in search of a lesbian geography

by julia golda harris
Mima Cataldo, Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace Justice, gelatin silver process, 1983. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

In the archive, my body relaxes. I am seated at a spacious table in a cool, orderly reading room at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, pale wintery light streaming in through the high windows. There are little shuffling sounds as the other researchers move their papers around; other than that, the room is still. I am here to visit the records of the Seneca Women’s Encampment for Peace and Justice, an anti-nuclear peace camp that rabble-roused in Romulus, New York, from 1983 to 1991. The boxes I have requested are from the last few messy years of the camp’s operation. In the tidy hush of the library, I lift the lid off the first box, and open a portal into the dirty, chaotic world of the encampment.

The Women’s Encampment convened on a parcel of land abutting the Seneca Army Depot, where the US government was storing nuclear armaments awaiting deployment to Europe. The initial goal of the camp was straightforward: to pressure the government to close the depot, to not deploy the missiles. But, more than that: to end nuclear development. So, beyond that: to save the world. As a millennial, I feel well acquainted with the concept of the global threat (most commonly expressed in the form of climate catastrophe). Until I began this research, I did not understand how deeply the threat of nuclear war was seen, was felt, as a global threat by ordinary people in decades past. I notice that it’s scarcely spoken about as a threat by my peers today, although the threat is no less real — there are too many emergencies, all the time.

The mission of the Women’s Encampment was entirely global. And yet, it localized, again and again, in the bodies of its participants. Though many straight women stayed at the camp, it was a sort of lesbian-normative place. Women kissed openly and walked around with no shirts on — this was part of their project. The camp’s early actions, which involved theatrical and symbolic demonstrations at the gates of the depot, were infused with a sense of utopian imagination. Women painted murals, adorned the chain-link fence of the depot with flowers, performed expressive dances about the sanctity of life on Earth.¹ They repeatedly antagonized the depot authorities by hopping the fence. Theater as protest, protest as theater.

This localization in the body occurred, too, in the antagonism that some townspeople felt toward the encampment. They feared that the closure of the depot would take away jobs, yes, but they also expressed plain revilement at the gendered and sexualized bodies of the protesters. Counter-protesters were known to chant “nuke the dykes” at encampment activists, willing to symbolically torch the Earth in order to eradicate these troublesome queers.² The slip between global and local went both ways.

The daily operations of the camp were necessarily concerned with bodies. In attempting the world-saving feat of eliminating the threat of nuclear war, activists had to figure out how to feed the crowd, to keep the campground clean, to care for the children, to maintain the house and grounds during the quiet winter months. I’ll admit, the ability of dykes to turn any project into a collective enterprise with a hand-written chore chart never ceases to charm me.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US Federal Government did not yield to a crowd of lesbians staging mock-funerals for Mother Earth and scrambling over the depot fence. The two missiles housed at Seneca were deployed to Europe within a year, an event that anti-nuclear activists referred to as “the last straw.”³ But the Women’s Encampment remained: they had bought the land, and on the land they stayed. Summers still brought visitors, but fewer and fewer, and notes in the Schlesinger archive describe that maintenance of the camp became overwhelming for the die-hard members. They began to receive an influx of women who treated the place like a sort of shelter, running away from abuse or other unlivable circumstances. The encampment residents wanted to help these women, but they didn’t really have the resources. Residents began to believe the army depot was “zapping” the camp with microwaves that disoriented and depleted them.⁴ With the missiles already shipped away, the world-saving mission of the camp became more diffuse. What was left was the local, and the local was becoming unmanageable.

The Seneca encampment has seldom been written about since the feminist writers and journalists reporting on it at the time — the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, which was active in Berkshire, England from 1981 to 2000, is more frequently cited by those writing about feminist anti-nuclear organizing today. I was drawn to research the Seneca encampment because it felt close to home, and it marked the robust international web of this type of organizing. Once I learned about it, I began to notice little offhanded references to it in other lesbian and lesbian-adjacent writings. It’s part of what I began to think of as a semi-submerged lesbian geography, one whose sites are largely unmarked, or hang on in a sort of half-life: shuttered bars, ordinary houses that once were home to thriving cooperatives, the Seneca property which now quietly lives on as a land trust.

It can be challenging to figure out how to relate to these histories. So much of queer history-making and marking is about recuperation, about finding the heroic. Lesbian communities like the one at Seneca are not ones that I would wish to fully recreate. Most (although certainly not all) of the participants were white. Their framing of gender was binary and essentialist. We can’t afford a white-feminist gloss on this history that claims pure heroism.

But we should, I think, mark it as a spot on our maps. In doing so, we can make a case for the histories of failures, of ambiguities, of attempts. We can be curious about what happened there, and what it can teach us. At my quiet table in Cambridge, I read through reams of hand-written notes, surveys, fliers documenting the minutia of this particular attempt to save the world. And what that looked like, day to day, was people taking care of each other, taking care of the land, sitting down together to hash out their differences, and sometimes failing. There’s an audacity to it, the desire to save the world by jumping a fence, by cleaning the communal kitchen. I can’t help but feel that their aims were simultaneously too big and too small. I can’t help but love that.


¹ Costello, C., and A.D. Stanley. 1985. “Report from Seneca.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 8 (2), p.37.
² ibid, p. 34.
³ Russell, D. 1989. Exposing Nuclear Phallacies. Pergamon Press, p.4.
⁴ Krasniewicz, L. 1992. Nuclear Summer: The Clash of Communities at the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment. Cornell University Press, p. 239.

about

Julia Golda Harris is a PhD student in American Studies at Harvard University. Her research interests include lesbian cultures, queer archival practices, and survival in the Anthropocene. Before coming to grad school, she worked as a farmer and she remains dedicated to dirt.