Pagans, Witches & Healers, Oh My!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to leave a comment and don’t see a Leave a Reply box, click the title of the blog post (above) and then scroll to the bottom.

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

Support Lesbian Mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Persephone Press (1976–1983)

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

The Persephone Press titles that are on my shelves today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they did.

What were they thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She comes back indeed.

notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] See note 1.


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