Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lesbian Herstory at the Jika Jika Community Center, March 24, 2013

"The VWLLFA Collective cordially invite you to the 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Victorian Women's Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives Inc on Sunday 24 March 2013, 2pm-4pm at the Jika Jika Community Centre: 1b Plant Street, Northcote. 

Yes, 30 years ago, on 1 March 1983, the WL Archives held its first official meeting with three members in attendance and minutes written."

At the start of the meeting, Ardy acknowledged the Wurundjeri community of First Australians, the traditional owners of the land, and Jean Taylor laid the First Australians' flag in the center of the room. 

Vig, Marg, Barb, founding members of the Women's Liberation Archives

Jean Taylor, founding member of the WLA, who has kept working with the collection for all its 30 years

Guest Speaker: Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York

Outside, worrying about talk, honored to be included

In preparing for the event, I went to look at the online site of the holdings of the VWLLF archives on the University of Melbourne site. What I found there, the lives I met there, including a younger but no less dedicated La Professoressa, moved me beyond words, and the knowledge that I was to meet some of the women in person on the afternoon, filled me with gratitude for the journeys life had offered to me, the moments of reconciliation, herstories with herstories.

Grassroots Archives: Sites of Gratitude, Intrusions and UnCertainties
By Joan Nestle, 2013
From the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives catalogue on the University of Melbourne Archives website:
Name of Collection: Eileen Capocchi
Activity: Feminism
Years covered by the collection: 1958-1985, 6 archives boxes
Eileen Capocchi was born on 12 March, 1925 in Jaffa, Palestine, and moved to Australia with her family when she was two. State school educated, Capocchi and her brother became state wards and were placed in an orphanage after their parents separated and their mother went overseas. At fourteen, she ran away to work in a Lonsdale Street clothing factory and joined the Eureka Youth League. Married twice with three children, Capocchi worked at a variety of jobs, including drink waitressing, welfare work, receptionist and office work and home based dress making. In 1957, while still a member of the Communist Party of Australia, she joined the Union of Australian Women at Chelsea and undertook volunteer work in the UAW office. After teaching herself to type and acquiring administrative skills, she became UAW Secretary, 1964-1968. She established the Women’s Liberation Aspendale Group in 1972 and by 1973, she was a member of the Melbourne Women’s Liberation Newsletter editorial group. Disillusioned with the male dominated politics of the CPA and the communist men’s lack of support for the Women’s Liberation Movement, Capocchi eventually let her membership lapse. In 1977, she became the paid coordinator of the Western Region Women’s Learning Center where she designed three courses: Theory of Driving, Maths for fun and Water Safety and Confidence for Mature Women. For several years she taught women how to swim at the Northcote Pool.

A grassroots archives sings the poetry of dreams and deeds, of innovations and losses, the epic telling of endangered lives. To all the women who have made these poems of endeavor public,  I thank you deeply, history will never be the same because of your undertakings.
( I recognize who is in the room—your history, your work, your archives)
(I apologize for my American voice.)

It is a great honor to have been asked to speak with you this afternoon.  As some of you might know, my life with lesbian grassroots archives started in 1974 when the Lesbian Herstory Archives  began its life in a small room in my New York City apartment, 13A, but really for me it all started earlier, in a place of policed touch, this sense that enormous moments of  courage and complexity embodied by  "deviant women"  refusing their ordained places , shattering the assumed national stories of gender and desire, resisting the  orthodoxies of legal, medical, religious institutions that only saw pathology where we saw possibilities, in other words, America of the 1940s and 50s, were so in danger of falling out of any historical context (sadly in the beginning, including lesbian feminism) that something had to be done, some act of paying attention, some alternative concept of history had to be created—here I am speaking of my  1950s experience  in the working class butch-fem bars of New York’s Greenwich Village, it was the tenacity, the touch, the defiance,  of these "social outcasts" that I was so desperate to hold on to. My dedication to this task was as concrete as a passing woman’s touch, as huge as redefining what is human—it was their bodies, their refusal to accept national restrictions  that pushed me 15 years later to work with others from different feminist histories to create a new thing—a lesbian archives where the criminalized became a people.

For  almost 40 years,  grassroots archives have been part of the air I breathed and it continued to be when I first came to Melbourne and in 2000 sat with a group of women in Jean Taylor’s home  which was also the home of the Victorian Women’s Liberation Archives who were trying to work out what to call their collection and where to house it.

 I entered your lesbian feminist, and for some, Marxist history on the arm of a woman who had been in the struggle for many years, again on the wings of desire. Love brought me to your archives, to the stories of your wit and courage, your comradeship and style, your bodies and your songs , your manifestos and your safe houses, your youth camps and your conferences where radical collective agendas took shape, your relentless dedication to living your visions. (Here I added that it was a wonderful sense of fun, of self parody, that made the women's movement stories I heard here so unique.)

     Di and I were from such different worlds: me, Bronx Jew , she, Adelaide Lutheran; me, a bookkeepers daughter, she timber mill owner’s daughter; me,a 50s fem, she a 70s lesbian feminist socialist—and more than a decade of age difference—but what made all possible was the shared language and passions of lesbian feminism, years she and I had spent organizing around a social vision, on different continents, with different voices in our ears, but the movement gave us a common language, though I have to say, Di’s commitment to her politics went beyond anything I had previously known. Right before we we made love for the first time, in my NYC apartment in 1999, she looked at her watch and said, "Joan I have  two hours before I have to get back to the UN for a meeting on world hunger." (Here I added, if ever there was a reason for performance anxiety that was it.) From Di Otto's collection, (here I hold up her sixteen page printout from the archives website which I will add at the end of this journal entry, if I can) In the first part of 1973 alone Di helped organize and attended the Feminist Theory Conference, held at Mt. Beauty, a little ironic laugh, Women and Sexist Education, Radical Lesbians Conference, Gay Camp Adelaide, Feminism and Socialism, Women as Victims of Crime, Women and Madness, pages more. (Here I make a pleas for contributions from the women present.)
To show the shared language of vision and activism that bridged time and distance, I read from  the introduction to 1974-1976: Herstory of the Halfway House, by the Women’s Liberation Halfway House Collective, Melbourne, Australia, which Di helped write:
"Recorded history to date has been the story of great men and great events. With the exception of some social history, it has accurately reflected the patriarchal and class nature of our society by failing to give any consideration to that part of society which is called private or personal. It has ignored power structures by focusing on the powerful.”
And then from the first Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletter in 1974: 
The Lesbian Herstory Archives  exists to gather and preserve records of lesbian lives and activities so that future generations of lesbians will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gathering this material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture that they serve.

   Perhaps the starting point of all our work with grassroots archives is this sense of having witnessed and participated in  profound communal and private moments of courage and vision, so many of you here know exactly what I mean—the endless meetings, the late night calls, the demos, the dances, the pub crawls, the shared houses, the safe houses  you created for women and children, the  newsletters and vigils, the  cultural creations, the first time loves, the commitment to collectivism, to questioning all the big things that made life so difficult for so many—those notes you took, those agendas you submitted,  the photographs where your faces catch your heart these days and mine too—the hope, the determination, the longings, the DNA of social change—today we recognize the efforts of all who refused the erosion of memory, natural or ordained by the State.

  The life moments held in our grassroots archives are incursions into the settled narrative so loved by States and nationalisms of all sorts; they are the interruptions to business as usual, just as the lesbian goodbyes turned heads at the staid Melbourne railroad station of the 70s—here others will find your moments of refusal, your plans of action, your joy in changing gender and sexual scripts—your pioneering thinking on issues of equity, relationships, and community—here they will find you and you and you—not dormant or quiet, not silent—but your voices always renewed as every questing imagination  touches the markings of your convictions, your loves, your sacrifices, your dreams, your laughter.
   Grassroots archives are not homes for final certainties, but for the generation of endless questions, evaluations, rethinking, connections found or refused because histories are always moving, not even words stand still—meaning is a temporary thing but this is not the same thing as meaninglessness-- it just means an ever enlarging  map of visions of human dignity—what a lesbian calls herself 50 years from now or the nouns used to indicate genders will not remain the same—but the glory is the conversation that archives such as yours, ours, allows—the passion of conviction, suited to its times and place, will announce itself in the light of other times, other convictions—failures will become clearer, our solutions to questions of inclusion and rigidities will stand revealed in all their frailties, and this is true  for each time of passionate endeavors—new knowledges  made possible by the revealed inadequacies  of absolutely held certainties—this is the dynamic thinking made possible by our archives.   This to me is one definition of hope.

            Through out my intimate life with the archives, for the twenty years or so that it filled my apartment with its file cabinets and bookshelves, its endless stream of visitors, I was always looking for icons of resistance. I found them in the out-of-print books, the oral history tapes, old copies of homophile publications like Vice Versa and The ladder, snapshots of conversation between visitors. Stories came to me—the story of the young butch woman in the 1950s who always sewed a piece of lace on her socks before she went to the bars so the police would not arrest her for transvestism, the story of the older fem who carried a dildo in a satin purse so when she left the bar with her chosen woman of the night, she knew all would be well, the story of the young Jewish Polish woman who had read the Well of Loneliness in Polish before she was taken into the concentration camp. “That book helped me to survive: I wanted to live long enough to kiss a woman,” she told me one night while we sat at the archives table, my dining room table, having a cup of tea. These stories filled my heart; they healed and educated me and changed for me forever that which I would call history. They have become the tropes of my writing, the proclamations of the lesbian spirit that I repeat over and over. They are my jewels of discovery, the riches that lay beneath that marginalized land.
From "A Fragile Union," 1992 

 From Something Good: A Feminist Sing-a-Long Songbook, compiled by Andy Malone and Di Otto (February 1981) in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:
Shameless Hussies--Helen Potter 
Tune: Dixie 
Lyrics: Helen Potter
We're the Shameless Hussies and we don't give a damn
We're loud and raucous and we're shouting for our rights
And our sex and for fun and we'll win

They call us names to be nasty and rude
Like lesbian, man-hater, bitch and prostitute
What a laugh, cos half of it is true

The fragile docile image of our sex must die
From centuries of silence we are screaming into action

We're Shameless Hussies and we curse and we swear
We will be free, beware to those who disagree
Come sing, come and fight, we will win.

To end the afternoon, all of those gathered joined in sharing memories of their actions, in singing their songs of resistance and eating home cooked lamingtons and chocolate birthday cake.I sat thinking of that other gathering at 4 Fitzgibbon just a few weeks ago where lesbians in their 20s filled the vista--what a length of lesbian, queer, women's history I have lived with, through. In my body lives the 1950s butch-fem communities of the American 1950s and now it is joined with out rancour or shame to the lesbian feminist resistance movement and onward into the gender refusal visions of the new generations. I kept looking at the First Australians flag that lay at the center of the room, here in our own form of a corroboree, a communal gathering held usually in the sands of the dry river beds or under a cooling gum tree. Something in me broke free, some thing loosened, and I was stepping into the rivers of reconciliation.

From the LHA visitors’ book, 1983:
I am here among women
Who breathe softly in my ear
Who speak gently
In a voice that will not be stilled.
I am here in a cradle
Or a womb
Or a lap,
On a knee that is shapely
Under my thigh
Leaving the impression
That I will never be alone.
I am here to remember faces
I have never seen before
And I do.
Love, Jewell Gomez

All above photos by La Professoressa, March 24, 2013 

From the Aboriginal and Tribal Nation News

No comments:

Post a Comment