Sinister Wisdom: Promoting a Lesbian Feminist Culture
By Amelia Parsons
Sinister Wisdom came from the imaginations of Catherine Nicholson and her partner, Harriet Desmoines, two lesbians residing in North Carolina. The first six issues were published out of North Carolina between 1976 and 1978 after which the original editors moved to Nebraska. In 1981 the periodical was sold and moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. Sinister Wisdom is still in print and being published in California. The view Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines had of lesbians and a “lesbian sensibility,” along with an acute sense of isolation, led them to create and publish the periodical in order to spread their own view of the “lesbian consciousness.”
A Background of Lesbian Feminism Publishing
In 1975, an estimated fifty lesbian publications were in print. Contributors to the lesbian publications The Ladder and The Furies believed that lesbianism was a culture and state of mind: “Becoming a lesbian was not a matter of sexual orientation but a political choice every thinking woman had to make if she homed to end male supremacy.” Sinister Wisdom would later echo this sentiment in its own statement-of-purpose.
The CLIT papers were inspirational documents for many wishing to develop a lesbian consciousness, including the founders of Sinister Wisdom: “We believed with the CLIT papers that consciousness is a women’s greatest strength.” The CLIT (Collective Lesbian International Terrors) papers, published in Dyke, were composed by radical lesbians who “attacked the establishment on every front.” The radical lesbian feminism that the CLIT papers promoted attacked the patriarchy and female objectification and influenced many other lesbian feminist writers.
Fiction became a staple in promoting lesbian communication. Sinister Wisdom is comprised mostly of poetry and short stories that contributors wrote in order to more effectively promote their views and ideals. Black and Latina, or other “third world” contributors, also found fiction to be an effective means for conveying their struggles and differences, although their writings were less common in periodicals run by white women.
The amount of lesbian writing spoke to the culture lesbians attempted to create for themselves outside of gay male culture. Sinister Wisdom is just one publication, but as it is the longest running lesbian periodical and remains in print today, it is a good example of lesbian writings and ideals. The culture Sinister Wisdomattempts to cultivate emerges within the first volume (first three issues published from 1976-1977), highlighting the specific message Nicholson and Desmoines wished to propagate.
Setting the Foundations
The origins of Sinister Wisdom stem from the belief that the disbanded publication Amazon Quarterly needed a predecessor. Catherine Nicholson and her partner Harriet Desmoines felt alone living in Charlotte, North Carolina and took on the project of putting out a magazine in order to reach out to other like-minded lesbians and women: “We were ready to experience the power of presence to each other – that is, to other women who had made and were making the same choice. But how to do it? how to cultivate that power of presence to each other when we were in Charlotte, North Carolina, truly isolated.” The need to reach out to others and create a community centered on a common cultural belief drove Nicholson and Desmoines to produce the magazine.
Nicholson taught plays at a university who was fired for her radical feminist beliefs, while Desmoines was an activist in the civil rights and feminist movements while playing the roll of wife and mother. Influenced by earlier lesbian feminist publications, Nicholson and Desmoines decided they wanted to cultivate their own feminist “lesbian sensibility” through writing.
For Nicholson and Desmoines, a lesbian sensibility was based on lesbian separatism. Lesbian separatism grew out of the belief that both homosexual and women’s liberation movements were not achieving lesbian objectives. Through lesbian separatism, women attempted to create a feminist lesbian culture void of male influence and control. Lesbian separatism impacted the way Sinister Wisdom was composed and how the women viewed their definition of a lesbian sensibility.
The cover page of Sinister Wisdom issue one reflects the independent spirit of feminist lesbian separatism: the editors promise to publish the magazine themselves for the first volume so they maintain complete control over their message. The women promoted whatever view of lesbianism and feminism they wanted because they controlled every word printed.
The first issue of volume one states the purpose and objectives the editors Sinister Wisdom wish to promote. Statements from the Nicholson and Desmoines delineate the consciousness they sought to form and that the contributions to the magazine also promoted their fledgling culture.
In “Notes for a Magazine II,” Desmoines explains the title of Sinister Wisdom. “Sinister,” meaning left, is interpreted as revolution. The whole title together promotes their wish to destroy established society: “Sinister Wisdom turns these patriarchal values upside down as a necessary prelude to creating our own.”
The first issue also attempts to explain what constitutes a lesbian consciousness: “Consciousness, its spectrum, and its process, cuts across even the divisions of time and identity.” The sensibility comes from women interacting with and working for other women, creating a “lesbian imagination.” A lesbian consciousness, for the editors, was a way of identifying with and connecting to other women through all-female feminist channels. They claimed themselves to be the “lesbian or lunatic who embraces her boundary/criminal status, with the aim of creating a new species in a new time/space.” The focus on an all female radical community defines Sinister Wisdom’s message as feminist lesbian separatism.
Nicholson and Desmoines also believe that the consciousness is best promoted through writing because women reading, whether privately or with a group, are not affected by the reactions of others: “A magazine is not a poetry reading; it’s a public document, not a public event.”
Nicholson and Desmoines also attempt to transgress class and racial barriers with their sensibility. They write that Sinister Wisdom is not classist because well-written work can come from any social status, citing Blues singers as an example. Desmoines also noted the dearth of “third world” contributors to most lesbian magazines and requested that black and other minority women submit works for publication.
The contributions of some North Carolina residents help promote their more diverse view of lesbianism. “Go tell Aunt Rhody” by Desmoines denounces the patriarchy and its control of women. Another contributor named Jan Millsapps self-identified as a heterosexual woman, but her feminist beliefs aligned with the lesbian imagination Sinister Wisdom sought to foster so she submitted poetry. The publication of a heterosexual viewpoint within a radical lesbian separatist periodical showed Sinister Wisdom’s commitment to diversifying views and demonstrating that all women can have lesbian ideals.
Continuing the Consciousness
The third issue of Sinister Wisdom continues to create the lesbian consciousness that Nicholson and Desmoines began in the first publication. Beth Hodges, the editor of Sinister Wisdom’s second issue, submitted a personal letter she wrote to her friend Frances, in which she claims that men have harmed women in keeping them from truly knowing each other. Concerns about dismantling the patriarchy are expressed in this letter and other contributions to the issue.
The definition of a lesbian reappears, indicating the perpetuation of defining a lesbian consciousness and culture. Nicholson and Desmoines post a questionnaire, stating that responses appear in the issue but they wish for readers to respond and submit their own answers. Questions ask about personal definitions of “lesbian” and “feminism,” and interpretations of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” a piece that appeared in the first issue.
Published response letters from subscribers shoe some community response to the periodical. Although most of them consist of praise, Joanna Russ is critical of the militant tone Desmoines and Nicholson take on lesbian publishing. She stated that the militarism “makes her nervous” and is reminiscent of desperation. Russ admires the rest of the work produced in Sinister Wisdom, but she is wary of the politics appearing around lesbian publishing, not all viewpoints can be aligned and not all lesbians like the way Desmoines and Nicholson construct their feminism.
Ethics in Lesbian Publishing
The entire second issue of Sinister Wisdom focuses on the nature and ethics of lesbian publishing and its stance within the greater world of publishing. Many concerns appear within the issue regarding how to maintain a lesbian ethic while dealing with a business.
Jan Clausen writes “The Politics of Publishing and the Lesbian Community” which is based off the responses she received to a questionnaire. She encounters difficulty defining a “lesbian community” because of the diverse individual experiences of women. Some of her responders continue to point out that lesbians publishing with companies other than lesbian publishers display and unfavorable act of opportunism. The controversy over sustaining a magazine financially and remaining loyal to the lesbian separatist ideology appears in this analysis of lesbian publications. Writing for lesbian feminists was an inherently political act, whether they wrote fiction or otherwise. Lesbian writers and readers were sensitive to remaining loyal to lesbian commerce.
Sinister Wisdom was born from the minds of two women living in North Carolina who wanted to reach out to other like-minded lesbian feminists. It is steeped in a long history of lesbian feminist writings and ideals, echoing and building upon the CLIT papers, The Ladder, and other lesbian publications. Controversies over fidelity to lesbian publishing and lesbian politics arose in the early issues, but Nicholson and Desmoines continued with their endeavor. The magazine promoted a feminist lesbian consciousness that was guided through words from Desmoines and Nicholson, along with the contributions they chose to include in each issue, shaping the culture and community the women wished to create.
- Catherine Nicholson (editor) Personal letter, Duke University Archives. Date unknown.
- Catherine Nicholson (editor) Personal letter discussing sale of Sinister Wisdom, Duke University Archives. Date unknown.
- Marianne Lieberman, "Cover Photo" Sinister Wisdom (1976).
- Rodger Streitmatter, Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995).
- Harriet Desmoines, “Harriet,” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 1 (1976).
- Nicholson, Catherine (editor) Photocopy of a contribution to Sinister Wisdom. Duke University Archives. Date Unknown.
- Written draft of a speech (3) Duke University Archives. [sic]
- Harriet Desmoines, “Notes for a Magazine II,” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 1 (1976)
- Harriet Desmoines, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 1 (1976): 69-70.
- Jan Millsapps, “Jan,” Sinister Wisdom (1976): 46.
- Tee Corinne, "Cover Photo" Sinister Wisdom (1977).
- Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines, “What is a Lesbian?” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 3 (1977): 10.
- Joanna Russ, “and Kvetch,” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 3 (1977): 54-55.
- Marianne Lieberman, "Cover Photo" Sinister Wisdom (1977).
- Jan Clausen, “The Politics of Publishing and the Lesbian Community,” Sinister Wisdom 1, no. 2 (1977).