Poet, major voice in American feminist since the late 1960s. She has explored the ways in which patriarchal society oppresses women and the ways in which women have responded to that oppression. Her analysis of “compulsory heterosexuality” is her most lasting contribution to literary and social theory, wide range of topics, from the silencing of women’s voices to the history of childbirth and motherhood. Like Elaine Showalter and Susan Bordo, Rich links patriarchal oppression to power exerted directly (and often violently) on women’s bodies. Her concern with the psychic and social supports of sexual identity also links her work to the queer theory of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Increasingly identified with the women’s movement throughout the 1970s, composing poetry with feminist themes but also for the first time writing prose. By the mid-1970s she was openly lesbian, and she was exploring all aspects of what she calls “lesbian experience”. Her work in the 1980s and 1990s also included new attempts to connect to her Jewishness, her family and the poetic tradition.
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience” (1980)
This essay has been widely influential. It marked the end of sisterhood feminism, the assumption that all women were sisters in their shared oppression. She highlights the presence of both lesbians and heterosexual women in the feminist movement and calls on feminism to acknowledge its fear of lesbians. As those hostile to feminism often dismiss it as the complaints of a small group of lesbians, many 1970s feminists went out of their way to prove their heterosexuality. Lesbians and lesbian experience became practically taboo within the movement (except in its more radical branches). Her essay, along with the feminist work of women of color and of working-class women, challenged a feminism that claimed to speak for all women yet assumed the viewpoint of a heterosexual, middle-class white woman. Much of the feminist work of the 1980s was devoted to considering the ramifications of these differences (of race, class, and sexual orientation) for the category “woman” and to attending to how such differences would strengthen or weaken feminist activism.
Rich’s main purpose is to consider the extent to which heterosexual desire and identity are fundamental to women’s oppression. Heterosexuality is not natural but social, and it should be analyzed as any social institution. How is heterosexuality established and maintained? What groups resist it? What alternatives must be suppressed for it to prevail? Who benefits from and who is harmed by this institution’s dominance? What forms of enforcement underwrite the dominance? Heterosexuality is compulsory because only partners of the opposite sex are deemed appropriate, all same-sex desire must be denied or indulged in secret, and various kinds of same-sex bonding (including friendships) are viewed with suspicion. Compulsory heterosexuality ensures that women are sexually accessible to men, with consent or choice on the women’s part neither legally nor practically taken into account. Compulsory heterosexuality is an institution that punishes those who are not heterosexual and systematically ensures the power of men over women.
In The Origin of the Family, Kathleen Gough lists 8 characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies: deny women their sexuality(clitoridectomy and infibulation); force it upon them (rape, wife beating, father-daughter incest); command and exploit their labour to control their produce (marriage and motherhood as unpaid production, male control of abortion, contraception, etc); control or rob them of their children (seizure of children from lesbian mothers); confine them physically and prevent their movement (rape as terrorism, purdah, foot binding, veil); use of them as objects in male transactions (arranged marriages, call-girls, geisha); cramp their creativeness (witch and female healers prosecutions, erasure of female tradition); keep them from large areas of knowledge and culture (non-education of females).
Catharine MacKinnon in Sexual Harassment of Working Women argued that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination because the act reinforces the social inequality of women to men. She said women are horizontally segregated by gender and occupy an inferior position in the workplace.
Kathleen Barry describes all the enforced conditions under which women live subject to men: prostitution, marital rape, father-daughter and brother-sister incest, wife beating, pornography, bride price, selling of daughters, genital mutilation, and purdah. Women are expendable as long as the sexual and emotional needs of the male can be satisfied. Women are sexual being whose responsibility is the sexual service of men.
As compulsory sexuality is central to preserving the inequality between men and women, Rich argues that the issue feminists have to address is not simple ‘gender inequalitynor 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, economic, and emotional access. Feminism cannot truly comprehend the sources and system of inequality if it does not analyze the institution of compulsory heterosexuality.
Three topics in her essay have been especially important for feminist literary theory:
1. Sexualized relations of power within institutions: women face the trials experienced by all subordinates in hierarchical institutions and they must also present themselves as attractive according to dominant standards of heterosexual desirability and be concerned with sexuality in the appropriate ways (e.g., be flirtatious within the proper bounds, be supportive of male superiors). Such expectations, rarely conscious, even more rarely explicit, permeate public male-female relationships. They form part of a larger unwritten set of rules about the relative positions of men and women in society.
2. Lesbian experience: and the lesbian continuum- challenges the notion that women need men by calling attention to all the ways in which women interact with one another, all the activities central to their lives that do not involve connection to a man. She wants to highlight how hostile to and threatened by women’s independent action patriarchal society is and the prevalence of such action despite the price paid for it. The lesbian continuum includes a variety of relationships between and among women, ranging from the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, [to] the giving and receiving of practical and political support. By desexualizing the term lesbian, Rich calls our attention to the variety of bonds formed between women and to the various functions those bonds play in women’s lives. Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and of a compulsory way of life.
3. Questions of sexual identity: How is sexual identity formed? Through what processes of psychic identification does a self form heterosexual and/or homosexual desires? Rich is more suspicious if psychoanalytic understandings of these processes than are many subsequent queer theorists but she recognizes that the law of compulsory heterosexuality plays a crucial role in the formation of selves, even as she notes that the early bond of the girl baby with her mother works against the injunction to be heterosexual. The notion of the lesbian continuum recognizes that sexuality comes in many forms and results in many different behaviors –a variety badly captured by the simple dichotomy homosexual/heterosexual. Two lies sustain compulsory heterosexuality: women are inevitably drawn to men and women turn to women out of hatred for men.
She comes very close here to queer theory’s interest in examples that challenge the terms by which we make the world and our experiences intelligible. However, she is impatient with the poststructuralist and French psychoanalytic theory that stands behind much queer theory: she uses her own idiom. Desire is neither unitary nor fixed once for all. Women especially suffer in a heterosexual regime that ignores the fluidity of desire in favor of channeling that desire toward heterosexual unions in which the needs of the male are primary.

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