Berkshire Conference On The History Of Women: Reclaiming The Future, by Liza Cowan, Windy City Times, 1990
May 31, 2017
I wrote the following article in 1990 about two trips I made to The Berkshire Conference on The History of Women, one in 1987 and one in 1990. In it I point out the differences I saw in the two conferences, and my different responses to them, in the pivotal time when Second Wave Feminism was waning and what we now loosely call Third Wave Feminism was on the rise.
I offer it to you at this moment without annotation or commentary, except to add that after I wrote this article, I went to college and graduate school, and got a Masters Degree in Anthropology, focussing on 19th Century Medicine.
Windy City Times
Thursday, June 28, 1990
Three years ago, in June of 1987, The Seventh Berkshire Conference on the History of Women helped save my life by giving me a collective historical past. This year’s Berks left me nervous that academic historians were going to revise my personal/political history beyond my recognition.
Five months before the ’87 Berks, I had taken the drug Ecstasy and plunged into a state of constant terror. I had enjoyed the drug several times with no bad effects, but this time while I was tripping a cynical and uninformed friend told me that in five years everybody would be dead from AIDS. My mind, in its chemically altered and vulnerable state, believed her literally. My stomach went cold and knotty, darkness closed in on my internal visual field. I took myself home and tried every psychological trick I knew to change my subjective reality. I couldn’t. And as the days passed, it got worse.
It wasn’t just my personal health that scared me. Sure, I was afraid of getting sick and dying. But the worst part for me was believing that there would be no people in the future. The memory of all our generations since the beginning of our species would disappear - forever.
On a more personal note there would be no one to remember me, Liza. I had decided when I was 15 years old that I didn’t want to be famous, but I did want to be a legend, and I had structured my life’s work to that end. The word “legend” implies that there will be someone in the future to know about you. Legend implies future. I now believed there would be none. The future was blank. I was stuck in a terror-filled present. At the ’87 Berks, I found my path to healing through the past.
I am not a historian; I have no academic training at all. The closest I ever came to doing history was when I presented a slide show, “What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear, 1900-1976” at the Lesbian History Exploration, a grass-roots lesbian history conference held in California in 1976. My sister, Holly Cowan Shulman, is a historian, and had been been invited to read a paper at the ’87 Berks on “The Image Of Women Presented Over The Voice Of America 1942-1945.” She asked me to go with her; she knows history, I know women
I found tons of dykes at the Berks, some old friends, many women I didn’t know. I’d say there were several hundred visible/identified lesbians, many more woven throughout the conference. Every session featured at least one lesbian presentation. Joan Schwarz from The Lesbian Herstory Archives charmed us with her slide show on lesbians in Greenwich Village. Del Martin, Phyllis Lyons and Barbara Gittings presented an oral history of The Daughters of Bilitis. Two lesbians came from abroad to discuss “The Transition to Modern Lesbianism in Denmark and Holland.” Dykes packed the hall to hear about “Love and Friendship in the Lesbian Bar Communities in the 1950’s and ’60’s.” In a hot crowded room, we sweated through Tee Corrinne and Flavia Rando’s slide show on Lesbian Art from 1905-1930.” (Lesbians were not given the most luxurious or spacious accommodations.)
Halfway through the conference, I remembered the summer when I was 10 years old and my mother and older brother took me to the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, a vast place with many varied food stalls. My mom gave me some money and set me off on my own to explore and have lunch. When we regrouped she asked me what I had eaten. “A hot dog,” I told her. She couldn’t believe it. With all the different and new foods available, I’d eaten a hot dog!? Why hadn’t I tried something I’d never had before, she asked, and marched me off to find new taste thrills.
As much as I love lesbians (and hot dogs) I decided that since I already knew a lot about the lesbian subjects that were being offered, I should take advantage of the opportunity to explore areas I knew little about.
I learned from Sarah McMahon of Bodoin College about “The Indescribable Care Devolving Upon a Housewife: The Preparation and Consumption of Food on the Midwestern Frontier, 1800-1860. She compared recollections in women’s, mens and children’s journals from that time. Sally McMurry’s paper on “Women Cheesemakers in Oneida County, New York, 1830-1870” sent me back in time in my imagination to a rural area I had actually lived near. Lori Ann Keen taught me about “The Role of Afro-American Women as Innovators in the Fashion and Cosmetic Industries in the 1920’s,” and my all-time favorite, the one that moves me still, Marilyn Ferris Motz’s paper on “Lucy Keeler: Home and Garden as Metaphor.”
This was what I had wanted all my school years - to know about how women lived. I never cared about wars or presidents or any of that stuff of which man’s history was made. but it touched me profoundly that someone would write her PhD dissertation on the flower garden of a middle-aged spinster in the suburban Midwest at the turn of the century, that designing and maintaining a personal garden, feeding a pioneer family, or the life of a lesbian bar community was as worthy of analysis as, say, founding a railroad, or maintaining a career in Congress. Years before I heard this paper, I was impressed by Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens” in which she wrote, “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”
The weekend’s revelations revelations suddenly made the past bloom for me. By hearing these papers I regained, as Anne Of Green Gables might say, Scope For The Imagination. In this blossoming the intimate garden of women’s lives, with its twisty paths and shaded groves of leafy rich details, my mind had a place to go to heal.
Through the past, I eventually regained an image of time that included the future, an image that had disappeared during my five-month drug abyss. (The process of healing from Ecstasy Hell was more complex than I have gone into here. It took a year and a half to fully recover. Please, even if you’ve taken Ecstasy in the past and its been fine, don’t do it again If you've never done it don’t.) My life went on, but the Berks held a special place in my heart. Three years later, when it was held again, I was eager to go.
Looking through the 1990 program I didn’t see very many of the intimate garden-type papers I’d enjoyed so much the last time, so I decided to concentrate on the lesbians, check out what was happening in the field of lesbian history.
The conference was far too vast and complex for me to report on as a whole. Even keeping tabs on all the lesbian activities was too much. My experience was quite different this time, knowing I was there to write about the conference. I was far more attuned to the issues and controversies than I had been last time when I was there for my own amusement and healing.
Lesbian accessibility and visibility are ongoing issues at the Berks. It took true dyke devotion for several hundred of us to hike over to the Lesbian Reception since at the last minute the venue was changed to a gym that was so far away from the main events that it was off the college map. A truly marginalizing experience.
A Friday evening roundtable discussion “Documenting Third World Lesbian Communities” was bumped from its original location by the last minute scheduling of a talk by Kate Millet. Juanita Ramos and June Chen carried on, and both did excellent presentations, despite being put into a room with inadequate audio-visual equipment. It was a sleight that could not be overlooked. The Lesbian Caucus decided to go to the Sunday Berks business meeting, where it was decided that these issues would be put onto the agenda for the next Berks planning meeting.
Most of the papers and presentations were given by academics. My overall impression was that the papers were much more abstract than last time, filled with the trendy jargon of deconstructionism. I wished they’d spoken English. I was both bored and annoyed by the rapid-fired droning reading styles of many of the presenters, and I found it very hard to take notes.
None of the papers I heard thrilled me the way those few had at the last Berks. I enjoyed some. The paper on the “Radical Women of Heterodoxy” inspired me to consider doing biographical research. But when I look back at my experience of the Berks, I see that my focus is concentrated on two panels. I thought about them more than any others, both during the conference and afterward.
On a hot, muggy Saturday afternoon I went to a panel discussion called, “Will The Real Lesbian Please Stand Up? Questions of theory and Method in Current Historical Research.” Becki Ross, dressed in a black leather jacket, miniskirt and bright red lipstick, read her paper on the “Social Organization of Lesbians in Toronto, 1976 - 1980.” She was talking about LOOT, a Toronto lesbian group. I was having a little trouble following the details because I was trying to remember if they were the Toronto lesbians I had had a big fight with in 1977. (I checked some correspondence when I got home and found out they were, which made it ironic that the more Becki went on about them, the more I identified with them.) She had done interviews with some of the women involved in the LOOT social space and her main point, I think, was that this lesbian community was repressive. They insisted on a conformity of thought and dress - the dress being drab flannel shirts and workboots, the thought being that women-only space was a radical act on its own. Sex work and gay male issues were not represented. As I listened, I began to feel uncomfortable. It had occurred to me that Becki had some agenda, some point of view that she was not expressing overtly, but that she was weaving into the paper. Something about how these lesbians were repressive. Was there a sexual theme to her analysis?
I was a lesbian-separatist activist in the ’70’s. I believed that women-only space was a radical idea. I still do. As I sat listening to Becki, I thought, “She doesn’t understand what we were doing. I don’t think she respects these women she’s talking about.” It was hard to remember that she wasn’t talking about me.
I think it’s too soon to analyze what happened 10 to 15 years ago and to declare it history. We don’t have enough distance on the time, enough perspective. Everything from 15 years ago appears weird. Look at the clothes, hairstyles, furniture. Now they just look stupid. Soon they will look interesting, and later they will be retro-stylish, like things from the 1950’s are now. Fifteen years later is the time to tell stories, ask questions, get oral histories, collect pictures, begin to put the pieces together. But it’s not time to analyze.
When Becki was finished, Julia Creet from the University of California-Santa Cruz read her comments on the papers. She mentioned “sex radicals” and (I wrote this down) “the sexual repression of lesbians in the 1970’s." When it was time for questions I raised my hand. I said I felt like I’d been living on Mars instead of New York City, but I didn’t know what a “sex radical” was. I didn’t think that lesbians of the ’70’s were sexually repressive and, if we were, I’d like to know how. I was afraid that what they meant by repressive was someone who, like me, had an unfavorable analysis of sado-masochism.
I literally didn’t understand Julia’s answer. I don’t think she ever defined “sex radical” or said how the lesbians of the ’70’s were repressive. I didn’t want to turn it into a dialog so I shut up. But I was uncomfortable. Was “sex radical” about sado-masochism? Could it means something about butch-femme? Transsexuals? I strained my imagination to figure out what it could mean. How come I didn’t know the term, and why could they not explain it to me? If their analysis of of the lesbians of the ’70’s was formed by a “sex radical” perspective as I had a hunch it was, I wanted to know what “sex radical” meant. I never found out.
At another presentation, on another day, I was intrigued by the ideas of naming and self-concept. Lisa Duggan, in her paper on female cross-dressing and the “mannish lesbian” of the late 19th century, told the story of a famous murder case from the 1890’s, in which a young woman killed her lover rather than live without her. Almost as an aside, she spoke about women struggling to create themselves. She insisted that it’s too early to look for “lesbians” in the 1870’s or 1880’s. In this deconstructionist analysis even women who were sexually active with women, women involved in passionate friendships, even passing women, did not have an inner knowing of themselves as “a kind of person with subjectivity of self.” (I think she meant a sense of self as agent, perceiver, active player, rather than object.) A lesbian identity is created, she said. The “mannish woman” at the turn of the century pioneered lesbian subjectivity because her self-presentation took her outside of the female world.
I wonder if we are only lesbian if we have a word for it. Do women loving women in other cultures/times have “subjectivity?” And does that matter. What did they call themselves, and how did they conceive of their love for other women? What should we call women who loved women but didn’t call it anything? Should we give them a different name? Names? How do we discuss them with each other?
I will probably continue to call these women lesbians, but I enjoy thinking about the idea of self-description and and how it changes over time. I wonder how the concept we now call “lesbian” will evolve. I speculate that we are only beginning to be able to know how vast, how powerful, women-centered life can be. And that’s truly Scope For The Imagination.