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Inside The HQ Of D.C.'s Short-Lived But Influential Lesbian Separatist Collective

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Members of the Furies Collective pack and distribute the newspaper at 219 11th Street SE in 1972. L to R: Ginny Berson, Susan Baker (not a Fury), Coletta Reid, Rita Mae Brown, Lee Schwing.
Courtesy of "JEB (Joan E. Biren)"
Members of the Furies Collective pack and distribute the newspaper at 219 11th Street SE in 1972. L to R: Ginny Berson, Susan Baker (not a Fury), Coletta Reid, Rita Mae Brown, Lee Schwing.

A Capitol Hill house that helped fuel the fire of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s could become a historic landmark.

Mark Meinke is co-founder of Rainbow Heritage Network, a coalition of more than 400 preservationists and gay-rights activists working to protect LGBTQ heritage sites. Now he’s heading an effort to grant historic-landmark status to 219 11th Street Southeast, which D.C. tour guide, historian and author Robert Pohl bought in 2003.

In the front hallway, Pohl has hung a black-and-white photograph of the group of lesbian feminist separatists that lived and worked at the house between 1971 and 1973: the Furies Collective.

“This is my wall of house history,” Pohl says, “including this picture right here, which is indeed The Furies in the basement of this house.”

Robert found out about the Furies Collective after he moved in to the house and Googled his address. He discovered that the Furies used the house as an operational center as they sought to destroy sexism and overthrow the patriarchy they felt ruled society.

And as the photo on the wall shows, they used the basement to publish their national tabloid newspaper, also called The Furies.

As one of the original Furies, Ginny Berson remembers those days well.

“When it came time to actually sit down and lay out the paper,” she recalls, “it was a very long and tedious process that I seem to remember going on all night for several nights, and of course we were younger and could stay up late!”

Ginny wrote the newspaper’s very first cover story. In it, she explained why The Furies named themselves after the Greek female spirits of justice and vengeance.

219 11th Street SE, where members of the Furies Collective lived and printed their newspaper, is being nominated for official landmark status. (Courtesy of Patsy Lynch)

“The Furies were basically done wrong by gods, who we translated as male supremacists, as patriarchs,” she says. “And they were the goddesses of vengeance. And though our vision was much broader than vengeance — I mean, we actually had a positive vision of a much friendlier, more equitable world — we were very angry.”

With the 1969 Stonewall riots so fresh in collective memory, the 1970s were a challenging time for gays and lesbians. But Ginny remembers Capitol Hill as one of the more gay-friendly areas of Washington. Hence The Furies’ decision to set up shop at 219 11th Street Southeast.

“In those early days, that was all we had: our homes, and the lesbian and gay bars,” Ginny recalls.

Capitol Hill had two lesbian bars, both on 8th Street SE. The oldest was JoAnna’s, which Ginny remembers as “very dark. It had a jukebox and a dance floor and tables. And I remember the floors being very sticky.”

A few doors down was Phase One, “which we called ‘The Phase,’” Ginny says. “And it’s interesting because there were gay male bars that were so much nicer than the lesbian bars. And the gay men didn’t really want us there. And so we would go there to annoy them. And also just because they had better lights and more space.”

But 219 11th Street was mission central for the Furies. As separatists, they created their own mini-society under its roof, sharing clothing and chores, even offering home- and auto-repair classes so women wouldn’t have to depend on men.

And for the Furies Collective, lesbianism was the ultimate expression of this non-reliance on males. As Ginny wrote in her first cover story: “Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy.”

“We were developing a lesbian feminist politic,” she says. “We were saying lesbianism is not just who you sleep with. It’s a political act. And a lot of women came out because of The Furies, and a lot of lesbians became feminists because of The Furies.”

First issue of The Furies newspaper, where the D.C.-based lesbian separatist collective lays out its commitment "to ending all oppressions by attacking their roots: male supremacy." Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of the Furies)

But above all, she says, a lot of dialogue began.

“At the time, women all over the country were reading The Furies, and having discussion groups about it, and letting it inform their own thinking,” she says.

The Furies newspaper lasted just eleven issues; the collective disbanded in 1973.

“I think of it as a star that burned really bright for a short period of time,” says lesbian-feminist history scholar Julie Enszer, who teaches at the University of Maryland.

But despite its short life, Julie says the Furies left a lasting legacy.

“Their ideas traveled,” she explains. “Their ideas about living in a separatist household. About putting their time and energy in to work that only benefited women. Those ideas took hold at this time in the United States when feminism was really growing and spreading.”

And the Furies’ message will live on in a very tangible way, if the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board makes 219 11th Street a local landmark. From there, it could join the National Register of Historic Places, where it would be the fifth LGBTQ site on the list — out of roughly 80,000 eligible ones.

“There are not a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender landmarks that are recognized,” Julie says. “Stonewall is one. But one of the amazing things about the Furies house is that it was a site of lesbian activism. And we’re at a time when we can see lesbians as a part of what the American story is.”

Not that lesbians haven’t always been a part of that story, she adds, “but the Furies house is really lesbians as a part of the American story who were angry about the status of women and wanted to change that. And that’s also a part of what our legacy is: people who might challenge the American narrative as it exists and rewrite it to include lives in different ways.”

The D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board is expected to hold a hearing on the house this December.

[Music: "Every Little Bit Hurts" by Title Tracks from It Was Easy / "Women" by Foreigner from Complete Greatest Hits]

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