1980: Secede Now

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

Selfie ca. 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

notes

[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.