casting spells for a female future with 70s lesbian separatist liza cowan
In 1975, Liza Cowan photographed her girlfriend wearing a T-shirt that read ‘The Future Is Female’. Fast forward to 2015 and a replica bought by Annie Clark for girlfriend Cara Delevingne has caused an Instagram-based feminist fashion frenzy. i-D...
photography liza cowan 1975
In recent weeks, perhaps the very first truly Insta-famous feminist fashion item has emerged: a sweatshirt worn by Annie Clark of St Vincent and girlfriend Cara Delevingne that reads, 'The Future Is Female'. Far from being the latest catwalk creation, the design actually has its roots in the radical feminist movement of lesbian separatists in the 70s, having been created originally to raise funds for Labyris Books, the first women's bookshop in New York City, which opened in 1972.
In 1975, photographer Liza Cowan photographed her then-girlfriend Alix Dobkin wearing the slogan T-shirt, for an advert the magazine DYKE: A Quarterly, which she co-edited with Penny House. Fast forward to 2015 and the lesbian feminist Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y posted Cowan's image, where it was seen by graphic designer Rachel Berks, who sells feminist products from her studio-store, Otherwild. With permission, Berks recreated the T-shirt and began selling it -- with 25% of profits going to women's health organisation Planned Parenthood -- in her online store and in the gift shop of a lesbian feminist haunted house called KillJoy's Kastle, where St Vincent singer Annie Clark bought two slogan sweatshirts for herself and girlfriend Cara Delevingne. Paparazzi shots of them wearing the designs spread across social media and a feminist fashion frenzy was set in motion.
i-D caught up with photographer, artist and feminist Liza Cowan to find out more about lesbian separatist feminism in the 1970s, her magazine DYKE: A Quarterly and what 'The Future is Female' means to her.
How does it feel to see a radical statement created by your community of lesbian feminists in the 70s become famous on the internet in 2015?
If you had told me 40 years ago, when Alix Dobkin and I made this photo, that it would become a pop culture sensation of this magnitude, we would have said that the idea was impossible.
Are you concerned that the feminist message gets lost and people think it's just a cool image?
In some ways the message 'The Future Is Female' is, if not lost, then certainly understood differently than it was in the 70s. Feminism has changed, the world has changed. It is difficult for many younger women to imagine the power, the excitement and the urgent need for women to come together to change the world. This may change. I do like that people think it's a cool image. It IS a cool image.
What does 'The Future is Female' mean to you?
The beauty of the phrase is that there is no precise meaning. We are asked to absorb two powerful archetypes, and to imagine them in relationship to each other. It is a dynamic phrase, a lively phrase. In order to make sense of it, we have to engage with the words. The archetype of 'the future' asks questions about the nature of time: When does the future begin? Where is the future? How does it happen? As an archetype, 'female' covers broad territories, flora or fauna. Virgin Mary or Kali. Medusa or Quan Yin. Astarte or Parvati. Bringer of peace, or destroyer of illusion. Nurturer or avenger. Mother, sister, daughter, aunt, grandmother. Nymph, maiden, crone.
'The Future is Female' reminds me that all life formed in a matrix. Matrix means womb, matrice, mother. Life springs from the female. Whether the future starts right this second, or in a million years, it emerges from the female body; not just the body of women, but of all female sentient beings, including the body of our home, Gaia.
I have also said that the slogan is a call to arms. While I think this is true, it is also true that it is an invocation. If we are to have a future, it must be female, because the rule of men -- patriarchy -- has just about devastated life on this beautiful little planet. The essence and the spirit of the future must be female. So the phrase becomes not just a slogan, but a spell. For the good of all.
The image of Alix was part of a photography project about women. Tell us more?
From 1972 to 1978 I wrote a series of articles called What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear, starting in a small lesbian magazine I published called Cowrie Lesbian Feminist, which ran from 1973 to 1974. Later I published them in my bigger magazine, DYKE: A Quarterly of Lesbian Culture and Analysis, which I co-edited and co-published with Penny House.
Today, you can get a PhD in fashion theory. In those days, it was considered trivial. I knew it wasn't, and I knew and that clothing carried a social message. I wanted to decipher it. In the seven part series, I covered general observations, histories of lesbian clothing -- including ancient Amazons -- contemporary lesbian clothing designers, the politics of hair and the history and politics of footwear.
How did you discover feminism and when did you start to identify as a feminist?
I first heard about Women's Liberation in 1970, listening to Robin Morgan being interviewed on the New York City listener-sponsored radio station, WBAI. My life changed immediately. I joined a consciousness-raising group, and I never looked back.
After you became a feminist, you began to identify as a lesbian separatist -- what does that mean and why was it an important distinction?
I was not a lesbian when I became a feminist. I came out gradually over the next year or so. In the process of producing feminist radio shows at WBAI (the same station where I'd first heard Robin Morgan), I had the opportunity to interview many many accomplished and exciting women, including some lesbians. One morning I had a dream in which I revealed to myself that I deeply loved women, and I decided at that very moment to be a lesbian. Soon after that, I met Alix Dobkin, a recently divorced folksinger and mother of a nine month old daughter. We met when she came to the station to be a guest on my late-night feminist radio show, Electra Rewired. We became friends, and then fell in love.
Over the course of the few years, we spent much of our free time reading and discussing lesbian books, periodicals and theory, with each other and with friends. The new ideas about lesbian separatism resonated for us, and we developed our own ideas, which I wrote about in DYKE, and Alix sang about. Our work took us to women's actions and communities in New York City and soon, all over the United States, where we enjoyed the opportunity to work out ideas with many brilliant lesbians.
Contrary to popular belief, lesbian separatism was never a prescriptive code for behaviour or relationships. It did not dictate who to be friends with, what 'family' should mean, or how to live your life. It was an analysis, a lens through which to observe the world. There was no centrally-distributed dogma. Lesbian Separatism, boiled down, was a way to figure out what it meant to be a woman, without having to bother with men telling you what you could not think or say.
It was a way to develop networks of women's businesses, publishers, bookstores, conferences, cafes, trade organisations, credit unions, music production, health care centres, media, schools, self-defence courses, cooperative farms, festivals, auto-repair shops, distribution networks. We did everything. Not everyone who participated was a lesbian, but most were. Women-only networks, spaces and actions are one of the cornerstones of creating community, and forging effective feminist activism. That's why it's such a difficult and contested thing to do these days.
Why did you create DYKE: A Quarterly, and what was the reaction to it?
DYKE: A Quarterly (DAQ) was my second feminist magazine, following a smaller predecessor, Cowrie Lesbian Feminist. Before that I'd been a radio producer. I like media, I like to write, I like to design; and we had wonderful resources of lesbian writers, artists and activists to draw on as contributors. Co-editor Penny House and I decided that publishing a lesbian feminist magazine would be our perfect contribution to the movement.
Some women loved it. Some hated it. Some loved how brave and honest we were. Some women were frightened by that. Some hated that we wrote about such 'frivolous' topics as clothing and fashion. Others found that enlightening. Some women loved that we tried our best to make it beautiful and substantial. Others were suspicious of us because it was beautiful and substantial. But we were always taken seriously.
All our articles were written by lesbians, (except one, by our woman dentist, about oral hygiene.) Our typesetters were lesbians, and the magazine was printed by a lesbian printshop. We sold only by subscription, or in women's bookstores. Sometimes we sold the magazine in person as we toured the country with Alix Dobkin. All our advertisers were lesbian feminists. We paid for everything we published. It was quite the cottage industry. Our biggest problem was funding. But that was par for the course in what was then known as 'alternative publishing'. We folded after four years and six issues.
In DAQ Issue 1, the introduction says that subscriptions will be returned to men, that you don't want male readers or straight women, just lesbians. Why did you want to be exclusive in that way?
The idea of women talking seriously to other women is often seen as a threat to the social order. We just wanted to talk amongst ourselves. Nobody else was interested, anyway.
Some people feel that lesbians have been ignored in the history of both the feminist movement and the gay rights movement. What's your take on that?
I agree, that absolutely happens, and I find it infuriating; but that doesn't mean that nothing has been written. It does depend on where you look. Lesbians have been writing both popular and scholarly works about lesbians for decades now, and there are some wonderful documentary films. Once you start searching, you will uncover a goldmine.
The DAQ archive is now held at The Museum Library at MOMA in New York. Do you think more needs to be done to preserve original feminist and lesbian cultural history?
Absolutely. I always encourage lesbians to donate their personal papers and their personal lesbian libraries to local or national women's or lesbian archives.
The Future Is Female statement spread around the world after Annie Clark and Cara Delevingne were photographed wearing the Otherwild sweatshirts, and there is a big resurgence in celebrities endorsing feminism, like Beyoncé, who performed in front of a huge bank of lights that read 'FEMINIST' on her tour. What do you think of celebrity feminism?
I don't keep up much with celebrity feminism. I'm not a huge consumer of contemporary pop culture. I don't think it can be a bad thing for women celebrities to endorse feminism, and if it encourages other women, particularly young women, to feel good about being feminist, that's a good thing. For me, it depends a lot on the scope and content of their message. If there is no analysis or activism, feminism becomes a symbol with no substance. "The map is not the territory. The name of the thing is not the thing named." -- Alfred Korzybski, 1931. The word 'feminist" is not the same thing as feminist activism.
Although is it very popular to say you are a feminist now, some of the achievements of 70s feminists seem to be being undone. Has progress been made or are we slipping backwards?
I hope that we are reaching the end of an era of mean-spirited attacks, critiques and disavowal of 70s Lesbian activism, attacks which have been painful to witness, and are filled with lies, distortions and half-truths. I see a new generation of folks who have discovered us, and appreciate our work. The h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram account is one of many examples of this. I hear from more and more young people every day who are truly excited to know more about what we did, and are inspired to carry on the work.
What advice do you have for young feminist and lesbian activists today?
KNOW YOUR HERSTORY: Read, read, read. There is so much to read, so much scholarship, so many articles, so much literature. Get to know the radical roots of feminist theory. Read about 1st and 2nd wave feminists. Become familiar with the legions of amazing feminist and lesbian feminist women who came before you: activists, artists, scholars, scientists, trade-unionists, abolitionists, community leaders, organisers. Likewise, listen to women's music, watch feminist and lesbian films and documentaries. Explore lesbian theatre, and lesbian novels.
Form consciousness-raising groups with a few trusted women-friends. Consciousness-raising was the foundation of second wave feminism, and I can't stress enough what an important tool it is. Meet weekly, pick a topic for each week, and talk honestly and openly with one another. You'll be surprised what you discover. Things you thought were your private problems are not just common, but are the very structure of oppression. This is the technique by which we discover that "the personal is political". Not only will it expand your consciousness and political understanding, it will help you develop the small, trusted and intimate groups from which all kinds of networks and activism can spring.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Liza Cowan