Personal Histories – Misha Cohen (OC 73)

Audio clip:


“It was all men talking about the war…”

Misha Cohen was raised in Coral Gables, Florida and identifies as a Sephardic Jew. Her father was an attorney and her mother, though trained as a social worker, worked primarily as a housewife.

Oral history conducted in San Francisco, July 4, 2005, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

One of the things that happened when I went to [Oberlin] is that I immediately became a vegetarian [and] I immediately met all the people who were women’s liberation people… Some of the things that came up for me were, it was all men who were talking about the [Vietnam] War [at organizational protest meetings]. And there were women who finally got up in the middle of everything and stopped everything from happening and started talking about sexism. So that was a big opening at that point, and I know that some of them were lesbians. I know that probably the leaders were. But there was no talk about that…

By the time I was in high school, I knew something was different. I knew that I had some particularly strong feelings for some of my friends, but I didn’t really know that’s what I was in relation to that…It was a long process, because at Oberlin at that time, there was really nobody else around who I could identify, except for these couple of women who were head of the women’s liberation movement…

There was a Human Sexuality Class…I was part of it with a [gay] guy [named] Bob Anderson [OC 72]. The [instructors] recruited us to be group leaders…And through that whole process for me was when I really became in touch with my own sexuality…I really started confronting my own stuff internally, and I know that there was a lot of liberalism around that class… The first foot massage I’ve ever had in my life—that’s what we did in one of the classes…I just remember that it was really an open place and one of leaders was a gay man, who was open about it…He was the only one I could really talk to…

And I had also fallen in love with my best friend…I became best friends with her from very early on in our freshman year, [but] I didn’t think very much of it until I realized that there was something going on here…The more and more her and I hung out together, the more and more I realized that I was in love with her…but I didn’t want to deal with it. I wasn’t sure [if it was] the right thing to be feeling at all. It took several months of internal struggle and talking to a therapist [to come to terms with it]…Then she became involved with a man…and I got very jealous…and I went to her and told her and she said, “I was just waiting for you to say something!”…

I felt like our relationship would fall apart if I said anything because at that time it wasn’t something anyone really talked about or thought about…But once her and I acknowledged it, there was this movement from one relationship to a different relationship…I always knew that there were people called lesbians, and finally things became very clear. Once something like that opens up for me, I realize, I learn everything about it. I started reading women’s newspapers…and leftist newspapers that were progressive around gay/lesbian sexuality. A lot of women’s liberation movement books were coming out.

When my girlfriend and I decided to walk across campus and hold hands that was a huge deal! There was nobody who did that—we were the first ones…We got a lot of pointing…

We definitely had a lesbian circle—me and Stella [Graham] and Lynn—and we really identified that way, and we would meet other people that way…We all had different views but we connected to each other because we had this common identity…We called ourselves lesbians…Stella would call herself gay, but I thought this was strange because women had a different identity from men…I guess it was the stuff I was reading about how women are different than men…

[My girlfriend Robin and I] started the Women’s Collective in 1972. It got validated later, [around] 1975…Robin and I had to go to the Dean and negotiate one of the houses to be identified as the collective…There were nineteen or eighteen of us [in the house]… The Women’s Collective was a really mixed house and actually a lot of the women were bisexual…I don’t think there was so much self-identification as there was experimentation and people thinking, this is just something I want to do and see how it is. Which meant that, in many ways, there was a lot more fluidity and openness and there’s a lot of those women who are [now] married and with men…It was highly collective…We had an organic garden—Oberlin was one of the first places in the country to have organic farming…We had to process everything. Every single thing we did, we had to do collectively…It was the “seed” for a lot of different things.

One of the things that for me was so important is that I really connected with people in the town. I became part of the Hotline Crisis Center, to talk people down from bad drug trips, primarily in the town…I was involved with a lot of women from the town, some of them working class women from the town, and there were interesting class issues that were going on; there were professors, professors’ wives, black people, working class people—there were very intense discussions going on about who we were as women…Interestingly enough, a lot of them were not lesbians, they were married women, so here we are as lesbians in this process with them…The way sexuality was so in flux for a lot of people at that time…people thought “if you’re in the women’s liberation movement you must be a lesbian.” There was discussion not just on campus but [also] with women in the town. There were some attitudes that were like “we don’t want to deal with this,” and others that were considering being more open to it…

I don’t think there was a lot of cross-over between women and gay men at that time…Oberlin Gay Liberation was probably all men…We were doing the Women’s Liberation at that time, so it wouldn’t have been anything that was connected…It took a long time before lesbians and gay men really started talking to each other…Lesbians and gay men didn’t really talk to each other until AIDS started…

[At the time in the 70s, we thought], “why bother?!” Especially at that time, men had all the power, so if you were gay and a man, you still had power as a man…But I have to say that lesbians and gay men were not on the same path until there was something that confronted the community as a whole, and then they needed women to help.

I started working at New Media Workshop, a collective print shop. One of the things we did was print [a] collective newspaper, “Coming Out,” which wasn’t specifically a lesbian newspaper—it was a women’s newspaper…It must have been related to the Women’s Collective so it was around 1971 was when I started doing it. It was very much a political newspaper around women’s health, lesbian issues, political issues. I knew there wasn’t anything that existed in the area like this, so I felt like I wanted to publish something that a lot of people could relate to…We distributed the paper nationally, and we distributed this out of Oberlin…