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 Lesbian Separatist War


1976 conference, poster by co-coordinator Kaymarion [Raymond]

In May 1976, I went to a workshop on Horizontal Hostility at the Women and Violence conference held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. When the facilitator Carol Drexler attempted to open the workshop, one lesbian requested a lesbian-only session. This came in spite of there being a lesbian-only lesbian and violence workshop convened by Jacqueline Letalien earlier in the day. I agreed to facilitate a session and, after locating an empty room, we reconvened with only lesbians in the room.

As we tried to procede again, she began haranguing me, starting with why she had to ask for a separate session. She was speaking with such vehemence that spit flew out of her mouth. She went on for the entire scheduled time. There was no way to respond to her or stop her from verbally attacking me and other lesbians for political incorrectness. I wound up sitting on the floor next to my best friend and weeping. This kind of aggressive barrage became so frequent in the 1970s within feminist and lesbian communities that it came be referred to as trashing someone. This was a national phenomenon.

from the conference program schedule

That workshop was one of the last attempts to negotiate a ceasefire in what we came to call Northampton’s [Lesbian] Sep’ War. Instead of continuing to try to work together, some lesbians left town in disgusted disillusionment; others stopped speaking to each other; while small groups continued to gather around shared interests regardless of criticism.

It was not a phenomena unique to Northampton Lesbians. Black feminist Florence Kennedy used the term “horizontal hostility” in an essay published in 1970 to describe how oppressed people turn on each other in oppressive ways. The destructive divisiveness within New York City’s Radical Feminists from the early seventies is also well documented .

The series of linked occurrences in the Northampton area over roughly a two year period was large, loud, and painful enough for me to think of it as a war, even though it was actually confined, to begin with, to more politicized Lesbians. The vehemence of some of that conflict reverberated outward and caused lesbians to take sides against each other. It caused many lesbians to think less fondly of the new ideal of Lesbian community.  I have to come to think of the mid-seventies as the time when concept of “the Community” as “they,” made up of something or someone other than oneself, was added to our local lesbian vocabulary. The idea of political correctness came to us during this time, as well. “P.C.” had nothing to do with, as yet unknown, personal computers.

The idea of Lesbian Separatism had been introduced to the Valley primarily via the CLIT papers in early 1974. The fact that many local lesbians had adopted these ideas led to the establishment of Lesbian Gardens in the third floor space rented by the Valley Women’s Union on Main St. in Northampton. Separatism was not a totally new idea. Amherst Women’s Liberation, which established the Valley Women’s Center at 200 Main St. in 1970, had earlier debated and decided against male membership. Gay women, as well, had organized separately from gay men in the first Valley group the Student Homophile League at UMass/Amherst in 1971.

A major contributing factor to the conflicts in 1975 was the rapidly increasing number of lesbians willing to come out and meet some place other than the bars in Springfield and Chicopee. The Old South St. Study Group, described below, estimated that Northampton’s political lesbian community grew from twenty to two hundred over a short six month period, with another two hundred lesbians associated with its more social aspects. Those original twenty (estimated) lesbians had struggled together as feminists in the Valley Women’s Center and/or Union. They knew each other, and had learned to speak across differences with an assumption of good will. The same could not be said of all of the newcomers.

A group of Northampton Lesbians who were part of or witness to these struggles later gathered to try to make sense of what happened. Calling themselves the #13 Old South Street Study Group they identified and analyzed a series of conflicts in 1975-76 in the Valley. They wrote a paper which was published in the Lesbian Connection in 1977.LC had a national circulation and was published in Michigan. It concluded, ”Though we share a common oppression as dykes, our solutions are different, and we often engage in power struggles over what the community should look like.”

Many of the arguments among Lesbians in the Valley during this period were about where to draw the line in defining Lesbian space, and also about how Lesbians should focus their organizing energy. The Study Group started its analysis with the differences evident within what came to be called the Dyke Patrol in Northampton. Formed during the summer of 1975 in reaction to male threats of violence to lesbians going to the Gala bar, the group provided presence and escort to those at the Gala, Zelda’s, Lesbian Gardens, and occasional women’s dances. Some within the group objected to protecting male-owned businesses and straight women, wanting to only put energy into protecting Lesbian space. Others thought the group should be teaching self-defense in the bars. The group disbanded after five months when street threats appeared to end.

the Gala Cafe. Handtinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell, used by permission of the photographer.

The next event identified by the Study Group was the unilateral decision at the end of 1975 by a small number of Lesbians to make the third floor space of the Women’s Center used by Lesbian Gardens into a 24-hour Lesbian space. This prevented the original, though occasional, use of the space for large meetings of the Valley Women’s Union membership and women’s events. According to the Study Group, other lesbians objected to the decision and the way it was made, both at the time and later. Still, the decision was never rescinded. I infer from this that the radical norm of consensual decision-making was ignored by a few. That created a breach in common trust that the group found no way to correct. It was, as well, an increase in the ideological distance between lesbians who perceived straight women to be the enemy and those who didn’t.

Over the winter of 1975-76, a larger group of Lesbian Separatists confronted the Amherst Feminist Repertory Company (AFRC) to demand change. The lesbian-led theatre company had formed at the beginning of 1975 to present original plays about women’s lives. They were rehearsing their second production, “Women On My Mind,” in a large UMass dormitory lounge when Separatists walked in and demanded to speak to the AFRC lesbians. After the straight women left the room, the Separatists criticized the company for putting on a production that shared content about lesbian lives with men and for allowing a straight woman to act the part of a lesbian coming out. They demanded that AFARC change this. What would happen if they didn’t was left hanging in the air as the Separatists marched out of the room.

I was an accidental witness to this confrontation, having gone to the rehearsal after working late at Everywoman’s Center on the UMass campus in hopes of getting a ride home. AFARC’s sound person lived at Green Street . So too did one of the lesbians in the group of Separatists, which included several former tenants, as well. I rode home with the sound tech. It wasn’t long before word spread of this action.  There were many arguments. Lesbians began taking increasingly rigid sides as rumors grew that the Separatists were going to picket the play performance and a counter group would block them.

The play was scheduled to be staged in mid-May 1976 at Bowker Auditorium at UMass. It was not legal to have women-only, let alone lesbian-only, events in that space. The work-around that AFARC had invented was to schedule a one night first performance for women-only that was labeled a “dress rehearsal.”  AFARC was not going to cancel the production or replace the straight actress playing the role of a lesbian coming out.

benefit became a default community meeting about the disagreements

VWU’s Susan Saxe Defense Committee had planned an April benefit to raise legal funds but, because of the increasing distress, turned it into a lesbian community meeting instead.  The meeting was held, according to the recollection of the Old South Street Study Group, “in order that the hostilities, tensions, and rumors which had been growing around many issues and events be aired.” I heard that this meeting was of limited value however because many of those directly involved didn’t attend.

The Horizontal Hostility workshop I organized at the beginning of May was the next attempt to figure out how to deal with internal dissension. Again, a Separatist demanded lesbian-only space during the workshop, and, as I described in the first paragraph of this account, I got targeted by someone’s “rage masquerading as radicalism,” as happened among feminists elsewhere.

The AFRC production went on stage two weeks later as scheduled without any protesting pickets. I was there. As I recall it played to a full and enthusiastic house full of mostly feminists who enjoyed the humorous account of running a women’s center.

One more attempt at dialogue between lesbians was hosted the next month. In June, the Susan Saxe Committee planned lesbian-only small group discussions of various issues. As this agenda was being initially presented by the Committee, however, heated argument broke out. The focus of the meeting got lost, and according to the article by the Study Group, people “literally stopped hearing each other, and past dynamics took over—screaming at each other, assuming sides, not wanting to appear disloyal to friends, etc.”

The Study Group went on to conclude that lack of experience in power dynamics and leadership let a few lesbians take power over others and that many lesbians let them. Their “ harshly critical and absolutist” behavior did not take into consideration the range and complexity of applying Separatism in lesbians’ individual lives; and some Separatists’ “impatient and simplistic” dismissal of other issues further increased  alienation of lesbians from each other.

part one of the study groups report in Lesbian Connection

The fallout from this intense period of conflict was a very active period of Lesbians (and lesbians) voting with their feet. The growth of Lesbian activities did not falter because of this failure to unite around a common vision. Rather, the budding of Lesbian community was pushed into multiple new forms in 1976-77 as Lesbians simply went toward what they wanted. In spite of a few additional sniping attacks from the more rabid, the blossoming of Lesbian culture in the Valley was to become vigorous.

Years later, walking across the Smith college campus after an Adrienne Rich reading, I saw two women holding hands. I was somewhat bemused to recognize the (former) leader of the Separatist group that confronted the theater group now partnered with the (at one time) straight actress who played the role of a lesbian coming out.    

SOURCES:

__Kennedy, Florynce. “Institutionalized Oppression vs. the female.” Sisterhood is Powerful anthology. Robin Morgan editor. 1970.

__Old South Street Study Group. ”Analysis of a Lesbian Community.” Lesbian Connection. East Lansing, Michigan. Part one, July 1977. Part two, Sep. 1977.

__Faludi, Susan. ”Death of a Revolutionary: Shulamith Firestone helped to create a new society. But she couldn’t live in it.” The New Yorker. April 15,2013. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary

__Joreem.  “Trashing: the Dark Side of Sisterhood.” Originally published in Ms. Magazine April 1976, prompting a record number of letters in response, most sharing similar experiences. In which she quotes Anselma Dell’Olio “…rage masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism.”  https://www.cwluherstory.org/classic-feminist-writings-articles/trashing-the-dark-side-of-sisterhood

further reference on horizontal hostility and feminism;

__Joreen. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” the Second Wave. 1972.

https://fromwickedtowedded.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/6bb41-tyrannystructureless.pdf

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.

closet door oct 71_edited-1

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.

vwu news mail 76_edited-1

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.

women_and_their_bodies_cover

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

full moon contacts 72_edited-1

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.

womens guide 73 lorie leininger il_edited-1

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.

mimeo money_edited-1

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

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.

 

Beginning to Create Lesbian Space 1974-75


The Valley Women’s Center was at 200 Main Street in Northampton. In 1974 the Center reorganized itself along socialist feminist lines into a union: Valley Women’s Union (VWU). When a coordinating board was formed to represent the various enterprises and action groups* comprising the VWU, Lesbians asked for and were given an at-large seat. While very present in various activities Lesbians did not yet have a formal group, but shortly after getting a seat on the board  a Lesbian Issues Discussion Group formed. It met weekly, and grew to include thirty to forty women, mostly lesbians, some of whom hadn’t previously been part of VWU.

In May of 1974, the CLIT (Collective Lesbian International Terrors) Papers were circulating nationally. Initially, the CLIT Collective called for lesbians to withhold their energy from straight media, which continued to define and co-opt lesbians. The Collective advocated the creation of a separate Lesbian media. The idea was further expanded to mean withdrawing from the straight world as much as possible, including straight feminists, and creating a separate Lesbian community and culture.

CLIT intro para OOB May 75
CLIT Papers opening paragraph from Off Our Backs May 1974

The CLIT Papers, by a NYC group, caused a furor in feminist communities from coast to coast, including the feminist community in Northampton. They resonated particularly with Lesbians such as myself, who had devoted a lot of energy to women’s issues, but whose needs as lesbians were largely unrecognized. As a result of this new thinking some VWU Lesbians wrote a position paper asking for separate space at 200 Main Street. They began scheduling Lesbian-only events in the third-floor general meeting room, calling it “Lesbian Gardens.”

Increasing numbers of Lesbians began to identify themselves with this radical thinking and literally spelled it out. The different usage of lesbian (lower case) as a sexual identity and Lesbian (capitalized) as a political identity began to appear. If you see it here it is as carefully deliberate reflection of how it began to appear in local Lesbian writing and publications starting in 1974.

While still a student at UMass I helped start Everywoman’s Center, housed initially in 1972 in one large room in Munson Annex. In the beginning we pretty much invented our jobs, even as volunteers, and I wound up coordinating publications (a newsletter) and educational programming. We had inherited a workshop program for women designed to encourage continuing education, Project S.E.L.F. and in one of the first series Cindy Shamban and I co-facilitated a four week workshop in 1972 called “the Woman-Identified Woman.”  The topic and title came from a 1970 position paper by NYC Radicalesbians which I found and brought back from the second Christopher Street Liberation March. This may have been the first such offering in the Valley.

After I graduated from UMass I continued to work at Everywoman’s Center as paid part time staff with no benefits. The eight week long workshop program was one of my main responsibilities and  continued to be for several years, growing to an attendance of 350-400 women enrolled every semester, half of them non-students. Every semester I was able to include at least one with lesbian focus. The most popular was Julia Demmin’s “Lesbians in Literature,” which she offered numerous times, often with her partner Nancy Schroeder.

1975 began with the last program I coordinated for Everywoman’s Center, what may have been the largest gathering up to that time of Valley women, a week long University (UMass) Women’s Conference in Amherst attended by over 700 students, staff, faculty and community women. It also included the largest gathering of lesbians, more than sixty, who attended one or more of the three lesbian workshops.

75 womens conf

At the end of the conference, energized by this response, planning began for a similar conference for Lesbians in a collaboration of the UMass Gay Women’s Caucus; Lesbian Gardens; and UMass, Springfield, and Northampton women’s centers. The BiMillenial Lesbian Week was held in May 1975 with events in Springfield, Amherst and Northampton, culminating in a weekend retreat in Cummington which I attended. “BiMillenial” referred to two thousand years of Lesbian culture since Sappho.

BiMi ihead CCI_000027

CCI_000029

 

This happening, as we used to say, was advertised in Lesbian Gardens’ first publication. Old Maid: the Lesbian Magazine. The BiMillennial Lesbian Week marked the beginning of a proliferation of Lesbian activities. An increasing number of these took place at Lesbian Gardens, including a Saturday Night Coffeehouse with music by Lou Crimmins and other local musicians, the showing of the first U.S. Lesbian-made films, the formation of the Magical Lesbian Playgroup (a mother-daughter group?) , and the convening of the first Skills Exchanges and Winter Solstice Celebrations. Lesbian Gardens  also provided space for the initial  meetings of what became new enterprises; the women’s restaurant project, the women’s self-defense and karate school, and the Lesbian back to the land movement.

old maid cover_edited-1
slightly used cover of the Old Maid by Laura Kaye,  by permission of the artist

definitionold maid
From the Old Maid, Spring 1975

In the late Fall of 1975, the Lesbians coordinating the use of Lesbian Gardens proclaimed it to be 24-hour Lesbian space, contentiously precluding its use by straight VWU feminists. The Sweet Coming Bookstore (more like a bookshelf) was established there to sell the scant but growing number of Lesbian publications from around the country: the first mimeographed and stapled issues of Lesbian Connection, coming out stories, health information, news and discussions by and about Lesbians. A Lesbian distributor, Old Lady Blue Jeans, also began to have locally created products for sale there. An album by local musician Linda Shear, as well as some coloring pages by me as Great Hera’s Incunabula, were listed in Old Lady Blue Jeans’ catalog.

The BiMillennial Lesbian Week collaboration between Northampton, Springfield, Amherst, and hilltown Lesbians provided a supportive base for a Lesbian cultural flowering and new level of feminist activism over the next decade.  A significant portion of it was to happen in Northampton, which seemed to have a population explosion of newly-out lesbians. Though this Valley Lesbian Movement was to be fraught with struggle, both internal and external, its very depth and breadth was to exhibit a maturity that reflected the same pains, questions, doubts, and resolve experienced across Lesbian Nation.

*Valley Women’s Union initial coordinating board represented Mother Jones Press, Women’s Film Coop, Employment, Staffing, Newsletter, Childcare, Study and Research work groups.

SOURCES:

__[Raymond}, Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline E., editors.  The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978.  Northampton, Ceres Inc. 1978.

__Collective Lesbian International Terrors. “CLIT Papers, Part One and Two” and OOB Staff editorial. Off Our Backs. Washington DC. May and July 1974.

__Conference Evaluation Committee.  “1975 University Women’s Conference January 21-25: Report and Evaluation”. EWC, UMass Amherst Mar. 1975. I coordinated this conference and wrote parts of the evaluation including that about lesbians.

__Old Maid: A lesbian magazine. Northampton. Spring 1975.

__Old South St. Study Group. “Analysis of a Lesbian Community-Part One” and “-Part Two.” Lesbian Connection [E. Lansing MI]. Jul.1977.

__Kraft, Stephanie.  “BiMillenial Celebration: 2000 Years From Sappho.” Valley Advocate. 30 Apr. 1975.

__[Raymond],Kaymarion.  “The Cloning of Old Lady Blue Jeans.” Sharer’s Notes #3. Great Hera’s Incunabula. Nov. 1975.

_________. “Valley Women’s History”, Meeting notes. Common Womon Club, Northampton. 15 Apr. 1980.