THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Feminist bookstores were simply a safe place.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, November 2021
MF: I’m Mary Farmer, and I was born December 1, 1948, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is basically a working-class town that housed many factories back in the day. Not so many now, as things have changed, but certainly when my mother grew up there and when I grew up there. Fort Wayne is very near Detroit so a lot of the industry in Fort Wayne was related to the automobile business. That’s sort of the element that I grew up in.
It was a great place to grow up, a lot of public parks and a lot of sports. My family is mostly Irish and some German heritage, and my nuclear family included my parents, myself, I was the oldest, a brother of mine who is two years younger, who’s deceased, and my sister, who is the youngest, who is a physician and lives in Eugene, Oregon. I think one of the important factors about my growing up is my Catholic heritage. My mother was a very devout Catholic. My father converted to marry her, which of course, he was required to do at the time, and he did.
But all of the impetus and the religious customs, education, values, etc., really, that was a lot the province of my mother. It’s not to say my father didn’t contribute, but the Catholic perspective was 24/7 in our house, and there are many good things to be said about that background, I believe, in terms of caring about other people and the world and working to make the world a better place. I would say, though, that in the time period that we’re talking about when I grew up, 1948 and I left my parents’ house in ’67 to go to college, the Catholic ideal of women was pretty tough.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt that as a young person, but your choices for occupation and future were heavily weighted in the wife and mother modes, which again, are important. I felt that I had nowhere to go within that structure, and it was hard and stressful and alienating behind closed doors. I had a lot of friends, had fun with young people, but I also knew that there was something different about me, and it’s all worked out to the best.
Particularly my teenage years at home were really tough to figure out my spot in the world. So pretty much I went along with the crowd. I studied hard, I played hard, and then I was able to go to college in Chicago at a Catholic women’s school, but run by a very liberal and progressive order of nuns, the Dominicans, and that four-year experience, which also included a year in Washington, was very pivotal for me.
I was on my own and had to figure a lot of things out, made a lot of friends, got an excellent education and the Dominicans were just very progressive in their view of the world and the way they encouraged women to think and say what they thought, write, to read broadly. All those things were important in my development. I’m not sure if I had stayed in Indiana to go to school, that I would be where I am today. It’s not a knock on Indiana, it’s the circumstances that I grew up in, which were somewhat limiting for me.
MJC: You were at Rosary College?
MF: I was, which is now Dominican University. But yes, I was at Rosary College, and I just grew and grew as a leader, as a student, as a thinker. It was a very important time for me.
MJC: Excellent. Were you out to yourself or anybody else in this whole period?
MF: No. The sisters were progressive, but not that progressive. I had relationships during that period of time, but everything was behind closed doors.
MJC: What studies did you pursue at Rosary?
MF: I studied history and economics, but got a broad liberal education. A really important fork in the road happened in my junior year when I got selected to come to Washington, DC, to study at Georgetown for a year. Four history or economics or political science majors got to apply and possibly spend a year in Washington. It was a real struggle for me with my parents, partly they were just frightened to send me to a big city that they didn’t know. But they came to love Washington and visited me quite a bit that year and then loved to come and spend time as I spent time in Washington.
The year in Washington changed me in a different way. In some ways it was the start of my political education because I was here in 1969 and 1970. The United States invaded Cambodia. The Vietnam War was at its height and students were killed at Kent State University, which certainly I think for all of us young people at that time to see that happen to our peers is something that we never forgot. Those things led me to participate in all the teach-ins and the sit-ins and the marches – things that I had never in my life seen, much less participated in.
The city of Washington was just abuzz at that time with political activists who lived here, others who came here to organize, all the universities had teach-ins and it was just a real time of study and thought, discussion, action, all of that. And it made a big impression on me, changed my thinking, made me more curious to deepen my thinking and read the works of truly progressive people who were thinking and acting in the world. To think about race politics, to think about the politics of sexuality, all of that. It was quite a year.
MJC: Did you live at Georgetown?
MF: I lived in a small apartment with three of my classmates within walking distance. Just being in Washington was a great experience. Being close to the federal government to try to understand more of that than I had before. And of course, I met a lot of students from a wider geographical area than I did when I was at Rosary. That was interesting. Georgetown was almost entirely male in the school that I was in. I met a lot of really interesting guys and had lots of conversations deep into the night with men and women, but with a lot of men, which had not been my experience in the past. So that was pretty cool, too.
Then I went back and graduated, and as soon as I could go home and borrow my father’s car, I was back out here because I knew when I left that that’s where I wanted to be. And again, it was very hard for my mother, very difficult for her to accept. But I just knew that I couldn’t stay where I was. I knew I was going to have to figure out something about coming out as a lesbian. There was just a whole world here for me to be part of and I’ve been here ever since.
MJC: You took the car and came back. Then what happened? Where did you go to work?
MF: I’ll condense it. Typical penniless student trying to figure out what to do. A friend came with me and we rent an apartment. We both look for jobs. We both got jobs. Back in the day, I’m sure this was an average salary for your basic Liberal Arts girl graduate. I was a glorified secretary, but I could pay half of the rent on an apartment way out in the suburbs and go to a movie once in a while and feed myself. My first job would have been in 1971. I worked 1971, ’72 and part of ’73 and a couple of, as we used to say, back in the day, straight jobs. So, barely subsisting.
I didn’t live in the city, but I did, after a couple of years realize, I worked in the city, so I wasn’t completely divorced from it, and I realized that this is where I needed to be. I did move back to the city, lived by myself, didn’t have very many friends, that whole thing. I wanted to get more involved in a women’s community. I knew that much. I didn’t know much more. I got involved in the women’s community here. And by that, I mean, particularly at the start, the lesbian feminist community.
I got involved on a sports team that was entirely made up of sort of the core lesbian feminists in Washington. That was quite an experience for me, another part of my education, shall we say, besides fun education. And that then was the pathway to begin working at the bookstore, which at that point was part bookstore.
MJC: Can you start at the beginning of how the bookstore was created?
MF: Well, Leslie Reeves and Judy Winsett, two very talented artists who are part of the lesbian feminist community, I’ll say. And when I say lesbian feminist community, I want to be honest and say that refers to almost entirely white lesbian feminist community. There were many, many predominantly African American women who were feminists, Progressives, activists, Socialists who were doing lots of work. And in the early 70’s, there was some crossover. Now this is my personal opinion. I was new. There was some crossover in communication, but the communities were fairly separate. There was crossover at the bars, which were very important institutions at that time. There was some mixing of women of color and white women in that type of situation.
MJC: Do you want to mention some of the bars that existed at that time? Do you remember any of them?
MF: Well, yes. The Phase One, Club Madame, the boys’ bars in Southeast, Lost and Found, Tracks. There was a women’s bar up there for a while, called The Other Side, which was a big Tracks-like place. It didn’t last very long, but it was up there for a while.
Judy and Leslie were silversmiths. They also were very astute political people. What they wanted to do was to provide a place where women, not just themselves, other women artists could sell their work because that was a hard thing in those days. Potters, other jewelry makers, stained glass artists, leather workers. Those were the main types, but that kind of thing. In 1973, they got a lease on a little place over on Market Row, on 7th Street Southeast, right near Eastern Market and opened the doors and started inviting women to bring their things in to sell.
I mean, it was a business deal, pretty quickly the shelves filled up, and they, of course, were making jewelry like crazy, which women wanted. Some of it was just regular decorative, and some of it very feminist, made with the women sign, the old women’s sign with a fist as the main design element. Then also some pieces that were the double women’s symbol, which were sort of the sign of the lesbians. They opened the shop. I knew them and everybody kind of pitched in to get the shop open. Back in the day, you just put out a call and people would show up to help and do anything, just about.
I helped out a couple of weekends to get the shop started, and it opened. It was a huge accomplishment and source of pride for the lesbian feminist community to have this place. There weren’t many safe spaces for us back then, and many women did not want to use the bar for that, for various reasons. It also was a place you could go and spend some time, look around. You didn’t have to spend any money. Check out the flyers, talk to somebody. That was the start of the shop.
Then probably late summer of 1974, we were all hanging out after a softball game. Judy and Lesley played softball with me also. They said, “We just can’t manage making jewelry and running the shop.” The little anecdote that they would tell people was, “We’re upstairs at 7th street making jewelry and the bell rings. We run downstairs and sell somebody a bracelet, and then we run back up and try to make sure the solder hasn’t dried.” It was just too much to handle.
We were sitting around having something to eat after the ballgame. And they said, “We really need somebody to manage the shop for us. We want to be jewelers. We need somebody to manage the shop.” And it was sort of like it came flying out of my mouth just on its own, and I said, “Well, gee, I’d love to do that.” And they were like, “Oh, Mary, that would be great.” Because I was outgoing and they thought I could probably add and subtract and they trusted me. In a minute I changed my life.
MJC: Up to that time, were you still having a straight job and not living in the city?
MF: Right. I was working for a marketing research firm in a very junior position and lived in Northwest and was playing ball and trying to figure out about the lesbian community and meeting people and coming out to myself and other people and all of that. It must have been the fall of 1974, I started working there, and of course they couldn’t afford to pay much. I had to change a few things, but that didn’t matter to me. I so enjoyed what I was doing. I could see there was so much building to be done, and I don’t mean bricks and mortar. I loved every day. I did quit that job and worked at the shop for another two years. And in 1976, Judy and Leslie decided they wanted to sell the shop.
Another woman in the community was interested in buying it, a friend of mine. And that was fine. And then I thought to myself, Do I want to have more say? And do I want some more stability in my life, even if it’s low income? I said to Judy and Leslie, “I’d like to buy the shop.” It didn’t cost very much by today’s standards. But it cost way more than I had. And the only way I was able to buy it was that my college lover who was still in the city, co-signed a loan for me from the bank, and my father sent me a small check that helped as well.
And there I was, 1976, spring, summer. I was a small business owner. The store was named Lammas by Judy and Leslie. That’s because it opened on August 1st and August 1st is the Pagan witch’s festival. Lammas, which is Harvest Festival – early harvest festival celebrated a lot in the British Isles, maybe farther than that. But at least in the British Isles. It was a time when people often exchange gifts of silver. Since they were silversmiths, they thought it was perfect thing.
MJC: Now you’re the owner of Lammas, right?
MF: Right. And it completely changed the course of my life. No longer in the straight work world, trying to do whatever. I had a pretty wide-open playing field, certainly not economically, but in other respects, and it was awesome. I don’t know when I pinched myself and kind of awoke from the dream that I had bought the store, but it took a while. And I’ve said this, I don’t know how many thousand times, if I could have made a decent living, I’d still be behind that counter today. But eventually the economics of it got us.
MJC: But it was quite a few years. Please talk about those years.
MF: I was there just under 20 years. And then a group of local women bought the store and moved it. And it lasted five, seven years after that. And then they shuttered and that was it.
MJC: Talk about its importance as an institution of the lesbian feminist community in that period of time when you were running it.
MF: It also was a very important institution to straight feminists as well. Both. That’s how we talked back in the day. Straight feminist. In many ways we worked together in the city to accomplish political work, which was a great thing. I think the importance of Lammas and all of the other feminist bookstores, living and not, and by the way, this past weekend I went to Chicago to visit my in-laws. Women & Children First looks like it’s going strong. It was such a pleasure. Every time I go to Chicago, I go in there. It’s such a pleasure to see them still doing their thing in Chicago.
MJC: I know it is still there and seems to be thriving. Were you conscious of how many were actually there at the height? And can you talk about how many are left? Do you have that information?
MF: I would guess there were upwards of 50 maybe significantly in the heyday. Now seven or eight. I think Antigone in Tucson is still open. I think Texas Book Women in Houston is still there. Charis is still probably there in Atlanta. Women & Children First. I don’t know about Amazon in Minneapolis, but they may be open as well. So that’s six or seven right there. There may be others. And I may have one or two of the ones that I think are still around, not around. But it is a huge decrease in the population of feminist bookstores.
MJC: I remember Lammas as a women’s center as well as a bookstore. Do you want to talk about that? What kind of other activities in addition to selling books?
MF: Well, that dovetails nicely with your question about how would I view the importance of the bookstore. It’s just important to put the credit where it belongs. I was the last, but people in the community helped in every possible way. And I think that’s true for the other women’s bookstores as well. It was a project that people in the community were proud of and generally proud of because they put some of their own labor in it as well. We did a lot of resource sharing. That was probably the drawing card.
And by that, I mean, the thing that brought people into the shop, certainly in the early days, probably as much as any desire to buy a book or a piece of women’s music. We had a huge book. It was about this thick, a binder that had doctors that treated women fairly. If you remember, back in the day, lesbians were afraid to go to a gynecologist. All kinds of things were in the binder: people who have rooms to share, housing information, stuff about women’s shelters, about the rape crisis center, other places that people could volunteer, mental health services in our own community and more widely. Every group you could possibly think of. Young feminists wanting to adopt children.
Every kind of thing that people were doing, that they wanted to get more people attracted to, was pretty much in our book. So that was a service that we provided. And it was important. We also publicized all the activities that NOW did in those days. NOW was the most high-profile feminist organization in Washington at that point. And everything NOW did to helping us stuff envelopes, to a big march, to going to the Supreme Court, to protesting wherever, all of the women’s concerts as those things developed, other cultural events as those things developed, and other things. Things from the socialist movement and progressive, etc.
MJC: What do you think the impact might have been, or what can you speculate the impact was on women authors and on getting even more women to write books? The fact that there were outlets.
MF: I think it was very important, and it was an aspect of the shop. There really weren’t many that didn’t give me great joy. But some of the things that we were able to pull off because we were selling feminist literature, and I had great book buyers and great advisors – that was not my forte – who could stock the shop with great literature. We didn’t emphasize the Harper and Row stuff as that became more the place that people went, the larger publishers. We had all the little ones, the little stapled chapbooks of poetry and all of that because we thought it was our responsibility to make that available to people.
The readings that we had, advertising them brought a certain book or books or authors to the attention of people, some of whom already knew about these authors and many who didn’t and people would come in perhaps and buy their books in advance of the reading, come to the reading. The authors had time to actually read what they had written and also talk extemporaneously about the politics of publishing and all of that. We did a lot of that.
But our community really wanted that and we really worked hard to make it happen. It was just a thrill, honestly, to see a crowd gathered to listen to Dorothy Allison and to Cheryl Clarke. A couple of times we had 700 people for Alice Walker, and lines and lines around the block, for Gloria Steinem and for Audre Lorde. It was a heady time. It really was. I was there from 1974 to 1993 which is when I walked out because it was the two extra years, just sort of working in the shop and then I owned it for 17 years.
MJC: It was your life. But making a living that you could retire on was a little bit of a challenge I gathered, right?
MF: It was a huge challenge, and I couldn’t support myself any longer. That’s what finally, with the help of some close friends who didn’t have any axes to grind, but sat with me while I thought about it, made me make a change. I wanted to say one other thing, to expound on something a little is that very often the feminist bookstores, and I know it was true of us and I’m sure it was true of the others, were simply a safe place.
We had experiences of everything from a woman who had been harassed on the street, was being followed by someone, just had a rotten day at the office with her boss, was really depressed, new in town didn’t have a contact to speak of, who knew they could come to the store and get a little bit, either of respite or a little bit of information that then they could take the next step. Providing that as well as being a book seller, that was really important to other people. This is a very meaningful thing, to be in a position to be able to do for a while.
MJC: It was absolutely a feminist institution that was central to the women’s movement and the achievements of the women’s movement.
MF: Thank you. I do think the women’s bookstores played an important part, and it’s always the give and take, because the pure activists out there organizing on the street and doing all that, they made it happen. We were just part of the picture.
MJC: Important part. Part of the story is the feminist movement. And then for each of our interviewees, the impact that it had on her whole life. It’s hard to imagine without the bookstore and without that activity that you would have ended up at the DC Rape Crisis Center or the other places that you worked. I think it’s fair to also talk about your activities beyond 1982.
MF: Okay. Well, I can talk briefly, and there is one other area of my work that ran alongside of and preceded my work at the bookstore that I want to go back to also just briefly. I left the shop and pretty quickly ended up being recruited for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. That was a very highly lesbian-led organization. It was mixed, but much of the significant leadership was female. I did an interim gig there for a little while, and then again, my story of having a beer and somebody said, you want to run my bookstore?
I had a reception for the task force, which just happened to be there. One of the board members, someone I knew, said, “We need a director of finance. How about it?” I said, “Yes,” because it sounded wonderful, the organization and I like doing finance work. I started there and just can’t say enough about the organization and then assumed some more overall leadership when I became the deputy. But just an incredible staff of people, many of them young people. I wasn’t so old, but a lot of them were a lot younger than me.
It was just a marvelous experience. I worked with so many great people: Urvashi Vaid, Melinda Paras, who preceded her, Kerry Lobel. It was an honor to work with those folks and so many more. And I think the task force was and still is an important institution and voice in the progressive movement at large. I worked hard and loved my work. I resigned in early 2001, took a short break. My partner and I had been trying to adopt a baby.
Two or three months after I retired, we adopted the young person of our dreams, who is now 20 years old and a junior in college. So that started another period of my life. Then I did a little spec work for the Rape Crisis Center. I had known Denise Snyder over the years, a very long-standing executive director there, unparalleled. I did a little work for her, and then she hired me, and I took on a leadership role there. It’s a great experience working in the anti-violence movement. Again, the young women who did the work at DCRCC and continue to do the work are just off the charts in terms of their intelligence, dedication, determination to end sexual violence. So that was a great experience for me as well.
A piece of my early work that I skipped over was work that I did with Joan Biren, (Jeb), for Moonforce Media, and our origins were as a collective of five: three feminists from the West Coast and myself and Joan.
We wanted to expand the presence of women in media, but most especially in film. It was very much about not seeing images of ourselves, all kinds of women. Joan and I spearheaded something that I think was really groundbreaking, and that was the National Women’s Film Festival in 1974, which was held at Georgetown University in a moot courtroom. What we did was a very simple process, but very revolutionary.
We put out a call to all women filmmakers to submit their films. They all had to be by women and about women. It could have been animation, could have been a documentary, could have been a little mini drama or whatever. Anyway, we received over 100 films, and Joan and I prescreened every one of them in her living room. It was completely awesome. Everything from two minutes to 35 minutes. Making a movie was costly. Films were few and far between and they were pretty short. But we looked at all those films. We wrote the filmmakers and said, we would really like to show these films.
We already knew what we wanted to do, show these films to an audience, have the audience vote, pick the films that people liked the best. And then we sent them around the country in a package so that women’s producers could show women’s films, often for the very first time in their communities. It was an act of organizing and an act of artistry. I don’t know how many women we had to screen those 100 films. You could buy a ticket for like a dollar and a half to screen ten or 15 films right in a row. Then we take a break and go back and do some more. Hundreds of women showed up for that event.
It sparked a certain activism then on the part of showing women’s film and the filmmakers. They got a little boost from it. We all got to see different pictures and portrayals of ourselves, serious, funny, whatever. Anyway, there’s a piece of my work again with Jeb that I am very proud of. And the other one I wanted to mention was that I was one of the principal organizers of the second Women in Print conference which happened here in Washington in 1981 and we brought together the feminist bookstore women, publishers, distributors, writers.
I don’t know how many people we had, probably a couple of hundred out at the 4-H Center to talk in our peer groups and then to talk broadly about all of the things around feminist media. It was an awesome experience. I’m very proud to have been one of the leaders of that, getting those incredible women together. That’s the spark that was needed. It was a landmark event. There had been one earlier in Kansas City in the 70’s, and people really wanted another one, and so we made it happen. It was awesome.
MJC: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you want to make sure is included?
MF: I do want to mention that I also was the distributor of feminist music. Women’s Music, we called it. It was my job to show up at concerts, to sell the records of the artists that were performing. But more important and much more difficult, was taking all of that music and trying to get as many artists as possible into the mainstream record stores. It was just a gut busting task, to try to get Cris Williamson into Camp Mill Records. It was a big chain. It required skill, dedication and just plain old refuse to take no. I’m very proud of my work in that regard as well.
MJC: Mary, have we forgotten anything?
MF: I love our city. I’ve been so fortunate to grow up in a community, with people like you, Mary Jean, and to become a truer and more knowledgeable, more experienced feminist and to be a bit of a role model, perhaps, for younger women, which is so important and to have those conversations. But to be there, to be there, the thing is to be there. You know, you’ve been there. You’ve sat there, you’ve talked, you’ve walked. You’ve organized. You’ve argued all of the things put together until you dropped. All of those things. That’s what it takes. I am very proud of the feminist and lesbian feminist community in general. It’s not to say it’s perfect, but I’m very proud to be a part of it and proud to be part of it in Washington, DC. I’m a lucky person.