Persephone Press (1976–1983)

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

The Persephone Press titles that are on my shelves today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they did.

What were they thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

She comes back indeed.

notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] See note 1.


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

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.

Reviewing Gyn/Ecology for off our backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From my copy of Gyn/Ecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notes

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

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

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

Expanding My History: Lesbian Heritage D.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notes

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

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