1984–85: D.C. Area Feminist Chorus

The story behind this one starts way, way back, long before I moved to D.C. the first time.

My family wasn’t especially musical. My maternal grandmother played the piano by ear, which I thought was cool, but unless Granmummie was visiting,[1] what music there was in our household came via records and the radio.

Not to discount the importance of records, however: When I left for college, I absconded with my father’s Joan Baez album, her first. I didn’t need to take his Tom Lehrer LPs — Lehrer’s first, the one whose cover featured a caricature of the pianist as the devil surrounded by the red flames of hell (see below), and That Was the Year That Was — because most of the songs were embedded in my memory.

I’ve still got that Joan album, and the 10 or so of its successors that I acquired legitimately in the following years, and I still know a ridiculous number of Tom Lehrer songs by heart.[2]

See what I mean? Originally released in 1953, when I was 2.

Like many middle-class-and-up suburban kids my siblings and I took piano lessons with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The teacher wasn’t especially inspired or inspiring. I did learn to read music, but I didn’t learn to pick songs out of the air the way my grandmother did. That was disappointing, but what I didn’t really understand was what all that tedious practice could lead to. If I had, maybe I would have persisted.

Or maybe not.

I did, however, like to sing. Singing was the best part of church, where we went almost every Sunday morning as a family: St. Peter’s Episcopal in Weston, Mass. From fifth grade through eighth I sang alto in the junior choir. After eighth grade, when we aged out of both the junior choir and Sunday school, we could join the adult choir, but the adult choir sang at the 11 a.m. service and my family went to the 9:15. That’s when I left the church.

In my eighth-grade year, Becky B., also an eighth-grader, a soprano who’d been in the choir as long as I had, told me that I always sang off-key. To avoid ruining the anthem, she said, I should just pretend to sing.

No one else — not the choir director/organist, not any other member of the choir, not any of my music teachers in school — had ever told me any such thing. Becky B. didn’t like me and I didn’t like her; she was a goody-two-shoes who was always playing up to the adults. But I feared she was right, that I had been found out.

Somehow I made it through the year. Then I stopped singing. Period. When I entered high school in the fall, the music teacher encouraged me more than once to try out for Glee Club. Since she directed the Glee Club, this should have given me confidence, but it didn’t. I was sure I’d fail and confirm beyond any doubt that Becky B. was right: I couldn’t sing.

It was years before I recognized the pattern: I’d pursue a skill, an instrument, a foreign language — then abandon it when I was on the verge of being able to actually use it. At that point you’re bound to make mistakes. In my family making mistakes got you creamed. My very intelligent and well-read father regularly ridiculed my mother for getting the wrong answer or saying anything he considered stupid. I learned to get my facts straight before I opened my mouth. From an early age I’d been good at words, anything to do with words. I stuck to words, spoken and written, but never sung.

I never stopped listening to music, though, or hanging around people who made music or were somehow in the music biz. Gradually, and usually in fits and starts, I got braver, venturing into territories where I didn’t have all the answers and was bound to make mistakes: taking that first editorial job at the American Red Cross, for instance, or becoming the book buyer at Lammas Bookstore. I did well at both, but note that they both had to do with words: in some ways I was pushing the boundaries of what I was already good at.

The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was founded in 1978, prompted by a singing workshop led by Holly Near during that year’s Gay Pride celebration. In its early months it was leaderless, with members leading warm-ups and teaching each other songs.

At some point, they decided to engage a director/conductor, and after interviewing several candidates, they hired Deb Weiner. Deb either was already or was soon to become one of my housemates, but this did not prompt me to join the chorus. If anything, it was a deterrent: What if it was your housemate who had to tell you that you couldn’t sing on key and were dragging the group down?

I have an indelible memory of Deb conducting the combined D.C. Area Feminist Chorus and Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at a holiday concert, in either 1981 or 1982. To be the conductor channeling all that massive sound! I was awed.

How did I come to finally join the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus? Well, I have it on good authority — my own words from 36 years ago — that I set out to write a story about the chorus for Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture “and almost immediately found [my]self singing in the second soprano section.” By then Deb had moved on after several very successful years, Caroline Foty was the chorus director, and I was living on the far northeast fringe of Capitol Hill, subletting a large room from and sharing a kitchen with photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB).

By then, probably in 1984, I had joined the brand-new Gay and Lesbian Chorus of Washington (GLCW). How did I hear about it? I don’t remember. This was a small group, conducted by Tess Garcia, and my most vivid memory was of a performance we gave where Congressman Barney Frank, dressed in a leisure suit, reclined across several chairs in the front row. Most of the homemade cassette tape I have from a June 1985 performance is unplayable, but on the one audible cut, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” we sound pretty good. According to the label, the program also included some P.D.Q. Bach, the spiritual “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and selections from Annie.

I noted the most striking contrast between my two choruses in that Hot Wire story: “Because the GLCW did not choose to specialize in works by gay or lesbian composers, a chorus member could walk into any music store and be overwhelmed by the available selection.” Not so any Feminist Chorus member: all our music consisted of handwritten scores photocopied or similarly duplicated, because none of it had been published. Director Foty did some of the arranging, and fortunately feminist choruses were thriving at the time, and lots of sharing went on among them through the Sistersingers network. We were breaking ground, pioneers, in the forefront, and very aware of it.

We sang at least two songs from the Balkan women’s singing tradition. I can still fake the second soprano part of “Shto Mi e Milo,” which has been widely recorded.

One of my favorites from the chorus repertoire was a four-part setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector.” I didn’t realize till about an hour ago not only that Mary Travers had performed it spectacularly, but that she wrote the solo setting and recorded it on her 1972 album Morning Glory.[3] I have a copy of the poem on my fridge: “I shall die / but that is all I shall do for Death . . .” It reminds me of the song.

The chorus made decisions collectively, including decisions about repertoire. “Conscientious Objector” almost didn’t make the cut; that was before I joined, so I don’t know what the objections were. As I recall, a couple of chorus members thought Malvina Reynolds’s “We Don’t Need the Men” was too anti-male. For others among us, this was a plus, not least because it was so tongue-in-cheekily Malvina. It was fun to remind people that Malvina wrote it in 1959.

The most controversial song I remember from my time in the chorus was “Sisters, Spring of Vietnam”; it clearly favored the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the French and the Americans, and that did not sit well with some members. Singing along with Lucha’s version I remember the tune, the harmony, and many of the words, so I’m pretty sure we sang it anyway, but some choristers chose to sit it out.

The back of the 1985 Sisterfire T. The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is about halfway down.

My last gig with the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus was at Sisterfire, June 22 & 23, 1985. By the end of that summer I was semi-settled on Martha’s Vineyard. Music was much easier to find than feminism, and find it I did, volunteering at Wintertide Coffeehouse starting in 1986.

It took a while to find a way to start singing again. My way in turned out to be the annual Christmas performance of Messiah, sung by a large (and ever growing) pickup chorus of Vineyarders, many of whom sang regularly in various church choirs.

I’d never sung Messiah before, and most of the chorus seemed to know it by heart. More, although I could read music, I couldn’t “sight-sing,” sing from a score on first acquaintance. I still regret not having the nerve to audition for Glee Club in high school, where everybody learned to do stuff like that. I worked hard, I learned, and when, in my third year, I made it through the glorious “Amen” without losing my place, I thought I’d arrived.

The annual Messiah sings eventually grew into the Island Community Chorus, which did several concerts a year and with which I stayed until around 2005. I’ve managed to keep singing since then. In the age of Covid-19, I’ve participated almost weekly in Zoom sings (Zings?) with Susan Robbins of Libana, a women’s ensemble whose music I’ve loved since at least 1980, and a bunch of whose recordings I’ve got.

But it was the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus that got me singing again, and though I didn’t sing with it for much more than a year, this shirt is about how I found my (singing) voice again.

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notes

[1] Which was fairly often, because she lived only eight miles away.

[2] This is so common among the political circles I’ve moved in over the decades that if I sing or even hum a line, often someone in the vicinity will sing the next one back to me. A favorite memory from my freshman year at Georgetown U.: As a marshal for the huge Mobe (Mobilization Against the War) march on Washington on November 15, 1969, I was stationed on Pennsylvania Ave. between 6th and 7th. We were close enough together that we could reach out and touch our neighbors on either side. It was sunny but bloody cold, and my winter gear was still back in Massachusetts: I had this idea that since D.C. was a southern city I wouldn’t need it till after Thanksgiving. Wrong. Anyway, while waiting for the sun to get fully up and the march to start, we did a lot of jogging in place and making coffee runs to the nearest drugstore. Eventually one of us — maybe me, maybe not — started in on a Tom Lehrer song. No idea which one, so many of them would have been appropriate — maybe “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” with its lines “I’ll watch the guided missiles / while the old FBI watches me”? We were sure the FBI and who knew what other intelligence agencies were around.

[3] My source for this is a detailed bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay on, of all things, the website for the ABC Oriental Rug & Cleaning Company in Ithaca, N.Y. There has to be an interesting story here, but I’ll have to save that rabbit hole for another time. The page seems to be updated regularly: it includes a reference to the ongoing pandemic and other events.

1980s: Sisterfire, Equinox & Sophie’s Parlor

Me looking stern in my 1983 Sisterfire T. The blue hat doesn’t quite work with the shirt and shorts, IMO. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire is the only women’s music festival I ever attended. Both my T-shirts call it “an open-air celebration of women artists,” so it wasn’t just about music, but music was the main event. I was never seriously tempted by other music festivals, which were proliferating in all parts of the country in the 1980s. Partly it was that, working in a feminist bookstore and living in a lesbian community as I did, I didn’t need to travel to hang out with other dykes. Mostly I wasn’t and never have been comfortable in crowds of people I don’t know.

Even crowds of all women.

Back of the 1985 Sisterfire shirt. Pretty impressive lineup, no? The D.C. Area Feminist Chorus is in the middle, right above Diane Lindsay & Sue Fink.

I have, however, been known to enjoy myself in very large groups if I have a role to play. At Sisterfire I was part of the Lammas/Ladyslipper team, selling mostly records but some books as well. In 1985, the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus, in which I was then singing, was one of the street performers, so you’ll find its name on the back of the Sisterfire shirt for that year. Chorus members performed wearing the chorus’s own shirt, and you bet I’ve still got mine. It’s got its own story to tell and will get to tell it soon.

Me looking less stern and more color-coordinated in my 1985 Sisterfire T. 2018 selfie.

Sisterfire’s other compelling attraction was location: it took place in the close-in D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. It was founded in 1982 by Amy Horowitz and the D.C.-based production company Roadwork, and the T-shirts testify that I was there in 1983 and 1985.

I left town in a U-Haul truck not long after that year’s Sisterfire, which my T-shirt says was on June 22 & 23, but Sisterfire continued into the late ’80s, not without controversy, not least because men could attend. I don’t remember the male presence being distracting or disruptive. On one hot afternoon, I do remember the announcer asking men to keep their shirts on because thanks to local ordinances and conventions women couldn’t take ours off.*

By the early 1980s, Roadwork was, in community terms, a powerhouse, booking national tours for the likes of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near and producing such standout concerts as the Varied Voices of Black Women (1978) and Cris Williamson’s appearance at Constitution Hall (1980). Naturally we sometimes snarkily referred to it as Roadhog, and a local graphic artist sported a brilliant parody of the 1983 Sisterfire shirt: it looked just like the official one till you realized the letters spelled out SISTERBLITZ.

Equinox Productions was a grassroots women’s production company — “group” is probably a better word, because they were all volunteers — formed to produce gigs too modest to get Roadwork’s attention.

One major benefit of Equinox and similar groups was the opportunity they gave women to develop skills in areas we’d been generally shut out of, like concert production and sound tech. D.C.-based Woman Sound, owned and managed by audio engineer Boden Sandstrom,[1] was a pioneer in the field and highly professional by the time this article appeared in the June 22, 1981, Washington Post.

By the time I moved back to D.C. in 1977, women’s music’s center of gravity — Olivia Records and the recording artists associated with it — had moved to the West Coast, but D.C. still had a thriving local music scene. Food for Thought, a popular vegetarian restaurant on Connecticut Ave., frequently featured live music; performers got paid by passing the hat. At least once singer-songwriter Casse Culver came down from the upstairs dressing room after her set, bandana masking her face like a Wild West bandit, and conducted pass-the-hat as a stickup. You probably couldn’t get away with that now, but at the time it was hilarious.

My favorite local musicians at the time included singer-songwriter Judy Reagan and the blues duo of Abbe Lyons and Cheryl Jacobs. Church basements and college classrooms[2] were popular year-round venues, and music could regularly be heard at rallies, demonstrations, and Gay & Lesbian Pride Day every June.

Sophie’s Parlor, the women’s radio collective’s show on WPFW-FM, was part of the mix, featuring interviews, books, and more as well as music. I’m pretty sure that this shirt was given to me by my Lammas colleague Deb Morris, who continued in the book biz long after I left and with whom (thanks to Facebook) I’m back in touch.

Sophie’s Parlor still has a weekly show on WPFW-FM. Wow. Its Facebook page says it’s “the oldest continuously running women’s music radio collective in the United States,” which is more than remarkable. The FB page also notes that it was founded at Georgetown University in 1972. I dropped out of GU halfway through my junior year, in December 1971; I remained in D.C. for the next few months, but I wasn’t aware of Sophie’s at that time. Next step is to see if I can livestream their weekly show: Wednesdays @ 3 p.m. EST.

I’ve long had a mild hankering to do a radio show — mild enough that I never sought out an opportunity to actually do it, and no opportunity ever presented itself. The closest I ever came was getting to pick what got played on the Lammas record player whenever I was working the floor. (Often I worked upstairs, keeping inventory on 5×8 file cards, one for each title, and placing orders. This was in the pre-digital age.) This was often how customers first heard the latest Cris Williamson or Holly Near, since they weren’t getting airplay in radioland, and of course we took requests. On Valentine’s Day every year I’d play all the shit-kicking anti-love songs I knew of. Favorites included Therese Edell’s “Winter of ’76,” Judy Reagan’s “Dispose of Properly,” and a whole bunch of Willie Tyson songs. Sample:

You go out to the kitchen
to get somethin' to eat
I watch you pick your bay leaves from a poison ivy tree
I got a feelin' you're gonna starve to death when I'm gone
Here's a brand new dime
Now you call me if I'm wrong
     © 1977 Willola Calloway Tyson

I’ve got a coda to this post but it involves a photo and I’m waiting to hear if I’ve got the photographer’s OK to use it. For the moment, that’s all, folks!

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Notes

Curious fact: These four music shirts, all from the first half of the 1980s, are all muscle shirts, i.e., sleeveless. What makes this noteworthy is that I have maybe ten muscle shirts total in my extensive collection, and the others vary in subject: one’s goddess-related (you can see it at the bottom of the pagans post), one’s a dragon, and one’s from Smedley’s bookshop in Ithaca, N.Y. (that one will be along shortly), etc. So why (1) are so many of my muscle shirts music-related? and (2) did they go out of fashion?

* For more about Sisterfire’s early years, and why it didn’t happen in 1986, see Nancy Seeger, “Sisterfire: Why Did Roadwork Skip 1986,” Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, vol. 2, no. 4 (November 1986), p. 28. All of Hot Wire‘s 30 issues are available online as downloadable PDFs. You can find this one here. The story notes that in 1985 a petition opposing Sisterfire circulated in Takoma Park. Reasons included traffic and parking, noise, “the smell of marijuana smoke,” and “some women attending the festival wore no shirts.”

[1] Boden, then going by Barbara, is credited as engineering assistant, to veteran engineer Marilyn Ries, on Casse Culver’s 1976 LP Three Gypsies (Urana Records, founded by Marilyn Ries and K Gardner). The June 1981 WaPo story says that Woman Sound was then coming up on its sixth anniversary, which would have put its founding around the time Three Gypsies was being recorded.

While poking around online (I’ve been doing a lot of that while working on The T-Shirt Chronicles), I came across this tribute by Boden for her friend and mentor Tommy Linthicum, who passed away in 2007. In it she explains how she got into biz: Casse was looking for someone to train to run her sound. They eventually became partners.

[2] Particularly at George Washington University, where Lisa C., the office manager for the Women’s Studies department, was a frequent collaborator for both musical and literary events.

Pagans, Witches & Healers, Oh My!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

1981–1985: Lammas Bookstore

Two of the best jobs I’ve ever had fell into my lap.[1] I wouldn’t have had the nerve to apply for either of them. Conventional wisdom for decades has held that women apply for jobs we’re sure we can do, while men apply for jobs they think they can learn to do. I fit the female stereotype, but my caution wasn’t just due to my sex. The message I internalized over the years from watching my perfectionist father ridicule my mother for getting her facts wrong was that it wasn’t safe to not have the right answer. It’s pretty much impossible to venture into new territory without making mistakes and asking questions that reveal that you don’t know everything. In addition, plenty of people were likely to write me off on the basis of my physical appearance, so I had to be hyper-qualified before I even thought of applying for anything.

In the spring of 1981, I quit my first editorial job (see “1979: I Become an Editor” for how I got that job and why I left) intending to take some time to focus on my writing. That’s not the way it worked out. About a month later, Mary Farmer, owner-manager of Lammas Bookstore, asked me to become the store’s book buyer. We were at my group house in Mount Pleasant prepping for my 30th birthday party; Mary was seeing one of my housemates at the time. I’d assigned her to halve cranberries for cranberry bread. The cranberries were squishy because, though I was already modestly renowned for my cranberry bread,[2] I hadn’t yet figured out that cranberries are much easier to cut in half if you freeze them first.

I’d bet good money that my face at the time didn’t show how astonished I was when Mary asked if I’d come work for her: Mary and Lammas were at the center of the D.C. women’s community, and I was way off on the peripheries somewhere. I had no idea she even knew who I was.

As it turned out, Lammas’s current buyer was leaving, and both she and Mary had noticed from my frequent forays into the store that not only was I an avid reader, but my tastes ran from history to feminist theory to poetry to fiction. Mary herself claimed not to be a reader, which wasn’t quite true, but she had her hands full as the regional music distributor for Ladyslipper. In addition to managing the store’s finances (enough in itself to bring on ulcers — read on!), she bought the records, jewelry, crafts, and cards. Wisely enough, she hired a co-worker to handle books and periodicals.[3]

How to convey how much that job changed my life? Let me try to re/count the ways.

The Lammas softball team on the cover of Willie Tyson’s Full Count (1974). Mary Farmer is 2nd from right in the back row, Willie is in the middle of that row with Ginny Berson (co-founder of Olivia Records) to her left and sound engineer Boden Sandstrom of Woman Sound at far left. I did not play softball but I did go to a bunch of games. (Cover photo by JEB.)

Back then I was at best dimly aware of how goods reached the shelves of retail outlets — which were all “brick and mortar” at the time, though we didn’t call them that because what else was there? I learned. When a title ran out, it had to be reordered. If it was new and/or selling briskly, it had to be reordered before the last copy sold.

There were two options: order from the publisher or from a distributor. When you ordered direct from the publisher, the discount was better — meaning we paid a smaller percentage of the retail price, which meant we got to keep more of the cash when the book was sold — but you had to order a larger quantity, possibly more than you could sell in several months. With a distributor it was possible to order two of this title and five of that. Distributors came in two flavors: those focusing on independent presses, including the feminist ones, and those who dealt with “the majors,” like Random House and Norton.[4]

Books, like other retail goods, have to be paid for before they sell, but you can’t sell a book that isn’t on the shelf. Most (all? virtually all?) feminist businesses were seriously undercapitalized. This meant that bills had to be paid out of revenue, and cash flow was always an issue. We couldn’t stock everything we wanted, but we had to stock what we needed, i.e., anything that was in demand and selling well.

Publishers’ invoices were supposed to be paid in 30 days. They virtually never got paid in 30 days, but when 60 days started stretching toward 90, you risked getting put on hold. If you were on hold with a publisher and needed one of its titles, you ordered from a distributor — and put that publisher on the priority to-be-paid list.

Lammas, at the beginning of August, is the cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the fall equinox — and also Lammas Bookstore’s birthday. We celebrated every year with champagne and a sale. From left: Liz Snow of Ladyslipper Music, owner Mary Farmer (a Ladyslipper distributor), me, The Printer Tina Lunson, and staffer Deb Morris, who went on to Politics & Prose Bookstore in D.C. She’s wearing the 10th anniversary shirt, so this was probably 1983. I’ve got the old one on.

Feminist publishers were always on the priority to-be-paid list. They were in the same undercapitalized boat we were, except that their burden was even worse: the costs of publishing a book have to be paid up-front, and it can be six months after publication date before the income even starts to roll in. The independent distributors were next, particularly Inland Book Company. We couldn’t afford to be on hold with them. (See note 4 below for the why of this.)

What I learned in those days keeps coming up, most recently not long after the Covid-19 shutdown started, when huge gaps began to appear on grocery-store shelves that were usually crammed full. Supply chains, usually invisible to the consumer, were in the news. In April 2020, I blogged about them — and traced my awareness of their importance to my experience at Lammas.

Serendipitously the second Women in Print conference was held in suburban Maryland in October 1981, a few months after I’d started my new job.[5] As a writer, an activist, an amateur local historian, I already knew I was part of something far greater than myself. Seeing that “something greater” in the flesh, meeting women I’d only known from seeing their names in print and reading their words — well, it was something else. This neophyte bookseller couldn’t have asked for a better training program. At one plenary session I found myself sitting next to Adrienne Rich, who told me how much she’d liked a review of mine she’d just accepted for the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom[6](of which she and her partner, Michelle Cliff, were then the editors).

At Women in Print I had a crash course in how it all fit together: publishers, bookstores, periodicals, print shops, designers, editors . . . The birth of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press was announced at that conference. It was historic in so many ways.

In my early months at Lammas I learned the details of ordering, stocking, interacting with customers, explaining the challenges of acquiring a title to women who were as clueless about the mechanics as I had been a few weeks earlier. For instance, in the early 1980s much work in feminist theory and history was published by university presses. Few university-press books were carried by any distributors, in large part because those presses only offered a 20% discount — which meant that for distributors there was no profit to be made whatsoever. Ordinarily, when a customer special-ordered a book, it was something we were out of temporarily and could restock on our next regular order. Not so with university-press books: in those cases I really had to order a single copy, knowing that between the short discount and the postage the store might actually lose money on the transaction.

For a regular customer I would do it, no question: I knew for certain that they’d return to pick up and pay for the book. For someone I’d never seen before, I learned to request a deposit on the retail price.

Over time I also learned to make a distinction between customers — and feminists in general — who understood the economics of running a small, economically fragile feminist business (or were willing to learn) and those who seemed to think we all lived in a utopian world where economic considerations did not apply. Mary, Lammas’s owner-manager, regularly ran into women who were surprised to find her doing her own laundry at the local laundromat. This often willful cluelessness was all too common in the women’s community, and 40 years later I keep running into it on Martha’s Vineyard too.[7] My patience with this crap left town a long time ago.

The 10th anniversary T from 1983. Our celebration concert (at All Souls Church, IIRC) featured pioneer Jewish lesbian singer-songwriter Maxine Feldman and local favorite Judy Reagan.

Meanwhile — well, I got to work in the heart of D.C.’s women’s community, which meant I got to meet and talk with so many women I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I knew just about everything that was going on, in town, in the book biz, and in the women’s music biz, across the country and even around the world, usually before most other people did. I got to talk continuously about books and call it work, because it was. I got to build up a women’s fantasy/science fiction collection; partly as a result, in 1984 I became Feminist Bookstore News’s first columnist, reviewing (you guessed it) fantasy and science fiction. This continued till 1996, long after I left D.C., and got me lots of free books.

The most lasting impact on me as a writer was the ongoing one-on-one contact with women to whom the printed word mattered. Books and articles opened new vistas for their readers, and the remarkable thing was that you couldn’t predict what book or story or newspaper article was going to make a decisive difference in someone’s life. And yes, I got to call customers’ attention to the works that had made a big difference in mine.

You’ll be hearing more about Lammas, the book biz, and why I eventually left town if you keep following this blog. I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself.

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notes

[1] The other was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, where I started as a part-time temp proofreader at the end of the decade. More about that later.

[2] My recipe came from Jean Stewart Wexler and Louise Tate King’s Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, with minor modifications (less sugar, more orange juice). Forty years later I still make it regularly. That’s why a third of the space in the freezer of my small fridge is devoted to frozen cranberries. Cranberries are only available in the fall, so if you want cranberry bread year-round you stock up then and freeze them.

[3] The store was founded in 1973 by two lesbian jewelers as Lammas Women’s Shop. Feminist and lesbian books were scarce at that point, so they only occupied a shelf or two. That changed rapidly in the following years. IIRC Mary started off as their manager but within a year or two bought the store. The jewelers continued to make jewelry under the name Lielin, which was made up of syllables from their first names, LesLIE and LINda. I’m spacing their surnames but will probably rediscover or remember them in my (virtual) travels.

[4] In the early 1980s, the main trade distributors were Baker & Taylor and Ingram. The main indie-press distributors were Bookpeople and Inland Book Company. Since Bookpeople was on the West Coast and Inland was in Connecticut, freight charges were less from Inland, so I ordered more from them. Without getting down in the weeds about book pricing — all you have to know is that (1) books are heavy, (2) the bookstore pays the freight, and (3) since the retail price was generally printed on the book, a store couldn’t increase it to compensate for freight costs, not without being accused of ripping people off. By this time Women in Distribution (WinD), which specialized in feminist-press books, had folded, but Helaine Harris, one of WinD’s principals along with Cynthia Gair and Lee Schwing, was working for Daedalus, which dealt in books “remaindered” by the big trade publishers. Daedalus was based in nearby Maryland, so when a remaindered title was of interest to us (as often happened), Helaine would deliver it in person, saving us a bunch of money in freight charges. Helaine, incidentally, was a veteran of the Furies collective, as was Lee Schwing.

[5] The first Women in Print conference, of the movement pioneers, was held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1976.

[6] Sinister Wisdom still exists. Not only is it still a journal of lesbian writing, it’s been publishing works that would otherwise get lost, such as The Complete Works of Pat Parker, edited by Julie R. Enszer, and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974–1989. If this thrills you half as much as it does me, or even if you’re just curious, visit www.sinisterwisdom.org, email sinisterwisdom@gmail.com, or write Sinister Wisdom, 2333 Mcintosh Rd., Dover, FL 33527. P.S. I had work published in SW 14, 17, 28, and 35. I also know that “Sinister Wisdom” came from a line in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. You see the challenge here? All it takes is a name to send me off on a dozen tangents, in part to remind me that my life really happened and that some of what I remember might be useful to others.

[7] More about that later. Much more. Remind me if I forget.

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 . . .

Feminism Is a Lesbian Plot

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.”

Judy Grahn’s poem “A History of Lesbianism” is spare and decidedly undramatic — until the very last lines:

          The subject of lesbianism
          is very ordinary; it’s the question
          of male domination that makes everybody
          angry.

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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Notes

[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.

Bread bowl with batter rising

[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.

1977: Back to Washington

Part-time proofreading and political volunteering were great, but I’d finally caught on that full-time employment prospects for a female liberal arts graduate without clerical skills were not good. Male liberal arts grads without clerical skills seemed to wind up in management training programs, but in those days this generally didn’t happen to women without family connections and/or more chutzpah than I had. My public school friends had all learned to type in high school, but my private school had prided itself on its academic focus, which seemed to preclude all practical skills.

Washington Area Women's Center T-shirt
The labyris, a double-edged Amazon ax, was omnipresent in lesbian-feminist imagery of the 1970s.

So with my proofreading wages I signed up for the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school’s[1] eight-week course for unemployable female college graduates. We learned typing, a basic shorthand, business writing, and what I can only call office comportment: classes met five days a week during more or less office hours, and we were expected to be punctual and to dress accordingly. The white gloves the school had been famous for in its early decades had long since fallen by the wayside, but no pants were allowed. We were told that if one wore size 16 or above, one should wear dresses, not a skirt and blouse. That would be me, but I didn’t own a dress, so I continued to wear skirts. When I showed up in a wrap-around denim skirt, I was told that if I wore it again, I would be sent home, so I must have had some alternatives.

In the small-world department, my typing teacher was Barbara St. Pierre, of the family that ran the St. Pierre camp in Vineyard Haven for decades. In late 2018, after some $31 million in renovations and landscaping, the site opened as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on March 13, 2019.

At the end of the course I was typing a respectable 70 words per minute with next-to-no errors. Time to start job hunting in earnest.

This did not go well. On one interview, I stumbled into what had to be a circle of hell: the typing pool of a big insurance company. Row after long row of women sat typing, under a low ceiling with fluorescent lights tingeing everyone a sickly green-yellow. I recoiled. I didn’t want to work in such a place, and I didn’t really want to stay in the Boston area either.

So in the early spring of 1977, I headed back to D.C. to look for a job and a place to live. This didn’t take long. I was hired as a clerical at American Red Cross national headquarters, which occupies the block between 17th and 18th, D and E Streets, in Northwest D.C. — right across the street from the DAR’s Constitution Hall. The workaday offices were mostly in the 18th Street building. I would start as a “floater,” a sort of in-house temp who went to whatever office needed an extra secretary, sometimes for a day or two, other times for longer. Sooner or later this would lead to a permanent assignment. Strange but true, my first permanent assignment was in the insurance office.

Somehow I found what would be my home for the next year: a bedsit in a row house in the 1700 block of Q Street, N.W., that had been converted into a rooming house. The location was perfect: within a stone’s throw of Connecticut Ave. and Dupont Circle, the heart of the (white) gay (male) ghetto and a vibrant arts scene, one of whose anchors at the time was Food for Thought, vegetarian restaurant and community hangout.

My Q Street landlord was Larry, a gay guy, and I was the only female out of five or six tenants. (Larry probably recognized what I hadn’t quite figured out yet.) My spacious first-floor room had a big bay window facing the street. This came in handy because visitors could just knock on my window, bypassing the doorbell. A chandelier hung from the high ceiling; it worked on a dimmer, which did wonders for the decor, which was neo-Student Gothic. The bathrooms were on the second and third floors, and a refrigerator on the third, all shared by the tenants. I cooked on a hotplate.

My Grandma’s Wedgwood pitcher. You see why I don’t dare use it?

I returned to Weston, borrowed money from my father to rent a U-Haul, loaded my stuff, and moved to D.C. Since I was moving from Grandma’s house, some of her stuff came with me. Most of it I’ve still got: a small bureau, a cedar chest, four nested blue mixing bowls, a Wedgwood pitcher too beautiful to use (with a note from Grandma inside, bequeathing it to me), and Grandma’s copies of Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer.

The Persian carpet from her bedroom survived all my D.C. moves before going missing from my parents’ basement after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. No one knows what happened to it. My derelict uncle Hugh, my mother’s younger brother, who boarded in my parents’ house for a while, may have pawned it. I have no proof, and he’s dead, so that’s that.

How did I find the Washington Area Women’s Center?[2] Considering what a big part of my life it would be for the next several years, I’m surprised that I don’t recall that either. For sure it wasn’t via the Washington Post or the Washington Star (which was still around in those days), or from a billboard, or from a radio or TV ad. Women’s community organizations were shoestring operations. We did PR on the cheap, by flyers and posters tacked, stapled, or wheat-pasted[3] to walls, telephone poles, and bulletin boards, and of course by word of mouth.

Moving back to D.C. was a sort of Big Bang: my worldview expanded so rapidly in those first months that in most cases I can’t recall when and where and how any particular thing happened. I don’t remember how I found the Women’s Center, but I clearly remember what I found when I got there.

The center occupied a big square room on the ground floor of the Sumner School at 17th and M Streets, N.W. Named for Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner, the school had played an important role in educating African American children and teachers, albeit in a segregated public school system. Wikipedia notes: “By the 1980s the building had fallen into disrepair.” This is an understatement. By the late 1970s it was a wreck. The ground floor, however, was reasonably sound. You entered from the side, off M Street, across the cracked-concrete remains of a small playground, and descended a few concrete steps. The Women’s Center was on your right, the Washington Area Feminist Theater on your left.

The WAWC Full Moon Cruise, out of Annapolis, MD, was so special it had its own T.

Yellow walls helped make the center a cheery place, as did the buzz of activity whenever it was open, which at the time was most weekends and weekday evenings. It housed a hotline, a feminist library — small but growing, thanks to the vitality of feminist presses and publications in that decade — and a cozy corner to sit and read or visit with friends. It hosted classes in women’s history, gay and lesbian history, feminist theory, and various practical how-tos. I quickly became a regular leader of the weekly rap group and (of course) part of the team that published the monthly newsletter, In Our Own Write. My new clerical skills came in handy, as did my facility with presstype, Formaline, and publishing on the cheap before digital technology came of age.

Every month, more or less, we held Women’s Nite Out in a corner former classroom up on Sumner School’s third floor. The room itself was in pretty good shape, but the stairs we climbed to get there were both rickety and dark. Whatever fixtures had once lit that stairwell were mostly non-functional, and Women’s Nite Out happened, as you might guess, at night, when no light came in the windows. The performers were homegrown local musicians and poets, most of them quite good and getting better: this was another area where we were learning by doing, how to perform and how to produce performances.

I don’t think I ever performed at Women’s Nite Out; most of what I was writing at the time was nonfiction for In Our Own Write or, eventually, off our backs and The Blade, later the Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay newspaper. But Women’s Nite Out, and what was going on more generally in D.C. and the women’s movement, helped spark the possibility of writing for a live audience.

It wasn’t till I attended a few meetings aimed at establishing a gay community center that I understood what made the Women’s Center and so many grassroots women’s organizations of the time so, well, revolutionary. The gay organizations, being overwhelmingly white and male, had access to skills, money, and political connections that the feminist organizations, especially the mostly lesbian ones, did not. Need legal or accounting advice? The men usually knew a professional who would volunteer their time. Need some carpentry or wiring done? Hire a carpenter or an electrician.

Lacking connections, expertise, and cash, the Women’s Center collective, like grassroots feminist groups around the world, learned to do things ourselves because otherwise they wouldn’t get done. There were women in the community with professional credentials and other in-demand skills: through the Women’s Center hotline, we connected women with women lawyers, therapists, and tradesfolk (who at the time were scarcer than either lawyers or therapists) who were feminist- and lesbian-friendly and who would accommodate clients with limited incomes.

I met my first girlfriend through the Women’s Center, and together we became the core of my first group house, but the Women’s Center itself was my first serious relationship. I’d been involved in groups before, of course, but never this deeply, this intensely, this day-in, day-out. I almost said that here was where my fascination with group dynamics started, but that’s not true: growing up in an alcoholic family made me an astute observer of others’ moods and interactions. At the Women’s Center, I wanted to belong, but I’d long since learned that safety lay in remaining somewhat aloof. The tension between the two continues to this day.

The Women’s Center was the site of a major milestone in my life: I came out as a lesbian in public for the first time while leading a rap group about “the sexually uncommitted.” This still cracks me up. I don’t believe anyone in the group was surprised.

Notes

[1] “Katy Gibbs” has an interesting and feminist history: it was started in 1911, in Providence, by two sisters, Katharine and Mary, who had to support themselves and Katharine’s two children after Katharine’s husband died in an accident, leaving no will. The Gibbs family sold the school in 1968 but it seemed to be going strong when I attended in the mid-1970s. This New England Historical Society story includes some background on how clerical work evolved after the Civil War and became a mostly female occupation.

[2] I recently learned that the WAWC archives are in the George Washington University library. So now one of my projects is to go through my files and boxes and see if I have anything that they don’t. The description of their holdings is rather sketchy, but it does conjure memories.

[3] Wheatpaste is an ancient, low-tech tool for sticking things together, especially appropriate for affixing posters to walls and other surfaces. A quick web search will turn up many ways to make and use it, but the CrimethInc website ably conveys the spirit of the technique.

Introduction

I’ve got 190 T-shirts. If I wore one a day every day during T-shirt weather, it would take more than two years to wear them all. It’s never come close to happening. No one needs 190 T-shirts, right?

What if I said that these T-shirts date back to 1976, which is to say more than half my life, and that they chronicle the twists and turns that my life has taken since, well, 1976?

And touched on many events and movements of interest to the wider world?

The other day I took them out and tried to sort them into chronological order. They weren’t into chronology. Some of them insisted on sorting themselves by theme, even if they’d come into my life decades apart: feminism, lesbian community, demonstrations, science fiction, writing, editing, bookselling, music, horses, dogs, Martha’s Vineyard . . .

They weren’t into chronology . . .

I couldn’t ignore the shimmering lines where one shirt reached out to another, and often several others, sometimes over two or three decades, sometimes making connections I hadn’t anticipated. My T-shirts were hyperlinked. They wouldn’t fall into a straight line. Whatever shape they agreed to would have to be multi-dimensional.

Over the years quite a few people have suggested making a quilt — or, since sewing patches on jeans and buttons on shirts is all I can do with needle and thread, commissioning someone else to make a quilt. They’ve got a point. I’ve seen beautiful quilts that commemorate histories, personal and otherwise. But I don’t need another quilt, nor do I have wall space to hang one that’s purely decorative.

Besides, quite a few of my T-shirts come attached to stories that couldn’t be contained in a quilt square, and not infrequently those stories overlap. How would any quilter know what my shirts have to say about each other, and about me, without me standing by and pestering her with commentary? I’m a writer, not a quilter. I should be writing the stories, not dictating them to someone else. (Yes, I do know quite a few women who both quilt and write.)

Not to mention — T-shirts are meant to be worn. Which brings me round to why I glommed on to T-shirts in the first place. Here’s the story I’ve been telling myself:

Through my late teens and well into my early thirties I was fat. I’ve never been thin, but in those years I was fat enough to have to buy most of my clothing in plus-size stores. I knew nothing about fashion and cared less, and in any case, in those days the notion that a woman could be both fat and fashionable was oxymoronic. Fat women were supposed to dress to make ourselves unobtrusive, for instance by wearing dark colors and/or vertical stripes. Dark colors and/or vertical stripes don’t make you unobtrusive; they make it look like you’re trying to look unobtrusive — to efface if not erase yourself. To apologize for the space you were taking up.

My sartorial tastes ran more to denim and flannel. Relatively late in life it dawned on me that since I was about 12, I’d been arranging my life so I could dress as if I worked in a barn — which I did through my teen years and again through my fifties (we’ll get to that eventually). College campuses fit the bill, as did the antiwar and women’s liberation movements. I like to think that I went through the early to mid 1970s wearing only jeans and blue work shirts, but this could not possibly be true: I only had two or three of each, I didn’t do laundry all that often, and though I’m casual to a fault, grunge has never been my style.

Whatever I wore, though, it was not meant to draw attention to my body. I was not the least bit shy, however, about drawing attention to my political proclivities, which were made obvious by what came out of my mouth and what I put down on paper, and by my political buttons. When I imagine myself in those years, what I see is a stocky (to put it politely) woman of average height, with unruly (again, I’m being generous here) brown hair, wearing jeans, a baggy shirt, and an assortment of political buttons. The buttons identified me; to some extent they even spoke for me, though I was always ready, willing, and able to back them up with words.

My theory is that in the late 1970s, T-shirts supplanted buttons as my preferred way of announcing myself. They were colorful, they were cheap, the sizing was predictable, and they relieved me of having to shop. The blouses available in the plus-size stores weren’t me at all, and men’s sizes have never agreed with either my breasts or my hips — apart from T-shirts, of course, which in those days didn’t try to be form-fitting. So one shirt led to another, and another, and another. Even now they keep coming, no matter how often I say “Not one more!”

My wardrobe has diversified somewhat over the years, but T-shirts remain my go-to warm weather wear and on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’ve lived for the last 35 years, it’s absolutely OK to dress as if you work in a barn, or on a farm, or in a garden — which quite a few of us do.

Though T-shirts were an inextricable part of my life, and at some point in some circles I became somewhat notorious for my T-shirts, I never thought of using them to chronicle my personal history. Then, for my 50th birthday party, in June 2001, I hung 25 or 30 of my T-shirts around the living room to represent my previous two and a half decades. I loved the way they communicated with each other displayed side by side, out in the open. My party guests, almost none of whom had known me for more than five or six years and some of whom were barely half my age, were fascinated. They asked questions. I answered with stories.

I’m pretty sure that’s where the idea of the T-Shirt Chronicles took root. For many years it gestated underground. Eventually I started saying out loud that it was something I meant to do “one of these days.” Once I discovered social media and started blogging, the blog seemed the ideal format for it. Now “one of these days” has arrived.

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