Tales From The Archives: Or, Past Life Shockers

August 8, 2010, 5:09 pm

On Friday, I was happily pawing through an unprocessed collection at a famous nearby archive, when I came upon one of the little treasures that illustrate the hot-house crypto-lesbo atmosphere of radical feminism in the 1970s: the mash note.

This figure (who will remain nameless for reason that become obvious below if they are not already) had drafted a letter to the object of her affections. The letter may, or may not, have ever been sent, and was redrafted at least once. It detailed the progress of the crush over time and lingered over explicit descriptions of the feelings that the crusher excited in the crushee. Most importantly, it used the effort to unveil that-which-had-never-been- spoken as a form of seduction. A particularly fine touch was the admission on the part of the author that what had tipped the scales into full-blown lust was the Object of Affection’s ravishing butch haircut. Not only does this speak to the whole question of sex roles, which was one crucial focus for radical feminist critique, but the particular style chosen by the crusher caused her, in the eyes of the crushee, to look remarkably like the popular New Age guru with which they were both spiritually involved.
Having worked in numerous collections, needless to say, I have found more than one of these documents, and I don’t know what to do with them. There is the Famous Feminist who claimed not to be sexually involved with women for years — until she left her husband and was involved with women, as if this had never been an issue. But the archive also reveals (drum roll) that from about 1970 on, she got tossed at nearly every conference. Long, admiring letters and bashful cards tucked here and there into the archive detail the intensity of these encounters for the little nobody who provided the service. The absence of a response from the Famous Feminist makes it equally clear that she had been less permanently moved by the encounter (one winsome note from a one-night stand confides that a plant had been purchased and named after the Famous Feminist, a totem on which affection could be lavished until a unnamed, and entirely unanticipated, date of return.)
Finding these documents is like being at a really cool Easter egg hunt planned for feminist historians.
But they do present a problem: what to do with past life shockers? Would anyone be shocked by them really? What, if anything, do they contribute the history of radical feminism I am working on? Do they amplify the atmosphere for my reader that will better evoke the period? Do I risk losing the trust of second-wave feminists now collaborating with me if I seem to have bad judgment? (I’m thinking the answer to this is yes.) Should you publish any document about a person of interest that you wouldn’t want published about yourself? And yet, why did these women leave these love notes in their papers if they didn’t want me to know?

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