a wonderful piece of preservation work!
I first met Pat Jones and Donna Eddins in 1990 at the Gulf Coast Women’s Music Festival in Mississippi. They were videotaping the event and would I give them permission to record my set? This was before everyone and their sister had phones with video or even home camcorders, so of course I said yes. Over that long weekend I got to know them better and when they offered me a place to stay my next time through their hometown of Memphis, I didn’t hesitate. I loved their warm and direct manner. Neither suffered fools gladly and they worked tirelessly as LGBT activists — my kind of people. They taped festivals and other events with professional grade equipment, produced concerts, and did an LGBT radio show, all in the deep south. Here’s Pat talking about bringing comic Robin Tyler to Memphis in 1980. She also mentions Meristem, the women’s bookstore…
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In 1970, I had just started my sophomore year at UMass when I broke up with my partner Susan and needed a cheap place to live on the bus route to Amherst. Since I was in a non-functioning emotional state, it was only due to the one friend we had made in Northampton, Madeline Littlefield, that I got moved into a rooming house in town.
The old three-story house at 66 Green Street, with its maze of hallways leading out from a central staircase on the top two floors, looked as though it had been designed to be a rooming house. What had probably been a deep, covered front porch with a little yard and an adjacent alley, however, had been converted to cinderblock storefronts built right up to the sidewalk, though the two old apartments still existed behind them. One had to step back from the pink, painted, stucco front to get a glimpse of the original shingled edifice, which had steeply slanted roofs and a turret hiding a whole other world from that of the Smith College campus right across the street.
“Elmhurst Apartments” was painted on the glass transom over the entry door located between the shops. The door led into a small, narrow foyer with flat, black, metal mailboxes affixed to the right hand wall and a carpeted staircase with wooden banister leading upward on the other. Dimly lit, creaking steps, slightly slanted into the void and crowded by a wall with painted over wallpaper, led to the fourteen rooms and two apartments above. There were shared bathrooms and hallway sinks on the second and third floors as well as a kitchen on the third which had originally been room #5.
Mrs. Snowden was the housekeeper, a term new to me. She was a combination manager and maid, sending the bed linens out to a laundry service but washing the towels in the basement machine. A furnished room for single occupant came with a weekly change of linen (one of the sheets, pillowcase and towel) for eight dollars a week. The top floor rooms had slanted ceilings, and those in the corners of the building claustrophobically fit only a single twin-size bed, dresser, and straight backed chair.
A few of the tenants were longtime residents, older single or widowed, retired or employed by nearby Smith College. They set a clean, quiet, mind-your-own tone. The majority, though, were transients, mostly men, who saw the ad in the Gazette, placed there whenever there was a vacancy. I recall people just discharged from the State Hospital up the hill and migrant workers between crops passing through.
Busy with school and multiple activities, I didn’t initially engage much with the other tenants, except for hellos and a worry that they might smell the pot smoke leaking into the hall through the blanket covered door and transom. Or notice increased noise and the occasional presence of a woman lover, as over the next couple years friends from Student Homophile League and then the Gay Women’s Caucus and Valley Women’s Center began increasingly to visit.
Over time, I got to know a bit about the regulars. The housekeeper Ada Snowden was friends with another widow on the third floor named Eva Crovo. The two of them could be heard clattering in the kitchen together every evening before and after they ate in Ada’s room. On the second floor, the retired widower Abner Solon went out somewhere for the day, including, it appeared, all his meals. Living next to Abner at the top of the stairs to the second floor was Sophie Szarek, a retired old maid who was to become somewhat of a legend in those early years at Green Street.
After I had been living there a few months, I noticed that sometimes when I came home, just as I was reaching the top of the stairs to the second floor, I would hear a door slam shut. Sophie, that elusive tenant, would peek out of her room to see who was coming up the stairs and then hide before she was seen in return. When I started taking a psychology class and learned of operant conditioning, I decided to try it on Sophie. Now when I came in, I called hello to her, and gradually was able to engage her in neighborly conversation.
Sophie had come from Poland to the Valley as a twelve year-old. A cousin had found her work as a maid in a “Yankee” household, which she did for her entire working life. Even with her heavily accented English, it was possible to understand her scornful contempt for all things “Yankee,” which seemed to extend to the few other women in the house, who never befriended her. I was able to introduce her to more congenial and increasingly bemused neighbors as friends of mine moved into the house.
I was somewhat surprised when Mrs. Snowden asked me to substitute for her as the housekeeper over a summer. She worked as a cook at one of the Smith houses during the school year, but returned to her home in Nova Scotia when she could during the summer school break. The job at 66 Green Street broadly entailed renting the rooms and collecting the rent, cleaning the common areas and vacant rooms, checking the boiler, handling the laundry, and reporting to the landlord. In exchange, the room was rent-free and a phone paid for by the landlord was installed. Mrs. Snowden was pleased enough with me that when she retired from her cook’s job in the summer of 1972 and wanted to return permanently to Canada, she recommended that I be her replacement.
For the next three years, as Green Street’s housekeeper, I filled every new vacancy that I could by word of mouth, with known or recommended women, most of them lesbian. In the remainder of 1972, eight women, five of them lesbian, filled vacancies. With the addition of another lesbian at the start of 1973, five of us collectively rented a room in the name of Kaethe Kollwitz that served as a common room. We also offered it as emergency housing through the Valley Women’s Center in Northampton and Everywoman’s Center at UMass. Over the two years we maintained the room, it temporarily housed a few famous and infamous women.
By Fall of 1975, I was ready to quit the job. Lesbians now lived in the majority of the rooms and one of the apartments at “Green Street,” as it was increasingly referred to in the women’s community. As the town built elder housing, all but one of the senior tenants had moved to those better accommodations. They took their moderating influence with them. As well as a 100% turnover in tenants, usual for a rooming house, the change brought increased noise, traffic, and mess in the common areas, which increasingly frustrated me as housekeeper. I had to draw a large poster for the bathroom illustrating how to replace a used-up roll of toilet paper. I’ve been reminded by a former tenant of the time I went in the kitchen and threw every unwashed dish, glass, skillet, pot, utensil (piles of them) out the third floor window. I kept living at Green Street even after I was no longer the housekeeper.
Peggy C., old UMass friend and resident down the hall from Sophie and Abner, agreed to take over the job with the landlord’s blessing. However, the ever-increasing cleaning chores and wrangles as the “authority” figure discouraged her, too, and within only a couple weeks she was ready to quit.
Faced with the possibility of losing this now largely women’s, space, the tenants agreed to experimentally form a sub rosa cooperative that would share the work of maintaining the house and making decisions, including who would live there, greatly reducing the responsibilities of the landlord’s hired housekeeper, now the secret tenants’ co-op’s front person as well.
Kate A. became the first housekeeper under this new arrangement toward the end of 1975. A notebook was set up on a dresser in the second floor hall as a house communications log, with the weekly job rosters, house rules, and meeting notices. Over time, messages about happenings in the community as well as individuals’ lives accumulated in the log. [The log has been preserved at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College with appropriate use restrictions.]
By the time I left in 1978, to be with my dying mother, at least seventy different women, mostly lesbians, had lived at Green Street over that five year period, some multiple times. A few stayed for only a week or two, others rented for years, with 6-8 months being the average stay. Though many were college educated, initially most lived there because it was the cheapest housing available and near the bus route. Being able to be open with each other and have like-minded neighbors became a desirable bonus.
The drawback was that it was often like living in a soap opera, witnessing fights between lovers or class clashes in the hallways. Because so many of us were to be involved in creating the new Lesbian community, community conflicts carried over into our living space as well. Green Street’s story as a Lesbian cultural institution continues well into the next decade and beyond. That, as well as little tales from the seventies as they are relevant, will be included in future blog posts.
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
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
Here is a throwback to the days when Northampton gay people had to travel to Hampden County to find a bar to cruise, meet others, and perhaps dance together. For most of its history, Northampton has not had a bar specifically for LGBTQ folks, let alone one owned by family. The town reverted to that condition with the October 2016 closing of Divas, the lesbian-owned dance club had been open on Pleasant St. for fifteen years.
In this reminiscence about the Arbor in Springfield in the early 1970s, Jacqueline E. Letalien touches on mafia ownership of bars and the discomforting danger to lesbians in not having control of space. Thanks to Jacqueline for permission to publish this piece, which has previously appeared in Kulture Klatch and Common Lives: Lesbian Lives, and also for the wonderful recent portrait of her.
Lesbian – November, 2003
Kulture Klatch – Jacqueline Elizabeth Letalien – L-Word
My family and friends adamantly assure me when I come out at twenty-three that this being a Lesbian is a Passing Phase. They don’t understand that I have been a Lesbian all of my life. Some say being a Lesbian is due to genes or hormones; others say it’s environment; still others say it’s a Disease that’s contagious. I have a friend whose aunt always and immediately washes the glass The Lesbian Niece drinks out of, to make sure nobody else in the family catches The Affliction.
In these times of the early seventies and the heterosexual revolution, no one believes that lesbians are lesbians by choice because no one believes women have a sexuality. Men are the reference point: their pleasure (usually very exclusive), their sexual prowess (usually very overrated), their whim (usually very undeniable).
In the Springfield bars straight men come to ogle the lesbians. While they are a bit fearful of us, they embolden themselves to be the knights of heterosexuality, trying to convert lesbians to straighthood. This is a challenge that really amps them. They never seem to get that even if I’m interested in fucking with men, it wouldn’t be them.
The worst of these are the mafioso pals of the Arbor’s owner. They are walking stereotypes of themselves. White shoes with little brass do-dads on the top of their shoes. They drive up in white or black cadillacs; very, very shiny. These are creepy men. These are also dangerous men with very fragile, yet over-inflated, egos.
I don’t just know them from the bars. I know them from living in Agawam where the families of the mafioso reside. What I learn is that they have rules, codes of honor. They do not do business in Agawam because that’s where their families reside. Their influence is still felt throughout the town.
It’s when I move to Springfield that I learn about how they do business. Because they own the bars and they believe they own everything in them, the mafioso funders don’t get that they should never come to the gay bars. Interactions with them always have the subplot that offending them could have very negative consequences. Declining their advances is a tricky business.
The first rule of engagement is to refrain from eye contact unless I have a gun and am foolish enough to use it. The second rule of engagement is to utilize wit to the maximum. The third is to avoid an argument. The golden rule is to watch out for the ego, theirs and mine.
The man owner does not get that these men should never be allowed into the bar. He does not get any of this about the oglers and mafia because he is a mafia connected ogler. One night he approaches me. I know what he’s up to. I do not look at him as I ponder how I’m going to get out of this without ending up missing and later floating to the surface of the Connecticut River.
He swaggers over, steps uncomfortably close to me. His cologne doesn’t mix well with the amount of rum I’ve consumed. I bet you wouldn’t be a Lesbian if you had a good fuck; have you ever fucked? (I pause for the mere split second there is to set the direction of this interaction.) Yeah, I been fucked; let me ask you a question: when you were in the navy, did you ever fuck with men?
He’s obviously startled by this question. He’s also tricked by the query because his ego thinks I’m expressing interest in his story: Uh well, there weren’t any women around you know; yeah, I fucked with men. I ask in a rather voyeuristic voice: did you like it? Now he’s off balance while being given a chance to assert his ego: Like it! No I didn’t like it. Still without eye contact, the action is checkmated: Neither did I. He doesn’t approach me again.
The thing that none of these relatives, friends, oglers seem to understand is that being a Lesbian is the complex will of the spirit, the simple logic of the heart: I am a woman, I love my self; I love women.