Many women narrators who graduated before feminism’s “second wave” were unaware of or unable to understand their sexual attractions to other women. Many began to identify as lesbian or bisexual only after graduating, often as they became involved with the women’s movement and began to see women in relationships with each other.
“When I was in high school I had a terrible crush on a woman French teacher and thought I might be a lesbian,” Devon Clare (OC 64) recalled. “But I guess at Oberlin I forgot all about that…There wasn’t a women’s movement around, and I really needed that to come out…I had to see other women falling in love with women to realize that was what I wanted.” Not only were same sex relationships virtually invisible on campus, the Oberlin administration also “kind of pushed heterosexuality by having us freshman arrange ourselves around the dining room table ‘boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl,’” she recalled. “‘Gracious living’ they called it.”
Judith Klavans (OC 68) “never knew what the word ‘lesbian’ meant until I was well into my twenties,” she recalled. The lack of visible lesbian couples or individuals at Oberlin contributed to this. “Even in the ‘60s at Oberlin, no one would ever admit gay-ness or lesbian-ness,” she recalled. “Such behavior was reason for expulsion, or at least for ostracization and exclusion.” Kristan Knapp (OC 70), who “grew up in wheat fields and asparagus patches” in Oregon, also “wasn’t aware…of my sexuality before I came [to Oberlin].” None of her campus experiences changed this; Oberlin was “so het” that lesbianism “had not occurred to me,” she recalled.
Stories from women narrators begin to change as the women’s movement swept Oberlin in the early 1970s, encouraging both personal and institutional changes. The feminist maxims that “sisterhood is powerful” and “the personal is the political” inspired “consciousness-raising” groups, defiance against a historically male-dominated student activist culture, increased visibility of women’s sexuality and lesbianism as an option. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women in 1971 also helped produce substantial changes in representation of women in faculty positions and the beginning of a Women’s Studies option at Oberlin.
Stories from Misha Cohen and Stella Graham, friends from the class of 1973, suggest how the women’s movement may have increased the visibility and cohesiveness of campus lesbian circles and individuals’ awareness of same sex desire.
Cohen arrived at Oberlin in 1969 from a middle-class Jewish family in Coral Gables, Florida. “One of the things that happened when I went to school is that I immediately became a vegetarian,” she remembered. “And I immediately met all the people who were women’s liberation people.” At anti-war organizational meetings, men still took the dominant and most vocal roles, but there were also some “women who finally got up in the middle of everything and stopped everything from happening and started talking about sexism.” She knew some of these women were lesbians, “but there was no talk about that,” she recalled.
She also began a close friendship with a dorm-mate who eventually became her girlfriend. “Then everything was really clear,” she recalled. “Once something like that opens up for me, I realize, I learn everything about it.” By this time, Cohen had access to women’s newspapers, women’s liberation books, and leftist newspapers that discussed the emerging gay and lesbian liberation movements. She read then voraciously. Cohen also became politically active on campus, but did not remember any lesbian or bisexual-specific organizing and felt that lesbians remained relatively closeted. “I remember when my girlfriend and I walked across campus and we decided to hold hands, that was this huge statement. There was nobody who did that…We got really a lot of pointing, so it was a difficult thing to do.”
Stella Graham told a similar story. The oldest of four children of a Presbyterian minister and housewife, she was raised in Richmond, Virginia. By her junior year she decided she wanted to be a physical education teacher. The female P.E. teachers “just seemed strong, they seemed to have a lot more freedom in how they interacted with the world,” she recalled. “[There was] just a joy that I felt there.” Her senior year, she began an “affair” with a married, twenty-two-year-old female physical education teacher, and when Graham enrolled at Oberlin in 1969, her partner left her husband and job and followed.
Soon after, while listening to a call-in show on a Cleveland radio station, “I heard a woman talking who said she was a lesbian and she was with [the Cleveland chapter of] an organization called Daughters of Bilitis,” she recalled. “And I came to. It was the first time in my life I had ever heard somebody talk about people like me…It was such a freeing experience, to finally know [that] not only was there one other [lesbian], but there were apparently there were several others.” Graham wrote the woman a letter and received brochures, newsletters, and a copy of The Ladder, the national Daughters of Bilitis magazine in return.
After their initial “opening-ups,” Cohen and Graham would become friends through their involvement in the campus women’s movement, participate and speak out as lesbians in the Human Development Program, and help found the Women’s Collective. Graham would also spearhead the Intern for Homosexual Concerns, a paid college position created to advocate for gay and lesbian students.
The increased publicity and visibility of lesbianism clearly altered women’s narratives at Oberlin. But the relationship between the women’s movement and lesbian politics was contentious, and one that was mirrored at Oberlin. Many feminists and feminist organizations, such as the National Association of Women (NOW), originally sought to distance themselves from lesbian causes and organizations because they felt any association would pose a threat to the emerging women’s movement. Similarly, Eileen Howell (OC 70), who only began to identify as a lesbian after graduating from Oberlin, felt that the women’s movement would be endangered by openly including lesbians.
A national turning point and a founding moment of lesbian-feminism took place at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in May 1970, which was “zapped” in a humorous protest by a group of women who would later come to be known as the Radicalesbians. Their manifesto, “The Woman-identified Woman,” distributed at the meeting, would be reprinted in the 1972 Oberlin publication, the Review rip-off, a feminist parody of the Oberlin Review.
Anne Raver (OC 71) also wrote the association between the women’s movement and lesbianism in a 1971 Review article titled “Loving Freely.” She noted that some had attempted to discredit women’s liberation by labeling such groups “as lesbian societies.” These labels reflect “the repression of a free expression of love between two members of the same sex,” Raver argued. Like the campus gay liberationists, she championed a sexual continuum. “If anybody were allowed to fall in love with anybody,” she quoted from Women-A Journal of Liberation, “the word ‘homosexual’ wouldn’t be needed; it’s used now only to set people off in separate categories, artificially, so they’ll know who to be afraid of—each other.”
Christa Rakich (OC 74) also recalled that “a lot of the self-discovery process for lesbians was wrapped up in identifying as a feminist [and] establishing independence from men.” But the political rhetoric “made things rather confusing: am I a lesbian because I hold a political belief of…self-reliance [and] strength? Or am I gravitating toward those beliefs because I am a lesbian?…Can I be homo-emotional but not homo-sexual? If I reject the roles—I do the dishes, he takes out the garbage—am I rejecting men?” In 1974, as president of what was by then called the Gay Union, Rakich did not herself identify as lesbian. “People talked a lot about a continuum at the time,” so her orientation was a “total non-issue,” she remembered.
Using the terms “bisexual” or “questioning” was also less threatening for some, she felt. By the mid-1970s, a group of women were holding a weekly “lesbian rap group.” When they changed their name to the more innocuous “bisexual or questioning women’s discussion group,” they upped their membership from a couple of women to a couple dozen, Rakich recalled. “So I suspect that I was not the only person who wasn’t really willing to identify wholeheartedly as gay,” she said, “but at the same time just wanted that door open just another inch maybe.”