THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I became an autonomous, independent individual who supported herself and made her own decisions and created a life that was radically different from the life that my mother lived.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2022
JW: This is Judy Waxman, and I am in D.C. Please introduce yourself, where you are, and when and where you were born.
CR: I’m Coletta Reid, and I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was born on February 16, 1943, in Kingman, Kansas.
I lived in wheat country outside Kingman, Kansas where my father had a small cinder block garage where he was a mechanic on farm machinery. My mother was a housewife. I attended a very small one-room school that my grandfather had built and my father had also attended. The entire community of Mennonite and Church of Christ wheat farmers was very poor and my mother made my dresses from cotton feedsacks. I attended high school in Kingman, a town of 3,000. The entire community was white and a close-by town, Harper, was a sundown town.
I attended a church college, Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, where I studied to be a missionary to the Belgian Congo. In 1962, I transferred to the University of Iowa in Iowa City and changed my major to philosophy. In 1963, I married Robert F. Holcomb who was from Enid and who I had met at Phillips. While he attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, I worked at the university as a “graduate student wife.” Upon Bob receiving his master’s, we moved to West Hartford, Connecticut where he taught at a private prep school and I finished my bachelor’s and my master’s coursework at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
In 1967, I received a fellowship to New York University and we moved to New York City’s Lower East Side. I was pregnant that year and our son, Reid F. Holcomb, was born near the end of the school year in May. I finished my Ph.D. coursework at the end of the next year and we moved to Washington, DC where Bob had gotten a job as a writer for Science magazine. I was pregnant with our second child, taking care of a toddler, and starting to work on a dissertation that I really couldn’t see coming to fruition. I began to think that I would end up being a housewife like my mother, but just to a middle-class, professional man.
It was in New York City in 1968 that I reconnected with an old college friend, Ann Calderwood. She was from Kansas and had graduated from Phillips University. She was working at Columbia University and was a member of Radical Feminists. She introduced me to the Women’s Movement and gave me a copy of Notes from the First Year. As soon as we moved to DC, I started to look for a Women’s Liberation group and a Women’s Center. I found them both in the hippy DuPont Circle/Adams-Morgan area where we lived.
In August, 1969, I joined a consciousness raising group, started attending forums at the Women’s Center, and was recruited to the staff of off our backs where we were learning paste-up, layout, distribution, and other skills to start a women’s newspaper. I was soon involved full-time at the newspaper writing articles, doing administrative tasks, and overseeing distribution. The first issue came out in January, 1970 and was part of a new communications network that included the women’s takeover of RAT, Ain’t I a Woman in Iowa City, and It Ain’t Me Babe in Oakland/Berkeley.
That January, Bob and I had a baby girl who died when five days old. In March, we participated in a private adoption of a mixed race baby girl from a teenage mother. We named her Kara F. Holcomb after my mother-in-law. In December of 1970, my husband and I separated and Reid moved with his father to the West Coast to a land commune and Kara stayed with me as I moved into a women’s commune that was the foremother of the furies collective and newspaper. While there, I had my first relationship with a woman–a fellow activist who also became part of the furies.
I continued working at off our backs and living on savings throughout 1971. In the fall of 1971, the furies collective moved into four houses in the South Capitol area which was more of a gay community. I was a part of the furies collective until August of 1972 when I moved to Baltimore and co-founded Diana Press with Casey Czarnik. We were both a working-class identified printing press and a feminist publishing house. Printing jobs provided the profits that we then used to publish books. While in Baltimore, we learned how to physically do every process required for the making of a book. We had a small women’s staff and published about two dozen books in the five years before we moved to Oakland.
In Oakland, we joined with Women’s Press Collective and Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center, bought a building, increased the staff, and looked forward to period of expansion and financial stability. In October 1977, we were devastated by a vandalism attack on the paste-ups and plates of our back list and the current typeset materials for the fall books in our new catalogue. The insurance was insufficient for a comeback and Diana Press went bankrupt.
I stayed in Oakland during 1978-1979 to appear in bankruptcy court, try to salvage the back list for bookstore orders, and figure out what to do next. In 1980, I moved to Santa Fe and put together a women’s crew to build an adobe home in the country. In 1984, a lesbian friend who worked at Apple Computer in Cupertino suggested that I apply to work there as a writer. After an in-person interview, I was hired and worked in Silicon Valley until 1990 when I became Executive Director of the Women’s Institute for Mental Health in San Francisco.
Since 1993, I have lived in the house we built in Santa Fe and run a women’s business providing evaluation services to non-profits. I am now retired.
Over the years I have been an activist on many issues that disparately affected women, the working class and poor, and people of color. These have included alcohol and tobacco prevention and policy change, teenage pregnancy prevention, violence prevention, HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, and mental health issues.
My life is totally different than I could have imagined as a poor, rural girl wearing feedsack dresses in 1950s Kansas. I was the first and only person in my extended family to graduate from college. I was liberated from the life of a housewife by the women’s movement. Women’s liberation has been the most important element of my life.
Because of the women’s movement I became a lesbian, started institutions and businesses, learned how to be an autonomous person, and became immersed in women’s spirituality. My brothers have never lived more than 90 miles from where they were born. I have experienced a much fuller life than seemed possible. And I still consider myself an activist having most recently worked on passing the choice in dying bill in the New Mexico legislature. My life was dedicated to spreading the hope of liberation to all women.
JW: [Can you talk a little about] when you met your friend Ann Calderwood, and she was part of the Radical Feminists in New York. Tell me about your relationship and then why you got into a consciousness raising group at that time.
CR: Yes. Ann and I were good friends when I was at Phillips University, which is a church school in Enid, Oklahoma, and she graduated two years before I did and moved to New York City and worked at Columbia. I had recently moved to New York City with my husband, and I was pregnant at that time. I was a graduate student at NYU as the first person in my family who had ever gone to college. My parents were very happy that I went to school, but they weren’t so happy that I went to graduate school. Why did I have to keep going on, getting more degrees?
I was at NYU, and I don’t know whether I heard that Ann was in New York, or she knew I was there. We somehow got in contact, and she was an active member, early member of the women’s movement. I was so excited about hearing this. I totally had been a feminist from a very early age and knew right away that I wanted to leave Kansas. I didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife. I didn’t want to subsume my life to the social structures that were in force at that time.
So, she brought me away to become active to work against those social structures, and I was extremely excited about it. At that time, I did not join a group. I had my son in May of 1968, and I was still at home taking care of him until I could go to the second year of graduate school in September. But I read everything that she brought me, and we had lots of conversations, even though when I was in New York City, I did not join a group.
JW: And shortly thereafter, you moved to D.C. Is that right?
CR: That’s true. My husband got a job. I had finished my two years of a PhD program at NYU, and I was supposed to start a dissertation, and my husband had gotten a job at Science magazine, the magazine of the AAAS, and he needed to move there for work. I went along with a toddler and spent the fall of 1969 looking for women’s liberation in D.C. And finding both women’s liberation[s]. That was a great story.
I was driving around in our little Volkswagen bug and saw another Volkswagen bug with the women’s symbol on the back. You may remember the women’s liberation symbol, the red women’s symbol with a fist inside of it, and that was on the back of the car. I started following the car. In fact, I found out later that it was the car of Marilyn Salzman-Webb, who was one of the major founders of Off Our Backs. The car ended up at her apartment. Then I found out that the Women’s Center was very close by. This was all in northwest Washington, D.C. And it was very close by to where I lived, just a few blocks away.
JW: How convenient.
CR: It was great because in my state of pregnancy, I wasn’t too great at driving in a new town. In October I think, I went to the first Women’s Forum held at the Women’s Center where I met Charlotte Bunch-Weeks and a number of other women who were prominent in the D.C. women’s movement at that time. It was a very vital and active movement, a very vital women’s health movement. Very interested in helping women get abortions, which wasn’t legal yet and working on the women’s pill issues. A very vital group.
At that forum, different women presented on women’s liberation, different parts of it and the different issues that were coming up. And they handed out the first motive Magazine issue on women’s liberation. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that issue, but it had a white cover, the white issue. And of course, motive Magazine was a magazine of the youth movement and the Methodist Church. There was a lot of concern about that issue. Should it be published?
Charlotte Bunch-Weeks was a very important part of the Methodist youth movement and she had spurred them on to publish this special issue. What was so interesting about it was that it was not a reporting. In fact, it was an issue that included all of these articles by women themselves. There were articles on reproduction. I remember Cynthia Ozick’s article on something like “The Death of the Dancing Dog”, and it was full of wonderful articles.
At that time, I also signed up to be in the next women’s consciousness raising group that was started. That was also women in the Northwest area. From that time forward, I became very involved in the women’s liberation movement. And in November when I was very pregnant, Marilyn Salzman-Webb came to the apartment and she had heard mistakenly that I might have money, because she was fundraising at that time to start Off Our Backs. Ann Calderwood had told another woman in D.C. – I think her name is Catherine Eastman, who is a famous women’s lawyer – that I was going to come to town and [she] gave me a letter of introduction.
I think they presumed that I was a professional, but I didn’t have any money. But I told her that I would be interested in volunteering. And I found out that the office of Off Our Backs, which was in the basement of one of the first staff members was just two blocks from where I lived.
JW: Where was that exactly?
CR: It’s hard to tell because neighborhoods now have changed. It was at the convergence of Kalorama, Adams Morgan, and Dupont Circle at that time. The hippies were moving there and living there. Dupont Circle was a center for different kinds of hippie offices. The Mobilization Against the War and other anti-Vietnam and anti-war movements. The Women’s Liberation Office was in that area too. The Women Center was in that area. Most of the early women who were in the women’s movement came from the anti-war movement or the civil rights movement. Charlotte had had a lot of experience in both. And many of the women who had started found their understanding of movements and organizing from participating in those earlier movements.
JW: You started volunteering for Off Our Backs. Please explain what that is.
CR: Off Our Backs was one of the first, if not the first, women’s newspapers, national women’s newspapers in the United States. It was a collective. It had two spearheading leaders: Marilyn Salzman-Webb and Marlene Wicks. They had this idea. Marilyn’s husband was very prominent in the anti-war in the left and she had worked as a journalist with first, I think, the old Guardian and then the new Guardian. She was familiar with newspapers and was a good writer, an excellent writer, and felt that women needed to start a newspaper of their own.
They had already chosen the name Off Our Backs. When I got involved, there were about seven or eight other women involved. Everyone was a volunteer. We all worked at the office whatever hours we could. There were four of us at that time who were pregnant, and I think Marilyn and I were probably the oldest and we were in our late 20’s. I think most of the women were 23 to 28 or 29 and they were all white and they had all been involved in some way in previous movements. Most of them had been through women’s liberation consciousness raising and they were very committed to promulgating the women’s movement and making sure that women all around the country heard about it and understood what women needed to do to liberate themselves.
I started in the group in November and we at that time were being taught by another volunteer to do paste-up and layout. We were also learning bookkeeping. Marlene was in charge of the administrative and the bookkeeping part. We were learning distribution, what you had to do to get bundles of newspapers out to different places. Marilyn was in charge of leading us in discussions of what we wanted the content of the newspaper to be. We all participated in the writing.
It was a wonderful, volunteer, collective effort from a feeling of the absolute importance of what we were doing. People were extremely enthusiastic, and we had excellent philosophical discussions, discussions that I had wished that when I was in graduate school and philosophy, we might have had there, but of course not. I soon stopped working on my dissertation. All of a sudden, Wittgenstein didn’t seem nearly as interesting as reproductive rights and Berkeley women learning karate to defend themselves against rape and all the other issues that we were talking about.
My little writing part, the part that I agreed to do every month was to write one page of summaries of all the things that were going on around the United States. All the other women’s centers would send their newsletters and I would collect them all and I would look at other newspapers and anything that there was any information about, the kinds of activities that were happening in the small towns and university cities of the United States. So that was my first job. I later became involved in doing book reviewing, but I was never really a major article writer.
JW: Do you recall what some of the groups around the country were doing? You mentioned about protecting women against rape, but what were some others?
CR: Sure. For example, in Iowa, the Grinnell College students had a sit-in in which the women took off their shirts because [they were] talking about the different standards for women’s bodies and men’s bodies and the sexist way in which women’s bodies were seen and treated. Other places around the country were doing all kinds of exciting things – starting women’s studies courses, starting self-defense courses, skills building. Women were learning carpentry and auto mechanics and all the kinds of things that women wanted to know, that only men knew and that they felt like kept them from being autonomous and independent.
Some things that were different about the women’s movement in D.C. that I realize now, looking back on it, is that we were not as theoretically oriented as the women’s movement in New York City. The women in New York were very familiar with the media. They had a lot of experience. It is a publishing capital of the United States and many of them had been writers and worked at magazines or freelance or worked at the Village Voice. They knew how to attract the media and how to have guerrilla actions that involved the media. They also were very interested in working on theory and the women’s movement.
If you look at 1969-1970, they wrote a lot of articles about orgasm, about abortion, about various reproductive rights, about race. They were really trying to create a theory of women’s liberation that could guide action. In Washington, D.C. we were more oriented towards policy, and that’s because the government was there, and women had more experience being right there where policy was being made.
Charlotte was a fellow at that time at the Institute for Policy Studies, which had been started by part of the democratic staff of Kennedy and some with Johnson. There was that emphasis upon how could we affect government policy to be changed to support women. There are a lot of lawyers in town. So that was a different kind of emphasis. If you look at Berkeley, you see a very different kind of emphasis. The Berkeley women’s movement was very affected by the hippie movements and the free speech movements, and they were more involved in outrageous actions and doing things that brought attention to women in the same way that the hippies had brought attention to the issues of free speech, et cetera.
Iowa City was different, too. The main newspapers that came out, and this is one of the things that I think is so interesting about the women’s movement, that it was not a top-down movement. It was really a grassroots movement in which women all across the country were rising up on their own with their same ideas. And It Ain’t Me, Babe in Berkeley, Oakland, California, and Ain’t I A Woman? in Iowa City, and the takeover of Rapt, the alternative newspaper in New York, and the founding of Off Our Backs in Washington D.C., all happened in the same month or two – January of 1970.
So that burgeoning of women was the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, which was at the anti-war march, I think that was ’68. From then on women were organizing on their own. They were creating women’s groups within the anti-war movement, they were creating women’s groups within the civil rights movement, and they were beginning to coalesce together. There was an uprising that literally was national, and it wasn’t long, I would say a year or two, before every large city and every university town had a women’s center. It was an amazing movement.
People talk about the movement as being primarily middle class, but that was not my experience. In Washington D.C., at Off Our Backs, I would say about half of us were working-class, and had come from working-class backgrounds. I saw that the same was true in Iowa City and in Berkeley. Those newspapers had a large working-class contingent on their staffs. It’s an interesting way in which I feel like the movement has been characterized. Many of the working-class women that I knew in the movement had gone to college, might not have graduated. I think that’s why they were so identified by the historians as being middle class, because they’d gone to college, but most of them had found a way to go, and often they were the first in their families to have gone.
So, Off Our Backs came out, the first issue in January of 1970 and we had hoped to put out an issue twice a month, but we could actually handle putting out an issue once a month. Marilyn had a lot of contacts in the left, so she was able to get the new Guardian to give us their bookstore distribution list, where they sent all copies of the newspaper to bookstores. They’re mostly university and alternative bookstores that got that list and we started the unbelievably backbreaking work of distributing the newspaper.
There’s no way that people who have been born since computers can ever understand what it was like. For example, for people who wanted an individual subscription, we had to type their names on labels that had to be wet and had carbon, so that we could type more than one label at once, so we could use the sets of labels for three or four months. And then we had to affix all of those labels to the newspaper and put them in zip code order. And then we had to arrange the zip codes in bundles of newspapers to go to particular areas in order to get the cheaper rate. It was a lot of work.
It was the same way in typing the newspaper. We had to type it by hand on Selectric typewriters and we had to make corrections with correction fluid, liquid white-out. And then we had to take those sheets and spray them so that they wouldn’t smear. Then we had to wax the back of them to put them in columns and then put the columns on big boards to be taken to the printer. So that’s an example of what it was like.
JW: Around then, you moved to Capitol Hill. Was that with the group?
CR: No, my husband and I had separated. Well, first I had a baby in January of 1970, and she died five days after birth. Then in March, I participated in a private adoption. I had a baby daughter and I had kept up my milk, so I was able to breastfeed. In December of 1970, my husband and I could see that we were going in different directions. He really wanted to leave Science magazine and become part of the land movement. He wanted to join a hippie commune that lived on the land and as one of their focuses, raising children as well as raising organic food and animals.
So, he took our son and moved to the West Coast and did become part of the commune and lived on the land in Oregon. And I took our daughter and stayed in Washington, D.C. in the house that I was living in on 18th street and became close to a group of women who were living communally in a house at the end of the block. They were women who had supported the Chicago Seven/Eight trial and they had come to D.C. at the end of the trial. Dave Dellinger’s daughter and a number of other women who were supporting the trial came and started their own commune, which was a half a block away from where I was living.
And slowly, over 1971, they began having less consciousness raising groups because everyone was learning about how was it possible to not think of women as possible potential primary partners. Why was it that we thought of men only as potential partners? We began exploring that. I was one of the few women at Off Our Backs who was interested, and Rita Mae Brown had just come from New York City with a cohort of her friends and had settled in Washington, D.C. And another group of working-class women from New York, including Nancy Meyerin and other women who did lots of different things, had come from New York City.
So it was in the air, the idea that the lesbian alternative could be a viable alternative for women who weren’t happy in their relationships. It started out for many of us, me included, in a sort of intellectual way. I thought “Why is there that distinction? Why is there that difference?” And then I fell in love with a woman, and it became an emotional commitment for me, too. The consciousness raising group continued from maybe February 1971 until August. And in that period, I continued working at Off Our Backs.
But Off Our Backs was seeming to become… how, do I say this? It felt like the many women who came to Off Our Backs, just like I did: married, children, 20’s, but they were very threatened by the idea of lesbianism. At that time, other women at Off Our Backs, who I considered my closest friends and couldn’t understand how they weren’t having the same experiences that I was having, began to go in different directions. And by August of that year, a group from the lesbian consciousness raising endeavor had come together to create a lesbian oriented philosophy.
What does it mean? Who are lesbians to the women’s movement? And of course, Rita Mae Brown had been important in the New York women’s movement in terms of helping to write and being part of the group that wrote The Lavender Menace. Women who got up at the NOW conventions of 1969 and 1970 and disrupted them and got straight women to stand up and say that they were allies of the lesbians and didn’t support NOW, having kicked Rita Mae Brown out of NOW. I think that all of that business about lesbianism was also happening all across the country. Women were thinking about it.
I said that what for me was so important was working with women. When I was at Off Our Backs and working with women day in and day out, I found them to be much more emotionally interesting than men. And that being with women all day, every day, I felt very emotionally satisfied. I felt like the conversations that we were having were the most important conversations I could imagine, the exploration of policy and commitments. And what did this mean? What did that mean? It was all wonderful.
It felt like I was the most alive that I had ever been in my life. And I saw my future as being with women. I found that my interest in heterosexuality was falling off. I never really considered myself one of those women who’d been a lesbian from the time she was five or whatever. I was never a “butch” in the sense of being heavily into sports. I was more the quiet reader type and would be identified at a lesbian bar as a “fem”. But I wanted an autonomous, independent life, and I wanted to be self-supporting financially, and I wanted all women to have that opportunity, to have the same opportunities as men.
When I was in graduate school for philosophy, I never had a woman teacher, ever. I was never in a department that had a woman professor. I took classes from men who baldly stated that they would never teach with a woman in philosophy because women were innately irrational. I had those experiences already of being discriminated against in my own intellectual life, and I felt like I wanted to create a world and be part of a world in which that kind of discrimination could not exist. I also had been involved in various anti-war efforts, in environmental efforts, in civil rights efforts, and those were all minor. I was more on the peripheries of those movements.
But for me, I felt like the women’s movement could bring all those strands together. To me, it felt like at the time, that most basic hatred of women, distrust of women, was the first of many oppressions that grew out of that. At the time, I felt like misogyny was the first, and that racism and homophobia and classism, etc., grew out of that most basic oppression. I don’t know that I still think that, but that was a fairly common belief for us at the time, that we saw all oppressions connected, but they all were connected by going back to the original oppression of gender.
JW: At some point did you move with The Furies to Capitol Hill?
CR: What happened was that a group formed out of the lesbian consciousness raising groups that were happening at the time in D.C., that wanted to create a lesbian collective. Women who wanted to live together and wanted to work on a theory of lesbian feminism came together under the leadership of Rita Mae Brown. At that point, Rita was living in South Capital, in a more gay area near the gay women’s bars, and she wanted us to move out of the “hippie dippy” area as she called it – Rita was never a hippie – move out to South Capital, where we would be more aligned with the kinds of gay efforts that were happening in D.C. at the time.
So, we formed a group that moved into three different houses in South Capital. There were twelve of us and three children, and each group lived in a different house. The house that I was in included Charlotte Bunch who had left her husband and come out and there were four of us in that house and the other two houses had three each. I don’t know if you’ve been down to the Furies house, it’s on the National Historic Register.
JW: No, I did not know that. I will have to look that up.
CR: I have a poster of the house with its plaque on the front of it now. Joan Biren and Sharon Deevey, who are also a part of the Furies and were in a relationship, did not want to leave Northwest Washington because Joan Biren, who became J.E.B., the photographer, had her own photography studio that she had built in Northwest, and she had a job in a photography store, and she was really working on her photography skills. She and Sharon stayed in Northwest Washington and lived in an apartment together. So that was the twelve of us.
I think I was the oldest, I must have been 28 at the time and I think my lover Helaine Harris was the youngest and I think she was probably 18. She had left home at 16 in Houston and gone to California and then gone to New Mexico and had actually come with a Southwest women’s liberation group from New Mexico to visit D.C. and stayed. We were all basically in our 20’s and we decided we would start our own newspaper and we were able to get the distribution and subscriber list from Off Our Backs. They gave it to us free.
We did the same thing that we had done at Off Our Backs over again. Only this newspaper was not a newspaper that would connect and network women’s movement women all across the country. This was a newspaper to bring a lesbian feminist theory to the women’s movement. We in that newspaper, discussed every article that was going to be in the newspaper and the theoretical point that we were trying to make.
The newspaper was very successful, even though at that time it had a totally outsized effect on the women’s movement, that was outsized to the actual numbers of newspapers that we published. That newspaper in that form with the collective of us living in the houses, lasted for nine months. But those nine months were so filled with ideas and actions that for all of us looking back, it seemed like years.
JW: How did you come up with the name, Furies?
CR: We all sat around, and we brainstormed, and we thought of words and then we looked those words up in the thesaurus to see what other words we’d be led to. We looked at Greek myths and we looked at history. There were all kinds of women’s names. I think that was one of the best parts of the early women’s movement. The names. Women were fantastic. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from the song; “Ain’t I A Woman” from Sojourner Truth. All those wonderful names like Aphra, for Aphra Behn for the Women’s Arts magazine from New York, goodbye to all that. Women were very clever and had a great sense of humor and came up with wonderful names.
Actually Ginny Berson, who was researching Greek myths, told us the story of The Furies and how these wild women with snakes for hair defended matriarchy and how they were connected to the Amazons and all of these militant women of the classical era. The idea of The Furies and the pictures that we saw of them all were exciting to us, and we thought we could communicate through the name. The militant idea of defending matriarchy and defending mother right. And all of those concepts that we wanted to communicate.
JW: You started another press a little later, right?
CR: After nine months as with all intense collectives at that time, we broke up as a collective, and women were thinking of, what’s next? We’ve already promulgated these theories. We’ve already gotten our ideas out there. I don’t think we had more new ideas. What is the next stage then, of the movement? What do you do after you have these ideas? Well, you create institutions that can put these ideas into action. At that time, as we broke up, different ones of us wanted to start different institutions.
Sharon Deevey who was one of the women that I had co-written a number of articles within The Furies suggested to me and to my lover at the time, Casey Zarnick, who was from Baltimore, that we think about making the Furies articles into books or pamphlets or small books and distributing them to bookstores so that the newspaper would have a life after those issues were gone. I thought that was a great idea. The idea of being in book publishing or pamphlets or whatever at that time we thought we could do, seemed like the direction that I wanted to go in.
Ginny Berson, for example, was one of the people who started Olivia Records. Ginny and Jennifer Woodul, who was also a part of The Furies, they were on the original Olivia Records Collective. Charlotte Bunch started a women’s journal called Quest in Washington, D.C. Each of us went in a direction of creating a new institution. Helaine Harris, my ex-lover, and other people from The Furies, started Women In Distribution. That was a distribution company to get women’s literature into bookstores. Joan Biren went into photography full time. She created her own women’s press to publish her own photography when she couldn’t get it published by other people.
Each of us took what our particular skills were and the ideas that we had of what we wanted to do in the future and went out and started women’s institutions that could make that happen. My lover, Casey Zarnick, was a printer and she was part of a collective in Washington, in Baltimore, that had a printing press. She had been part of the left, and at some point, as the men and the women in the left were separating and having more and more conflicts, the men just said, “Forget it, we’re walking away. You want this press; you can have it.”
And it was a small Multilith 1250 printing press Xerox machine that was doing those rainbow looking posters and flyers that the left put out at that time. The ink colors would change over the page and there would be wild graphics. So that printing press in Baltimore had been the printing press of the left, of the young left. And women in Baltimore were trying to figure out how they were going to support it now that it was theirs. Casey lived in a women’s collective at that time in a women’s commune in Baltimore. She had the idea that this press could be more than just a printing press for the left. It could be a voice for the women’s movement and the lesbian movement.
She and I wanted to work at it full time and make it into a business that was self-supporting. And all of those women’s institutions that were created by all of us that came out of the Furies were women’s businesses and aimed at being economically viable and having women be employed by them. It was no longer a volunteer situation. We were able to borrow some money. The Furies gave us some money when we divided up whatever we had in our bank account at the end. And we bought another printing press. We had two Multilith 1250s. We had a basement rented in the Baltimore area, right down from Johns Hopkins. We lived in an area that was near a stadium at that time, an area with a lot of hippies. We could walk to the press every day.
We were unable to get a bank loan. We were unable to buy equipment because they wanted our husband’s signatures. At that time, we started leasing equipment and that meant that you were renting it, but if you made this final payment at the end, then you could buy it. It was yours. In that way, we got one piece of equipment after another. We got typesetting equipment and we got equipment to make metal plates from our paste-up and layouts. We redid the entire basement and set up a complete commercial printing operation.
At that time, they were called fast printing, instant printing. That’s where you could go to get your Xerox, or you could go to get 500 copies of a flyer or whatever. In the daytime, we did that and charged money and paid ourselves a minimum amount of money. We started out at $100 each a month. From that, we slowly, over time, got more equipment and enough equipment that we could print books. At night, we would work on our own publishing of books, and in the daytime, we would work on the commercial printing business.
Basically, what we were doing was that as a working-class woman. We didn’t have money, and we identified as working class strongly. We didn’t have resources. We didn’t have the possibility of getting money. We exploited our own labor in order to fund this women’s movement activity. Over time, we were able to buy a collating machine. First, we would rent a collating machine at some other little print shop. We would send our work out to be photographed to get our negatives back, to make paper plates and later metal plates until we could afford photography equipment and make our own negatives. And then we sent our books out to be trimmed until we could afford to buy our own paper cutter. That’s how we built up the business over the next five years.
JW: It was called Diana Press. Is that right?
CR: Yes. Diana Press, Inc.
JW: How did you come up with that name?
CR: I think that before I moved to Baltimore, the women of the left who were working at the press were wanting it to be named Diana, after Diana Oughton, one of the women who was killed in the Weather Underground explosion in the West Village. They knew her and were connected to the Weather Underground. Casey and I thought more of Diana, the goddess. We were looking at Diana as a symbol of women’s culture. We found a little Greek statue of Diana, and Casey was a graphic artist, and she did a drawing. If you look at any Diana Press books, you will see our Diana logo.
JW: Give me a couple of names of the books that you published.
CR: One of the things I want to make clear is that we didn’t see ourselves as just a lesbian publisher. We published books by all kinds of women, and we wanted to publish books that we wanted to read ourselves and also that the mainstream press would not publish. We published three books from The Furies: Women Remembered, Class And Feminism, and Lesbianism and the Women’s Movement. Those were very popular. Those were books that were anthologies of articles that had been in The Furies. They were about 100 pages each.
Then we published poetry by Rita Mae brown, two books. We published a book of her essays, many of which had also been in The Furies called A Plain Brown Rapper. That book came out about the same time as her book, Rubyfruit Jungle. That book sold very well. That was very popular. We published three anthologies of books from The Ladder, the lesbian magazine of the 1950s and 60s. We published the book, Sex Variant Women in Literature, which was a history of lesbians in literature and Western, the Western Tradition from the Bible on. We published a women’s song book. We published a children’s book. We published poetry.
We were not publishing professionals. We did not know how to run a good publishing company. We did not know at that time how to create a niche, how to have an identity, how to give bookstores information to know what a Diana Press book would be. Instead, we published what we wanted and what we liked and what we thought was needed. Some books we published 1000 copies of, and some books, 5000 copies, and reprinted them two or three times. So that was very successful.
At that time, there were a number of women’s publishers starting in the United States. Daughters Inc. was starting in New York City with June Arnold and Parke Bowman. June had come out of the publishing industry, so she really knew what to do. They published only novels, and they published five books, twice a year. They had a fall line and spring line, and they had all of their covers designed by the same person. They had an identity. You knew what a Daughters book looked like. At that time, women’s bookstores were growing all across the country.
Our original list of alternative and university bookstores was about 3,200. There are about 3,200 bookstores that might potentially carry a women’s press book. There were a little more than 100 women’s bookstores that grew up over that next period who would definitely take women’s books. One of the biggest ones was A Woman’s Place bookstore in Oakland, and they sold 500 copies of Rubyfruit Jungle. They were extremely successful. There were women’s bookstores in Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
There were women’s bookstores coming up all over the country. They were our main outlet. In 1977, we moved from Baltimore to Oakland, and at that time, Women’s Press Collective, with Judy Grahn and Wendy Cadden, was undergoing a lot of stress. Ultimately, Women’s Press Collective and Diana Press merged, and we started working on Judy Grahn and Pat Parker’s poetry, getting things that have been backed up, out, reprinting a number of their books. We bought a building in Oakland, and they had two printing presses. We had two printing presses. We bought another larger press. We were, at that time, seeing ourselves going forward as a successful publishing company that could support 15 or so women. And then we were vandalized.
JW: What happened?
CR: We believe it was lesbians who felt like we were becoming too mainstream, that we were assimilating, accommodating, we weren’t as radical as they thought they had signed up with. We had a book from some west coast lesbians called something “Amazons.” And that collective, after we moved to the west coast, wanted us to only put our books in women’s bookstores and not allow men to buy them. We couldn’t do that. Not only was it illegal, but it was completely impractical. There weren’t enough women’s bookstores to support women’s publishers on their own.
This group of women evidently came to Oakland and cased out the building and were able to get into the building overnight through the loading dock door. They trashed the whole business. They put oil in all the printing presses, tore up all of the paste-ups and layouts that we had. They cut up the metal plates and the negatives of books in the past. And on my desk, they took five gallons of printer’s ink and poured it all over my phone and desk and our typesetting equipment. Even though we had insurance, the insurance wasn’t nearly enough to allow us to come back. A year later, after that vandalism, Diana Press went bankrupt.
JW: What did you do after the press closed?
CR: I continued to work on my own spiritual and personal growth. I moved to New Mexico. I sold the press building to Olivia Records. In New Mexico, I took classes with my partner, and we built an adobe home out in the country with an all-women’s crew who learned to design and build. And I ended up doing various consulting with women’s businesses and in the end went back to California where I worked for Apple Computer for a while and then came back to New Mexico where I’ve lived since 1993.
JW: How do you think the women’s movement changed the life you would have had?
CR: Totally. Here was this working-class woman from Kansas who grew up in the country, whose father didn’t graduate from high school, who was the first person in her generation and only person to graduate from college, and who had, as they said then, “married up” to get out of Kansas. Part of that was getting out of Kansas, getting out of the Midwest, trying to find a different kind of life, but I never imagined that that life could be so different.
I’ve had a wonderful life. I participated in what I feel is one of the most important social movements of our time. And by participating in that social movement, I not only became a lesbian, but I became an autonomous, independent individual who supported herself and made her own decisions and created a life that was radically different from the life that my mother lived.