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A Lesbian Archivist Discovers A Hidden Literary Treasure in Southern Oregon Interview with Linda Long by Carolyn Gage Linda Long is the Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene. When she moved from Stanford in 1996 to take the job, little did she realize that was sitting on a mother lode of lesbian culture, tucked quietly away in the stacks of unprocessed collections and buried deep in the hills of Southern Oregon. Gage: What was your first clue about the treasure? Long: Well, it was part of my new duties to familiarize myself with the collection. During one of my walks through the stacks, I came across thirty storage boxes marked “Jean and Ruth Mountaingrove.”
Intrigued by the last name, I opened one of the boxes. What I saw was title after title of lesbian and feminist periodicals. Some, I recognized, but others, I had never heard of— Lesbian Tide, Leaping Lesbian, Feminist Bookstore News, Amazon, Lesbian Connection, Lesbian Insider Insighter Inciter, and so on. I took another box down and found more of the same. Suddenly I realized what we had here— a whole grouping of scarce—and possibly some rare—periodicals that had been gathered together but not organized for research use. At that moment I had what we archivists and manuscripts librarians sometimes call that “tingly feeling” when we realize we found something special in our collections. Gage: Do you think that an archivist who was not lesbian would have felt as “tingly?” The reason why I ask is that, as a lesbian playwright who often works with historical figures, I frequently uncover details overlooked or trivialized by heterosexual cultural workers for whom these details have no context or relevance. Long: Yes, I agree. It’s true that as a lesbian archivist I had context for this collection of periodicals. I also had a feeling of urgency to get these materials available to scholars, and to specifically use the word “lesbian” in the title so that a search of that word in the online catalog would bring up the description of the collection. The “lesbian” collections that I had discovered in our stacks were in a sense closeted themselves, and I felt I was on a mission to out them and get these valuable records available to scholars. I wanted to make them as accessible as possible. Gage: What was your next step on the treasure hunt? Long: I found Ruth listed in our donor files, and I called her up. It was during our conversations I discovered that Southern Oregon is home to many lesbian intentional communities, or “communes.” Some of these are collectives, and some are privately owned. Ruth and her former partner, Jean, had published a journal entitled WomanSpirit Magazine while they lived in a gay commune in Southern Oregon and later while living in their own lesbian land nearby. The periodicals I saw boxed up in the stacks were exchange copies from other publishers.
Gage: What was WomanSpirit? Long: It was the first feminist/lesbian periodical solely dedicated to the topic of feminism and spirituality, and it struck a chord with thousands of women across the country. The publication of WomanSpirit dovetailed nicely with the rise of the alternative feminist press network that flourished during the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, so WomanSpirit was able to reach a large audience of women. Gage: Goddess imagery and women’s spirituality are practically mainstream now. It’s easy to forget that the roots of the movement were taboo and counter-cultural, inextricably linked to lesbian-feminism with its agenda of liberation. One of the things that struck me as most radical about WomanSpirit was how class-homogenous it was in terms of the contributors. Working-class and academic authors were published side-byside, voices unedited, because the magazine had a commitment to egalitarianism. Long: A colleague and I drove down to Arcata where Ruth is now living, and we spent a day and a half with her, talking about her experiences. As I began to get a fuller picture of the development of the lesbian land communities in Southern Oregon, it dawned on me that Jean and Ruth Mountaingrove were only a part—albeit a central part—of the story. The settlement of lesbian land communities in Southern Oregon was a component of the larger Back-to-the-Land movement of the late 1960s and 1970s when many individuals wanted to escape urban life to return to a simpler life on the land, establishing communes and collectives throughout the United States. I started to realize that there was a rich history in these lesbian communities—and if there was a history, there had to be documents that reflect that history. Gage: And where did Tee Corinne fit into this? Long: Ruth had mentioned that Tee Corinne lived in Oregon. Again, I had that same “tingly’ feeling of recognition. As a photographer, visual artist and creative writer, Tee’s work was accessible in the
popular lesbian press, and I had seen her work for years. For example, she did the covers of most of the Naiad Press books for many years. Gage: And what happened after you contacted Tee? Long: Tee was immediately positive about my interest in documenting the history of the lesbian communities. Initially she sent copies of her commercially-published writings and her desktop-published writings so that we could catalog them and make them available at the University of Oregon. Tee had written many essays and creative works about the lesbian communities. Wild Lesbian Roses: Essays on Art, Rural Living, and Creativity, 1986-1995 comes to mind. As a photographer, artist, and writer, Tee was a remarkably creative person who was very aware of the historical significance of the lesbian land movement in Oregon. When she moved to Southern Oregon in the early 1980s she became a central figure in the community. Rural Oregon provided seclusion when Tee needed it so Tee could get her creative work done, but she could also be a part of a large, supportive lesbian community. The Southern Oregon Women Writers’ Group, Gourmet Eating Society and Chorus often met at Tee’s house. Gage: I had a “tingly” feeling when I discovered that Writers Group in 1989. I had just moved to the area, was newly “out,” and just beginning to write lesbian plays. The Writers Group had been in existence for fifteen years, meeting every three weeks in different women’s homes all over the valley. It was like discovering an ancient matriarchal tribe, or some cadre of literary rebels and freedom fighters. It changed my life and my writing forever. Long: Along with several other women, Tee was instrumental in creating “SO CLAP!” the Southern Oregon Country Lesbian Archival Project, a very successful effort to gather the original records that document the history of the lesbian communities in Oregon. Women also contributed to SO CLAP! their own essays or poetry that reflect their experience living in the lesbian communities. From her own research on lesbian photographers and artists, Tee was very much aware that the lives of lesbians and gays often go unnoticed in history
for the simple reason that documentation is often hard to find. If there are no records that document lesbian presence, that history is lost forever. I use a quote from Tee to describe my work to collect and preserve the records of the lesbian communities: “The lack of a publicly accessible history is a devastating form of oppression; lesbians face it constantly.” My goal is to collect and preserve the documents so that the history of the lesbian communities in Oregon can be made accessible to researchers, which will further scholarship in this area. Gage: We have talked about the possibility of Rootworks, the Mountaingroves’ women’s land and the birthplace of WomanSpirit, becoming registered as a national historical site. Long: Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s backto-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together—and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another—writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks. The buildings were all built by women; the “barn” in particular was a big community effort and that building became a central meeting place in the extensive lesbian community. At Rootworks, gardens were created and maintained; outbuildings were built to accommodate women travelers coming to Oregon. The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon. Gage: What is your dream for the future of this collection? Long: My dream is to have the resources to be able to process, describe, and catalog the collections we currently have so that they are accessible to scholars worldwide. Manuscript processing is a
time-consuming and expensive proposition, so we have to pick and choose which collections can be processed in any given year. We encode our “finding aids” (the guides to our manuscript collections) so that they are available on the Web, where most researchers nowadays will begin a search for collections. We participate in Northwest Digital Archives, a consortium of repositories like ours in the Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska) so that the finding aids to the collections are easily located. The catalog records for these collections are accessible on WorldCat, an international bibliographic database that provides collection-level information about our manuscript collections. From there, a link will take the user to the online finding aid. So, we are doing everything we can to make our collections findable and accessible to users. Most recently, we were fortunate to have acquired the estate of Tee Corinne, who died in 2006. As stated in Tee’s will, the proceeds from her estate will help us process the lesbian land collections and acquire more of these records from the lands or the personal papers of the individual women who live on the land. Carolyn Gage is a lesbian-feminist playwright, and the author of six books, including Nine Short Plays and The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays. Her play Ugly Ducklings is the subject of a documentary to prevent harassment and GBLT youth suicides (www.uglyducklings.org). Her catalog is online at www.carolyngage.com. ADDITIONAL RESOURCES University of Oregon Special Collections The lesbian collections at the Special Collections and University Archives at the University Oregon currently include several collections that are available for research at Special Collections Index. The Feminist and Lesbian Periodical Collection contains 482 lesbian and feminist periodical titles including 36 Oregon titles and 31 international titles. Approximately 80 percent of the entire collection contains titles published during the 1970s. Southern Oregon Country Lesbian Archival Project (SOCLAP!) The Southern Oregon Country Lesbian Archival Project (SOCLAP!)
was a non-profit corporation established in 1989 to collect and preserve primary source material documenting the history of the lesbian and feminist back-to-the-land movement in southern Oregon. The collection contains correspondence, creative writings, autobiographical writings, financial records, publications, photographs, graphic materials, and ephemera. The Ruth Mountaingrove Videotape Autobiography Collection Ruth Mountaingrove is a lesbian photographer, writer and artist who moved to Oregon in 1971, settling in communes and eventually cofounding Rootworks, a lesbian community in Southern Oregon. The collection consists of 21 VHS videotapes of Mountaingrove relating the story of her life by talking, dancing, and singing. The Tee A. Corinne Papers Tee A. Corinne (1943-2006) was a photographer, artist, writer, and lesbian activist. The collection includes correspondence, literary manuscripts, artwork, photographs, artifacts, and other documents that reflect Corinne’s life and work.