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.


[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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Reviewing Gyn/Ecology for off our backs

Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) was bigger than a bombshell in the feminist world. It was more like an asteroid crashing into the ocean, creating a tsunami. I was a newcomer in the D.C. community, and not yet well grounded in feminist theory, never mind feminist theology, so it’s a bit of a wonder that I got to review Gyn/Ecology for off our backs.

off our backs, known to its friends as oob, was the hometown newspaper of D.C.’s feminist and lesbian communities, but it was also a national and even international publication. It was run by a collective, but every month the two-room walk-up office off Connecticut Ave. NW, opened up for layout weekend. By that point most of the writing and editing had been done and it was all hands on deck, supporters as well as collective members, to do the typing and paste-up necessary to produce the next issue. The rush to deadline made comrades and colleagues of us all. Everyone who helped out was listed among the Friends on the staff block for that issue.

My visual memory of the oob office is of a crowded, no-frills workspace whose walls were papered with posters from recent feminist history and covers from previous issues. I remember picking up the phone once — when the phone rang during layout, whoever was closest grabbed it — and it turned out to be someone I knew from Martha’s Vineyard who was involved in the women’s health movement. My worlds sometimes collided in interesting ways.

I did the typing and probably the layout for my Gyn/Ecology review, and for most of the articles I contributed to oob over the years, mostly interviews and book reviews. My typing ability came in handy, as did my facility with presstype. Here is what the layout looked like:

Apart from ads that came in camera-ready, all copy was produced on IBM Selectric typewriters. Veteran typists of the era will recognize the typeface as Letter Gothic, a popular Selectric sans serif option. Note that book titles are underscored, not italicized, even though we clearly had access to an italic typeball. Swapping typeballs in and out slowed you way down and often got ink on your fingers, so italics were only used for larger chunks of text — in this case quotes from the book being reviewed.

In those days, oob always put bylines at the end of stories, a characteristically feminist strategy to keep readers’ focus on the text instead of the author. I wasn’t the only one who would sometimes read the first few lines of a long story then skip to the end before deciding to continue.

Headings were done with presstype. This one is pretty good, but it’s hard not to notice that the baseline wobbles a little and that the space between “of” and “radical” is twice what it ought to be.

Typing was done on ordinary bond paper with margins set to the paper’s column width. If you caught a typo while you were typing, you fixed it with correction tape, which was preferable to correction fluid (like Liquid Paper or Wite-Out) because it didn’t have to dry. The newer Correcting Selectrics had a correction ribbon built in, parallel to the ink ribbon. I can’t remember if off our backs had any of them when I was involved.

Once completed, the typescript was sprayed with silicone to keep the ink from smearing, then cut with X-acto knives, waxed with a hand waxer, and pasted up on layout boards. The boards from the previous issue would have been stripped for reuse; they were reused until they wore out. Once in a while a page would go to print with the folio (running head) from the previous issue, meaning the date at the top of the page was wrong, but considering the intense, barely controlled chaos of layout weekend and the fact that most of us were amateurs, the gaffes were remarkably few.


Reading the first paragraph of my Gyn/Ecology review for the first time in at least 35 years confirms my memory: while writing it, I was terrified that I couldn’t do the book justice:

“I have been living with Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism for about four months now–reading, rereading, reflecting, rejoicing, growing impatient with my fear of taking on such a magnificent, vast and tightly-woven book. Gyn/Ecology is written to us, for us, from our experience, about us, the untamed, the Hags, the “women reluctant to yield to wooing”. It is a process that aims to transcend the limits of writing, to break down the walls between the writer and reader and the  usual distinction between the creating and the product. Gyn/Ecology is breath-taking in its reach, astonishing in its power–yet it is also intensely personal and has exacted from me an intensely personal response. I write, therefore, to review not the book alone but the part it has played on my own journey into woman-defined space.”

Gyn/Ecology is grim in its exploration of misogyny across cultures and across the centuries, but when it comes to language it’s also immensely playful. As its title suggests, it breaks words apart and prompts one to look at them in unexpected ways. Does “recover,” for instance, mean to regain or to cover up again? Or maybe both at the same time?

From my copy of Gyn/Ecology

In the last paragraph, I write that “Gyn/Ecology, this wonderful, brilliant amazing Hysterical book, spins itself beyond the words that Mary Daly wrote.” It spun me well beyond writing the review. Though then as now I was happier playing first lieutenant than instigator, I led an ad hoc group — we called ourselves, of course, the D.C. Hags — to bring Mary to town. The SRO event was held in a lecture hall at George Washington University on March 23, 1979, with a book signing at Lammas the next day (I know that because the dates appear at the end of the review).

Then, in early April, a friend and I took the Night Owl train from D.C. to Boston to attend “We Have Done with Your Education,” a rally supporting Mary in one of her frequent battles with Boston College. Since BC, like Georgetown U., is Jesuit-run, I found it borderline miraculous that she got tenure and thrived there as long as she did. Not till 1999 was she forced to take early retirement because she insisted on keeping her advanced women’s studies courses women-only. (She would tutor privately any men who wanted to take the course.) The rally, held at Boston University, was held on April 8, 1979 — I know that because it’s on the T-shirt. Its title was based on a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (Daly embraced Woolf as a foremother):

“And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this “education”!’”

As a daughter of educated men, I might well have been dancing round the fire. The less predictable part is that my mother, Chiquita Mitchell Sturgis, might actually have been leaning from the upper windows. At the time, she was a clerical at Beacon Press, Unitarian Universalist–affiliated publisher of Mary Daly and many other essential feminist, liberal, and progressive writers, so requesting a Beacon book or contacting a Beacon author often meant working with my mother. What she made of Mary’s books I’ll never know, but she liked Mary and we both liked having something in common that had nothing to do with family or hometown.

Mary died on January 3, 2010. My obituary for her was published in the May/June 2010 Women’s Review of Books. Unfortunately it’s not available online, but fortunately (wonder of wonders) I still have the print version. Rather than focus on (obsess about?) Mary’s forced retirement from Boston College, which the mainstream media were covering ad nauseam, I started off by summarizing the “far more intriguing . . . story of how a nice Catholic girl from Schenectady, New York . . . transformed herself into a ‘revolting hag’ whose advice to posterity is ‘sin big.’”[1]

“Daly’s searchings were wild, exhilarating, infuriating, inspiring,” I wrote. “But I didn’t become a Daly groupie. As a reader, a writer, and a thinker, I’ve always been a pick-and-choose synthesizer. A few of Daly’s protégées, including Janice Raymond,[2] took her insights and tools and created powerful work with them. In less able hands, though, those insights and tools became little more than parlor tricks.”

My mother worked at Beacon Press, publisher of Mary Daly and other essential feminist writers, from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.

When I wrote that obit for Mary Daly, I’d been an editor for more than 30 years, so it’s not all that surprising that I contributed to the Women’s Review of Books blog a post titled “Beyond God the Style Guide: Me? Edit Mary Daly?” Could I have done it? The mere thought was daunting, “even though,” I noted, “I’m the kind of copyeditor who argues with the dictionary, cheerfully makes exceptions to Chicago, and lets my authors do pretty much what they want as long as it makes sense and will (probably) pass muster with the publisher.”

Being a writer and a feminist as well as an editor, I went on: “From Church and the Second Sex onward, Mary Daly was continually improvising words and imagery to convey what hadn’t been conveyed before, and to examine ideas taken for granted for so long that they actively resisted exploration. Breaking trail is demanding and exhausting work. Being among the first to follow in a freshly broken trail isn’t exactly like traveling a paved road either.”

And that’s what editing Mary Daly would have been like: “following in a freshly broken trail.” Would I have been up to it? At the time Gyn/Ecology came out, almost certainly not. A few years later, fully fledged as an editor and more flexible than I’d been as an apprentice, I think I could have done it, though not without the terror that gripped me while I was writing that review.

notes

[1] Sources were Mary’s Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) and “Sin Big,” in The New Yorker, February 26, 1996. To explore, or revisit, Mary’s work, check out The Mary Daly Reader, edited by Jennifer Rycenga and Linda Barufaldi (New York University Press, 2017).

[2] My interview with Jan Raymond appeared in off our backs for October 1979.

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This is the photo that appeared with my obituary for Mary. No credit was given, but if you know who the photographer was, please let me know and I’ll add it in. I can’t tell you how much I love this picture.

Expanding My History: Lesbian Heritage D.C.

It wasn’t till I started seeing things as a woman that I realized how much was missing from history.

Me wearing my Lesbian Heritage T at a D.C. Gay & Lesbian Pride Day, ca. 1983. Photo by Jim Marks.

As a kid I felt included in the history I learned in school. I grew up WASP in the Boston area. The place-names in the history books were names I knew and places I’d been: Boston! Concord! Lexington! Old North Church! My fifth-grade class made a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village, which I thought was very cool, and not just because we got to put the teacher in the pillory.

Also in fifth grade I adapted for the stage a young readers’ biography, Patrick Henry: Firebrand of the Revolution. Patrick Henry may not have been a relative (but who knows?), but the author, Nardi Reeder Campion, definitely was connected close-up on my paternal grandmother’s side. My class produced the play and I got to play the lead. My only distinct memory of the production is that Thomas Jefferson was about twice as tall as I was.

History, especially family history, was important to both my grandmothers, both of whom lived in the Boston area — we could, and often did, walk a mile through the woods to my paternal grandmother’s house — so they were very much part of my life. Both were members of the DAR. Grandma, my father’s mother, was also a Mayflower Descendant. Gran’mummie, my mother’s mother, was a born and bred Virginian — if Patrick Henry was a relative, it would have been through her — who also belonged to the Colonial Dames and (I think) to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

For Gran’mummie, I’m pretty sure this was largely a matter of family and regional heritage — not a celebration of the Lost Cause. She lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, for the last 50 years or so of her very long life. (Born in 1892, she died in 1997, a week shy of her 105th birthday.) Only within the last 15 years or so have I become fully aware of what those Confederate statues meant, both to the United Daughters who erected many of them and to the Black people who have had to live with them day in, day out.

Still, above the mantel in Gran’mummie’s dining room was the Confederate battle flag. When I visited her as an adult, I was always surprised by how small it was: the longer I was away, the larger it loomed in my imagination, till it dominated the entire wall. Beside her writing desk in the same room was an imposing recruiting poster from World War I. It depicted an avuncular Robert E. Lee, gray-haired, gray-bearded, and gray-uniformed. I FOUGHT FOR VIRGINIA, it said. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.

To this day it encapsulates for me what “states’ rights” is essentially about.

Gran’mummie’s middle name before she married was Washington; she was descended from Custises and Lees.

The Yankee heritage on my father’s side was less problematic. My Grandma’s original name was Rosamond Thomas Bennett. When she married, and eventually divorced and remarried, she dropped the Bennett and kept the Thomas. That was for Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831), from whom she was descended: printer, Revolutionary, and (I like this part) founder of the American Antiquarian Society.

The Bennett wasn’t entirely lost, however. One of my brothers was baptised Roger Bennett Sturgis, after Grandma’s brother the Rev. Roger Williams Bennett, and yeah, he was named for that Roger Williams. I don’t know how the line of descent works out, but if I can’t be descended from Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams will definitely do. Hutchinson, by the way, had a daughter named Susanna, one of the few survivors of the attack in which her mother and much of her family was killed.


Growing up, I assumed I was part of U.S. history. It was a jolt to realize I wasn’t, or at least not to the extent I’d assumed I was. In the antiwar movement I met veterans of the civil rights movement and survivors of the McCarthy witch hunts. These were nowhere represented in my family tree. Ditto what I learned from union members and labor organizers there and in subsequent years. In fact, men close to if not actually part of my family tree were often clearly on the wrong side: in Charlie King’s great song “Two Good Arms,” about Sacco and Vanzetti, the villain of the piece, Judge Webster Thayer, could well have been a third or fourth cousin a few times removed.

At Penn, where I arrived as a transfer student in the fall of 1972, I took one of the first-ever women’s history courses, offered by women’s studies pioneer Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. But it wasn’t till I got to D.C. a few years later that I became seriously immersed. Those who ridiculed the whole idea of women’s liberation loved to ask where the great female thinkers, scientists, historians, etc., etc., etc., were. One famous poster posed the question “Where is your Shakespeare?” and answered it: “She was a woman, and you burned her books.”

This turned out to be not far from the truth, except that burning, either of books or of women, was not necessary to obliterate women’s achievements and contributions. They weren’t being recorded in the first place, because they weren’t considered important and/or women weren’t doing the recording. When they were recorded, they were trivialized, pushed to the margins, and/or forgotten. What women often were doing was making the achievements of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons possible. Judy Brady Syfers’s essay “I Want a Wife,” published in 1971, circulated widely for years, even though most women I know got the point as soon as they read the title.

Feminism had been very much in the air I breathed as a Georgetown University undergrad, from 1969 to 1972. I was introduced to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (published in 1963 and already a classic), which gave me much-needed insight into my mother’s life; Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics; Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch; Ingrid Bengis’s Combat in the Erogenous Zone; and Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful, nearly all of which was new to me. I was the lead writer on an op-ed that appeared in The Hoya, the student newspaper, over the byline “Georgetown Women’s Liberation.” I later reviewed the premier issue of Ms. (January 1972) for the same paper.


After moving back to D.C. in 1977, I learned how much I had missed the first time around.

A major catalyst was Judith Schwarz’s courses in lesbian history, offered through the Washington Area Women’s Center. Judith had an MA in women’s studies from San Jose State and had taught a similar course there. Her focus was on the lives and achievements of women whose primary commitment was to other women.

Artwork by Sudie Rakusin. This is one of the very few baseball-style T-shirts in my wardrobe.

Lesbian Heritage/D.C., devoted to uncovering and preserving D.C.’s lesbian history, grew out of those courses (which IIRC included lesbian literature as well as history). As a result, I learned that, totally unbeknownst to me as a Georgetown U. undergrad, a whole other feminist world had been thriving elsewhere in the city. The feminist newsjournal off our backs got started in early 1970, but I didn’t see my first issue till I moved back to town in 1977. (Oob, as it was usually called, played an important role in my life, and yes, I have a T-shirt to prove it. Coming up soon!)

I had never heard of the lesbian-feminist Furies collective either. Though it lasted only a couple of years, the Furies cast a very long shadow into the future, both for the lesbian feminist theory and culture articulated in its newspaper and for the future accomplishments of its members. Rita Mae Brown is likely the best known to the general public:[1] Her Rubyfruit Jungle (Daughters, 1973; Bantam, 1977) may have been the first mainstream-published novel whose lesbian protagonist didn’t either go straight or die. She’s since become known for some high-profile relationships and many best-selling mystery novels.

For those of us involved in the emerging women’s culture of the 1970s and ’80s, several other former Furies were household names: Coletta Reid, a co-founder of off our backs who went on to establish Diana Press; activist and academic Charlotte Bunch, who started Quest: A Feminist Quarterly; Helaine Harris, co-founder of Women in Distribution (WIND); photographer and author JEB (Joan E. Biren); and Ginny Z Berson, co-founder of Olivia Records, which had its roots in D.C. but relocated to the West Coast in March 1975.

Once a Fury, a documentary about the Furies collective based on interviews with several collective members, was released in the fall of 2020. So was Ginny Berson’s Olivia on the Record, about Olivia Records and the women’s music scene of the 1970s; chapter 2 is a lively account of how the Furies evolved and eventually went their separate ways.

Naturally, drafting this post sent me into the past looking for dates to hang my fuzzy chronology on. The Lesbian Herstory Archives newsletter #6 (June 1980) reprints Judith Schwarz’s introductory letter to the Archives women, dated October 27, 1977. It includes this passage:

“Finally, I am about to start teaching a lesbian history seminar at the Washington Area Women’s Center, which is based on a similar class I taught last spring in San Jose, California. The response has been nothing less than tremendous, and it seems many of us are tired of getting our history from second-hand sources or biographies about famous writers. I am very pleased to see this massive interest and one of the things that I hope will come out of this seminar will be an interest in a regional lesbian archive here in Washington, perhaps affiliated with the Women’s Center.”

So there you are: that’s what happened. Judith soon became part of the Lesbian Herstory Archives collective, and we made at least a couple of field trips to New York City to visit the Archives, then located in the Upper West Side apartment of its co-founders, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel. I count it among the sacred spaces I’ve been able to visit in my life. Browsing the bookshelves, handling the periodicals, looking at the photos, I could hear the voices of the women who created these artifacts. From time to time I could almost hear the voices of the silenced, “the voices we have lost,” to whose memory the Archives is dedicated.

The Archives women made a trip to D.C. in the spring of 1978 and gave their slide presentation at Women’s Nite Out, at the Washington Area Women’s Center. How do I know this? Is my memory that good? No, it’s not. But my story about the event from the WAWC newsletter, In Our Own Write, for June 1978 is reprinted in the LHA newsletter #5 (Spring 1979). Here’s a paragraph from it:

“While watching the immense variety of lesbian works illustrated by the slides, I was especially struck by the ephemeral nature of our publications and organizations. This and their frequently local orientation make it too easy for them to be lost forever. Patriarchal institutions have suppressed and denied the culture of all women in the past. Now it is essential that we do not by our carelessness cooperate in their efforts. When the womenenergy that sustains a newsletter or a collective dissipates, the recorded evidence of their work must be preserved. The Archives are the instrument by which this can be done.”

I was 27 years old at the time, but I couldn’t have said it better today.

notes

[1] Or so I thought, until my writers’ group members told me that they didn’t recognize the name.

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1978: ERA March and the Red Cross Training Office

From the back of the T-shirt

The July 9, 1978, march to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was the “largest march for women’s rights in the nation’s history” up to that time. Organizers, led by NOW (the National Organization for Women), were overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large turnout, and the march stepped off an hour and a half late. On short notice, owing to the huge crowd, the police had to close off all of Constitution Avenue, instead of just the anticipated half.

Of course I went. Everyone I knew went. For those of us in the D.C. area, rallies and demonstrations were easy to get to, and get to them we did. We’d often have out-of-towners crashing on our couches and floors. It wasn’t till the Second National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, 1987, two years after I’d moved to Martha’s Vineyard, that I actually had to travel to a demo. (Yes, I have the T-shirt, and don’t worry, we’ll get to it eventually.) Massive demonstrations were old hat to me. I had to be reminded how life-changing they could be for first-timers — as indeed the November 1969 March on Washington to End the War had been for me.

The front of the shirt. Is that top stripe violet or purple?

The colors of the women’s suffrage movement, gold, white, and violet (the initial letters of which, I’ve been told, signified “Give Women the Vote”), were much in evidence, on signs and banners as well as the T-shirt. Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party and a key organizer in the early 20th century suffrage movement, had died exactly one year before, on July 9, 1977. By bringing the militant tactics of the British suffrage movement to the U.S. she had helped revitalize and expand a flagging movement.

The British movement’s colo(u)rs were, by the way, purple, white, and green. For more about the suffragist colors, see this article. It doesn’t mention the “Give Women the Vote” connection, which may have well have been invented post facto by someone who preferred violet to purple.

After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Alice Paul’s focus turned to securing legal equality for women through the ERA, which she drafted with Crystal Eastman (who was, among other things, a co-founder both of the Congressional Union, forerunner of the National Woman’s Party, and of the ACLU) and first introduced in Congress in 1923. It was widely known then as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, after the pioneering abolitionist and suffragist leader. The original ERA was rewritten in 1943 and has since been widely known as the Alice Paul Amendment. The text: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

It’s so unassuming, so self-evident and logical, that it’s hard to credit how revolutionary it remains. Forty-two years after that march, the ERA still hasn’t passed. For a brief history of the ERA, and where it stands now, here’s some background and some FAQs.


I didn’t get this T-shirt at the march, however. It was given to me by my boss at the time, Betty O., director of the Office of Personnel Training and Development (OPTD, aka “the training office”) at Red Cross national headquarters. That’s part of the story too.

As a job-hunting fledgling clerical, I’d been terrified by my glimpse of the typing pool at a big Boston insurance company. Oddly enough, my first permanent assignment at the Red Cross was in the Insurance Office. Here nine employees were crammed into a drab office, most of whose floor space was devoted to file cabinets. At one end the clerks spent most of the day following up on and filing insurance claims of all sorts: worker’s comp, unemployment, motor vehicle, medical, and so on. The other end was occupied by the three professional staff and the two secretaries, the junior of whom was me. I worked for the assistant director, a nice guy who wasn’t all that bright, and the insurance specialist, a woman who was very bright and not nice at all, quite possibly because her two superiors were nowhere near as competent as she was.

The big challenge of this job was boredom. I generally finished my typing and filing in barely half the time allotted, which gave me plenty of time to do Women’s Center work. Like most bright kids, in school I’d developed a facility for what wasn’t yet called multi-tasking: I could do math homework in English class and still have the right answer when the English teacher called on me unexpectedly. Gradually this skill carried over into my non-work life, and not in a good way, like I’d be drafting a book review in my head while in a Women’s Center collective meeting and devoting full attention to neither one.

Gossip among Red Cross clericals had it that the Office of Personnel Training and Development was a good place to work, so when an opening for staff assistant (a clerical position one step up from secretary) appeared on the internal help wanted list, I applied and was hired. I had only a vague idea of what they did there, but this was a good move. Elizabeth Olson, known to all as Betty O., the training director, was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. Born in 1914, she’d joined the Red Cross in 1943 and risen through the ranks, a woman who remained committed to her work and her career even as the postwar tide was herding women of her class and color into the home.

The training office developed and implemented internal training courses for a nationwide organization with four regional offices and myriad chapters, some large and others very small. These ranged from time management to effective supervision to training staffers to teach the various courses. It turned out to be interesting stuff. I had a long-running argument with one of the two assistant directors about the term “human resources,” which was replacing “personnel” in the business world at that time.[1] He embraced it; I hated it, maintaining that it reduced people to the status of widgets.

The training office staff, 1978–79. From left: Betty O., me, Thom, Carolyn Moran (who retired while I worked there), Nancy Addcox, and Priscilla whose last name I forget because she got married and changed it.

We were a small staff: director, two assistant directors, two staff assistants, and one secretary. At this time, many educated women were concealing their ability to type in the belief, often well founded, that if they let superiors and colleagues know they could type, they would wind up doing nothing else. Betty O. could type, but she didn’t conceal that fact because she realized that if she did some of her own clerical work, the clerical staff would be free to take on more non-clerical tasks and contribute to the mission of the office. And we did.

Thom Higgins quickly became my best Red Cross buddy. He was the senior staff assistant, a Vietnam vet a few years older than I. We quickly established that he was gay and I was a lesbian. Personal experience was already teaching me that gay men and lesbians were not natural allies: many of the gay men I ran into were unwilling to consider the possibility that they were sexist as hell, which they were. Thom wasn’t, something he attributed to the fact that he had six sisters and no brothers.

We became the core of a free-floating group that met at the rooftop lounge of the Hotel Washington[2] most Fridays after work to “process the week.” The group included Bruce Bant, an ex of Thom’s with whom he was still close friends, and Charles H., Thom’s current, who was an aide of some sort to some Republican congressman and who could have stepped out of an ad in GQ. Bruce, like Thom, was a Vietnam vet — they’d met in Vietnam, if I remember correctly — but unlike Thom he was career military. He’d recently retired as a sergeant major, having edited Soldiers, the enlisted service members’ magazine, and was now involved in the beginnings of what became USA Today.

I was the radical lesbian anti-militarist feminist in the group. We razzed each other endlessly about politics and the military but were always friendly about it. Although we were in Washington, the belly of the political beast, politics seemed a long way off. One Friday afternoon Bruce produced a Soldiers T-shirt and said he’d give it to me only if I promised to wear it. I promised, and I did, more than once.

Ever since starting the T-Shirt Chronicles, my favorite procrastination research technique has been looking up people, places, and events that my story touches on in some way. Thom died of AIDS in 1988 — I’ve got a story about that, and he comes up again before I learn of his passing — but I had no idea whether Bruce was still on the planet or not. A quick Google search found a LinkedIn entry that had to be him. He was living in Florida. Should I contact him? He probably had no recollection of me, but he might be able to place me if I mentioned the Soldiers T-shirt, the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Washington, and Thom.

Just now I went looking again. His LinkedIn page is still up, as is a Facebook timeline with an entry from February 2020, but near the top of the Google hits was the news that Bruce died in Fort Lauderdale on September 27, 2020. Also among the top hits was a guest column from the March 21, 2010, South Florida Gay News, entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Has Been a Complete Failure.” The byline is Bruce Bant, Retired Army Sergeant Major. It’s him for absolute sure. I’m sorry I missed you, Bruce.


Notes

[1] The term itself dated back at least to the early 20th century, but it does seem that it was a hot topic in the 1970s. My tenure in the training office was 1978–79, so it seems plausible that it was a contested term at ARC NHQ at that time.

[2] Now, as far as I can tell, the W Washington, on 15th Street N.W. near Pennsylvania Ave.


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The Cost of Comfort

This Washington Area Women’s Center T-shirt was created when I was no longer even tangentially involved with the center, probably after I started working at Lammas in 1981. At that point my center of gravity moved from Northwest D.C. to the southeast and northeast fringes of Capitol Hill. The old Sumner School was no longer within easy walking, biking, or even busing distance. Just as important, the written word was coming to dominate my life — editing, writing, and bookselling — and to draw me into circles and networks of similarly committed women.

This T is more sedate, easier to wear in “polite company” -‑ that is to say, non-feminist, non-lesbian company — than the first WAWC shirt. The labyris symbol is retained but discreetly: only those in the know will recognize it as the head of an ax, or understand what that ax symbolizes.

What catches my eye now is the line under the center’s name: “Creating Unity From Diversity.” Variations of this slogan have become ever more popular in the decades since. It’s conventional wisdom among feminists, liberals, and progressives. It rolls so trippingly off the tongue that we forget how difficult it is.

Part of the Women’s Center’s mission statement declared our intent “to create a space where all women could be comfortable.” My experience taught me that the achievement of this goal was, at best, a long way off. This was my epiphany:

The rap group, of which I was one of the regular leaders, attracted some regulars who came every week and occasional participants who came for the week’s topic. As with other Women’s Center activities, the majority were usually lesbians, but sometimes as many as half the participants were straight women. (Not every woman identified herself, but if someone bent over backwards to avoid giving any clues, the chances were good she wasn’t straight.) Discussions were friendly, everyone seemed comfortable, but it gradually became apparent that the comfort was conditional.

Often several of us would decide to continue the discussion elsewhere after the center closed for the night. There were several reasonably priced options within walking distance where we could get a drink, or coffee, or a bite to eat and talk. Two of them were frequented mostly by gay men but known to be friendly to women (this was not a given with establishments that catered to gay men).

A pattern emerged: When the group mind settled on one of those gay-friendly places, the straight women who’d been ready to come suddenly remembered they had other obligations, or they were just too tired to go out. When we picked one of what we thought of as neighborhood pubs or cafés, everybody went.

These “neighborhood” venues were considered neutral, but of course they weren’t. They were frequented by male-female couples and straight men. At one, the men would be gathered at the bar watching sports on TV and cheering or groaning loudly as the game progressed.

In other words, the lesbians were willing to put up with the discomfort of being in a place where heterosexuality was the norm, and the straight women weren’t willing to do likewise in a place where it wasn’t. This was not surprising, since lesbians and gay men lived most of our lives in places dominated by straight people, starting with our families; they might not be exactly comfortable, but they were certainly familiar. For the straight women, gay-friendly places were anything but.

Women’s Center volunteers talked a fair amount about how to attract more straight women to our activities, like Women’s Nite Out and the rap group and our various classes. How to make straight women more comfortable at the center. I was coming to the conclusion long since reached by some of my sister collective members: that the only way to make most straight women comfortable in a mixed lesbian-straight milieu was for the lesbians to “tone it down”: talk less about our relationships, disguise pronouns when we did, and so on. To make straight women more comfortable, we had to make ourselves less comfortable. Since our comfort options at the time were so limited, this didn’t look like a great alternative.

A few years later, in her great essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” (based on a speech given at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981; in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith [New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983]), Bernice Johnson Reagon — scholar, activist, and longtime founder-leader of the black women’s a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock — nailed the whole matter of comfort and discomfort, extending it to encompass all the power differentials in our culture: black and white, female and male, middle class and working class, and so on and on. And especially how these categories intersect: Kimberlé Crenshaw didn’t coin the word “intersectionality” until the end of the 1980s, but feminists were already working on it, with women of color generally leading the way.

Sweet Honey did an anniversary concert every year. I attended most of the ones when I lived in town. This one has the date on it: November 19 & 20, 1982.

Reagon draws the key distinction between coalition and home: Coalition work, she says, “is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. . . . In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time.” We all need some sort of home, a place we can be comfortable enough to recharge before we “go back and coalesce some more.”

Diversity is more abstract than coalition, but it makes some of the same demands. Don’t expect to be comfortable all the time. Pay attention to who does expect to be comfortable, especially if it’s you, and who’s expected to “tone it down.”

This issue has never been more important. If all of us, especially the more privileged among us, aren’t willing to learn to live with some measure of discomfort, I suspect we’re all doomed.

In practice, the Women’s Center created events where all women could be comfortable as long as they were comfortable in women-only spaces. As expected, a significant majority of these women were lesbians, but not all: some identified as bisexual, some as heterosexual, and some were in transition or uncommitted. The Full Moon Cruise in 1980 was more ambitious than the usual Women’s Center event, which is why it got its own T-shirt. Women’s Nite Out happened regularly on the third floor of the Sumner School, and every so often we threw a women’s dance at All Souls Church.

All Souls, the Unitarian Universalist church at 16th and Harvard, N.W., was then as now a hotbed of culturally and politically progressive activity. It was also a stone’s throw from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, home to multiple lesbian group houses, and easily reached by public transportation. Long before rainbow flags started flying from liberal churches and synagogues, All Souls welcomed our events, at some risk to themselves. D.C.’s human rights act, like many such laws, saw no difference between men excluding women and women excluding men, or white people excluding black people and black people excluding white people: justice may not be blind, but when it comes to power imbalances in society, it certainly is myopic.

The threat of being sued wasn’t strictly hypothetical either. Around this time, I was editing as a freelancer a bimonthly newsletter for a non-smokers’ rights group. Its principal, a George Washington University law professor, brought a sex discrimination suit against a D.C. restaurant for requiring men, but not women, to wear jackets. I had zero doubt that he and other legal eagles would thrill to bring a suit against the Women’s Center for excluding men from a dance, and against All Souls for renting us space to do it.

So we were careful. We created the fiction that these were ticketed events, and tickets had to be purchased in advance. PR was largely by word of mouth or very limited circulation media like In Our Own Write. If a man insisted on coming in, we were supposed to let them in, but I don’t recall this ever happening. What I do recall is our delight in appropriating the men’s room, where there was never a line.

Our best protection was that lesbians weren’t just invisible to the heterosexual world; we were literally unimaginable. Only a few years earlier, after all, I had gone to women’s dances at Penn without registering that most of the women there were, if not lesbians, then not exactly straight. The idea of women voluntarily excluding men from any part of our lives, and especially our events, is still problematic. But the distinction that Bernice Johnson Reagan made between home and coalition is still valid. All of us working in the rough-and-tumble wider world need places to regroup and recharge.

Tellingly, it was in this women-only, mostly lesbian world that I started paying much closer attention to the differences among us, and the other ways we were different from the wider world. We were mostly white in what was then a majority-black city, and the age range from youngest to oldest couldn’t have been more than about 15 years. Class-wise, however, we came from a variety of backgrounds, and some of us had had grueling experiences with the mental health establishment, male violence, and/or the legal system. In this women-only space, we talked about things we had never felt comfortable discussing anywhere else.


I picked up this T at a women’s conference at West Virginia U., where Lammas was selling books and records. Probably 1983 or 1984. (Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker.) We dreamed of a universal sisterhood, of “unity from diversity,” but making it happen in real time was far harder — and asked more of us — than we often wanted to acknowledge.

1977: Back to Washington

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.