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.

Did the FBI Come To Town?


In early 1975, Northampton lesbians began to see and hear about strange men in town taking photographs and recording license plate numbers. At least one lesbian home was mysteriously broken into. Many in the Northampton lesbian community feared that the community was under scrutiny by the FBI.

Already that year, at least seven lesbian/women’s communities nationwide were being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in hand with Federal Grand Juries, ostensibly to track down Weather Underground fugitives Susan Saxe and Kathy Power.  Warnings spread through alternative media, including the hand-stapled, mimeographed Lesbian Connection that had begun to be read in Northampton’s Lesbian Community. Here’s an excerpt from the May 1975 issue:

LCMay 1975_edited-1

 

Susan_Saxe_Feminist_FBI

Across the country, those refusing to talk to FBI agents were often subpoenaed to appear before a Grand Jury. Anyone who  continued to fail to cooperate was jailed indefinitely for “contempt.” Even after Saxe was arrested in Philadelphia in March of 1975, radical news media reported that investigations had been expanded and, nationwide, at least seven lesbians and one gay man were imprisoned for their silence.

Saxe’s letter after her arrest was circulated nationwide. It was published in Northampton in Old Maid, Lesbian Gardens’ first publication, Spring 1975.

old maid spr 75 saxe letter_edited-1
calligraphy by laura kaye

 

Many feared the Government was attempting to infiltrate and destroy the Lesbian/Women’s Movement as it was doing to other progressive groups. Fear of being outed as lesbian or gay, or loss of child custody by single mothers, was being exploited in these “fishing” expeditions. According to reports in radical media, the questions being asked included details about others, not only their names and roommates but also their political and sexual activity, bars visited, meetings attended, who else was there and the content of discussions.

In this climate, a local Grand Jury Information Project was begun in May 1975 in Northampton. It was a cooperative effort housed at the Northampton Women’s Law Collective on Main Street with volunteers, as well, from the Valley Women’s Union, Springfield Women’s Union and UMass Everywoman’s Center.

Over a four month period, the Project did rumor control in the Valley and circulated printed material at events and information meetings on FBI and Grand Jury abuses and individual legal rights, including the right not to talk to investigators. As awareness spread, local lesbians and feminists began to take precautions, educating housemates and neighbors, and reporting suspicious behavior to the Project. Some feminist therapists and counselors went so far as to destroy or otherwise secure client records to further protect confidentiality.

FBI info_edited-1

The increasing paranoia had a humorous side. Peggy Cookson recalls that lesbians at Green Street took apart their MaBell black bakelite telephone handsets to cut out suspicious looking little green phone components thinking they were ”bugs” (recording devices). The resulting increase in static was taken as confirmation that the phone lines were indeed being tapped, rather than that the green bits were actually anti-static devices.bakelite phone

At the end of summer, tension was eased a bit when a Northampton Lesbian issued a letter to the community stating she had been subpoenaed and appeared before a Grand Jury in New York. She said she had refused to answer any questions and the queries seemed to be connected to her past involvement with Irish politics and not focused on lesbians. Though this investigation appeared to focus on an individual, it was only the first of several attempts by the authorities to gain information about local lesbians and the community in order to identify “subversive” elements.

grand jury info_edited-1
pamphlet from the new york city grand jury information project, circulated in the valley

SOURCES:

__ [Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. “A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978.

__Old Maid.  Northampton. Spring 1975.

__Grand Jury Information Project. Flyer. July 16, 1975.

__”Remember Grand Juries?” Quash: Newsletter of the Grand Jury Project. May-June 1977.

__Ann McCord. Remarks to author about client records. Ann was a counselor at Everywoman’s Center and member of the Feminist Counselors’ Collective.