Introduction and Interview
Introduction by Stephen Vider
Cathy Cade’s photographs are intimately linked to her politics. Born in 1942, and raised in the Midwest and the South, Cade went to Carleton College in Minnesota, but spent a semester on an exchange program at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta. It was at Spelman that she first became involved with the civil rights movement—a commitment she would maintain through graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Cade did not take up photography until the early 1970s when she moved to San Francisco. With the support and inspiration of other feminist artists, including JEB, Paula Wallace, and Donna Gottschalk, Cade began to take photographs of the growing lesbian community -- these were artists, workers, mothers, and families. She also photographed women’s labor organizing, women in sports, and early gay and lesbian pride parades.
The above photograph, from Cade’s first years in the Bay Area, titled “Emerson Street Household,” depicts Cade alongside her lover Kate, Kate’s son Guthrie, and their friend Pat, in the apartment they shared in Berkeley, California. It is featured in an exhibit, “On the Domestic Front: Scenes of Everyday Queer Life,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, August 14 to October 25, 2015.
As Cade recalled, it was one of the few times in her career she set up a photograph. The image purposefully challenged what a family could be, at the same time it presented women as workers, posing the four household members alongside objects of their labor: Kate’s auto tools; Pat’s clay pots and nude statues; photographs by Pat and Cade; a knit sock; as well as Guthrie’s toy fire truck and Legos. In the background, Cade hung a quilt her grandmother had made. As Cade explained, “That was kind of an acknowledgement of the art and the crafts in our past.”
On June 25, 2015, I spoke with Cade, now 73, by phone, to find out more about how she came to take the photograph, and about her life and work in the early 70s. This is a condensed version of our conversation.
Where were you in 1973 when you took the photograph of Emerson Street Household?
I was living in Berkeley. I had moved there about a year earlier and was living in a different place, kind of renting a room, and then I became lovers with Kate, who is the woman sitting on the floor with her son Guthrie. That's when we were together a little while. The other woman—I'm standing in the background and Pat is the other woman who is sitting. She and I had been part of a household in San Francisco two years before that. This was a group of about five women who were in the women’s liberation movement, and as we lived together some of us were coming out as lesbians and a few of us weren’t. But Pat and I also were in a lesbian photography group together. We also did other kinds of art besides photography, namely knitting, and embroidery and some of those womanly crafts that we brought from the past.
Guthrie was Kate’s son by a former marriage. His father was around, and was helping to raise him and so Guthrie would be gone some days and then with us most days. And as we lived together I became a part of a lesbian mothering group. That was a real important thing that was happening for me, and for us, our community—lesbian moms and their allies forming support groups together.
What was the apartment like?
This was an apartment that was on a busy street, above a restaurant, and it had one bedroom, a living room, a dining room, and a closed-in porch. We kind of divided it up so everybody had their own space and we had a group space. The landlord was a progressive guy. When we were looking at it, and wanting to move in, you know, we were going, oh my god, is anybody going to rent to us? And this guy was thrilled to rent to us. He took this room—I think it was a laundry room, it was very small—and he made it into a dark room for us. He just did that! It was amazing.
How did you pay the rent?
I worked part-time driving a delivery truck for somewhat alternative magazines and newspapers. And then, I think probably at that point I still had some money that my grandfather had given me. Of course, rent wasn’t that expensive back then.
How did you set up the photograph?
It was arranged very consciously. This was in some ways an aberration because I was against portraits in general. We took about a dozen versions of this photo. I was holding a chord to click. In the days of film we couldn’t tell how it was going, and I’d never done a set up like this before—and never since.
We wanted to present ourselves as women to be taken seriously, who had skills, and who were workers, and this was showing some of our work. We had grown up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and women were supposed to be passive, not active. They weren’t supposed to develop a lot of skills—they weren't to be taken seriously. We were on the brink of changing this, and standing up to this, and this photograph in part reflects that. Kate was one of the early women auto-mechanics and I photographed her and other women in the trade a lot.
Kate and I were both from upper middle class backgrounds and Pat was from a working class background in Detroit, and our politics were very much pro-working class. You can see we have these overalls and that was part of our connection with the working class. I had been in the Southern Freedom Movement, and overalls were also a part of the uniform of SNCC [the Southern Non-violent Coordinating Committee] and some parts of the civil rights movement. If you look, at the pictures hanging on the left side, the second one says "Wages for Housework,” which was a radical idea in the 70s, maybe still is, and was part of my work with a coalition of union women called Union WAGE [Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality]. I did a lot of photography for them and their newspapers.
How did you come to photography?
I got the idea to be a documentary photographer from being in the civil rights movement and seeing how effective the photographs taken were. But when I was there in the 60s, I didn’t think I could become a photographer because I was a woman. I didn't think women could learn those skills. The other problem I had was that although at an early age I would have liked to be an artist, I got the message from my artist uncle actually—and just in general–I got the message, only a few people are born to the be artists and please don’t embarrass yourself by thinking you could be one of them.
Toward the end of the 60s, several SNCC women started learning photography, for example, Maria Varella, but I still didn’t think I could do it. It was when I moved to San Francisco in 1970 and was part of the women’s movement out here, and I was around all the women in the trades, learning carpentry and electrical work, that I started thinking, well, maybe I probably could do this.
The other problem that kind of got in my way was the term “artist” seemed to me a kind of elitist term. But then, Holly Near and others came along and used the term “cultural workers,” and having that term just kind of opened it up for me.
These pictures that are on the wall, they were part of one of my first exhibits, which was a group exhibit at Glide Memorial Church—which was where we had all our women’s liberation meetings. This was a time when women’s liberation and lesbian feminism was together. We would meet every Friday night. And it was there that we set up smaller support groups and talked about demonstrations.
What was that moment like for you?
Coming out at this time, with all this support from other women, and for our politics, it was a very positive thing for me. For some women, I know it wasn’t. But for me—you know, we would go to what was called a women's dance, and then we'd go the next week and there would d be five more people who had come out. Women were coming out all over the place. It wasn't this unusual thing. It was what was happening. And we had each other to do it with. In that picture, that’s sitting on the floor, there’s an old lesbian holding that sign, "Sisterhood Feels Good," and she was carrying it at the 1972 Christopher Street West demonstration in LA. To see an old lesbian, out and demonstrating, and standing up for feminism was a big deal for me.
Did you have any interaction with gay men at the time?
Somewhat. There were gay men who volunteered to do childcare at our events. It was their idea to do this. I was never a separatist, partly because I'd been in the civil rights movement, and I'd been so close to men, especially black men in that movement that I couldn't just go that separatist route at all. But I knew I needed to take some time off from being in these interactions, that set me up to act in ways I didn't want to act. To defer, to not be as strong as I wanted to be and not act equal.
How did you do the parenting?
Kate was in charge, but we helped—and I was very into kids, and because I was lovers with Kate, I wanted to give energy to her and to Guthrie. My official role in Guthrie’s life was always a little vague because Kate’s ex-lover was recognized as his other mother and I didn’t want to disrespect her role
Did you talk about what it meant to raise a boy?
Oh yeah. In our lesbian mothers’ group, probably more than half of us had boys, and then I ended up having two boys. So it was a big issue. And you know, in the early 70s, the separatists didn't want us to bring our young male children to the music festivals and to some other events.
How did you understand it for yourself?
That I and other lesbian mothers had the power to raise sons who would respect women and treat them as equals, that men didn't have to be oppressive.
How long did the household stay the three of you and Guthrie?
We were together about two years, and then at one point, Pat moved out. I think after a while, she wasn’t getting as much support as she wanted, enough closeness, I'm not sure—but she decided she wanted to live with some other people, so somebody else moved in. And just at that time, Kate become lovers with another woman, who had kids, and they all moved next door, in the other house of the landlord.
Then I decided that I wanted to have a child, by donor insemination. I labored at home in 1979 with a whole lot of friends surrounding me, a lot of those neighboring lesbians. But then I ended up needing to go to the hospital, and some of them came with me to the hospital, and I got a c-section.
It was a man from that childcare group that I asked to find me an anonymous donor so I could get pregnant. He brought me the sperm of a gay man for many months. I had a son and he’s gay and I named him after the gay activist Carl Wittman. I’d known Carl in the civil rights movement in New Orleans, he participated in a different children’s play group we Women’s Liberation women organized for our kids in 1972, and I visited him once or twice in Oregon where he lived near lesbian friends of mine.
I’m curious, do you still like the photograph of Emerson Household?
Yes I do. And I used it recently in an exhibit—up at the Oakland museum, and it's going to be there for quite a while. They have a series of dioramas on the 60s and 70s, and I put one together that shows my connection between being in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, and then being in the women's movement, and coming out as a lesbian, and being able to be a photographer. And that photograph is part of that story.
Where do you live now?
Now my home is at Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley, senior housing founded in 1962 by socialists and communists which still has a strong Tenants’ Association. There are about 30 LGBT tenants. Four are officers in the T.A. and we just had a wondrous event here with stories from LGBT tenants and their offspring talking of our families and our history. I have more gay men friends than I’ve ever had and more straight men friends too. I think my primary identities have shifted from “lesbian feminist and photographer” to “old and artist.” “Home,” “community,” and “activism” are still intermingled.