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Posts Tagged ‘Lesbian Feminism’

One of the exhibits created by students in the Creating Digital History course:

A Century of Lesbian Feminism In and Around Greenwich Village (1900-2000)

by Rachel Corbman

This exhibit profiles three pioneering women’s  organizations, active in around the Village in various decades of the 20th century. Despite the many differences between these groups, all three helped carve out a place for lesbians either within their own organization or in society at large. By considering these organizations together, I will demonstrate how all three contributed to the creation of a modern lesbian identity as well as the formation of lesbian communities in urban centers. My focus will also emphasize the relationship between lesbianism and the feminist project of women’s equality.

Go to exhibit.

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The Red Dot Collection (photo by Saskia Scheffer, from Lesbian Herstory Archives website)

The story of how Lesbian Herstory Archives acquired “The Red Dot Collection” begins in Provincetown circa 1980. While on vacation, two of the archive’s cofounders, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel, happened to see a white index card tacked to a wooden lamp post. Printed on the card were the words “DOB Library for Sale” along with the name and address of a Jane Kogan.

“We just stared, what had we found,” Joan Nestle explained in a recent email.

Founded in San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB, for short) was the first lesbian organization in the United States. As their 1956 statement of purpose explains, DOB was a women’s organization committed to the integration of “the homosexual into society” (Gallo 11). > Part of the impetus behind the creation of this organization was the extreme lack of social spaces, with the sole exception of bars, to meet and congregate with other lesbians. In addition to serving this social function, DOB was equally committed to educating individual lesbians as well as society at large. To this end, the creation and maintenance of a library of relevant literature was specifically stipulated in the statement.

The New York Chapter

In May 1957, DOB’s national newsletter, The Ladder, published a letter (anonymously) penned by the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry’s blurb invited fellow readers to comment on the absence of DOB from New York City. She writes: “Considering [gay and lesbian organizations] Mattachine, Bilitis, ONE; all seem to be cropping up on the West Coast rather than here where our vigorous and active gay set almost bump into one another off the streets– what is it in the air out there? Pioneers still? Or a tougher circumstance which inspires battle? Would love to hear speculation, light-hearted or otherwise” (L.H.N. 26). >

An overdue New York chapter was founded the next year by Barbara Gittings and Marion Glass. Gittings recalls that eight or ten women showed up for the first meeting (Katz 224-225). > Initially, the tiny chapter of DOB shared an office in a loft building with the primarily gay male organization Mattachine. For the next 13 years, DOB bounced around the city wherever affordable office space was available. The chapter’s apparent final location was in a loft on 141 Prince Street, one block outside Greenwich Village, or as their newsletter aptly termed it “the new Village” (DOB 1). This 4,000 square foot loft included a partitioned-off office and library, kitchen, and a slow dance room to accommodate the organization’s monthly socials.

Gay Liberation and the Lesbian Feminist Movement

Despite the chapter’s slight geographic remove from the Village proper, DOB’s chapter is an integral part of Greenwich Village’s lesbian and gay history. The anecdote that best exemplifies this point is the New York chapter’s (too often ignored) involvement in the Stonewall Riots. On June 27, 1969, a twenty-six year old member of DOB escorted a couple from out of town on a guided tour of Greenwich Village’s bars. Martha Shelley remembers: “While we were walking around, we saw these people who looked younger than I was throwing things at cops. One of [the women] turned to me and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s a riot. These things happen in New York all the time” (Shelley 33). >

What these women had unwittingly witnessed was the beginning of the Stonewall riots. Shelley (along with the rest of the city) soon became aware of the ongoing demonstrations, catalyzed by a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn. In response, she helped spearhead an effort to organize a protest march co-sponsored by DOB and Mattachine. The planning meetings for this march also led to the creation of the short lived, but important Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which in turn spawned a multitude of splinter groups including the Radicalesbians. Out History has a nice article that covers this in more depth or you can read Radicalesbians’ “The Woman Identified Woman” here.

It is important to acknowledge these threads of continuity between the Daughters of Bilitis and the subsequent gay liberation and lesbian feminist movements of the 1970s. Too often, if DOB is written about at all, it is written off as a conservative and assimilationist minded organization that was wholly displaced by more radical movements. DOB’s involvement in Stonewall and, for that matter, Lesbian Herstory Archives eventual acquisition of their library attests to a more complex reality.

DOB and LHA

Last I mentioned them, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel were staring at a “magical little index card” with Jane Kogan’s contact information. The cofounders were immediately struck by the historical significance of this library to their growing collection of lesbian materials. At the time, Lesbian Herstory Archives had been around for six or seven years, depending on whom you ask. The seed was first planted in 1973, when a consciousness raising group comprised of women who met at the first conference of the Gay Academic Union came up with the idea for a lesbian archive. This group began actively collecting material in 1974 and the archive opened its doors to visitors a few years later. Joan Nestle’s Upper West Side apartment doubled as the Lesbian Herstory Archives until the archive moved into its own Park Slope brownstone in 1993.

DOB’s library was successfully purchased by Lesbian Herstory Archives for $1500, a sum that was raised through a combination of individual donations and a grant from the Cowan Family Foundation. Jane Kogan packaged the books in twenty liquor carton sized boxes and sent them from her Provincetown home back to the city where the collection had originally been assembled. The frozen in time library of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis is now known as “The Red Dot Collection” (so named because of the red dots on the spines of all the books). Visitors to LHA have had the opportunity to view this collection onsite for more than thirty years. For the benefit of remote researchers and interested browsers alike, this library is also about to become a digital resource. I am excited to announce that I am currently working with Lesbian Herstory Archives to digitize covers of selected books in this unique and fascinating collection.

Click here for complete Works Cited

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