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.
On Veterans Day October 25, 1971 at least seventy active duty military personnel, veterans and supporters rallied in the rain at a gate to Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. WAFB, home to the 99th Bomb Wing, was being used to support the war in Vietnam.
One of the main speakers at the rally was Airman [sic] First Class (AIC) Pat Turney, representing the GIs present. She called for an “immediate end to the senseless waste of human lives in Indochina.” She also called for unity, urging GIs, veterans, and civilians to stand together against the war.
There is a photograph of the event that was printed in the Base’s alternative newspaper, 99th Bummer . Two women can be seen on either side of Turney on the platform. The woman on the left, Sgt. Pam Speers, co-signed for the rally permit and had been active in producing the newspaper and creating a GI drop-in space.
After Armed Forces Day in the previous spring, a group of active duty Westover Airmen had started 99th Bummer. An alternative monthly, 99th Bummer included radical articles from similar groups around the country as well as ongoing critique of the Air Force Base and its role in the War. Calling themselves the Westover Action Project, the group rented a space off-base. In September, they opened a drop-in center there for military personnel. Off the Runway, as it was called, provided recreation as well as legal counseling and counseling for addiction.
Westover AFB Command reacted by removing four activists they could identify from their Air Force jobs; Speers and Turney and two men who worked at the Base newspaper with Speers. The activists brought a suit through the ACLU, but the Air Force discharged three of them, including Speers. The fourth, Pat Turney, applied for Conscientious Objector status. She needed Congressional pressure to get WAFB to follow the process to earn a March 2, 1972 honorable discharge as the first U.S. enlisted woman Conscientious Objector. A letter of support from Representative Bella Abzug to Turney was printed in 99th Bummer.
Speers and Turney, and other women in the Project not mentioned here, went on to become part of the feminist rebellion in Springfield, helping organize the Springfield Women’s Center and the Hotline to End Rape and Assault (HERA) among other actions. Some of them came out as Lesbians and were part of the network connected to Northampton. Pat Turney became known as Banshee and co-founded Northampton’s first women’s self-defense and karate school in 1976.
__”Drizzle, Confusion Mar Day.” Springfield Union. Oct. 26, 1971. Springfield MA.
__Westover Action Project. 99th Bummer. No.4. Nov. 5, 1971. Westover Air Force Base, Chicopee.
__Westover Action Project. 99th Bummer. No.7. April 1972. Westover Air Force Base, Chicopee.
February 2017 stirring of Spring cleaning; now that I’ve managed to post a couple dozen pieces, I am learning to organize them within the blog chronologically, by when the events occurred rather when I’ve written about them.
Starting today the content may be entered by page tab, with links to all the related pieces. Hopefully will allow a newcomer to enter the unfolding story by time period. “BC” and “1970s” has a good bit of content! Try it out.
The 1971 beginning of this political movement included a dance. I briefly described in a previous post my distracted attendance at the very first east coast Lesbian Feminist Conference where I was introduced to granola. Smile. Here is another bemused contemporary account of that significant happening that I came across in the Ladder. It is really apparent that we were at the vaguest of definition stage and already scrapping. If anyone knows how to contact the author Anita Rutledge or who, if anyone, still owns a copyright on the magazine or this report please let me know.