Feminist and Lesbian Periodicals in the Digital Age

Following is my talk at the “Women’s History in the Digital World 2015” conference that was held at Bryn Mawr College this past Thursday and Friday, May 21-22. I was honored to be joined by Laura X and Andrée Rathemacher as fellow panelists and Julie Enszer as chair of our panel, which was titled “Feminist and Lesbian Periodicals in the Digital Age … Rebroadcasting Our Voices.” Quick bios:

  • Laura X: legendary feminist archivist and founder of both the Women’s History Research Center and the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape as well as, more recently, the Laura X Institute to house her Social Movements Archives from the women’s movement and overlapping social movements
  • Andrée Rathemacher, professor and head of acquisitions in the University Libraries at the University of Rhode Island, and long-time advocate of open access and scholarly communication reform
  • Julie Enszer, visiting scholar in the Department of Women’s Studies at University of Maryland and editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal

Upcoming guest blog posts will be the presentations of Laura and Andrée.

Panelists (L to R) Andrée Rathemacher, Laura X, and Ken Wachsberger

Panelists (L to R) Andrée Rathemacher, Laura X, and Ken Wachsberger

* * *

When I got the word that my panel had been accepted into the conference I announced on Facebook that I would be speaking on the topic of the feminist and lesbian underground press. A college friend of mine, who I haven’t seen in over forty years, wrote, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

We lived in the dorm together back then. Today I think he’s Tea Party. I got busted after Kent State and emerged from solitary confinement as a committed radical. Not everyone who lived through the sixties experienced the magic of the period. Those of us who did read the underground press.

I’m not surprised today that so many young people have never heard of the underground press. Vietnam was a national embarrassment. We were the bad guys. We got trounced. And then, instead of having a national dialogue so that we could heal as a nation, Vietnam was disappeared from national discourse. Schools and colleges didn’t teach it. Generations grew up having no idea what happened.

So here’s a quick summary: The antiwar movement during the Vietnam years was the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country, no exception. The underground press—the independent, alternative, non-corporate, antiwar, underground press—was the voice of that movement. There were underground papers everywhere. They were all united against the war. But they all spoke to their individual communities. There was the gay press, the lesbian press the feminist press, the black press, Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian-Americans, GIs, campus, community, high school, psychedelics, socialists, Southern consciousness, prisoners’ rights, rank-and-file workers, senior citizens….

I’m talking today about the women’s papers. Like the others, they were everywhere. In fact, I’m going to make an assertion and then I’m going to tell a story.

The assertion: You can’t fully know women’s history, especially in the sixties and seventies, without studying the feminist and lesbian underground press.

The story: Fifteen years after the war ended, I published my book, Voices from the Underground, a series of histories of different underground papers as written by key people on each of the papers. I included as many different sectors of the antiwar movement as I could because I wanted to create a mosaic of what the antiwar movement looked like. For the feminist press I chose off our backs, the first national feminist paper to emerge from the east coast. A group of radical lesbians broke away from off our backs and became known as The Furies, soon The legendary Furies. Their paper, The Furies, is also in Voices.

The book came out to much critical acclaim, and then it went out of print, in a story for another time but way too soon. Not long after it went out of print, I received a phone call from Susan Brownmiller. I’m sure most of you know who Susan is but for those of you who don’t, Susan was—is—a feminist author and organizer who became famous in the early seventies after publishing her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, the book that put rape on the map as a feminist issue. At the time of her call she was writing a history of the feminist movement (In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999)) and wanted a copy of my book so she could read the off our backs and Furies entries. I didn’t have one—fortunately she found one on her own—but the experience stayed with me: Susan Brownmiller, the famous author, liked my book. I was pretty full of myself.

So another fifteen years later, when I was working on the revised and expanded second edition, which came out as the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, I contacted her for a testimonial quote, which she graciously gave to me. It appears on the back cover of volume 1; off our backs is one of the stories in that volume. On my next trip to New York, I met her for the first time.

4-volume Voices from the Underground Series

4-volume Voices from the Underground Series

On my way from the subway to her apartment, I was visualizing our greeting: She opened the door to her apartment. She had a warm smile on her face. With outstretched arms, she embraced me and told me what a great book I had created and how much she admired me as an author and editor and a supporter of the feminist cause and how just all-around wonderful I was….

Okay, I admit it, I was in groupie mode. In fact, although I’m sure she said hello, I don’t remember it. What I remember is her opening the door and saying, “You don’t have enough women’s papers.” I was immediately thrown on the defensive. I tried to explain to her that I had off our backs, so I had feminist papers covered, and I had The Furies, so I had lesbian papers covered. And, after all, Voices from the Underground didn’t make any claims to be exhaustive; it was just representative.

But she insisted. She said the women’s papers were everywhere. “You can’t fully know women’s history, especially in the sixties and seventies, without studying the feminist and lesbian underground press.” Those are my words, not hers, but that was the exact message that I took away from her conclusion.

And then she said, “You’ve got to have It Aint Me Babe.” Those were her words. It Aint Me Babe was the first feminist paper to emerge from the west coast. It actually came out a few weeks before off our backs so it gets credit for being the first national feminist underground paper. But to Susan it had another level of significance. Her consciousness-raising group, New York Radical Feminists, used to read and discuss every issue as it came out. During one meeting, they discussed an article that was an interview with a woman who recently had been raped on her way home from a late-night meeting. Her boyfriend’s response had been less than sensitive: He had tried to make a joke out of it. The article was about that experience and what it meant. So Susan’s group discussed the article, and Susan had her light bulb moment that inspired her to write the book that made her famous.

Then she said to me, “You’ve got to contact Laura X.” It was Laura who conducted the interview and wrote the article; I’m honored to be sharing this panel with her today.

So I put “Laura X” in parentheses, did a Google search, and found her. Laura reconnected with other former staff members and they put together an amazing piece, the last history to be accepted into the series. It appears in volume 3 along with the history of The Furies. Susan wrote the foreword.

It was around that time that I was contacted by Jeff Moyer.

Jeff was the former head of the digitizing department at ProQuest. With a partner, he bought out the department and founded IDC, Image Data Conversion. But on his own he also started Reveal Digital because he had an idea for an economic model that would create wondrous keyword-searchable digital collections in a way that was friendly to library budgets and would end up with the collections going into open access, the holy grail for librarians. The first collection he wanted to create was of underground newspapers. He approached me after discovering the first edition of Voices from the Underground at the library of Eastern Michigan University, where I used to teach. He brought me on board as a consultant and not long after that he hired me full time. It Aint Me Babe was the first paper to become part of the collection.

Reveal Digital crowd-funding home page

Reveal Digital crowd-funding home page

What attracted me to the project, besides the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the underground press, was Jeff’s economic model, what he calls “cost recovery = open access.” Basically, we promote upcoming projects to libraries through our crowd-funding website, where we describe each project, explain its significance, lay out the proposed contents as well as the sourcing libraries, and list the line-item expenses. Then we invite libraries to commit to purchasing the collection but we don’t yet invoice them. When we have enough commitments to recover the costs, what we call our “sales threshold,” sales stop and we go into full production, including rights gathering, sourcing from libraries, and scanning and digitizing.

Libraries pay according to a tiered structure but it amounts to about 20% of what they would pay one of the larger digital publishing companies for a comparable project that the company would keep behind a pay wall forever. Those libraries that support us have immediate access to the evolving collection while it is in development. Once it is completed and after a certain period of exclusivity for our supporters, it goes into open access where even those libraries that didn’t support it have access to it. In other words, some libraries pay, every library and their patrons benefit. Meanwhile we’ll be working on other projects with the same model. No library pays for every collection but everyone benefits from every collection.

This is a righteous model that deserves library support. In an earlier life I worked for many years as managing editor of Reference Services Review and Serials Review, two journals that were read widely by, respectively, reference librarians and serials librarians. I read countless articles and heard countless librarian laments about rising costs and decreasing budgets. But I also remembered the community feeling that librarians shared. The focus was always on increasing and facilitating user access. Usually it was the larger libraries that made the big investments and then the benefits would trickle down to the smaller libraries. With Reveal’s tiered structure, everyone can help.

So this is the project and the model. Projects that are looking for funding include

With Independent Voices, the underground press collection, we’re still looking for funding but we are already actively working on it because we wanted to get one live collection out into the public. Our goal was to get over 1,000 titles. We already have more than that including some 120 women’s papers, 130 literary magazines—what were known as “little” magazines back then, 180 campus, community, gay, minority, and other underground and alternative newspapers and magazines from the period, some 900 papers published by and for members of the military in all branches of the service, and even 4 papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement.

So far we’re about 40% of the way to being fully funded. We could include a lot more titles, and we would like to, if we had the funding.

We’re working with a growing team of libraries that are sending us original papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return safely to them along with keyword-searchable digital files and metadata of the papers that we scan. For the women’s papers, we’ve worked most closely with Duke and Northwestern.

Our goal is to upload a million pages of exact keyword-searchable digital reproductions by the end of January 2017. So far we have uploaded about 250,000 pages. Currently the collection is accessible only to patrons of our supporting libraries, those who have invested in the project. After we reach our sales threshold, we’ll go into open access, which is the vision. However, libraries can make the files that we send them accessible immediately.

So this is where we are now. This is an amazing project—the first of hopefully many—that can be even better with your help. And we have a library-friendly model that achieves the holy grail of open access in a way that is friendly to library budgets. We’re looking for friendly libraries that believe in the community of libraries to help us make it come true. Let’s talk.

Feminist Author Susan Brownmiller to Write Foreword to Volume 3

I am delighted to announce that Susan Brownmiller has agreed to write a foreword to volume 3 of the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series.

Susan is one of the pioneer leaders of the second wave of the feminist movement that burst forth in the sixties and seventies and is still changing the world. Her first book, the groundbreaking Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, redefined rape forever as a feminist issue. She has been a supporter of the Voices from the Underground Series since it first came out in its earlier iteration in 1993.

Not long after the first edition went out of print, long before it had reached its sales potential (a story for another time), I received a phone call from Susan. She was at the time in the process of writing her history of the feminist movement, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, and she needed a copy of Voices for her research. She said, “Hi, Ken, this is Susan Brownmiller.” I thought to myself, “Susan Brownmiller!” Honestly I can’t remember if I expressed my surprise out loud. Okay, I admit it, I felt like a groupie because she was an important figure in a movement that I at times followed and at other times led (I’m talking about the general antiwar/countercultural movement, not the feminist movement) but at all times respected highly and loved being a part of. Sadly I wasn’t able to help her—my personal supply of books to sell was already gone. Fortunately Marilyn Webb, whose story of the founding of off our backs, the first major feminist paper to emerge on the east coast, appears in the just-released first volume of the four-volume series, was able to help Susan. Marilyn’s story is footnoted several times in Susan’s book.

I never forgot that incident, so while I was working on this new edition I contacted Susan and asked her for a testimonial quote. Generously, she came through. Her quote appears on the back cover of volume 1, along with quotes from Bill Ayers, Tom Hayden, and Chris Atton, professor of media and culture at Scotland’s Edinburgh Napier University. Here’s what Susan wrote:

What a boon to historians! Ken Wachsberger’s Voices from the Underground is crucial to an understanding of the literary and political history of the 1960s counterculture movement. This valuable resource must stay in print, if only for academics who wish to study the amazing phenomenon of the alternative newspapers, put together by amateurs, that sprang up across the country in those fervent years. Wachsberger’s material, largely in the form of “how we did it” memoirs, is rich in personal histories and anecdotal details that are collected nowhere else.

So when I visited her on my next trip to New York I expected her to tell me how much she loved the book. Instead she said, “You don’t have enough on the feminist press. You need to include It Aint Me Babe.” I tried to explain to her that I already had off our backs and The Furies, the lesbian feminist paper put out by the legendary Furies collective, and that, while the book contained representative writings of the different genres of underground papers, it didn’t pretend to be comprehensive. But she insisted the feminist papers deserved more. She told me to contact Laura X, whose interview with a rape victim in Berkeley had inspired Susan to write Against Our Will.

Laura X is legendary in feminist lore as the premier archivist of the feminist movement. She embraced my invitation and pulled together other key figures from Berkeley’s It Aint Me Babe, the first major feminist underground paper, to tell their story for the first time. The lead author is Bonnie Eisenberg, founder of Babe, but she received critical help from Laura, Trina Robbins, Starr Goode, and Alta. Appendices are by Laura, who writes about her archives, and Trina Robbins, one of the pioneer feminist comix artists, who helped to break through the men’s-only barrier.

The story of It Aint Me Babe appears in volume 3, which will be out next year, so it was only natural for me to invite Susan.

I am truly honored that she accepted my invitation.

And, incidentally, she was right. I needed to include It Aint Me Babe.

Ken Opens the First Box

I opened the first box of books last night after a ceremonial dinner at our favorite Middle East restaurant. We’ve been there so many times, and we’re so consistent at what we order, that as soon as the waitress saw us, she said, “Your order’s on.” A good sign. As usual, their food portions were so generous, we both brought home leftovers.

We settled in for the evening. Emily handed me a kitchen knife and said, “The honor is yours.” Then she sat down on the living room chair by the kitchen and let me take over.

I opened the box with excitement and some misgivings. What if the front cover didn’t look good? What if there was an obvious typographical error on the back cover?

I had lots of questions like that but, honestly, those were secondary. MSU Press has a crack team of editors and I myself had looked at the manuscript files and then the page proofs so many times I knew there would be few errors. (But not “no errors”—after forty years of writing and editing, I’m still looking for that holy grail of books, the one with no human error.)

What I really was thinking was that this was the end of an era for me. So many years had passed between the first edition, which went out of print way too early almost seventeen years ago, and this second edition that I had become used to the emptiness, the sense of incompleteness, the frustration of knowing that what deserved to be out there generating excitement and educating young activists was just taking up space on my hard drive. I know they say that the good thing about hitting your head against a wall is that it feels so good when you stop, but if you’re not careful you can start telling yourself that the hitting part itself feels good. I’ve done it, even though intellectually I know it’s crazy. And then you become afraid to stop.

Okay, therapists will tell you you might also simply have a fear of success. Could be.

What I know is that my every day is filled with head trips that push me forward and pull me back, often at the same time. And that’s on a normal day. This time I shut out all of them and with a firm hand and a serrated blade sliced the packing tape. Styrofoam bubbles, compressed to fit inside the flaps of the box, suddenly burst to their full size and a few fell to the floor. I pushed aside the others and carefully took out a shrink-wrapped packet of four books. I paused for a second. Then I sliced open the cellophane and released one book from the others. That would become Emily’s book.

I just held it. No, I didn’t smell it. That seemed a bit too cliché-ish. But I admired its shine. I admired the red-rimmed, orange ball on the top right-hand corner that said “Voices from the Underground.” All four books in the series will have that same ball, to connect them for marketing purposes, although they will be different color combinations to distinguish one book from the other. And, yes, my name was spelled correctly on the bottom of the page.

I put two of the books on the stairs. Those will be for Carrie and David. The fourth I saved for myself, to carry with me everywhere I go.

Emily went to the kitchen for the wine—white pinot grigio was her choice—while I went downstairs to the TV room and took my favorite spot on the couch. When she came down, I was somewhat mesmerized by the book that I held in my hands so she stood there holding two glasses of wine and waited for me to stand up and take mine. Then we toasted. She toasted to my success. I toasted to her incredible patience and love that enabled her to stick with me during my craziest days. She said, “I know.” I let her have the last word because I knew, too.

Then we admired the book. Emily commented right away that she liked the cover. I myself hadn’t been as impressed with it when I was reviewing the page proofs. It shows a typewriter, the idea, of course, being to show the technology in the sixties as compared to now. I got the point but I had wanted something a little wilder, to show the artistry of the sixties. But I agreed that the cover was attractive, even if it wasn’t my idea.

We leafed through the pages and noted the comparison between this edition and the first. Its 7 x 10, 1-column layout is a lot airier than the original 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format. It will be much easier to read. For this one, I found lots of appealing graphics, including cover images of underground papers that are highlighted and photos of personalities from the time. The first edition was copy heavy, with hardly any images at all. Emily said she liked the typeface, which was clean and modern. She read the contributors’ collective dedication and was not surprised to see her name, David’s, and Carrie’s included. I pointed out my references to them that conclude my editor’s preface.

The back cover includes my bio along with testimonial quotes from Bill Ayers, Professor of Media and Culture from Scotland Chris Atton, Susan Brownmiller, and Tom Hayden. To them, and to the many other academics, activists, and media reviewers who embraced the first edition and now have embraced this edition with their kind words, I am humbly grateful.

The rest of the evening was spent in low-key talking, sharing stories from the past and visions of the future. For both of us, life has been good. It’s nice to have landmark moments to help you reflect on the whole picture.

Today while at Panera addressing envelopes to ship pre-orders, I sold my first post-publication book.