Re-Education at the Lesbian Herstory Archives
Author: Sarah Fonseca
June 28, 2014
American history was never my strong suit. From grade school through those pesky requisite undergrad courses, the subject bored me to tears. Not only were historical narratives presented to us in a predictable, memorization-friendly format (name of notable event, date(s) of notable event, key figures in notable event). In many instances, these narratives were spit-shined, polished so well that colonization, capitalism, and eurocentrism’s smudges went entirely unnoticed. The “facts” written on the page were often half-truths; stories of critical social upheavals and their leaders–often women, often people of color, often queers–glaringly omitted from textbooks and, thus, American consciousness. Because the history of my communities were absent from the textbooks placed in front of me, it was easy to zone out as my Peanuts caricature of a teacher continued emphasizing the importance of the Louisiana Purchase.
So it may seem counterintuitive–even masochistic–for me to spend this summer working in a sprawling archive which houses thousands upon thousands of letters, publications, and other pertinent historical artifacts. But while history has never been my strong suit, herstory is an entirely different tale.
In between learning that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and that Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, I was clinging to little slivers of lesbian and feminist heritage I’d discovered outside of class, not really knowing that I was filling in the gaps in my own education.
Pop culture became a gateway. In Mona Lisa Smile, a semi-biographical film set at Wellesley during the 1950s, a lesbian nurse is fired after prescribing students oral contraceptives. Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement explores the relationship between two women who came of age and fell in love with one another in 60s-era New York City. In American Horror Story: Asylum, a fictional lesbian reporter from that same era is ripped away from her partner and committed to a mental institution for no other reason than her sexuality.
As someone who came out (to mixed results) in the mid-aughts, these were the stories I found myself rewinding, re-reading, and obsessing over. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but these narratives were all rooted in resiliency and queer survivalism. The love depicted in each one was amplified by the fact that it was considered illicit–and was therefore worth fighting for. Decades away from these trailblazing women in space and time, I began to feel a sort of kinsmanship with them, their ability to live through dire straits inspiring my own.
So when I learned about the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ summer internships, I leapt at the opportunity without hesitation. Located in Brooklyn in a nondescript brownstone home, the Lesbian Herstory Archives boasts “the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities.” Keenly aware of how academia has historically ignored LGBT histories, the five queer women who founded the archives in 1974 set out to preserve these narratives themselves. They began collecting and housing materials in co-founder Joan Nestle’s Upper West Side Apartment.
When the books and files reached the rafters and covered every surface except Nestle’s bed, the Archivettes held an extensive fundraiser to secure a new building to rehome their special collections. In 1990, the house in Park Slope was purchased and, in 1993, formally opened to the public.
As I’ve spent time at the Archives, I’ve learned that each visitor, volunteer, and intern has a “my first box” story. We have all experienced the catharsis of pulling our first archival box from a shelf exploring its contents, be it out of curiosity or specific research purposes. It’s impossible to not lose yourself in the delicate opening of the file, in the tremendous experiences of some brave woman or grassroots organization from years’ past.
My inaugural internship assignment at the Archives was to process three small boxes of nonfiction and poetry belonging to an Arizonan woman named Mia Albright. Albright began donating her work to the Archives in the mid-1970s when she was 29 years old. Albright would send in an additional manuscript or two every decade or so up until the late 1980s. Like many women whose legacies live on at 484 14th Street, Albright’s requires some detective work. The last time she was in contact with the Archives was in 1989. Three years later, she published a collection of poetry entitled Poems of a Feminist Intelligence Officer. After that, the trail runs cold.
When I asked Deb Edel if she’d ever heard of Mia Albright, she paused thoughtfully, scratched her white hair, then shook her head. “No…no, I don’t. But the name certainly sounds familiar.”
While Albright isn’t a lesbian poet of Mary Oliver or Joan Larkin’s critical acclaim, her work is still compelling, worth holding in your palms and seeing your feminist rage and passions reflected back in her thinning manuscripts. In processing her collection, I ran across a poetry collection entitled Letters to Womon which featured poems written to a Dinner Party-esque group of women, spanning from ancient mythology to popular culture. One of the “recipients” was the Blonde Bombshell herself, Marilyn Monroe:
strung between projector and screen
is some cross-fire; and it is not to buy dreams
that men crucify light. word of mouth is how
i fancied you. girl in the leafed warmth
of her poetry, not a 60,000 man photo
i do this; imagine
myself womon to womon, and you
in, i think, white silk; something about diamonds.
mixing honey in your throat as you talk.
eyes a polish deeper than your drugged lipstick.
not like that mist of maze in the posted eyes:
depth has something to say.
and a piano player’s fingers
that i just watch at the bed’s edge
a bed like a crumpled map.
you tell me about how tender lost is.
and i believe you. hope warns
you away from his serial epitaph.
why did lie lose and become expectation?
the Court of Love knew its own joke:
did this recent smoke make history so sure of itself:
who missed the politics of the huge:
when was the world less in hiding?
i wait for you to like the way my voice drips down my eyelashes,
we nod at one another and stare down into what you fixed
us to drink.
O how we joked about how beautiful you are!
and after all the men you wrote love letters
with George Washington on them,
it’s a read leaf i chose to add the tenderness of justice.
a poppy shakes flame into the wind’s grave
–our red fist.
did you notice how I turned my face away
The Archives has grown and expanded into its Park Slope home with the same synergy that it did in Nestle’s Manhattan apartment. No space in the Archives goes underutilized; there isn’t a single wall which is not covered in bookshelves, file cabinets, archival boxes, or the occasional portrait.
After one of my first shifts at the Archives, I stopped by Ginger’s Bar on 5th Avenue for a drink. At some point, I struck up a conversation with an older lesbian, and the subject changed to where I was interning. “That place,” she said affectionately, pointing in 14th Street’s direction, “is like a gay episode of Hoarders.” Co-founder Deb Edel has joked about the Archives’ overwhelming inclusiveness in interviews. “If it’s been touched by a lesbian, we collect it.”
While the Archives is home to the special collections of many notable literary lesbians such as Dorothy Allison and Audre Lorde, the nonprofit is vested in remaining accessible to any queer woman who wants to share her experiences or work. “Traditional archives have been about famous people. From the beginning, that was not our view. This was an archives that belonged to the people who lived its history,” Nestle has stated.
In other words, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is doing for me what the textbooks of my childhood did not: It recognizes all experiences–from the Albrights to the Adriennes–as important parts of our collective history.
Image of Lesbian Herstory Archives via Jgieseking.org