A short history of the women who founded the world’s largest lesbian archive — and the pets who lived there.
In November 1973, the Gay Academic Union (GAU) held its first conference at John Jay College in New York City. A product of the intellectual and activist ferment following the 1969 Stonewall uprising, the GAU had the dual goal of advocating for lesbian and gay academics and encouraging research on gay and lesbian subjects within often virulently homophobic colleges and universities. Deb Edel and Joan Nestle—who would soon found the Lesbian Herstory Archives— both attended this conference.
At the time, Deb was a doctoral student in an “after hours” Ph.D. program in Psychology at New York University, while working full-time as an educational psychologist. She no longer remembers how she first heard of the GAU. However, she does remember that the conference coincided with the end of a relationship with a woman she was seeing. Finding herself with “a lot of free time” on her hands, Deb attended the GAU conference.
Deb’s soon-to-be lover Joan Nestle was also at the conference. A writing teacher in the SEEK Program at Queen’s College, Joan “walked out” of her doctoral program in English at New York University a few years earlier, after her advisor refused to let her write a dissertation on the now canonical Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. “Langston who?,” he asked her.
After the conference, Deb and Joan participated in a consciousness-raising group organized by the GAU women, which met separately from the men in the organization. Randomly sorted into the same group, their group discussed the precarity of sources documenting lesbian desire throughout history, as well as the disinterest of libraries and archives in collecting contemporaneous material related to lesbian feminist and gay liberation movements. The idea for the Lesbian Herstory Archives grew out of these conversations. “We undertook the Archives not as a short-term project,” the Archives’ first newsletter ambitiously announced two years later, “but as a commitment to rediscovering our past, controlling our present, and speaking to our future.”
At the time of the typing of this newsletter, the Archives consisted of a few milk crates stored in Joan’s apartment on the Upper West Side. In need of a home of the collection, the fact that Joan shared an apartment with a dog and soon adopted cats did not disqualify her apartment. Even if concerns had been raised, she would not have entertained the idea of giving up her pets anyway. “So the Archives would not have had a home,” she explained, without the coexistence of dogs, cats, and archival documents.
Over the next two decades, the collection gradually filled Joan’s apartment, before eventually relocating to a building of its own in the early 1990s. In all, two dogs and four cats lived with the Archives during its tenure in Joan’s apartment. In around 1976, Deb moved in with Joan, bringing Eugene, an orange calico named after Eugene McCarthy, with her. An “elder statesman,” Eugene had never met “another cat no less a dog” before moving into Joan’s apartment. In their new home, Eugene met Denver, Joan’s large fluffy “lesbian oriented” dog. Despite Eugene’s reserve, the new step-pets got along.
Deb and Joan soon adopted more cats in New Hampshire, where Deb had a vacation home. First, Deb and Joan adopted a second orange calico cat with a white belly, naming him Rocky after Rocky Bound Pond in New Hampshire. They also adopted the “baby of the family” Squinch, a forever tiny white and gray cat with stripes. Squinch’s name derived from a card game that Margaret Mead taught Deb’s mother May, who was also an anthropologist. Deb remembers Rocky and Squinch as “sweet natured” gentle cats, who happily joined Eugene and Denver in their new home.
In January 1976, Joan and Deb opened the doors of their apartment to women who wanted to use the growing collection. Early photographs of the Archives often feature assorted pets lounging on nearby tables, perching on file cabinets, or curiously poking at researchers. Traditional archivists, Joan admitted, might “gasp” at the sight of Rocky “peering down from an early bookcase in the little room where it all started” or hearing the story of when Fred—another little “orange fellow” adopted in the 1980s— “fell behind one of the drawers of the file cabinet” and had to be rescued by a visitor from Denmark, armed with a little basket and some food. These pets, however, were very much part of the fabric of the Archives in the 1970s and 1980s, as they scampered around an archival collection that prided itself on its distance from the “elitism of traditional archives,” to quote “Notes on Radical Archiving from a Lesbian Feminist Perspective,” an article that forms the basis of a set of principles that still guide the development of the collection.
After nearly twenty years, the Lesbian Herstory Archives finally moved to its permanent location: a limestone building in Park Slope, purchased with money raised through a grassroots campaign for community based donations. Despite its decades in Brooklyn, Joan and Deb’s apartment still occupies a near mythological status in accounts of the history of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an attachment to the past that is secured through the extent to which the Archives remains rooted in the political vision that shaped its founding in the 1970s. The Archives, for example, continues to be run by a volunteer coordinating committee that uses a consensus model of decision making. The Archives also still accepts donations of material from everyone who identifies with the word “lesbian,” regardless of traditional markers of historical significance.
Pets, however, are no longer allowed to roam the collection, amid thoroughly reasonable concerns about the accessibility of the building for people with allergies and the preservation of archival documents. The history of pets in the Archives, as Joan put it, is “just another moment in our history” and yet “our history with these beings [is] part of our lesbian history.”
— Rachel Corbman, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow, Center for Women’s History
“By the Force of Our Presence,” an exhibition of highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives, will open at the New-York Historical Society as part of a suite of Stonewall exhibitions on May 24, 2019.
Rachel Corbman is curating “The Wide World of Lesbian Cats, 1970-today,” which will open at the LGBT Community Center in July 2019.
Top image credit: Photograph of Rocky on shelf. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.