Creating the Most Extensive Digital Collection of Underground Papers Ever

In my last blog post I told you that in my next blog post I would introduce what is to date the most extensive project ever to digitize underground, alternative, and literary publications from the fifties through the eighties. This is that post.

I also said I would describe the economic model that is making this project possible at about one-fifth the cost to libraries that other digital publishers would charge, and with open access, not perpetual profits, as a result—an absolutely unique concept in the digitizing field. I’ll do that in my next post. If you are a librarian at any institution of higher learning who wants to enhance your collections of digital resources without busting your budget, this model was created with you in mind. You might even own an archive in your collection that you would like to see digitized. If it can fit into this economic model, we need to talk.

And if you are a writer or antiwar activist from the period who wrote for or published one of these publications, especially one that is not already on board the project, we need to talk as well.

I’m a veteran of the Vietnam era underground press and now a historian. My four-volume Voices from the Underground Series is a collection of insider histories of underground papers from the period as written by key folks on each of the papers. Stories represent the gay, Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, military, psychedelic, rank-and-file worker, prisoners’ rights, campus, community, socialist, Southern consciousness, new age, and other antiwar voices of the period.

And also the feminist and lesbian voices. Carol Anne Douglas/Fran Moira’s and Marilyn Webb’s stories about off our backs, the first major national feminist paper to emerge on the east coast, appear in volume 1; the history of It Aint Me Babe, the San Francisco-based national feminist publication that actually preceded off our backs, is told by members of the collective in volume 3, along with Ginny Berson’s history of The Furies, the legendary paper put out by twelve self-proclaimed revolutionary lesbian feminists who were known collectively as the Furies.

For the past four years, I have been part of a team of researchers and digitizing specialists who are working on a project to digitize underground, alternative, and literary publications from the fifties through the eighties. My role has been to come up with names of papers that I want to include in the collection, figure out who I need to contact for permission to scan them, and then contact those folks and obtain permission.

Our goal is to digitize a million pages in four years. Our motivations are two-fold: to preserve the most important writings of our generation, which are now hidden in dark shelves of special collections libraries—where young scholars seldom roam—and are beginning to yellow and crumble with age; and to make them available to current and future generations of activists, who look first—and too often only—to digital resources for their research information. If the readers don’t come to you, you go to the readers.

My fellow veterans of the period understand. And so I have been getting tremendous response from individuals who I contact as they in turn contact other members of their respective papers to obtain consensus agreement and then get back to me with their okays.

To date, I have on board some 120 papers that represent the same voices whose histories I was successful in recording through the Voices from the Underground Series as well as others that I wasn’t successful in getting, including the Asian-American and Chicano voices. I have brought on board also some 200 military underground papers, 80 literary publications, and even 4 papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement.

But it all began with the feminist and lesbian papers, the genre that got this project under way. The following are the women’s papers that now are on board:

Aegis; Ain’t I a Woman (Iowa City); Amazon; Amazon Quarterly: A Lesbian Feminist Arts Journal;And Aint I a Woman (Seattle); Aphra; B.A.D. (Big Apple Dyke) News; BattleActs; Big Mama Rag; Black Belt Woman: The Magazine for Women in the Martial Arts and Self Defense; Black Maria; Black Woman’s Voice; Bread & Roses; Common Lives/Lesbian Lives; Conditions; Country Women; CWLU News: Newsletter of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (and three papers associated with CWLU: Womankind, Blazing Star, and Secret Storm); Dandelion; Dayton Women’s Liberation Newsletter, Distaff; Dyke, A Quarterly; Dykes & Gorgons; Everywoman; The Eye; Female Studies Series; Feminary; Feminist Alliance Against Rape; Feminist Bookstore News/Feminist Bookstore Newsletter; Feminist Voice; Feminist Women’s Health Center Newsletter; The Furies; Heresies: A Feminist Journal on Arts and Politics; Her-self; Houston Breakthrough: Where Women Are News; Hysteria; IKON; It Aint Me Babe; Killer Dyke; KNOW; The Ladder; Lavender Vision; Lavender Woman; Lesbian Connection; The Lesbian Insider/Inside Her/Inciter; Lesbian News; Lesbian Tide; Lilith; Marin Women’s Newsletter/News Journal; The Matriarchist; Matrices; Media Report to Women; Meeting Ground; Motive (lesbian issue); New Directions for Women; New Women’s Times; New York Radical Feminists Newsletter;Newsreport; No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation; Notes from the [First/Second/Third]Year; off our backs; On Our Backs; Quest/a feminist quarterly; Radical Chick; The Second Page, Second Wave: A Magazine for the New Feminism; Sinister Wisdom; Sojourner; SPAZM; The Spokeswoman; Tell-a-Woman; Tooth and Nail; Tribad; Triple Jeopardy; Up From Under, Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement; WomaNews; Woman’s World; WomanSpirit; Women: A Journal of Liberation; Women and Art; Women in Print Newsletter; Women Organizing; Women’s News…For a Change; Women’s Press; and The Women’s Page. Also to be included is the groundbreaking paper “a kind of memo” (later published in Liberation as “Sex and Caste”), written by Mary King and Casey Hayden.

There are others and I want to bring them on board. That’s why I attended Boston University’s Women’s Liberation Conference. I imagined the opportunity to meet, in person for the first time, women who I had come to know over email because they had already given me permission to include their papers. How right I was. I was honored to meet

  • Dana Dunsmore (No More Fun and Games; Black Belt Woman)
  • Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (No More Fun and Games)
  • Julie Enszer (Sinister Wisdom)
  • Christine Riddiough (Women Organizing)
  • Barbara Love (The Matriarchist)
  • Barbara Winslow (And Aint I a Woman)
  • Laura X (SPAZM, It Aint Me Babe)
  • Alta (It Aint Me Babe)
  • Carol Hanisch (Meeting Ground)
  • Mary King (co-author of “a kind of memo,” the document that has been credited with kicking off the modern feminist movement)

I also spent time with my friends Jo Freeman (Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement), Sue Katz (Lavender Vision), Judy Gumbo Albert (Barb on Strike; Berkeley Tribe), and Sally Gabb (Great Speckled Bird). Jo and Sue are long-time friends from the National Writers Union. Judy and Sally’s papers were among the community underground papers that I’ll discuss in my next post.

I hoped to bring new papers on board and did. After many previous futile long-distance efforts to bring Boston’s Sojourner on board, I was fortunate to meet Shane Snowdon and Vicky Gabriner and, voila, Sojourner was added to the list, as was Lesbian Insider/Inciter/Inside Her, thanks to my meeting with Mardi Steinau.

A major figure from the seventies was Carol Downer, who pioneered women’s self-help in Los Angeles through her clinic and many activities that my paper from Lansing, Michigan, Joint Issue, regularly reported on. I was honored to meet her and delighted when she gave me a verbal commitment to include the Feminist Women’s Health Center Newsletter. Another verbal commitment came from Susan Chernilo, from Eugene, Oregon’s Women’s Press.

I gave one of my promotional flyers to a woman who was sitting next to me at one session. She glanced at the text, then exclaimed, “You’re Ken Wachsberger! I was told I needed to meet you.” She turned out to be Susan Smith Richardson, long-time award-winning reporter and now publisher of the Chicago Reporter, an investigative civil rights paper that goes back to 1972 and hopefully will soon be on board the project.

One publication that was not technically a journal but was a major historical document from the seventies and was distributed through the same underground network was the self-help classic Our Bodies Ourselves, produced by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. At the conference I met collective members Joan Ditzion and Miriam Hawley and both of them immediately recognized the importance of the project. This week I welcomed their following publications to the collection:

  • Women and Their Bodies—the pamphlet that started it all in 1970;
  • Our Bodies Ourselves—the pamphlet from 1971 that updated Women and Their Bodies and took, for the first time, the name that became known worldwide; and
  • Proceedings from the 1975 Conference on Women and Health that brought together 2,500 feminist activists, students, and health care providers from the United States and Canada.

Overall the Women’s Liberation Conference at Boston University was a great success. I’m looking to attend other conferences as well and would welcome suggestions.

If you were a member of a feminist or lesbian publication that is not included in the discussion above or know someone who was, please contact me right away at so we can bring your paper on board.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to some of the other papers that are on board. I’ll also explain our cost recovery = open access economic model that is enabling us to create this collection at about one-fifth the cost that other, commercial digital publishers would charge.

I’ll see you then.

Women’s Liberation Conference Celebrates 2nd Wave, Revs Up 3rd Wave

The Women’s Liberation Conference at Boston University, “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” was a celebration of a moment in history, popularly known as the second wave of feminism, that changed the world forever. Throughout the three days of seminars, readings, films, and meetings, from Thursday to Saturday, March 27-29, attendees recalled the successes of that period and beyond while cautioning about dangers ahead, including confronting the present-day war on women that is seeing past victories being rolled back. Veterans of the second wave who led and participated in that revolution networked with young activists and academics from the third wave who today are carrying the movement forward.

Main conference organizer Deborah Belle welcomed the crowd and invited veterans of the second wave to stand. You could see by the number of attendees who stood that a major reunion was taking place. Many of the women had bios in Barbara Love’s Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975. But everyone who stood played a major part locally, nationally, or internationally in creating the change that marked the period.

In her opening remarks, Deborah noted that she had been inspired to organize the conference after repeatedly hearing a narrative of feminism’s history that was different from the one she remembered.

Feminist historian Sara Evans expanded upon that theme in her opening keynote address. “Why is women’s liberation a footnote in late-twentieth century history of feminism?” she asked. She stated four myths about the movement that needed to be cleared away to see the revolution: It was confined to members of the white middle class; it can be told through a chronicle of famous women and key pieces of legislation; participants could generally be described with such words as “shrill,” “ugly,” “anti-sex,” and “oversexed”; the movement was caused by extreme sexism in the New Left.

Throughout the weekend, the power of words and impressions was never far from many analyses. Carol Hanisch, a founding member of New York Radical Women, noted that an image of the period had it being one of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” even though it was really one of “study, struggle, and organizing.” Words that feminists used to describe events and issues lost their sharp edge. “Women’s Liberation Movement” became “Women’s Libbers,” then “the Women’s Movement.” “Abortion now” morphed into “choice.” “Roe was about privacy. After Roe, the Movement declared victory and the term was taken off the table. ‘Rape’ became ‘nonconsensual sex.” “Imagine,” she said, “a woman shouting, ‘Help! I’m having nonconsensual sex!” It was funny. It wasn’t funny.

Dana Dunsmore, a founder of Boston’s Cell 16 female liberation group, made a similar point. Asked why there was such a large gap between the second wave of feminism and the third, she said, “The second wave was so transformative that the next generation could imagine that the job was done and lose their drive.” But, she said confidently, “the third wave is doing a great job.”

I could see that in the sessions I attended and the women who I met. While many of the sessions were led by veterans of the second wave talking about the second wave, others featured third wave activists and academics sharing their research and activism. As a veteran myself of the sixties-era underground press, I found myself drawn to sessions involving media past and present. Thus, in one session, I heard third wavers Agatha Beins, women’s studies professor from Texas Woman’s University, talk about her research on the women’s papers of the seventies, and Tessa Jordan, communications professor from British Columbia Institute of Technology, discuss her research on Branching Out, Canada’s first national feminist magazine. In another, Maria Cotera, professor of women’s and Latino studies at the University of Michigan, shared updates on her impressive project to digitize primary archival materials about women of color.

As a man at a women’s liberation conference, I was considered an ally. I was also considered an ally when I attended, and spoke at, the conference in New York in 2012 to honor the one hundredth birthday of Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the early gay groups from the fifties, as well as a co-founder of Radical Faeries, a group for spiritual gays.

An ally is someone who isn’t from the group in question, as defined by members of the group in question, but is supportive of their social, political, sexual, and other goals. I stood out in Boston, one of a small handful of men among some seven hundred women. I stood out less so in New York unless you believe that you can always tell a gay man by looking at him.

In both cases, I was an “ally” because I wasn’t one of them, in the obvious sense. I’m not a woman. I’m not gay.

In the broader sense, though, which is how I saw it, I was one of them. We’re at least part of the same family.

The movements that they represented came out of the years and events from the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies that popular culture, in its less-than-nuanced way, now refers to as “the sixties.” Linda Gordon, a leader of Boston’s Bread & Roses feminist group in the sixties and now a professor of gender studies, social movements, and imperialism at New York University, gave the closing keynote speech in Boston. She defined the period of the New Left as beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ending somewhere in the mid-seventies with the early gay, lesbian, and environmental movements. I’m okay with those same parameters.

Other historians may begin or end a bit earlier or a bit later. I’m okay with those parameters also. For every individual the beginning was unique: attending a first demonstration, smoking a first joint, getting busted for the first time, getting laid for the first time and realizing that sexual mores were looser than what we learned growing up. Each ending was equally unique. For me, I entered the countercultural movement probably when I smoked my first bowl of weed out of a water pipe after tubing down the Salt River in Phoenix, Arizona, in the summer of 1968 with my friend Steve and realized that I could never again say I had never smoked dope. Two years later, I became a political activist when I got busted for the first time at a teach-in on racism at Michigan State University during the Student Strikes of May 1970 following the murders of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen. By that time, long-time veterans of the Movement were masking their personal burnout by declaring the Movement dead. For me, it was just starting; I considered it still happening even into the eighties, though by the end of the Reagan years we were on the defensive.

With my rising political consciousness and activism as a result of Kent State, I became a hardcore member of the underground press, that community of hundreds of primarily tabloid newspapers that promoted and debated the many sides of every issue affecting the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, military, psychedelic, socialist, Southern consciousness, rank-and-file worker, and other alternative voices of the period but came together to oppose the Vietnam War.

The underground paper that captured my greatest attention was Joint Issue, out of Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, my home base during that time, but I traveled throughout the country, found my way onto newspaper staffs everywhere I went, learned about their local issues, and organized and wrote about events with them.

As I wrote in my introduction to the first edition of Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press,

The period was a vision as much as a reality. It was a time of experimentation. We made mistakes and learned from them. In the beginning, men attacked sexism while women typed their articles. In the end, women founded the feminist and lesbian press and men learned that it was okay to cry. For all its faults, the sixties was a magical period. A time warp opened up and those who stepped inside glimpsed the new paradigm that brought together the best visions of the visionaries and showed us, on a small scale, how to make them work. On the pages of the underground press, writers tried to reduce the vision to the written word and apply the strategies to a larger scale. Those who were touched remain touched.

I still believe that. To me, the Women’s Liberation movement was part of the larger Movement that also included, to begin, the GLBT, ethnic, and environmental movements. I may not have grasped at a gut level that one day I would be old but I at least knew it intellectually and demonstrated in solidarity with the Gray Panthers as they fought against ageist laws and practices. I had no physical defects that hampered my participation in society but I recognized that I was a mere TAB (temporarily able-bodied). The National Writers Union, whose union card I have proudly carried for now over thirty years, wasn’t even founded until 1981 but I supported unions in the sixties and still do. I knew the liberal programs for the poor weren’t perfect but I believed and still do that they were necessary and merely needed to be improved, not eliminated, and certainly not so that rich people could get richer, so I marched for welfare rights and child care and jobs and unemployment and every other issue that mattered to the poor among us. And I certainly supported the troops—the ones who threw down their medals and said war is wrong until we’ve tried all other options for peace.

Not everyone would agree with me about this holistic approach to the Movement. Some of the conference attendees in Boston were angry to even see me and my type there. At least one woman, at an open mic, declared that men had no business being at their conference and that any who were there should—assuming the voice of every woman in attendance—“kiss our asses.”

Fortunately, not every woman shared that perspective. Many approached me, out of intellectual curiosity, to ask why I had chosen to attend a women’s conference. I was pleased to share my reasons. Word got out. By the end of the conference, women were approaching me.

In my next post, I’ll explain why I was there and introduce what is to date the most extensive project ever to digitize underground, alternative, and literary publications from the fifties through the eighties; I’ll describe the economic model, which I hope grabs the attention of serious librarians who want to enhance their collections of digital resources without busting their budgets; and I’ll list some of the feminist and lesbian papers that are on board.

Stay tuned. And if you were part of an underground, alternative, or literary publication from the period, please get in touch with me. We need to talk.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the organizers and attendees of the Boston women’s liberation conference. We need more of these conferences, not only to study the women’s movement then and now but to study the other movements that made up “the sixties” as well, and to formulate strategies for applying the lessons of then into actions for now.

Also, for another report on the conference, check out my friend Sue Katz’s “Consenting Adult” blog site.