While the Center for Women’s History exhibition, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, is on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery through October 3, 2021, Women at the Center will explore the lives and professional experiences of women in media—and how their work transformed journalism while fighting against persistent, systemic biases, including sexism, racism, and homophobia. In this first post of the series, our guest writer, Rachel Pitkin, MA student in the joint N-YHS/CUNY School of Professional Studies Museum Studies degree program, goes behind the camera lens of photographer Diana Davies, whose works gives us an unparalleled peek inside both the well-known, iconic images of the gay and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s, as well as more anonymous, quotidian moments of grassroots activity.
The April 1971 newsletter of the newly established Women’s Liberation Center in New York City is a sum total of four pages long: modest in length but radical in content. As an “information collective”—what the founding group of women referred to themselves—it included a directory of women-run services, or as they put it, “good lists of people and skills” who could deliver services to other women as “competently and non-exploitatively” as possible. Breaking economic controls of dependency—and hiring women in order to accomplish it—was, to the organizers, what “women’s liberation was all about.”
Midway through the first page, situated above an advertisement for “Liberated Women Painters” who worked on apartments and offices, was the personal contact information for photographer and Gay Liberation Front (GLF) member Diana Davies. Davies, according to the blurb, had been “capturing the changing moods of a movement on film for a decade” and was available for future photographic assignments.
The “movement” activity referenced by the center was that of the women’s and gay liberation movements. By the time the newsletter was published in 1971, Davies, a self-taught photographer who became interested in the medium through working in New York City coffeehouses, music, and theater, had already captured some of the earliest and most dynamic demonstrations. From the streets of Greenwich Village in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to actions such as the Lavender Menace demonstration at the National Organization of Women’s (NOW) Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. The very term lavender menace invokes a young Rita Mae Brown in the cuffed iconic t-shirt, confidently staring down Davies’ lens while joint Radicalesbians and GLF women disrupted the meeting after being sidelined and disillusioned by members of NOW leadership such as Betty Friedan. And it is Davies’ photo of the Stonewall Inn which portrays the eerie quiet that permeated Greenwich Village streets after queer individuals revolted against police harassment for nearly one week throughout the course of the riots. A strategically placed sign in the inn’s window showcases a message from the Mattachine Society pleading with their fellow LGBTQ+ comrades to “maintain peaceful conduct” in the Village—a clear message to the rest of the gay community that the group did not condone participation in the riots. Both images are instructive in that they help shape our memory of the era’s more climactic events. Yet looking beyond them also provides insight into unsung grassroots activity critical to the movements at large, but often eclipsed by these and more popularly remembered actions.
Just one month prior to the Women’s Liberation Center newsletter sharing her contact information, Davies traveled to Albany for the first-ever statewide march for gay rights hosted by the GLF of the Tri-Cities (Albany, Troy, and Schenectady). On the steps of the state capitol building groups such as S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and various state branches of the Radicalesbians converged with an intersectional energy that helped catalyze political action and reform for LGBTQ+ rights in the New York State legislature. Their list of demands included an end to laws that criminalized homosexuality, regulated gender-specific clothing and prohibited cross-dressing, and an end to employment and housing discrimination.
Examining the events of the weekend through Davies’ lens reveals the 2,500 individuals who collectively assembled from across the state and stood boldly—some openly affiliating themselves with Gay Liberation for the first time—beyond the speakers’ podium. The liberatory energy that permeated college campuses and smaller urban centers across the state is expertly preserved in Davies’ photography, showcasing the atmosphere on buses transporting groups and unidentified individuals creating and carrying signs on their journey to the capitol that largely go unrecognized in the retelling of this moment. Yet, Davies also portrays are priceless images of recognizable stewards of the movement such as Marsha P. Johnson, Madeline Davis, and Sylvia Rivera. Their positioning alongside more undersung organizational activity represents both Davies’ work at the Gay Rights March on Albany and her photographic work more generally.
These intimate portrayals of daily life were possible because Davies herself belonged to the GLF grassroots. She traveled from the Upper West Side to GLF meetings at the Church of the Holy Apostle in Chelsea with other early members such as Karla Jay and John Knoebel. Having honed a love of photography while working in coffeehouses and music festivals prior to GLF’s 1969 origins (and as one of few members who owned a camera), Davies was poised to capture moments of the early movement firsthand. Imagery from GLF activity between demonstrations shows friends sharing potluck dishes before meetings, selling the latest issues of Rat or other underground print at meeting welcoming tables, and GLF women decorating for dances at Alternate U, laughing around couches with balloons in hand. Still, accompanying the moments of joy and comradery was the ever-present fear of being identified by law enforcement or employers, which complicated Davies’ ability to acquire verbal consent for her photography. This fear haunting early movement activity makes the moments Davies did capture all the more special.
Outside of the routine elements of daily life, Davies’ work also illustrates the queer activist fervor that infused smaller scale demonstrations often overshadowed by more recognized events. These actions, such as the GLF organized protest in front of Greenwich Village’s Women’s House of Detention from Christmas to New Year’s Eve of 1969, reveal specific insight into the concerns of women and the most marginalized of the LGBTQ+ community. Images taken from outside the Women’s House of Detention compel us to interrogate dominant LGBTQ+ histories and question whose voices are missing, including women and gender non-conforming individuals, individuals of color, and the poor and working-class. Davies’ photos provide us with a lens through which we can more deeply explore their experiences.
The week-long Women’s House of Detention demonstration brought together an inclusive coalition that protested the incarceration of Black Panther Party members such as Afeni Shakur, along with “the forgotten women” and marginalized members of the Queer community. Transmasculine, transgender, and non-conforming individuals were often disproportionately criminalized under laws that rigidly defined gender-specific dress, and were especially susceptible to landing within the walls of the Women’s House of Detention, an ever-present threat for participants in the period’s movements. Carrying drums and banners while yelling up to the incarcerated women, protesters helped instigate events that laid the groundwork for intersectional cooperation within Black Power and gay liberation movements. Standing below the windows of the prison, Davies photographed these GLF activists whose banners prompted Shakur to empathize with the oppression of the “Gay sisters in jail.” Both those incarcerated and those who rallied around them inspired her to bring a list of demands to the 1970 Revolutionary People’s Convention organized by the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, in hopes of compelling movement leaders to adopt Gay Liberation stances and cooperation.
Davies’ photographic archive reveals the intricacies of grassroots networks often overlooked by our retelling of twentieth century activism—queer activism, particularly. While her personal identification and positioning within gay liberation prompts many historians to fix her work as uniquely tied to LGBTQ+ movement history, it is also clear that her work extends beyond queer rights specifically. Much of Davies’ earlier career was spent documenting grassroots civil rights activity at large, from the Poor People’s Campaign, localized C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) rallies in Harlem, to S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers at various folk festivals. As we continue to uncover the history of twentieth century activism—more pointedly from the perspective of lesser known individuals and events often omitted from its narration—Davies’ lens serves as a powerful tool.
Written by Rachel Pitkin, MA student in the Museum Studies degree program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, developed in collaboration with the New-York Historical Society.