Thursday, 21 March 2013

Heritage Spotlight - Lesbian Herstory Archives

When I started trawling the internet for lgbt resources one of the first websites I came across was that of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). It is the best heritage site I can think of to celebrate International Women’s History Month. I have often visited the website for ideas, both for this blog and for exhibition material. If you visit the website for the first time, go to the “History and Mission” page here.

Rather than go over the history/herstory of the LHA as contained on its website I thought I’d look at the women who founded it. Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel are often mentioned as main co-founders. Three other women deserve a credit also, and indeed they do on some websites – Julia Stanley, Sahli Cavallaro and Pamela Oline. No doubt there were others who played their part in the creation of the archives, but space restricts me to these five.

Most of the founders were members of the Gay Academic Union, formed in 1972 by some staff and former students at the City University of New York. The home of the LHA for 15 years was the personal home of Joan Nestle and Barbara Edel in Manhattan. During this time their home was open to all visitors to the archives and it kept growing in size. By the 1980s larger premises were needed and the archives moved to its present home in Brooklyn.

Joan Nestle is an award-winning writer and novelist who has been active in human rights issues since the 1950s. An aspect of lesbian culture which Joan has always striven to highlight are the misconceptions surrounding butch/femme relationships, especially femme lesbians who are often stereotyped as submissive and secondary in any relationship. The butch/femme scenario plays a major role in her novels which she began writing after becoming too ill for her work. Joan was diagnosed with cancer twice and turned to writing as a way to “reclaim my body that was my enemy during the throes of illness”. The most recent diagnosis was in 2001. Joan decided to move to Australia where her partner is a law professor at the University of Melbourne.

Deborah Edel was Joan’s partner when the Lesbian Herstory Archives were created. During the first years of the LHA Deborah and Joan went around local groups giving talks about the archives, carrying around bags full of magazines, photos and letters as illustrations of the sort of thing they hoped people would donate to the archives. Deborah was born into the world of academia. Both of her parents, and her step-mother, were academics. She studied to be an educational psychologist and worked with children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems right up to her retirement last year. Deborah spent most of her career at the Quaker-run Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn.

Julia Stanley, later Julia Penelope, was among the first to discuss with Joan Nestle the fragile nature of the heritage of the lesbian culture in the 1970s, with its male-centred gay rights movement being so dominant at the time. From this discussion grew the idea of a permanent lesbian archive. Julia was, perhaps, the most “radical” of the 5 co-founders and her forthright views on the place lesbian-feminists should have in society put her at odds with some other activists and theorists. Julia was a prolific writer in the 1990s, though by 1999 she had become frustrated with the direction lesbian-feminism had taken and stopped writing. Instead she became a freelance editor. By profession Julia was a linguist and often gave lectures on the use of language in sexual and racial identity. She was a member of the Modern Language Association. After settling in Texas Julia ran for Congress as a Green candidate. Julia died last month at the age of 71.

Sahli Cavallaro was a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the Gay Academic Union. Some of the female members felt that the Union was becoming too male-dominated and sexist and that there was a need to have a separate lesbian group. At this Women’s Caucus several founders of the LHA first met to discuss creating the archives. Sahli earned her doctorate in psychology and spent some time working as a peer counsellor at Identity House, New York’s longest continuously running support centre. After working at The Chakra Garden, a centre for mind and body healthcare and counselling, Sahli headed across country to the Sonoma Mountain Zen Centre in California. She has a keen interest in Zen philosophy and practices several eastern martial arts, including karate and zen archery.

Pamela Oline was, like Sahli Cavallaro, a peer counsellor at New York’s Identity House. She was also a member of the Feminist Therapy Referral Collective, a counselling and support organisation formed to help women to become more independent in the male-dominated society of the 1970s. Pamela is the most elusive of the 5 co-founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and I have no definite information about her most recent activities, and more information about Pamela would be most appreciated.

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