1984–85: D.C. Area Feminist Chorus

The story behind this one starts way, way back, long before I moved to D.C. the first time.

My family wasn’t especially musical. My maternal grandmother played the piano by ear, which I thought was cool, but unless Granmummie was visiting,[1] what music there was in our household came via records and the radio.

Not to discount the importance of records, however: When I left for college, I absconded with my father’s Joan Baez album, her first. I didn’t need to take his Tom Lehrer LPs — Lehrer’s first, the one whose cover featured a caricature of the pianist as the devil surrounded by the red flames of hell (see below), and That Was the Year That Was — because most of the songs were embedded in my memory.

I’ve still got that Joan album, and the 10 or so of its successors that I acquired legitimately in the following years, and I still know a ridiculous number of Tom Lehrer songs by heart.[2]

See what I mean? Originally released in 1953, when I was 2.

Like many middle-class-and-up suburban kids my siblings and I took piano lessons with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The teacher wasn’t especially inspired or inspiring. I did learn to read music, but I didn’t learn to pick songs out of the air the way my grandmother did. That was disappointing, but what I didn’t really understand was what all that tedious practice could lead to. If I had, maybe I would have persisted.

Or maybe not.

I did, however, like to sing. Singing was the best part of church, where we went almost every Sunday morning as a family: St. Peter’s Episcopal in Weston, Mass. From fifth grade through eighth I sang alto in the junior choir. After eighth grade, when we aged out of both the junior choir and Sunday school, we could join the adult choir, but the adult choir sang at the 11 a.m. service and my family went to the 9:15. That’s when I left the church.

In my eighth-grade year, Becky B., also an eighth-grader, a soprano who’d been in the choir as long as I had, told me that I always sang off-key. To avoid ruining the anthem, she said, I should just pretend to sing.

No one else — not the choir director/organist, not any other member of the choir, not any of my music teachers in school — had ever told me any such thing. Becky B. didn’t like me and I didn’t like her; she was a goody-two-shoes who was always playing up to the adults. But I feared she was right, that I had been found out.

Somehow I made it through the year. Then I stopped singing. Period. When I entered high school in the fall, the music teacher encouraged me more than once to try out for Glee Club. Since she directed the Glee Club, this should have given me confidence, but it didn’t. I was sure I’d fail and confirm beyond any doubt that Becky B. was right: I couldn’t sing.

It was years before I recognized the pattern: I’d pursue a skill, an instrument, a foreign language — then abandon it when I was on the verge of being able to actually use it. At that point you’re bound to make mistakes. In my family making mistakes got you creamed. My very intelligent and well-read father regularly ridiculed my mother for getting the wrong answer or saying anything he considered stupid. I learned to get my facts straight before I opened my mouth. From an early age I’d been good at words, anything to do with words. I stuck to words, spoken and written, but never sung.

I never stopped listening to music, though, or hanging around people who made music or were somehow in the music biz. Gradually, and usually in fits and starts, I got braver, venturing into territories where I didn’t have all the answers and was bound to make mistakes: taking that first editorial job at the American Red Cross, for instance, or becoming the book buyer at Lammas Bookstore. I did well at both, but note that they both had to do with words: in some ways I was pushing the boundaries of what I was already good at.

The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was founded in 1978, prompted by a singing workshop led by Holly Near during that year’s Gay Pride celebration. In its early months it was leaderless, with members leading warm-ups and teaching each other songs.

At some point, they decided to engage a director/conductor, and after interviewing several candidates, they hired Deb Weiner. Deb either was already or was soon to become one of my housemates, but this did not prompt me to join the chorus. If anything, it was a deterrent: What if it was your housemate who had to tell you that you couldn’t sing on key and were dragging the group down?

I have an indelible memory of Deb conducting the combined D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at a holiday concert, in either 1981 or 1982. To be the conductor channeling all that massive sound! I was awed.

How did I come to finally join the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus? Well, I have it on good authority — my own words from 36 years ago — that I set out to write a story about the chorus for Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture “and almost immediately found [my]self singing in the second soprano section.” By then Deb had moved on after several very successful years, Caroline Foty was the chorus director, and I was living on the far northeast fringe of Capitol Hill, subletting a large room from and sharing a kitchen with photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB).

By then, probably in 1984, I had joined the brand-new Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (GLCW). How did I hear about it? I don’t remember. This was a small group, conducted by Tess Garcia, and my most vivid memory was of a performance we gave where Congressman Barney Frank, dressed in a leisure suit, reclined across several chairs in the front row. Most of the homemade cassette tape I have from a June 1985 performance is unplayable, but on the one audible cut, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” we sound pretty good. According to the label, the program also included some P.D.Q. Bach, the spiritual “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and selections from Annie.

I noted the most striking contrast between my two choruses in that Hot Wire story: “Because the GLCW did not choose to specialize in works by gay or lesbian composers, a chorus member could walk into any music store and be overwhelmed by the available selection.” Not so any Feminist Chorus member: all our music consisted of handwritten scores photocopied or similarly duplicated, because none of it had been published. Director Foty did some of the arranging, and fortunately feminist choruses were thriving at the time, and lots of sharing went on among them through the Sistersingers network. We were breaking ground, pioneers, in the forefront, and very aware of it.

We sang at least two songs from the Balkan women’s singing tradition. I can still fake the second soprano part of “Shto Mi e Milo,” which has been widely recorded.

One of my favorites from the chorus repertoire was a four-part setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t realize till about an hour ago not only that Mary Travers had performed it spectacularly, but that she wrote the solo setting and recorded it on her 1972 album Morning Glory.[3] I have a copy of the poem on my fridge: “I shall die / but that is all I shall do for Death . . .” It reminds me of the song.

The chorus made decisions collectively, including decisions about repertoire. “Conscientious Objector” almost didn’t make the cut; that was before I joined, so I don’t know what the objections were. As I recall, a couple of chorus members thought Malvina Reynolds’s “We Don’t Need the Men” was too anti-male. For others among us, this was a plus, not least because it was so tongue-in-cheekily Malvina. It was fun to remind people that Malvina wrote it in 1959.

The most controversial song I remember from my time in the chorus was “Sisters, Spring of Vietnam”; it clearly favored the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the French and the Americans, and that did not sit well with some members. Singing along with Lucha’s version I remember the tune, the harmony, and many of the words, so I’m pretty sure we sang it anyway, but some choristers chose to sit it out.

The back of the 1985 Sisterfire T. The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is about halfway down.

My last gig with the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was at Sisterfire, June 22 & 23, 1985. By the end of that summer I was semi-settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Music was much easier to find than feminism, and find it I did, volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse starting in 1986.

It took a while to find a way to start singing again. My way in turned out to be the annual Christmas performance of Messiah, sung by a large (and ever growing) pickup chorus of Vineyarders, many of whom sang regularly in various church choirs.

I’d never sung Messiah before, and most of the chorus seemed to know it by heart. More, although I could read music, I couldn’t “sight-sing,” sing from a score on first acquaintance. I still regret not having the nerve to audition for Glee Club in high school, where everybody learned to do stuff like that. I worked hard, I learned, and when, in my third year, I made it through the glorious “Amen” without losing my place, I thought I’d arrived.

The annual Messiah sings eventually grew into the Island Community Chorus, which did several concerts a year and with which I stayed until around 2005. I’ve managed to keep singing since then. In the age of Covid-19, I’ve participated almost weekly in Zoom sings (Zings?) with Susan Robbins of Libana, a women’s ensemble whose music I’ve loved since at least 1980, and a bunch of whose recordings I’ve got.

But it was the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus that got me singing again, and though I didn’t sing with it for much more than a year, this shirt is about how I found my (singing) voice again.

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notes

[1] Which was fairly often, because she lived only eight miles away.

[2] This is so common among the political circles I’ve moved in over the decades that if I sing or even hum a line, often someone in the vicinity will sing the next one back to me. A favorite memory from my freshman year at Georgetown U.: As a marshal for the huge Mobe (Mobilization Against the War) march on Washington on November 15, 1969, I was stationed on Pennsylvania Ave. between 6th and 7th. We were close enough together that we could reach out and touch our neighbors on either side. It was sunny but bloody cold, and my winter gear was still back in Massachusetts: I had this idea that since D.C. was a southern city I wouldn’t need it till after Thanksgiving. Wrong. Anyway, while waiting for the sun to get fully up and the march to start, we did a lot of jogging in place and making coffee runs to the nearest drugstore. Eventually one of us — maybe me, maybe not — started in on a Tom Lehrer song. No idea which one, so many of them would have been appropriate — maybe “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” with its lines “I’ll watch the guided missiles / while the old FBI watches me”? We were sure the FBI and who knew what other intelligence agencies were around.

[3] My source for this is a detailed bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay on, of all things, the website for the ABC Oriental Rug & Cleaning Company in Ithaca, N.Y. There has to be an interesting story here, but I’ll have to save that rabbit hole for another time. The page seems to be updated regularly: it includes a reference to the ongoing pandemic and other events.

1980s: Sisterfire, Equinox & Sophie’s Parlor

Me looking stern in my 1983 Sisterfire T. The blue hat doesn’t quite work with the shirt and shorts, IMO. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire is the only women’s music festival I ever attended. Both my T-shirts call it “an open-air celebration of women artists,” so it wasn’t just about music, but music was the main event. I was never seriously tempted by other music festivals, which were proliferating in all parts of the country in the 1980s. Partly it was that, working in a feminist bookstore and living in a lesbian community as I did, I didn’t need to travel to hang out with other dykes. Mostly I wasn’t and never have been comfortable in crowds of people I don’t know.

Even crowds of all women.

Back of the 1985 Sisterfire shirt. Pretty impressive lineup, no? The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is in the middle, right above Diane Lindsay & Sue Fink.

I have, however, been known to enjoy myself in very large groups if I have a role to play. At Sisterfire I was part of the Lammas/Ladyslipper team, selling mostly records but some books as well. In 1985, the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus, in which I was then singing, was one of the street performers, so you’ll find its name on the back of the Sisterfire shirt for that year. Chorus members performed wearing the chorus’s own shirt, and you bet I’ve still got mine. It’s got its own story to tell and will get to tell it soon.

Me looking less stern and more color-coordinated in my 1985 Sisterfire T. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire’s other compelling attraction was location: it took place in the close-in D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. It was founded in 1982 by Amy Horowitz and the D.C.-based production company Roadwork, and the T-shirts testify that I was there in 1983 and 1985.

I left town in a U-Haul truck not long after that year’s Sisterfire, which my T-shirt says was on June 22 & 23, but Sisterfire continued into the late ’80s, not without controversy, not least because men could attend. I don’t remember the male presence being distracting or disruptive. On one hot afternoon, I do remember the announcer asking men to keep their shirts on because thanks to local ordinances and conventions women couldn’t take ours off.*

By the early 1980s, Roadwork was, in community terms, a powerhouse, booking national tours for the likes of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near and producing such standout concerts as the Varied Voices of Black Women (1978) and Cris Williamson’s appearance at Constitution Hall (1980). Naturally we sometimes snarkily referred to it as Roadhog, and a local graphic artist sported a brilliant parody of the 1983 Sisterfire shirt: it looked just like the official one till you realized the letters spelled out SISTERBLITZ.

Equinox Productions was a grassroots women’s production company — “group” is probably a better word, because they were all volunteers — formed to produce gigs too modest to get Roadwork’s attention.

One major benefit of Equinox and similar groups was the opportunity they gave women to develop skills in areas we’d been generally shut out of, like concert production and sound tech. D.C.-based Woman Sound, owned and managed by audio engineer Boden Sandstrom,[1] was a pioneer in the field and highly professional by the time this article appeared in the June 22, 1981, Washington Post.

By the time I moved back to D.C. in 1977, women’s music’s center of gravity — Olivia Records and the recording artists associated with it — had moved to the West Coast, but D.C. still had a thriving local music scene. Food for Thought, a popular vegetarian restaurant on Connecticut Ave., frequently featured live music; performers got paid by passing the hat. At least once singer-songwriter Casse Culver came down from the upstairs dressing room after her set, bandana masking her face like a Wild West bandit, and conducted pass-the-hat as a stickup. You probably couldn’t get away with that now, but at the time it was hilarious.

My favorite local musicians at the time included singer-songwriter Judy Reagan and the blues duo of Abbe Lyons and Cheryl Jacobs. Church basements and college classrooms[2] were popular year-round venues, and music could regularly be heard at rallies, demonstrations, and Gay & Lesbian Pride Day every June.

Sophie’s Parlor, the women’s radio collective’s show on WPFW-FM, was part of the mix, featuring interviews, books, and more as well as music. I’m pretty sure that this shirt was given to me by my Lammas colleague Deb Morris, who continued in the book biz long after I left and with whom (thanks to Facebook) I’m back in touch.

Sophie’s Parlor still has a weekly show on WPFW-FM. Wow. Its Facebook page says it’s “the oldest continuously running women’s music radio collective in the United States,” which is more than remarkable. The FB page also notes that it was founded at Georgetown University in 1972. I dropped out of GU halfway through my junior year, in December 1971; I remained in D.C. for the next few months, but I wasn’t aware of Sophie’s at that time. Next step is to see if I can livestream their weekly show: Wednesdays @ 3 p.m. EST.

I’ve long had a mild hankering to do a radio show — mild enough that I never sought out an opportunity to actually do it, and no opportunity ever presented itself. The closest I ever came was getting to pick what got played on the Lammas record player whenever I was working the floor. (Often I worked upstairs, keeping inventory on 5×8 file cards, one for each title, and placing orders. This was in the pre-digital age.) This was often how customers first heard the latest Cris Williamson or Holly Near, since they weren’t getting airplay in radioland, and of course we took requests. On Valentine’s Day every year I’d play all the shit-kicking anti-love songs I knew of. Favorites included Therese Edell’s “Winter of ’76,” Judy Reagan’s “Dispose of Properly,” and a whole bunch of Willie Tyson songs. Sample:

You go out to the kitchen
to get somethin' to eat
I watch you pick your bay leaves from a poison ivy tree
I got a feelin' you're gonna starve to death when I'm gone
Here's a brand new dime
Now you call me if I'm wrong
     © 1977 Willola Calloway Tyson

I’ve got a coda to this post but it involves a photo and I’m waiting to hear if I’ve got the photographer’s OK to use it. For the moment, that’s all, folks!

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Notes

Curious fact: These four music shirts, all from the first half of the 1980s, are all muscle shirts, i.e., sleeveless. What makes this noteworthy is that I have maybe ten muscle shirts total in my extensive collection, and the others vary in subject: one’s goddess-related (you can see it at the bottom of the pagans post), one’s a dragon, and one’s from Smedley’s bookshop in Ithaca, N.Y. (that one will be along shortly), etc. So why (1) are so many of my muscle shirts music-related? and (2) did they go out of fashion?

* For more about Sisterfire’s early years, and why it didn’t happen in 1986, see Nancy Seeger, “Sisterfire: Why Did Roadwork Skip 1986,” Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, vol. 2, no. 4 (November 1986), p. 28. All of Hot Wire‘s 30 issues are available online as downloadable PDFs. You can find this one here. The story notes that in 1985 a petition opposing Sisterfire circulated in Takoma Park. Reasons included traffic and parking, noise, “the smell of marijuana smoke,” and “some women attending the festival wore no shirts.”

[1] Boden, then going by Barbara, is credited as engineering assistant, to veteran engineer Marilyn Ries, on Casse Culver’s 1976 LP Three Gypsies (Urana Records, founded by Marilyn Ries and K Gardner). The June 1981 WaPo story says that Woman Sound was then coming up on its sixth anniversary, which would have put its founding around the time Three Gypsies was being recorded.

While poking around online (I’ve been doing a lot of that while working on The T-Shirt Chronicles), I came across this tribute by Boden for her friend and mentor Tommy Linthicum, who passed away in 2007. In it she explains how she got into biz: Casse was looking for someone to train to run her sound. They eventually became partners.

[2] Particularly at George Washington University, where Lisa C., the office manager for the Women’s Studies department, was a frequent collaborator for both musical and literary events.

Musical Heritage Society

When I wrote in my Sweet Honey” post that I had “at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music,” I was thinking strictly of my D.C. days. I’ve got a bunch more from after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, but I haven’t counted them yet.

Anyway, this is an odd-shirt-out from my years in Washington: it has nothing to do with women’s music. Well, almost nothing: At the moment I’m playing a Musical Heritage record: A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, which features soprano Emma Kirkby and the ensemble Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page.

I didn’t learn much about classical music growing up, but I liked it. A friend of the family introduced me to the Musical Heritage Society, a subscription service that operated like the Book-of-the-Month Club. Each month a new recording was featured, which you could take or waive, and you could also order from their extensive catalogue. This spared me the angst of browsing the offerings at local shops without knowing what I was doing — although there was a sales clerk at a record shop on Connecticut Ave. who knew I liked early music and usually had a recommendation for me whenever I walked in.1

My tastes were fairly eclectic but I was particularly drawn to music of the medieval period, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and anything choral. While living in England (1974–75), I even came to enjoy opera. It wasn’t hard to find full-length performances on TV, and all things classical could be found on the radio.2

Back in the States, I became a regular listener of Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning pro Musica show on public radio. Based in Boston, it was carried by one of the D.C. stations, but I can’t remember which one. WETA-FM? WGMS-FM? I vividly recall waking one morning in the early 1980s to a eureka! moment: Robert J. was playing Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” Oh my God, thought I. Someone’s put Jesus in the pagan tradition from whence he came, of the dying god who rises again in the dance.

The singer (you may have guessed this already) was John Langstaff and the recording was from the Christmas Revels, of which up to that moment I knew nothing. This was long before search engines could tell you anything you wanted to know in seconds — I was several years away from even owning my own PC — so it took me a while to put it all together, but Robert J. was crucial: year after year he was a regular performer at the Revels in Cambridge. Before I left town, I managed to see the D.C. Revels company at (IIRC) George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and to dance with the rest of the sell-out crowd to “Lord of the Dance.”

At the end of the decade, on Martha’s Vineyard, I got to perform in a local version of the Revels, directed by Mary Payne — to sing those songs and dance the sword dance. Serious thrill, and a connection between my various worlds.

No, the Revels never appeared on a Musical Heritage Society recording, but my Revels collection spans several media, from LP to cassette to CD to MP3. Feel free to blame this digression on Robert J. Lurtsema (1931–2000).

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notes

1. Memory tells me this record shop was part of Kramerbooks, but I can’t find any confirmation that Kramerbooks ever carried LPs, so it might have been a separate shop in the same block of Conn. Ave., below Dupont Circle.

2. I may have discovered Steeleye Span and the Chieftains during my time in the UK, or I may have been aware of them earlier. What I know for sure is that their earliest LPs in my collection came back with me from England.

1982 & 1983: Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music, but they have different roots and take off in different directions. No surprise that my attempts to corral them into one blog post led to procrastination, so I’m going to do what a long-ago mentor advised: “chunk them down.” Here’s the first chunk.

I like to think that by 2021 everyone knows Sweet Honey in the Rock, but if you don’t, or even if you do, head on over to YouTube and cue up Sweet Honey — All Tracks. That’ll give you a great soundtrack to read this post by and go about the rest of your day.

Sweet Honey was founded in D.C. in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a lifelong activist, cultural historian, and composer as well as Sweet Honey’s leader for three decades until she retired in 2004. (For an intro to her accomplishments, check out her Wikipedia entry and her own website.)

Just about every year I was in D.C., Sweet Honey did an anniversary concert. I went to most of them. The T-shirt on the left in the photo is from the 1983 one and the one next to it is from 1982.

I was definitely at the 1980 edition at All Souls Church, at which the Good News album was recorded. Good News, released in 1981, was Sweet Honey’s third album. The other one in the photo, B’lieve I’ll Run On . . . See What the End’s Gonna Be, was #2; it came out in 1978 on Holly Near’s Redwood label.1 I’m relieved to report that both are in remarkably good shape.

I’ve often said over the decades that I’ve learned plenty of history from music. When I was a young antiwar activist, songs from the civil rights and labor movements started conversations and gave me clues to follow up on. Decades later the songs of Stan Rogers and James Keelaghan, among others, taught me lots about Canadian history and current events that weren’t well covered south of the border. Sweet Honey’s songs often pulled people and events out of the history books or off the front pages and embedded them in mind and heart in ways that the printed page often can’t.

The songs make connections.2

Chile your waters run red through Soweto
If you heard about Chile
then you heard about Soweto . . .
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

The sounds from the jail cells
of the Wilmington 10
Are echoes of a massacre
keeping Black freedom locked in . . .
     “Echoes,” ©Bernice Johnson Reagon

They call to action.

If you had lived with Denmark Vesey
would you take his stand . . .
If you had lived with Harriet Tubman
would you wade in the water . . .
If you had lived with Sacco & Vanzetti
would you know their names . . .
Do you hear them calling?
Are you living today?
Are you fighting today?
Do you know our names?
Do you know our names?
Do you hear our cries?
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

That’s not all they do, of course. These albums, and Sweet Honey concerts, included love songs, songs of celebration, and songs that remind us of the generations that precede us and those that follow, like Ysaye Barnwell’s settings of “Breaths” by Birago Diop and “On Children,” lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

At the concert that became Good News Bernice Johnson Reagon interrupts the singing of the title song to say a few words:

It’s good news when you reject things as they are,
when you lay down the world as it is
and you take on the responsibility of shaping your own way —
that’s good news.

Everybody talk about spirituals and they say,
Oh lord, black folks singing about going to heaven!
No, this message is for you tonight November the 8th, 1980, in All Souls Church:
Lay down the world, pick up my cross
They don’t say it’s good times, they say good NEWS
It’s hard times when you decide to pick up your own cross
you gon’ catch hell if you don’t do it the way they say do it
but when you lay down the world and shoulder up your cross that’s —
GOOD NEWS
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

I do believe I remember myself well enough from that time to suspect that this message was aimed at me — not me alone, of course, but me among the white women who looked askance at Christianity and God-talk of any kind. My antiwar years had introduced me to Christian traditions that opposed war and fought for justice, to the role of Jews in every progressive movement I ever heard of, and of course to the importance of the Black church in the civil rights movement. But feminism had given me another take on “God the Father” — hell, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology had come out only two years before and I was very much under the influence.

Bernice’s words gave me a whole other take on it. Decades later, on Martha’s Vineyard, I wound up singing in a spirituals choir and learning more about the spirituals, or slave songs. Many of them had double meanings, one for the white masters, one for the Black enslaved people. They were songs of survival and, often, resistance.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer, scholar, and activist, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989.3 It refers to the way that the various aspects of our individual identities — race, sex, class, age, sexuality, etc. — intersect synergistically. These days, I have a hard time explaining to people how intersectional grassroots feminism was in the 1970s and ’80s. Listening to the songs on B’lieve I’ll Run On and Good News gets the point across better than I can, and it takes less time than locating and reading the anthologies that broadened and deepened our understanding of how some of those aspects intersect.

From “Every Woman”:

Every woman who ever loved a woman
You oughta stand up and call her name:
Mama — Sister — Daughter — Lover
     © Bernice Johnson Reagon

Mama, sister, daughter, lover.4 This song was recorded, and being sung in concert, in 1978, people. Keep that in your mind and heart.

Notes

1. All the songs on Good News, and several more, are on Breaths, released in 1988 on Rounder Records. The track for “Good News” includes the Bernice rap that I quoted above, so I’m guessing the whole thing is from that concert. It’s in the iTunes store, so it’s definitely available. No such luck with B’lieve I’ll Run On. Redwood Records went out of business in the 1990s, before the digital music biz got going, but used copies of the vinyl LP and, apparently, a CD can be found by Googling.

2. The references in these two excerpts: “Chile” refers to the overthrow and death by suicide of Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973. The military coup was supported by the CIA. “Soweto,” a township near (and now part of) Johannesburg, South Africa, refers to the uprising of Black students in June 1976 who were protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in the schools. They were met by violent police repression. Official statistics set the number of dead at 176; estimates range as high as 700, and at least 4,000 were injured. The Wilmington 10 were 9 young men and 1 woman wrongfully convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971. Their convictions were overturned in 1980, after all 10 had served almost a decade in prison. They were not retried, and they were pardoned in 2012, by which time 4 of them had died. Their case was a major rallying point through the 1970s.

3. I’m a serious fan of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Check out her African American Policy Forum. Among others things, it organizes excellent panel discussions on a variety of topics. Important podcasts too. Crenshaw helps keep the focus on Black girls and women with #SayHerName, which refuses to let the Black women killed by police be forgotten, and #BlackGirlsMatter. She’s also an early exponent of Critical Race Theory, which isn’t what Fox News thinks it is — but you already knew that, right? 😉

4. Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover was the title of a story collection by Jan Clausen, published by Crossing Press in 1980.

My Only Bread Shirt

During my sojourn in England in 1974–75, I discovered unsliced bread. When I returned to the States in late November 1975, I discovered that sliced bread — at least what was available in the western suburbs of Boston at the time — didn’t measure up. After my Grandma died in February 1976, I moved into her (large) house to take care of it and her Lab, Max. In her big country kitchen I taught myself to make bread. I taught myself out of a paperback book because there were no bakers in my family. As I recall, I caught on quickly. One attempt did turn into the proverbial brick, but that was it.

Apart from almost five years when I was living in an apartment with no oven,1 I have been baking my own bread ever since. Bread is pretty much my only culinary accomplishment. If I don’t bring some form of bread to potlucks, people wonder if I’m OK. For about 25 years in a row I won ribbons for my yeast breads at the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society fair. (Full disclosure: The yeast bread categories were nowhere near as competitive as the quick breads, and forget about brownies and cookies.)

Considering how central bread has been to my daily life for so long, it’s surprising that this is my only bread-related T-shirt. Even more surprising, to me anyway, is that I don’t remember how I came by it. I’ve never been to Gladewater, Texas, so someone must have given it to me, but I don’t recall who. A Google search tells me that Glory Bee Baking Co. closed its doors in 2010. Even though I’d never been there, that made me sad.

Independent bakeries have something in common with independent bookstores, and to paraphrase John Donne, the death of any one of them diminishes me and the communities I’m part of. Just up the street from Lammas Bookstore was the Women’s Community Bakery, which (as I just learned from Googling) closed in 1992.

“Just up the street” I say, but Pennsylvania Avenue SE was like a moat and for all the time I spent in the neighborhood I rarely crossed it.2 I had plenty of opportunities to sample their wares, however, with an emphasis on the cookies, muffins, and other non-bread offerings. If the Women’s Community Bakery ever had its own T-shirt, it must have passed me by.

I do still have my copy of Uprisings: The Whole Grain Bakers’ Book, published in 1983, which includes recipes from more than 30 independent bakeries, including the Women’s Community Bakery. It’s a handsome, spiral-bound volume, with each bakery’s section hand-lettered in its own distinctive style, and the introductory pages cover just about everything you need to know about bread baking if you’ve never done it before.

I rarely baked anything from it because so many of the ingredients could not be found in the supermarkets or ethnic groceries near me. Malt syrup? Millet flour? Soy margarine? Turned-down page corners and check marks do indicate that I tried some of them, though. These days exotic ingredients are easier to find, at least on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m more confident about improvising and substituting than I was four decades ago, so maybe I’ll try again.

What I lack in bread-related T-shirts, I make up for in items related to bread-baking. Not surprisingly, many of these have been given to me by housemates and others with a vested interest in my continuing to make bread. These include my big bread bowl, my green-marble rolling pin, and my copy of Beard on Bread, which is held together with strapping tape. (See photo. My other most used book, Floss and Stan Dworkin’s Bake Your Own Bread, is in three pieces.)

The largest gift is the table I knead bread on. This was rescued from a Mount Pleasant (D.C.) alley by onetime housemate Beverly, she who also made my Feminism Is a Lesbian Plot shirt. Being handy with tools, she installed dowels to stabilize it, and voilà, the perfect kneading table. It’s accompanied me on all my many moves over more than four decades because most kitchen counters are the wrong height for kneading, at least if you’re very slightly over five-foot-four. In between bakings, it masquerades as an ordinary worktable, barely visible under the stacks of files, notebooks, and loose papers piled upon it.

Bread baker’s corner, with kneaded dough ready to be cut into loaves

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notes

1. This jumps ahead to Martha’s Vineyard, where affordable year-round housing was in crisis before I arrived in 1985 but denial was epidemic among the comfortably housed and it’s only been in the last few years that most people started to acknowledge that the situation was desperate. Landlords and tenants collude in evading local bylaws on what constitutes an apartment by omitting stoves from the dwelling. I cooked my meals with a hotplate and microwave, which worked fine — but I couldn’t bake bread. This was in the mid-2000s, from 2002 to 2007.

2. Phase 1, aka “the Phase,” one of the few lesbian-friendly bars in D.C. at the time, was also “just up the street,” across Pennsylvania Ave. on Eighth Street, but if I went there more than half a dozen times in my D.C. years I’d be surprised. I’ve never been a bar person. The Phase closed in 2016 (or maybe 2015, according to one website). The area around Lammas was its own self-contained neighborhood, anchored by Eastern Market, which is still there, seems to be thriving in an upscale sort of way, and even has its own website. I was in Eastern Market several times a week, usually looking for either a pulled-pork sandwich or Doris’s hamantaschen.

1981(?): Annapurna

Apart from the cool slogan and great design, this shirt is distinctive for a couple of other reasons. I don’t have any other shirts in this color (what is it? “rust”?), and it’s one of the few I have in what used to be called “French cut” and now seems to be “women’s,” as opposed to “unisex.”

No, I wasn’t on the 1978 American Women’s Himalayan Expedition to Annapurna. I’ve never had any desire to climb anything that required more than the ability to walk upright. I first learned about the expedition when expedition leader Arlene Blum’s gorgeous book about it came out in 1980. Though the story went places I’d never been, it started in instantly recognizable territory: with the sexism and outright misogyny of the male mountain-climbing elite. I also recognized the powerful determination of women adepts in any male-dominated field to show the men that they are wrong.

I bought the T-shirt when Dr. Blum spoke in D.C. What year was it? I don’t remember, but I’m guessing 1981. Where did she speak? I don’t recall that either. Was I already working at Lammas then? I’ll only know that if I can find an exact date for the event. For sure it didn’t take place at the shop, whose 400 square feet of selling space were far too small for talks and readings. Where did it take place? Once again I’m drawing a blank.[1]

My indelible memory is of Arlene Blum herself, or, more accurately, of my impression of her. In my mind’s eye she has long wavy dark hair, as she does in the Annapurna photos. She is tall, but she seems dressed to look smaller and younger than she is, in a purple and black dress that stops several inches above her knees. She’s trying to look like a schoolgirl, I thought at the time.

Which probably wasn’t her intent, and her dress may not have been purple and black either, but that’s what struck me: this physically and emotionally strong and highly intelligent (she had a doctorate in biochemistry) woman seemed to be downplaying all the traits that made her achievement possible. I’m guessing that she wasn’t nearly as comfortable with the whole book tour routine as she was organizing expeditions, climbing mountains, and doing research — building and leading teams rather than speaking to strangers whom she’d never see again.

By this time, I’d read and devoured Adrienne Rich’s collection The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. I know this for sure: I wrote my name and “Sept. 78” on the flyleaf of the book, a trade paperback that split along the spine maybe three decades ago from repeated readings. It includes Rich’s 1974 “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” written for the leader of an all-women team that perished in a storm on Lenin Peak in August 1974. Narrated in Shatayev’s voice after death, it includes lines from the diary she wrote while she was living, like these:

Now we are ready
and each of us knows it   I have never loved
like this   I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training   the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love[2]

Visiting Arlene Blum’s website just now, I noticed a link for “Peak Lenin” in the Mountaineer section. The year was 1974. The coincidence of place and year gave me goosebumps, but the accompanying slide show was even more startling: Arlene Blum and her climbing buddies and Elvira Schatayeva and her team, along with other mountain-climbers, were all at base camp at Peak Lenin at the same time. Arlene was almost caught by the same storms that killed the Russian women. The slide show includes images of Elvira, known to her friends as Eva.

A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow   We will not live
to settle for less   We have dreamed of this
all of our lives

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notes

[1] To further confuse my already flummoxed memory, I just Googled Arlene Blum Annapurna Washington Post. This turned up a Washington Post story from December 9, 1980, that had Blum in town for an American Alpine Club meeting. This would have been shortly after the book came out. Did she give a public talk then, and did I attend it? If so, I definitely wasn’t working at Lammas, and it might explain why my sketchy memory of the venue doesn’t ring any bells. Another story, from April 1983, refers to a lecture Blum has just given, but it and the article itself focus on her 2,000-mile trek from one end of the Himalayas to the other. The talk I attended was definitely about Annapurna, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that one.

[2] Both this and the quote at the end are from Adrienne Rich’s “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

Pagans, Witches & Healers, Oh My!

Georgetown University is a Jesuit-run Catholic institution, and when I was there, 1969–1971, Catholic undergraduates were required to take four semesters of theology. Non-Catholics could take theology, but I opted for the alternative requirement, a two-year, four-semester course called Comparative Civilizations, aka “Comp Civ.” This was taught by Father Sebes, a diminutive older Jesuit whose academic background was in Far Eastern studies. The course covered Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism, and might (can’t remember for sure) have included some mention of the various flavors of Christianity. We referred to it as Pagan I and Pagan II.[1]

What was my image of “pagan” at that point? Surely I associated “pagan” with the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome, with the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Julius Caesar. The myths were interesting, but they were “back then,” history, and ancient history at that. Besides, the Christians had vanquished the pagans, right?

That changed big-time when I moved back to D.C. in 1977 and came out into lesbian and feminist communities that had been discussing religion, spirituality, ancient history, and related issues for years, and not with academic detachment either. Paganism, loosely defined or not defined at all, was alive, lively, and everywhere. Interest in Wicca, especially of the women-only Dianic sort, had been growing and deepening at at least a decade. (Diana and her Greek counterpart, Artemis, being the very rare goddesses who had as little to do with men as possible.)

Take Lammas Bookstore, where I quickly became a regular customer and eventually, in 1981, the book buyer. Founded in 1973, Lammas was named for the cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. Before I moved back to D.C., I doubt I knew what a cross-quarter day was.

Someone must have given this to me, but I can’t remember who. This was a popular slogan. It was guaranteed to piss humorless Christians off.

The triumph of Christianity over paganism, considered a civilizational advance by the winners (surprise surprise), had also marked the “triumph” of a solitary male god over a pantheon that included goddesses as well as gods. As it turned out, over the centuries and millennia the goddesses in those pantheons had been losing power and status to the gods. In the myths I learned growing up, Hera had power but Zeus had more. It had not always been so.

I came to see Mary in a new light, as a vestige of the once powerful goddesses. The relentless male supremacists of the early Christian Church hadn’t been able to stamp her out. They co-opted her instead. Paradoxically enough, the intensely sexist and often misogynist Catholicism I’d encountered at Georgetown had a female side that the Episcopalianism I’d grown up with lacked.

The Christians were adept at co-opting what they couldn’t entirely suppress. Many major Christian holidays piggy-backed (that’s a polite term for it) on the old pagan solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days: Christmas is Yule (winter solstice), Easter (spring equinox), and so on. The pagan year began with Samhain, Halloween, which I like most of my cohort learned about as a kid in single digits.[2] Clearly there was much more to it than trick-or-treating.

Getting ready to pop the cork at a Lammas anniversary celebration. From left: Liz Snow of Ladyslipper, Lammas owner Mary Farmer, me, Tina Lunson (printer), and Deb Morris. Probably 1983.

Lammas celebrated its anniversary every year with champagne and a big sale; the ceiling of the Seventh Street store was cork-pocked from those celebrations. Lesbian households might observe the various pagan/wiccan holidays, and often enough there were well-attended public rituals that featured singing, poetry, and lots of candles. We identified ourselves to each other by the jewelry we wore (pentacles, labryses,[3] goddess figures), the greetings we exchanged, and of course our T-shirts.

Pulling off my shelves the books that I devoured then and haven’t let go of, I can’t help noticing how many were published in 1979, just as my curiosity was flowering:

  • Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, which introduced me and countless others to the Wheel of the Year and wiccan rituals
  • Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, a journalist’s in-depth survey of, as the subtitle put it, “Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today” (an expanded edition was released in 1984)[4]
  • Merlin Stone’s two-volume Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood: Our Goddess and Heroine Heritage, a compilation of goddess stories from every continent inhabited by humans
  • Part 1 of Z. Budapest’s The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries (part 2 came out in 1980)
  • Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, which explored the early texts that didn’t make it into the Christian canon, in which God was seen as both Mother and Father
  • JEB’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, which includes several witchy photos and witchy quotes
Lunar imagery was everywhere, and lunar calendars were popular. The connection to women’s cycles is not coincidental.

The previous year’s crop is just as impressive. Among the feminist essentials with major pagan connections published in 1978 were Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, and the paperback of Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman.

Considering the time it takes to produce a book-length work, from research and writing through to physically producing it and getting it into the hands of interested readers, it was obvious the cauldron had been bubbling for quite some time.

For women awakening to feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the past looked like a wasteland. But once women got to work researching and revisiting, rethinking and rearranging, the desert bloomed. For us coming of age in the 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, as women’s studies professor Bonnie Morris writes, “It became second nature to have to look hard for lost history.” She compares it to “the upbeat excitement of a fierce girl detective searching for clues.”[5]

Among many other things, we learned that men called women “witches” in order to persecute, prosecute, and not infrequently kill them, and that this often had little or nothing to do with religion. Women who used herbs, touch, and common sense to heal were said to be practicing magic — exercising powers that men didn’t have and didn’t understand. As the male-dominated medical profession rose in influence, female healers were marginalized, their wisdom dismissed as superstition and “old wives’ tales.”[6]

The history that could be documented or otherwise proven beyond reasonable doubt was crucial, but so were the improvisations, the mythmaking and rituals, inspired by it. Some of the most-quoted lines of grassroots feminism came from Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères, published in 1969 and translated into English in 1971. They describe pretty well what we were up to: “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.

Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

NOTES

[1] A Google search just turned up this short Washington Post piece about the course from 1993. It confirms my memory that Father Sebes’s background was indeed in Far Eastern studies; while living in China from 1940 to 1947, he spent part of the time interned by the Japanese. It disputes my description of him as “older”: born in 1915, he was only a few years older than my parents, who were both born in 1922. The author writes that “Comp Civ” was popularly known as “Buddhism for Baptists,” but I never heard it called that — and why Baptists? I couldn’t have told you which of my non-Catholic classmates came from Baptist households. Protestant denominations were all lumped together as “Other.”

[2] Halloween was also my mother’s birthday. I could tell a few stories about that, but instead I’ll tell one that my mother repeated fairly often. Her father (an embittered, said-to-be-brilliant upper-crusty WASP man) would tell her “You were born on Halloween so you’re a witch. If you’d been born a day later, you would have been a saint.” Nov. 1 being All Saints Day in many Christian calendars. Witches to me were Halloween, the Salem witch trials, and The Wizard of Oz. Glinda to the contrary, my associations weren’t positive.

[3] The labrys, a double-headed axe, originated in ancient Crete and has been adopted especially by lesbian feminists as a symbol of female strength. It was all over the place in the 1970s and beyond, on T-shirts and pottery, in jewelry and artwork. There are two classic examples in my Mary Daly blog post, one on a T-shirt and one in Mary’s hands. Mary was a hardcore labrys fan.

[4] One of life’s little synchronicities: Margot Adler and her longtime partner, John Gliedman, had their handfasting at the Lambert’s Cove Inn in West Tisbury when I was a chambermaid there: June 18, 1988, I’m told by this very good biographical article about her. The inn hosted many weddings during the years I worked there (1988 to 1970 or maybe 1971), but this was by far the best. I was just reminded that Adler’s middle name was Susanna, spelled the way I spell it.

[5] In The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016). I hope The T-Shirt Chronicles will do its bit to push back against this erasure.

[6] In one of the many, many instances of reclaiming that have characterized feminism, “Old Wives Tales” was the name of San Francisco’s feminist bookstore. An excellent source on the how patriarchal medicine stigmatized women healers is Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. First published in 1976, it’s still in print.

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Three more from my wardrobe. Left: The words say “Buto, Egyptian cobra goddess of protection.” Center: The flip side says “and the moon sees me.” This goes back at least to an English nursery rhyme of the late 18th century, but it and its variations show up in quite a few songs and kids’ books. Right: The image is inspired by prehistoric cave paintings. The theory is that these uncredited artworks were often created by women.

Support Lesbian Mothers

I could have acquired this T at Lammas, or at an event. Don’t know. In the 1970s and well into the ’80s — and in plenty of places even now — “lesbian mother” was either an oxymoron or anathema. In my social and political circles there weren’t many lesbian mothers, and virtually all were survivors of heterosexual relationships. Several prominent lesbians who were (almost) old enough to be our mothers had children: Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) had three sons, and Audre Lorde (b. 1934) had a son and a daughter. Singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin (b. 1940) wrote at least one song about the joys and challenges of being mother to Adrian, and in her later years was a happy grandma to Adrian’s three kids.

In the 1980s this was starting to change: lesbians, some in relationships, others single, were “starting families,” as the saying goes, by adoption or by getting pregnant. I don’t remember when the phrase “lesbian baby boom” became popular, but it most certainly did. A landmark documentary about lesbian mothers, Choosing Children, was released in 1985.

In those days, even demonstrably unfit fathers could count on winning custody battles with their lesbian ex-wives. I knew women who’d lost custody after grueling court fights, and I heard of men who, after winning in court, relinquished custody to their exes: they were more interested in winning than in taking responsibility for their kids.

Along with possibly hostile exes, a definitely hostile legal system, and all the challenges that go with raising children, period, lesbian mothers often didn’t get much practical support from their lesbian communities either. There were multiple, interacting reasons for this. We were a mono-generational lot, for one thing: I’d guess that at least 80 percent of us were between the ages of 25 and 40. Most of the white women among us were from somewhere else: we’d left hometowns and families behind, often on less-than-happy terms. As a result, we had to build support networks from scratch, and we didn’t have much energy, time, space, or money available for non-adults — or for elders either. (We did, I think, do an OK job supporting those among us who were faced with serious illness or injury.)

In addition, some of us just weren’t all that interested in children. I distinctly remember an incident when I was about 12: I was in the car with my mother, headed for the next town over, and when we were stopped at a red light I asked her why I, alone of my siblings, didn’t have a middle name. She replied that when I got married, I’d just drop it. In that instant I knew (1) that I was never getting married, and (2) that I needed a middle name.

Kids weren’t part of my thought process, not consciously at least: what I knew for sure was that I didn’t want my mother’s life. Much, much later, like when I was around 30 and had been out as a lesbian for several years, I was mildly curious about what pregnancy and childbirth might feel like, but I had zero interest in raising a child — or in having heterosex, although by then I knew that there were other ways to get pregnant. Turkey basters were most definitely a thing.

Sometimes it was stronger than lack of interest. The phrase “never-het lesbian,” meaning a lesbian with no heterosexual history, was in play, and having kids was taken as a fairly obvious sign of a heterosexual past. And if while growing up a woman had been subjected to heavy family pressure to get married and have children, and perhaps been disowned for not doing so — well, once one escaped that pressure, one might be at least a bit ambivalent about those who seemed to have acquiesced in and benefited from it.

I just pulled off my shelf the epic volume Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book, edited by Ginny Vida in cooperation with the women of the National Gay Task Force and published in 1978. It’s a rich and revealing collection, of essays and photos and an exhaustive national resource directory, of where we were in the late 1970s. The essays include “Sharing Your Lesbian Identity with Your Children” and “Lesbian Mothers in Transition,” and lesbian mothers and their kids show up in other essays too.

A quick Google search turned up a scientific paper from 1981: “Lesbian Mothers and Their Children: A Comparative Survey,” in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. In case anyone needed more evidence that lesbian mothers have been around for a while . . .


Writing about lesbian mothers reminded me of a book that came out in the late 1980s: Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home? by Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski, published by Aunt Lute Books in 1989. I no longer have my copy, so I was thrilled to learn just now that, though it’s not in print, it’s still being read and remembered and copies can be found.

After Sharon Kowalski suffered serious brain damage in an auto accident, her parents refused to let her lover, Karen Thompson, even visit her in the hospital. A long court battle ensued, which Karen eventually won: she became Sharon’s legal guardian. The case was a cause célèbre in lesbian, feminist, and disability circles because it underscored just how vulnerable lesbian and gay relationships were when marriage equality was barely even a dream.

A 2003 book about the case is still in print from the University Press of Kansas: The Sharon Kowalski Case, by Casey Charles. Notes the publisher’s catalogue: “Charles weaves together various versions of the story to show how one isolated dispute in Minnesota became part of a larger national struggle for gay and lesbian rights in an era when the movement was coming of age both legally and politically. His account recalls the rough road lesbians and gay men have had to travel to gain legal recognition, examines how the law is politicized by the social stigma attached to homosexuality, and demonstrates how conflicted the decision to ‘come out’ can be for lesbians and gays who view ‘the closet’ as both prison and refuge.” Charles, a lawyer, English professor, and gay man with HIV, has written several books since.

This August 2018 article in Minnesota Lawyer brings the story almost up to the present day: “The Minnesota Legal Fight That Changed the Course of the Gay Rights Movement.” Karen has been Sharon’s guardian all these years, assisted by her current partner.

Persephone Press (1976–1983)

Persephone Press died in May 1983. Social media was decades in the future, but word spread through the feminist print network almost that fast. I still remember standing stock-still when I heard the news, unable to take it in. I was at Lammas, surrounded by the Persephone books that I sold every day, crucial, path-breaking books in the feminist and lesbian world. Lesbian Fiction, Lesbian Poetry, Nice Jewish Girls, This Bridge Called My Back, The Coming Out Stories, The Wanderground . . . Gone? Just like that?

The Persephone Press titles that are on my shelves today.

Well, no, not quite. By then I was well aware of the economic tightrope that a small, undercapitalized bookstore had to walk day in, day out, to keep books on the shelves. I had some idea of the similar constraints that publishers operated under, but somehow I’d assumed that Persephone was exempt. No matter how well you know the technical details, magical thinking has a way of working its way into mind and heart when you need to believe.[1]

I couldn’t imagine a world in which Persephone didn’t exist, but the unimaginable had happened. Persephone was gone.

Persephone Press was brilliant. It didn’t invent the anthology format, but it recognized how perfectly suited it was to feminist publishing at that particular time. So many women were moved — inspired, compelled, driven — to write because so little of what was out there reflected our lives or answered our questions. We wrote what we wanted and needed to read.

But most of us had to work our writing time in around our jobs, our political and other volunteer activities, and our family responsibilities. Sometimes we were learning our craft almost from scratch, which meant struggling to overcome everything we’d learned along the way about what good writing was and who was entitled to write. It helped to find sisters on the same journey so we could assure each other that we weren’t crazy, we could do it, and what we had to say was important.

Novels and other book-length works can be written under such conditions, but shorter ones are easier not only to finish but to get out into the world in print and/or in performance. Not surprisingly, the most accomplished writing emerging from the grassroots feminist movement from the late 1960s into the ’80s consisted of poetry, short stories and essays, and novels, more or less in that order.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much the opposite of what most readers wanted to buy, and bookstores specialized in, well, books. We carried newspapers and journals, of course, and they published short-form writing of all sorts, but they also had a short shelf life. Anthologies combined the best of both forms. They brought together important new, recent, and sometimes not-so-recent writing that was otherwise scattered across time and multiple journals of limited circulation. They could combine poems, stories, and essays between the same two covers. They took longer to produce, but they stuck around a lot longer. In addition, the works collected into a well-edited anthology communicate with each other simply because they’re in the same place at the same time. The whole, in other words, is even greater than the sum of its parts.[2]

Persephone’s anthologies had no precedents. At the time, most of their contributors were known, if they had published at all, only in limited circles, but many of them went on to become widely known and read far beyond the feminist print world. After the crash, most Persephone titles were picked up by other publishers and remained in print for years if not decades. The fourth edition of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color — “a work which by the mere fact of its existence changed the face of feminism in the United States”[3] — was brought out in 2015 by SUNY Press.

Now I look at the numbers — four titles published in 1980, and four in 1981 — and wonder What were they thinking? Most of these were physically big books. Several were going to take a while to reach their audience, like the reprint of Matilda Joslyn Gage’s amazing Woman, Church & State (1893). Anything with “lesbian” in the title and the lesbian romance Choices were going to sell well in the feminist, lesbian, and gay worlds, but those worlds were were not large.

Not to mention — for an undercapitalized publishing company “selling well” could turn into a curse. Invoices were supposed to be paid in 30 days, but undercapitalized bookstores were often doing well to pay in 60. The printing bills, in other words, were going to come due long before they could be paid out of cash flow.

And they did.

What were they thinking?

The recriminations that followed Persephone’s demise were so widespread and so bitter that Persephone’s existence seems to have been erased except for those who know where to look. I wasn’t privy to any of the dealings between press and authors, and I’m not going to repeat what I heard second, third, and fourth hand, but a short article that appeared in the November 1983 off our backs provides some insight. Three significant points:

  1. “Because their books were selling well, they were constantly back on the press. This tied up $40,000 to $50,000 in printing and production costs, which added to the cost of overhead, and bringing out new titles was more than Persephone could handle.”
  2. Cofounders Pat McGloin and Gloria Greenfield “[decided] to consistently operate their press according to feminist ideals. They paid royalties to their authors twice the standard paid by the publishing industry, and refused to allocate a lion’s share of their promotions budget to one best seller and and distribute what was left to the other books.”
  3. Greenfield and McGloin expressed disappointment with the lack of support from the feminist community.[4]

Short version: Persephone’s business plan played fast and loose with real-world economic realities, and the “feminist community” didn’t step up to close the gap. In addition, the scheduled books that never got published, like Barbara Smith’s Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, and the published books that didn’t get adequately supported, like Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, were by women of color, whose publishing options at the time were the most limited.[5]

Plenty of anger was directed at Pat and Gloria, and Pat and Gloria seem to have directed at least some of theirs at “the feminist community,” but I suspect that deep down much of rage and frustration was directed at the economic system that thwarted our needs and our expectations as women, as feminists, as lesbians. Persephone’s 15-book list made it so clear what we were capable of, had given us so much to hope for, and capitalist economics, coupled with lack of organizational and individual support, had cut us off at the knees.[6]

Gazing now at my Persephone Press T-shirt, I’m tempted to take “A Lesbian Strategy” as a cruel, unintentional joke. Had our strategy, if that’s what it was, come to a dead end? Then I remember all the writers and works that Persephone encouraged, and the effects they’ve had on the world we live in now. Most of those whose lives have been enriched by Persephone’s legacy probably don’t know her name, and for those who do the legacy is tinged with understandable bitterness and regret.

After Persephone died, I tried to write a eulogy. It was a poem, three or four pages long; I wasn’t satisfied with it, and I’ve long since lost track of the whole thing, but I liked part of it so much I put it on a postcard:

She comes back indeed.

notes

[1] The dangers of magical thinking carried to extremes were laid out brilliantly by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) in her 1976 story “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” Its protagonist believes she’s living in a city where misogyny doesn’t exist and it’s safe to be on the road at night. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

[2] Here are some of the anthologies on my shelves that were published in the 1980s, almost all by feminist presses. To keep it relatively brief, I haven’t included strictly fiction anthos.

  • For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology, ed. Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Julia Penelope, Onlywomen Press, 1988
  • Out from Under: Sober Dykes & Our Friends, ed. Jean Swallow, Spinsters, Ink, 1983
  • Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, ed. Frédérique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, Cleis Press, 1987
  • Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, ed. Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb Wieser, Aunt Lute Books, 1983
  • That’s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women, ed. Rayna Green, Indiana University Press, 1984
  • The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology, ed. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, Sinister Wisdom 29/30, 1986
  • With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology, ed. Susan E. Browne, Debra Connors, and Nanci Stern, Cleis Press, 1985
  • Women-Identifed Women, ed. Trudy Darty and Sandee Potter, Mayfield, 1984.

[3] Feminist Collections, vol. 5, no. 1 (fall 1983). This is one of the best contemporary Persephone post-mortems I’ve found yet. Feminist Collections was an indispensable quarterly review of women’s studies resources out of the University of Wisconsin, then edited by Susan Searing and Catherine Loeb. In 2018 it morphed into Resources for Gender and Women’s Studies: A Feminist Review.

[4] Mary Kay Lefevour, “Persephone Press Folds,” off our backs (November 1983), p. 17.

[5] I read Zami as soon as it came out, but my original copy went wandering. I almost certainly brought it with me to Martha’s Vineyard, but probably I lent it to someone and — well, it went wandering. The copy I have now was reprinted by Crossing Press after it was acquired by Ten Speed Press in 2002. The cover is new, but “Text design by Pat McGloin” on the copyright page clearly indicates that the text itself is from the first edition. There’s no indication anywhere that Audre Lorde died in 1992. At least one edition has appeared since with a different cover, but it too seems to use the text from the first edition. I just found this excellent 2014 assessment of Audre Lorde’s importance — and who kept her words alive till the wider world was ready to “discover” her. The author is Nancy K. Bereano, editor of Crossing Press’s Feminist Series until she left to found Firebrand Books. Several publishers continued the work of Persephone Press, but if I had to single out two of them, they’d be Firebrand and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

[6] See note 1.


This note was tucked into my well-worn copy of The Wanderground. Dated 13 Dec. [1979], it’s addressed to Carol Anne [Douglas] and off our backs women: “Here is the Sally Gearhart interview with photo. If it’s okay, I’d like to type it Sunday a.m. – as early as you open! Could someone let me know? Thanks.” My interview with Sally appears in the January 1980 off our backs.

1978: Justice on the Job

Stepping back a bit in time here: This is from the Washington Hospital Center nurses’ strike in May–June 1978. I’ve got several shirts from events, causes, and groups that I was at most peripherally involved in, and this is one of them. The strike went on for 31 days, so I might have joined the picket line once or twice, though this seems unlikely: I didn’t have a car and I did have a 9-to-5 job. I might have known someone who worked there, or I might just have wanted to support the strikers by wearing the shirt. In the women’s community we showed up for each other’s rallies, events, picket lines, meetings — if it involved women fighting for justice, we helped pass the word and mobilize support.

This graphic might have been the reason I got the shirt: I love it. The small print says “whc nurses strike 1978.”

A Washington Post story from May 27, 1978, led with this: “The Washington Hospital Center has more than quadrupled its security force in the face of a threatened strike by registered nurses called for this morning.” It quoted the president of the nurses’ union expressing outrage that “the Washington Hospital Center has seen fit to hire 93 additional guards. The Hospital Center’s vicious attempt to intimidate and divide us should be protested by all responsible citizens.”

Sound familiar? Keep in mind that this was two and a half years before the union-busting Reagan administration took office. When I revisit press clips from the late 1970s, it often feels that the ensuing four decades somehow wound up on the cutting-room floor. This is especially striking (sorry!) when it comes to the environmental movement. We knew all this stuff by 1979 but the economic and political powers that be did precious little about it. (See my blog post on the subject: “1979: Three Mile Island, etc.“)

This Flickr site includes a photo of picketing nurses on the first day of the strike, and a good account of the issues involved, starting with this:

The strike by about 300 of the 425 registered nurses by the District of Columbia Nurses Association (DCNA) at the area’s largest private hospital was mainly over schedules and performance evaluations, but also involving benefits and wages.

Prior to the strike, the hospital administration attempted to decertify the union, filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board challenging its representation of the nurses.

The independent nurses union was only a little over a year old at the time having been certified in December 1976 and obtaining a first contract in May 1977.

When striking nurses attempted to go into the pool at other hospitals, they found that the Hospital Center administration had sought to blackball them. While initially getting hours at Howard Hospital, that administration banned them during the strike.

The strike ended on June 26, when the nurses accepted WHC’s final offer. The results were mixed. The Flickr article notes, “Perhaps the biggest gain of the strike was the nurses preserved their union.”

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