Today's history lesson comes to you courtesy of Pop Feminism, queer women and - you guessed it - some kick.ass.Herstory.
First, we have to start with the very first feminist bookstore in New York City, Labyris Books. Labyris Books was opened in 1972 along with the wave of similar venues like New Words, (Somerville 1974), A Woman's Place (Oakland 1972), Womanbooks (New York City 1972), Charis (Atlanta 1974 and still open!!), Toronto Women's Bookstore (Toronto 1973), and Amazon Bookstore Cooperative (Minneapolis 1974).
Why were these bookstores so important in the 70s? Here's a great 27 page essay discussing the importance of feminist bookstores and here are three points in summary:
- These bookstores served as much needed meeting places, and venues for feminist and lesbian events like open mic nights, poetry readings and movie nights.
- There was a surge in women-owned publishing houses, women authors, women theorists etc., and their writings needed (and could support!) a home.
- Small press publications were being easily produced, and earmarking the future tidal wave of the feminist zine that was to come.
In fact, you could say that feminist (or more specfically women's) bookstores were one of the hallmarks of Second Wave feminism. Now, these days there aren't a whole ton of feminist bookstores in the country. Competing with the internet, big box stores and just the changing world in general might all be factors in this shift. And, I don't want to leave out the possible impact of the problematic Second Wave of Feminism, with internalized/institutionalized racism, classism, trans and queer exclusion (though plenty of the above stores were very much Lesbian and anti-racist spaces).
Despite the closure of many feminist bookstores, we still have some pretty amazing companies and cooperatives in the US & Canada, including Antigone Books, Bluestockings, BookWoman, Charis Books and More, Common Language, In Other Words, Northern Woman’s Bookstore, People Called Women, A Room of One’s Own, Wild Iris Books,Women and Children First & Womencrafts.
Cycling back to Labyris Books, much like today's activist organizations and businesses, they were out to do good - to provide access to information, to serve as a meeting place, to rally the troops and work for social justice more so than they were out to make a profit. While that's a good thing, it doesn't necessarily make it easier to keep the doors open and keep the lights on. Labyris relied on its community to keep going, and again much like the organizations of today, created merch to sell. "The Future Is Female" was a slogan for some of this merch, including buttons and shirts - one of which was featured on the super awesome h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram:
Liza Cowan, Lesbian sepratist, feminist, artist, photographer worked at/for/with(?) Labyris and not only took the above photograph of her girlfriend (also Lesbian feminist sepratist) Alix Dobkin, but had a hand in crafting the phrase and making the actual merch.
Charlotte Gush interviewed Cowan in 2015 for i-D, a digital fashion magazine. I pulled out a few quotes I wanted to discuss, but the whole thing is worth reading.
"From 1972 to 1978 I wrote a series of articles called What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear, starting in a small lesbian magazine I published called Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, which ran from 1973 to 1974. Later I published them in my bigger magazine, DYKE: A Quarterly of Lesbian Culture and Analysis, which I co-edited and co-published with Penny House.
Today, you can get a PhD in fashion theory. In those days, it was considered trivial. I knew it wasn't, and I knew and that clothing carried a social message. I wanted to decipher it." (Cowan)
"THE FUTURE IS FEMALE," March Against Media Arrogance (MAMA) participant, New York City, May 10, 1975. Photo by Bettye Lane. In the mid-1970s, Florence Kennedy (not pictured), a pioneering black feminist lawyer, helped focus collective anger toward a prime source of ongoing misrepresentation and oppression: the media. In one article, Kennedy said the media "reflected and projected society's narrow attitudes on issues like lesbianism, racism, sexism, and prostitution." She continued, "One of the mistakes that women in politics make is that they try to please everyone. I guess if you're accustomed to sucking your way to success, I can respect that attitude. But with the media, I am accustomed to biting my way to success." On May 10, 1975, forty-one years ago today, Kennedy led the March Against Media Arrogance (MAMA), which included Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, to protest media representation of underrepresented groups. #lgbthistory #lgbtherstory #lgbttheirstory #lgbtpride #queerhistorymatters #haveprideinhistory
"Contrary to popular belief, lesbian separatism was never a prescriptive code for behaviour or relationships. It did not dictate who to be friends with, what 'family' should mean, or how to live your life. It was an analysis, a lens through which to observe the world. There was no centrally-distributed dogma. Lesbian Separatism, boiled down, was a way to figure out what it meant to be a woman, without having to bother with men telling you what you could not think or say.
It was a way to develop networks of women's businesses, publishers, bookstores, conferences, cafes, trade organisations, credit unions, music production, health care centres, media, schools, self-defence courses, cooperative farms, festivals, auto-repair shops, distribution networks. We did everything. Not everyone who participated was a lesbian, but most were. Women-only networks, spaces and actions are one of the cornerstones of creating community, and forging effective feminist activism. That's why it's such a difficult and contested thing to do these days." (Cowan)
Reading about Dobkin, Cowan and Labyris has brought up many ideas for me, centralizing on the question of how iconic phrases are used and re-used (recycled?) throughout history. The work these women were doing was important, and I don't want to dismiss them in an overly-hasty attempt to disregard all of Second Wave Feminism. I'm not saying Second Waver's have to my Fav or even my Problematic Fav, but I do want to acknowledge the things they were doing that were hard to do, and in many cases were good to do. I do not believe in separatism. In fact, as an intersectional feminist I believe that separatism is the antithesis of forward movement, but in the context of the 1970s, I can see a needfulness around creating safe space for, by and of Lesbian women. The phrase 'The Future Is Female" was originally meant to beckon to a strength in women (especially Lesbian women) to take power and control in situations where they often had little or none. I don't think there's anything wrong with empowering lesbians -- in fact I think queer women in general are often left out of activist dialogue. Does anyone else remember this quote??
"Feminism is not a dirty word. It does not mean you hate men, it does not mean you hate girls that have nice legs and a tan, and it does not mean you are a bitch or a dyke, it means that you believe in equality." Kate Nash
Cowan's 'The Future Is Female" may have been born of separatist ideals, but what does it mean in 2016, with the current vanguard of feminists and activists proudly wearing the phrase?
Cowan had something beautiful to say about the phrase in her interview:
"We are asked to absorb two powerful archetypes, and to imagine them in relationship to each other. It is a dynamic phrase, a lively phrase. In order to make sense of it, we have to engage with the words. The archetype of 'the future' asks questions about the nature of time: When does the future begin? Where is the future? How does it happen? As an archetype, 'female' covers broad territories. Flora or fauna. Virgin Mary or Kali. Medusa or Quan Yin. Astarte or Parvati. Bringer of peace, or destroyer of illusion. Nurturer or avenger. Mother, sister, daughter, aunt, grandmother. Nymph, maiden, crone."
And some things which I would say are a bit prescriptive and essentialist:
"'The Future is Female' reminds me that all life formed in a matrix. Matrix means womb, matrice, mother. Life springs from the female. Whether the future starts right this second, or in a million years, it emerges from the female body; not just the body of women, but of all female sentient beings, including the body of our home, Gaia.
I have also said that the slogan is a call to arms. While I think this is true, it is also true that it is an invocation. If we are to have a future, it must be female, because the rule of men -- patriarchy -- has just about devastated life on this beautiful little planet. The essence and the spirit of the future must be female. So the phrase becomes not just a slogan, but a spell. For the good of all."
We are in a time where the very concept of female is called (and called well!) into question. What is female? What does this matter? Are the ideals of femininity those of the future? What ideals are those? What is speaking so brightly to not just women (especially lesbian women) but men, trans and non-binary folks, and kiddos alike?
For myself, I will say that I interpret this phrase to ask us to take a more of an honest look at life now. A more equitable future must have more of those who have been excluded from the dialogue, from decision-making, from media, from the workplace and gosh darn it -- from the Whitehouse. The future, in this context, must be female. But not just cis-female, or white female, or lesbian female, or straight female. In fact the female of the future must be a reconsidered, re-imagined and maybe yes, a recycled definition from what it is today.
You can enter to win the Fabulously Feminist version of 'The Future Is Female' t-shirt (in unisex & "ladies"size small through 3XL) over on my Instagram: @fabfeministart or just go ahead and buy one already from my Etsy shop.
- A RADICAL BOOKSTORE IN SAN FRAN FIGHTS GENTRIFICATION WITH PASSION AND PROGRESSIVE POLITICS
- Liza Cowan's website & portfolio
- The Future Is Female: Five Women Artists Are Designing a Revolution
Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.