(Originally published in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, “Radical,” Issue 17, Fall 2015.)
Queer doesn’t describe the serendipitous lesbian-feminist world opening up in the nineteen seventies in the Oakland-Berkeley-San Francisco-Bay Area at this precipitous time. As luck and lesbian fortune would have it, I discovered myself as a twenty-something girl-turning-woman-turning-hippie-turning-radical-turning-feminist-turning-lesbian-feminist-turning-lesbiansocialist-feminist. And what better place in all the world to do this than in the turbulent, transformative, revolutionary, radical West Coast, Northern California Bay Area.
We were women, lesbians, women-loving-women, gay women and dykes. No one I knew at the time used queer to identify ourselves. Queer mostly meant gay men or homosexuals. I never ever considered myself a homosexual or even a gay woman. Lesbian always felt right to me.
And if I locate this awakening for me and so many others ripe for exploration, questioning everything, challenging norms, pushing against boundaries and restrictions, witnessing, creating, experimenting, protesting against, opening up as yet unheard of, unrecognized possibilities, dreams, desires–it would have to be the intersection of College and Broadway Avenues in that geographical-political-philosophical location known as North Oakland, on the edges proximate to where Oakland meets the southern expanse of Berkeley. If Berkeley was the centre of radical, anti-establishment politics and hippies and San Francisco was the gay capital of the world with the most gay bars anywhere, then Oakland was the home of the Black Panthers, militant demonstrations, multi-cultural communities with dykes, lots and lots of them. And A Woman’s Place Bookstore was the herstorical catalyst for creating this reputation and cultural renaissance.
I.C.I. A Woman’s Place (I.C.I. stands for Information Center Incorporate) was founded by a collective of smart, bookish, radical, anarchist, activist, imaginative dykes who had been friends, lovers and ex-lovers for years and had worked on a feminist newspaper (It Ain’t Me Babe). It opened on January 18, 1972. At its inception, it was intended to be more than just a bookstore and, as far as I can tell, it was the first anywhere in the world (seriously). I know it was my first, like my first truly passionate full-on womanlover kiss, igniting fireworks in my cunt and other erogenous zones. A Woman’s Place was my first and surpasses all others.
I longed for something more than the usual anti-war, male, socialist-type rhetoric, politics and theories that looked good on paper but, at closer look, had no direct relevance to me or other women’s lives. The bookstore held a key to this dissatisfaction and dissonance and was the locus for these burgeoning women’s liberation-feminist-radical-lesbian movements.
The store was a sliver of space, an actual triangle, like a woman’s vagina, with a mushy, ratty couch at the back and an assortment of falling-apart chairs placed here and there. Everywhere you looked were words and writings: pinned and taped-up leaflets about events, poetry readings, political rallies, support groups, benefit concerts, dances, film showings, speakers panels, classes, teach-ins and conferences; notices seeking and offering housing, rides, dates, skills; listings of jobs, classes, openings of consciousness-raising groups; larger posters publicizing demonstrations, feminist-inspired poems, art, graphics (some of my favourites were “Sisterhood is Powerful” “Lesbians are Everywhere” and “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”); woman-inspired art and crafts; publications (local, regional and national) including magazines and newspapers (Plexus and Off Our Backs), newsletters (Lesbian Connection), journals (Sinister Wisdom, Country Women, Amazon Quarterly and Women: A Journal of Liberation), and pamphlets (Save Joanne Little and Sing a Battle Song: Poetry by Women in the Weather Underground), records (Lesbian Concentrate and Lavender Jane Loves Women), tapes, bumper stickers (Women Pick Up Women), cards and crafts–everything you could imagine political, personal, inter-personal, herstorical, spiritual, sexual. And books, of all kinds, written (exclusively) by women, for women and about women.
These were things you couldn’t get anywhere else–not in regular bookstores and not in libraries. Not that other bookstores in Berkeley and Oakland were paltry. I combed their shelves for treasures of used books and records (called LP’s at the time) mostly for under three dollars (or less). I actually never spent time in libraries. Books and publications I wanted to read were not available there and I hated being enclosed within the glaring lights and stuffy air, preferring to read and write in the Renaissance Cafe off of Telegraph Avenue near the Berkeley Campus or the Brick Hut Cafe, another women’s collective on the Berkeley-Oakland borderland where I seemed able to carve out my own space amidst lots of hustle and bustle.
As I entered through the door, it was apparent that this was a place that had never existed before. Even though I hadn’t been lovers with a woman yet, seeing out and visible lesbians of various ages, classes, cultures, colours, butch, femme, androgynous was intensely captivating. I actually never felt entirely comfortable there, even though I felt a sense of elation and wonderment. It was intimidating to walk in and find these older, wizened, cigarette-smoking, way-radical activist dykes at the counter, who were not especially friendly. But, no matter, I was grateful for the surge of women-feminist-lesbian energies permeating the space, tempting me to imagine a life I could never have imagined.
I started taking seriously my friendships with other women. What that meant, actually, was that I was starting to consider my attractions to women as a natural expression of the closeness I had always felt, but had not yet acted upon, not yet. If you were a feminist at that time, you were probably already considered to have at least lesbian tendencies. Through reading novels, poems, pamphlets, attending events and concerts and benefits, I at first began to question my (hetero) sexuality and then realized that I longed to share passion with another woman.
The community-centre aspect of the store was always front and centre in its goals and inspired other women-run spaces suddenly emerging in other cities, states and countries (cunttrees).
A Woman’s Place Bookstore operated collectively based partly on anarchist-feminist principles, which meant that no one person, or people, were in charge, and which also could mean an unwieldy, time-consuming process whose ideals didn’t always match up to the realities. Naturally differences, problems and conflicts ensued (they always do when more than one person is gathered with others). In fact, ten years after the store’s conception, the collective required legal arbitration due to claims of racism which led to the original collective members leaving and establishing another feminist bookstore on Telegraph Avenue still in North Oakland called “Mama Bears.”
We all aspired towards collectivism in all its varying forms–our households, politics, political organizations and classes. We imagined we were confronting individualism, competition, even capitalism by creating alternative structures and ways of relating, living and learning. It was liberating to come together with other women and feminists and lesbians and discover different ways of meeting, processing, structuring and putting our politics into practice. We eschewed leadership and leaders and were actually suspicious of anyone taking over or pushing their own agendas, which made decision-making complicated and often fraught with difficulties. We wrote about, read and studied collective processes, but were often too idealistic about how this was implemented. At the time, I shared a feminist collective household with four other feminists, one who was soon to become my lover.
The Women’s Press Collective (first called the Oakland Women’s Press Collective), another foundational entity founded by a group of activist, artistic and multi-cultural dykes, who were also friends, lovers and ex-lovers, occupied the basement of A Woman’s Place Bookstore, publishing and distributing what would become some of the most influential publications of that time by some of the most innovative authors, many of them also members of the collective. Judy Grahn’s Edward the Dyke and Other Poems was the first publication of the Press Collective, illustrated by Wendy Cadden, artist, activist and lover of Grahn. They were both some of the founders of the collective.
I remember one balmy San Francisco evening sitting in the crowded, stuffed-to-the-gills room of the Full Moon Coffeehouse hearing Judy Grahn, a white, scrawny, dykey lesbian feminist activist and Susan Griffin, a thin, blonde feminist and mother who had recently come out as a lesbian, mesmerizing the mostly-lesbian audience with their poetry. Grahn’s “A Woman is Talking to Death” sent chills through my body, drawing me into the possibilities, challenges and grit of lesbian and class oppression, misogyny and homophobia, ending with “Yes I have committed acts of indecency with women and most of them were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.” I can still hear Susan Griffin’s soft voice reading “The Song of the Woman With Her Parts Coming Out,” with its crescendo evoking a woman’s orgasm “with her words, with her words, with her parts, with her parts, coming, with her parts, coming, coming, coming.”
It wasn’t long before I heard Pat Parker, a Black activist, lesbian-feminist, another founder of the Women’s Press Collective, read “For Willyce,” about making love to a woman (Willyce Kim, a Hawaii-born lesbian feminist writer and another member of the collective) that ends with the lines “oh god!, oh jesus! and i think–here it is, some dude’s getting the credit for what a woman has done, again.”
The event that is emblazoned in my memory was when Parker was a featured poet for a benefit. (There were always benefits to “Free Inez Garcia,” a latina who was raped in prison and on trial for killing one of her rapists or to “Support Lesbian Mothers,” who were going through child custody conflicts, among so many other causes and concerns.) During the first half of the program, Parker was decked out in usual butch attire. After intermission, she walked on stage in a long dress and femmed-up (which she didn’t pull off as well, actually). Even then, we were playing with gender presentation, roles, conventions, with masculine and feminine and everything in between. There were lipstick lesbians and stone butches and SM dykes and women with beards and those who mixed and matched and traded and scored and also transitioned and transgendered and those who were trying it all out.
Poetry, novels, music, art, ideas, questioning, sexuality, politics, relationships, nonmonogamy, class, culture, race, age, abilities, gender, spirituality, sado-masochism, magic, desire, parenting, collectives, women’s land, separatism, women’s studies, women’s festivals, women’s bodies, women’s bars, women’s spaces, violence and rape and incest, self-defense, dance, creativity, addictions, radical therapy, mediations, living and loving and creating a new culture, –all of it was found within the pages of books, on the walls, spoken during readings and events, argued over at meetings and conferences and mediated between and amongst this particular awakening of women-feminists-lesbians-dykes generated by this triangle of a bookstore.
So this sixty-something jewish radical lesbian socialist feminist is so grateful that I left home, moved to the Bay Area, came out as a lesbian, which for me coincided with falling in love with my first womanlover-best friend, lusting for a woman’s touch, her body against mine, her breasts, her cunt, her sensibilities, up close and open, open, open, our passions knowing no bounds. And I know that it was through this one bookstore, and the vital centres of women’s words and expressions that it helped birth, I was able to find my own voice, inspirations and support for my thoughts, creativity and action and a sense of connection and collaboration I feel with other feminists and lesbians throughout my life. I would not be doing the writing and teaching that I do now or living the life I live without the existence of A Woman’s Place Bookstore in that triangle between those two avenues at 5251 Broadway in Oakland, California, U.S.A, a beacon of radicalism, counter-culturism, stories we desperately needed, communitybuilding that was instrumental to our personal and political lives and the embodiment for our courageous attempts to change our world and our own lives. I, for one, miss it terribly.
This is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, Memoir of an Undutiful Daughter, about my own coming-of-age as a lesbian feminist in the Berkeley-Oakland-Santa Cruz-Bay Area of California in the 1970s. The conflict with, and reaction from, my family, in particular my mother, is a crucial element.
As I was becoming the person that I was meant to be, it was within my identity as a daughter that was the most fraught with dissonance and trauma. My mother was never to accept me as a lesbian and we engaged in a life-long battle that only ended with her death at age eightyfour.
The impetus for this writing is to capture such a creative and visionary time in the herstory of feminism. Feminist bookstores, which were so much more than bookstores, were the catalysts and centrepoints for women’s dreams, visions, imaginations and lives. Without them, our movements and personal-political-psychic-emotional-spiritual lives would not have flourished.
“book store n. 1. A store where books are sold. 2. Also known as ‘bookshop.’ 3. A place where the staff, also known as ‘booksellers’ assist customers with all their reading needs. 4. A wonderful place to (a) spend time browsing and selecting from many books available for sale or (b) chat with fellow booklovers.” (written on a shopping bag)
Yes, browsing the shelves of bookstores is a different experience from ordering books online (which I have never done, as a matter of fact). I have been a longtime supporter of women’s and independent bookstores throughout my life and it disturbs me to witness the continual loss of these vital entities.
The closure of feminist and women’s (and also independent and progressive) bookstores has had a disastrous effect on our movements and lives. Those of us fortunate to have been around during the “hey day” of women’s and women-owned: bookstores, centres, health clinics, counseling collectives, cafes, restaurants, bars (and, most recently the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which ended its forty-year tenure only this past summer) may also mourn the loss of these potent resources.
I recognize that this may not reflect every women’s or even feminists’ experience of these times and, that currently, even the relevance or need for “women’s spaces” and even identities are being questioned. I know that change is a constant and I am hopeful that all of us are engaged in some way in dialogue and thoughtful examination of these complex, controversial and important issues and questions.
On a final note, I implore all of us to support the existence of women’s and feminist bookstores, publications, organizations, projects, artists and entities. This means consciously and conscientiously considering how we spend our own resources. It is never too late to support what truly nourishes, informs and connects our hearts, our minds, our spirits.