Rita Mae Brown, Songs to a Handsome Woman

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Rita Mae Brown, Songs to a Handsome Woman.

Baltimore, MD: Diana Press, 1973.

First edition. Paperback, 40 pp. Illustrations by Ginger Legato. Dark blue pictorial wraps, title and peacock illustration printed in silver on cover, faint mark on bottom cover and old price sticker, otherwise in very good condition.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Carol Seajay, owner of the Old Wives’ Tales bookshop in San Francisco (1976-1995) gives a good sense of the importance of this little volume of poetry in an interview with Kristen Hogan in The Feminist Bookstore Movement. Seajay describes how she had ridden on her motorcycle from Kalamazoo to attend the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973, organized by a group of lesbians including Jeanne Córdova, founder and editor of The Lesbian Tide. While there Seajay purchased a few books by the feminist Diana Press, including Songs to a Handsome Woman, one  of its inaugural publications:

"I brought those books back and said to friends of mine, “These are the lesbian books with good endings. These are going to change our lives.” And they all looked at me, like, “Yeah, yeah, Carol. All about books, Carol, again. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No these are going to change our lives. No, you have to read this. Songs to a Handsome Woman, you have to read these!” They did read them. And it changed some of their lives and not some of them. But I do think that there being lesbian books changed even the lives of the women who didn’t read. Because it changed the lives around them."

In other words, enjoyment of the positive portrayal of lesbians can be just as political as protest, changing the lives and loves of one reader at a time, and in so doing, influence the way even non-readers were and are treated by their lovers and friends.

The author Rita Mae Brown had published her most famous work, Rubyfruit Jungle, the same year as these poems. Brown was by that time known as a hardened activist: raised in York, Pennsylvania in a highly conservative household by her aunt and uncle, she had been expelled from the segregated University of Florida for her anti-racist activism, and hitchhiked to New York City where she was occasionally homeless while pursuing a degree at New York University. She was a member both of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). However, in 1969 NOW’s president Betty Friedan tried to purge the movement of lesbians, who she referred to as a “lavender menace” and a distraction from the group’s political aims. Brown and resigned from her position in anger and she didn’t go quietly. At the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970, Brown appeared with a group of others while wearing screen-printed t-shirts reading LAVENDER MENACE, bearing signs claiming “WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS A LESBIAN PLOT,” and circulating their own manifesto: “The Woman-Identified Woman.” It was a protest with a sense of humour: Brown wore several layers of t-shirts and kept removing them to give to sympathetic audience members. But whereas that “Women-Identified Woman” manifesto holds up today, depicting lesbianism as an act of political resistance, Songs to a Handsome Woman provides offers yet another angle of approach to Brown’s life and times—an added sense of fun, happiness, and romance. These poems offer a tender and intimate portrait of a major activist within the women’s liberation movement, where the personal was well known to be political, but at the same time, the political could be satisfying in its personal nature.

FURTHER READING

Kristen Hogan, The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016).

Brooke S. Palmieri, “Impermanent Dwellings: Bookstores and Feminist Approaches to History,” JHI Blog, 24 October 2016, https://jhiblog.org/2016/10/24/impermanent-dwellings-bookstores-and-feminist-approaches-to-history/

Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, Duke University. https://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/wlmpc_wlmms01011/ 

Christan Williams, “Repeating the cycle at MichFest: The clash of two feminisms,” The TransAdvocate, April 12, 2015. https://www.transadvocate.com/repeating-the-cycle-at-michfest-the-clash-of-two-feminisms_n_15109.htm

Brooke Palmieri