Skip to main content

Gay Rights Movement: Series 7: Lesbian Herstory Archives, Parts 1-6

Available Downloads


About this Collection


Introduction: Gay Rights Movement: Series 7:Lesbian Herstory Archives


The Will to Remember - and File


Dedicatedto Emily Millay Haddad, the new caretaker of the Subject Files


Over thirty years ago, I started doing a peculiar thing as aform of political activism - clipping newspaper articles that had anything todo with lesbians, feminists, homosexuals, queers, passing, and sex workingwomen. This simple fact of filing what was being said about us in the mediaunder categories and in archives of our own creation was a supreme moment ofretextualization, the beginning of a new history.


For the marginalized, remembering is an act of will, aconscious battle against ordained emptiness. For gay people, remembering is anact of alchemy - the transformation of dirty jokes, limp wrists, a wetted pinkydrawn over the eyebrow into bodies loved, communities liberated. When AlbertMemmi wrote the following passage in TheColonizer and the Colonized in 1967, he was speaking as a TunisianJew who had an intimate understanding of both cultural exile and culturalpower:


The colonized draw less and less from their past. Thecolonizer never even recognized that they had one; everyone knows that thecommoner whose origins are unknown has no history. Let us ask the colonizedherself: who are her folk heroes, her great popular leaders, her sages? At mostshe may be able to give us a few names, in complete disarray and fewer andfewer as one goes down the generations. The colonized seems condemned to loseher memory.


My journey with the Lesbian Herstory Archives can be told intwo ways - the factual development of a vision into a building filled with theartifacts of lesbian life or the interior movement from my sense as a persondeprived of historical memory to one glorying in the possibilities of it. Thejourney from deprivation into plentitude is how I have phrased it on countlessarchives tours. It is also a journey from silence into speech, from shame intorevelation.


That journey is captured in a comment written in thearchives visitors book in 1979:


For two days I have been thinking up wise and pithy thingsthat I should include - no dice. So perhaps, the honest will work better. Onlyonce before have I felt like Ive come home. This is the second time. I never thoughtI would be that lucky again - and I realize it is my right to come home to theworld. Thanks to you and all the lives in this room for showing me that right!-


One of the first cultural goals of the archives project wasto salvage secrets, to stop the destruction of letters and photographs, torescue the documents of our desire and complexities from family and culturaldevaluation. At almost every presentation of the archives slide show, a womanwould tell us a tale of loss, of a family member destroying diaries or burningletters. Time and time again a woman would confide how she had destroyedrecords of her early homoerotic life, whether it was her stash of 1950s lesbianpaperbacks, the first cultural products she had ever found that testified to apublic lesbian world, or her own letters, the passionate outpourings of younglove. I will never forget the moment of understanding that occurred, of reliefand sometimes of mourning, when an older woman accepted the possibility thatacts she had considered shameful for so long could be seen as cherishedcultural moments in a communitys history. In the early 1970s, this acceptanceof another context for the remembered touch was an act of will.


My history with the growth of the Lesbian Herstory Archivesdirectly parallels my involvement with lesbian feminism and gay liberation.Just as my queer past was constructed by social judgments and culturallyrestrictive politics, my hope evolved from grassroots possibilities. The early1970s, so deeply influenced by the progressive movements of the 1960s, wereyears when many people constructed new social selves.


Inception of the Movement


One of the most vital sources of new ideas about gender andsexuality was the flourishing womens movement of the mid-1960s and early1970s. Fueled by the organizational abilities of women who had honed theirskills in the new left, civil rights, and anti-war movements, this second waveof feminism launched a more radical questioning of how traditional genderexpectations impacted womens lives. Meeting in small groups in Chicago,Hartford, Detroit, and New York (the early versions of consciousness-raisinggroups), women engaged in intense political and cultural discussionsrangingfrom the economics of housework to the myth of the vaginal orgasm. As the roleof men in all aspects of private and national life came under scrutiny,divergent views of who or what was the real enemy of womens autonomy led to anoutpouring of pamphlets, leaflets, position papers, and manifestoes. Groupssuch as Cell 16 (1968) out of Chicago, Redstockings (1969), and New YorkRadical Feminists (1969) were the more radical voices of the movement while theNational Organization of Women (NOW, 1966) saw itself as the moderate nationalface of American feminism.


In 1969, another history broke new ground. After decades ofshame and state control, gay men, women, and transgendered people took to thestreets not for the first time, but in a way and in a place that captured worldattentionthe Stonewall Rebellion in New York Citys Greenwich Village. Withina year, gay people had formed their own second wave liberation movement,spearheaded by groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the GayActivist Alliance (GAA). With varying degrees of success lesbians who were alsofeminists tried to make a home for themselves in the new gay rights movement.


Tensions between movement lesbians and heterosexual womenwere also on the rise. As more and more lesbians came out in the womensmovement, leaders like Betty Friedan worried that the Lavender Menace, as shetermed it, would undermine the respectability of the national movement. In May1970, the opening night of the Second Congress to Unite Women, seventeenmembers of Radicalesbians, wearing Lavender Menace t-shirts, stood up in theaudience, proclaiming their refusal to accept second-class citizenship in thewomens movement. In the same year, members of this group produced a two-sidedbroadsheet, Woman-Identified Women, the first document to voice an independent,even militant lesbian-feminist movement that believed relationships betweenwomen could be the basis for a new cultural and political order. In a shorttime, lesbian separatism, the attempt to establish autonomous lesbian spacesand institutions, became a national movement. Without these ten years ofdiverse grassroots political and cultural struggles, the Lesbian HerstoryArchives would not have come into being.


In 1973, a few of us who worked in or were being educated bythe City University system of New York, people such as Martin Duberman andJonathan Katz, founded an organization called the Gay Academic Union (GAU).This was an example of how we did things back then. If there was a problem oflesbian or gay exclusion or misrepresentation, we came up with an organizationto address it. Concerned with the plight of gay students and teachers, the GAUbecame a rallying place for early gay scholarship and battles againsthomophobia in the educational system.


Founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives


The Lesbian Herstory Archives was conceived in 1974 indiscussions with members of a womens GAU consciousness-raising group, womensuch as Deborah Edel, a lesbian feminist who became, along with myself, a 1950sfem and the ongoing founders of the Archives; Julia Penelope Stanley, a staunchlesbian separatist; and Pamela, a political lesbian. Here in embryonic formwere the 1970s streams of consciousness, ranging from pre-Stonewall to gayliberation to lesbian separatism to lesbian as a political identificationwithout sexual significance. Here also was the beginning of the discourse aboutmemory, history, gender, and sexuality that would inform the Archives for thenext thirty years of its existence, particularly its subject files.


From the Archives Newsletter, no. 1, 1975:


The Lesbian Herstory Archives exists to gather and preserverecords of lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will haveready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gatheringthis material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to uspreviously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which theyserve. The existence of these archives will enable us to analyze and reevaluatethe lesbian experience; we also anticipate that the existence of these archiveswill encourage lesbians to record their experiences in order to formulate ourliving herstory.


We will collect and preserve any materials that are relevantto the lives and experiences of lesbians: books, magazines, journals, newsclippings (from establishment, feminist or lesbian media), bibliographies,photos, historical information, tapes, films, diaries, oral histories, poetryand prose, biographies, autobiographies, notices of events, posters, graphics andother memorabilia.



With its collection of lesbians speaking for themselves inmyriad ways, the archives were intended to be our answer to the medical, legal,and religious colonization of our lives.

Since we had not been trained as archivists, we were free toinvent archives that reflected our political near past. Thus many of thearchives principles are a radical departure from conventional archivalpractices as they existed in the early 1970s.


All lesbian women must have access to the archives; no academic,political, or sexual credentials may be required for usage of the collection;race and class must be no barrier for use or inclusion.


The archives shall be housed within the community, not on anacademic campus that is by definition closed to many women.

The archives shall be involved in the political struggles ofall lesbians.

Archival skills shall be taught, one generation of lesbiansto another, breaking the elitism of traditional archives.

The community should share in the work of the archives.

The archives will collect the prints of all our lives, notjust preserve the records of the famous or the published.

Funding shall be sought from within the communities thearchives serve, rather than from outside sources.


In 1975, the growing collectionwas housed in the large Upper West Side New York apartment I shared withDeborah Edel. In the early years we built the collection by scouring small-townlibrary and church book-sale tables, often finding a rare lesbian novel thathad been selected for throwaway. In the mail, we would frequently get hand-madeposters and other memorabilia that had been saved from trash heaps. So manytimes did this reversal of cultural fortune happen that we spoke publicly abouttransforming what this society considered garbage into a peoples history.


In 1978, Judith Schwartz, thepioneering grassroots lesbian historian, joined Deborah and me as coordinatorsof the archives, which by then were filling most of the apartment. Since 1976,Deborah and I had been touring the country with the Archives slide show, in anattempt to spread the word about this new project. We presented the showanywhere we were asked to speak: in private homes; in bars; in churches andsynagogues; and in community meeting places. For most lesbians, the thoughtthat their lives were of historical significance was a new idea. Our messagewas that every lesbian life was a famous one. Soon women were waiting for uswith their photograph albums or poetry manuscripts or softball caps. As of2004, the Archives housed over 20,000 volumes, 12,000 photographs, 400 specialcollections, 2,000 periodical titles, 3,000 organizational and subject files,thousands of feet of film and video footage, art and artifacts, musical recordsand tapes, posters and t-shirts, buttons, and personal memorabilia such as theuniform a lesbian medic wore in the Vietnam War and the famous yellow skatesMaxine Feldman, the pioneering lesbian comic performer, wore in the photographon her first album.


The collection displays hard hats and hobnail boots of alesbian steel worker from the 1960s next to pasties and glossy prints of afamous lesbian stripper of the 1940s. They, in turn, are joined by the LavenderMenace t-shirt of the NOW rebellion in the early 1970s. Photographs of barpatrons of the 1930s are in the same room as images from the Michigan WomynsMusic Festival. A Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) certificate of organization, anartifact from the late 1950s, shares a shelf with a Lesbian Avengers poster, anartifact from the American urban 1990s. A copy of Women-Identified Women, themanifesto of the early days of lesbian feminism, lies next to an album coverfeaturing the smiling boyish face of Billy Tipton, the jazz musician who wasborn a woman but passed as a man for most of his life.


Before we explore the subjectfiles in depth, two more moments of the Archives growth have to be noted: in1980, the Archives was incorporated as the Lesbian Educational HerstoryFoundation, Inc., a not-for-profit foundation, and in 1992, after a nationalgrassroots fund-raising campaign, the collection moved to its present home inPark Slope, Brooklyn - a four-story limestone building, the culmination of thedreams of communal liberation fostered by the social change movements of the 1960s.

The Subject Files Collection of the LesbianHerstory Archives


An integral part of the collection from its beginning, thesubject files were conceived as a one-stop research center, the place where thevisitor would get a sense of the possibilities of her topic. This sense of thematerials richness was both an archival goal and a cultural one. Our patronsoften came to us frustrated by the paucity of information in other researchcenters, a scarcity that often reflected the secrecy and shame that marked ourlives for much of the first part of the twentieth century. Running along onewall of the apartment were five cabinets filled with acid-free files on everytopic of interest to lesbians, feminists, and queers. The creation of thesubject file names was and continues to be an ongoing cultural project; newfiles are constantly being added as subjects emerge within this national andinternational discourse on gender and society. Our material on gender as of theearly 2000s includes the rich heritage of transmen and women.


This project was the first to undertake naming the subjectsof our past and present lives. Because of the varied background of thecoordinators, many streams of the modern lesbian experience are represented inour subject headings. For the first time in library or archival history, femand butch are subject headings, as are lesbian separatism, S&M, andland (lesbian collectives living on the land). Because we were the first tocodify lesbian experience in this way, we sent out our evolving subject filesheadings to other groups undertaking this same task. Our namings did not remainfixed; often, they would be revised as new ideas surfaced. For instance, thefiles on women of color went from black to African American to African-AncestralLesbians. Thus even the namings reflect an ongoing historical discussion. Ourunderstanding was that the word lesbian should be understood before eachsubject, so, for instance, the subject adoption should be read as lesbiansand adoption.


Though the actual filing began in 1973, the material in thefiles ranges back through the past. We soon began including photocopiedchapters from books and journals, flyers and announcements, and treatises tothe original newspaper clippings. Because they have been compiled for overthirty years, the files provide layered discussions of topics, moving back andforth between decades, revealing contradictions and on-going connections. Forinstance, the files on family include the first Protection of the Family Actsin this country, the redefinition of family of the 1980s and 1990s, and newconcerns about family in the early 2000s.


Some of the files played a part in changing the history forwhich they are named. For instance, one of the hotly contested topics of the1970s was lesbian mothers. We did our best to collect all the legal briefs onthis subject, and soon lawyers were consulting the Archives for casepreparations. Our holdings were so large, the files spilled over into boxes, asituation that applied to other very active files, such as those on religion,feminism, womens liberation movement, publishers, and music. In the early1990s, when Lee Hudson made a film to sensitize the New York police to violenceagainst lesbians and gay men, she used images and texts from our files onhomophobia. The subject files on the 1970s womens liberation movement are ahistory of the time, with many rare broadsheets and publications, evenhandwritten notes from some of the many organizational meetings that took placearound the country. The documents pertaining to the history of the womensmovement and gay liberation are also in these files.


The history files include material ranging from the Greekclassics to the first years of the twenty-first century. The McCarthy period, aseparate file, tracks the early homophile movement. Arranged by decades, thehistory files show how lesbians and transgendered people are re-imagined andre-marketed in the American social imagination.


The more than 1,700subject files encompass diverse, wide-ranging topics: political activism,health and illness, cultural expressions, Anita Bryant, the sex wars, aging,passing women, reproductive rights, bisexuality, bars, lesbians in prison andthe military, and quirky byways like lesbian gardeners. As a whole, theArchives represent different discourses about a peoples movement andillustrate how people can live and learn together. The subject files present avision of history that is in effect a conversation about possibilities, lineages,and fertile contradictions.


Joan Nestle
Co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives





Echols, Alice. Daring to BeBad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis, MN:University of Minnesota Press, 1989.



Editorial Note


Files from the Lesbian HerstoryArchives Subject Files, from the holdings of the Lesbian HerstoryArchives/Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, are published in alphabeticalorder in six parts with the following folder ranges:

Part 1, Abortion Braille
Part 2, Breasts Fem
Part 3, Feminism International Lesbian Movement
Part 4, International Womens Movement Peace Camps
Part 5, Peace Corps Speakers Bureau
Part 6, Spinsters Youth


Organizationand Format

The Lesbian Herstory Archives Subject Files offer a wealthof information on all aspects of lesbian life, communities, and activism fromthe 1950s through the present. The collections chronological focus is on the1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, although there are important documents related toearlier periods, including materials on pre-Stonewall lesbian life and evenearlier periods. The majority of the collection consists of ephemeral materialsthat are hard to find in published form. The collection is particularly rich inmaterials documenting the experience of lesbian women in a number of ethniccommunities.


Selection Process


The selection of materials for the microform edition of theLesbian Herstory Archives Subject Files was based on several criteria:


Relevancy:microfilm collection comprises selected materials from the subject files of theLesbian Herstory Archives. Selections emphasize the relevance of the materialto the history of lesbian life, communities, and activism in America.


Rarity: Some printed materials, such as commonly heldnewspaper articles, were excluded because they can be found in many libraries.Materials available without charge to the public on an organizations websitewere also excluded.


Research Needs: Certain materials were notmicrofilmed largely because of their relatively low priority with respect toresearch needs. Examples of such materials include multiple fund-raisingsolicitations, which had been collected as part of the materials from aparticular organization.


Privacy: Some materials could not be microfilmed forreasons of confidentiality. In the interest of protecting the privacy ofindividuals, a concerted effort was made to exclude records that containedpeoples home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, or personalfinancial information. Personal letters and private emails were excluded unlessapproved by the Lesbian Herstory Archives.


Noticeof Unfilmed Materials


Materials excluded from themicrofilm edition are noted in the entry for the file in which they are housed.These materials are available to researchers who use the collection on site atthe Lesbian Herstory Archives. Files excluded in their entirety are not listedin this collection guide. These materials are also available to researchers whouse the collection on site at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.