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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1981–1985: Lammas Bookstore

Two of the best jobs I’ve ever had fell into my lap.[1] I wouldn’t have had the nerve to apply for either of them. Conventional wisdom for decades has held that women apply for jobs we’re sure we can do, while men apply for jobs they think they can learn to do. I fit the female stereotype, but my caution wasn’t just due to my sex. The message I internalized over the years from watching my perfectionist father ridicule my mother for getting her facts wrong was that it wasn’t safe to not have the right answer. It’s pretty much impossible to venture into new territory without making mistakes and asking questions that reveal that you don’t know everything. In addition, plenty of people were likely to write me off on the basis of my physical appearance, so I had to be hyper-qualified before I even thought of applying for anything.

In the spring of 1981, I quit my first editorial job (see “1979: I Become an Editor” for how I got that job and why I left) intending to take some time to focus on my writing. That’s not the way it worked out. About a month later, Mary Farmer, owner-manager of Lammas Bookstore, asked me to become the store’s book buyer. We were at my group house in Mount Pleasant prepping for my 30th birthday party; Mary was seeing one of my housemates at the time. I’d assigned her to halve cranberries for cranberry bread. The cranberries were squishy because, though I was already modestly renowned for my cranberry bread,[2] I hadn’t yet figured out that cranberries are much easier to cut in half if you freeze them first.

I’d bet good money that my face at the time didn’t show how astonished I was when Mary asked if I’d come work for her: Mary and Lammas were at the center of the D.C. women’s community, and I was way off on the peripheries somewhere. I had no idea she even knew who I was.

As it turned out, Lammas’s current buyer was leaving, and both she and Mary had noticed from my frequent forays into the store that not only was I an avid reader, but my tastes ran from history to feminist theory to poetry to fiction. Mary herself claimed not to be a reader, which wasn’t quite true, but she had her hands full as the regional music distributor for Ladyslipper. In addition to managing the store’s finances (enough in itself to bring on ulcers — read on!), she bought the records, jewelry, crafts, and cards. Wisely enough, she hired a co-worker to handle books and periodicals.[3]

How to convey how much that job changed my life? Let me try to re/count the ways.

The Lammas softball team on the cover of Willie Tyson’s Full Count (1974). Mary Farmer is 2nd from right in the back row, Willie is in the middle of that row with Ginny Berson (co-founder of Olivia Records) to her left and sound engineer Boden Sandstrom of Woman Sound at far left. I did not play softball but I did go to a bunch of games. (Cover photo by JEB.)

Back then I was at best dimly aware of how goods reached the shelves of retail outlets — which were all “brick and mortar” at the time, though we didn’t call them that because what else was there? I learned. When a title ran out, it had to be reordered. If it was new and/or selling briskly, it had to be reordered before the last copy sold.

There were two options: order from the publisher or from a distributor. When you ordered direct from the publisher, the discount was better — meaning we paid a smaller percentage of the retail price, which meant we got to keep more of the cash when the book was sold — but you had to order a larger quantity, possibly more than you could sell in several months. With a distributor it was possible to order two of this title and five of that. Distributors came in two flavors: those focusing on independent presses, including the feminist ones, and those who dealt with “the majors,” like Random House and Norton.[4]

Books, like other retail goods, have to be paid for before they sell, but you can’t sell a book that isn’t on the shelf. Most (all? virtually all?) feminist businesses were seriously undercapitalized. This meant that bills had to be paid out of revenue, and cash flow was always an issue. We couldn’t stock everything we wanted, but we had to stock what we needed, i.e., anything that was in demand and selling well.

Publishers’ invoices were supposed to be paid in 30 days. They virtually never got paid in 30 days, but when 60 days started stretching toward 90, you risked getting put on hold. If you were on hold with a publisher and needed one of its titles, you ordered from a distributor — and put that publisher on the priority to-be-paid list.

Lammas, at the beginning of August, is the cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the fall equinox — and also Lammas Bookstore’s birthday. We celebrated every year with champagne and a sale. From left: Liz Snow of Ladyslipper Music, owner Mary Farmer (a Ladyslipper distributor), me, The Printer Tina Lunson, and staffer Deb Morris, who went on to Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C. She’s wearing the 10th anniversary shirt, so this was probably 1983. I’ve got the old one on.

Feminist publishers were always on the priority to-be-paid list. They were in the same undercapitalized boat we were, except that their burden was even worse: the costs of publishing a book have to be paid up-front, and it can be six months after publication date before the income even starts to roll in. The independent distributors were next, particularly Inland Book Company. We couldn’t afford to be on hold with them. (See note 4 below for the why of this.)

What I learned in those days keeps coming up, most recently not long after the Covid-19 shutdown started, when huge gaps began to appear on grocery-store shelves that were usually crammed full. Supply chains, usually invisible to the consumer, were in the news. In April 2020, I blogged about them — and traced my awareness of their importance to my experience at Lammas.

Serendipitously the second Women in Print conference was held in suburban Maryland in October 1981, a few months after I’d started my new job.[5] As a writer, an activist, an amateur local historian, I already knew I was part of something far greater than myself. Seeing that “something greater” in the flesh, meeting women I’d only known from seeing their names in print and reading their words — well, it was something else. This neophyte bookseller couldn’t have asked for a better training program. At one plenary session I found myself sitting next to Adrienne Rich, who told me how much she’d liked a review of mine she’d just accepted for the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom[6](of which she and her partner, Michelle Cliff, were then the editors).

At Women in Print I had a crash course in how it all fit together: publishers, bookstores, periodicals, print shops, designers, editors . . . The birth of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was announced at that conference. It was historic in so many ways.

In my early months at Lammas I learned the details of ordering, stocking, interacting with customers, explaining the challenges of acquiring a title to women who were as clueless about the mechanics as I had been a few weeks earlier. For instance, in the early 1980s much work in feminist theory and history was published by university presses. Few university-press books were carried by any distributors, in large part because those presses only offered a 20% discount — which meant that for distributors there was no profit to be made whatsoever. Ordinarily, when a customer special-ordered a book, it was something we were out of temporarily and could restock on our next regular order. Not so with university-press books: in those cases I really had to order a single copy, knowing that between the short discount and the postage the store might actually lose money on the transaction.

For a regular customer I would do it, no question: I knew for certain that they’d return to pick up and pay for the book. For someone I’d never seen before, I learned to request a deposit on the retail price.

Over time I also learned to make a distinction between customers — and feminists in general — who understood the economics of running a small, economically fragile feminist business (or were willing to learn) and those who seemed to think we all lived in a utopian world where economic considerations did not apply. Mary, Lammas’s owner-manager, regularly ran into women who were surprised to find her doing her own laundry at the local laundromat. This often willful cluelessness was all too common in the women’s community, and 40 years later I keep running into it on Martha’s Vineyard too.[7] My patience with this crap left town a long time ago.

The 10th anniversary T from 1983. Our celebration concert (at All Souls Church, IIRC) featured pioneer Jewish lesbian singer-songwriter Maxine Feldman and local favorite Judy Reagan.

Meanwhile — well, I got to work in the heart of D.C.’s women’s community, which meant I got to meet and talk with so many women I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I knew just about everything that was going on, in town, in the book biz, and in the women’s music biz, across the country and even around the world, usually before most other people did. I got to talk continuously about books and call it work, because it was. I got to build up a women’s fantasy/science fiction collection; partly as a result, in 1984 I became Feminist Bookstore News’s first columnist, reviewing (you guessed it) fantasy and science fiction. This continued till 1996, long after I left D.C., and got me lots of free books.

The most lasting impact on me as a writer was the ongoing one-on-one contact with women to whom the printed word mattered. Books and articles opened new vistas for their readers, and the remarkable thing was that you couldn’t predict what book or story or newspaper article was going to make a decisive difference in someone’s life. And yes, I got to call customers’ attention to the works that had made a big difference in mine.

You’ll be hearing more about Lammas, the book biz, and why I eventually left town if you keep following this blog. I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself.

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notes

[1] The other was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, where I started as a part-time temp proofreader at the end of the decade. More about that later.

[2] My recipe came from Jean Stewart Wexler and Louise Tate King’s Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, with minor modifications (less sugar, more orange juice). Forty years later I still make it regularly. That’s why a third of the space in the freezer of my small fridge is devoted to frozen cranberries. Cranberries are only available in the fall, so if you want cranberry bread year-round you stock up then and freeze them.

[3] The store was founded in 1973 by two lesbian jewelers as Lammas Women’s Shop. Feminist and lesbian books were scarce at that point, so they only occupied a shelf or two. That changed rapidly in the following years. IIRC Mary started off as their manager but within a year or two bought the store. The jewelers continued to make jewelry under the name Lielin, which was made up of syllables from their first names, LesLIE and LINda. I’m spacing their surnames but will probably rediscover or remember them in my (virtual) travels.

[4] In the early 1980s, the main trade distributors were Baker & Taylor and Ingram. The main indie-press distributors were Bookpeople and Inland Book Company. Since Bookpeople was on the West Coast and Inland was in Connecticut, freight charges were less from Inland, so I ordered more from them. Without getting down in the weeds about book pricing — all you have to know is that (1) books are heavy, (2) the bookstore pays the freight, and (3) since the retail price was generally printed on the book, a store couldn’t increase it to compensate for freight costs, not without being accused of ripping people off. By this time Women in Distribution (WinD), which specialized in feminist-press books, had folded, but Helaine Harris, one of WinD’s principals along with Cynthia Gair and Lee Schwing, was working for Daedalus, which dealt in books “remaindered” by the big trade publishers. Daedalus was based in nearby Maryland, so when a remaindered title was of interest to us (as often happened), Helaine would deliver it in person, saving us a bunch of money in freight charges. Helaine, incidentally, was a veteran of the Furies collective, as was Lee Schwing.

[5] The first Women in Print conference, of the movement pioneers, was held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1976.

[6] Sinister Wisdom still exists. Not only is it still a journal of lesbian writing, it’s been publishing works that would otherwise get lost, such as The Complete Works of Pat Parker, edited by Julie R. Enszer, and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974–1989. If this thrills you half as much as it does me, or even if you’re just curious, visit www.sinisterwisdom.org, email sinisterwisdom@gmail.com, or write Sinister Wisdom, 2333 Mcintosh Rd., Dover, FL 33527. P.S. I had work published in SW 14, 17, 28, and 35. I also know that “Sinister Wisdom” came from a line in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. You see the challenge here? All it takes is a name to send me off on a dozen tangents, in part to remind me that my life really happened and that some of what I remember might be useful to others.

[7] More about that later. Much more. Remind me if I forget.

1980: Secede Now

I acquired my SECEDE NOW T-shirt on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1970s, years before I moved to the Vineyard year-round, though I was spending time there now and then. It’s now so historic that mine was recently included in a T-shirt exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Here’s the story behind it: In 1977, the Massachusetts House of Representatives reduced its number from 240 to 160. Among the districts eliminated in the reduction were Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, which up to that time had each had its own seat in the House. This provoked indignant threats to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and generated, along with this T-shirt, a striking flag that is still occasionally seen in these parts.

Selfie ca. 2018

My SECEDE NOW story has nothing to do with the Massachusetts legislature, or Massachusetts either: it unfolded in D.C., around 1980. If I had to identify the five most important turning points in my adult life, this would be one of them. It’s about daring to be seen, and it starts with the 1979 publication of JEB’s Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians.

Eye to Eye was a revelation, an inspiration, a major milestone on the road to lesbian visibility. The local impact might have been even greater than the national one: JEB (Joan E. Biren) had long been a visible mainstay of the D.C. lesbian community — she was a veteran of the Furies collective — and many of the women depicted in its pages lived in and around D.C. I had at least a nodding acquaintance with several of them, and would get to know some much better in coming years. Of course I bought Eye to Eye as soon as it came out, and you bet I’ve still got my copy.[1]

Every woman who appeared in Eye to Eye was unfathomably brave. As a writer in the Unicorn Times, a D.C. alternative newspaper, put it when the book was released: “It is almost impossible to publish photos of lesbian mothers with their children because of the mother’s fears of losing their children in custody cases. Mothers are not the only lesbians who can’t be photographed. Women afraid of losing their jobs, lesbians from other countries afraid of deportment, and lesbians afraid of disownment from their families all had to refuse Biren’s permission to be published.”

The 1979 edition. Could there have been a better cover photo than Kady (left) and Pagan? And no, my copy isn’t going anywhere.

Those sentences were quoted in Paul Moakley’s excellent (I’m serious about this. Read it!) interview with JEB for Time magazine in February 2021, when Eye to Eye was reissued in hardcover, the original intact but expanded with new essays. In 2021 it may be as pathbreaking, as revelatory, as it was in 1979. Lesbians are on TV these days, we can get married, and so on, but we’re submerged in the LGBTQ coalition (in which G has been dominant from the beginning) and erased by supposedly inclusive words like queer and gender-nonconforming. We’re invisible in a whole new way.

In 1979 I did notice an absence in Eye to Eye, however: women who were fat like me. The absence wasn’t total: Dot the chef is what I’d call zaftig, but she was also middle-aged, which to my 28-year-old mind let her off the looks hook; and one of the quintet gathered around the National Lesbian Feminist Organization banner at the 1978 ERA march might have been around my size. But none of the women photographed bare-breasted or naked were anywhere close to zaftig, never mind fat.

I got it, or thought I did: a powerful stereotype at the time (which hasn’t entirely gone away) was that lesbians turned to women because they “couldn’t get a man,” and being fat got you sorted PDQ into that category. I took for granted that being fat made you a liability, that Eye to Eye would be taken more seriously if we weren’t in it. I felt petty for even noticing our absence. Of course I didn’t mention it when I reviewed the book. I doubt I ever even said it out loud.

Then Beth K., a D.C. photographer whom I knew from my Washington Area Women’s Center days, announced that she was planning a show of lesbian portraits. Each image would be accompanied by the woman’s own words. Rather than choose her subjects, she was soliciting volunteers from the community. Words coupled with images! I was a writer, after all — wasn’t this right up my alley? My written words went out in public all the time. Writing short was a challenge (still is), but I could do it.

But–but–but . . . Being a fledgling editor as well as a writer, I could control my words; often I even had some say about how they appeared in print. I would have zero control over how I appeared in a photograph, or of what people would see when they looked at it. If people could see what I looked like, would they still take my words seriously?

My ruthlessly rational feminist self went up against against my own muddled assumptions. Fat lesbians were a liability — did I believe I was a liability? (Yes.) Did I see the connection between believing my physical appearance made me a liability and railing against a misogynist culture that valued women according to their physical appearance? (Uh . . . yeah. Sort of.) What was this really about? (I’m terrified.) Of what? (Seeing what I really look like.) So if Beth asks if you’d like to be in the show, what are you going to tell her?

And that’s where I choked. My “reasons” flourished in the privacy of my head,[2] but if I said them out loud to someone else, even I would have to see what crap they were. By asking for volunteers, Beth had given me the opportunity to say yes. If I didn’t say yes, I better shut up about the absence of fat lesbians from books and photo shows. So I said yes.

Here’s the photo, which I just had reframed. I chose the location: a stone bridge over Rock Creek behind the National Zoo, not far from where I lived, which I biked over several times a week going to and from work in Alexandria. I wore my SECEDE NOW T-shirt as a personal declaration of independence.

I don’t have a copy of what I wrote for the show; I might have lost it, or it might be buried in one of the file drawers I have from before “files” were saved on disks or hard drives or in the cloud. I remember comparing being a lesbian to being a writer: nature and nurture — potential — had something to do with both, but decisive in both cases were the choices I kept making over time. The choice to say YES to being photographed was a big one.

What I see when I look at that photo today is a young woman who, despite being uncomfortable in her own body and uneasy about being seen, is standing out in the open. She hasn’t partially concealed herself behind a tree, or at a typewriter. She’s meeting photographer and camera eye to eye.

Forty-plus years later I meet her likewise and salute her courage.

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notes

[1] I’m not the only one. In the Time interview cited above, JEB says: “For years I would go into my local gay bookstore to their secondhand section. It was never there. Never! Today people are all telling me they still have the one they bought in 1979. . . . I gave a copy to my college library (Mt. Holyoke), and it was stolen—maybe like seven times. Eventually, they had to lock it up in the stacks, where they had this cage with all the rare books from the Middle Ages.”

[2] Pete Morton hadn’t written “Another Train” yet, but he nailed it (and a few other things) in that great song: “Imagination plays the worst tricks.” When I first heard “Another Train” — covered by the Poozies in the mid-1990s — I was sure Sally Barker was singing to me, her invisible arm around my shoulders in some bar somewhere. That led me to Pete Morton’s own version, and a whole slew of his CDs. I’m still hoping to hear him live some day . . .

Feminism Is a Lesbian Plot

Responses to this shirt, and to the slogan on it, range from “Yes!” to puzzled to “What a terrible thing to say!”

True, without context, it does sound right out of the Pat Robertson quote book. He’s the white televangelist who very famously said that “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

To which my stock response has long been “I never had a husband to leave, ‘kill your children’ is total BS, and the last three are fine with me.”

Need I say that many feminists don’t practice witchcraft, oppose capitalism, or become lesbians, but over the decades the feminist movement has encouraged women to explore and develop religious traditions that don’t put men first; pay closer attention to how current economic systems support patriarchy and white supremacy (and vice versa); and come out and/or become more visible as lesbians.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, the overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class-and-up leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other mainstream feminist organizations didn’t want to hear it. Opponents were accusing them of being man-haters, socialists, atheists, and dykes, among other things.[i] Straight feminists, led by Betty Friedan, in their efforts to persuade the general public otherwise, threw lesbians under the bus and called us the “lavender menace.” To them we were, at best, a fifth column within the women’s movement. At times it seemed they had a hard time acknowledging that lesbians were women.

Radical feminists and lesbians from NOW, the Gay Liberation Front, and other groups rose to the occasion. Calling themselves the Lavender Menace,[ii] in May 1970 they disrupted the NOW-sponsored Second Congress to Unite Women, which despite its name had excluded all lesbian-related items from the agenda, by appearing in matching LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts and passing out copies of “The Woman-Identified Woman.” This manifesto/essay is now widely acknowledged to be a key document in U.S. feminist and lesbian history.

So in 1977 I came out into a community that was well aware of that history, many of whose members had played major and minor roles in making it. Before long I was learning and embracing it, partly by osmosis and partly by reading. My copy of Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young (1972),[iii] has my name and “August ’77” written on the title page. It includes “The Woman-Identified Woman” and also Radicalesbians’ 1970 essay “Leaving the Gay Men Behind,” which over the next few years I came to agree with 100%. The latter, by the way, includes the line, in all caps, “WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS A LESBIAN PLOT.”

To me in the late 1970s — and, come to think of it, in 2021 — this made good sense: who has more to gain from women’s economic, legal, and political equality than women who are less likely to benefit from the cultural assumption that heads of household (etc.) are, and should continue to be, male? When I said that women’s liberation is a lesbian plot, it was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, because “plot” suggests something sneaky and clandestine. From the Lavender Menace action onward, we were not.

The T-shirt, however, says “Feminism is a lesbian plot” because “Women’s liberation” was too long to fit without a weird line break. The two aren’t quite synonymous, but for they’re close enough. The shirt — which is unique, and the only tie-dye in my collection — was made for me by a D.C. housemate, the endlessly creative Beverly.

Beverly was pursuing her master’s in African studies at Howard and working for a Catholic women’s organization. She played the mandolin, favored long colorful skirts when most of us dressed urban dyke casual when we weren’t at work, and was handy with tools. She rescued a small table from a Mount Pleasant alley, installed dowels between its legs to stabilize it, and gave it to me. It’s the perfect height for kneading bread on, I’ve still got it, and that’s what I use it for.[iv] Beverly also created the “I’d rather be reading Adrienne Rich” sticker that’s on one of my old file cabinets.

She managed to procure one of the “Someone in Your Life Is Gay” posters that were then appearing on D.C. buses. She stuck it up on a wall in our second-floor hallway, and we surrounded it with news photos depicting male public figures embracing, holding hands, or kissing each other. (The Gay Activists Alliance had to go to court to get WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, to accept advertising featuring the poster.)


We were feeling our way toward what it meant to be a woman in a world where “woman” was defined entirely in terms of, and in relation to, “man.” Hence the importance of language: the recognition that “mankind” really did not include us, masculine pronouns were not inclusive, and lesbians really had to be not only included but recognized and acknowledged in the National Organization for Women. We were discovering and inventing all the “ways a woman can be,” as singer-songwriter Teresa Trull sang it. This took, and still takes, plenty of practice, and the practice has to happen in the midst of unrelenting hostility and suspicion and confusion.

Individual lesbians are far more visible in “the mainstream” (some sections of it anyway), and often more readily identifiable in our local communities, than they/we were four decades ago, but lesbian culture and politics are harder to find. In large part I attribute this to the dearth of women-only and lesbian-friendly spaces, including bookstores, music festivals, and publications. Not coincidentally, in the popular mind “lesbian” seems to have become an either/or proposition: either you are or you aren’t, and it’s almost entirely about sex.

So it’s invigorating to go back to the writings that shaped my worldview in the 1970s and 1980s, like “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Now as then its first answer to the question “What is a lesbian?” — “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” — strikes me as, well, hyperbolic. What follows, however, is golden: “She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society — perhaps then but certainly later — cares to allow her.”

Judy Grahn’s poem “A History of Lesbianism” is spare and decidedly undramatic — until the very last lines:

          The subject of lesbianism
          is very ordinary; it’s the question
          of male domination that makes everybody
          angry.

The great lesbian singer-songwriter-activist Alix Dobkin died earlier this month, on May 19, three weeks after being stricken with a ruptured brain aneurysm and stroke. In those three weeks, a mostly lesbian, virtually all-women vigil sprang into existence on the CaringBridge website. Across decades and generations, we shared our memories of Alix and how her music had saved and challenged and changed us. I’ve never stopped playing Alix’s music, but during those three weeks I played it almost nonstop.

So I’m closing this post with something she wrote in the liner notes for her 1992 retrospective CD, Love & Politics: A 30-Year Saga, about a line in her song “View from Gay Head” (yeah, it was written in that Gay Head, now Aquinnah). When she sang “Any woman can be a lesbian,” some took it to mean that every woman should be a lesbian. To which she wrote: “All I really meant was that every woman has some capacity for deep self-love and primary love for women, which is what being a Lesbian meant to me then and means to me now.”

What she said. Blessed be, Alix.

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Notes

[i] In the popular mind these are still commonly conflated, and a few decades ago the conflation was epidemic. I could go on about how erroneous this is, but instead I’ll offer a counter-suggestion: that what angers, terrifies, and/or confuses many men, women, and patriarchal society in general isn’t that lesbians hate men but that we manage to do pretty well without their approval and support.

[ii] The Lavender Menace action is covered in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a crucial documentary about the early “second wave” of U.S. feminism, 1966 to 1971. It’s available for home viewing on DVD (check your library), and at the moment you can find it on YouTube.

[iii] New York University Press published a 20th anniversary edition of Out of the Closets in 1992, with a new introduction by the editors and a foreword by historian John D’Emilio. Still in print, it remains a wonderful intro to the lesbian and gay ferment going on in the late 1960s and very early ’70s — and a reminder that many of these issues are still with us.

Bread bowl with batter rising

[iv] Beverly also gave me the big beige-and-brown McCoy bowl that I’m still using to mix and raise dough in. Another housemate gave me Beard on Bread, which I’ve used so often that it’s now held together with strapping tape. Over the years, housemates, neighbors, and friends have come up with many ways to encourage my bread-baking habit.

1979–1980: Take Back the Night (and the Clinic, and the Newspaper)

We’d been warned all our lives: Don’t go out at night, and most especially don’t go out alone at night. “Alone” implied “unaccompanied by a man.” When I was a student at Georgetown University, a series of rapes and assaults on campus prompted male students to organize an escort service to see female students safely home from the library at night.[1] The Take Back the Night movement that arose in the 1970s believed that women should be able to walk anywhere we wanted any time of day, alone or with others, in safety. Women shouldn’t have to depend on men to protect us from — it was understood, if often not spoken aloud — other men.

I’ve got three Take Back the Night T-shirts, two from particular events (the ones with dates on them), one more general. The 1981 march in D.C. I must have attended. I’m not sure in what city the 1979 event took place, or how I came by the T-shirt. In 1979, there was a Take Back the Night march in D.C. I definitely attended and it definitely had a T-shirt, but not long after the event I donated mine to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Nevertheless, I can see it in my mind’s eye: a big black women’s symbol set on the diagonal, with words clustered around it, all on an orange background. Halloween colors. I don’t remember what the words said. They probably included the date, but I don’t remember that either. The event left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was never going to wear the shirt, so I gave it away.

If you have any info on where this march took place, please let me know! Text: “Women Unite! Take Back the Night, August 18, 1979.”

The organizers had bitterly debated what role men should play in the march. I and most of my lesbian-feminist friends opposed male participation: didn’t it send a message that women needed male support to “take back the night”? The counterargument was that straight women wouldn’t participate if men were excluded. Those opposed to male participation were generally white, lesbian and/or radical feminist, and relatively new to D.C. Those advocating for it were generally black and straight and had deeper roots in the community. The upshot was that men were welcome to join in.

At the event itself, a contingent of black men either worked or pushed their way to the head of the march: after-the-fact reports varied, and I was too far back in the line to see what was happening. However it happened, men wound up leading a march that was supposed to be about women empowering ourselves.

In the next few years I came to realize that what happened that night had its roots in the planning process, and even deeper roots in the explosive mix of racism, sexism, and heterosexism that few of us paid enough attention to and none of us knew how to deal with. Would things have worked out differently if all the lesbians hadn’t been white and all the black women hadn’t been straight?

I wish now that I had kept that T-shirt. If I wore it today, people might say, “Cool shirt! Where did you get it?” None of them would likely know the backstory, and if anyone did — well, I’d want to know what they remembered and what their perspective on the whole thing was, then and in retrospect. What side they were on wouldn’t matter much. If I could teleport back to 1979 with my 2021 consciousness intact, I wouldn’t be standing in exactly the same place either.

That 1979 march taught me plenty, though it took a few years for the lessons to sink in. It’s possible to give something away without letting it go.[2]


I was learning that it wasn’t just the night that we needed to take back, or, more accurately, claim for the first time. Around that time I was volunteering with the Lesbian Resource and Counseling Center (LRCC), the only woman-specific program of the Whitman-Walker Clinic.[3] In these pre-AIDS days, the clinic was one step up from a shoestring operation. Its flagship program was the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, and the vibe was overwhelmingly male.

The LRCC did peer counseling, provided referrals, and hosted a rap group. The clinic administration had agreed that on LRCC nights the clinic space would be women-only, but it was not unusual for the rap group to be interrupted by men lugging in tables and other supplies from that night’s VD clinic, which rotated among the various men’s bars and baths. When confronted about this, one guy’s surly response was typical: “Don’t forget who brings in the money around here.”

Text: “Women Unite / Stop Violence Against Women / Take Back the Night / Washington, DC 1981”

At the LRCC I did pretty much what I’d done at the Washington Area Women’s Center: staff the phone and lead rap groups. I wasn’t involved all that long, however, although I enjoyed the work. More and more I was focusing on the written word, writing and editing; other interests were falling by the wayside. I was contributing fairly regularly to off our backs and the Washington Blade, the D.C.-Baltimore area’s gay newspaper. At the Blade it gradually became apparent who was in charge and whose inclusion was strictly conditional.

Donna J. Harrington and I recounted our experiences in “The Dulling of the Blade,” a lengthy story published in the December 1980 off our backs.[4] Donna had been the Blade’s office manager and a contributing writer for about a year. I had been a contributing writer during roughly the same period, recruited at a time when the gay-male-run paper seemed eager to include lesbians.[5] Over the months, this eagerness deteriorated into hostility that was often blatantly sexist. In researching the story, Donna and I learned that our experiences were not unusual among lesbians working in gay-male-dominated organizations. These outfits had a lot in common with those run by straight men.

The opening two paragraphs from “The Dulling of the Blade”

The editor in chief denied that sexism was an issue; he attributed all problems to “individual personality clashes.” Donna and I disagreed. We concluded “that the gay men who run the Blade have serious problems with lesbian-feminists, and we have come to suspect that they do not believe that lesbian-feminists have enough ‘clout’ to make working with them worth precious male time. Their common response is to get rid of the women who make them uncomfortable. Donna and her predecessor at the Blade and D–– S–– when she was at Philadelphia Gay News had a common experience: as they became more radical, more assertive about feminist issues, and more closely identified with the women’s community, their relationships with their gay male colleagues disintegrated. Their competence and commitment abruptly came under attack.”

Clearly it wasn’t just the night that women needed to take back, and it wasn’t just straight men who were the problem. I didn’t have the patience to deal with them, or much interest in developing the skills necessary to do so. (Many years later, a girlfriend said, with a hint of exasperation, that I had “a complete absence of gush.” I was, and still am, rather pleased with this, but sometimes it does get in the way.)

Before “The Dulling of the Blade” appeared, I was getting more and more frustrated with my job as an editor in the Red Cross publications office. I loved the work. I loved the commute. I loved most of my colleagues and how well we worked together — with one exception. Go back to “1979: I Become an Editor” and you’ll recognize him immediately: Frank. Except it wasn’t so much Frank the individual: in small doses and with the right light, he provided plenty of roll-your-eyes hilarity to compensate somewhat for his incompetence. What grated on me was that he was getting away with it because the American Red Cross was letting him get away with it. Friends who worked in comparably big bureaucracies had comparable stories about incompetent, invariably male co-workers. Big bureaucracies and I were not made for each other. In the spring of 1981 I gave notice; my last day was in late May.

I planned to take a few weeks off, focus on my writing, and then decide what next. “What next” appeared sooner than expected, at my 30th birthday in early June. Watch this space: it’s coming.

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Notes

[1] The women’s dorms were on the campus periphery, much closer to Georgetown University Hospital than to the library, classroom buildings, and other centers of student life. Why? You guessed it: because until very recently the overwhelming majority of female Georgetown undergrads were in the nursing school. At night, the walkways were mostly deserted. Co-ed dorms were late coming to conservative, Jesuit-run Georgetown. One argument in their favor was that the two isolated women’s dorms made female students easy targets for predators.

[2] It would be another decade before Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the word intersectionality, to underscore how our identities are multiple, and how the various components can both complement and contradict each other in myriad ways. However, the concept had been out there for years, and not surprisingly it was feminists of color who were in the forefront of developing it. See for instance the classic “Combahee River Collective Statement,” written by a Boston-based collective of Black feminists in 1977, first published the following year, and never more important than it is today.

[3] In the decades since, the clinic has gone big-time as Whitman-Walker Health. In the 1980s the HIV/AIDS crisis pushed other issues — and lesbians — to the periphery, but it seems that from about 1990 onward Whitman-Walker recommitted itself to “close that gap by providing comprehensive and inclusive care for the lesbian, bi, and queer women’s community” by instituting its Lesbian Services program. By the way, the Whitman in the organization’s name honors, you guessed it, Walt Whitman. The Walker is for Dr. Mary Walker, who wasn’t as far as I know a lesbian or even especially woman-identified but who was a woman pioneer in the medical field.

[4] “The Dulling of the Blade” is archived on JSTOR, along with all of oob’s back issues. “Independent researchers” can read up to 100 articles a month on JSTOR if you sign up for a free account. The access URL for the article is http://www.jstor.org/stable/25773405.

[5] I’ve heard this attributed to the vulnerability gay men were feeling in the late 1970s. Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children was in full cry, with white evangelicals at the forefront. A Dade County (FL) ordinance offering some protection on the basis of sexual orientation was overwhelmingly overturned by voters in a June 1977 referendum. In November 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was assassinated, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone. By 1980, though, at least in D.C., mainstream (straight) politicians were showing up at gay (male) events, so white gay men felt more secure and hence, it seems, less in need of lesbian support. When AIDS (first known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) surfaced in 1981 and quickly became an epidemic, gay men pushed lesbian interests even further to the peripheries — while across the country and around the world many, many lesbians threw themselves into advocating for and taking care of their gay male friends and colleagues.

I Discover Women Writing F/SF

Note: My previous T-shirt posts have tended long, so I’ve been aiming to post just once a week, on Mondays. Not all my Ts are part of a long(ish) story, however — or, like this one, they’re the precursors of a story that will be elaborated on later. So, starting now, I’m going to occasionally post shorter tales mid-week, on Fridays. We’ll see how it goes!

Considering what an important role women’s fantasy & science fiction (f/sf) came to play in my life, I’m a little surprised that I can’t pinpoint what got me started in earnest. It almost certainly happened in the late 1970s, after I moved back to D.C., immersed myself in the grassroots women’s community, and came out as a lesbian.

There were two Moonstone Bookcellars, specializing in f/sf. The one near Washington Circle was my #1 connection till I started working at Lammas Bookstore in 1981. Then I got to stock my own f/sf section.

On the other hand, only a handful of my new communitarians were avid f/sf readers. Most of the rest considered it a guy thing. They had good reason. Much later I heard the once-witty (maybe) cliché that “the Golden Age of science fiction is 14.” It didn’t have to be said that it was also male.

I’d been an avid reader from an early age, but I leaned toward nonfiction. My fiction reading through high school was mostly mysteries and political thrillers: Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and A Shade of Difference; Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May, Night of Camp David, and The ZinZin Road; and anything about nuclear apocalypse, such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

Yes, indeed: it’s not hard to see how the latter two titles might be considered f/sf, or at least proto. As a schoolkid I was very, very big into superhero comic books: Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Justice League of America. I did like Wonder Woman, though her costumes were embarrassing: did any of the male superheroes run around in such scanty clothing? In college I got lost in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read Frank Herbert’s Dune and was especially impressed by his use of Arabic and derived-from-Arabic names.

But f/sf didn’t become a passion till, in the late ’70s, I realized that much of the best new women’s writing around was fantasy and/or science fiction. I don’t even remember where I started, maybe Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or Joanna Russ’s Female Man (1975)?

I found Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines (1978) at Moonstone Bookcellars, the one on Pennsylvania Ave. NW near Washington Circle (and George Washington University — there was another one in far Northwest, Friendship Heights or somewhere, but I don’t think I ever went to that one), and almost certainly read it before its predecessor, Walk to the End of the World (1974). Wow! A world of all women — and horses too!

Joan Nestle, of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, was a huge science fiction fan, and the LHA already had an impressive collection of feminist f/sf zines and books. She pointed me in promising directions toward treasures like Amanda Bankier’s zine The Witch and the Chameleon (1974–76), and the furious controversy that had followed the publication of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover Landfall in 1972. From her I learned that MZB had written several lesbian pulp novels under various pseudonyms and that she had played a key role in collecting the bibliographical information that went into Barbara Grier’s path-breaking bibliography The Lesbian in Literature.

Moonstone, whence this T-shirt comes, was a compact shop below sidewalk level, crammed with floor-to-ceiling shelves of fantasy and science fiction, nearly all of which came in mass-market paperback. Anything with a woman’s name on the spine I’d take off the shelf, peruse, and often buy.

Moonstone did not carry Sally Gearhart’s pioneering The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (Persephone Press, 1978), which quickly became a lesbian and feminist classic. The primary problem was the format, not the content. Like virtually all feminist-press books it was published in trade paperback — and trade paperbacks didn’t fit on mass-market shelves.

Using the name of the D.C. Hags, which had brought Mary Daly to D.C. in March 1979, I took the lead in producing a reading and talk by Sally in November of that year. My interview with her appeared in the January 1980 off our backs.

I’ll have plenty to say about women’s f/sf later (will I ever!), but I’m pretty sure my obsession started here, in the late 1970s, and that the Moonstone Bookcellar near Washington Circle did plenty to encourage it.


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1979: Three Mile Island, etc.

From the May 6, 1979, march on Washington

If my T-shirts have anything to say about it, 1979 was the year of the nukes and, not surprisingly, the anti-nukes. The environmental movement wasn’t a priority with me; in fact, in the 1970s and into the following decade, I was more than a little suspicious of it. From Earth Day 1970 forward, it looked like a movement of mostly white middle-class people who got queasy if you talked too much about sex, race, or class. I’m glad to say that it’s become a lot more intersectional since then.

There was a strong environmental current within feminism, however, evidenced by works like Susan Griffin’s landmark Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her and Andrée Collard’s The Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth. The identification, even equation, of women with nature, nature with women, was and continues to be problematic: patriarchal thinking has long associated women with nature, and not in ways that acknowledged their power. Men were rational; women and nature were not. Women, like nature, so the thinking went, were there for men’s benefit.

To embrace the connection was to risk being deemed an “essentialist” — believing that women had some essential, innate nature that distinguished us from men. However, one needn’t be an essentialist to wonder if men with fame, glory, and/or profits on their minds are capable of imagining the possible consequences of their actions. Their shortcomings in this regard are nowhere more evident than in their treatment of the environment.

I recently learned from Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout that in 1969 — almost a full decade before Three Mile Island — the Austral Oil Company partnered with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to use a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb to gain access to vast natural gas deposits under Rulison, Colorado. This bomb was “nearly three times the power of the bomb that incinerated the interior of Hiroshima and killed nearly half of its 300,000 residents.”[1] The bomb did the trick, but fortunately the technology did not prove cost-effective for commercial fracking. It also made the natural gas “mildly radioactive,” according to officials.

It’s also worth noting that in 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one realized how devastating, long-lasting, and lethal radiation poisoning would be. In 1969 this was very well known.

So almost 10 years after Austral and the AEC tried to frack with nukes in Colorado, at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a cooling malfunction caused part of the core of reactor #2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to melt down. It destroyed the reactor and released some radioactive gases into the atmosphere. At the time no one knew how much damage had been done either to the environment or to the people who worked in or lived close to the plant.[2] Worst-case scenarios were on everyone’s mind.

Can’t recall where I got this one, but I still like the graphic and the colors. It’s one of my very few baseball-style shirts.

The political, social, and psychological damage was huge. An immediate consequence was a massive march on Washington on May 6. That’s where I got the NO MORE HARRISBURGS! T-shirt. I don’t know how I came by the staff shirt, because I wasn’t a peacekeeper or otherwise officially involved with that particular action, which drew, according to this May 7, 1979, Washington Post story, “a vast crowd of at least 65,000 protesters reminiscent of antiwar throngs of a decade ago.”[3] I think the ordinary march shirt was blue, with a similar design. The same WaPo story suggests that solar and wind power were on many people’s minds. It reports that in her speech physician and anti-nuke activist Dr. Helen Caldicott said: “I call on President Carter to pass a law requiring every new house to be built with solar energy.”

My younger sister, Ellen, who was living in D.C. at the time, was seriously involved in the anti-nuke movement. She and other members of her affinity group, the Spiderworts, were arrested for demonstrating at the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear power plant on June 3, 1979. As Ellen wrote in a letter from jail dated July 22 and published in the August/September issue of off our backs:

“At our July 17 trial, 109 of us were found guilty and given 30 days and $100 fine, of which the jail time and $50 were suspended on a one year probation. Ten of us immediately placed ourselves in jail, because of our moral opposition to paying fines.”

Why “Spiderworts”? According to a April 25, 1979, story in the New York Times, “a common, roadside wildflower” known to be sensitive to pesticides, auto exhaust, and sulfur dioxide, “could also be an ultra‐sensitive monitor of ionizing radiation.” A Japanese scientist had found that “in certain artificially raised or cloned species of the plant, cells of hairs on the pollen‐bearing stamens mutate from blue to pink when exposed to as little as 150 millirems of radiation. Radioactive isotopes sometimes emitted by nuclear activities give off radiation at about that level.” When it comes to radiation, then, spiderworts can be likened to canaries in coal mines.

My group house sent at least one care package to our cohorts in jail. Beverly, one of my housemates and a chronic instigator, was almost certainly the one who organized the effort.

So that’s how I came by this Spiderworts tank top. I have very few tanks in my wardrobe, and apart from this one they’re all recent. Being big-boobed and physically active, I was never tempted to go braless in public, and with tank tops bra straps were forever slipping into view. Many, many years later bras started coming in colors, with straps that didn’t look so much like underwear. My happy medium back in the day was “muscle shirts,” which left your arms bare but concealed your bra straps. These were big in the 1980s and I have a bunch, but I don’t see them around much these days.

Coincidentally, my sister and I were both arrested at the age of 19 for political protests — eight years apart. On May 5, 1971, toward the end of the Mayday demonstrations against the Vietnam War, I got busted for sitting on the Capitol steps along with 1,200 others, even though we were sitting on the steps at the invitation of four members of Congress: Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, Parren Mitchell, and Charles Rangel. I spent barely 48 hours in detention — and most of those hours were spent not in a jail but in the D.C. Coliseum along with hundreds of my fellow arrestees. I was one of the plaintiffs in Dellums v Powell, so almost 10 years later, thanks to the four representatives and the persistence of the ACLU, I received a $2,000 settlement for violation of my civil liberties.

Singer-songwriter-activist Holly Near was “On Tour for a Nuclear-Free Future” in the fall of that year, 1979, but this T-shirt is from the Boston performance. I definitely wasn’t there, but I was back and forth between DC and Boston two or three times a year and might have picked up the shirt at New Words Bookstore in Cambridge. D.C.-based Roadwork produced the tour, so I’m guessing the tour stopped in Washington. If it did, I would have been there.

It would not have been the first time I heard Holly live: that, I’m pretty sure, was at D.C.’s Gay Pride Day when it was still a block party on 20th Street NW between R and S, near where Lambda Rising bookstore was then located — maybe in 1978 or ’79? She toured with Weavers alumna Ronnie Gilbert in 1984; I saw them at George Washington U., and the Lifeline album that resulted has never been far from my active playlist, first on LP and eventually on CD.

During the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, I got to hear Holly live on Martha’s Vineyard, at the Old Whaling Church. It was one of the rare times where my past and present crossed paths, and it’s no surprise that Holly was at the intersection. She has long been as well known in liberal and progressive circles as she is among feminists. I’m still quoting, or paraphrasing, something she said at that concert: that she didn’t expect perfection in any candidate for elective office, so she voted for the one she thought she could “struggle with.”

Totally unrelated to nukes and anti-nukes, the first national march for lesbian and gay rights took place on October 14, 1979. You bet my friends and I were among the estimated 100,000 marchers, but if there was a march T-shirt, I missed it. I do have one from the second march, in 1987; we’ll get there eventually. My strongest memory from that day is passing by the high wrought-iron fence at the south end of the White House grounds chanting “Two, four, six, eight, how do you know that Amy’s straight?” Amy Carter, the first daughter, was 12 years old at the time.

notes

[1] Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth (Crown, 2019), chapter 2, “The Genie”

[2] With four decades’ worth of hindsight, it seems that the quantifiable damage done outside the plant was minimal.

[3] Note that the ERA march that took place less than a year before drew more than 100,000. One can’t help wondering if the Post reporter noticed, but maybe it’s just that the majority-female throng in July 1978 looked less like the antiwar marches of yesteryear.

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1978? 1980? Women’s Music Lives

Here’s how I remembered it: The D.C. stop on Cris Williamson’s Flying Colors tour, at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, was my first women’s music concert. The year was 1978. I’d attended with a friend from my Georgetown University days, and our seats were way, way back in the orchestra. The stage seemed miles away. Though I loved Cris’s first album, The Changer and the Changed, I was underwhelmed by her live performance.

Flying Colors tour, 40 years later

Nope. Strange Paradise, the album the Flying Colors tour was celebrating, may indeed have come out in 1978,[1] but the tour itself didn’t happen till 1980: this Washington Post article from May 2, 1980, proves it.[2] The location was indeed Constitution Hall, and images of both the hall itself and a seating chart confirm my memory that the orchestra section is flat and very long: if you’re back in the double-letter rows, the stage would indeed seem very distant. The date must have been Saturday, May 3, 1980.

Get a grip, Memory: No way could this have been my first women’s music concert. When the Varied Voices of Black Women tour stopped at D.C.’s Ontario Theater in 1978, I was most definitely in the audience — and the Pacifica Radio Archives backs me up on the date with a catalogue entry for a recording from the last stop on that tour (at Medusa’s Revenge in New York City) on November 7, 1978. I remember being especially riveted by blueswoman Gwen Avery, with her big voice and white suit.[3] Ironically, she’s the only one of the headliners I don’t have on vinyl (except on the Lesbian Concentrate album, singing “Sugar Mama”) or, in the case of poet-activist Pat Parker, in print. (The other featured musicians were singer-composer Vicki Randle, pianist-composer Mary Watkins, and singer-percussionist-ensemble leader Linda “Tui” Tillery.)

I’m not a musician, but from the mid-1960s onward my life has had an amazing soundtrack. The music helped bind my various communities together. You know you’re part of the same community when you know the lyrics to the same songs and see each other at the same concerts. At the end of Women’s Center dances, we’d form a circle (often with the cashbox in the middle for safekeeping) and sing Cris’s “Song of the Soul.” We all knew all the words.

Since I was moving in at least two worlds at once, quite a few people protested: “Aren’t you limiting yourself, listening only to women?”

I pushed back: “Well, OK, but not so long ago my musical diet was mostly folk, mostly by men, with some classical, mostly Western European. Listening mostly to women expanded my musical world to include blues, jazz, and Balkan women’s singing, among other things. I learned about women who were conducting orchestras and other ensembles, not just playing in them; leading bands, not just fronting them. If women were doing it, I wanted to hear it.”

In truth, focusing on any particular genre, or tradition, or artist, or instrument, or time period, limits a person even while that person becomes adept in his or her particular specialty. If you go so deep into your specialty that everything else vanishes vanishes off the radar, you also limit the number of people who understand what you’re talking about.

Focusing on women in music — or women in anything — meant shifting the angle, changing the lens through which I viewed familiar terrain. Once I put women in the foreground, the male-dominated landscape didn’t disappear, but it did recede into the background.

For those accustomed to being in the foreground, I learned, this could be infuriating. Organize for women’s rights and you’re accused of hating men. If you call out white supremacy, you must be anti-white — even if you are white, in which case you’re a traitor to your race. And of course anyone who claims rights for the marginalized is guilty of “reverse discrimination.”

I’ve known for decades that, contrary to the claims of the over-optimistic, we don’t all benefit from the struggle for justice and equal rights, at least not immediately. In the long run we’ll probably all be better off, but in the shorter run the privileged often think they’re under attack and losing out. They fight back. I’ve lived almost my whole life in an era of backlash against the struggle for justice and equal rights for people of color and for women. Women’s music helped create and expand a space where we didn’t have to be on the defensive all the time. It also introduced me to musical styles I either hadn’t known much about or had dismissed as being just for and about guys.

There will be plenty more about women’s music before this blog has run its course. Right this minute, though, something strange is happening. In recent years, thanks especially to Facebook, I’ve been reconnecting with women from my D.C. days, women who remember many of the same songs, musicians, places, and events that I do. This is especially important because for the last 35+ years I’ve been living among people the vast majority of whom have no recollection of any of it, and of course as the years go by more and more of it gets lost. Sometimes I feel like the sole survivor of Atlantis, unable to convince anyone that my homeland ever existed.

Published by Aunt Lute Books, 2020

Then, in October 2020, Aunt Lute Books published Ginny Z Berson’s Olivia on the Record, the story of Olivia Records, women’s music pioneer and the label for Cris Williamson’s Changer and the Changed and several subsequent albums. I learned about it early enough to attend the book-launch party — my first Zoom book party! — at which Ginny and others spoke and Mary Watkins played.

Olivia had been founded in D.C. while I was a student in Philadelphia. By the time I moved back to town, in 1977, it had relocated to the West Coast. Before she co-founded Olivia, Ginny Berson was a member of the legendary lesbian-feminist Furies collective, which flourished in D.C. when I was a Georgetown University student majoring in Arabic and minoring in antiwar activism (or vice versa). It was at that book-launch party that I learned about Once a Fury, a brand-new documentary about the Furies (which I’ve since had a chance to see).

In the early 1970s I was mostly oblivious to the lesbian-feminist ferment happening elsewhere in the city, but once I moved back, the Furies, like Olivia Records, was part of my new community’s recent history. Before long, I had crossed paths with several former Furies (not, however, the collective’s most famous alumna, Rita Mae Brown) and held in my own hands copies of their newspaper at the Washington Area Women’s Center.

Clearly I’m not the sole survivor of Atlantis. Atlantis hasn’t sunk beneath the waves. My T-shirts are leading me back to what’s gone on in my absence, and what’s happening now. I just bought Cris Williamson’s latest CD, Motherland. The Furies newspaper has been digitized and is available online through the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University.

Published by Bella Books, 2019

I’m currently reading Jamie Anderson’s An Army of Lovers: Women’s Music of the ’70s and ’80s, published by Bella Books in 2019. It’s more than a glorious reference work of who was making music then and where are they now, encompassing not just the musicians onstage but the sound techs, concert and festival producers, distributors, booksellers, the women behind our record labels and publications, and others who were behind the scenes making it happen. It also discusses the myriad challenges that all of us tried to address, with decidedly mixed results: racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and the often wildly unrealistic expectations we had of others and often of ourselves.

After living more than two decades with a considerable collection of LPs and nothing to play them on, this winter I bought a handsome machine that not only plays LPs, cassettes, and CDs, it can also record LPs and cassettes onto CDs. Much of the music released by major labels made it onto CD and/or MP3; plenty of it can even be found on YouTube. The same goes for some of the best-known musicians who recorded for feminist and other indie labels, such as Cris Williamson and Holly Near.

But others have disappeared leaving few if any traces. The first albums I recorded onto CD were three by Willie Tyson: Full Count, Debutante, and the self-titled Willie Tyson.

I didn’t expect my personal past to be sending such vivid shoots into my present world, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.


[1] At least that’s what Cris Williamson’s website says. The chronology in the back of Olivia on the Record says 1980, as do Wikipedia and the MP3 I downloaded from iTunes. No wonder my memory is so screwed up.

[2] Note the parenthetical in the Washington Post story: “(What’s notable about this roadshow is that it’s coordinated by a nonprofit group organized expressly to put women on tour.)” That “nonprofit group” was almost certainly Roadwork, co-founded by Amy Horowitz and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Stick with this blog and you’ll hear more about them too.

[3] Please don’t tell me she was wearing some other color.

1979–1981: Biking to Alexandria

Like any self-respecting suburban/small-town kid I got my driver’s license as soon as I was old enough — 16 1/2 in Massachusetts if you’d taken driver’s ed — but I didn’t own a motor vehicle till I was 37, three years after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. In D.C. I walked, took public transit, and rode my bicycle.

Neither of my bicycle Ts comes attached to a particular event. I got this one, “Up with Bicycles,” in my D.C. bike-commuting days, probably at Lammas Bookstore.

My bike, a blue Peugeot 10-speed, was my college graduation present to myself. I named her Blue Mist II, after the armored Rolls-Royce T. E. Lawrence rode in the desert during World War I.[1] In D.C. I thought of her as my “urban horse”: I was barely a decade out of horses at the time and had no idea that in my 40s I would get back in. I’ve got plenty of horse-related T-shirts and stories to go with them, but you’re going to have to wait awhile till we get there.

Biking to work at Red Cross National Headquarters, first from my Dupont Circle bedsit and then from group houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood (which is just north of Adams Morgan, which is just north of Dupont Circle), was easy. Google Maps tells me that my usual route, via 16th Street, was a little under three miles. In the morning it was mostly downhill. I still remember the visceral thrill of whizzing down 16th Street in rush-hour traffic, trying to avoid breathing too much bus exhaust, wearing a dress and (of course) no helmet.

On more than one Friday I biked home up 18th Street in dusk or dark after “processing the week” with colleagues in the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Washington. I was sometimes, I confess, a little tipsy when I set out, but the mostly uphill ride took care of that.

With my promotion to editor, my commute got longer: from Mount Pleasant to Old Town Alexandria by my route is a little over 11 miles. It was a great ride: bike path almost all the way, down into Rock Creek Park behind the National Zoo, a little maneuvering to get past the Lincoln Memorial and onto Memorial Bridge, then down the Mount Vernon Trail (whose official name I didn’t know when I was riding on it) all the way to Alexandria.

I made the round-trip by bike most days if the weather wasn’t awful. When it was, my public transit commute took about the same amount of time. Since Metrorail only went as far as National Airport at that point, the trip involved three transfers, one from the 42 bus to the Dupont Circle Metro station, one from the Red Line to the Blue Line at Metro Center, then a third from National Airport to the Old Town bus, whose number I don’t remember.

Washington was famously built on a swamp. Summers are hot and sultry. Thermal inversions are not uncommon: the exhaust from tens of thousands of cars hangs over downtown, visible to anyone who looks south from a higher elevation. Summer started in earnest not long after I was promoted to Publications, and I kept biking to work.

At the end of the day — quitting time was 4:45 p.m. — I’d be unlocking my bike and someone would ask, “You’re going to bike home? It’s a hundred and five degrees out.” I’d stop at the Lincoln Memorial, a little more than halfway, to drink at a water bubbler, splash my face, and soak my bandanna in cold water before tying it back around my head. (No helmet then either.) The last leg of my trip was by far the steepest uphill, out of Rock Creek Park up to my Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I could, and sometimes did, ride the whole way, going slower and slower till near the top bike and I were in danger of falling over, but more often I’d get off at some point and walk to where the terrain leveled off.

You’ll never guess where I bought this one! I probably got it when I was still an occasional visitor to the island, i.e., before 1985. Kennedy Studios, an art gallery and framing shop that still exists on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, offered at least one other version of this design, with sailboats instead of bicycles.

The morning commute wasn’t quite as hot, but biking more than 11 miles in the humid 80s would leave anyone in need of a shower. Trouble was, there was only one shower in the Eastern Field Office building, and it was located in the men’s room in the basement which was the level you entered from the parking lot where the bike rack was. The women’s room down the hall had no such amenities.

I and a couple of women who liked to run on their lunch hours successfully lobbied management to reserve the shower-equipped men’s room for women’s use for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at lunch. Nice idea, but in practice male employees would congregate outside the door at the restricted times, directing snotty remarks at us and complaining about having to wait to pee.

I gave up PDQ and went back to improvising a sponge bath in the women’s bathroom and changing out of my sweaty T-shirt and into more presentable office clothes. (My concession to being promoted into the professional ranks was to stop wearing T-shirts to work, which I had done on occasion in the training office.)

My other biking-related challenge was more momentous. In summer heat I was biking to Alexandria in rolled-up jeans. This was as clammy and uncomfortable as you can imagine. Why not wear gym shorts? you ask.

Why not indeed. Well, at the time I weighed over 200 pounds. I could wear men’s shirts, but men’s pants didn’t suit my shape so I had to buy pants in the plus-size women’s shops. In the affordable-price range these inclined to polyester and other unbreathable fabrics ill-suited to physical activity, so I stuck with jeans, which could be found in 100% cotton at any size.

I went looking in the plus-size stores for women’s gym shorts. They didn’t exist, not in Washington, D.C., at any rate, not at that time.[2] Plus-size women were presumed uninterested in or incapable of exercise. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that plus-size women’s disinterest in exercise might have something to do with the lack of plus-size women’s exercise clothing. Plenty of men thought any fat woman riding a bike or jogging was fair game for their insults. They harassed thin women too, of course, but with wolf whistles and come-ons, not comments on how ugly they were.

In a sporting goods store I came upon a rack of men’s gym shorts that went up to XL. They looked like they might fit my hips. No way would I have tried them on in the store: that would have meant admitting that they were for me. I might even have mumbled to an inquiring clerk that I was buying them for a friend or a brother. I went out on a limb and bought three pair. I took them home and with trepidation tried them on, one after another. They all fit.

I loved those shorts. One was purple with yellow trim, one green with white trim, and I wish I could remember the third — blue with white trim sounds right, but I’m not sure. Being fat, I rarely wore shorts, period, so the rush of wind on my bare legs as I biked along the Potomac was a revelation. I felt immediate empathy with women of past and not-so-past generations as they shed corsets, voluminous skirts, and skirts so tight they practically locked your knees together.

The fat liberation movement was very visible in grassroots feminist and lesbian communities at the time. It freed me to take these issues seriously, and to look more closely at my own personal history with compulsive eating and getting fat, but the more closely I looked, the most pissed off I got. In an essay published in Lesbian Contradiction in its Winter 1983–84 issue, I wrote that “when I first discovered fat liberation literature, I felt so betrayed. I expected so much but found so many of my experiences dismissed as truisms, stereotypes, and self-delusions.” The essay takes off from that dismissal to warn against the temptation to formulate premature orthodoxies from women’s incredibly diverse experiences, which were being publicly articulated often for the first time.

About a year later my essay “‘Is This the New Thing We Have to Be P.C. About’” appeared in Sinister Wisdom 29. It too takes off from an incident involving fat and fat liberation, and goes a few steps further in exploring the notion of political correctness as understood by feminists and lefties at the time. (Before long, around the mid-1980s, the right wing got hold of it and turned it into an all-purpose slur against anyone who took sexism, racism, and social justice in general seriously.)

Looking back at these two essays from almost four decades later, I detect some clues as to why in mid-1985 I decided to leave the lesbian-feminist community and relocate to Martha’s Vineyard (for a year, mind you: just a year): as a fat woman and as a feminist who took fat liberation seriously but disagreed with its emerging ideology, I was feeling a little estranged from my community. But at the time, biking to Alexandria in gym shorts was wonderfully liberating.


Technological aside: Living in the District and working in Alexandria posed a problem. My bank, Riggs, was in the city, and “bankers’ hours” were still the rule: banks were only open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Either ATMs (automatic teller machines) arrived in the nick of time (which is how I’ve remembered it all these years) or thanks to my new circumstances I realized how useful they could be (now that I’ve read up on the history of ATMs in the U.S., this seems more likely). I used them to deposit paychecks and obtain cash. What I don’t recall is what these ATMs required in the way of identification. Major credit cards were hard to get, and I didn’t have one.

However, in 1979, probably in the spring, my group household moved from the 1700 block of Kenyon NW to the 1700 block of Kilbourne. The move was complicated by the fact that only one of us had a credit card, it was maxed out, so we couldn’t rent a truck — and none of us had a car either. Thanks to the generosity of friends, we managed to move all our goods and furniture from one block to the next in a vehicle brigade that went on most of the day. That decided me: It was time to get myself a credit card.

In those days, major credit cards were not easy to get. Tempting offers did not arrive regularly in the mail. I followed the usual route: using my checking account and puny savings account as reference, I obtained the card offered by my bank. It’s plausible that ATM access was a more pressing motive to acquire a credit card than the knowledge that eventually I would move again and need to rent a truck. If plastic wasn’t required, how did one identify oneself to the cash-dispensing machine? I have no memory of what I actually did while standing at the ATM. If you were around at the time and remember how it actually worked, please drop a hint in the comments.

[1] In 2017 the original Blue Mist, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, made headlines when a team of historians managed to trace the car’s history. That story is told in “Historians Discover the Identity of Lawrence of Arabia’s Rolls-Royce.” Note that the dateline on this July 5, 2017, story is Alexandria, Va. Here’s the tale as wittily told, with photographs, by a descendant of one of the pre-war owners: “Blue Mist – How Lawrence of Arabia Nicked Granny’s Roller.” An earlier pre-war owner went down with the Titanic. After the end of the war, the car was sold to an Egyptian businessman. So far it’s been lost to history. In the summer of 2017, however, it was reported that a couple of Rolls/Lawrence fans in Vermont were building a replica of Blue Mist, with completion expected in 2018. I haven’t found any updates on that either, but if/when I do, I’ll update this blog post. A replica was used in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, but I don’t know how exact a copy it was. For sure it looked the part!

[2] The situation started to improve in the following decade and has improved plenty since then.


1979: I Become an Editor

My first full-time paid job with job title “editor” gave me a career path when I didn’t know what a career path was. I didn’t even know what an editor was. I did understand what editing was, but wasn’t it just something that writers did?

I landed in this job through a series of coincidences any one of which could have turned me in a different direction. The first was getting hired as a clerical at Red Cross national headquarters. The next was transferring into the Office of Personnel Training and Development.

I liked my colleagues in the training office, especially Betty O. and Thom, the work was interesting, but I had a strong hunch that I wouldn’t be there long. When an opening for Publications Editor appeared on the internal help-wanted list, Betty O. and, especially, Thom pushed me to apply. I did.

I aced the editing test and must have done OK in the interview, because I was offered the job. After I started, I was told by one of my new colleagues, somewhat breathlessly, that on the test I had “scored higher than a Harvard Ph.D.” Even then I knew better than to be impressed by this.

I also learned that my soon-to-be supervisors had had to go to bat for me, because the Personnel Office tried to block my promotion. I was jumping from grade 23, in the clerical ranks, to grade 28, which was considered professional: this apparently was not done. The staffing specialist in charge of professional positions demanded that I produce evidence that I had graduated from college, a requirement for grades 28 and up. I took the wind out of her sails by showing up with my diploma, which certified me a 1974 graduate in history of the University of Pennsylvania, magna cum laude.

Thom made me that orange EDITOR shirt to celebrate. He also gave me WHEN IN DOUBT TURN LEFT, which was something I said fairly often, having figured it out while hiking and hitchhiking around Great Britain and Ireland in 1975. Neither one of them has gone out of date.

The publications office, known as Publication Services, was located on the fringe of Alexandria’s Old Town, in the Red Cross’s Eastern Field Office building (which I was told had once been a brewery). In its big, high-ceilinged room, the editors had cubicles down one side and production was on the other. The director and deputy director had offices in opposite corners at one end; the art department was down the hall. I soon presstyped myself a sign for my cubicle: “Cubicle 4, OOPS: Making the Semiliterate Printable.” OOPS stood for Office of Publications Services, which wasn’t quite the official name but close enough.

The best thing about Cubicle 4 was that next door was Sylvia Abrams, editor extraordinaire. She had been an editor in New York before her second marriage brought her to D.C. I am not kidding when I say that working under her wing for two years made it possible for me to earn a living as a reasonably competent editor for 40 years and counting. She introduced me to the University of Chicago Press’s A Manual of Style, 12th edition, which shortly changed its name to what everyone called it anyway: the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s currently up to edition 17, and I’m still using it regularly and still complaining about the lousy index, though I do admit that it’s improved over the years.

Me in Cubicle 4, ca. 1980

Sylvia answered my questions. She looked my work over and made comments whenever I asked her to. She showed me interesting challenges from her own work. She passed on editorial nuggets from her extensive experience. I’m probably part of the last generation to learn editing the old way, by apprenticeship to a master, and till the day I die I’ll be grateful I had the opportunity to work alongside her.

The job was ideal for a fledgling editor in other ways as well. The stuff we edited ranged from bureaucratic forms that required minimal changes to brochures, training manuals, and textbooks for Red Cross courses. In general the authors were not professional writers. In some cases the task of producing a document fell to whoever hadn’t said “Not me!” fast enough. Each edited ms. had to be cleared face-to-face with the writer. This required tact as well as expertise; often it was the less experienced and least willing writers who were the most touchy.

In my more than two decades of freelancing mostly for publishers, I usually don’t have any direct contact with the authors whose manuscripts I work on. Nevertheless, I mentally explain my more substantive edits to those invisible authors and write my queries as if I were speaking them aloud. It’s a great habit for an editor to get into, and for me it started in the Red Cross publications office.

I must confess, though, that like many novice editors, I did suffer from “piss on fire hydrant syndrome”: making changes that didn’t need to be made mainly to prove that I was well versed in editorial esoterica. For several years after I learned the which/that distinction (that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive), I was a menace with a red pencil.

I was the office wiseass. On one wall of my cubicle I taped the before and after versions of especially challenging sentences. Some repeat writers scanned the wall to see if any of their prose had earned a place on it. Editors and artists all submitted biweekly reports of all the jobs we were in charge of. All that was required was each job’s title and status, and that was all that most of my colleagues delivered. Not me, however. I’ve still got copies of several of mine, and it’s a wonder I got away with that much wiseassery.

But I did. When I left the Publications Office after two years, my performance review was stellar. Wrote my immediate supervisor:

“Projects edited by Susanna Sturgis were frequently highly praised by both the sponsoring offices and Publications Services. She was successfully responsible for projects that involved extensive rewriting to minimize jargon and vagueness. Her sensitivity to logic was valuable.

“Miss Sturgis worked efficiently under time pressure and demonstrated ability to organize and carry out a variety of projects simultaneously.”

Was I really that good? I hope so.

Though I loved the work and my colleagues, I liked less and less what I saw of the way big bureaucracies — or at least this big bureaucracy — operated. The epitome of this was Frank, the deputy director of Publications. Frank was built like the Little King in the old comic strip, only taller. To call him incompetent is too polite. He’d been at National Headquarters for over 15 years, and it seems his spots hadn’t changed in the least. Rather than fire him or get him to shape up, one office would pass him on to the next via lateral transfer or promotion, always with a glowing performance review. At some point the glowing reviews made it impossible to fire him; he was gay, D.C. had a Human Rights Act, and he would have had a strong case for a discrimination suit if anyone had told the truth: he could have pointed to those reviews as evidence that the firing was not for cause.

None of us were sure what he did all day. He would occasionally call one of the editors from his corner office and ask us to look up a word: we had Webster’s Second International (Sylvia’s prized copy) on a lectern at one end of our little corridor and Webster’s Third at the other. Frank, like all the rest of us, had a standard-size dictionary in his office. He quickly learned not to call me, because I’d say I was busy and suggest he look it up himself.

Monday mornings he’d often come round to each cubicle and tell each of us in turn what he eaten at his several-course Sunday dinner. Of course the less reverent among us made fun of him behind his back, but after a while I got fed up. I went round to all my colleagues, asked what they’d had for supper the day before, typed it up, put it in a frame, and left it on Frank’s desk. Thus ended the Sunday-dinner recitations.

After trying unsuccessfully to get higher-ups to take the Frank problem seriously, I gave notice in the spring of 1981. I left the Red Cross a month or so before my 30th birthday, thinking I was going to take a little time off to write before finding another job. That’s not the way it worked out.

Still an editor after all these years, ca. 2014

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