poetry quarterly

10th anniversary

LITERARY ORGANIZATIONS ISSUE

Have Fun So We Do Not Go Mad in Male Supremacist Heterosexual Amerika: Lesbian-Feminist Poetry in The Furies

by Julie R. Enszer

 

The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it's the question
of male domination that makes everybody
angry.

 

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 Group
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 poetical—struggles.


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 patriarch.

E. Sharon Gomillion’s poems are included in the Fall 1972 issue of The Furies. This poem appears on the front cover:


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
.......we get
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 stories.”

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.


Conclusion
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.

 

 

FURTHER 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”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5rCdtPDvpU

Willyce Kim’s chapbook, Eating Artichokes, is available online here: http://www.deepoakland.org/author?id=206

BIBLIOGRAPHY
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 website.

 

Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.

 

To read more by this author:
Julie R. Enszer