Stepping back a bit in time here: This is from the Washington Hospital Center nurses’ strike in May–June 1978. I’ve got several shirts from events, causes, and groups that I was at most peripherally involved in, and this is one of them. The strike went on for 31 days, so I might have joined the picket line once or twice, though this seems unlikely: I didn’t have a car and I did have a 9-to-5 job. I might have known someone who worked there, or I might just have wanted to support the strikers by wearing the shirt. In the women’s community we showed up for each other’s rallies, events, picket lines, meetings — if it involved women fighting for justice, we helped pass the word and mobilize support.
A Washington Post story from May 27, 1978, led with this: “The Washington Hospital Center has more than quadrupled its security force in the face of a threatened strike by registered nurses called for this morning.” It quoted the president of the nurses’ union expressing outrage that “the Washington Hospital Center has seen fit to hire 93 additional guards. The Hospital Center’s vicious attempt to intimidate and divide us should be protested by all responsible citizens.”
Sound familiar? Keep in mind that this was two and a half years before the union-busting Reagan administration took office. When I revisit press clips from the late 1970s, it often feels that the ensuing four decades somehow wound up on the cutting-room floor. This is especially striking (sorry!) when it comes to the environmental movement. We knew all this stuff by 1979 but the economic and political powers that be did precious little about it. (See my blog post on the subject: “1979: Three Mile Island, etc.“)
This Flickr site includes a photo of picketing nurses on the first day of the strike, and a good account of the issues involved, starting with this:
The strike by about 300 of the 425 registered nurses by the District of Columbia Nurses Association (DCNA) at the area’s largest private hospital was mainly over schedules and performance evaluations, but also involving benefits and wages.
Prior to the strike, the hospital administration attempted to decertify the union, filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board challenging its representation of the nurses.
The independent nurses union was only a little over a year old at the time having been certified in December 1976 and obtaining a first contract in May 1977.
When striking nurses attempted to go into the pool at other hospitals, they found that the Hospital Center administration had sought to blackball them. While initially getting hours at Howard Hospital, that administration banned them during the strike.
The strike ended on June 26, when the nurses accepted WHC’s final offer. The results were mixed. The Flickr article notes, “Perhaps the biggest gain of the strike was the nurses preserved their union.”
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Responses to this shirt, and to the slogan on it, range from “Yes!” to puzzled to “What a terrible thing to say!”
True, without context, it does sound right out of the Pat Robertson quote book. He’s the white televangelist who very famously said that “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
To which my stock response has long been “I never had a husband to leave, ‘kill your children’ is total BS, and the last three are fine with me.”
Need I say that many feminists don’t practice witchcraft, oppose capitalism, or become lesbians, but over the decades the feminist movement has encouraged women to explore and develop religious traditions that don’t put men first; pay closer attention to how current economic systems support patriarchy and white supremacy (and vice versa); and come out and/or become more visible as lesbians.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class-and-up leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other mainstream feminist organizations didn’t want to hear it. Opponents were accusing them of being man-haters, socialists, atheists, and dykes, among other things.[i] Straight feminists, led by Betty Friedan, in their efforts to persuade the general public otherwise, threw lesbians under the bus and called us the “lavender menace.” To them we were, at best, a fifth column within the women’s movement. At times it seemed they had a hard time acknowledging that lesbians were women.
Radical feminists and lesbians from NOW, the Gay Liberation Front, and other groups rose to the occasion. Calling themselves the Lavender Menace,[ii] in May 1970 they disrupted the NOW-sponsored Second Congress to Unite Women, which despite its name had excluded all lesbian-related items from the agenda, by appearing in matching LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts and passing out copies of “The Woman-Identified Woman.” This manifesto/essay is now widely acknowledged to be a key document in U.S. feminist and lesbian history.
So in 1977 I came out into a community that was well aware of that history, many of whose members had played major and minor roles in making it. Before long I was learning and embracing it, partly by osmosis and partly by reading. My copy of Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young (1972),[iii] has my name and “August ’77” written on the title page. It includes “The Woman-Identified Woman” and also Radicalesbians’ 1970 essay “Leaving the Gay Men Behind,” which over the next few years I came to agree with 100%. The latter, by the way, includes the line, in all caps, “WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS A LESBIAN PLOT.”
To me in the late 1970s — and, come to think of it, in 2021 — this made good sense: who has more to gain from women’s economic, legal, and political equality than women who are less likely to benefit from the cultural assumption that heads of household (etc.) are, and should continue to be, male? When I said that women’s liberation is a lesbian plot, it was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, because “plot” suggests something sneaky and clandestine. From the Lavender Menace action onward, we were not.
The T-shirt, however, says “Feminism is a lesbian plot” because “Women’s liberation” was too long to fit without a weird line break. The two aren’t quite synonymous, but for they’re close enough. The shirt — which is unique, and the only tie-dye in my collection — was made for me by a D.C. housemate, the endlessly creative Beverly.
Beverly was pursuing her master’s in African studies at Howard and working for a Catholic women’s organization. She played the mandolin, favored long colorful skirts when most of us dressed urban dyke casual when we weren’t at work, and was handy with tools. She rescued a small table from a Mount Pleasant alley, installed dowels between its legs to stabilize it, and gave it to me. It’s the perfect height for kneading bread on, I’ve still got it, and that’s what I use it for.[iv] Beverly also created the “I’d rather be reading Adrienne Rich” sticker that’s on one of my old file cabinets.
She managed to procure one of the “Someone in Your Life Is Gay” posters that were then appearing on D.C. buses. She stuck it up on a wall in our second-floor hallway, and we surrounded it with news photos depicting male public figures embracing, holding hands, or kissing each other. (The Gay Activists Alliance had to go to court to get WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, to accept advertising featuring the poster.)
We were feeling our way toward what it meant to be a woman in a world where “woman” was defined entirely in terms of, and in relation to, “man.” Hence the importance of language: the recognition that “mankind” really did not include us, masculine pronouns were not inclusive, and lesbians really had to be not only included but recognized and acknowledged in the National Organization for Women. We were discovering and inventing all the “ways a woman can be,” as singer-songwriter Teresa Trull sang it. This took, and still takes, plenty of practice, and the practice has to happen in the midst of unrelenting hostility and suspicion and confusion.
Individual lesbians are far more visible in “the mainstream” (some sections of it anyway), and often more readily identifiable in our local communities, than they/we were four decades ago, but lesbian culture and politics are harder to find. In large part I attribute this to the dearth of women-only and lesbian-friendly spaces, including bookstores, music festivals, and publications. Not coincidentally, in the popular mind “lesbian” seems to have become an either/or proposition: either you are or you aren’t, and it’s almost entirely about sex.
So it’s invigorating to go back to the writings that shaped my worldview in the 1970s and 1980s, like “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Now as then its first answer to the question “What is a lesbian?” — “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” — strikes me as, well, hyperbolic. What follows, however, is golden: “She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society — perhaps then but certainly later — cares to allow her.”
The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it’s the question
of male domination that makes everybody
The great lesbian singer-songwriter-activist Alix Dobkin died earlier this month, on May 19, three weeks after being stricken with a ruptured brain aneurysm and stroke. In those three weeks, a mostly lesbian, virtually all-women vigil sprang into existence on the CaringBridge website. Across decades and generations, we shared our memories of Alix and how her music had saved and challenged and changed us. I’ve never stopped playing Alix’s music, but during those three weeks I played it almost nonstop.
So I’m closing this post with something she wrote in the liner notes for her 1992 retrospective CD, Love & Politics: A 30-Year Saga, about a line in her song “View from Gay Head” (yeah, it was written in that Gay Head, now Aquinnah). When she sang “Any woman can be a lesbian,” some took it to mean that every woman should be a lesbian. To which she wrote: “All I really meant was that every woman has some capacity for deep self-love and primary love for women, which is what being a Lesbian meant to me then and means to me now.”
What she said. Blessed be, Alix.
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[i] In the popular mind these are still commonly conflated, and a few decades ago the conflation was epidemic. I could go on about how erroneous this is, but instead I’ll offer a counter-suggestion: that what angers, terrifies, and/or confuses many men, women, and patriarchal society in general isn’t that lesbians hate men but that we manage to do pretty well without their approval and support.
[ii] The Lavender Menace action is covered in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a crucial documentary about the early “second wave” of U.S. feminism, 1966 to 1971. It’s available for home viewing on DVD (check your library), and at the moment you can find it on YouTube.
[iii] New York University Press published a 20th anniversary edition of Out of the Closets in 1992, with a new introduction by the editors and a foreword by historian John D’Emilio. Still in print, it remains a wonderful intro to the lesbian and gay ferment going on in the late 1960s and very early ’70s — and a reminder that many of these issues are still with us.
[iv] Beverly also gave me the big beige-and-brown McCoy bowl that I’m still using to mix and raise dough in. Another housemate gave me Beard on Bread, which I’ve used so often that it’s now held together with strapping tape. Over the years, housemates, neighbors, and friends have come up with many ways to encourage my bread-baking habit.
It wasn’t till I started seeing things as a woman that I realized how much was missing from history.
As a kid I felt included in the history I learned in school. I grew up WASP in the Boston area. The place-names in the history books were names I knew and places I’d been: Boston! Concord! Lexington! Old North Church! My fifth-grade class made a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village, which I thought was very cool, and not just because we got to put the teacher in the pillory.
Also in fifth grade I adapted for the stage a young readers’ biography, Patrick Henry: Firebrand of the Revolution. Patrick Henry may not have been a relative (but who knows?), but the author, Nardi Reeder Campion, definitely was connected close-up on my paternal grandmother’s side. My class produced the play and I got to play the lead. My only distinct memory of the production is that Thomas Jefferson was about twice as tall as I was.
History, especially family history, was important to both my grandmothers, both of whom lived in the Boston area — we could, and often did, walk a mile through the woods to my paternal grandmother’s house — so they were very much part of my life. Both were members of the DAR. Grandma, my father’s mother, was also a Mayflower Descendant. Gran’mummie, my mother’s mother, was a born and bred Virginian — if Patrick Henry was a relative, it would have been through her — who also belonged to the Colonial Dames and (I think) to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
For Gran’mummie, I’m pretty sure this was largely a matter of family and regional heritage — not a celebration of the Lost Cause. She lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, for the last 50 years or so of her very long life. (Born in 1892, she died in 1997, a week shy of her 105th birthday.) Only within the last 15 years or so have I become fully aware of what those Confederate statues meant, both to the United Daughters who erected many of them and to the Black people who have had to live with them day in, day out.
Still, above the mantel in Gran’mummie’s dining room was the Confederate battle flag. When I visited her as an adult, I was always surprised by how small it was: the longer I was away, the larger it loomed in my imagination, till it dominated the entire wall. Beside her writing desk in the same room was an imposing recruiting poster from World War I. It depicted an avuncular Robert E. Lee, gray-haired, gray-bearded, and gray-uniformed. I FOUGHT FOR VIRGINIA, it said. NOW IT’S YOUR TURN.
To this day it encapsulates for me what “states’ rights” is essentially about.
Gran’mummie’s middle name before she married was Washington; she was descended from Custises and Lees.
The Yankee heritage on my father’s side was less problematic. My Grandma’s original name was Rosamond Thomas Bennett. When she married, and eventually divorced and remarried, she dropped the Bennett and kept the Thomas. That was for Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831), from whom she was descended: printer, Revolutionary, and (I like this part) founder of the American Antiquarian Society.
The Bennett wasn’t entirely lost, however. One of my brothers was baptised Roger Bennett Sturgis, after Grandma’s brother the Rev. Roger Williams Bennett, and yeah, he was named for that Roger Williams. I don’t know how the line of descent works out, but if I can’t be descended from Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams will definitely do. Hutchinson, by the way, had a daughter named Susanna, one of the few survivors of the attack in which her mother and much of her family was killed.
Growing up, I assumed I was part of U.S. history. It was a jolt to realize I wasn’t, or at least not to the extent I’d assumed I was. In the antiwar movement I met veterans of the civil rights movement and survivors of the McCarthy witch hunts. These were nowhere represented in my family tree. Ditto what I learned from union members and labor organizers there and in subsequent years. In fact, men close to if not actually part of my family tree were often clearly on the wrong side: in Charlie King’s great song “Two Good Arms,” about Sacco and Vanzetti, the villain of the piece, Judge Webster Thayer, could well have been a third or fourth cousin a few times removed.
At Penn, where I arrived as a transfer student in the fall of 1972, I took one of the first-ever women’s history courses, offered by women’s studies pioneer Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. But it wasn’t till I got to D.C. a few years later that I became seriously immersed. Those who ridiculed the whole idea of women’s liberation loved to ask where the great female thinkers, scientists, historians, etc., etc., etc., were. One famous poster posed the question “Where is your Shakespeare?” and answered it: “She was a woman, and you burned her books.”
This turned out to be not far from the truth, except that burning, either of books or of women, was not necessary to obliterate women’s achievements and contributions. They weren’t being recorded in the first place, because they weren’t considered important and/or women weren’t doing the recording. When they were recorded, they were trivialized, pushed to the margins, and/or forgotten. What women often were doing was making the achievements of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons possible. Judy Brady Syfers’s essay “I Want a Wife,” published in 1971, circulated widely for years, even though most women I know got the point as soon as they read the title.
Feminism had been very much in the air I breathed as a Georgetown University undergrad, from 1969 to 1972. I was introduced to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (published in 1963 and already a classic), which gave me much-needed insight into my mother’s life; Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics; Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch; Ingrid Bengis’s Combat in the Erogenous Zone; and Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful, nearly all of which was new to me. I was the lead writer on an op-ed that appeared in The Hoya, the student newspaper, over the byline “Georgetown Women’s Liberation.” I later reviewed the premier issue of Ms. (January 1972) for the same paper.
After moving back to D.C. in 1977, I learned how much I had missed the first time around.
A major catalyst was Judith Schwarz’s courses in lesbian history, offered through the Washington Area Women’s Center. Judith had an MA in women’s studies from San Jose State and had taught a similar course there. Her focus was on the lives and achievements of women whose primary commitment was to other women.
Lesbian Heritage/D.C., devoted to uncovering and preserving D.C.’s lesbian history, grew out of those courses (which IIRC included lesbian literature as well as history). As a result, I learned that, totally unbeknownst to me as a Georgetown U. undergrad, a whole other feminist world had been thriving elsewhere in the city. The feminist newsjournal off our backs got started in early 1970, but I didn’t see my first issue till I moved back to town in 1977. (Oob, as it was usually called, played an important role in my life, and yes, I have a T-shirt to prove it. Coming up soon!)
I had never heard of the lesbian-feminist Furies collective either. Though it lasted only a couple of years, the Furies cast a very long shadow into the future, both for the lesbian feminist theory and culture articulated in its newspaper and for the future accomplishments of its members. Rita Mae Brown is likely the best known to the general public: Her Rubyfruit Jungle (Daughters, 1973; Bantam, 1977) may have been the first mainstream-published novel whose lesbian protagonist didn’t either go straight or die. She’s since become known for some high-profile relationships and many best-selling mystery novels.
For those of us involved in the emerging women’s culture of the 1970s and ’80s, several other former Furies were household names: Coletta Reid, a co-founder of off our backs who went on to establish Diana Press; activist and academic Charlotte Bunch, who started Quest: A Feminist Quarterly; Helaine Harris, co-founder of Women in Distribution (WIND); photographer and author JEB (Joan E. Biren); and Ginny Z Berson, co-founder of Olivia Records, which had its roots in D.C. but relocated to the West Coast in March 1975.
Once a Fury, a documentary about the Furies collective based on interviews with several collective members, was released in the fall of 2020. So was Ginny Berson’s Olivia on the Record, about Olivia Records and the women’s music scene of the 1970s; chapter 2 is a lively account of how the Furies evolved and eventually went their separate ways.
Naturally, drafting this post sent me into the past looking for dates to hang my fuzzy chronology on. The Lesbian Herstory Archives newsletter #6 (June 1980) reprints Judith Schwarz’s introductory letter to the Archives women, dated October 27, 1977. It includes this passage:
“Finally, I am about to start teaching a lesbian history seminar at the Washington Area Women’s Center, which is based on a similar class I taught last spring in San Jose, California. The response has been nothing less than tremendous, and it seems many of us are tired of getting our history from second-hand sources or biographies about famous writers. I am very pleased to see this massive interest and one of the things that I hope will come out of this seminar will be an interest in a regional lesbian archive here in Washington, perhaps affiliated with the Women’s Center.”
So there you are: that’s what happened. Judith soon became part of the Lesbian Herstory Archives collective, and we made at least a couple of field trips to New York City to visit the Archives, then located in the Upper West Side apartment of its co-founders, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel. I count it among the sacred spaces I’ve been able to visit in my life. Browsing the bookshelves, handling the periodicals, looking at the photos, I could hear the voices of the women who created these artifacts. From time to time I could almost hear the voices of the silenced, “the voices we have lost,” to whose memory the Archives is dedicated.
The Archives women made a trip to D.C. in the spring of 1978 and gave their slide presentation at Women’s Nite Out, at the Washington Area Women’s Center. How do I know this? Is my memory that good? No, it’s not. But my story about the event from the WAWC newsletter, In Our Own Write, for June 1978 is reprinted in the LHA newsletter #5 (Spring 1979). Here’s a paragraph from it:
“While watching the immense variety of lesbian works illustrated by the slides, I was especially struck by the ephemeral nature of our publications and organizations. This and their frequently local orientation make it too easy for them to be lost forever. Patriarchal institutions have suppressed and denied the culture of all women in the past. Now it is essential that we do not by our carelessness cooperate in their efforts. When the womenenergy that sustains a newsletter or a collective dissipates, the recorded evidence of their work must be preserved. The Archives are the instrument by which this can be done.”
I was 27 years old at the time, but I couldn’t have said it better today.
 Or so I thought, until my writers’ group members told me that they didn’t recognize the name.
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