The Rebel Girl: Women’s Space, Contested Terrain

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Catherine Sameh

MY PARTNER AND I recently went camping, an attempt at rest and relaxation. We were brutally reminded that for women, this isn’t possible even in the seemingly idyllic world of nature.

Our first night there, loud, angry, drunk men controlled our campsite, whooping and hollering sexist remarks into the wee hours of the morning. The second night, we were harassed as we changed clothing in our tent.

Finally we had to pack up and return to the safety of our urban neighborhood. The experience was deeply upsetting for both of us, reminding us that everywhere, still, it is a man’s world.

This is no new reminder. Lately I am struck by how easy, still, for men to behave however they desire. That in spite–indeed, sometimes because–of the women’s movement, men still control so much of our public space with an arrogance that astounds me.

I see this on a weekly, if not daily, basis in the women’s bookstore where I work. As a founder of this bookstore, I and the others I work with have tried to create a welcoming space for all women, children and yes, even men.

Many men support the store, buying books for their sisters, friends, partners or themselves. These men understand the importance of supporting feminist projects and have made a commitment to feminism by investing in their community’s women’s bookstore.

But lately, more and more men come into the store either to question the validity of feminism and feminist bookstores, or to entertain themselves by checking out our lesbian books, magazines and videos. This latter phenomenon used to simply annoy me, but increasingly disturbs me with every new encounter.

While I believe our store, and the resources we carry, should be accessible to everyone, I am alarmed that more and more men feel perfectly comfortable using those resources for themselves. Lesbian visibility and the popularizing of lesbian culture seem to be working in their favor.

This phenomenon is in part a result of the depoliticization (cooptation?) of the queer movement. While working for greater lesbian visibility in mainstream culture is important, the focus on “ordinary” (meaning middle class, white, traditionally beautiful) lesbians who just want to be like everyone else (i.e. have a beautiful house, wife and kids), does not fundamentally challenge the deeply entrenched homophobia and patriarchy that, together, keep all women from living full and free lives.

Billboards, magazines, videos, commercials, television shows, films and books with images of beautiful lesbians may, in part, signify mass acceptance of gays and lesbians into society. But in a world where so many women–gay and heterosexual–are increasingly marginalized because of their class, race or ability, and where men still control public life and feel entitled to women’s and lesbians’ space and culture, it’s crucial we keep feminism at the heart of any movement for lesbian visibility.

ATC 70, September-October 1997