Lesbian Separatism in Cowrie and DYKE, A Quarterly
Paper for the Modernist Studies Association Conference, November 2011
Margo Thompson, Muhlenberg College
reprinted with permission of the author
At the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, the motto for their publications collection is “two lesbians, one newsletter, anywhere in the world” (http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/tourcoll5.html). The 1970s saw feminist and lesbian feminist publications flourish. There were long-running periodicals that originated with the Daughters of Bilitis, such as Lesbian Tide (Los Angeles), journals of the arts like Amazon Quarterly (Oakland and Cambridge), and single issue outbursts like One to One (New York) and Purple Rage (New York). This paper examines two lesbian feminist journals, Cowrie and DYKE A Quarterly, both edited by Liza Cowan, for their explicitly separatist program.
The journals’ mission was not to persuade or recruit political lesbians, but to consolidate a political, lesbian feminist identity. For Cowrie’s first three issues beginning in spring 1973, it was the newsletter for Community of Women (COW) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. With the fourth issue, Cowrie became independent and reflected the interests of its editors, Liza Cowan and Carol Hardin. They wrote, “We are anti-heterosexual… We work exclusively with women and for women.” To publish a magazine “by, for, and about Lesbians” was “political in itself,” the editors declared (Cowrie 1, 4, Dec. 1973, p. 3). That is, the lesbians represented in its pages constituted a significant subculture that challenged the gender hegemony of patriarchy. Cowan and Hardin expected their readers were women like themselves: well-educated, New York Jews, from upper middle class families who prized intellectualism and activism.*
Cowrie Magazine 1974
Cowan left Cowrie after the June/July 1974 issue, and it folded soon afterwards. She left the city and moved with her lover, the folksinger Alix Dobkin, to a small town in upstate New York where they purchased a farmhouse on seventy acres of land with an inheritance from Cowan’s parents. From there, she published DYKE magazine. DYKE was for lesbians only: the cover warned it was “to be sold and shared by women only!” The editors, Cowan and her childhood friend Penny House wrote, “We believe that ‘lesbian culture’ presumes a separatist analysis. If lesbian culture is mixed with straight culture, it is no longer lesbian; it is heterosexual, or heterosocial because energy and time are going to men.” They retained the right to discuss straight culture, however, “to analyze it and in this way preventing it from retarding our growth” (DYKE, A Quarterly 1, 1, Winter 1975-1976, p. 4). Cowan and House were immersed in straight culture, judging from their reading list of periodicals and newspapers printed in the inaugural issue. They assumed that their readers were equally well read, and would turn to DYKE for the lesbian feminist content that was missing from Vogue, TV Guide, and Organic Gardening. Cowrie and DYKE carried articles on a wide range of issues including women in prison, coming out at work, gardening, music, and the topic on which this paper will concentrate, fashion.
American feminists interpreted fashion—the industry and the media that promoted it—as instruments of the patriarchy. Fashion was part of “a culture at war with women’s bodies, constantly seeking to sanitize and deodorize, depilate, stereotype, and control the unpredictable feminine body” (Evans and Thornton, 3). Radical feminists wrote treatises on the manipulations of Madison Avenue, and the unrealistic fantasies and self-doubt which advertisements for clothing and cosmetics sowed. Women who followed fashion were gullible at best, they believed (Scott, 291). Cowan did not share this perspective: While she rebelled against the fashion industry alongside other feminists, she was not hostile to it. Neither did she think that clothing was a trivial concern. Dressing “like herself” was a claim to her gender and sexual identity. Women’s studies scholar Linda M. Scott observed that women of Cowan’s generation viewed fashion as playful, youthful, and self-inventive even as they subjected it to feminist critique (Scott, 251-69). In fact, fashion is a discourse: It signifies, and as such is ripe for deconstruction and subversion through a liberating counter-discourse. This is precisely what Cowan offered in her series of columns titled “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear,” which ran from the second issue of Cowrie (June 1973) to the first issue of DYKE, A Quarterly (Winter 1975-1976).
In brief, the “well dressed dyke” would resist feminine fashions in favor of clothing selected to fit “her politics, her astrological signs, her size, her favorite colors, and her needs” (Cowrie 1, 3:10). Women’s fashions were designed by men to attract male attention, to reflect male fantasies of how women should act and appear. The lesbian required clothing that would deflect the masculine gaze while attracting women’s attention. Lesbians needed ways to become visible to each other. Cowan’s columns were at once descriptive of what she and her friends chose to wear, and prescriptive for her readers. In wording reminiscent of mainstream press trend pieces Cowan wrote, “It seems that many women are growing tired of the Dyke Schlepp [sic] uniform that has been so popular of late, and are wanting to dress more creatively and individually” (Cowrie 1, 3: 11). As this trend continued, she predicted, “there will begin to evolve a true Dyke fashion, just as Dyke music and theater is [sic] already beginning to appear” (Cowrie 1, 5: 22). The magazines printed letters from readers that enthusiastically agreed or disagreed with the author’s point of view, including whether discussions of clothing were politically relevant.
Cowrie Magazine. 1973.
Cowrie and DYKE advanced a dual-pronged subversive strategy in the “Well Dressed Dyke” columns that reflected Cowan’s lesbian separatist convictions. It was economic: women should find ways to deny male-run businesses their money. They could make their own clothes, or seek out craftswomen who could design and tailor clothing that was comfortable and flattering to a woman’s body. It was historical: Cowan sketched an alternate history of women’s fashion from the Amazons to the free thinking women of Paris’s Left Bank in the 1920s. Both of these propositions incorporated complexities that quickly surfaced in correspondence from readers. Class privilege was assumed in the recommendation that women have clothes tailor-made for them. On the historical front, aside from the essentialism implicit in the notion of a hidden women’s history, the mannish sartorial style of the Left Bank ladies whom Cowan favored seemed too prescriptive and impractical for lesbians who favored long hair and dresses or needed to wear such a uniform at work.
For Cowan, wearing trousers, flat shoes, and button down shirts was a matter of comfort and ease of movement. It conformed to her self-image as a “preppy dyke” and she recalled that she had wanted to dress like a boy since she was a child. She emphasized, however, that she wanted to wear boy’s clothes, not to be a boy. She identified as a woman and a lesbian, and said that she was “turned on” when she recognized another lesbian on the street (Cowrie 1, 2: 4-5). The object for her was to become ugly to men, and beautiful to “ourselves”—lesbians (DYKE, A Quarterly 1, 1: 25). Cowan believed that women’s fashion made women ridiculous. She recounted her experience of being unable to master her tools to fix a camera tripod while wearing a skirt and heels (taking pictures for a slide show on female drag); she had to take off the skirt to come to her senses to make the repair. (Dyke 1, 1: 12) Her friend, the designer Moregan echoed her sentiments when she wrote in an open letter printed in Cowrie: “Witness the ultra-feminine dress of today…and the image of the woman that goes with it: silly, incompetent, and anxious to appeal to men—definitely not the builders of society. …Why aren’t men wearing dresses, stockings, heels, jewelry, girdles, bras (I’ve seen men with pretty large breasts) as they make our laws, judge us, wage war, etc.” (Cowrie 2, 1: 11).
In promoting clothing that read as masculine, the “Well Dressed Dyke” columns risked being taken to promote butchness. Butch and femme roles were highly suspect among lesbian separatists in the mid-1970s because they seemed to replicate heterosexual gender positions (Case 1989). When it came to fashion, butches were perceived as “male-identified,” while femmes were seen as narcissistic consumers of the “beauty ideal” (Scott 293). Not incidentally, butch and femme identities were also strongly associated with working class lesbians, while middle class lesbians had adopted a more unisex, bohemian look (Wilson, 71). Letters from readers recorded their resistance to the idea of a lesbian dress code. Gina Loiacono objected that the practical garb that Cowan promoted was “dull, stagnant, old, confined, unimaginative-like-male clothing.” She was “a gay woman, free and beautiful to myself—I but bright new colors on my face and nails and body—I dress for the very sure way I feel about myself” (Cowrie 1, 5:11). While Loiacana’s letter elicited a rather snarky remark from Moregan—“Have you the courage to stop ‘passing’ as a straight woman?” (Cowrie 2, 1: 11)—it reflected the mistrust of butches that the “Well Dressed Dyke” had to negotiate.
The “Well Dressed Dyke” essay that appeared in Cowrie in October 1973 was controversial because it touched upon economic disparities among lesbians. Cowan warned that women have been brainwashed by patriarchy about their grooming and choice of dress, and that name brand fashion designers are “guardians of the patriarchy” and not to be trusted. Instead, lesbians should opt out of the fashion-industrial complex altogether by making their own clothing, or do business with craftswomen who followed their own visions rather than those of the fashion press. Cowan touted her favored designers, Moregan and Laura, who would make a custom outfit for $125—and if that seemed expensive she counseled, “custom work is always expensive. A good suit should fit perfectly and last for years” (Cowrie 1, 3: 12). Cowan reprised the column in the first issue of DYKE two years later, adding some commentary about her own experience having a suit custom-made by Moregan. The “smokey green” velour jacket and trousers made her feel “comfortable and confident wearing” them. She described the pants, cut and elasticized like sweatpants, and the top, tied like a bathrobe and with a flying horse appliquéd to the back as “a combination costume of a magician, mandarin, karate fighter and outer space woman.” It cost her $300 (Dyke 1, 1: 23).
Tami from Los Angeles wrote to DYKE, outraged that the editors would dictate to women what to wear and how to cut their hair just as “the patriarchal press” did (DYKE, A Quarterly 1, 2, Spring 1976: 5). In an unpublished letter, Deborah Yom-Esh enumerated her objections to Cowan’s devoting so much time to fashion, and the cost was a particular issue: “Possibly there is a revolutionary way of dressing. If there is, I am sure it is not an expensive way. It is a way all women can afford to dress” (unpublished letter, courtesy of Liza Cowan). Lesbian Tide reviewed DYKE and objected to the economic privilege implied: “It assumes that (1) all of us lead lives where we are free to dress as we please… (2) all of us can afford to have clothes custom designed and hand made that are ‘non-oppressive’; and (3) having the ‘correct’ fashion and haircut is a vital political issue” (Kelly, 17).
The disjuncture between editorial intent and reader reception has everything to do with the context of a low-circulation lesbian-feminist ‘zine. Cowan’s authorial tone echoed glossy fashion magazines when she made generalizing predictions: “now, when Lesbian culture is coming into her own again, when Matriarchal culture is reviving, women are forming tribes, changing our names, changing the way we look…” (DYKE, A Quarterly 1, 1:24). Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar would be expected to make pronouncements about trends, backed with fashion industry dollars. They present feminine ideals to which the reader may aspire and are sites where “fashion [as] a discourse … endlessly defines and redefines femininity.” (Evans and Thornton 13) Their hallucinatory advertisements and fashion spreads proliferate fantasies about what the reader’s life might be, not necessarily her current state of existence. Cowrie and DYKE, on the other hand, met the reader where she lived. They were printed in typescript on newsprint and addressed the reader as a sister in political lesbianism. Women who could not afford the couple of dollars that a subscription cost had their appreciative letters published, implying that Cowrie and DYKE welcomed a diverse lesbian readership. This audience identified with the image of lesbian separatism represented in the ‘zine pages, and consequently were dismayed when the editor presented herself as living a more privileged lifestyle. Where a radical lesbian might reject an issue of Vogue for promoting an unattainable feminine fantasy, DYKE’s representation of Cowan and House’s privilege seemed to exclude her personally.
Cowrie and DYKE’s appeal to middle-class lesbians was reinforced in the editors’ choice of historical fashion precedents. Cowrie article that introduced designers Moregan and Laura was illustrated with Romaine Brooks’s portrait of Una Lady Troubridge, lover of author Radclyffe Hall. Troubridge wears a tailored suit that accentuates her slim build, and her hair is cut short with bangs straight across her forehead. She looks severe in black and white, and very much in control of her affect and appearance. While Cowan does not reference the picture in her essay, she does mention Sylvia Beach and Natalie Barney, two of the Left Bank lesbians in Brooks’s and Troubridge’s circle, as role-models because of their independence and fondness for men’s suits and tuxedos. The next issue carried a quotation that played on the name Cowrie from Gertrude Stein’s sensual poem “Lifting Belly”: “Cow come home.” A 1923 French painting, The Blue Room was the centerfold picture in Cowrie 1, 5. The artist, Suzanne Valadon was active in Paris in the 1920s although not necessarily part of the literary salons where Barney and Stein held forth. The woman’s pajama bottoms, her cigarette, and her disciplined hair all run counter to the conventional reclining female nude or odalisque. Her abstracted gaze and evident intellectual life—reinforced by the books at her feet—undermine her femininity according to pictorial conventions. Cowrie was not the only lesbian publication to examine the Left Bank Parisians and expatriates: the abundance of lesbian periodicals that flourished in the 1970s profiled, pictured, cited, or reviewed Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Brooks, Barney, Troubridge and Hall, Renée Vivien, and Djuna Barnes.
The cross-dressing lesbians of the Left Bank in Paris were a useful historical precedent for middle-class lesbian separatists like Cowan and House. They were not butch, as their social class reinforced: they were mostly economically comfortable and free to devote themselves to literary and artistic pursuits. Their dressing in suits and monocles made them visible as lesbians and also laid claim to the physical and social power that feminine dress denies women (Wilson 69-70, Grover 175). There was a parallel among straight women’s clothing in the 1920s: la mode garçonne, defined by Coco Chanel among others. The fashion and the figure were named for a novel, La Garçonne, which told the story of a sexually aggressive woman who claimed parity with men. The sexually liberated woman was also a token of modernity and thus dressing in la mode garçonne aligned one with the modern age, sexual assertiveness, and lesbianism (Chadwick and Latimer, 4, 7). The Well Dressed Dyke’s embrace of mannish dress thus imports a sexual dimension that was otherwise absent from lesbian feminist politics in the 1970s. Lesbian feminists theorized away sexuality as a significant aspect of their identity, substituting woman-identification, a continuum that did not necessitate erotic contact, and an erotics that was more about power than desire (Radicalesbians 1971, Rich 1983, Lorde 1984). The mannish lesbian of the Left Bank so fascinating to Cowan and her readers encoded sexuality. It is perhaps for this reason that debates over fashion and masculine dress generated so much heat in the pages of Cowrie and DYKE.
Sex and class were divisive issues among lesbian separatists. To recognize differences among lesbians in matters of economics and erotic tastes undermined separatism’s idealized Lesbian Nation. Race, of course, is a third fault line, explicitly imaged only twice in Cowrie and DYKE: the women in prison article’s main subject was Carol Crooks, an African-American woman, and line drawings of tribal women from National Geographic illustrated Cowan’s musings on emergent lesbian tribes in the US. Cowrie and DYKE, like most other lesbian ‘zines of the time were not sites where exploration of difference was undertaken. What they did offer was affirmation that cultural expressions such as fashion were meaningful political acts, that the personal was indeed political.
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Evans, Caroline and Minna Thornton. Women and Fashion: A New Look. London and New York: Quartet Books, 1989.
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Kelly, Gahan. “Dyke Magazine Strikes Out.” Lesbian Tide (March/April 1976): 17.
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Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In The Signs Reader, 139-68. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel, eds., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
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Wilson, Elizabeth. “Deviant Dress.” Feminist Review no. 35 (Summer 1990): 67-74.
*Note from Liza Cowan: Carol Hardin, co-editor of COWRIE was a working class lapsed Catholic.