Northampton isn’t included in the index of Lilian Faderman’s highly anticipated history the Gay Revolution , but (behold !), in her very first chapter, “Lawbreakers and Loonies,” she describes the state of affairs for homosexuals just before the revolution, using the case of a Smith College student as an example of how the “loonies” were controlled.
Faderman interviewed former Smith student Sally Taft Duplaix shortly before Sally’s death in 2012. A sophomore at Smith College in 1956, Sally was seen by another student in flagrante delicto with her roommate. She was reported to the dean, then sent to the college doctor. The doctor informed Sally’s parents that they had to take her out of school and put her under psychiatric care.
In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association included homosexuality as a “pathological behavior” in its first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Defects. Duplaix’s parents paid for daily sessions with a psychiatrist to “cure” their daughter, then mortgaged their home to pay for her to be treated in a residential facility with private and group therapy. When Sally continued to be uncooperative she was sent to another psychiatric facility where she was heavily medicated and given both insulin and electric shock therapy. She was threatened with being transferred to a state institution where she might be lobotomized. After five months, she was released to her parents. Still a lesbian at age seventy-six in 2012, she called those psychiatrists the “malevolent monsters of the ‘mental health’ establishment.”
Of the half dozen Smithie lesbians I met in the early 1970s, at least one had also been forced to take a semester off to get “reformed,” i.e. learn to hide her love of women. Another Smith undergraduate lesbian I met had parents who were initially supportive of her when she came out in 1970. This parental support may have been crucial to allowing undergraduate Maggie Putnam to start the first lesbian group at Smith College.
According to Stacy Braverman, student archivist for the SC LGBTQ group Spectrum, “The catalyst for organized queer life at Smith came in 1973, when the first Women’s Weekend was held at Smith. This event would continue, in various forms, until the early 1990s, but the initial one was especially important to the large number of women who came out as lesbian or bisexual during the weekend.” Braverman found articles in the Sophian student newspaper describing this, as well as the fact that it occurred at the first and sole lesbian workshop. Braverman continues, “Some of these women formed the Sophia Sisters group,” which was described by Anne Lozier, another student archivist, as “an underground organization.”
The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology, which I edited with Jacqueline Letalien, identifies that first Women’s Weekend as April 6-8, 1973. It included a musical appearance by the Deadly Nightshade. April 10 is recorded as “First Sophia Sisters meeting. Smith College.” I remember that Maggie Putnam was one of the lesbians who tried to quietly start this group, which was also sometimes referred to as Sophiasisters. She inadvertently outed herself to her residential house when one of the residents saw her stuffing Sophia Sisters flyers in everyone’s mailboxes.
“Notices of meetings and events were ripped down, and members reported increased hostility from fellow students,” Braverman wrote. “The following year, the Women’s Resource Center opened at Smith, and became a gathering place for feminists, lesbians, and bisexuals. By 1975, however, most of the Sophia Sisters’ founding members had graduated and there was a lapse in structured activities. “
The 1980s would see a very active connection between Smith student and town lesbians in Northampton. In the first half of the 1970s, however, there were only a handful of Smith students who were out of the closet enough to connect with other area groups, such as at UMass SHL/GLF and Gay Women’s Caucus; at the Valley Women’s Center in downtown Northampton; or at the Green Street lesbian rooming house.
There is an oft repeated idea that Northampton’s reputation as “Lesbianville, USA” is a product of the presence of Smith College. I believe, however, that Smith has been the most conservative of the Five Colleges in the area (the others are Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts), making it the most difficult to come out at and to change. Elsewhere in this blog I have included the ending of Freshman Frolics, the banning students from the Rose Tree Inn, and the silence as gay male faculty were prosecuted. All are examples of Smith’s reactionary defense as an institution already under siege for daring to educate women. In this climate in 1973, the Sophia Sisters forged a path that increasing numbers of students would join over the decades, forcing the College to begin to change.
__Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle pages 11-12. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.
__Babize, Molly. “The homosexual community: five people speak with candor about issues, ideas and choices.” Hampshire Life, July 7-13, 1979, Daily Hampshire Gazette, page 5. Northampton, MA. Includes an interview with Maggie Putnam.
__Braverman, Stacy. “Crushes at Smith.” Unpublished paper submitted to KMR for use in the chapbook. 2003.
__[Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton MA. 1979. http://vwhc.org/timeline.html
__Lozier, Anne. “Records of the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Alliance, 1976-2003.” Finding Aid, College Archives, Smith College. Northampton. 2003