We feminists were going to overthrow the patriarchy. We poured our hearts into projects ranging from a very middle-of-the-road campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn’t passed, 49 years later) to organizing lesbian communes out in the countryside—and, of course, women’s presses. A revolution gets nowhere without some method of communicating its ideology.
A day’s work at the Women’s Press Collective might include any of the following: typesetting, printing, collating, binding, or packing books for shipping to stores and individual purchasers. Running the press required a higher level of skill than the other tasks, but most of what we did was repetitive hand labor. Much of that was actually quite pleasant. Since we didn’t have a collating machine, we’d walk around a big table laying pages out by hand, talking about this and that.
To get customers, we also needed to market, which meant going to bookstores and feminist events and doing readings. Sometimes we attended gatherings just to meet other feminists and have a good time.
Winter Solstice celebration
Judy Grahn and I participated in the 1975 winter solstice celebration in Los Angeles, organized by Zsuzsanna (called Z) Budapest. Z had founded the women-only Dianic Wiccan coven there. Upon arriving in L.A., I was surprised to discover that an old friend from New York, Kathryn McHargue, had moved there and become Z’s lover. Kathryn didn’t seem happy. She had always struck me as an introvert who needed one lover to care for her. Z was wildly extroverted and demanded the attention of a large group. The relationship wouldn’t last.
The celebration took place on the side of a nearby mountain. We stripped to the waist, drank whiskey laced with cayenne to keep warm, and danced around the fire. Then we were supposed to hug and kiss the other women in the circle. Judy remembers me kissing Z, open-mouthed and erotic. I have no memory of doing that, and to me it seems very unlikely, but I do remember landing such a kiss on another woman in the group. I’m not going to tell who, though.
The following night, a member of the coven asked Z how to tell the difference between a waxing and a waning moon. Z waved her fingers at the sky, a gesture that was both airy and authoritative, and replied that a waning moon looks crumbly, like a cookie that someone has chewed on. Since I had spent many childhood hours visiting the Hayden Planetarium and reading about astronomy, I was astonished by their ignorance. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been. More than 70% of Americans are scientifically illiterate and about 20% believe that the sun revolves around the earth.
Even more distressing, though, was Z’s willingness to make up such nonsense and foist it on her credulous followers.
The Women in Print Conference
The first Women in Print Conference took place August 29-September 5, 1976, on land rented from the Campfire Girls outside Omaha, Nebraska. Some of us from the Women’s Press Collective members attended. I drove out in my VW bug. It was a joyous time: summer heat, the Platte River, a big swimming pool, a zillion grasshoppers. We made connections with other small presses and bookstores and exchanged ideas about how to better publish and distribute our materials. I don’t remember much of what we said, except for an idea from Nancy Stockwell, who wrote for Plexus, a feminist newspaper out of Berkeley. She speculated that brown grasshopper spit could be harvested and turned into print ink.
Most important was the realization that our projects weren’t going to be financially successful, or even survive long term. Per an interview with Charlotte Bunch in Sinister Wisdom:
“It’s funny that in 1976, after years with women’s liberation ideology in which we learned that the society oppressed us, in which we learned that society was a capitalist patriarchy, that big business and multinational corporations control, that small businesses were, in fact, on the way out, we nonetheless all still felt that if we just worked harder, if we just did it better, our projects would survive. Some of that mythology broke down at the Women in Print Conference because when we sat down and talked about some of the problems in getting out a journal- things like the fact that no matter what price you set your journal at, even though you kept thinking it cost too much, you still couldn’t make it financially-we learned that no publication survived solely on selling its product-that they’re all either subsidized by major corporations or they’re subsidized by universities or they’re publications of organizations whose membership subsidizes them. We had a lot to learn about publishing in America.”
The Press Collective was subsidized by both unpaid and greatly underpaid labor. We also received donations from well-to-do feminists who believed in our work. Diana Press of Baltimore took in commercial print jobs so they could publish women’s literature. Even the major patriarchal news outlets, like the New York Times, required massive infusions of advertising revenue.
I was, in fact, aware of the economic constraints on our “industry” but hadn’t begun to imagine a solution. Perhaps I expected we would just go on in the same way, living on poetry and revolutionary fervor.
Just before leaving the conference, one of the women discovered wild marijuana growing along the Platte River. We harvested bags of it, and I stuffed some into the trunk of my bug. It hadn’t gone to flower, though, and upon reaching home I discovered that a joint of it had as much potency as toilet paper.
Invitation to Adventure
In February 1977 I received a call from Pamela, who had produced comic segments for my radio show on WBAI-FM. She’d flown out from NYC to visit me and then started an affair with Suzanne, another woman in the feminist community. After living with Suzanne for a few months she decided to clear out her apartment in Manhattan, and had acquired a used car for the purpose. Would I travel with her to NYC and help her move?
Suzanne, who earned part of her living selling pot and psychedelics, let us have some of her product at wholesale so we could retail it along the road, to finance the trip. I thought we could also sell Press Collective books, making money and promoting the cause at the same time. It would be a grand adventure.
To be continued…