“One evening, a young woman took a walk with her husband around their neighborhood. She hadn’t slept with him for a long while—she just couldn’t do it anymore. After a few minutes, her husband exclaimed, ‘I need a woman.’ And she said, ‘I do, too!’” – Jami, born in 1939.
That is just one excerpt of a story of many that have been collected as part of the 20-year “Oral Herstory Project” (OHP) of Puget Sound – Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC). Conceived in 1996 by Arden Eversmeyer, this profound project documents the lives of “old lesbians” who were born in the early years of the last century.
Initially, Arden collected stories from, as she describes, “old lesbians” born in the 1930s. Since the project has continued for 20 years, though, OHP is now gathering stories from women born in the 1940s and 1950s as well. Today, with nearly 500 stories collected from around the world, I wanted to catch up with OHP project manager, Margaret Purcelle, to learn more.
“[The Oral Herstory Project] is important because we ask participants to share their stories—not just the stories that pertain to their identity as lesbians—but their whole life stories,” shared Margaret.
Many of these women were born before the word “lesbian” even existed—when the term itself couldn’t be found in library books. Margaret shared a story of a woman who went to the library to look up “lesbianism” and the only word that came up was “homosexuality,” which could only be researched for medical purposes and—per library policy—behind closed doors.
“It is inspiring to hear what all of these women accomplished in spite of the time in which they were born,” Margaret said.
Even more, giving these women a chance to share their stories helps give them perspective on their own survival. For those of us who listen to these stories, we have a unique opportunity not only to honor these stories but to experience this shift in perspective first-hand.
It has proven difficult, though, to identify and connect with women across the world that fit their criteria, which are three-fold: you must be old, a lesbian, and willing to share your life story. OHP is inclusive of transgender women, women of color, and women from around the globe—including Japan, Australia, and Costa Rica—and they are always searching for better representation from often-marginalized voices.
OHP has gathered stories of women who have experienced discrimination from their doctors because they were queer, stories of women who were forced to endure electroshock therapy to “cure” their lesbian attraction, incredible love stories of women young and old, and stories of women who lost their jobs in teaching or nursing when they were outed.
One thing is clear to Margaret and the many women behind this project: there is power in storytelling.
Margaret describes the incredible support her group has received from across the country. Smith College has asked to house the archives and artifacts from the interviews so that people can utilize these primary sources for research purposes. Other colleges, universities, and women’s and queer groups have used stories from the archives to increase understanding of the diverse stories of queer women throughout history.
“It is a privilege to read the stories of these women,” Margaret said. “It’s moving to see how it affects people. For young people, they are shocked to learn that a majority of the women who shared their stories knew they had an attraction to women, but they felt pressured to hide it away, thinking it would be better for their family or kids.”
As more and more anti-LGBTQ bills are introduced in state legislatures, understanding that there are stories, communities, and people standing together makes our long-term work pursuing full lived and legal equality less isolating.
Knowing we’re not alone in our existence, or alone in our struggle, is meaningful to feeling connected to the longer arc of the movement.
As Margaret explains, “It wasn’t just gay men at Stonewall all those years ago. It was these women, too, building a foundation for all.” It’s so meaningful for queer women, transgender women, and lesbians young and old to hear these stories—to see themselves embedded within the history of our movement—to, as Margaret shares, “provide a sense of value in knowing we’re not alone.”
Pride Foundation was proud to support OLOC’s Oral Herstory Project through our 2015 Community Grant Awards. The 2016 Community Grants Application opens May 16th. Learn more here: Pride Foundation Community Grants
Zachary Pullin is the Director of Communications and Education. Email Zachary.