Judith McDaniel, a professor at Skidmore College, appeared in print in the seventh issue of the third volume of Big Mama Rag in 1975 (Desmoines and Nicholson 103). Ironically, her first debut in print was not with her own words. McDaniel was quoted saying “‘I learn by going where I have to go’ – Judith McDaniel, quoting someone else,” but McDaniel would go on to disseminate her words in a variety of mediums.
McDaniel made a name for herself primarily as an essayist, typically writing about her own experience as a lesbian. One of her most notable essays, “Is There Room For Me In The Closet Or My Life As The Only Lesbian Professor” was published in Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics, volume 2 issue 3, in the spring of 1979. This essay provides a window into the social climate at the time when McDaniel writes, “We spoke briefly about our work. ‘Why did you leave your last job?’ they asked. ‘I was fired,’ I said, ‘with another woman. We were too “feminist.”’ ‘Did you sue them?’ one woman asked. ‘It was difficult,’ I said. ‘We were both lesbians.’ My comment lay like something unpleasant in the middle of the table. No one referred to it” (McDaniel, “Is There Room For Me In the Closet…”, p36). By retelling this experience, McDaniel provides a window to the treatment that lesbian women face at the time and it reveals the degree of the injustices that spurred the Women’s Liberation Movement.
McDaniel gained enough notoriety for her essays that her pieces were featured in a plethora of feminist periodicals, such as Sinister Wisdom, Conditions, Chrysalis, and the Lesbian Tide. With this reputation, McDaniel also made a point of speaking at panels; a transcript of her speaking at 1975 Modern Language Association seminar about sexism in publishing was included in Sinister Wisdom’s second issue in 1976. McDaniel also dabbled in poetry, publishing a poem in Sinister Wisdom’s third issue and two more in the fourth. In the short time that McDaniel wrote poetry, she experimented with both long and short prose.
McDaniel’s “Ideograms” in Sinister Wisdom’s third issue follows a stricter poetic structure. Each stanza is four lines and even though the syllable count of each line varies and the stanzas do not all follow the same pattern, the beat of the poem is consistent. In the fourth issue, McDaniel submitted a longer poem that broke her self set precedent. In “Circe’s Cup,” McDaniel’s stanzas vary in length and canter, and she explored with composition, setting the second half of the poem adjacent to the first. This placement reinforces the dichotomy at play within the poem. The first half of the poem retells the story of Circe from the feminist perspective. Instead of Circe being a temptress who cruelly abused Ulysses and his men, Ulysses, “sank/ into a haze / of bestiality” (McDaniel, “Circe’s Cup” lines 8-10), causing him to forget his wife and son as he feel victim to Circe’s charms.
This perspective shift exposes the sordid qualities of man and shifts the blame away from Circe. The poem then moves horizontally across the page, to a stanza detailing how the speaker is intoxicated by Circe’s presence. This suggests that the reader can find strength and power in Circe and rightly rebel against the vile actions of men that contribute to sexist oppression.
Judith McDaniel’s literary versatility allowed her to spread the ideals of the Feminist Movement through a variety of forms. Her essays found their way to nearly every feminist periodical of the time, either directly or through quotations in other authors’ pieces. Though short lived, McDaniel’s poetry aligned with the sentiment of the time and advocated for women’s empowerment.