentheses. Of her impromptu dip in the Hamptons, Johnston protests that she was merely “hot and drunk.” Of the Town Hall affair, she writes, “I dunno. People will do anything for excitement. Rent a big hall and invite your friends.” Than this one will not find a finer description of what really goes on in New York literary circles, and Lesbian Nation is a sober reminder that much of what we remember as women’s liberation was just some stuff that happened at some parties, etc., in that city’s greater metropolitan area. Don’t get me wrong, Johnston was right—about women and men and sex and the rest of it. The thing was always doing something about it. (I mean the man is paying me to write this essay.) 

Andrea Long Chu is a writer based in New York. Her book Femaleswill be published by Verso in October.