Longtime friends Angela Romagnoli and Lynn Stern were two of the foremothers of the Radical Lesbian movement. I sat down with them last November to record their story. Angie had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She died July 5, 2017. Angie leaves her wife of 39 years, Megan Adams, and their son Reese Adams-Romagnoli.
All three of us—Angie, Lynn and I—were born in the year 1949 and we all started college in 1967. We were all the oldest sibling in our families. We were all involved in radical politics in college and came out as lesbians. I was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Their stories resonate with me even though U of M is far from the wheat fields of eastern Washington State. We were making the same revolution.
Angela and Lynn first met when Angie encountered Lynn sitting on her bed weeping with homesickness in their college dormitory. It was the fall of 1967 and both were 17. Lynn was very close to her family in Chicago, and especially her mother. It was the first time she had lived away from home. They were roommates the next year in another dorm and they became lovers in 1970. They broke up in in 1978, but their friendship has lasted ever since.
Both of these women—all three of us—came from liberal families and the historical moment radicalized us.
The oldest of six siblings, Angie grew up in a union household. Her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, when she was in high school. Dearborn was a white town, but they had lived in a mixed-race town before that. They watched as the city of Detroit fell apart, as jobs left the area and red lining took its toll on black citizens. Angie went to a progressive high school where she developed a class analysis.
Lynn was the oldest of three siblings. Her family were liberals and secular Jews.
In 1967 the U.S. government was escalating the war in Vietnam. The student anti-war movement gained steam. Lynn and Angie went to a bunch of meetings, looking around campus for a group to join.
“We saw who was just talking and who was doing. We didn’t want to hear guys just jacking off,” said Angie. “We picked SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) because they were doing sit-ins and actions, talking to classes.”
They went to marches, broke windows. “I was a baseball player and had a great arm,” said Angie. One time Angie’s mother picked up Lynn’s jacket and the pockets were full of rocks. “You would put your lead pipe in the pocket of your pea coat.”
They wore combat boots, overalls. “We could strut our stuff. No bras,” remembered Angie. “You needed boots in Ann Arbor.”
One night they broke into the ROTC building on campus, trashed it and didn’t get caught. But the SDS had been infiltrated by cops and many demonstrators did get arrested, including their friend Nais (a mutual friend who now lives in San Francisco), also a student there.
“One time a phalanx of police scattered our march, arresting people. I was pulling the cops off people’s backs, but they didn’t arrest me,” remembered Angie.
By 1970, the women in SDS were pissed off, questioning the leadership and meeting dynamics. Feminists like Gayle Rubin came to SDS to talk and the women listened.
Although their recollections of how it happened differ, best friends Lynn and Angie became lovers in 1970. “We were happy. It was great,” effused Lynn.
“We were fed up with SDS,” said Angie. “That summer they said read Mao’s Combat Liberalism. That Cultural Revolution shit was offensive to me. I’m from the working class. I said the revolution is not coming around the corner. I wasn’t under an illusion.”
“We were still living in an SDS house in the summer of 1970, but we knew about the Radical Lesbians in New York and Berkeley,” said Lynn. Two of the New York women visited them and suggested they start their own radical lesbian collective.
We were isolated. We called up the two other lesbians we knew in town and we put an ad in the Michigan Daily. We got a meeting room on campus. Altogether ten people showed up. Gayle Rubin held up a book at the end of the meeting and said everyone should read this. It was The Story of O. (they both laugh) “We didn’t get it, didn’t even question her.”
So they had an organization, Ann Arbor Radicalesbians. “We hopped right from SDS to radical lesbians with no feminist group in between. Two hundred different women came to those meetings. “Judy Dlugacz (who later founded Olivia Records and Olivia Travel), was one of the first. ‘I’m writing a paper on lesbians,’ she said. Then she came back with a little curly-headed girlfriend,” laughed Angie.
“We organized the first lesbian softball team in the women’s league,” said Angie. “Martial arts was an extension of feminism.”
“We made a publication called the Purple Star. I wrote an article called The Personal is Political,” said Angie. “That was before the butch-femme diatribe. Our roommate confronted me and Lynn and said you are nothing but a butch-femme couple. I got mad and wrote an article. Lesbians and especially separatists were talking out of two sides of their mouths. On the one hand they overvalued everything that was butch. On the other hand we don’t want have anything to do with butch-femme heterosexual norms.”
Lynn said, “I cried when they called me a femme. I didn’t want to be in a straight relationship. It also made me feel less powerful. (to Angie) You got to be more powerful. I couldn’t play sports. I always knew I was cute and smart but wasn’t very outspoken. I felt I wasn’t successful.”
Angie defines butch as someone who had a high male identification as a child. “I don’t think anyone has all of one ID. Butch is a complex psychological construct. I definitely felt that applied to me. I was a super tomboy. There are a few in every elementary school. I got in trouble about what clothes to wear. Mom gave me Betsy Wetsy doll. I gave it to my sister. My friend who was catholic said she had a dream the virgin came to me and we will get turned into boys. I thought great!”
Lynn teased, “I remember the skirt she wore when we were working as waitresses in the union.”
Angie: “I had to wear a skirt to work so I just wore the same one every day.”
Angie: “We (Radicalesbians) went to other places like Bowling Green and gave talks to 500 people.”
Lynn: “You really have power, influence. We just talked about feeling like ourselves. We told them about how it came about.”
Asked about coming out as a lesbian, Lynn said, “It took a lot to come out to my parents. I couldn’t figure out how to tell my family. We were estranged. My mom said we were laughing at her.”
Angie: “I was really uncomfortable. I came out to them about 1973. We were totally dedicated to coming out here, there and everywhere.” Angie’s mom was always supportive. She never wanted to be left out of anything. Her mom was only 21 when she was born. “She liked to talk to everyone.”
Angie and Lynn lived together for nearly a decade, in various collective houses, always poor. One time four people slept in one room. “We weren’t monogamous. We had a lot of experimentation. I never really did respect nonmonogamy. It wasn’t for me. Group sex and…so stupid,” said Angie.
Then, in 1978 they broke up. It was traumatic.
Angie: “I was really lost.”
Lynn: “I thought it would be like my parents. They stuck by each other. To learn that it wasn’t forever, not what we thought.”
Angie: “We were so young, so inexperienced. We became merged. I felt like you resisted my having more separate things, separating more.”
Lynn stayed in Ann Arbor. Angie got together with Megan, her partner of 39 years. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, becoming a therapist and founding the first therapy group for survivors of sexual assault.
They never stopped being friends.
7 thoughts on “Radical Lesbian Foremothers”
Molly, this well-written piece really captures what was happening during that time in Lesbian history (and of course, US history). I really enjoyed reading it.
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The 80’s were just like this for me. Good times, challenging times, sexy times, learning times, unforgettable times. 😀
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I enjoyed my first reading from your musings. I’m looking forward to many more.
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Thanks for writing this! So cool to read about powerful dykes I know and love!
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I remember them from Ann Arbor, in 1970/1971. Memory is a weird thing; it was so long ago, but I remember they were lively and optimistic and pretty darn happy together. And those were not terribly optimistic times. I liked them both. I know they seemed to project a butch-femme vibe, strictly on appearances, but I agree with Lynn: they were women who loved each other. They had different styles, but they were 100% female lesbionic women, together. And whatever Lynn may think, she was powerful – she had a great presence and people gravitated to her.
I’m sorry Angie is gone. I send my condolences to her family. It’s so good to learn about Megan and their son. I wonder if they were among the people who waited in line for marriage licenses, in the rain, in San Francisco in 2004. It was windy and wet and people from everywhere sent flowers to them. We hoped.
I wish Megan and Reese, and of course Lynn, all the best.
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Ah, I left a long reply that disappeared into the nethersphere when I tried to log in. I’ll try again. I remember them both from Ann Arbor in 1970-71. Those were hard times in general, and catastrophic times for me personally. Angie and Lynn offered friendship and solace to me and others. I know it was hard for them to be the Angie-and-Lynn rock at the center of Ann Arbor radicalesbians, but I am grateful to them.
I remember them telling the story of how they realized they had fallen in love. They’d been caught up in the political turmoil of the time, and with SDS it was all action and smashing monogamy. They showed me a photo of them smiling at the camera with their birth control packets in their hands. But it didn’t take long for them to get that “smashing monogamy” wasn’t their gig. They laughed at the photo and described how they breathed a huge sigh of relief when they understood they were meant to be together.
I was long gone by the time they separated. I’m sure it was hard. I am so happy that Angie and Megan built a good life together, and that they brought Reese into the world and into their lives. I wonder if Angie and Megan were among those in line at City Hall in 2004, waiting in the rain to get marriage licenses while strangers sent them flowers. We were hopeful, even if back in the 1970s we’d have scoffed at marriage.
I send condolences to Megan and Reese, and I wish them, and of course Lynn, all the best.
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Thanks for your comment! It did not get lost in the blogosphere.
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