Chicago is a city of "firsts", even in gay and lesbian history; though it may seem that the impetus of the movement came only from New York or the West Coast. Twenty-five years ago Chicago women created the first lesbian writers' conferences ever held anywhere in the world! Let that sink in a moment. Sappho's Lesbos, turn-of-the-century Paris, London, New York's Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 1920's all had celebrated groups of writers that numbered lesbians among them. But for the first time in history, women who had the courage to identify themselves as both lesbians and writers met publicly, declaring their love of words and their love of women. It happened in this town where sixty years earlier Margaret Anderson and her lover Jane Heap had published “The Little Review”. It happened at a time of rampant separatism fueled by the tactics of Nixon's grand jury network and the infiltration of gay and lesbian groups by the FBI and the Chicago police's "Red Squad". Writers from all over the country and Canada (and even some from the North Side) attended the Hyde Park conferences. Their writings would contribute to the creation of contemporary lesbian culture and aesthetics.
How it began
In mid-1974 when the initial plans were being laid for the first conference, few lesbian writers were aware that they were not writing alone; that there were hundreds of books by and about lesbians buried in the published works of the past. Novelist Valerie Taylor, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Hunter of Lavender Press, Polly Adams of Mattachine Midwest and myself shared a hunger for our history. We would invite women writers to come and learn “that” history, share their own writings, acquire the techniques of self-publishing or breaking into print from those who had "been there, done that", and generally network and find reinforcement among struggling sisters. Of course, no one had any money. It was very much a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "let's find a barn and put on a show" naivete that drove our initial efforts.
Sandy Szelag, later the first openly gay Unitarian minister, was then a divinity student at Meadville on the University of Chicago campus. She arranged for us to rent our "barns" in Hyde Park: first the Unitarian Universalist church and later, when we drew some flak, the nearby Church of the Disciples of Christ and their coffeehouse, the Blue Gargoyle (first meeting space of Chicago Gay Liberation). The format called for a weekend conference, a keynote address on Friday night, followed by a coffeehouse and chance to view displays or buy books. Saturday a full day of workshops, scheduled for anywhere we could cram a group of women; free entertainment was offered in the evening. On Sunday afternoon, for many the best part of the conference, participants would read from their own works. Registration for the three-day event was $5.00.
At the Blue Gargoyle meals were prepared by the* magic hands collective, which was Mimi Lewin, MaryAnn Pelc, and assorted volunteers (including Mimi's two sons who avoided the wrath of the separatists by never acknowledging their sex). The coffeehouse was open during the entire weekend offering beverages and home-baked sweets. Hot vegetarian lunches and dinners were available for a dollar or two.
Originally conceived to utilize local talent; Valerie Taylor gave the first year's keynote address, dedicating the conference to Dr. Jeannette Howard Foster, Ph.D. whose pioneering opus, “Sex Variant Women in Literature” was long out of print. Val's keynote was an irreverent history of lesbian writers and ended with her hope that she would live to see the contributions of her literary "grandchildren" at similar conferences in twenty years. We handed out free copies of “Women Loving Women: a select and annotated bibliography of women-loving-women in literature” prepared especially for the conference; the cost of printing was partially defrayed by advertising from local lesbian businesses.
Saturday women who wrote for newspapers and songwriters interested in publishing, caucused in groups on the front lawn, while those interested in defining lesbian literary criticism met in the church crypt. Val chaired a panel on publishing options with Cynthia Carr who wrote for the Chicago Sun Times, Claudia Scott, a poet published by a lesbian alternative press and Andrea Medea co-author of the ground-breaking, mainstream “Against Rape”. Marilyn McKenna of Salsedo Press (also a member of the collective that produced “The Chicago Women's Directory”) was one of the few straight women who contributed skills sharing over the life of the conference. Of course, they were never so identified. We were picketed the first year because of presenter who was known in the community to be bisexual. Separatists had also earlier picketed Margie Adams first concert here held on De Paul University's campus, shouting over the opening act "Sister Blues" (MaryAnn Pelc), who had stepped in as a last minute substitute when folksinger Ginni Clemmens backed out because of the projected confrontation. Our response to the picketers was that if the Mayor's wife Sis Daley, had anything constructive to offer at the conference we would have invited her.
We seemed to have a crisis each year, but they were all learning experiences. J.R. Roberts who founded the New Alexandria Library for Lesbian Wimmin collapsed the registration table over a north side-south side issue fomenting a discussion on women's anger. The issue of censorship was pursued when Canadian women coming to the conference had their books confiscated at the border by Customs as obscene matter. Pauline Bart, a professor at UICC felt my familiar manner in speaking about the sexuality of our foremothers was trivializing, she taped her observations on a door asking women to add their comments. The presence of a disruptive transsexual who had a reputation for causing chaos in Hyde Park resulted in a gender dialog about the sensitivity to women's issues of someone who had been socialized male.
The keynote speaker at LWC II was Barbara Grier, who as Gene Damon had edited the national lesbian magazine “The Ladder” and reviewed hundreds of books in her "Lesbiana" column. Academic/anthologist Beth Hodges who had edited a special issue of “Margins” on lesbian writing and publishing (and would later edit two such issues for “Sinister Wisdom”) spoke at LWC III . In 1977 we were able to get Alma Routsong as keynote. Under her pen name, Isabel Miller, she had written “Patience and Sarah”, published it herself in 1969, had it picked up by McGraw-Hill and turned into a Literary Guild selection. By the time of her appearance at LWC IV it was lesbian classic.
From the first year of the conference alternative press coverage was extensive and glowing--local papers, Milwaukee's GPU NEWS, ”off our backs” and MEDIA REPORT TO WOMEN from Washington, D.C., BIG MAMA RAG from Denver, SISTERS of Los Angeles, and a dozen others including “Ms Magazine”.
Chicago Women's Graphics Collective printed posters announcing three of the conferences. All became excellent sellers well into the 1980's.The LWC II poster surrounded the names of fifty lesbian writers by a an unbroken border of type repeating "women loving women writing". Each name was set in a different type-face by Su Fredrich, now a well-known filmmaker. The LWC III poster, executed by artist Ursula Kavanaugh, showed a pyre of burning books, over-printed with: "and the men asked where is your Shakespeare? she was a lesbian and you burned her books". In 1978 a huge poster celebrating "100 years of the Lesbian Novel from “The Well of Loneliness” to “Rubyfruit Jungle" bore four 8X10 photographs of Radclyffe Hall, Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, Alma Routsong, and Rita Mae Brown.
Women's studies were barely gaining a foothold on university campuses; but some of the workshops offered at LWC read like a graduate course in lesbian studies. Evelyn Tornton Beck and Susan Lanser lectured on teaching lesbian literature. Beth Hodges, Karen Verniesel and Kathleen Thompson led workshops on lesbian-feminist criticism, which was still in its formative stages. Barbara Grier gave tips on researching and writing biography. Valerie Taylor offered critical biographies of May Sarton and Jeannette Howard Foster, in addition to providing practical help for fledgling writers in her "Submitting a Manuscript for Publication". Barbara Ruth gave a workshop on managing writer's block. Claudia Scott presented on poetry each year--her last workshop was on "Problems in writing the political poem". (Claudia was a suicide two years later, her will benefited the Philadelphia gay community she had moved to in 1976). Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines, founders of “Sinister Wisdom” spoke on political consciousness in lesbian writing, and Martha Shelley on political responsibility. Judy Markowitz and Elana Dykwomon each also raised consciousness with their workshops "Sexism in Language" and "Separtism, Art and Energy".
Workshops were offered each year for those needing the skills to get their own work into print. Four different women's presses presented the fundamentals of production and design as well as keyline and paste-up of camera-ready copy, along with other self-publishing information from copyright to finished copy.
Before lesbian history or art books were available, we offered visual history in a variety of slide presentations: Maida Tilchen's "Lesbians in Pulp-fiction", Max Dashu's "Women in Power: the matriarchy from pre-history to the present", Tee Corinne's "Visual Images of Lesbian Sexuality in Fine Art" and my own, "The Lesbian in Literature".
Women from “Blazing Star”, Metis Press, and “Black Maria” offered fiction writing and magazine tips. Kathleen Thompson, (whose contributions to each year's conference were second only to Valerie Taylor's and whose clear conception of the value of the conference, kept the organizer sane), gave workshops on everything from poetics to writing for entertainment, presented critical theory, taught key-line, helped provide the entertainment--one year as a performer, another as organizer of a come-as-your-favorite-author party.
The fifth year almost did not happen. Letters had begun to pour in protesting our having a conference in a state that refused to ratify the ERA. It would have been impossible for us to hold the LWC elsewhere at that time. A large part of the surprising success of the venture must be attributed to Chicago's central location and accessibility. Also, we had a cadre of volunteers who kept to their own business during the year, but at conference time eagerly jumped in to shop, print, ferry, coordinate, donate--time, money, supplies, free housing. The infrastructure was in place that enabled us to ask, even at the very end, only $7.50 for the three-day conference.
Our keynote for the final year was the closeted Yvonne MacManus whose alter ego was pulp writer "Paula Christian". Afterwards we received letters from sci-fi writer Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ann Shockley who wrote the first inter-racial lesbian love story, and other popular authors expressing interest in future conferences.
But there would not be another. The 1970's had become the decade of lesbian publishing on a cross-media, cross-genre, national level. Lesbian newspapers, magazines, and book publishers sprang up by the handfuls, creating a growing lesbian readership. Mainstream publishers became aware of this new market, and by then end of the decade, began to co-opt it. Daughters Press sold 90,000 copies of “Rubyfruit Jungle” in eleven printings. By the end of the decade they sold the paperback rights to Bantam netting six-figures each for the press and the author.
In 1989 LWC held a reunion and noted the success of its participants. “Every” conference presenter had one or more published books. Of the women who read on those Sunday afternoons, dozens gained considerable recognition from their creative or academic writing; for example: short story writer Becky Birtha's ”Lovers Choice”, Chris Straayer's “Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientation in Film and Video”, Marilyn Frye's “The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory”, and fiction writer Julie Blackwomon (who read to us as Julie Simmons) published in “Voyages Out 2” and “Home Girls”.
“Women Loving Women” took on a life of its own. It was reviewed in library journals in the US and Canada ("a little jewel of a bibliography." "Use it for acquisitions...yes, even you have gay patrons", "... among the cornerstone titles of any collection.") and was added to the shelves of one-hundred twenty-three libraries by the end of 1978.
Laura Skye Brown missed her return bus and stayed over to read her work in public for the first time. Returning to Ann Arbor she and friends started “The Leaping Lesbian” as a direct result of the 1977 conference.
Jeannette Howard Foster lived to see her opus reprinted by Diana Press, her translation from the French of a Renee Vivien novella as Naiad Press's first critical offering, and her collected poetry published by Womanpress of Chicago, all in 1976.
Valerie Taylor got her second wind; Naiad Press reprinted some of her earlier novels and three new ones. Womanpress brought out a book of her poetry. She contributed pieces to several anthologies and published a novel with Banned Books. She was resident lesbian grandmother in Tucson at the time of the reunion, but knew of the successes of the "literary granddaughters".
It happened once upon a time . . . in Chicago.
Copyright 1998 by Marie J. Kuda. Originally published in Outlines newspaper, September 30, 1998.