In the fall of 1972, Misha Cohen (OC 73) and her girlfriend helped to found the Women’s Collective, and her friend Stella Graham (OC 73) became the dorm resident. Roughly nineteen women lived at Thurston House, a small, two-story house, where they held weekly meetings, tended an organic garden in the back, and participated in “consciousness-raising” groups. “We had to process everything,” Cohen remembered. “Every single thing we did, we had to do collectively.”
“It was a place that had a very clear feminist agenda,” Loey Powell (OC 73) recalled. “Those of us who were engaged in the anti-Vietnam War stuff…experienced what women did all over the place. The guys were running the thing, they really didn’t want us around, and they certainly didn’t want us in decision-making positions. So there was a fair amount of resentment.” The Collective was then a challenge to the traditionally male-dominated campus activist culture and also the “seed” for a number of feminist projects. Graham, for example, began publishing the newspaper Coming Out, a national women’s movement newspaper that explored issues such as women’s health and lesbianism. The Review rip-off, a 1972 feminist parody of the Oberlin Review, also began at the Collective. The house was also headquarters for organizing around unequal facilities in the newly built Phillips gym. The Collective also held women’s dances at the house, complete with 3.2 beer from the local convenience store and Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead on the record player.
There was at least one couple living at the Collective, but only a small number of residents identified as lesbian. Still, the idea that “sisterhood is powerful” was popular, and “it would have been very un-PC to criticize someone for being a lesbian,” Graham recalled. “More likely you could be criticize for not being, or for not trying it, for not at least be open minded about the possibility of it.” Christa Rakich (OC 74) remembered “ardent feminists” involved with the Collective who wanted to be lesbian because it was the “purest feminism.” “For some of them, it wasn’t so much about being gay as wanting to reject stereotypes,” she recalled. “This was perceived as threatening by some of the ‘really gay’ lesbians who were looking for a real relationship, and not wanting to be an experiment for someone who was really straight.”
Women of all sexual orientations from the Collective occasionally patronized a lesbian bar in Akron. It was “dark, smoky, [with] pool tables, [and a] juke box,” Graham recalled. “I have pictures of women in leather pants and shades in this dark bar at night…it was rebellious, it was scintillating, Here we were at a lesbian bar, being the very hip, savvy adults that we were.”
The move toward separatism in the national women’s movement, which partly reflected the sexism of many gay men, meant that most lesbians and bisexuals associated more with heterosexual women than gay men. As early as the late 1960s, “women-only spaces were incredibly important,” Kristan Knapp (OC 70) recalled, “and there were a lot of women who came along and said that they could not share any emotional or psychic energy with men at all, regardless. There were some lesbians here who constructed a very tight, enclosed society for themselves…[and] felt that our interaction with gay men compromised us.” Cohen also recalled “there was [not] a lot of cross-over between women and gay men.” She herself was so removed from gay males that she doesn’t recall the existence of the primarily male organization, Oberlin Gay Liberation.
The Women’s Collective moved to Mallory House during the 1980s and finally to Baldwin in 1991, where it endures today as the Baldwin Cottage Women’s Collective.