by Cynthia Ann Schemmer
This past April I drove to Amesville, Ohio to stay at SuBAMUH (Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home) to conduct oral history interviews with three permanent residents. SuBAMUH is a women’s intentional community located in rural farmland just twelve miles outside of Athens. Established in 1979, the land serves as a home, safe and sober space, campground, and educational center for women. Currently, there are only five permanent residents on the land, but a constant flow of women-identified campers pass through every year. Men over the age of 10 are not permitted on the land.
I have recently become interested in how we, as women, react to the destructive situations we find ourselves in, whether they be physical or emotional, as feminists, lesbians, queers, or heterosexuals. These reactions may be outward or inner, private or in response to society as a whole, but they are completely acceptable in their own respects; we are not mad and we should not be convinced otherwise. We react how we must, in order to resist psychic or physical death and maybe, in fact, we are just not mad enough.
I attempt to explore these reactions in the first issue of an oral history zine I released this summer called Habits of Being, in which I combine interviews and personal writings that have a common theme threaded throughout. The idea is to blend the personal with the historical, to explore the past, and to compare our habits of being. This first issue contains the interviews conducted at SuBAMUH, including the one featured in this article, as well as my own nonfiction writing. The first interview I conducted was with Jan Griesinger, co-founder of SuBAMUH. Jan lives in the main farmhouse on the land, wallpapered in flyers, posters, and paraphernalia from the Dayton Women’s Liberation movement started in 1969. The farmhouse is surrounded by cherry blossoms and mourning doves, overlooking a meadow and pond where the only kind of swimming allowed is in the nude. We sat by her fire drinking SuBAMUH’s famous homemade Concord grape juice and eating cherry pie while her cat lay lazily in her lap, annoyed every time Jan got up to stoke the fire. Our interview, lasting only an hour because her voice became hoarse, is what follows and has been transcribed word for word.
The organization that I’m national co-director for, which is called Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, we always start our meetings and introductions by saying how old we are. We are very proud to be old, we don’t think old is a four letter word, so we always start out by saying, ‘I’m Jan Griesinger and I’m 67 years old’ and then we go around and found out how old everybody is. Born October 3rd 1942. My father’s family is from Ohio. My mother’s family is from Nebraska. My father was in World War II so we were living with my mother’s parents in Lincoln, Nebraska. So, that’s where I was born. Lived there during the war, then we went to the Chicago suburbs. My father had gone to school there, to law school, and was going to practice law there so we lived in the Chicago suburbs all of my growing up years. My father still lives there and my mother just died about a year and a half ago. My father is 94 years old. So one suburb for five years or so and then the other one from there on in and that’s where my parents had lived since the 1950s. So, I guess my early years I was raised by my mother and my grandmother, and she had a younger brother living at home so it was sort of an extended family. She and my father met at a young Republicans convention; however, she got very disillusioned with the Republicans about the time when John Kennedy came along and began to get more and more politically active in a sort of independent way and then a democratic way. She never was in any feminist group or movement, but she sort of absorbed the movement through me, which the group I started with was Dayton Women’s Liberation 40 years ago, and she tickled me sometime probably in the early 70s. She told me that she was at a meeting and she was the only woman there and they asked her if she would take notes and she said, ‘Oh, women’s liberation doesn’t allow us to take minutes,’ which tickled me (laughs) that she came up with that line. When I came out to her as a lesbian, by that time I was age 35 or so, she eventually got involved in PFFLAG (Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She became a strong ally with a lot of the national lesbian/gay church related work that I was doing. So, very much I felt, certainly as a child generally, but particularly as an adult, that she was very interested in what I was doing. In some ways, she kind of lived her career through me because she had never been able to have one.
In 1969 we started this group called Dayton’s Women’s Liberation, an independent feminist group, like most of the second-wave stuff. Not affiliated with any national movement. We start consciousness raising groups, speaking groups, and starting asking questions about reality and what we were told. That first meeting, there might have been eight of us, ten of us, I don’t remember exactly. It was in someone’s living room. We had many, many, many of our meetings in that same living room partly because the woman had smaller children so it was easier to come to her house. Everybody thought there were only movements in California or New York and I used to travel a lot in the early to mid-70s and I would say something and they would say, ‘There’s a women’s movement in Dayton, Ohio?!’ We started meeting weekly, we started before too long putting out a newsletter. We had an education group that developed a program to take to schools and churches and community organizations. We actually sponsored a march and rally against the Vietnam War. We went to the state house in Columbus, Ohio, in January 1970 on the abortion issue. There was a pro-choice legislator in Ohio at that time. We went on one of these days that were probably ten degrees or something very cold and nasty in January. The media did come, interviewed us. Their questions were these: ‘Are you wearing a bra? What does your husband think about you being here?’ Those were pretty much the kinds of questions we were asked. Never anything about abortion. Pretty disgusting. Oh, we spawned off various other groups. New consciousness raising groups. We met in women’s homes that followed pretty standard consciousness raising procedures, people sharing there story, putting the pieces together, realizing that, ‘Oh, I thought that just happened to me! Oh, oh, oh, oh…’ You know, the ‘ah-ha’ moments. Putting the pieces together and seeing there was a system that was making us crazy, making us dependent, making us not earn much income, making us feel foolish. The issues came up, of course: abortion, rape, employment, marriage, children, childcare, the bigger picture, racism…There’s an idea somehow that the second-wave was mostly white, which was mostly true, but therefore didn’t deal with racism, which was not true. It was always an item on our agenda. In fact, we did have close relationships with black activist groups in the city and individual black women, most of whom didn’t attend meetings, didn’t feel like it was the right choice at the right time. Their political energies went in another direction.
I got involved in the spring of 1970 with a national group called the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which was started out of Judson Memorial Church in the Village. They started, I believe in 1967, a group of clergy and rabbis who were willing to talk to women about abortion and then willing to give women information on where to get one. So I started the Dayton chapter of that group. I was at that time finishing seminary and graduated in June of 1970 and got ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ. The Dayton area campus ministry sort of put me on very part-time as a staff person to help organize this project. Women would call and get a machine, one of the very first machines, and a different clergy person was on call each week, make an appointment. They were all men except me and maybe one other woman. It was very different experiences for the clergy because they were having women really want to come and talk to them, and the women were blown away that these were clergy men giving them information on where to get an abortion. Part of it was that clergy were somewhat protected, it was confidential; they were not likely to be prosecuted for giving this information. The choices we had for women in June of 1970 were Mexico City, Montreal, and Rapid City South Dakota. Those were the places we could send women to get abortions. Then in July the New York law went into effect, it had been changed, so as of July 1st abortions were available in New York City.
I realized I was a lesbian through feminism. By that time our Dayton Liberation Group, I think we had an annual retreat once a year, we went to some camp and stayed over night or something, and one year, maybe 1973, 1974, somewhere in there, two of the women who came to that retreat, as we were sitting around the campfire one night, said that they were lesbians. They came out. I had been reading these publications called The Furies, which came out of Washington D.C. Kind of the first lesbian, feminist, somewhat separatist analysis from a lesbian point of view about a whole lot of things. So, I had been reading a lot of things but I didn’t really know anyone personally, so these women did come out and that was a good thing. 1976, by that time I’m 34 years old, I had made the decision to leave Dayton and come down here to Athens County to take a job. The man with whom I had been living with and had also been married to for four years somewhere in there, we were going separate ways anyway, and he moved to a different place. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I began to enact something was going on inside me. The problem was not leaving this guy at all. The problem was leaving this woman friend I had been in this women’s movement with whom I had known since 1968. It was her I didn’t want to leave when I moved. Went to California to visit one of our friends who had moved out there and was living in a lesbian household and some kind of women’s music came on…I don’t know, I can’t even quite recall, but my friend and I were sitting there and I was listening to this music. Something about that music, I was able to say, ‘It’s Mary. That’s who I want in my life. Oh my God.’
Mary invented the name SuBAMUH. She’s the creative one, the good story teller and the one with the memory. She had moved to Athens County and we decided to start looking for land. She had said several times she wanted to play farm. She had grown up in a pretty rural area and really wanted to do the country thing, so we started looking for land. That went on for a year or two and eventually this land went up for auction. It was a silent bid auction. She did all the research at the court house, what property was selling for and what would be a good bid, so we put in a bid. Low and behold, our bid of $44,000 was the highest bid. The goal was to not have it way higher than anyone else, and in fact, someone else in this area had bid $42,000 for it. So then we had this property and there was a sense, certainly out of our feminist history, that we did not intend it to just be for us. We wanted it to be for women, somehow. So we put together an advisory committee. The Unrest Circle was the advisory committee’s name. ‘Okay, there’s this land, what are we gonna do with it?’ So we put together ideas how the land could be used. Some people felt having a campground would be good, some people felt having workshops and programs would be good. It was purchased in the year of ‘79 and it was probably ‘82 that we had our first programs here. At that time there were women’s peace walks all over the country. We had a group here that hosted the plan that we walk from Athens to Columbus, which is about 75 miles. At that time, I mean, Athens is what we call a company town. The company is Ohio University. That’s where people have their social networks, so there was a campus based lesbian and gay based group, but not much community stuff. So this place became a base for community activities. We helped start a women’s coffee house, a women’s center, a women’s bookstore, which was true of many communities in the 1980s, almost all of which are gone now. So, we would have a 4th of July picnic or swimming and eventually we began to sponsor programs and put together the campground. A group from Columbus in 1984, a group in recovery, lesbians, would stay all of Memorial and all of Labor Day, in a safe space where no drugs or alcohol are available. It was not easy for women to throw off everything in their lives to come and live here, so they would visit, but we didn’t attract residents until the early ‘90s. We have three purposes: intentional community, feminist education, and rest and recreation. That later one served more women ever than the intentional community itself. What we got was a lot of letters, and when we eventually started a newsletter, a lot of support from women who wanted to live on one but couldn’t, had never intended to live on one and didn’t want to, but just wanted to know there was such a thing. ▢
For more information or to purchase a copy of Habits of Being, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Ann Schemmer is a writer and native New Yorker living in Brooklyn who is currently working on her MFA thesis in creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a member of the feminist collective For The Birds and has recently released the first issue of an oral history/creative nonfiction zine called Habits of Being. She has been published in Feminist Review, Drawn and Quarterly, For The Birds Blog and currently works on staff as a nonfiction reader for the Sarah Lawrence literary journal Lumina.