Proud of being “OUT”
By Jeanne Arnold
Madison’s book shoppers seemed quite blasé about Barbara’s eight life-sized but headless nude paintings hanging for her one-woman show at Room of One’s Own, the only thriving feminist bookstore in Wisconsin. The manager appreciated them. She smiled saying, “The girls certainly do warm up the room.”
To celebrate Barbara’s exhibit, arranged through Wisconsin Women in the Arts, we walked around the block to the women-owned restaurant Lysistrata for a late lunch. (The food and the service were excellent, but it’s unreasonable to charge $6 for alcohol-free champagne when you can buy Seven Up for a quarter.)
Before dessert, I asked Barbara what she would want to do if she had a dream to fulfill. She paused. Took a breath. “To manage my very own book store.”
“What a dream! I’ve always wanted that too. I just happen to have access to an empty storefront, my dad’s at 224 State Street. We’d be partners. You’d be the bookseller and I’d be the PR person. But the space is a neglected mess. We’d have to work for hours to bring it to life . . .”
“We could fix it up if your father would let us.”
“. . . and I’m sure that the rent would be right—like free!”
It seemed as if everything fell into place that day in 1978. Our brainstorming flowed. No. It flooded us with excitement and its potential to take our resources and brains to create a partnership and a service that would help others and us as well.
If we knew the work it took to remake this drab old storefront into a sparkling and colorful reality, we probably never would have started. But we’d do one job and when that was done, we tackled the next. Our funds were low and if we ran out of physical stamina, our dream sparked our energy to take on the next challenge.
We both weighted about 140 pounds or less, losing weight with plenty of stress and hard work—and no alcohol. I never thought we’d refinish the hard-wood floor after Barbara built the bookcases. We saw how attractive that beat-up chest of drawers looked with its fresh coat of paint and its snappy Lake Michigan maps pasted and lacquered to the top.
Then we looked at the dingy floor and knew that we had to rent a sander to get that job done. We didn’t put too many gouges in the floor surface after we got the hang of it. Then Barbara painted the floor with three coats of shiny new varnish. The best part was installing our beautiful new walnut library ladder to the top edge of the ceiling-high blue-stained bookshelves.
Our snappy advertising campaign used up our annual $600 budget, but it did attract attention. The last ad we could afford was “There’s Mother Earth and Mother Nature and now there’s Mother Courage. She’s east of the State Street Bridge with a Grand Opening on October 8 for the Old Main Street Oktoberfest.”
Our opening was grand and attracted fans and friends. The red new sign with our ship’s figurehead attracted people too. With happy faces all around, my dad and the two us were proud, especially with our little cash register that kept on ringing. I was super-enthused and imagined an entire chain of Mother Courage Bookstores across the country.
Our dream was magnified by mentors in the national scene of the emerging feminist crusade: Adrienne Rich, Judy Chicago, Kate Millett, Mary Daly, Starhawk, Z (Zsuzsanna) Budapest, Kay Gardner and more. We met several of them and we wanted to sell their books and records.
Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly, Judy Chicago and Kate Millet inspired us to be strong advocates in our growing feminist awareness, and surprise, Barbara actually danced with Judy and Kate at a Wisconsin Women in the Arts weekend in Green Bay.
Barbara writes: This Saturday night in October at the WWIA weekend, I danced in the center of a circle of observers with Jeanne leading me on. Yeah! She and I were actually dancing together in public!
Now with one hand on my belt buckle and the other held high with bracelets jingling and rings sparkling about my head, I gyrated from the waist, pulsing toward my lover. My heeled boots accented the pounding rhythm of “Funky Town” with Jeanne clapping and cheering me on. Always aware of others, she made room for women watching from the circle around me. I found myself in step and in turn, first dancing with Kate Millett, then Judy Chicago, then others from their feminist circle. I actually danced with Judy Chicago and Kate Millett! Wah Hoo! What a night!
And what a Sunday morning! It started with a stunning presentation by Judy Chicago describing her monumental “The Dinner Party” using illustrations on new ways of making women-centered art to collaborate and create alternative art outside of male domination and dogma.
Another time at the National Women’s Music Festival in June, Z Budapest, the High Priestess of feminist spirituality, gave Barbara a kiss on the cheek when she saw Barbara wearing a t-shirt with a drawing of a cow’s front on her chest and the cow’s rear on her back.
It was a Fall Solstice evening along the Milwaukee River when we followed Kay Gardner’s flute making a candle-lit circle of women. We invoked our mothers and grandmothers and made affirmations for ourselves and for the world.
On one April Earth Day, we found our way to a Lake Geneva hilltop lit with a blazing bonfire. Almost 200 Midwest Unitarian women waited to be guided by Starhawk in an epic spiral dance. Somehow, we were only an arm’s length from Starhawk leading the line. I’ll always remember the magic when my body felt the drumming and heard our chanting. We circled around and back and crossing under, spinning face to face, eye to eye.
We spiraled around our elder women standing in a circle, facing us, smiling at us. With their backs against the fire and flames releasing red and gold flecks rising to the full moon, their white hair became glowing auras within our spiral dance. Finally we slowed to a walk with Starhawk leading us into a circle around the elders with their radiant hair. We were centered in our strength and in our spirit. And I felt the Goddess in my self.
Our first American Bookseller Association’s trade show was in Los Angeles but we flew to San Francisco for our vacation and drove down Highway #1 to get to LA. Our first event, a Book and Author breakfast in a huge banquet hall, was filled with hundreds of book people. An undercurrent of mumbling surrounded us, but we didn’t know why until the ABA speaker announced that there would be a moment of silence for those persons lost in yesterday’s airplane accident.
Barbara nudged me and pointed to someone’s newspaper on the floor under her chair. Its headline read, “273 killed in O’Hare crash.” Twenty-one attendees to the ABA were among those killed when DC 10, #191 from Chicago to Los Angeles crashed. All 273 on board were killed immediately after take-off. We looked at each other with a shared gratitude. If we hadn’t taken our vacation trip to San Francisco and opted for a business trip to the ABA, we could have been on that plane.
As newcomers we allowed the vast ocean of big-time publishers with elaborate displays, books and freebies to consume us. By the time we were through we’d collected souvenir buttons and baubles and bags of free books, some autographed.
However, meeting lesbian and straight feminist authors, bookstore women and small press women publishers was more valuable. They use books and printing to fight homophobia and other battles. New feminists, loaded with ideas and ideals, now have a process to share them and their uncensored experiences because a growing movement. A feminist audience around the world supports them—even in Racine.
We were proud to join them. We were proud to have accomplished our very own Mother Courage Bookstore & Art Gallery. And we became proud about being “out” lesbians. We earned our pride and self-respect by the courage it took to do so.
Graphics by Mary Nelson
Next week—Mother Courage and reality
Finding feminist/lesbian networks
UNsung Women: the UN-known Herstory History
Submit written nominations about past or present women from Racine/Kenosha whose contributions to the wellbeing of our families, churches, schools, communities and beyond who have not or have been UNder acknowledged.
Four UNsung women nominees will be selected from January through May, 2022
The nominator is asked to provide:
• answers to Who, What, When, Where, How and Why details of your nominee’s herstory in a document or resume format.
• photographs, drawings, illustrations to enhance herstory;
• a reference person or documentation serving as evidence of proof.
Submit your nomination details to <email@example.com> with your name and where you may be reached.
Please do not nominate women who have already been “sung.”