Inside the Archives: Interview with Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel

The fall 1979 and the spring 1980 issues of the feminist periodical Sinister Wisdom contain an interview with Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel, two of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Photograph of archivist working in the Lesbian Herstory Archives, taken by JEB, and published in the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

Nestle and Edel detail the process of creating the Archives and how a community was formed in that process. The Archives became a dormitory, a dining area, a research space, and the center of the lesbian community. The interviewer, Beth Hodges, remembers the night of the 1974 Gay Academic Union, when the Archives had “women sleeping all over the floor,” and Nestle and Edel were “so happy to have a lesbian house party” (Hodges 12). The Archives became more than just a collection of books, poems and art. It became a safe space for women to breathe freely and create community, which had not been possible for lesbians before this time. Nestle, Edel and the other founders of the archive intended for the Archives to be “an on-going intergenerational place that would be for all lesbian women” (Hodges 9).

A photograph of two archivists looking over material in the Lesbian Herstory Archives, taken by JEB, and published in the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

The Lesbian Herstory Archives are still active today. Their collection has grown and they have moved into digital space as well. The Archives now have internships and have created the Lesbian Studies Institute, which offers courses about lesbian lives and identities. Like Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel hoped, the archives have expanded, but the mission never changed. The Archives still value all lesbian lives and take care to preserve the diversity of lesbian history. “There’s a huge rich tradition of cultural groups, organizations, sisterhoods, where Black lesbian women spent much of their time and from which they got great strength” which the Archives recognizes and tries to memorialize within their collection (Hodges 103). The Archives has always worked hard to include disabled women, so that if a woman “cannot use a typewriter or cannot use a tape, we have to find ways for her to record her life” (Hodges 103). Nestle and Edle knew they must consciously and thoughtful preserve lesbian history so that they don’t “duplicate the invisibility of the other society” (Hodges 103). The Archives continues this goal into present day so that the history of all lesbian women, regardless of race, class, ability or culture is remembered.

A photograph of Mable, one of the early contributors to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, taken by JEB, and published in the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

The Archives foster intergenerational connection through this preservation of lesbian history. Nestle and Edle explained that older women have “incredible stories they have to tell and struggles they have had to go through” and that these stories are important to preserve and pass down to the next generation (Hodges 103). Nestle wanted “the Archives to give us back our generational connections to deepen our understanding of how we survived and the courage of each generation” (Hodges 103). This intergenerational connection creates power and sustains the lesbian feminist movement. Nestle described how the roots of the word archive mean “beginning” and “power.” This is how the Archives are seen: “It means power of control over our beginnings and our continuing” (Hodges 105). Knowing that there has been and continues to be spaces like the Archives where lesbian women can come together motivates the next generation and gives them the power and knowledge to continue fighting for their freedom.

Works Cited:

Hodges, Beth. “An Interview with Joan and Deborah of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.” Sinister Wisdom, no. 11, Oct. 1979, pp. 3-13,

Hodges, Beth. “Preserving Our Words and Pictures.” Sinister Wisdom, no. 13, Apr. 1980, pp. 101–105,

“It’s the Poverty” by Cher’rie Moraga

The poem “It’s the Poverty,” by Cher’rie Moraga, which appears in the fall 1979 issue of the periodical, Sinister Wisdom, explores the importance of preserving stories and culture from generation to generation. Moraga is a lesbian, Chicana poet and in her poem, she struggles with how to find the right language to express herself. If Moraga chooses to express all that she has lost due to the oppression she has faced, she risks “losing everything” (Moraga Lawrence 84). By using a language that doesn’t allow her to fully represent herself, she might “create a monster” from “the word’s length and body” (Moraga Lawrence 84). That monster might begin “swelling up colorful and thrilling” (Moraga Lawrence 84). The power that is born from Moraga writing how she feels is symbolized by the monster created from the word.

Section of the poem, “It’s the Poverty” by Cher’rie Moraga, from the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

However, this power has unintended consequences. The monster begins “looming over [her] mother” and makes her mother’s voice “unintelligible” and “illiterate” (Moraga Lawrence 84). Moraga’s mother is Mexican and the language she grew up with was Spanish (Anderson 6). Because of her cultural and linguistic background, Moraga’s mother’s stories don’t fit into this version of language and the monster looks down on her mother because of that language difference. But Moraga’s mother’s stories are a fundamental part of Moraga’s identity. Moraga sees her mother’s stories and her own identity being lost if she chooses to use a language that doesn’t allow for the full expression of her mother, herself or her culture. Moraga’s poem highlights the struggle and importance of embracing multiple cultures. The Lesbian Herstory Archives also works to preserve the stories and identities of all lesbians, across cultures and generations. This preservation leads to connection between generations and cultures, which is vital to the success of the feminist movement.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Kelly. “Cher’rie Moraga.” Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, June 6-7, 2005, Oakland, CA,

Moraga Lawrence, Cher’rie. “It’s the Poverty.” Sinister Wisdom, no. 11, Oct. 1979, pp. 84-85,

“What Does It Take?” by Cher’rie Moraga

Another poem by Cher’rie Moraga titled “What Does It Take?” illustrates how women who have given their lives to a cause are not remembered or celebrated the same way as men.

Gay Rights Activist Harvey Milk sitting at his desk

This poem was written “upon the death of Harvey Milk,” the openly gay San Francisco City County Supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 (Moraga Lawrence 85). His death, and his assassin’s subsequent acquittal, caused riots in the streets of San Francisco that would come to be known as the “White Night Riots” (The Official Harvey Milk Biography). Moraga is saddened by the death of Harvey Milk. She describes how his death is the death of her father, “the kind one/ pressed into newsprint” (Moraga Lawrence 89). She knows he was an important figure of the gay liberation movement, but also recognizes that if Milk was a woman, he would not have been grieved in the same public way.

Section of the poem, “What Does It Take?” by Cher’rie Moraga from the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

Moraga explains that “the martyrs they give us/ have all been men” (Moraga Lawrence 85). The gay liberation movement was focused on gay men and sidelined gay women. Moraga points out how “the deaths of our mothers/ are never that public” (Moraga Lawrence 86). For generations, lesbian women have not been given the same recognition for similar injustices they endure. The oppression lesbian women face is not as publicized, instead “we bleed out of many pores/ so constant” (Moraga Lawrence 86). Bleeding is a quiet, painful, and perpetual injury. It symbolizes the ignored and continuous way that lesbian women are oppressed. Their oppression is no less deadly or painful than gay men’s, just quieter.

Section of the poem, “What Does It Take?” by Cher’rie Moraga from the fall 1979 issue of Sinister Wisdom

Moraga ends her poem with a call to action. She asks “what does it take/ to move me?” and “Isn’t the possibility of your dying/ enough?” (Moraga Lawrence 86). She is asking what will make the reader get up and make a change, if not the constant fear of loved ones dying? This poem recognizes the women who have fought and died for lesbian liberation and inspires the reader to fight as well. The next generation continues the fight for their liberation with the strength of the knowledge that they have mothers and grandmothers who have fought and died for this cause. Archives work to remember those grandmothers and mothers who gave their lives for the cause, because their contributions are important, powerful and inspiring to the next generation of activists.

Works Cited:

Moraga Lawrence, Cher’rie. “What Does It Take?” Sinister Wisdom, no. 11, Oct. 1979, pp. 85-86,

“The Official Harvey Milk Biography.” Milk Foundation, Accessed 09 November 2021.

“Edward the Dyke” by Judy Grahn

The short poetic story, “Edward the Dyke” written by Judy Grahn in 1965 demonstrates society’s limited understanding of what women could be. This limited understanding is born from the erasure of lesbians and other radical women from history. Through this story Grahn is showing another way to be a woman and combating this erasure. The preservation of this story in archives also fights this erasure of women by remembering the way that lesbian women have been treated and viewed by society.

In this story, Edward is seeing a psychoanalyst who is trying to “cure” her. Edward starts the session off by saying “my problem this week chiefly concern[s] restrooms” and describes the physical assault she endured by the other women in the bathroom after they learned she was a lesbian (Grahn 26). The psychiatrist ignores what Edward says and instead writes down that Edward had an “apparent suicide attempt after accosting girls in restroom” (Grahn 26). The doctor’s dismissal of Edward’s concerns is repeated throughout the story. Edward describes a beautiful ten year relationship she had and the psychiatrist says “you see the folly of these brief physical embraces” (Grahn 28). Edward has a date with a man in which she dresses up, “does unspeakable things to [her] armpits with a razor” and “feels truly immobilized” by the clothes she wore (Grahn 29). The psychiatrist ignores her pain and says “good, good” and continues to force Edward into a box she will never fit in, in order to “cure” her (Grahn 29).

Illustration of Edward the Dyke from Judy Grahn’s collection of poetry, The Work of a Common Woman, published in 1978

However, this box is antithetical to her happiness. Edward only shows happiness when talking about her former lover or describing her identity as a lesbian. When the psychiatrist asks Edward to describe what homosexuality means to her, Edward uses beautiful imagery of “warm and water,” “cinnamon toast poetry” and “justice equality higher wages” (Grahn 27). Edward remembers her lover “laying in [Edward’s] arms harps played soft in dry firelight” (Grahn 28). It is clear through this powerful and beautiful language that Edward finds peace, beauty, and happiness in loving women.

This happiness is contrasted by the “treatment” the psychiatrist gives her. Firstly, Edward shouts “I am vile! I am vile!” after the psychiatrist has told her she “wants to kill her mother” and that she is narcissistic, masochistic, and sadistic (Grahn 30). Secondly, the shock therapy makes Edward scream in pain. The psychiatrist cares only about curing Edward’s homosexuality to fit her into heteronormative society. Edward, by the end of her session, has internalized this message and at the end of the shock therapy says, “I’m saved” (Grahn 30). Grahn warns about how easy it is for one to succumb to society’s view that lesbianism is wrong and unwomanly. Through satirizing the psychoanalytic process, this story proposes the idea that society’s view of womanhood is limited and incomplete. Grahn is attempting to validate and normalize the lesbian identity through satire. With the preservation of this story, future generations can turn to it to find comfort in knowing that their identity is valid, true and has been around for many years. By preserving this story in archives, this message will be available for future generations which allows for the lesbian liberation movement to grow and continue.

Works Cited:

Grahn, Judy. “Edward the Dyke.” The Work of a Common Woman, Diana Press, 1978.

Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairy tale by Vicki Gabriner

The Dedication for Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairytale, published in 1971, lettering by ginny

Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairy tale by Vicki Gabriner is a lesbian retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty. The story is dedicated to “all the little girls everywhere and always who want to love and be loved” (Gabriner iii). This lesbian children’s fairytale is revolutionary because it represents lesbians in a children book and provides an alternate story to the original Sleeping Beauty that can be passed down for generations. This retelling of Sleeping Beauty is also a way of symbolically showing how lesbians have been a part of history for as long as Sleeping Beauty and stories like it have been told; they just have never been documented. This book uses the power and renown of the original story to show the power and beauty of lesbian identity. Claiming this power means that lesbian erasure and lack of recording history will not happen again.

The story of Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairytale is mostly just a retelling of Sleeping Beauty until the end. The King and Queen give birth to a baby girl, who’s name is Stephen. At the dinner to celebrate her birth, they invite all but one of the witches in The Land. The witch, named Gertrude, who wasn’t invited, comes anyway and curses Stephen to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. On her fifteenth birthday, Stephen pricks her finger and falls asleep. This is where the story changes: the person who kisses the princess to wake her up is a girl named Lilith. They fall in love and rule as queens until they decide to release their servants and create a lesbian paradise.

The witch, Gertrude, illustrated by gail in Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairytale, published in 1971

The witch, Gertrude, in this story is not evil and mean like she is portrayed in the original. Gertrude is excluded from the party, not because of any evil nature because she “cut her hair quite short,” “walked like a man,” and “was different” (Gabriner 3). The King and Queen didn’t like her “because they sensed [her] freedom and [her] love for other women” (Gabriner 25). Gertude curses Stephen not out of spite, but because Gertrude knew that Stephen needed to sleep for a hundred years in order to meet her truelove, Lilith: “it was in the stars” (Gabriner 25).

Gertrude, Lilith and Stephen embrace after Lilith awakens Stephen, illustrated by gail in Sleeping Beauty: a lesbian fairytale, published in 1971

The guidance Gurtrude gives to Stephen and Lilith is a symbol for the guidance and activism older generations of lesbian have given and continue to give to the younger generation. This guidance helps to create a better society where “all women … live and work together as equals” (Gabriner 29). This story shows gratitude to the previous generations of lesbians for their activism. The intergenerational communication and help is vital to the continuation of the lesbian feminist movement. This communication is facilitated by the ability of archives to preserve access to this guidance and celebrate the work of previous generations.

Works Cited:

Gabriner, Vicki. Sleeping Beauty : a lesbian fairy tale. Sojourner Truth Press, 1971.