Lost in Oakland

The Women’s Press Collective

I arrived in Oakland at the beginning of October 1974. The communal house I joined, on Terrace Street, had three stories. Each of the other women had a room on the second floor. Mine was in the attic.

My new housemates—two couples, Carol and Alice, Judy and Wendy—had their routines, and I tried to fit in. Carol said there were two rules: wash the dishes, and don’t wash the dishes. Meaning, take a turn washing the dishes, but don’t do them too often because we are making a feminist revolution and housework isn’t all that high on the priority list. The cats’ litter box was right at the entrance to the kitchen. Though normally on the slob side, I had a hard time with that.

I remember wandering around the neighborhood and walking north into a large park, through a grove of blue gum eucalyptus—a tree I hadn’t noticed on my previous brief visits to the Bay Area. Vendors of eucalyptus oil have described their scent as bold, rich, and penetrating. On that first encounter it reminded me of cat pee.

There was a TV in the living room. Judy occasionally watched football, I suppose because she grew up in a part of the country where everyone followed football. Schools in New York City did not have the space for football fields. Alice enjoyed Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a satirical takeoff on soap operas, when it came on the air, and I sometimes joined her in that.

We were all broke, putting everything into our political work. I had intended to devote myself to writing and to studying martial arts. My new housemates informed me, with a smile, that as a condition of living there —I was not paying rent—they expected me to join either Carol and Alice at A Women’s Place bookstore or Judy and Wendy at the Women’s Press Collective (WPC). I could have gone out and found some other living situation that would leave me time to write. However, without a network of friends encouraging me to persist in my original plans, I opted for the press collective.

The bookstore and the WPC both worked out of a triangular building at the intersection of Broadway and College, about half a mile from the Terrace Street house. Judy, Wendy, five other women, and I were the press collective. Our operation was in a room behind the bookstore, and included a small Multilith that printed one page at a time, a camera to make plates for the Multilith, a paper cutter, and collating tables. (Later on we acquired a much larger press, which you can see in the photo above.)

The WPC had published my first book of poetry, Crossing the DMZ, and was now in the process of producing an anthology, Lesbians Speak Out, which included one of my essays. Lesbians Speak Out had 154 pages and was too big to be stapled. It needed to be perfect bound, i.e., the pages glued together into the spine. After typesetting, printing, trimming, and collating—all by hand—we had to clamp the pages together, one book at a time, smear the inside edges with hot glue, and slap the cover around them. The WPC had just acquired a hot glue machine for this project.

The hot glue fumes were toxic, so we needed an exhaust fan to ventilate the room. I don’t remember how it was that I volunteered, but one day I climbed a ladder outside the building. Perched on the ledge, overlooking Broadway, I chiseled a hole in the stucco and we plopped the fan in there. When I was done, Carol inspected the results and began to sing, “M-I-C-K-E-Y…” It was indeed a Mickey Mouse job, but it worked.

The WPC had a rule about how books were chosen for publication. Two members had to agree on it. Since Judy and Wendy always voted the same way, and I seemed to be the only other person interested in reviewing submissions, their decisions held. Judy and Wendy chose works that promoted only the most positive images of women, which they believed was the best use of our limited resources. This made sense, given millennia of patriarchy, of women depicted as stupid, weak, and passive.

On the other hand, at that time there was little space in the women’s movement for some of the negative and painful aspects of life. For the times we and the people around us were less than heroic. When I was grieving after my mother’s death, and wrote a short story about the depressed guy who’d been my landlord on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, their response was dismissive. After that I stopped writing for quite a while.

To be continued…

5 Responses to Lost in Oakland

  1. Donna Gottschalk March 29, 2021 at 12:30 pm #

    It’s too bad about the power we exerted over each other back then – to stick to the script . Made me run to the hills .

    • Martha Shelley March 29, 2021 at 12:34 pm #

      It has always been true, in every movement. IMO, it’s the nature of human beings.

  2. Jason Victor Serinus March 29, 2021 at 6:25 pm #

    Thank you so much for this Martha. I passed that triangle many times over my 42 years in Oakland.

    Ah yes, political correctness. I was greatly relieved when no one batted an eyelash when I took a tentative step toward coming out during the SDS summer teacher/organizer institute, in Chicago, 1967, and we very much let ourselves be. It was later, when I was up on a ladder, painting the walls of the loft that housed our 17th St. gay men’s collective, that one of our least favorite gay libers treated me to a dose of political correctness. The radio was set to WQXR, and was broadcasting Dietrich Fishcer-Dieskau singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe – like your writings, not very happy happy ain’t we just grand – when said Rat entered the loft, walked up the radio, turned it off, and declared, with a flick of his wrist, “That’s just what we’re fighting against!” We knew everything back then, didn’t we? At least, some of us felt we did.

    • Jason Victor Serinus March 29, 2021 at 6:27 pm #

      Oops. Should have proofread and written
      “walked up to the radio”…

  3. Martha Shelley March 29, 2021 at 7:04 pm #

    We did think we knew everything, and I was certainly as guilty as anyone else. But to give us credit, we were fighting a culture that trashed us, we had so little in the way of resources, and we accomplished a great deal in spite of it.

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