06 May 2021
Louise Siddons is an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture. As part of that research, she has been taking a closer look at the transatlantic lesbian press and the construction of lesbian identity. In this post, she shares the unexpected pleasure she discovered in the pages of Sappho, a British magazine that, unlike the American counterparts which advertised in its pages, routinely included comics and cartoons.
Louise will be talking about transatlantic lesbian visual culture and the lesbian gaze in a free online lecture on Monday 10 May at 19.00, Looking Like a Lesbian.
“Every group has its share of jokes,” announced “Robyn’s Page,” a regular feature of Sappho. Founded in 1972, Sappho’s mission was to build a meaningful community among lesbian women both as readers and in person. Early in its run, Robyn worried that humor was troublingly absent from lesbian culture.1
In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the cartoons and comics that appeared in early issues of Sappho. Why should we take humor seriously? Robyn argued that, “Jokes are … a spontaneous endorsement of what’s happening where it matters most – that’s at grass root level.” The lack of lesbian jokes, she suggested, revealed a lack of group identity among lesbians. Eager to change this, she invited readers to come up with “the great lesbian joke.”2
Studies in the psychology of humor have historically focused on the role that “out-group disparagement humor” reinforces in-group identification; in other words, people mark their status as insiders by making fun of outsiders.3 But, as Robyn pointed out, in 1972 lesbian humor was still struggling to locate the notion of “lesbian.” The visual comedy published in Sappho’s early years is almost all about defining the in-group: what does it mean to be a lesbian, and how can humor help that definition cohere?4
If a brief survey of my friends last week is any indication, lesbian humor has achieved the status of a common culture, even if the jokes aren’t always great. Universally, when I asked for a lesbian joke, the first response was: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” (Is there any point to pretending we don’t know the punchline?) “A U-Haul.”
Groan-inducing though it is, the U-Haul joke echoes the humor presented in Sappho a half-century earlier, which overwhelmingly took couples as its subject and often poked fun at the intensity of new attachments—sometimes to make a serious point about healthy relationships. My informal friend survey, utterly unscientific and drawn largely from the same “militantly middle-class” audience to which Sappho addressed itself a half-century ago, points to the magazine as a foundational source for long-lasting tropes of lesbian comedy.5
In this 1990 interview, Sappho’s editor, Jacqueline Forster, described the board’s decision to include “photos, cartoons, articles, news stories, poems, and a list of places where lesbians can meet or contact.” As her inclusion of “cartoons” makes clear, there was an expectation that the magazine would include humor, at least some of which would be visual, under the direction of art editors Jay Francis and Murray Marr.
An initial encounter with the magazine does not promise comedy: in the first few issues, the discreetly monochromatic panel of the cover is disturbed only by the title of the magazine in a typeface reminiscent of Westminster, the 1960s machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs, volume and issue information, and a small logo—the Venus symbol with two facing, vaguely feminine profiles inside its ring. Reminiscent of the optical illusion in which our perception shifts between two faces and a vase, the logo hints at the semiotic slippage that characterizes queer, and especially lesbian, identity throughout the twentieth century—without making us laugh.
Once inside, however, the conservative, technologically savvy design gave way to a hand-drawn aesthetic reminiscent of earlier lesbian magazines like the British Arena Three and the American The Ladder, inviting intimacy and openness in the reader. The first cartoon appeared on page 7 of the very first issue, and introduced “Mabel and Mildred,” a quirky, naked couple who venture out into the world with varying degrees of success. Although their adventures are slightly surreal, they offer a slice of lesbian life to Sappho readers.
In each episode, the rendering is rudimentary: Mildred, slightly stockier than her counterpart, is perennially armed with an axe, which seems as likely to endanger Mabel as protect her. Mabel, in turn, is all knees and elbows, with a shock of unruly hair. In this first cartoon, Mildred is at the top of a precipitous set of steps, while Mabel sits at their foot, badly dinged by an apparent fall. “Now Mildred,” she warns, “look out for that first step!” Is this a commentary on Sappho’s inauguration—or on the dangers of coming out in public, as lesbians?
As a reader, I find myself less worried about Mildred than on the effect her outstretched axe will have on Mabel as she falls—a fear exacerbated by this cartoon, just a few pages later, in which Mildred has apparently chopped off Mabel’s head. The joke here is similarly dark: “For heaven’s sake Mildred,” chastises Mabel’s severed head as it floats above her fleeing body, “don’t lose your head!”
By the second volume, the two are clearly gendered as a butch/femme pair, thanks to the artist’s pointed application of a decorative bow shape: as a bowtie on Mildred (and her axe), and as a hair accessory on Mabel. It affirms the physical stereotyping already in place: Mildred is relatively stout (and violent), while Mabel is slim, with substantial breasts that occasionally overshadow her knobbly knees and elbows.
With sly humor, this unusual level of clothing for the pair is featured in a cartoon in which the pair have joined a queue for a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra. The four characters in line ahead of them represent various characters comically typical of performing arts audiences, all carefully disregarding the naked women behind them. Mildred, facing the viewer and thus seen frontally rather than in profile, explains to Mabel that “It’s about a disturbed nuclear family.” In Strauss’s opera, Electra is armed with an axe with which she avenges her father’s death at the hands of her mother; the myth was taken up by Carl Jung as the basis for a psychoanalytic model of the feminine psyche in 1915.
As an early example of humor in Sappho, “Mildred and Mabel” reflected the middle-class values of the editors in its expectation that readers would recognize references to Strauss and Jung, as well as in the types of activities in which Mabel and Mildred participate. At the same time, the cartoon couple embodied—literally—the paradox of middle-class lesbian existence. Asserting their cultural savvy in their choice of outings, yet persistently appearing naked in public, they thematize the struggle of queer visibility and social acceptance with irony and self-deprecation.
With the caveat that it’s outdated, a friend offered me: "What's the difference between a lesbian and a dyke?" "About $30K a year."
Class was a persistent discussion in Sappho despite its declared affinity with the middle class. In an early issue, Forster refuted the Union of Women for Liberation’s claim that the lesbianism of “a few petty bourgeois women” was “irrelevant to the economic needs of working-class women.” She regularly published letters from readers who asked for more working-class representation, and class struggle came up regularly throughout the magazine’s pages.6
In 1974, cartoonists Kate Charlesworth—now well-known, but in her early work for Sappho credited as “Kaye”—and Sue Neumann joined the masthead of Sappho as artists. They both created witty, many-layered comics for the magazine that draw on art history, public schools, tourism, fashion, and other features of middle-class lesbian experience. Alongside their carefully crafted images, a series of relatively simple images began to appear. Created by a variety of artists (none credited, although a few of the images are signed with initials), they transformed the Venus symbol familiar from the Sappho logo into an anthropomorphic character.
This had two important effects: first, it largely eliminated class-specific references—as well as racial or ethnic markers, which provoked less specific comment at the time, but are striking to contemporary readers. And second, by making visual puns that relied on the formal qualities of the Venus symbol rather than the cultural specificity of a human character, these apparently minor cartoons became surprisingly conceptual in their comedy.
The first to appear was this small bit, tucked into the corner of a page about halfway through the magazine. Two Venus signs are side-by-side: the one on the left is oriented in the expected way, but the one on the right is rotated so that the cross that should be beneath the circle is pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle, mimicking the position of the Mars sign typically used to signify male identity. The circle of the Venus on the left cracks into a speaking smile: “Stop acting butch,” she says. How are we supposed to interpret this directive?
Although Steven Dryden has noted elsewhere on the British Library blogs that the scholarly consensus is that “there was a class dimension to the hostility towards butch lesbian identities,” the illustrations in Sappho normalized butch-femme pairings. Along with “Mabel and Mildred,” “The Gailies,” for example, was a recurring strip by Jay Francis that featured a butch-femme couple, and a comic by Charlesworth replaced Tarzan with a butch Jane as she rescues a hapless femme damsel.7
The difference between “Stop acting butch,” and these other examples is that the former is stripped of any extraneous cultural markers, thanks to the reduction of our protagonists to symbols. In other words, the visual humor is based not on our ability to recognize a human type from their class/race/gender markers, but rather on a visual pun: the Venus symbol is acting out of character by rotating itself 135º anticlockwise—thereby mimicking the appearance of a different symbol.
The cartoon is immediately funny, but it also rewards sustained attention. Consider the effectiveness of the symbol’s transgressive resignification of itself: acceding to the anthropomorphism of the artist, we understand perfectly what the Venus symbol intends to represent—masculinity. At the same time, we understand the artist’s intent: to represent masculinity with a symbol that signifies femininity. The humor comes from our ability to comprehend both meanings at once, almost instantly, without this pedantic explanation. And then we realize that the artist is inviting us to transfer that awareness onto our understanding of gender: in the semiotic space of the tilted Venus, one sign signifies twice, equally effectively, because signs—and genders—are both arbitrary cultural constructions.
Louise Siddons, May 2021
1 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12; “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
2 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12.
3 Rod A. Martin and Thomas E. Ford, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Academic Press, 2018).
4 Not exclusively, though: there’s a cartoon with two Venus symbols sharing a snide comment as the Mars sign bumps his arrow into a doorframe—and even Mildred gets an opportunity to turn her nose up at the thought of a man as a potential mate.
5 “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
6 “Militant Madams,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 9-10; Jackie Forster, untitled editorial, Sappho 4, no. 1 (1975): 3.
7 Steven Dryden, https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/arena-three-britains-first-lesbian-magazine; “The Gailies” first appear in Sappho 1, no. 7 (1972); Kate Charlesworth, “Me Jane!,” Sappho 2, no. 11 (1974): 20.
13 August 2020
Following on from part one of our Mrs. America-themed blog, we continue to look at the themes and characters featured in the FX mini-series and how they are represented in British Library collections.
The show depicts the parallel efforts between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. While Library collections have limited accessibility at the moment, we hope this blog serves has a welcome reminder of the items available for Readers’ research, inspiration and enjoyment as and when holdings can be made fully available again.
Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.
The name Betty Friedan and her 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, may be the most well-known of the characters and works featured in Mrs. America. Friedan was the first president of the National Organization for women and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.
The Feminine Mystique is widely credited with sparking the second-wave feminism movement that arose in America during the 1960s and 70s. It was whilst having conversations with former members of her Smith College contingent that Friedan realised the level of disillusionment and satisfaction amongst both herself and her former classmates; her research on these suburban housewives led to her coining the term the ‘feminine mystique’ and to the eventual publication of the text. Her description of ‘the problem that has no name’ – that is, the systematic, underlying beliefs and institutions that led to women’s disempowerment and kept them in the home – spoke to the women readers who had, for so long, struggled to articulate the feelings of disenchantment they experienced while quietly occupying their life as mother, wife and homemaker. Inspired by the feeling of possibility invoked by Friedan, women were empowered to see how it wasn’t too late to reclaim their lives.
The Feminine Mystique was first published on 19 February 1963 by the New York-based W. W. Norton and Co. It would quickly become a bestseller, with over one million copies of the paperback being purchased in its first run. The British Library holds a version of the book published later on in 1963 in London by Victor Gollancz (shelfmark: 8418.m.8.), a British publisher and humanitarian known as a supporter of left-wing causes.
In Mrs. America, the relationship between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan is an interesting one to observe; the two trailblazers association has been documented as acrimonious, with Friedan stating in a 1972 speech about Steinem that ‘the media tried to make her a celebrity, but no one should mistake her for a leader.’ This is represented in the TV show, with various comments being flung between the two, although a touching moment occurs between them after Friedan is antagonised by Schlafly during a heated televised debate. Friedan is left publically humiliated having let her emotions seemingly get the better of her on screen, frustratingly, if only momentarily, damaging her professionalism and proficient demeanour in the public eye. Steinem stands in solidarity with Friedan, despite their disagreements, telling her “I have been thinking about the first time I read The Feminine Mystique. ‘Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of share in the whole of human destiny?’ I don’t know if I ever told you. Your book changed my life. Thank you.”
Writer and political activist Phyllis Schlafly is at the heart of Mrs. America. Leading the opposing argument to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, she rallies women across America to join her in the fight against the women’s rights movement – representing conservative and traditional family values. The small-screen retelling of Schlafly’s 1960s-70s activities reference her 1952 campaign for the US House of Representatives. Having established her strongly anti-Communist stance and political positioning, Schlafly is frequently pictured as the only women in a room of suited and booted white men in the scenes that take place in Washington. Mrs. America traces Schlafly’s actions as she turns her attention to the ERA and women’s issues.
The Phyllis Schlafly Newsletter was her monthly bulletin used to gather fellow women supporters and inform them of political issues. When the ERA was passed by Congress in 1972, Schlafly used her newsletter to publicly oppose the amendment, fearful that its ratification would undermine traditional US values and among other concerns, lead to women (‘your daughters’ as she emotively refers to them) being drafted into the army. Mrs. America depicts Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, dedicatedly and single-handedly authoring, typing and mailing out copies from her home, taking on the role of both ‘boss’ and assistant. With momentum for her argument gathered, she and her supporters established the Stop ERA lobbying group with factions spread out across the country. And so the plot of Mrs. America unfolds…
Schlafly was a well-organised, powerful and eloquent public speaker, particularly on anti-feminist topics. While this divided audiences (Schlafly infamously received a pie to the face from one of her many opposers), she articulated her position in the 1977 book The Power of the Positive Woman. In it, we are introduced to characters like the White Knight, the Black Demon, and, The Positive Woman. Schlafly attacks what she believes are the false promises of the women’s movements and argues that any further equality for women i.e. the passing of the ERA, would hinder the fabric of American society. The New York Times has an interesting 1977 review on what they call this ‘strange little book’. Strange as it may be, its sentiment was enough to galvanise the support of housewives up and down America, so much so that the ERA eventually failed to be ratified by the required majority of states. The British Library holds a c.1977 copy of the book published by Arlington House in New York (shelfmark: 78/2650).
Perhaps to show that even her campaigning should never take precedence over role as a housewife, dinner for her family, including six children, was always on the table at 6 o'clock each evening, a point made in Mrs. America. After receiving her phone call of rejection from Ronald Reagan in 1980 (after aiding Reagan in the elections, Schlafly had her sights set on a Cabinet position), she puts down the receiver and affirms to her husband: ‘dinner is always at 6’. Impeded on the way to achieve her political ambition once again, she moves from her desk to the kitchen table to peel apples. A melancholy juxtaposition of a closing scene – a woman driven by political fervour resuming her place as homemaker, just as her campaign would have wanted…
Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organiser, is another key player in Mrs. America. Steinem became a pivotal spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, speaking out for the empowerment of women on topics such as abortion (Steinem was a fervent pro-choice advocate) as well as on issues including children's education where she sought to break down barriers based on sex and race. As this National Geographic article expresses, Steinem’s concerns were global, ‘she understood…race, class, and caste’.
Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972 and helped found both the Women's Action Alliance and the National Women's Political Caucus, the latter being ‘a group that continues to work to advance the numbers of pro-equality women in elected and appointed office at a national and state level’. Steinem gained attention for her journalism when she published the two-part feature entitled ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ in Show magazine in 1963. In it, Steinem tells of how she was hired as a Bunny Girl and details the conditions in which she, and the other Bunnies, were made to work, including the sexual demands made on them. This 2013 Guardian article explored ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ and its contemporary relevance when the feature turned 50 years old.
The British Library holds a number of copies of Ms. magazine, from 1987 onwards when the magazine switched from monthly to quarterly (shelfmark: ZA.9.a.6674). Ms. was founded by Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the African American human rights activist, feminist, and child-care advocate. The Spring ’72 issue, featuring a depiction of a version of the Hindu goddess, Kali, using her eight arms to tackle house-wifely duties including cooking, ironing and cleaning, is featured in Mrs. America. It also included the article ‘Women Tell The Truth About Their Abortions’. In one touching scene, a reader stops Steinem in the street and thanks her for publishing the piece; illustrating how this taboo subject was one that many women felt isolated in experiencing and being able to talk about.
Ms. was a departure from many magazines published at the time that were marketed to women in a bid to help them find a husband, raise children, or wear the right make-up, it “helped to shape contemporary feminism, with…editors and authors translating ‘a movement into a magazine.’”
In a topical twist of fate, when searching editions online, it would seem that the earliest British Library holdings of Ms., from September 1987, feature Tracey Ullman on the front cover – Ullman plays the role of Betty Friedan in Mrs. America.
A woman with clear journalistic proficiency and activist vehemence, Mrs. America also touches on the media attention that Steinem’s appearance gained her: ‘the real Steinem has expressed exasperation with the way media coverage centered [sic] on her looks and style.’ A frustrating and ironic state of affairs considering the exact points Steinem and her fellow activists were making in their campaigns. This LA Times article examines this point in more detail, and how accurate Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Gloria Steinem is (or isn’t). Steinem was not involved in the portrayal of herself in the FX series and discusses what Mrs. America gets ‘hopelessly wrong’ in this article. In particular, Steinem notes: ‘I’m very disturbed that people may look at Mrs. America and feel that women are our own worst enemies. Because even when we disagree, we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.’
Works by Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm can be seen in part one of this blog pairing. And don’t forget that Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, the next major British Library exhibition, while on hold for now, will be opening later in 2020.
Further reading in the Library collections which speak to the subjects/characters in Mrs. America
Abortion Rap by Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971). Shelfmark: A71/979
A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America's Culture Wars by Doreen J. Mattingly (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.8330
My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2018). Shelfmark: YK.2019.a.2799
Available as an online resource
National Organization for Women (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003)
Journal and journal articles
‘Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor’ by Carmen Delgado Votaw, found in Inter-American review of bibliography. Vol 47; Number 1/4,; 1997, 234-235. Shelfmark: 4531.894000
Women's Rights Law Reporter (Newark, N.J.: Women's Rights Law Reporter, 1971). Shelfmark: 9343.450000
[Blog by RSC]
11 August 2020
One of the programmes I’ve managed to binge-watch my way through during the past few weeks is Mrs. America: an FX mini-series (currently available on BBC iPlayer) with a blockbuster feel starring Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, to name a few.
The show depicts the battle between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. This two-part blog looks at some of the characters from the programme and the items they authored which are available in the British Library collections.
The airing of Mrs. America comes at a very timely point for Library colleagues – many of whom have been working tirelessly for months and years before lockdown, and continue to do so, on our next major exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. The exhibition was due to open in April 2020 but is currently on hold until later in the year. From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the exhibition will examine how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. A number of Mrs. America’s themes and conversations speak to those explored in the exhibition. The closing notes of the series bring the conversation to present-day America (Virginia ratified the ERA as recently as January 2020) implying, in the same way as the Library exhibition’s name affirms, that these debates are ongoing and far from settled: the fight for women’s rights is indeed unfinished business.
The nine-part series focuses each episode on key players in the US second-wave feminism movement , and the battles that were waged by the movements’ opposing parties. Tackling issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay and girls’ education, ‘the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States was one of the most conflict laden.’
Some of the show’s characters I was familiar with, but many names were new to me and I wanted to find out more. Watchers of the programme will know that there are numerous pieces of literature referenced or mentioned throughout. Of course, many of us aren’t in the British Library building at the moment and seeing these foundational pieces of text on screen, or even mentioned, made me miss the office – and the collections – even more. Resources that would normally be at one’s fingertips are now slightly harder to reach. Despite the exercising of patience needed when it comes to accessing collection items at the moment, I wanted to have a root around the catalogue to see what holdings there might be that complement the stories of the main protagonists during this unforgettable moment in US history.
The following discoveries served as a wonderful and relevant reminder to me, as I hope they will for you, of what influential items the Library holds and that will available to easily consult for one’s research, inspiration or enjoyment, once a more recognisable version of reality greets us once again.
Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.
‘This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives.’ Bella Abzug’s bold 1971 campaign slogan declared that she was a force to be reckoned with. U.S. Representative, attorney, peace activist and gay-rights supporter, Abzug helped to advance the role of women in US politics. In 1961, Abzug co-founded the women's peace activist group, Women Strike for Peace, and during the 60s and 70s she was active in the peace movement, vehemently against the testing of nuclear weapons. Her fighting spirit and passion earnt her the nickname Battling Bella. Abzug was an early supporter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and remained active in feminist issues until her death in 1998.
The Library holds a first edition of Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington (shelfmark: 72/4051X) written by Abzug and edited by Mel Ziegler. The title was published in 1972 by Saturday Review Press – the publishing company branch of Saturday Review, which was, in contrast to this book’s subject, an American weekly men's lifestyle and health magazine, established in 1924. As the name implies, the book traces New York-born Bella Abzug’s journey to politics. The dust jacket shows her signature hat-wearing appearance in silhouette form, with her charismatic grin on the back cover – something Margo Martindale portrays brilliantly, along with Abzug’s ‘pugnacious wit’, in Mrs. America.
Episode 7 focuses on Abzug as she is tasked with organising the National Women’s Conference in Houston following her failed run for Senate in 1977. Abzug would later be dismissed by President Carter as co‐chairman of his National Advisory Committee on Women after a heated discussion on women’s issues at the White House. In the TV show, members of Abzug’s committee resign in solidarity with Bella; making for a powerful and pertinent scene (and one of my favourites). Did this really happen? This article examines the fact vs fiction in Mrs. America and the reality behind this particularly event, one which Gloria Steinem referred to as ‘the Friday afternoon massacre.’
The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm was also the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. ‘Unbossed and unbought’ was her motto, showing her outspoken advocacy for both women and minority groups. In this Washington Post article, Vanessa Williams explores how Chisholm “described herself as ‘the people’s politician,’ fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women.”
The Library holds a first edition of Chisholm’s 1970 autobiography, which took its name from her slogan: Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, shelfmark: W44/9078). In the book, Chisholm writes about her life, growing up as a young girl in Brooklyn, through her journey into politics, and her experiences of the American political system. It examines her long political struggle and the problems which plagued the American system of government.
Episode 3 of Mrs. America focuses on Chisholm as the congresswoman and presidential candidate vows to stay in the race for nomination come the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She is a recurring character and steadfast force, and through her story the series ‘points out how the obstacles Chisholm face[d] as a liberal black woman differ[ed] from those facing the white co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.’ This recent Washington Post article includes a fascinating interview with Uzo Aduba, who plays the iconic role of Chisholm.
The next Mrs. America blog instalment will feature works by Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem.
[Blog by RSC]
04 August 2020
This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy. I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto. It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital. Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed. Little did I know that would change the course of my life. The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life. As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone. Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand. Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men. Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.
Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020. A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic. A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma. While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic. Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2
Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking. I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma. Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy. We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3 Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable. While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts. Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history. Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other. Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’. People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’. This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.
Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope. They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities. We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick. These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly. Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).
I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing. Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities. My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.
Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792
1. Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100; Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.
2. D. Crimp, AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16. General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.
3. Sontag, 1989. p. 180.
Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:
C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.' Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504
C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.' AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.
25 February 2020
Thomas Lanier Williams III, perhaps better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams, passed away on 25 February 1983. I’ve turned to the Library’s collections to take a look at our holdings around one of Williams’s most popular and timeless works, A Streetcar Named Desire.
As some of our Readers may be well aware, due to conservation and preservation over the years, not all of the books held at the British Library still have their original dust jackets, covers or bindings. So it’s always a joy to call up an item from the basements which still retains its original frontage in full, glorious technicolour.
I discovered that we’re fortunate enough to hold a first edition of A Streetcar Named Desire (YA.1996.b.5800) published by New Directions in 1947, complete with the lavender pink cover design by Alvin Lustig. Showing three figures entwined, almost dancing, on the front, the image is a striking one among, what can be, shelves of dark spines. An imposing male stands in the centre, in a puppeteer-like poise, commanding two females either side of him: seemingly a picture of the tempestuous and forceful Stanley Kowalski, with his wife, the meek Stella, on one side, and his struggling sister-in-law, Blanche, on the other.
New Directions Books were published by American poet, James Laughlin, who started the publishing house after seeking career advice from none other than Ezra Pound. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.” Laughlin recalls. Bestsellers from New Directions, an imprint largely devoted to Modernist writers, include works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, EMC.2011.a.174), William Carlos Williams (Selected Poems, 75/17337) and Ezra Pound himself (The Cantos, W55/3062). Of Tennessee Williams, the New Directions website states:
‘As well as being astonishingly talented and prolific, Tennessee Williams was a man of considerable personal courage, willing to be open about being a gay man at a time when few were. Tennessee Williams is a cornerstone of New Directions, as we publish everything he wrote in his storied career. He is also our single bestselling author.’
Many of the early New Directions covers feature artwork by Denver-born designer, Alvin Lustig (1915 – 1955). A rigorous graphic designer who forayed into architecture, interior and industrial design, ‘Lustig’s opportunity to use the book cover as a vehicle of bold graphic experimentation and innovation was provided by James Laughlin…a collaboration that flourished throughout the 1940s until Lustig’s early death in 1955… [they] prodded, cajoled, and quibbled their way through a virtually unprecedented partnership…’. (page 7, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, YC.2017.a.13503) In each other they recognised ‘a sense of uncompromising principles and a tenacious drive to make a mark on contemporary society’ (page 13, ibid).
Laughlin’s publication choices together with Lustig’s eye for colour, graphic systems and bold juxtapositions, resulted in sure-fire ways to stop readers in their tracks in the mid-20th century, beckoning them, as the names implies, to traverse New Directions. And it worked; ‘Lustig’s jackets had a quantifiable impact on the book-buying public; they enormously increased the sales…’ (page 49, Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Laughlin confirmed that Lustig’s artwork and ‘beautiful designs…help[ed] to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading’ (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig”, Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as quoted on page 50 in Born Modern by Heller and Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Though one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to see the appeal of these designs in a shopfront even today. This is something Laughlin acknowledged also: ‘People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work – and never intend to – I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales.’ (ibid)
Beholding a green Library stamp, signifying a donation, my interest was also piqued at seeing two handwritten inscriptions signed ‘Sidney Lanfield’ on the inside cover of this edition. Lanfield was an American director (1898 – 1972) whose work included the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. As beautiful as this book is, the director’s signature serves as a reminder that A Streetcar Named Desire is in its most perfect form when performed on stage, as was its intention.
And what better illustration is there of this than the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Streetcar was first performed? This programme (RB.23.b.7714) for the original Broadway production of the play is from 9 February 1948; the play premiered at the theatre just two months earlier on 3 December 1947. The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, directed by Elia Kazan, still featured the original stars including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy. The New Directions edition of the book also lists the star-studded cast that were part of the premier run of the production. As well as giving early portfolios for the cast in lead roles, the playbill is dispersed with advertisements, including plenty for cigarettes (Camel) and alcohol (Carstairs whiskey), and is a great primary resource for researchers. Others may also interested in reading The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs’s slightly scathing, and controversial, review of an early performance of this production from 6 December 1947: an article that closes with ‘I’m sorry to say there isn’t much room left for the compliments’.
73 years on from the New Directions publication of the play, and its premiere performance, and 37 years since Williams’s passing, it’s incredible to see A Streetcar Named Desire in its initial guises. A reminder that the British Library has endless avenues to pursue when it comes to fresh research around even the most seemingly well-established of subject matter.
[Blog by RSC]
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Mount Vernon, New York: New Directions, 1947) YA.1996.b.5800
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flash by John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) ELD.DS.73184
Memoirs by Tennessee Williams; introduction by John Waters (New York: New Directions, 2006)
A Streetcar Named Desire: The Playbill, (New York: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1948)
The New Yorker, articles available at www.newyorker.com and BL holding Mic.B.64/1-45., P.903/858., 6089.821000
Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (San Francisco: Chronicle, c2010) LC.31.b.7733
Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, c2010) YC.2017.a.13503
09 May 2018
Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]
Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.
Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.
Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:
- North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
- Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
- Book history and arts in North America
- Pacific politics and geopolitics
- Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
- LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at email@example.com.
Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule
We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.
Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies
15 September 2017
This week marks the end of the Library's 'Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty' exhibition. In the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, the exhibition reflects on gay history in the UK from the trial of Oscar Wilde to the current day. It is both a sober reflection and an inspiring account of the creativity and activism of gay people in the UK, and has led to a substantial reflection across Library blogs such as this post from Asian and African studies on LGBT writing in the Middle East, the sound blog's posts about the Hall Carpenter Oral History Archive, and this exploration of the literary aspects of the exhibition on the English and Drama blog. As the exhibition drew to a close, it seemed timely to add the voice of the Americas to this.
A key concern of the exhibition is the UK gay rights movements, and the Gay Liberation Front's 1970 manifesto and collection of newsletters holds a particularly prominent position within this narrative. The UK GLF was directly inspired by the US Gay Liberation Front which formed in the wake of the Stonewall Riots in New York. Stonewall is rightly seen as a seminal moment in the worldwide Gay Rights movement, however it is best considered within a longer timeline of LGBT activism both on the East and West coast.
An earlier event in San Francisco has striking similarities with Stonewall: in August 1966, a riot broke out at Compton's Cafeteria after police tried to forcibly remove a transgender patron. Some gay bars were tolerated in San Francisco following extensive negotiations by ‘homophile’ organisations with local police. However, "cross-dressing" was still illegal and this provided a justification for police to raid and close establishments that transgender people frequented. The Compton's riot was thus the culmination of years of harassment of drag queens, other trans and gay people. The event has been called "the first known instance of collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in United States history" by Susan Stryker, a historian and director of a documentary about the riot, Screaming Queens.
Protest, resistance, and social justice movements were particularly well organised in the city and wider Bay Area, including gay rights’ groups. For example, the Society for Individual Rights formed in 1964 which opened a community centre and organised sit-ins; the gay youth group Vanguard established in 1965 and joined forces with a local church to peacefully protest establishments that refused service to LGBT people. While the groups were focussed on gay rights, individuals made connections with other civil rights issues and shared tactics, a particularly interesting example of which were the links drawn with the Black Power movement.
The Black Panther party headquarters were across the Bay in Oakland. In August 1970, co-founder of the BPP, Huey Newton, delivered a speech in which he challenged homophobia and misogyny within the party.
The speech reflects how Newton was developing his thinking on gay rights, nonetheless it was unequivocal in its call to BPP membership to align with LGBT and women’s movements.
“…we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society… we know that homosexuality is a fact that exists, and we must understand it in its purest form: that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.
That is not endorsing things in homosexuality that we wouldn’t view as revolutionary. But there is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I’m now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that ‘even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.’ Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”
The relationship between the various different Bay Area movements is here spelled out, and BPP’s militant tactics for challenging police brutality and organising radical community anti-poverty programmes struck a direct chord with some LGBT individuals. One such person was the Rev. Ray Broshears who had been at the Compton’s Riot, ran the Helping Hands Gay Community Service Center, and was one of the founders of San Francisco’s first Gay Pride march. After witnessing multiple acts of brutality that were ignored by police, and being heavily beaten himself in 1973, he formed the ‘vigilante’ group the Lavender Panthers. Consisting of 21 members, they patrolled the streets of the city to ward off attacks on LGBT people. In a press conference announcing the group’s formation, Broshears stated “We deplore violence, but we must meet force with force… Never again will a gay person be beaten without retaliation.”
Needless to say, the Bay Area continued to be a centre for LGBTQ rights and creativity, which is reflected in our collections. Moving on from the 1970's, and keeping in mind the Compton’s riot included transgender, multi-racial, and gay participants, I would like to flag up three collection items. The first is a newsletter produced by the San Francisco Women’s Centre between 1982-4 called Black Lesbian Newsletter (later retitled Onyx). Each issue has a beautifully illustrated cover and consists of essays, poems, and news. The two depicted below highlight the recurring theme of police brutality, but also the joy found in companionship, community and racial heritage (this is a Kwanzaa celebration).
The second is an independently published magazine from the early 2000's. Shellac aimed to meld critical commentary with artistic expression, ranging from poetry, photography, digital art, and essays. Stating in its opening issue that it "is the production of new forms of knowledge and political alliances among queer(ious) people of color" the magazine was sadly short-lived, but contains some gems such as 'A Poem Upon My Hate' by Richard Branco who expounds on the challenges he faces living in an increasingly gentrified and unaffordable city as a Latino homosexual.
Last but by no means least is an audio recording made at the Library last year by the musician Ezra Furman which you can listen to on the Library's soundcloud account. Based in the Bay Area at various points throughout his career, Furman has spoken at length about his sexuality, gender-nonconformity, Jewishness, and how they inform his creativity. The Bay Area forms the backdrop to the video for his song Restless Year. In it he playfully moves around the city trying on different identities, absorbing cultural influences, participating in a queer dance-troupe/community. The lyrics of the song reflect on the experience of feeling as though you do not fit into society, and striving for freedom through personal creative expression.
These are themes that run through his catalogue and Furman discusses them in detail in his talk at the Library. Opening with the reminder of William Burrough’s comment that the word ‘punk’ used to be a term of abuse for “someone who take it up the ass… it was a queer thing”, Furman reflects on punk music and the influence of Lou Reed who he has previously called ‘radically free’. In the interview, he identifies this as stemming as much from Reed’s sexuality as from his creativity, both of which were in a process of constant flux. Reed, he points out, was not afraid of contradictions or being limited by other people’s ideas of him.
Not on the soundcloud which is edited for copyright reasons, but available to listen to in the Library’s reading rooms, is the solo performance Furman ended the night with. Covering several Reed/Velvet Underground songs, he also includes an unreleased song of his own. Titled either ‘Amateur’ or ‘I Wanna Be An Amateur’, the lyrics are true to these preoccupations:
“I wanna be an amateur
That’s what I would like to someday be
I wanna be an amateur
Back like I used to be
I wanna go down to the essence, down to the essence, down to my clumsy childish essence
I wanna be essentially unfiltered, free.
I don’t like power,
I don’t like hierarchy.
I don’t worship human power,
And the idea of an elite is not for me.
I’m an American,
And I like to think that means real democracy”
While the term ‘identity politics’ is often misused and at times can feel as though it is a hollow cliché, Furman’s work challenges us to take it seriously. When considered alongside the above history of activism in the Bay Area, we can see the echoes of radicalism running alongside insinuations of Furman's religious thought woven into the song. All of this lends the line ‘I’m an American’ a tone of defiance, it is an assertion of a vision of a more equitable and inclusive society.
 Nicola Pasulka, Ladies in the Street: Transgender Uprising Changed Lives, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/05/05/404459634/ladies-in-the-streets-before-stonewall-transgender-uprising-changed-lives
 The full text of the speech is published in Huey Newton, The Huey P. Newton Reader, shelfmark m04/12950.
 Bob Calhoun, Yesterday’s Crimes, The Lavender Panthers, San Francisco’s LGBT Vigilantes https://archives.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2016/06/16/yesterdays-crimes-the-lavender-panthers-san-franciscos-lgbt-vigilantes
 The full recording can be found at shelfmark C927/1530