From 2005, here's an interview with me about my FAKE! Series. Taped in Burlington, Vermont by Paul Larson at Mountain Lake PBS.
This interview was originally done on video, and after they had rebroadcast it several times over the years, the station switched to digital. The video went into the Mountain Lake PBS archives until Paul had it transferred to digital and posted it on youTube again. I'm so glad.
Take a clue from Nancy Drew. Get out there and be adventurous, follow leads, solve crime, help people, be best friends with a girl named George, drive a roadster, be smarter than your lawyer father, don't let anyone stop you, and every once in a while, stop for a nice luncheon.
The Museum of Modern Art has a major exhibition called "Is Fashion Modern?" Part of the exhibtion covers t-shirts.
Coordinating with the exhibition, the museum publishes ablog with some wonderful articles. I'm honored that they wanted to know the backstory of my photograph of Alix Dobkin wearing "the future is female" shirt from Labyris Books. Please read the actual blog...it's got some great essays. I've reprinted mine here.
The story behind the The Future Is Female graphic T-shirt is well known, both within feminists circles and outside them. In 2015, the Lesbian history Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y posted a photo of folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing a T-shirt with the logo in 1975, a piece of merchandise from Labyris Books, New York City’s first women’s bookstore. Soon after, the owners of Los Angeles–based boutique Otherwild approached Liza Cowan — the photographer and Dobkin’s then partner — requesting permission to reproduce the T-shirt. The garment and logo have since become an enduring symbol, worn by celebrities and civilians alike. It has also sparked numerous debates about the binary nature of gender and about the necessity for more inclusive discourses in mainstream feminism.
The story of the groundbreaking project that gave birth to the famous photograph is less known, however. As an artist working in the context of separatist Lesbian politics, Cowan was interested in the semiotic power of fashion to communicate identity. Years before costume and dress gained academic validation, Cowan developed a photo essay called “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” an exploration of Lesbian dress and its role in the construction of identity. As part of our research for item #044 on the Items: Is Fashion Modern? checklist, the Graphic T-shirt, we spoke with Cowan about the project, the political implications of Lesbian dress, and the proliferation of identity-proclaiming merchandise.
You first published your photo series “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear” in COWRIE Lesbian Feminist magazine. Can you talk a little more about what prompted you to work on this and the context in which it was developed?
COWRIE was a small magazine I started in 1972, originally as the newsletter of a women’s group on the Upper East Side of New York City. The group was called Community of Women, and our goal, unachieved, was to start a women’s center to serve the women in the neighborhood. By the third issue, in June 1973, the group had disbanded, but my editorial partner and I decided to continue publishing the newsletter as a magazine for Lesbians, renamed COWRIE Lesbian Feminist.
I had been observing how the women in the Lesbian community — as we called it then — were dressing. In 1972 I was inspired by a wonderful article in Rags Magazine, edited by Mary Peacock and Daphne Davis, called “What Gay Women Wear.”
I began to ask questions about clothing, both to myself and to my friends. I had just come out the year before, at age 21, and had started to dress like my Lesbian peers. I wanted to know why we dressed as we did, and what were the social and political implications. Mind you, this was decades before fashion, or even culture theory, was considered worthy of study as an academic discipline. In those days it was considered trivial, and I was often ridiculed for being interested in fashion. I knew it wasn’t trivial, and I knew that clothing carried a message. I wanted to decipher it.
In the seven-part series, I covered general observations, history of Lesbian clothing — including ancient Amazons — and contemporary lesbian clothing designers, hair, and shoes. In every one, I was trying to decipher the political and social consequences and meanings of our clothing choices.
My main theory, I suppose, was that contemporary Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, as we were constantly accused of trying to do, but we wanted to look like Lesbians — women-loving women — to invoke the styles of at least some of our foremothers. We wanted to honor our history and to wear clothes that would signal our identity to other Lesbians.
Why did our foremothers, some of them, dress in men’s clothing? Because of the power and freedom that men’s clothing both symbolized and allowed. Through the ages men have dressed for freedom, for comfort, and for power. Women have been forced to dress as second-class citizens and sexual objects. From hobble-skirts to corsets, from stiletto heels to beehives, our clothing has confined and constricted us. Lesbians didn’t want to look like men, they wanted to be free — free to move, free to play, free to run, free to work, free to catch the eye of other women, and free to mark themselves as off-limits to men.
Clothing — in addition to being necessary, sometimes fun, and always interesting — is about power and class. It always has been. Clothing is deeply symbolic. That is my interest. Writing about clothing was always an intellectual pursuit. I was not interested, or able, to tell women what to wear or where to shop, or what accessories to buy. I wanted to explore the meaning.
“The discussion I had with my friend [who had asked me why I wanted to look “dykey”] made me start thinking about the Lesbian Look. What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. And why. I knew we look different from straight women. Is it a clothing style? A hair style? The movement Lesbians that I know, the community that shows up at conferences, women’s dances etc. all tend to dress similarly: comfortable clothes, T shirts, sturdy footwear, hair cut short, tied back, or loose au naturel. Women wear put-together suits, and blazers are always popular. But many of the women that go to bars (at least on weekends) wear outfits straight from Glamour magazine: platform shoes, tube tops, baubles, crimson mouths and plucked eyebrows. These clothes carry quite a different message.”
— Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973
“The clothes I wear help me to know my own power. So does being a Lesbian. I love the way I look. I love the way other lesbians look. I’m learning to rid myself of all straight patriarchal values and build my own world. So it’s a combination of clothes and attitude that make a woman identifiable as a lesbian”
— Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, Vol. 1 #3, June 1973
In 1975, along with my childhood friend Penny House, I started another magazine called DYKE: A Quarterly. The “What the Well Dressed Dyke” series continued there, but only for one issue. Our inaugural flyer for the magazine has become somewhat famous now, and exemplifies that Dyke look I had been describing in my articles. Decades later, in 2016, the flyer was featured in the book Gay Gotham, by Donald Albrecht and Stephan Vider, who curated the Gay Gotham exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
Penny House and I had read fashion magazines ever since we were young girls. We both came from upper-middle-class families in New York City, where fashion — and the fashion industry — was part of the air we breathed. We had one school chum who had moved to England and became one of the world’s first supermodels in the ’60s, and we also had other friends whose parents were photographers, fashion editors, or were featured in magazines like Vogue,Harper’s Bazaar, and the like. We thought it would be amusing to do a photoshoot of Dykes as a fashion image. Dykes — the famously “ugly” and badly dressed. We found a Lesbian photographer who had access to a fashion photography studio. Her dad owned it and she was one of his assistants.
Penny and I gathered a couple of women to join us in the shoot, including Alix Dobkin as well as Penny’s modelesque friend Val. The photographer’s girlfriend was also in the shoot. Alix and I were wearing jeans. I had just shaved my head and was wearing a bandana and a blue work shirt, the kind I’d loved since I was a “folkie” teen. Blue work shirts were emblematic of ’60s folkies, as were bandanas. Laborers’ outfits, appropriated by middle-class kids, had become trendy again within a subcategory of Dykes who had grown up as Beats and folkies. Penny, Alix, and I are wore vests. Alix and Penny’s were traditional, woolen “men’s” vests, which we used to buy at thrift stores. Mine was blue cotton with tiny white flowers on it, a kind of a vestigial hippy item. Val had on gorgeous tall leather boots with a folded-over top. Alix and I were wearing workmen’s boots and shoes, another leftie/folkie appropriation that was quite popular among Lesbians. Debbie and Penny seem to be wearing Frye boots, which were all the rage.
More than anything, though, it is our posture that says, “We’re Dykes!” Ladies just did not stand like that; hands on hips, standing squarely on two feet, balanced and ready, staring straight at the camera with no smiles. It would never be unusual to see a group of men with this body language, but a group of women? Highly unusual, and only could be read as Lesbian.
It was around this time, 1974 and 1975, that Alix Dobkin and I were contacted to do presentations at an event in California called The Lesbian History Exploration. I decided to make my series into a slide show. One of the photos I used was an image I took of Alix wearing The Future Is Female T-shirt from our friends at Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City.
In the series, you explore what you call Lesbian “archetypes,” like the Amazons, but you also discuss certain stereotypes like “haute Dykes.” What was your research process like?
I prepared for the slideshow by taking photos of images in books of Lesbians from a particular era of Lesbian history, mostly American and British expats living in Paris — women like Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Margaret Anderson, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Sylvia Beach, Alice B. Toklas, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Renée Vivien, and more. I relied heavily on photos taken by the legendary Lesbian photographer Berenice Abbott. These women had recently earned legendary stature among my Lesbian friends and colleagues.
Then I took photos of contemporary Lesbians, mainly in New York City. I created the categories of fashion expression, “DYKE Schlepp” and “DYKE Finery,” and set about going to every event I could find at the time. For a couple of months I went to many events for Lesbians including dances, workshops, conferences, networking gatherings, concerts, and even a fashion show by Lesbian clothing designer Morgan Zale, whom I had interviewed for COWRIE. I went looking for what women were wearing, and asking permission to photograph them. In that era, there were many such events every month in New York City. I did not go to bars, mostly because the lighting would be terrible.
DYKE Schlep was, as it sounds, our everyday clothing: jeans and T-shirts, pea coats, work boots, denim overalls, sneakers, and Frye boots. Pretty much an up-cycled workman/folkie look. DYKE Finery included the outfits we wore to mostly evening events: jeans, suspenders, blazers, Frye boots, wingtip shoes, and the occasional fedora or tie. The difference between Schlepp and Finery was not huge, as I recall.
There was a section on hair. We tended to wear our hair short, sometimes the very bold shaved their heads. I did it once, just to see what it was like, and so I could document it for the slide show. I also included categories of lesbian accessories, like feminist/lesbian political buttons, which everyone wore, and the ever-present bandana/kerchief, which was tied in many different ways. As I travelled around the country, I continued to add slides and would include them in subsequent presentations around the US.
The last section of the show was about the style evolution of a few Lesbian friends, showing how their looks had changed as they went from girlhood to adulthood. I made slides from the photos in their photo albums and then photographed the women as they were at the time I was putting together the presentation. Most had gone through a period of being heterosexual, which made the whole thing both interesting and hilarious to my audiences. I think only one woman had been a Dyke her whole life, but even she had a marriage of “convenience,” which she had documented and was in the show.
In addition to my live photoshoots, I also did a number of interviews for the COWRIE series. I spent a wonderful afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Stella Blum, who was at that time the curator of their fashion/clothing department. I also tried to interview Dietrich Felix von Bothmer, curator of Greek antiquities at the Met when I was researching Amazon clothing. He scoffed at me and told me he would not do my “homework.”
“h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y” and Otherwild took inspiration from your photograph of Alix Dobkin for their first collaborative clothing collection, which gave rise to many Lesbian-history-inspired garments. What are your thoughts on the growing availability of queer identity-proclaiming garments and their popularity? What is the biggest change that you see when you compare this context to the radical Lesbian one in which you came of age?
I don’t know why garments with slogans are popular in general. I never wear shirts with slogans, no matter how much I agree with them. I never have. I don’t enjoy being a walking billboard, and I find it odd that so many women do. The only one in my household who wears slogan shirts is the Rootstein mannequin who lives in my dining room. She likes when people stare at her — it’s her job. If I were going to wear one, I’d wear the T-shirt from Old Lesbians Organizing for Change that says, in simple block letters, “This is what an old Lesbian looks like.” It’s an inspiring message, it’s a fundraiser for a great organization, and it would be really hard to appropriate it.
However, the fact remains that these shirts are now big business. There were plenty of feminist and Lesbian T-shirts, of course, during the 1970s. Enough that DYKE: A Quarterly was planning for a theme-based issue on Lesbian Media, including T-shirts and buttons. But most of the T-shirts of that era were decorated with slogans and symbols from women’s groups, events, or places. Bars, conferences, sports teams, political groups and actions, etc. had their shirts. They were popular, and they were a great way to fundraise. T-shirts commemorated a place, an event, a group, but usually not a free-floating idea. Even the original The Future Is Female T-shirt had the name of Labyris Books on the back.
The point of buying these shirts was to support the places, the women, or events that created them. Sometimes the shirt was a medium for communicating a political action or “zap,” like the day in 1970 when a group of radical Lesbians occupied the stage at a meeting of the Second Congress to Unite Women wearing “Lavender Menace” T-shirts, protesting the exclusion of Lesbians and Lesbian issues from the feminist movement.That was a defining moment in lesbian history, made more powerful by the shirts themselves. This was not T-shirt as commodity. The action and the shirt are entangled.
T-shirts also acted as a way to signal other women. Wearing a T-shirt that said “Amazon Expedition,” for example, was a cue to let other women know that you’d been at that wonderful event, and the word “Amazon” let other women know that you were probably a Lesbian without actually broadcasting a message to everyone.
It was not hard to find T-shirts that included words like “Lesbian” or “Amazon” or “Sister” commemorating a march or an event, if you knew where to look, but you’d rarely find a T-shirt without the name of the group that made it, and date of the event. There were, of course, times when you’d see shirts that were just a slogan without a corresponding place or event. One well known photo shows a pair of women wearing shirts, one of which said “femme” and the other “butch,” but I think those shirts were homemade.
The big change came when T-shirts went from being fundraisers, cues, and memorabilia for events or groups to being commodities in themselves. In the past, the only place to buy Lesbian T-shirts, buttons, etc. was at an event, or at a woman’s bookstore. So you were supporting either an event, or a feminist venue, or both. Today, there are only a couple of women’s bookstores in existence. In the past, there were dozens and dozens.
Today, e-commerce and the huge popularity of slogan T-shirts have changed the whole ballgame. Anyone can buy a shirt without ever setting foot into a women’s bookstore or a feminist or Lesbian event. The shirts are are now just free-floating commodities. When you see someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Feminist” or “Love wins,” it does not reference a particular event, group, or even timeframe. It’s just something you bought.
DYKE, A Quarterly, back cover, Lesbian t-shrits. Photo by Irene Young
I love when people say “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” That’s all you need to know. Sure, the more you know about art history, art theory etc. the deeper your appreciation will be, but when you are buying art for your own home, your number one priority is to buy something that you like, something that makes you happy, something that pleases you.
I ran an art gallery for five years, and the worst customer was the art snob. The best customer was the one who stopped in front of a piece of art, caught their breath, and said, “I love this!” If your heart leaps when you see something, that’s your cue.
Other than that…here are some things to consider.
You can approach this as finding a piece of work to fit into a particular space. Empty wall above the couch? You can fill it with one large statement piece, or lots of smaller pieces grouped together. Your choice. It’s usually not a good idea to have just one or two small pieces randomly placed in a large space. Each piece should be placed with purpose. This is true of everything you put into your house.
Don’t know where to start? You can buy art to match your curtains or fabric on your chair, as long as you love those colors. I think this is a great idea, but don’t tell art snobs you did this unless you are prepared for a look of condescension. If you don’t love the colors, don’t buy anything else that uses them. Please.
I remember decades ago I had a bedspread that I adored. It made me so happy to look at it. When i decided to paint the walls of my bedroom, I matched the predominant color in the spread. It was a deep, deep blue. I never would have thought to color my walls such a deep color but I was ready to experiment and it was wonderful. The people who make fabrics are generally very knowledgeable, and it’s fine to follow their lead.
You probably know which colors resonate for you. If not, spend some time looking a the colors in nature, in photos, on fabric, on pinterest, on your clothing, in magazines, and take note of how you are responding. If you feel happy when you look at those colors, those are the ones to go for. If you want to go the extra mile, make a color board. I like to use pinterest, but you could tear out photos in magazines and keep them in a file. See if you keep liking them.
Some people love horses. Others love rusty old boats. Some people love to look at pictures of children, or of grandpas. You might love seascapes, or you might love old portraits. Maybe you love old woodcuts, or brand new shiny abstracts. When you are starting an art collection, you might think about collecting based on themes. You probably won’t stick to one theme, but it’s a place to start. You could have several vintage nursery rhyme prints all framed the same and hung in a group for a wonderful and inspiring wall.
Think of collecting art as a treasure hunt, and always be on the lookout for images of poodles, or boats, or rocket ships. You’ll have fun, and probably end up with a fantastic collection that not only resonates for you, but is also engaging for others to look at.
There may be one or two artists whose work you love. Even very famous and pricey artists usually are reproduced on posters, or open edition prints. Newer artists work is often affordable. If you love an artist, think about collecting their work. Go to local art fairs and craft shows. Go to open studios and art walks. Talk to the artists. You could think about buying one piece a year, for instance. There was one local artist whose work I liked a lot. She made very small paintings of chickens. I thought they were charming. I visited her studio every year during a regional art tour and bought one or two paintings per year. They were only about $25 apiece, but after four years, I had a nice little collection.
I had an obsession for paint-by-number paintings for a while. Yes, it was for an exhibition at my gallery, and I bought about 75 paintings over a five month period on ebay. That was so much fun. And it was the most popular show I ever ran. It practically sold out. But if you love a particular type of work, go for it with gusto. You don’t have to by 75 paintings. You probably shouldn’t unless you plan to sell them. But if you love black and white photos from the 1940’s, go for it. Or you love engravings of flowers. Or children’s book illustrations. Or you love collage, or manhole cover rubbings. Maybe you think kids art is amazing - I know I do! Or paintings on velvet, if that’s your thing. You like pencil drawings, or, well, you get the picture. Think genre.
You know your own price range. Generally art is not cheap, but it doesn’t have to be super expensive to be good. Original, unique pieces will probably be more expensive. Hand made prints, like silkscreens, lithographs, woodcut prints, monoprints, etc can be more expensive, but not necessarily. Some artists like making their work very accessible, which often means affordable. Others do not. It takes a lot of time, practice, and labor to make art. Artists often spend decades learning their craft, and should be paid well, but it’s up to you, the buyer, to be mindful of your own budget.
LOVE. Buy what you love! If your heart leaps, that’s the cue.
And keep these things in mind:
Let me know what you think.
PS: Be sure to check out all the art I have for sale at smallequls.com my shop.
PPS: sign up for my mailing list. You may get a fun email someday.
In the ten years I've been doing this blog, you've seen me introduce a host of new products. Some sold well. Others didn't. Running a business is always a process. Or, as the trendies say now, a "journey."
Now I'm introducing mugs. I found a wonderful printer in the US that manufactures and drop ships. That's great for me, because the last thing I want is shelves full of inventory and trips to the post office. That was fine when I was younger, but now...no thanks. But with all the advances in print technologies and online servicing, it's now relatively easy to do make a great product AND have it delivered to the customer's home in a pretty package, safe and sound.
When Women rule, everyone will be free. 11 oz mug from Small Equals
When Women rule, everyone will be free. This is a variation on a print I designed, first as a silkscreen and then as a digital collage. Now available in mug form. The girls are a highly altered version of a mid 20th century matchbox label. I just adore them, and use them over and over.
Lead Your Own Parade. 11 oz mug from Smallequals.com
Lead Your Own Parade. This little saying popped into my mind a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be a cheerful idea to ponder with morning coffee or tea. I went on an image hunt, I found this illustration at a library digital collection, from a 1902 children's book illustrated by Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars. It suited perfectly.
The Children Of Our Town. Carolyn Wells. Illustrations by E. Mars and MH Squire. 1902
I went ahead and cleaned it up in Photoshop, designed the template for the cup manufacturer, and then set about researching the artists. I found Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire.
Lo and behold the Misses Squire and Mars were American artists who met in art school in Ohio in the 1890's, then moved to Paris where they became pals with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and of course they worked and exhibited with many of the artists there.
During world war one they moved back to the US and lived in Provincetown, MA, then back to France, where they lived in Vence. During Ww2 they hid out in Grenoble, then went back to France until they died in 1955 and 1956.
The Gertrude Stein's word portrait "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene was based on them. .
And now they've landed on my cup. I'm delighted but no longer shocked by these everyday moments of serendipity.
Love Your Mother Earth. 11 oz mug from smallequals.com
Love Your Mother Earth. Yes, I use this phrase often in my art and products. Because it's so important! This design is based on another print I made as a silkscreen. The silkscreen design was based on a photo I took of a package of Easter Jelly Beans. I'm not a Christian, but Easter packaging always makes me happy. The colors!!
This digital version, quite different from the original, is now gracing a mug. My goal is to give you something happy and positive to absorb with your hot beverage of choice. I think it's so important to start the day with happy thoughts to set the tone for the rest of the day.
Here's what it looked like as a silkscreen. I made this and all my silkscreens at Iskra Print Collective in Burlington, VT.
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.
Berkshire Conference on The History of Women. Liza Cowan 1990
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 Womenas 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.
Technologies change. I like to think of this blog as an eternal resource, but that's probably foolish. While it seems that for now online sources have been able to store information while updating their capabilities, who knows what can happen to any given blog, or any types of technologies?
Seesaw the blog becomes seesaw the book
In a recent Facebook conversation on this topic, my friend Andrea Humphrey said this:
"On a class tour of the Schlesinger Library in the 90's, an archivist was showing us boxes of Dorothy West's letters and articles. I suggested that archivists would be relieved when all the archives come to them on space-saving floppies. She said, 'quite the opposite. the technology required for humans to read hard copies will never change," but with the fast high tech innovation cycles and also the ways in which digital archives on discs disintegrate compared to on paper, they were dreading the enormous loss of important historical artifacts that can now occur before we even know whether they are important."
The technology required for humans to read hard copies will never change.
I love that! And how nice it is to hold a book in your hands. The reading experience is so different. And how much easier for a brick and mortar archive to put an actual book on the shelf. So now the born-digital posts I've written are in a book. Just one copy, for now, for my own archive. In the future, we'll see. It will probably end up at The Schlesinger Library, too.
Seesaw blog becomes seesaw book. Photo of Dr. Dorothy I Height, article about Wednesdays In Mississippi
If you blog, you might want to try this. I used a service called Into Real Pages. Very easy to use. There are others. It was not inexpensive, but the result is priceless.
Poor Pitiful Pearl refrigerator magnet from Small Equals
My 2009 post about the doll Poor Pitiful Pearl has been one of the most popular of all my posts. This classic doll, designed in 1958 by author, illustrator William Steig, rests in the memory banks of so many people. I used to keep this Pearl in my gallery, Pine Street Art Works, and I can't tell you how many women of a certain age used to pick her up and tell me stories about their special Pearls. Kids loved her too.
Now I've made a magnet of my Portrait Of Pearl. I think you might enjoy it. Available at my etsy shop or at smallequals.com
I have always believed that beautiful things need not be expensive. In fact, I prefer the things I make to be available for not that much money. Sure, sometimes I've put a large price tag on some of my work that is one-of-a-kind like the paintings in my FAKE!™ series. But for the most part, I prefer to make things affordable.
My new buttons, a series of 12, is pretty cool. I like adornment, a lot, so these buttons are purely decorative. And, following my FAKE!™ aesthetic, some are made to fool the eye. They are not REALLY set into a silver bezel, they just look that way.
Parrot button in silver bezel ,small equals, liza cowan design
The watches don't REALLY tell time. They just look like they do.
Regular readers of this blog will know of my interest in Retail Theater.
Now from Design*Sponge (one of my favorite blogs) comes this story about the Los Angeles store, Otherwild, and its owner, Rachel Berks. Not only does this give us a glimpse of the process of owning and managing a small shop, a topic which resonates greatly for me, as a former shop owner and manager, but also the piece discusses Otherwild's best selling item, THE FUTURE IS FEMALE t-shirt.
You may know by now that I had a part in the creation of this shirt, and the button. And you probably know how my brains are near bursting with the wild popularity of this shirt, 40 years after Alix Dobkin and I made the photo that it was based on.
The editor of Vermont's premiere weekly newspaper, SevenDaysVt, follows me on Pinterest, and decided that a feature about my DIY home tips would be of interest to the paper's readers. This is from their quarterly special insert on homes, Nest.
Regular readers of this blog will find some of these images familiar. I've posted them here on the blog, as well as on Pinterest and Flickr.
Home Eclectic Home, Liza Cowan DIY home decor tips
I've been busy making digital collages, mostly using a combination of my own photographs and images from vintage Kodak ads, vintage sewing pattern packets, and old ads or images of 19th century ladies in swimming costumes and bicycles. Finding the images is just the first step.
I separate the people from the background using Photoshop, which can be tedious, but once I have them done, I save them as PNG files and they are ready to go for the next collage. For the Greenhouse picture I ran my original photo through the Waterlogue app on my iPhone. I do most of my actual design and composing using PicMonkey because it's much easier than Photoshop for this kind of work. For me, anyway.
Advertising is a powerful force for propaganda. Just after World War One, fledgling press agent Edward Bernays returned from The Paris Peace Talks, where he had helped President Woodrow Wilson coin and promote the phrase "Making the world safe for Democracy. Upon his return, he decided to bring his ideas on Mass Persuasion to commerce and then to the US Government. He realized that the term "propaganda" had a negative connotation after the war, so he coined the phrase "Public Relations" and he and his ideas changed the world forever. source
My instagram widget. Kodak girl, early 29th Century.
There is some redundancy between this blog, my instagram feed, my pinterest boards, and my flickr sets. They are all such fun, and I'm hoping they will be good for preserving the archive, at least until the technology changes again, as it does.
I like to brighten up the short, dark, days of Winter by placing shiny reflective objects around the house. The twinkle of reflected light does wonders to lift the spirit of the room.
There are lots of great, inexpensive knock offs of silver, mercury glass and mirrored things in circulation right now, so keep an eye out. I found this container at Home Goods, for a song. I'm not sure what's its intended use would be, but I was looking for a shiny silver container for my paperwhites, and this is perfect. And it was cheap!