Support Lesbian Mothers

I could have acquired this T at Lammas, or at an event. Don’t know. In the 1970s and well into the ’80s — and in plenty of places even now — “lesbian mother” was either an oxymoron or anathema. In my social and political circles there weren’t many lesbian mothers, and virtually all were survivors of heterosexual relationships. Several prominent lesbians who were (almost) old enough to be our mothers had children: Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) had three sons, and Audre Lorde (b. 1934) had a son and a daughter. Singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin (b. 1940) wrote at least one song about the joys and challenges of being mother to Adrian, and in her later years was a happy grandma to Adrian’s three kids.

In the 1980s this was starting to change: lesbians, some in relationships, others single, were “starting families,” as the saying goes, by adoption or by getting pregnant. I don’t remember when the phrase “lesbian baby boom” became popular, but it most certainly did. A landmark documentary about lesbian mothers, Choosing Children, was released in 1985.

In those days, even demonstrably unfit fathers could count on winning custody battles with their lesbian ex-wives. I knew women who’d lost custody after grueling court fights, and I heard of men who, after winning in court, relinquished custody to their exes: they were more interested in winning than in taking responsibility for their kids.

Along with possibly hostile exes, a definitely hostile legal system, and all the challenges that go with raising children, period, lesbian mothers often didn’t get much practical support from their lesbian communities either. There were multiple, interacting reasons for this. We were a mono-generational lot, for one thing: I’d guess that at least 80 percent of us were between the ages of 25 and 40. Most of the white women among us were from somewhere else: we’d left hometowns and families behind, often on less-than-happy terms. As a result, we had to build support networks from scratch, and we didn’t have much energy, time, space, or money available for non-adults — or for elders either. (We did, I think, do an OK job supporting those among us who were faced with serious illness or injury.)

In addition, some of us just weren’t all that interested in children. I distinctly remember an incident when I was about 12: I was in the car with my mother, headed for the next town over, and when we were stopped at a red light I asked her why I, alone of my siblings, didn’t have a middle name. She replied that when I got married, I’d just drop it. In that instant I knew (1) that I was never getting married, and (2) that I needed a middle name.

Kids weren’t part of my thought process, not consciously at least: what I knew for sure was that I didn’t want my mother’s life. Much, much later, like when I was around 30 and had been out as a lesbian for several years, I was mildly curious about what pregnancy and childbirth might feel like, but I had zero interest in raising a child — or in having heterosex, although by then I knew that there were other ways to get pregnant. Turkey basters were most definitely a thing.

Sometimes it was stronger than lack of interest. The phrase “never-het lesbian,” meaning a lesbian with no heterosexual history, was in play, and having kids was taken as a fairly obvious sign of a heterosexual past. And if while growing up a woman had been subjected to heavy family pressure to get married and have children, and perhaps been disowned for not doing so — well, once one escaped that pressure, one might be at least a bit ambivalent about those who seemed to have acquiesced in and benefited from it.

I just pulled off my shelf the epic volume Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book, edited by Ginny Vida in cooperation with the women of the National Gay Task Force and published in 1978. It’s a rich and revealing collection, of essays and photos and an exhaustive national resource directory, of where we were in the late 1970s. The essays include “Sharing Your Lesbian Identity with Your Children” and “Lesbian Mothers in Transition,” and lesbian mothers and their kids show up in other essays too.

A quick Google search turned up a scientific paper from 1981: “Lesbian Mothers and Their Children: A Comparative Survey,” in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. In case anyone needed more evidence that lesbian mothers have been around for a while . . .


Writing about lesbian mothers reminded me of a book that came out in the late 1980s: Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home? by Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski, published by Aunt Lute Books in 1989. I no longer have my copy, so I was thrilled to learn just now that, though it’s not in print, it’s still being read and remembered and copies can be found.

After Sharon Kowalski suffered serious brain damage in an auto accident, her parents refused to let her lover, Karen Thompson, even visit her in the hospital. A long court battle ensued, which Karen eventually won: she became Sharon’s legal guardian. The case was a cause célèbre in lesbian, feminist, and disability circles because it underscored just how vulnerable lesbian and gay relationships were when marriage equality was barely even a dream.

A 2003 book about the case is still in print from the University Press of Kansas: The Sharon Kowalski Case, by Casey Charles. Notes the publisher’s catalogue: “Charles weaves together various versions of the story to show how one isolated dispute in Minnesota became part of a larger national struggle for gay and lesbian rights in an era when the movement was coming of age both legally and politically. His account recalls the rough road lesbians and gay men have had to travel to gain legal recognition, examines how the law is politicized by the social stigma attached to homosexuality, and demonstrates how conflicted the decision to ‘come out’ can be for lesbians and gays who view ‘the closet’ as both prison and refuge.” Charles, a lawyer, English professor, and gay man with HIV, has written several books since.

This August 2018 article in Minnesota Lawyer brings the story almost up to the present day: “The Minnesota Legal Fight That Changed the Course of the Gay Rights Movement.” Karen has been Sharon’s guardian all these years, assisted by her current partner.

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.

If you want to leave a comment and don’t see a Leave a Reply box, click the title of this post and then scroll to the bottom.

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.

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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The Cost of Comfort

This Washington Area Women’s Center T-shirt was created when I was no longer even tangentially involved with the center, probably after I started working at Lammas in 1981. At that point my center of gravity moved from Northwest D.C. to the southeast and northeast fringes of Capitol Hill. The old Sumner School was no longer within easy walking, biking, or even busing distance. Just as important, the written word was coming to dominate my life — editing, writing, and bookselling — and to draw me into circles and networks of similarly committed women.

This T is more sedate, easier to wear in “polite company” -‑ that is to say, non-feminist, non-lesbian company — than the first WAWC shirt. The labyris symbol is retained but discreetly: only those in the know will recognize it as the head of an ax, or understand what that ax symbolizes.

What catches my eye now is the line under the center’s name: “Creating Unity From Diversity.” Variations of this slogan have become ever more popular in the decades since. It’s conventional wisdom among feminists, liberals, and progressives. It rolls so trippingly off the tongue that we forget how difficult it is.

Part of the Women’s Center’s mission statement declared our intent “to create a space where all women could be comfortable.” My experience taught me that the achievement of this goal was, at best, a long way off. This was my epiphany:

The rap group, of which I was one of the regular leaders, attracted some regulars who came every week and occasional participants who came for the week’s topic. As with other Women’s Center activities, the majority were usually lesbians, but sometimes as many as half the participants were straight women. (Not every woman identified herself, but if someone bent over backwards to avoid giving any clues, the chances were good she wasn’t straight.) Discussions were friendly, everyone seemed comfortable, but it gradually became apparent that the comfort was conditional.

Often several of us would decide to continue the discussion elsewhere after the center closed for the night. There were several reasonably priced options within walking distance where we could get a drink, or coffee, or a bite to eat and talk. Two of them were frequented mostly by gay men but known to be friendly to women (this was not a given with establishments that catered to gay men).

A pattern emerged: When the group mind settled on one of those gay-friendly places, the straight women who’d been ready to come suddenly remembered they had other obligations, or they were just too tired to go out. When we picked one of what we thought of as neighborhood pubs or cafés, everybody went.

These “neighborhood” venues were considered neutral, but of course they weren’t. They were frequented by male-female couples and straight men. At one, the men would be gathered at the bar watching sports on TV and cheering or groaning loudly as the game progressed.

In other words, the lesbians were willing to put up with the discomfort of being in a place where heterosexuality was the norm, and the straight women weren’t willing to do likewise in a place where it wasn’t. This was not surprising, since lesbians and gay men lived most of our lives in places dominated by straight people, starting with our families; they might not be exactly comfortable, but they were certainly familiar. For the straight women, gay-friendly places were anything but.

Women’s Center volunteers talked a fair amount about how to attract more straight women to our activities, like Women’s Nite Out and the rap group and our various classes. How to make straight women more comfortable at the center. I was coming to the conclusion long since reached by some of my sister collective members: that the only way to make most straight women comfortable in a mixed lesbian-straight milieu was for the lesbians to “tone it down”: talk less about our relationships, disguise pronouns when we did, and so on. To make straight women more comfortable, we had to make ourselves less comfortable. Since our comfort options at the time were so limited, this didn’t look like a great alternative.

A few years later, in her great essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” (based on a speech given at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981; in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith [New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983]), Bernice Johnson Reagon — scholar, activist, and longtime founder-leader of the black women’s a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock — nailed the whole matter of comfort and discomfort, extending it to encompass all the power differentials in our culture: black and white, female and male, middle class and working class, and so on and on. And especially how these categories intersect: Kimberlé Crenshaw didn’t coin the word “intersectionality” until the end of the 1980s, but feminists were already working on it, with women of color generally leading the way.

Sweet Honey did an anniversary concert every year. I attended most of the ones when I lived in town. This one has the date on it: November 19 & 20, 1982.

Reagon draws the key distinction between coalition and home: Coalition work, she says, “is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. . . . In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time.” We all need some sort of home, a place we can be comfortable enough to recharge before we “go back and coalesce some more.”

Diversity is more abstract than coalition, but it makes some of the same demands. Don’t expect to be comfortable all the time. Pay attention to who does expect to be comfortable, especially if it’s you, and who’s expected to “tone it down.”

This issue has never been more important. If all of us, especially the more privileged among us, aren’t willing to learn to live with some measure of discomfort, I suspect we’re all doomed.

In practice, the Women’s Center created events where all women could be comfortable as long as they were comfortable in women-only spaces. As expected, a significant majority of these women were lesbians, but not all: some identified as bisexual, some as heterosexual, and some were in transition or uncommitted. The Full Moon Cruise in 1980 was more ambitious than the usual Women’s Center event, which is why it got its own T-shirt. Women’s Nite Out happened regularly on the third floor of the Sumner School, and every so often we threw a women’s dance at All Souls Church.

All Souls, the Unitarian Universalist church at 16th and Harvard, N.W., was then as now a hotbed of culturally and politically progressive activity. It was also a stone’s throw from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, home to multiple lesbian group houses, and easily reached by public transportation. Long before rainbow flags started flying from liberal churches and synagogues, All Souls welcomed our events, at some risk to themselves. D.C.’s human rights act, like many such laws, saw no difference between men excluding women and women excluding men, or white people excluding black people and black people excluding white people: justice may not be blind, but when it comes to power imbalances in society, it certainly is myopic.

The threat of being sued wasn’t strictly hypothetical either. Around this time, I was editing as a freelancer a bimonthly newsletter for a non-smokers’ rights group. Its principal, a George Washington University law professor, brought a sex discrimination suit against a D.C. restaurant for requiring men, but not women, to wear jackets. I had zero doubt that he and other legal eagles would thrill to bring a suit against the Women’s Center for excluding men from a dance, and against All Souls for renting us space to do it.

So we were careful. We created the fiction that these were ticketed events, and tickets had to be purchased in advance. PR was largely by word of mouth or very limited circulation media like In Our Own Write. If a man insisted on coming in, we were supposed to let them in, but I don’t recall this ever happening. What I do recall is our delight in appropriating the men’s room, where there was never a line.

Our best protection was that lesbians weren’t just invisible to the heterosexual world; we were literally unimaginable. Only a few years earlier, after all, I had gone to women’s dances at Penn without registering that most of the women there were, if not lesbians, then not exactly straight. The idea of women voluntarily excluding men from any part of our lives, and especially our events, is still problematic. But the distinction that Bernice Johnson Reagan made between home and coalition is still valid. All of us working in the rough-and-tumble wider world need places to regroup and recharge.

Tellingly, it was in this women-only, mostly lesbian world that I started paying much closer attention to the differences among us, and the other ways we were different from the wider world. We were mostly white in what was then a majority-black city, and the age range from youngest to oldest couldn’t have been more than about 15 years. Class-wise, however, we came from a variety of backgrounds, and some of us had had grueling experiences with the mental health establishment, male violence, and/or the legal system. In this women-only space, we talked about things we had never felt comfortable discussing anywhere else.


I picked up this T at a women’s conference at West Virginia U., where Lammas was selling books and records. Probably 1983 or 1984. (Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker.) We dreamed of a universal sisterhood, of “unity from diversity,” but making it happen in real time was far harder — and asked more of us — than we often wanted to acknowledge.

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.