A Spontaneous Outbreak of Wimmin’s Softball


In the 1970s, there was a spontaneous outbreak of interest in softball by women in five different parts of Hampshire County. After they eventually found each other, these players melded wide differences into a unique softball organization that endures today as the Mary Vazquez Womyn’s Softball League . As this independent, player-run league with a preponderance of lesbian athletes began to mature, its organization became centered in Northampton.

In 1973, the Southwest Women’s Center at UMass in Amherst sponsored a feminist student intramural team named after abolitionist Lucy B. Stone. Marjorie Posner recalls that they stressed non-competitive sports and were very funny. Warm-ups consisted of rolling on the grass and deep breathing. In the spirit of being equal, they all stenciled the identical number on the back of their purple T-shirts, “1818,” the year of Stone’s birth.

SWWC softball team t-shirt courtesy Peg Cookson

In 1975, they became independent from the university intramural system. This allowed women who were not students to play, including staff, and also made room for looser rules. A notice was posted in Northampton’s Lesbian Gardens’ Old Maid about Saturday pickup games on the field across from SWWC.

softball 1975
in the notices Old Maid Spring 1975

These UMass women were interested in playing for the fun of it. They also wanted to re-invent the game to encourage older women who had never had a chance to play. They drew an odd mix of novices, “real jock” PhysEd instructors, and every level of experience in between. From the beginning, they tried to foster a non-competitive but supportive sports philosophy. Peggy Cookson, a novice, comments that being supportive sometimes got a little ridiculous, as when she refrained from taking a swing at a pitch that rolled toward her on the ground, and was complimented with a yell: “Good eye!”

Allowing everyone, no matter the skill level, a chance to play was central to the experience. That meant that teaching the game was, too. Windflower, then known as Annette Townley, was astonished to find herself pitching, something she had never done before, in her team’s very first Womyn’s League game. Rules were bent or made up on the spot to reflect this new philosophy. One rule allowed a woman to stay at bat until she got a hit.

At about the same time over in South Hadley, Jean Grossholtz’s lesbian feminist household on Jewett Lane began playing Sunday afternoon pickup games on a Mt. Holyoke College field. They were also interested in a non-competitive game that encouraged and allowed all women to play regardless of their level of skill. By placing ads in the Holyoke Transcript and Daily Hampshire Gazette, they recruited enough women to make a viable team.

In spring of 1976, “Digger” from Hatfield placed an ad in the Valley Advocate looking for women to form a new softball league. She and her friends (and many cousins) were Lassie League graduates who continued to play on a field laid out at one of their homes. The ad drew response from the South Hadley team and two others in Easthampton and Northampton, enough for a first season of play with four teams.

In addition to the Hatfield cousins’ team, two others were serious about softball and interested in a fast-pitch game rather the more usual slow-pitch promoted for women. The Easthampton team had recently played together in high school and continued on a field at Williston Academy. The College Church team from Northampton had many women who had played college varsity ball. They agreed, according to Zulma Garcia, that fast pitch rules allowed for more exciting play with base stealing and bunting.

Regardless of this fast pitch competitive league beginning, the South Hadley group with its feminist, older woman character was eager to be a “real” team with “real” uniforms. Picking purple for their T-shirt color, they tongue-in-cheek named themselves the Hot Flashes.

As word spread of the new league, three more teams joined in the second (1977) season.  One was a team that played at the Hadley Young Men’s Club. The other two were the Nutcracker Suite and Common Womon, each named after recently opened Northampton lesbianfeminist ventures which will be covered in future posts. The nucleus of Common Womon had been forming at UMass as the Lucy B. Stoners. The Hatfield team had dropped out, so six teams celebrated the very first end-of-year banquet, at Common Womon Club in Northampton.

The Common Womon team illustrated the melding of sports philosophies that the new league was beginning to attempt. They wore red T-shirts which read “Every ball missed advances another womon.” Common Womon player Kathryn Girard, who came up with that saying, recalls, “I loved our first year. We lost every game by 15 runs or more. I felt right at home. We really just played to get together, no coach, many like me with no skills, and not much interest in acquiring them.”

The league was so diverse in terms of the sport that, in the beginning, the rules of play had to be negotiated before the start of many games. Much of the League’s history is in how a creative integration of these differing needs was gradually achieved, resulting in its unique character.

Zulma Garcia was a grad student at UMass in 1976, when she started playing third base with the College Church team. Their home field was lined-in on the grass  lawn in the Northampton Church’s back yard on Pomeroy Terrace. Zulma believes they had the best pitcher and catcher in the league at that time. Their pitcher “was intimidating, and though she tried to let up on her pitches (for novice batters) she only knew one way to play.” The teams into what Zulma called “support” softball rotated women through positions so they could learn. The College Church women all had set positions.

Zulma remembers the Easthampton team of post-high school women having to learn to tone it down, be less serious, in order to play in the League. There was a wide range of ages in the beginning. Zulma points out that the Hot Flashes battery was over a hundred years old (combined ages of pitcher and catcher), and they played against teams of women barely in their twenties.

The College Church team in their dark blue shirts represented other differences as well. Most were members of the Church. The team started games with a prayer that no one would get hurt and everyone would have a good time. They were teased a bit for this but generally respected, forming particularly close bonds with the Common Womon team. Zulma recalls showing up at a Common Womon player’s house for an intrateam barbecue, knocking on the door, and asking, “Is this where the prayer meeting is?” That got a laugh. She doesn’t recall the lesbian composition of other teams ever being discussed, though it was obvious. The College Church players did however occasionally joke about being “the token straight team.”

Common Womon proved to be such a popular team that in order to give every player a turn on the field, the team spawned new ones. The first was Bonnie Keene, formed in 1978, which was named after a feminist theatre production. In 1979 Womynrising was formed, named for the leftover conference T-shirts that had become available.

By the end of the decade, the Wendell Mosquitoes had come and gone, as had the Hadley, Easthampton, Bonnie, and Nutcracker teams. In spite of the losses, in some undocumented fashion, by 1981 twelve teams were playing, eight of them new. They also badly needed a structure to support this league. Many recall it as having, in the beginning, no rules, no money, no umps, and no fields! The story of developing that structure in the next decade and how the league was named is still to come.

STILL LOOKING FOR:

__Photos of those 70s teams and their t-shirts to include here__anyone?

FURTHER READING:

__Griffin, Pat. “”Diamonds, Dykes, and Double Plays.” In Sportsdykes: Stories from On and Off the Field. Susan Fox Rogers Editor. St. Martin’s Press. 1994. Funny fictional spoof on traditional jock meets Valley Womyn’s Softball by a Common Womon team player.

__[Johnson, Lacey.] In league with us [sound recording]: the story of the Mary Vazquez Women’s Softball League, Northampton, MA / Elle Jay Productions. A video history of the League combining interviews, stills and homemovie clips, on DVD is available from Forbes Library in Northampton.

__Researchers can find a growing collection of materials on the Mary Vazquez Womyns’ Softball League  within the Valley Women’s History Collaborative Collection at the UMass/Amherst DuBois Library Special Collections and University Archives. http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/mums531.html.

__a webpage for the Mary Vazquez Women’s Softball League  http://www.maryvsoftball.org/

SOURCES:

__Girard, Kathryn. Email to KM. Aug.25, 2003.

__Grossholtz, Jean. “Softball: A Celebration of Strength and Sisterhood.” Valley Women’s Voice. May 1983.

__Van Arsdale, Sarah. ”Shaking In Their Sneakers: Feminist Softball in the Valley.” Valley Women’s Voice. Aug 1981.

__Tracy, Susan. Interview with KM. June 19, 22, 2000.

__Stewart, Eileen. Interview with KM. Aug. 27, 2003.

__Vazquez, Mary. “The Mary Vazquez Softball League: 1976-2003.” Unpublished paper. 2003.

_________________Interviews with KM Jun 17, 2000, Nov. 2003.

__Garcia, Zulma. Interview by KM. Oct. 22, 2003.

__Posner, Marjorie. Email to KM. Sep. 4, 2003.

 

Gracious Guests at Green St.


One night in 1974, Adrienne Rich and Robin Morgan slept over at my house.  They stayed in room #9, rented in the name of Käthe Kollwitz by five of us lesbians, at the 66 Green Street  rooming house in Northampton. For a year that room on the third floor functioned as a common space and as emergency housing offered through the two local women’s centers and word of mouth in the lesbian community.

The occasion for Adrienne and Robin’s visit to the Valley was the National Women’s Poetry Festival, a weeklong extravaganza of what I later realized were a tremendous number of the finest feminist voices in the country. It was an inadvertent introduction to an art that I came to treasure.  I began to seek out then hard-to-find, slim volumes of truth-telling, which hadn’t been included in my recent college education.

nwpf 74 poster by me_edited-1

(Poster was created by me. I didn’t want to take credit because I think it’s poorly done. I meant it to be a representation of the Triple Goddess using as models Maid__myself, Mother__Coretta Scott King, Crone__Georgia O’Keefe.)

I was familiar with Robin’s rabble-rousing from two previous Valley appearances. That’s what prompted me to volunteer the Kollwitz room as her housing when the call went out from the Feminist Art Program, the Festival organizers who had a desk in Everywoman’s Center’s immense office space where I also worked. Thus, I was also handy when the woman who was to pick Audre Lorde up at Bradley International Airport had car trouble. I was dispatched at the very last minute to get this other poet I had never heard of and take her directly to the auditorium at UMass for her reading.

audre-lorde
Audre Lorde

Green Street guests Adrienne and Robin were gracious about twin mattresses on the floor, the shared toilet down the hall, even the instant coffee served for breakfast. Later in the year, I would welcome several Kollwitz room guests referred by Robin, women from out of state desperately in need of refuge.

robin monster_edited-1
Robin Morgan

After Adrienne returned home to NYC, she mailed me a handwritten note of thanks accompanying a check in the amount of her Festival honoraria to be used for the local women’s community.

Adrienne wrote, in part, “I want to thank you for a glimpse of possibilities in living & creating with other women… The visit came at a kind of watershed in my life & was especially meaningful for that reason.” I was very touched by her comments, and later they gained even more significance to me.

imagesadrienne
Adrienne Rich

It was a relatively small amount of money, $164. I sent a note to UMass and Northampton women’s centers asking for proposals and set a time for representatives to meet with me at Green St. to decide the use of the money. We made our decisions using what I called “the UCM model.”

I don’t remember now what UCM stood for, but I do recall being sent to Boston by the Valley Women’s Center a couple of years earlier to ask the Haymarket People’s Fund for $50 to buy a used typewriter for the drop-in center log and general use. At that meeting, everyone asking for money (radicals from all over New England), sat around in a circle and presented their needs. The discussion went round and round until a consensus was reached as to who would get what. That took part of a second day. We bunked the first night in our sleeping bags on the attic floor of some big house.

At Green St. in 1974, four proposals came in for using the Rich honoraria: the Valley Women’s Union on behalf of the Mother Jones Press; the counselors at Everywoman’s Center; The Feminist Counseling Collective; and the Chomo Uri staff. Using a consensual decision making process, it was decided that the money would be divided between the Mother Jones Press and Chomo Uri staff to help defray the costs of a mutual misunderstanding.

Chomo Uri was conceived as a feminist arts journal as part of the Feminist Arts Program in Amherst. They had contracted with Mother Jones, the new feminist press in Northampton, to print the first issue. The finished print, however, didn’t meet the reproduction standard expected by the publication’s staff, particularly the photographs. They refused to accept the job. Since the two groups had come to an agreement before the funding meeting, it was relatively easy for the rest of us to see the importance of resolving the issue.

I sent Adrienne a note of thanks with news of the results. The connection set me to dreaming of her, literally. Later that summer, I wrote a crush confession to her.  What follows is her beautiful response.

 July 21 (1974). Dear Kaymarion. First, thank you for sharing. There were moments during the brief time in N’Hampton when I wished there were more time, no conference, space in which we could really talk. I came away very much moved by what I saw of you, of your life. I should tell you – in exchange for your trust in me – that only shortly before the time I was in Northampton a woman I’d known for about 2 years & I had become lovers. I was feeling extremely vulnerable, not like being public at all, and I was grateful for the sense of private space you gave, the peacefulness of Greene [sic] St., the kind of energy I felt flowing from you & from several of your sisters there.

And so I can accept your fantasy out of a whole part of myself that was for years stifled & in abeyance. I feel at times I’ve been slowly waking from a long sleep punctuated by dreams I didn’t understand. And at the same time I resist women-romanticizing-women – I’ve done, I hope, with the romantic, I want us – all women- to see each other as we are & fight against mythification. Yes, we should have our fantasies & share them – work with them as with dreams – they are a source, a metaphor for our deep psychic life –

Just now I feel like someone on the edge of a new landscape which is nonetheless full of familiar shapes & colors – Unconsciously I’ve known it all my life & now I am here in my waking life. You’ve lived there awake longer than I though there must be 20 years between us. It’s strange to feel you sensed without words where I was – though not strange really.— I’d like to believe we’ll meet again & really talk. I have always loved women. Talked best with women, but never so much as now, in a whole relationship with one particular woman.

Please forgive me if I’ve answered you in any clumsy way. Your letter moved me very much & I wanted to meet you with the same honesty –  with love  Adrienne.

adrienne letter front_edited-1

adrienne letter back_edited-1

I believe I saw her next at Hampshire College. She was reading from her most recent work. I don’t remember it or the year. Perhaps it was an early version of Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying, Twenty-one Love Poems, and/or Of Woman Born, but I do remember that in the course of that evening, Adrienne said  publicly that she was a lesbian.

adrienne notesadrienne inside notes_edited-1

SOURCES:

__Feminist Arts Program. National Women’s Poetry Festival poster. UMass Amherst MA.

__Rich, Adrienne. Letter to Kaymarion Raymond. Postmarked Mar. 15, 1974 from New York City.

__Kaymarion {Raymond}. Letter to Women’s Centers soliciting proposals. Mar 21, 1974. Everywoman’s Center UMass Amherst MA.

__Various groups. Proposals for funding. April 1974.

__Rich, Adrienne. Letter to Kaymarion Raymond. Dated July 21, 1974. New York City.

__Rich, Adrienne. Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.  Pamphlet, printed in 1977 by Motheroot Publications/ Pittsburgh Women Writers.

Further reading:

this first essay includes some of the history Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff’s stay in Western Mass (Montague) and editing of Sinister Wisdom 1981-83. The second link includes Rich’s reflection on what she started learning about relationships with women, very early as a lesbian.

https://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/news/08/04/what-remains-remembering-michelle-cliff-beth-brant-and-stephania-byrd/

 https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/11/13/adrienne-rich-women-honor-lying/

The Goddess of Knowledge and Maiden Charity


Former city poet laureate Leslea Newman posited, tongue in cheek, that Northampton was fated to be Lesbianville “in 1884, when Thomas M. Shepherd designed the official city seal, which depicts the Goddess of Knowledge holding hands with the Maiden Charity.”  I included this quote in one of the earliest blog posts  along with a fuzzy reproduction of the city seal and a request for a better reproduction.

 

Recently, out of the blue, this three year old wish was granted. Elizabeth Sharpe, Co-Executive Director of Historic Northampton, sent me a scan of the original artwork by Shepherd from their holdings. Thank you Betty. Historic Northampton is also online if you are out of town and wish a browsing visit, including old maps and other sources. https://www.historicnorthampton.org/    and is also on Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/HistoricNorthampton/

 

NORTHAMPTON-TOWN-SEAL-copy (1)
Northampton City Seal by Thomas M. Shepherd Courtesy of Historic Northampton

 

SOURCES:

__Leslea Newman. “Greetings from Lesbianville U.S.A.: grrrls, goddesses, and Gloria Steinem! Northampton, Mass., is the Sapphic center of America, tucked away among New England academia,” The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), 1 March 2005, /Greetings+from+Lesbianville+U.S.A.%3A+grrrls,+goddesses,+and+Gloria…-a0129710080.

__ Historic Northampton. https://www.historicnorthampton.org/    Check out the History Sources Online feature and also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/HistoricNorthampton/

donate button?


For several years I have been trying to get a donate button up on this blog page to help defray the time and expense of this little side creation. I got the required Paypal business account. I printed out instructions three times following the observation that the WordPress-Paypal interface is difficult. And twice I have copied and pasted code. Alasses 😦  Now I read small print and find I need a paid WordPress platform.    For several years a feminist 501(C)3 has passed through a large donation to me, but it is not staffed adequately for handling lots of little ones.

fcpride by l's sister_edited-1

Franklin County Pride 2017 courtesy of Laura’s friend

 

I continue to slowly explore options for being more businesslike, but, while  the established regularity of the blog posts and steadily increasing readership are positive signs of growth, I find I am challenged to think  beyond the creation to its promotion. This is probably a basic conundrum for many artists.

I extroverted so much in November I have not posted here, but know several really deep posts are drafted and one will be in the air soon. Blessings to all of us to hold steady in our heart’s center as those cosmic storms sweep through.