LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE
Have Fun So We Do Not Go Mad in
Male Supremacist Heterosexual Amerika: Lesbian-Feminist Poetry in The
by Julie R. Enszer
The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it's the question
of male domination that makes everybody
These are the closing lines of Judy
Grahn’s poem, “A History of Lesbianism,” which is
one of four poems by Grahn that appeared in the first issue of The
Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, dated January 1972. The Furies
were a lesbian-feminist collective founded in Washington, DC in 1971.
They were committed, in Grahn’s words, to addressing both the
ordinary issue of lesbianism and the question that made everyone angry,
male supremacy. While The Furies as a publication and as a
political formation lasted only two years, their work and words had
a profound effect on lesbian-feminism.
Mailing out the newspaper from the Furies office, 221 Eleventh Street SE, 1972. Left to right:
Ginny Berson, Susan Baker (not a collective member), Coletta Reid (standing), Rita Mae Brown,
and Lee Schwing. Photo ©2010 by JEB (Joan E. Biren).
The Furies: A Lesbian-Feminist Political
In the spring of 1971, amid the excitement of the growing Women’s
Liberation Movement in the United States and the energies of gay liberation,
a group of women in Washington, DC formed a collective called The Furies.
Twelve women initiated the collective and over two-dozen women were
involved in the collective while it was active between the spring of
1971 and the summer of 1973. Furies members included Charlotte
Bunch, Sharon Deevey, Rita Mae Brown, Nancy Myron, Jennifer Woodul, Joan
Biren, Helaine Harris, Susan Hathaway,
and Ginny Berson. Three locations in Washington, DC
were the site of many of the meetings of The Furies: 1861 California
NW, 217 12th St SE and 221 11th St SE.
The Furies also published a newspaper, titled The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist
Monthly. The first issue of the newspaper, dated January 1972,
outlined their commitment to “the growing movement to destroy
sexism” and to “building an ideology which is the basis
of action.” It described the collective as “lesbians in
revolt” and recounted the genesis of their name from the ancient
Greeks. Also included in this first issue were articles highlighting
feminist organizing in other locations around the country and an article
about Queen Christina of Sweden as an example of the feminist and lesbian
power the group wanted to mobilize. These types of articles—ideological
pieces, feminist histories, and political and social analyses—appear
throughout the newspapers.
In “Notes for the Cell Meeting, January, 1972,” Charlotte
Bunch outlined the intentions of the collective. The Furies
envisioned their role in the Women’s Liberation Movement as developing
“a basic ideology that interprets the world, historical forces,
objective conditions, future, etc.—very clearly and in such a
way as to give women the basis for making a revolution.” Bunch
also noted that The Furies needed “to discuss how this ideology
will be built and make a strategy for doing it—research, analysis,
inspiration—what is individual’s work and what collective’s—how
do we structure our work to move on this now.” The urgency in
Bunch’s words captures the excitement and possibility that existed
for the women in The Furies. They believed that the Women’s Liberation
Movement had the radical potential to remake people’s lives and
free them from oppression.
Despite common myths and misconceptions, The Furies were not humorless.
Bunch notes in the five-year timeline for action that the group must, “Keep moving and handling whatever comes up” and “Change
these plans constantly as we go along.” In fact, in reading the
issues of The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, there is a
dynamism and intentional engagement in personal and political life.
The Furies do keep moving and changing their plans, even as the optimism
of the collective was tempered. At the bottom of Bunch’s timeline
is this statement: “have fun so we do not go mad in male supremacist,
heterosexual Amerika.” Humor, fun, and enjoyment were for The
Furies a resistant antidote to the challenges of living with male supremacy
and heterosexual domination.
Anne Valk documents the history of The Furies, particularly
in relationship to the DC Women’s Liberation Movement and the
feminist journal, off our backs, in her book Radical Sisters.
She presents a clear-eyed assessment of the conflict and struggles that
The Furies encountered, but what is important to me about The Furies
is not the shortness of the collective’s life together nor understanding
the group’s failure to achieve their long-term goals and objectives.
Rather, The Furies had a vision for feminist revolution and a model
of practice that is optimistic and energizing. The struggles of The
Furies are visible on the pages of The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist
Monthly. The women in the organization wanted to understand sexism
and its internecine relationship with classism, racism, capitalism,
and imperialism. They wanted to intervene in society to build a world
that was different, a world that was based on a new set of values. The
history of The Furies and the ways of thinking that they were committed
to developing are useful models for people engaged in contemporary political—and
Poetry in The Furies
There were ten editions of The Furies published between the
first issue, dated January 1972, and the final issue dated May-June
1973. Six of the nine issues include poetry (the tenth issue, volume
2, issue 1, most likely dated Jan-Feb 1973, is not available in the
online collection and I have been unable to secure a copy—if you
have a copy, please email me!) Poets with work published in The
Furies include Judy Grahn, Rita Mae Brown
(who was a member of the collective), Pat Parker, E.
Sharon Gomillion, Susan Baker, Lee
Lally, Linda Koolish, June Slavin,
and Willyce Kim.
Four poems by Judy Grahn were published in the first
issue of The Furies. “A History of Lesbianism,” “I’m
not a girl,” “Detroit Annie, hitchhiking,” and “in
the place where,” originally were published in the mimeographed
chapbook titled, Edward the Dyke, in 1969. Edward the Dyke
included illustrations by Grahn’s lover, Wendy Cadden, and two
other women, Brenda Crider and Gail Hodgins; it was published by the
Women’s Press Collective, based in Oakland, CA.
The poems of Edward the Dyke circulated widely in feminist
and lesbian communities. In 1968, three of them were printed in The
Ladder, the journal of the Daughters of Bilitis (a lesbian organization
that published The Ladder between 1956 and 1972), and four
were printed in off our backs, the Washington, DC-based radical
feminist news magazine, in the September 30, 1970 issue. The wide circulation
of these poems (Grahn reflects on this phenomenon in a 2009 interview)
expresses some of women’s affection for these poems at the time
and in the subsequent decades as well. The poems of Edward the Dyke
are poems that women wanted to read and share with one another because
they express their lives, their ideas, and their beliefs. They also
are poems that portray an imagined world with beauty and truth in which
lesbians and feminists are at the center.
The physical existence of the object of Edward the Dyke was
also meaningful to women. The Furies reproduced the line drawing
from the cover of Edward the Dyke on the page with the four
poems. In the article that accompanies the poems, Coletta Reid
describes the experience with the physical book, emphasizing in particular
its production by lesbian women. Reid writes, “The four of them
[Grahn, Cadden, Crider, and Hodgins] and other lesbians in the San Francisco
Bay Area . . .designed and printed the book themselves. So it’s
not a normal stodgy book of poetry, but a beautiful book of beige and
wine colored pages which reflect the poems.” Here Reid asserts
the significance of it as an object produced by lesbians and distinguishes
it from other books of poetry. She also links the physical attributes
of the book, particularly the colors, as a reflection of the poems.
The four poems in The Furies are reflective of the poems in
Edward the Dyke overall. “Detroit Annie, hitchhiking”
(recently repopularized by the singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco) is from
Grahn’s series of “Common Woman Poems”; “A History
of Lesbianism” meditates on “[h]ow they lived in the world,/the
women-loving-women” and tells stories of “dykes” and
how “they made love to each other/the best they knew how/and for
the best reasons.” The short poem, “in the place where,”
was also included in The Ladder and describes lesbian love-making
as the focus of the lyrical moment. “I’m not a girl”
builds meaning by contrasting conventional ideas about women with powerful
ones. Grahn writes,
I’m not a girl
.......I’m a hatchet
I’m not a hole
.......I’m a whole mountain.
The poem concludes, “look at me as if you had never seen a woman
before/I have red, red hands and much bitterness.” In these poems,
the range of Grahn’s emotional territory is evident. She moves
from tenderness to anger; she balances bitterness and exuberance; she
evokes histories that have been missing and simultaneously canonizes
and humanizes everyday women. These complex moves appealed to women
working in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and
early 1970s. As Coletta Reid, writing about the poems in The Furies,
said, “Judy Grahn’s poems are a delight to read. She is
one of the few lesbian poets to celebrate the strength and survival
capacity of women. No self-pity or whining here.” Reid continued,
“The language is direct and simple; you don’t have to go
to the dictionary to figure out the images. You can tell that a lot
of time and work has gone into turning her ideas, experiences and emotions
into powerful and beautiful verse.“ Reid appreciated the accessibility
of Grahn’s poems and also recognized the time and quality of craft
within the poems. The selection of the four Grahn poems for this issue
reflect the political intentions of The Furies but also the
affection for and appreciation of the poems themselves.
The second issue of The Furies featured a two-page spread of
poems by Rita Mae Brown. The poems, “The New
Lost Feminist: A Triptych,” “For Lydia French,” “Sappho’s
Reply,” “The Bourgeois Questions,” “The Self
Affirms Herself,” “Canto Cantare Cantavi Cantatum,”
and “Song to a Handsome Woman,” were from Brown’s
newly published book, The Hand that Cradles the Rock (NYU Press,
1971; reprinted in 1974 by Baltimore, MD-based feminist publisher, Diana
Press). Rita Mae Brown was a member of The Furies collective and had
been a member of the New York-based Radicalesbians collective that wrote,
“The Woman-Identified Woman,” an early statement within
feminism about lesbianism.
Jennifer Woodhul describes Brown’s poetry as
understanding “oppression in a most personal and most seriously
political way. And technically it is the high innovative work of a woman
who is creating her own poetic medium.” In Woodhul’s comments,
the connections between the political possibilities that poetry imagines
and the art and craft of poetry are evident; both political meaning
and craft in poetry are significant in the poems published. Woodhul
provides a close reading of all Brown’s poems, further demonstrating
how poems were understood as central to making political meaning in
women’s lives. For instance, “The New Lost Feminist: A Triptych”
is a pictorial about feminism. The first section of the poem, in the
words of Woodhul, expresses “the deep personal frustration, powerlessness
and suffering of a woman. It is about the horrible mutilation that has
been done by a bondage made of empty words and promises and deceit.”
The center panel of the poem “gives the societal picture.”
The final panel of the poem concludes with this stanza:
Women, women limping on the edges of the History of Man
Crippled for centuries and dragging the heavy emptiness
Past submission and sorrow to forgotten and unknown selves.
It’s time to break and run.
Brown characterizes a history of women’s oppression and enjoins
the reader of the poem “to break and run” from this past
to an imagined, yet imminent, future. These early poems, particularly
with Jennifer Woodhul’s commentary, demonstrate the way that poetry
was read by lesbians as reflecting their lives and shaping a new political
consciousness that would crush patriarchy and create a world in which
women could live free from the experiences of sexism.
In the June-July 1972 issue of The Furies, the poetry of Pat
Parker was featured with a cover of her book, Child of
Myself. Four poems by Parker were included, “A Moment Left
Behind,” “With the sun—,” “Let me come
to you naked,” and “Exodus (To my husbands, lovers).”
Anne from Oakland writes, “The book is an example
of women caring about women, women working together, women exchanging
skills—originally printed by Alta and the Shameless
Hussy Press. The book was fitted together piece by piece to make a strong,
beautiful book of poems by Pat Parker.” Similar to the comments
about Grahn’s book and the Women’s Press Collective, the
commentary on the physical object of Parker’s poetry book reflects
the political values of The Furies: the creation of things
by women’s collectives added to their meaning and was integral
to feminist practice.
Parker’s poems, which are heralded with the headline, “a
new book of lesbian poetry,” cover a gamut of experiences. “Exodus”
talks about rejecting the service to husbands; “let me come to
you naked” considers the many ways that women come to one another—naked,
old, angry—and more importantly, “strong/come sure and free/come
powerful.” Then instead of “and lay beside you,” the
refrain Parker used earlier in the poem, she concludes with the line,
“and lay with you.” The movement to greater camaraderie
between women, linguistically from ‘beside’ to ‘with,’
expresses part of the vision of lesbianism that The Furies had. The
Furies believed that lesbianism was a way that women could be strengthened
and become more autonomous to hasten the efforts of feminism to topple
E. Sharon Gomillion’s poems are included in the
Fall 1972 issue of The Furies. This poem appears on the front
We’re doing it in our schools
.......for better education
We’re doing it in our theaters
.......for relevant productions
We’re doing it in our books
.......history, poetry and song
We’re doing it every chance
Right on—further on!
One of the most delightful elements of this poem is the indeterminate
subject of the pronouns. Who exactly are we? And what is it that we
are doing? There are many possible readings of the poem for both the
contemporary audience of The Furies and for readers today.
This playfulness from Gomillion’s poem on the front cover and
the multiplicity of readings it suggests leads to the exclamatory ending,
“Right on—further on!” It is a declarative cry of
the political intentions of The Furies and an affirmation of their vision.
E. Sharon Gomillion was a local, Washington, DC-based
poet. Two other poems by Gomillion appear in this issue of The Furies.
Gomillion’s first collection, Forty Acres and a Mule,
was published by Diana Press in 1973. This issue of The Furies
also includes a selection of writers from the Washington, DC-Baltimore
area. In addition to Gomillion, there are poems by Susan Baker,
Merritt Wilson, and Lee Lally. Lee
Lally’s poems, “Hurricanes,” “For Meg at Clyde’s,”
and “You were Burying Us Before We Were Dead,” are all from
her chapbook These Days, which had just been published and
distributed by the DC-based Some of Us Press.
The final lines of Lally’s poem, “You Were Burying Us Before
We Were Dead,” reflect one of the sentiments of feminist poetry
at the time, “We are no longer waiting./We are writing our own
The on-going communication and collaboration between The Furies and
the women of The Women’s Press Collective is evident not only
in the initial inclusion of Grahn’s poems but also in later selections
of poems. The March-April 1973 issue includes poems by Linda
Koolish and Willyce Kim. Helaine Harris
reports hearing Koolish read with Judy Grahn while on a visit to the
Bay Area and of reading Kim’s book Eating Artichokes,
which had just been published by the Women’s Press Collective.
The intercoastal print collaboration of The Furies and The Women’s
Press Collective is one example of the vibrant lesbian-feminist print
movement that was emerging in the early 1970s.
In addition to the poems included in The Furies, the way that
poetry was integral to feminism at the time is visible within the pages
of the newspaper. Poems are included in articles as a way to give voice
to women’s experiences, to dramatize women’s oppression
and their creative and powerful responses to it, and to share perspectives
and emerging analyses. There are also advertisements for poetry books,
including books from the New York-based Violet Press, and calls for
work to be published in other lesbian-feminist journals. Poetry was
central to the intellectual and emotional lives of these activists and
visionaries as evidenced in the pages of The Furies.
The Furies envisioned possibilities for feminism in the world. There
was anger about the systems of sexism and patriarchy that affected them
as their name suggests, but there was also optimism and idealism. The
women of The Furies saw themselves in the center of creating a new society.
Poems were one of the tools for creating that society. There is no poem
that is emblematic of The Furies, although the poems are generally
free verse, lyric poems. What is significant about the poetry included
in The Furies is the way poetry was tied to the development
of a political ideology and a political movement while still being recognized
for its formal elements as well as the art and craft of the work. By
including poetry in The Furies: A Lesbian/Feminist Monthly,
the newspaper’s editors and volunteers created a cultural document
and experience that reflected and reinforced their visions for social
change. Word by word, line by line, poems were constructing a new reality
and a new world in which lesbians could live.
READING – ONLINE RESOURCES
The Furies, the newspaper published by the collective, is available
online as a PDF from the Rainbow History Project here: http://www.rainbowhistory.org/furies.htm.
The Rainbow History Project also includes information about The Furies
and links to additional information. I am indebted to their work in
making documents and materials available.
All of the poetry included in The Furies is itemized at the
Lesbian Poetry Archive: http://www.lesbianpoetryarchive.org/node/130
Interview with Judy Grahn: http://www.lambdaliterary.com/interviews/06/22/interview-with-judy-grahn/
Ani DiFranco reading Judy Grahn’s poem, “Detroit Annie”:
Willyce Kim’s chapbook, Eating Artichokes, is available
online here: http://www.deepoakland.org/author?id=206
Bunch, Charlotte. Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action.
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Bunch’s collection of essays includes both essays by Bunch from
The Furies as well as her later recollections and analyses
about the group.
Valk, Anne. Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation
in Washington, DC. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Valk’s history of feminism and black liberation in Washington,
DC includes a chapter on The Furies and situates The Furies in relationship
to other feminist organizations of the time.
Julie R. Enszer's
first book of poetry is Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s
Press, 2010). She has her MFA from the University of Maryland and is
enrolled currently in the PhD program in Women’s Studies at the
University of Maryland. Her poems have been published in Iris: A
Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long
Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s
Literary Annual. She is a regular book reviewer for the Lambda
Book Report and Calyx and the curator of the Lesbian
Poetry Archive. You can read more of her work on her
in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.
read more by this author:
Julie R. Enszer