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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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.