Detractors would have had women believe that the early second wave feminists were all lesbians*. Yet in those early years lesbians who were in the Movement in the Valley were largely invisible and uncounted. Some of them have told me that there were more lesbians contributing than have been given credit. I was one of them, and have used data collected by others as well as my own memories to consider the lesbians who participated in this political work against sexism.
The initial spread of radical feminism is easily traced up and down the Valley through the appearance of women’s centers in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden Counties. These spaces were rented in communities with donations and largely staffed by volunteers, or else they were given institutional space on campuses with some funded staff positions.
Northampton’s Valley Women’s Center was the first, established in 1970. It also lasted the longest of the community-based centers, to 1977.
After VWC was opened in Northampton, there followed UMass/Amherst Southwest (residential area) Women’s Center (1971), Greenfield Community Women’s Center (1972), UMass/Amherst Everywoman’s Center (1972), Springfield Women’s Center (1973), Hampshire College Whole Women’s Center (1973), Smith College Women’s Resource Center (1974) and at UMass/Amherst centers briefly in five residential areas.
In 1977, women’s centers opened in Athol and at Mt. Holyoke College. Everywoman’s Center at UMass, under a new name, is the oldest women’s center still existing in the Valley. All the community centers are long gone, some partially replaced by institutional services.
I worked as a staff person at both VWC and, later, Everywoman’s Center as an out lesbian. Through that work, I came to know lesbians who were active in all of the other community centers and some of the campus ones. It did seem to me that as new activities and groups started at the Valley Women’s Center in Northampton, an increasing number of new members becoming involved were lesbians, but in those early years it’s just anyone’s guess. Here’s how I made one.
My best guess was prompted by some Smith students’ research. They compiled a list of Western Mass lesbians and feminists who would be valuable resources on that early history. One document they found was_- a 1971 member list for fifteen Amherst Women’s Liberation support groups. They also found other sources for work groups that were organized out of AWL’s Valley Women’s Center, as well as a very limited number of names of feminists who were active in other centers. Going through those names, I marked those I knew to be lesbians at that time, which is probably an under count, and estimated lesbians to be about 10% of AWL/VWC’s general membership, as well as of the women’s centers in Springfield, Greenfield and Athol.
Other than what I’ve already mentioned, at UMass in Amherst, there was little overt lesbian organizing within the Valley Women’s Movement until 1974. In Northampton however, these years before that were important to lesbian history because of the relatively large and active numbers who developed a grounding in radical feminist theory, process, and vision which would eventually burst into Lesbian form.
One of the most influential groups for me was the Women’s Institute. This group came and went briefly but intensely in 1971-72. When a State prison in Framingham was slated to be closed down, feminists saw an opportunity to convert it to a residential women’s education center. With others from VWC, I took a tour of the grim narrow buildings. I looked at worn red bricks stark against the bright green grass common, and tried to envision the place as a farm and self-sufficient community, conference center, and media hub. Smile. For about a year, a group at VWC brainstormed a utopia and wrote a million dollar grant proposal to the Ford Foundation for the establishment of the Women’s Institute. Of the two dozen names listed in its records, I recognize a third of them as lesbian. That opportunity to dream big influenced our future activism.
In 1972, the Women Against War group and the Women’s Film Coop formed at the Valley Women’s Center. The WAW Lizzie Borden Brigade sat-in at the gates of Westover Air Force base and marched through Pittsfield streets as part of the large anti-Vietnam War movement. When I found a news clipping of those arrested at one protest, I recognize eight of the thirty women as lesbians. In the meantime, over in Amherst, women took over the UMass ROTC building and turned it into a childcare center.
The Film Coop inherited a few films, slides and a mailing list from New Haven feminists who were getting out of that film distribution project. Several lesbians who had fantasized about a media center in the Women’s Institute carried the work forward with other women at VWC.
At a time when very little media by and about women and women’s issues was available (or, at least, little that was realistic), the WFC rented out an increasing number of films and videos to groups and classes across the country. The WFC held the Valley’s first women’s film festival in Northampton at the Globe Theatre (later the Pleasant St. Theatre?) in 1973. A majority of the WFC were lesbians.
Another new Northampton group furthered the dream of a media center. Mother Jones Press opened on Hawley Street in 1973. A small group of women, some who were lesbians, set up a used Chief offset press and went into the printing business. I will be including more on these two ventures in later posts.
In 1973, VWC and EWC sponsored a speakout against rape in Northampton. This marked the beginning of the movement against violence against women in the Valley. It began with volunteer rape crisis services and advocacy, then enlarged to multiple groups addressing domestic violence, self-defense, and women’s martial arts. Lesbians, in unknown numbers, were active in this work up and down the Valley over the next decade.
All of this activity, which in Northampton, centered around the Valley Women’s Center at 200 Main Street would set the stage for the Lesbians coming out as a group within the Women’s Movement in 1974 and the beginning of Lesbian Feminist activism.
*Footnote: lesbian is consciously spelled here in this article with a lower case “l” in recognition of its usage at that specific time as meaning a sexual orientation and not, yet, as a political identity.
__ Hanna, Christine. “Names” (list of lesbians and feminists in western Massachusetts compiled from a limited search of document sources in the Sophia Smith Collection and College Archives at Smith College). 1998.
__[Raymond,] Kaymarion. “The Valley Women’s Movement 1968-78.” File of the visual exhibit shown at the Common Womon Club. 1978. Northampton.
__[Raymond,] Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. “A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement, 1968-1978.” Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978