Part-time proofreading and political volunteering were great, but I’d finally caught on that full-time employment prospects for a female liberal arts graduate without clerical skills were not good. Male liberal arts grads without clerical skills seemed to wind up in management training programs, but in those days this generally didn’t happen to women without family connections and/or more chutzpah than I had. My public school friends had all learned to type in high school, but my private school had prided itself on its academic focus, which seemed to preclude all practical skills.

Washington Area Women's Center T-shirt
The labyris, a double-edged Amazon ax, was omnipresent in lesbian-feminist imagery of the 1970s.

So with my proofreading wages I signed up for the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school’s[1] eight-week course for unemployable female college graduates. We learned typing, a basic shorthand, business writing, and what I can only call office comportment: classes met five days a week during more or less office hours, and we were expected to be punctual and to dress accordingly. The white gloves the school had been famous for in its early decades had long since fallen by the wayside, but no pants were allowed. We were told that if one wore size 16 or above, one should wear dresses, not a skirt and blouse. That would be me, but I didn’t own a dress, so I continued to wear skirts. When I showed up in a wrap-around denim skirt, I was told that if I wore it again, I would be sent home, so I must have had some alternatives.

In the small-world department, my typing teacher was Barbara St. Pierre, of the family that ran the St. Pierre camp in Vineyard Haven for decades. In late 2018, after some $31 million in renovations and landscaping, the site opened as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on March 13, 2019.

At the end of the course I was typing a respectable 70 words per minute with next-to-no errors. Time to start job hunting in earnest.

This did not go well. On one interview, I stumbled into what had to be a circle of hell: the typing pool of a big insurance company. Row after long row of women sat typing, under a low ceiling with fluorescent lights tingeing everyone a sickly green-yellow. I recoiled. I didn’t want to work in such a place, and I didn’t really want to stay in the Boston area either.

So in the early spring of 1977, I headed back to D.C. to look for a job and a place to live. This didn’t take long. I was hired as a clerical at American Red Cross national headquarters, which occupies the block between 17th and 18th, D and E Streets, in Northwest D.C. — right across the street from the DAR’s Constitution Hall. The workaday offices were mostly in the 18th Street building. I would start as a “floater,” a sort of in-house temp who went to whatever office needed an extra secretary, sometimes for a day or two, other times for longer. Sooner or later this would lead to a permanent assignment. Strange but true, my first permanent assignment was in the insurance office.

Somehow I found what would be my home for the next year: a bedsit in a row house in the 1700 block of Q Street, N.W., that had been converted into a rooming house. The location was perfect: within a stone’s throw of Connecticut Ave. and Dupont Circle, the heart of the (white) gay (male) ghetto and a vibrant arts scene, one of whose anchors at the time was Food for Thought, vegetarian restaurant and community hangout.

My Q Street landlord was Larry, a gay guy, and I was the only female out of five or six tenants. (Larry probably recognized what I hadn’t quite figured out yet.) My spacious first-floor room had a big bay window facing the street. This came in handy because visitors could just knock on my window, bypassing the doorbell. A chandelier hung from the high ceiling; it worked on a dimmer, which did wonders for the decor, which was neo-Student Gothic. The bathrooms were on the second and third floors, and a refrigerator on the third, all shared by the tenants. I cooked on a hotplate.

My Grandma’s Wedgwood pitcher. You see why I don’t dare use it?

I returned to Weston, borrowed money from my father to rent a U-Haul, loaded my stuff, and moved to D.C. Since I was moving from Grandma’s house, some of her stuff came with me. Most of it I’ve still got: a small bureau, a cedar chest, four nested blue mixing bowls, a Wedgwood pitcher too beautiful to use (with a note from Grandma inside, bequeathing it to me), and Grandma’s copies of Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer.

The Persian carpet from her bedroom survived all my D.C. moves before going missing from my parents’ basement after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. No one knows what happened to it. My derelict uncle Hugh, my mother’s younger brother, who boarded in my parents’ house for a while, may have pawned it. I have no proof, and he’s dead, so that’s that.

How did I find the Washington Area Women’s Center?[2] Considering what a big part of my life it would be for the next several years, I’m surprised that I don’t recall that either. For sure it wasn’t via the Washington Post or the Washington Star (which was still around in those days), or from a billboard, or from a radio or TV ad. Women’s community organizations were shoestring operations. We did PR on the cheap, by flyers and posters tacked, stapled, or wheat-pasted[3] to walls, telephone poles, and bulletin boards, and of course by word of mouth.

Moving back to D.C. was a sort of Big Bang: my worldview expanded so rapidly in those first months that in most cases I can’t recall when and where and how any particular thing happened. I don’t remember how I found the Women’s Center, but I clearly remember what I found when I got there.

The center occupied a big square room on the ground floor of the Sumner School at 17th and M Streets, N.W. Named for Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner, the school had played an important role in educating African American children and teachers, albeit in a segregated public school system. Wikipedia notes: “By the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair.” This is an understatement. By the late 1970s it was a wreck. The ground floor, however, was reasonably sound. You entered from the side, off M Street, across the cracked-concrete remains of a small playground, and descended a few concrete steps. The Women’s Center was on your right, the Washington Area Feminist Theater on your left.

The WAWC Full Moon Cruise, out of Annapolis, MD, was so special it had its own T.

Yellow walls helped make the center a cheery place, as did the buzz of activity whenever it was open, which at the time was most weekends and weekday evenings. It housed a hotline, a feminist library — small but growing, thanks to the vitality of feminist presses and publications in that decade — and a cozy corner to sit and read or visit with friends. It hosted classes in women’s history, gay and lesbian history, feminist theory, and various practical how-tos. I quickly became a regular leader of the weekly rap group and (of course) part of the team that published the monthly newsletter, In Our Own Write. My new clerical skills came in handy, as did my facility with presstype, Formaline, and publishing on the cheap before digital technology came of age.

Every month, more or less, we held Women’s Nite Out in a corner former classroom up on Sumner School’s third floor. The room itself was in pretty good shape, but the stairs we climbed to get there were both rickety and dark. Whatever fixtures had once lit that stairwell were mostly non-functional, and Women’s Nite Out happened, as you might guess, at night, when no light came in the windows. The performers were homegrown local musicians and poets, most of them quite good and getting better: this was another area where we were learning by doing, how to perform and how to produce performances.

I don’t think I ever performed at Women’s Nite Out; most of what I was writing at the time was nonfiction for In Our Own Write or, eventually, off our backs and The Blade, later the Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay newspaper. But Women’s Nite Out, and what was going on more generally in D.C. and the women’s movement, helped spark the possibility of writing for a live audience.

It wasn’t till I attended a few meetings aimed at establishing a gay community center that I understood what made the Women’s Center and so many grassroots women’s organizations of the time so, well, revolutionary. The gay organizations, being overwhelmingly white and male, had access to skills, money, and political connections that the feminist organizations, especially the mostly lesbian ones, did not. Need legal or accounting advice? The men usually knew a professional who would volunteer their time. Need some carpentry or wiring done? Hire a carpenter or an electrician.

Lacking connections, expertise, and cash, the Women’s Center collective, like grassroots feminist groups around the world, learned to do things ourselves because otherwise they wouldn’t get done. There were women in the community with professional credentials and other in-demand skills: through the Women’s Center hotline, we connected women with women lawyers, therapists, and tradesfolk (who at the time were scarcer than either lawyers or therapists) who were feminist- and lesbian-friendly and who would accommodate clients with limited incomes.

I met my first girlfriend through the Women’s Center, and together we became the core of my first group house, but the Women’s Center itself was my first serious relationship. I’d been involved in groups before, of course, but never this deeply, this intensely, this day-in, day-out. I almost said that here was where my fascination with group dynamics started, but that’s not true: growing up in an alcoholic family made me an astute observer of others’ moods and interactions. At the Women’s Center, I wanted to belong, but I’d long since learned that safety lay in remaining somewhat aloof. The tension between the two continues to this day.

The Women’s Center was the site of a major milestone in my life: I came out as a lesbian in public for the first time while leading a rap group about “the sexually uncommitted.” This still cracks me up. I don’t believe anyone in the group was surprised.

Notes

[1] “Katy Gibbs” has an interesting and feminist history: it was started in 1911, in Providence, by two sisters, Katharine and Mary, who had to support themselves and Katharine’s two children after Katharine’s husband died in an accident, leaving no will. The Gibbs family sold the school in 1968 but it seemed to be going strong when I attended in the mid-1970s. This New England Historical Society story includes some background on how clerical work evolved after the Civil War and became a mostly female occupation.

[2] I recently learned that the WAWC archives are in the George Washington University library. So now one of my projects is to go through my files and boxes and see if I have anything that they don’t. The description of their holdings is rather sketchy, but it does conjure memories.

[3] Wheatpaste is an ancient, low-tech tool for sticking things together, especially appropriate for affixing posters to walls and other surfaces. A quick web search will turn up many ways to make and use it, but the CrimethInc website ably conveys the spirit of the technique.

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