The Peak of Lesbian Enterprise


An unprecedented number of Lesbian enterprises existed in Northampton in 1976-77, both old ones and new, that evolved out of the 1975-76 Separatist struggles. What particularly made this creative flowering different was that Lesbians were, for the first and only time, able to control, rent, and/or buy multiple spaces within downtown Northampton.

This was made possible in large part by the economic decay of the downtown. Its largest business, McCallums Department Store, had closed and many others followed as the city’s population sprawled and shopping malls were built further and further down King St.

When I moved to Green St. in 1970,  everything I needed was within walking distance. Over the next decade, much of that disappeared except for a changing cast of banks, bars, and restaurants. One by one, all but two of the neighborhood markets folded as well as the A&P on Bridge St. and the supermarket on Conz St. The working population that lived downtown in rooming houses or over just about every business aged and declined, too. Two downtown schools – Hawley Junior High and St. Michaels – closed. The working people’s businesses I relied on began to close their doors: Fine’s Clothing, Woolworth’s Five and Dime, Tepper’s General Store, Foster and Farrar Hardware, Whalen’s Office Supply. For a brief time, before real estate speculation and gentrification took hold and turned Hamp into Noho (competing nicknames), space affordable to women became available.

Below is a map of current downtown that I’ve amended with the location of the major 1970s Lesbian enterprises, which peaked in 1976-77. Following it is a brief description of the activity that took place at each address. All of this will be detailed in future posts if I haven’t already.bst 70s map_edited-2

#1. 200 Main St. Lesbian Gardens. Third floor space that was originally rented along with half the second floor by the Valley Women’s Center/Union. 1974-77. Currently Harlow Luggage building.

#2. 66 Green St. Green St.Top two floors, rooming house that started to be lesbian in 1972 and continued to be all or mostly lesbian at least until 1991. Building bought and demolished by Smith College. Currently grass.

#3. 1 Bridge St. Gala Café.  Lesbian backroom 1975-1979. Torn down, part of Spoleto’s currently in that space.

#4. 25 Main St. Nutcracker Suite. One large room on a back corridor as I recall, I believe on the fourth floor, 1976-77. This address also was used by the Grand Jury Information Project, Ceres Inc., and later, I believe, by Chrysalis Theatre. It was in what is now known as the Fitzwilly’s (Masonic) building.

#5. 19 Hawley St. The Egg and Marigolths. 1976-77 (estimated). Originally rented in 1973 by Mother Jones Press which in 1976 became Megaera Press and joined with Old Lady Bluejeans distributing and the Women’s Film Coop to form the Women’s Image Takeover WIT. Additional space in the building was rented to accommodate several craftswomyn and Greasy Gorgon Garage auto repair. These formed a collective of businesses with the self-chosen odd name. Sweet Coming bookstore moved there in 1977.

#6.  78 Masonic St. Common Womon Club. 1976-82. Private dining club for feminist vegetarians owned by the non-profit Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bill Streeter for his book bindery. Currently it is the Mosaic Café.

#7.  68 Masonic St. Nutcracker Suite: Women’s Self Defense and Karate Dojo. Moved from Main St. 1977-78. Womonfyre Books. 1978-82. Owned by Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bart’s Ice Cream as their bakery. Currently it is lesbian owned Bela Vegetarian Restaurant.

The Printed Word


The printed word was essential to the spread of radical ideas and information in the 1970s, both the means to reproduce pages and to circulate the resulting papers. Any information that challenged the dominant narrative was simply not available in the mainstream newspapers. It wasn’t broadcast on radio or TV, and was not available at newsstands, bookstores, or libraries. Valley Feminists and Lesbians, as well as Gays, out of necessity, created their own news media, literature, and distribution networks, joining others in the region and nationally.

The dearth of factual information and critical thought was so great in the 1970s that it resulted in many new groups immediately forming libraries. These collections of all kinds of hard-to-find printed material were brought back from events outside of the Valley and ordered or subscribed to by mail. I saw these pamphlets, small paperback books, newspapers, and magazines make their way into libraries at the UMass Student Homophile League/Gay Liberation Front office (where I was a co-coordinator), and in each of Northampton’s Valley Women’s Center , Lesbian Gardens, and Common Womon Club. All these groups had the physical space to shelve them.

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UMass Student Homophile League mimeographed newsletter 1971

Most new local groups also produced a newsletter for members. Archives today often house odd-appearing local ephemera from this period such as the Student Homophile League newsletter included above, unevenly printed in splotched typewriting. While a  very few groups (early Springfield Women’s Center) employed the purple-lettered ditto process to duplicate pages, the AB Dick mimeograph machine was indispensable to most groups. The usual run was under a thousand copies. This was how the Valley Women’s Center printed its hand collated, stapled, and addressed monthly newsletter. The use of that machine was lent by VWC to other groups, including the Student Homophile League.

A cousin of the silk screen printing process used for posters and T-shirts, the mimeo impression to be printed was cut in the coating of the fabric stencil with a manual typewriter, another indispensable tool of the time. The mimeo machine was cranked by hand and had a center tank filled with ink. One sheet of paper at a time was printed with ink that poured from the tank through the stencil wrapped around it.

2000px-Mimeograph.svg 1970 wikipedia

Subscription to these mimeographed newsletters, as well as to newspapers, were often exchanged between groups, forming valuable networks of information on the latest news, actions, gatherings, upcoming events, research findings, and analysis. Despite the risk of snooping and sabotage, most of these were circulated by [snail] mail to group members and other groups. Given the high cost of postage, it was well worth the effort to, if at all possible, get a non-profit bulk mailing permit. Mailing lists became valuable commodities, as was any technology that helped transfer the address onto the pieces to be mailed other than handwriting each.

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My subscribed to newsletter mimeographed from Valley Women’s Union with carbon-copied, peel-off mailing label

Mimeograph duplication wasn’t limited to little local flyers or newsletters. Some of the national and regional news sources we came to rely on here in the Valley also had mimeo origins. Made available at the one-shelf Sweetcoming Bookstore in Lesbian Gardens, Lesbian Connections, the oldest still existing national Lesbian publication, started as a stapled mimeograph in 1974. Gay Community News, the New England radical newspaper produced in Boston, started in 1973 as Gay Community Newsletter with a two page mimeo. Their publication New England Gay Guide 1975 was also mimeographed. Yes, the stapler was also a very necessary tool.

gcn_p1[1]-238jun 17 73 the history project

Gay Community Newsletter June 17, 1973. Courtesy of the history project (Boston.) First edition of what was to becomes Gay Community News .

Frequently found today in archives are the now brittle and tanned tabloid-formatted newspapers, offset printed on cheap newsprint. These were produced by larger organizations in the Movements.  They were distributed by mail, carried in bundles to and from various events or gatherings, and eventually sold locally at alternative newsstands or bookstores. The national feminist news became available in Off Our Backs,  the offset printed newspaper started in 1970.

Also available for reading and sale at Northampton’s Valley Women’s Center at 200 Main St. was the now classic women’s health handbook, Our Bodies, Ourselves, in a 1970 first edition as a large stapled newsprint pamphlet titled Women and Their Bodies: a Course printed by New England Free Press. This had been developed from mimeographed handouts created as the course was taught to Boston-area women in 1969.

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1970 first edition of what was to become Our Bodies, Ourselves, the classic manual of  health information that had been hidden from women or misinterpreted by Patriarchal medicine.

Before the existence of the internet and its electronic media, this meant having, or having access to, an offset press for issues reproduced in large numbers, which meant a thousand or more. “Access to an offset press” meant finding a printer who had, not only a press, but also tolerance, if not acceptance, of radical material. Regionally, the New England Free Press, which opened in 1968 in Boston, began to fill that need. They printed the Northampton Women’s Film Coop’s first catalog in 1972. For the most part, they produced new radical left material. However, feminist and gay pamphlets printed by them included “The Woman Identified Woman;” “Out of the Closet: A Gay Manifesto;” “The Politics of Housework;” “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm;” and Witches, Midwives and Nurses. I was able at the time to find most of these at events and in the Valley Women’s Center library.

Valley feminists briefly broke into tabloid-formatted print with single issues of the Full Moon in 1972 and 1973.  The printer is not credited, but the directory included in each newspaper traces the regional development of the feminist network, including its publications.

full mon 72 73

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Listing in 1972 Full Moon the regional beginnings of a feminist publications network

It was a significant event when women bought a used Chief press and set it up in rented space on Hawley Street as Mother Jones Press in July 1973. With this, Northampton joined the Feminist Press Movement* that was spreading across the country. Some of what they printed included the Valley’s first Lesbian newspaper, Old Maid; the second Women’s Film coop catalog; flyers used by Valley Women’s Union in organizing waitresses; and the 1973 Women’s Guide to Amherst-Northampton produced by the Women’s Information Project.

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Illustrated by Lorie Leininger

These printed materials were not readily available in Northampton in the early 1970s unless one visited Lesbian Gardens or the Valley Women’s Center, attended an event, or subscribed.  Materials became more visible and available when the radical Spark Bookstore collective formed in Florence in 1974 and moved to downtown Northampton space, on the second floor next to the Calvin Theatre in 1975.  They made sure to include lesbian , gay and feminist publications and advertised that in Dyke Doings. A similar effort began on the UMass Amherst campus in 1975 as the People’s (Women’s) Newsstand and Spread the Word Distribution.

spark ad spring 75_edited-1peoples newstand 77_edited-1

There is also a feminist and Lesbian literary publishing history for this period, as well as a history in film and broadcast, which I will address in later posts. The initial publishing efforts here laid the groundwork for the 1979 milestones of the first publication of the Valley Women’s Voice newspaper and the opening of Womonfyre Books on Masonic Street in Northampton.

Throughout the 70s, mimeograph continued to be relied upon. When the Valley Women’s Union was evicted from 200 Main Street, they moved their mimeograph machine to the upstairs of the Common Womon Club, where it continued to be used by radical groups until it was supplanted by photocopying.

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Mimeo IOU paper envelope from Common Womon Club

Sources:

__Lesbian Connection is online. http://www.lconline.org/

__“How Boston Powered the Gay Rights Movement.” Boston Globe. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/06/01/how-boston-powered-gay-rights-movement/wEsPZOdHhByHpjeXrJ6GbN/story.html

__History of Off Our Backs. http://www.triviavoices.com/an-interview-with-carol-anne-douglas.html#.Weya_Yhrw2w The history of this longest running feminist paper, and past and current media influences, is discussed in an interview with OOB staff woman Carol Anne (“Chicken Lady) Douglas posted in the now online journal Trivia.

__ Our Bodies, Ourselves history. http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/history/preface-to-the-1973-edition-of-our-bodies-ourselves/

__New England Free Press publications listing Healey Library UMass/Boston http://www.lib.umb.edu/node/1628

Further Reading:

__*A brief overview of the Women In Print Movement can be read as a sample “look inside” on Amazon.com. See this Introduction by Jaime Harker and Cecilia Koucher Farr to This Book is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. University of Illinois Press. 2015. https://www.amazon.com/This-Book-Action-Feminist-Aesthetics/dp/025208134X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1527873535&sr=1-1&keywords=this+book+is+an+action#reader_B016LLE3H2

1970s Overview: Lesbian Community Emerges


In the seventies a Lesbian (with an intentional capital “L”) community consciously emerged in Northampton out of the local Women’s Liberation Movement with an infusion from the Gay and perhaps other radical movements in the area. Largely invisible to the general public, the focus of activity was on creating what Lesbians needed specifically for themselves. Places and ways to be together were a first priority.

By 1976, five Lesbian spaces existed in town, each groundbreaking in its own way: a rooming house on Green Street, the Lesbian Gardens and Common Womon Club spaces that functioned as community centers, the Egg business cooperative, and the Nutcracker Suite karate dojo. Within these spaces, new activities, expanded communication, and cultural expression began. Many firsts included a restaurant, weekly coffeehouse night, newsletter, library, bookstore, publisher, and distribution of local lesbian music, writing, and art, as well as a variety of interest and support groups.

Each of these spaces will have their story included in future posts, as well as much more, and I welcome information and guest posts. The rough draft timeline below is just sort of a visual teaser, as well as a way for me to begin to organize the writing topically as well as sequentially.

1970s working timeline02132015
an early draft timeline trying to see some order in the decade.                      yes its incomplete . do you have info to add?

Efforts also took place this decade to expand the more traditional gay bar culture to town. Three all-women (lesbian) rock bands playing in the area helped spark a dancing boom. Lesbian space was temporarily obtained at two town bars, the Gala and Zelda’s, and larger spaces were occasionally rented for the new phenomena: wimmin’s (only) dances. Northampton lesbians also helped form what would become a countywide Wimmin’s Softball League. The odd spellings are a story in themselves of the radical reclamation of language.

Many of the initial community organizers were radicals, but there were differences among them in theory and practice. Though there were growing numbers of newly identified lesbians (politicized or not) at both of the spaces that served as community centers, some were excluded for political reasons or became alienated during clashes that came to be called the Separatist Wars. The new elements of a bar culture in town were to a degree more inclusive, with fewer issues to debate.

Though many Lesbians continued to be active in the feminist movement, little energy during this decade was devoted to external political change specifically for lesbians. Creating Lesbian or Wimmin’s space with its attendant culture, though largely hidden from public view, was in itself a form of political opposition to the mainstream norm. This coming out and unintentional visibility did not, however, go unnoticed. A fight for child custody, harassment and violence on the street, the FBI’s incursion into the community, and an eviction were all early warning signs of how society would resist change.

Coming Next: How it began.