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a research diary

1 Jul

Thoughts on a journey that continues to knit together the activist and the academic.

May 29
I usually hate talking to people on the plane.  I put on my headphones, read, sleep.  The second leg of my travel to California is a quick flight between Phoenix and San Luis Obispo on one of those uncomfortably small planes. Confusion over row assignments prompted some introductory chatter with my seatmate Betsy, ninety-two years very young.  A fascinating life story unfolded.  Betsy was orphaned in the Appalachians during the Great Depression and completed one year of high school before marrying at sixteen and raising six children.  She bubbled over in describing how she completed high school the same year as her fourth child, learned many a life lesson from her special needs daughter, and traveled across the globe to visit her eldest.  When she asked after my research I was hesitant, but I shared anyway.  She was fascinated to hear of public lesbians in the 1950s and shared her experiences with the young minister at her church in the early 60s who was rumored to be “a homosexual.”  He was an important counselor for her family so when her teen boys began to talk, she sat them down and asked, “do you judge your friends by how they screw?”  With that, the boys learned to treat all people with respect and the minister remained a trusted friend.

Betsy helped me to start an ambitious trip with the reminder that all women have a fascinating story to share, if we give them to space to do so and take the time listen with open mind.

June 3
After several days with my family, I travel north to San Francisco.  Before beginning my archival work at the San Francisco Public Library I enjoy the beautiful clear day and sights of San Francisco City Hall (which would, in just a few weeks, be covered in Pride festivities).

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I explore the papers of women who identified as lesbians and feminists.  Their communication networks and level of contact are impressive.  It’s hard to see them suffering for want of email with the flurry of letters that spanned the country and the frequent references to phone calls, personal visits, and political gatherings.   It scarcely mattered where they lived – they all seemed to know (or know of) one another.  And the romantic interludes and sexual entanglements!  Anyone who says lesbian feminists were anti-sex prudes has never read a word penned by these women.  Oh, the L-Word chart I could create to map the lesbian actors of the seventies.  Nancy Stockwell and Charlotte Bunch rush letters to one another between Berkeley and New York, with Nancy describing a planned move of Olivia Records from Los Angeles, conflict at the Women’s Building, and the latest break-up to cause ripples in the political scene.  The letters are typed but quick postscripts and affectionate sign-offs make them personal, touching, real.

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June 4
My first interview!  V and I meet at a small cafe.  Not an ideal space for recording an oral history, but it was our only option.   She wears a pageboy and fits me into her morning schedule before her midday tennis.  I sought her out because of her role in a national gay rights group that took off in the seventies, but her stories of the New York scene were an unexpected treat.  Her first feminist event was, of all things, the Second Congress to Unite Women; a striking coincidence given that she was struggling to understand her attraction to women.  As witness to the now infamous Lavender Menace action, she was one of the many women she stood to join the Radicalesbians when they called for support of lesbians’ place within the movement (though, she explained, her knees were shaking the whole time).

June 5
I’m staying with friends and take MUNI to visit the GLBT Historical Society.  This means I get to stop for a coffee on Market and enjoy the rainbow flags that line the street, just blocks from the hotel I stay at during Pride (some distance from the Castro, but a perfect spot to roll out of bed and watch the parade).

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In the archive I have the reading room to myself and I pass the day learning about bay area lesbian communities of San Francisco.  Not surprisingly, the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are rich with detail.  It is entirely by chance that I begin with Majority Caucus folders.  Throughout 1975, a group of NOW leaders (including a good number of the self-identified minority women) rejected what they viewed to be a dangerous power grab.  They organized the Majority Caucus to advocate for what they believed to be the true meaning of NOW – ethical feminist practices and the power of the membership.

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I was part of my own Majority Caucus – NewNOW – in California some 36 years later, struggling with almost identical issues.  Rather than be burdened with pessimism I found the research cathartic.  I was part of a proud tradition of women who stood for true grassroots feminism and I wasn’t alone in my decision to step away from a national organization when my conscience told me it was time.

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June 6
Interview two.  B invited me into her Oakland home where we tucked ourselves away in the corner of the kitchen covered in stray rays of morning sunshine.  The only interruption in our hour and a half conversation was her cat Spike pawing at the door (insert your very own lesbian cat joke here).  Perhaps more than anyone I have met, B lives her politics in each moment of her life.  From the Peace Corps to lesbian separatism,  from lesbian entrepreneurship to community advocacy, she has built a true life of service.

After the interview I race back across the Bay Bridge to return to the GLBT Historical Society.  I open up the first folder of the day and there it is: a letter in Rita Mae Brown’s hand.  Immediately I think of my best friend with whom I can’t wait to share.  Her communications with Del and Phyllis confirm another of my suspicions – false distinctions between types of lesbians mean little in the face of shared politics and the need for mutual support.

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June 8
Halfway through my trip and I find myself driving north on 101 surrounded by grapevines, golden hills, and oak trees.

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In a small northern California town I meet G.  She guides me through winding dirt roads to get to the guesthouse that will serve as my weekend home.  Introduced by a mutual friend, she invited me to stay at her lesbian collective that has now existed for over 40 years.  G gave me the tour then left me on my own for the rest of the day.  The heat was awful, so I spent most of my time sitting on the floor with my computer (in the woods but still with wifi!) in front of a small fan I found in the corner of closet.  G says they have visitors most every week and as I fall asleep I imagine the love and laughter, sadness and nostalgia this little home has witnessed.

June 9
Promptly at 10am G arrives for our interview.  We talk for hours.  More than anyone else, she wants to speak of the big picture and finds excitement in the conceptual elements of my project. I suspect it is due in large part to her career in the academy.  Almost 40 when she arrived on the scene in 1970 San Francisco, she disrupts all the stereotypes of the generational conflict between “old gays” and lesbian feminists.  She argues that the true ideological difference comes from whether you enter the movement as already gay.  G peppers me with questions too, and when she tells me “you have all the right answers” I suspect this isn’t a compliment.  But she is still kind and caring with offers of support and hugs goodbye.  I travel southeast through the land of confederate flags (seriously, y’all, there’s some scary places in Northern CA) listening to Indigo Girls and anticipating all that awaits in Sacramento.

June 10
Lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 11
My final day of archival work happens to be at Sac State where I did my Master’s program. I cannot believe I missed the opportunity to spend more time with these papers while I lived in Sacramento.  In them I learn about the rich history of Sacramento NOW that I built upon in my years with the chapter as well as the role Sac State played in fostering the early years of California feminism and the growth of women’s music.  One of my favorite finds? This cheeky cartoon:

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June 12
More lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 13
My final interview of the trip, with E.  Once more to the bay area, kindly invited into another home. This time we sit on a front porch enjoying the bay breeze and watching the day fade away.  I know much more about her life than she seems willing to discuss and I witness a refashioning of life story into a narrative easier to tell.  Perhaps the truth is too painful to relive time and again. Still, she offers a wealth of information: names to track down, organizations to research, publications to read. As I make my way back to the central coast along the dark stretches of highway dotted sparsely with small rural towns I reflect on the strength it must take to continue to give of herself to new generations of lesbian feminists, not knowing what we might expect of her or how far we may push into her past. I am grateful for the loving generosity of the women who will make my project possible and am mindful of the responsibility to do their stories justice.

california snapshot

13 Jun

Exhaustion has set in and I cannot wait to get home to the kitties.  What a wonderful trip in so many ways.  All that is left is one final interview tonight, a few hundred miles to my hometown, and a day with the family tomorrow before I fly back to Michigan on Saturday.

After a day or two of sleep, I’ll be sorting through all of the research and transcribing interviews.  I’ll also share with you my own California travel diary with some of my favorite tidbits of lesbian feminist history.  Until then, here is a view of the lesbian feminist collective where I spent the weekend.

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Returning shortly!

21 Dec

Tom and Chelsea have both now officially survived prelim exams!  This means we now have time to spend on history nerd type things not determined by exam reading lists.  As we write and plan our dissertations we have resumed our most favorite of activities, arguing with one another about feminism.  Coming first will be our ongoing debate over the utility of the wave framework, followed most certainly by plenty of working women and lesbian feminists.  Please do join in the conversation and contact us anytime you would like to guest blog!

All best from your nerds,
Chelsea and Tom

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Your feminist history nerds at the WHA conference

25 Oct