As I tried to capture the flavor of the feminist art scene of Kansas City in the 1970s, my research brought me a batch of newsletters in the Chris Almvig Collection at the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, housed at the LaBudde Department of Special Collections at The University of Misosuri – Kansas City. These publications chronicled the Kansas City chapter of the Women’s Liberation Union, which fired up around 1970 as one of the first local feminists collectives. It took its name from the first such publication, Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, spearheaded by Jo Freeman in Chicago, IL, sparked into being by the patriarchal condescension and dismissal of the women’s caucus at the 1967 National Conference of New Politics.
This was a time when a woman could be fired from a job for being pregnant. She couldn’t apply for a credit card on her own. Sexual harassment in the workplace wasn’t considered a thing and if you were single, practicing birth control was illegal. As larger organizations took on these broader legal battles, the smaller, grassroots Liberation Unions spoke to the consciousness-raising efforts of the early-to-mid 1970s, declaring that “the personal is political,” and “Sisterhood is powerful.” However, rather than digging deeper into the history, tempting as that is, the following is a delightful tangent — a showcase of the art of the newsletters themselves.
Browsing through the collection, I was quickly struck by the line drawings peppered in between practical guides, poetry, political calls to action, and personal revelations. They were simple, clean, rendered yellow with age, yes, but striking and always expressive. The first newsletter in the collection is an early one, with later covers taking on a more designed quality.
Many of the drawings were left unattributed, but the primary contributors of these drawings are believed to be by members of the collective, Patt Gateley and Julie King.
By 1974, full illustrations were incorporated into the covers. As the movement hit its stride in the middle of the decade, the publication benefited from a more organized feel, but hand drawings still graced many of its pages. Each issue became centered around an organizing theme that yet included diverse content. One could browse both personal and political essays, learn about an all woman music production company, read poetry, or clip a coupon to receive $50 off your purchase of a car from the first female salesperson at the Chevrolet dealership in town.
We end on my personal favorite, which is the result of the paper’s transparency, the layered placement drawings on back-to-back pages, and serendipity. A slightly haunting collaged effect is created by the watermark-like effect of the text on the next page, while the tail end of a butterfly’s wing takes on the appearance of a faint tear on the woman’s face. That this effect was presumably unintentional somehow gives it an added layer of poignancy, as it captures a sense of both beauty and pain, of simplicity and simultaneously complex subtlety.
More drawings will be featured in future posts. Until then, if you’d like a bit more on the history of feminist movement of the time, here’s a clip of archival footage (which at times, proves that media bias is nothing new).
And if love your history, here’s a full-length BBC documentary:
That’s your slice of art pie for today. Until we nosh again,
– Rachelle Gardner-Roe