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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If you don’t see a Leave a Reply block, click on the title of this post and then scroll to the bottom.