Rachel Corbman

On Thursday afternoon, August 12, 1982, Amber Hollibaugh called Dorothy Allison to finalize cat-sitting arrangements for Alice B. Toklas, the cat. At the time, Amber and Dorothy were relatively recent transplants to New York City. First, in 1979, Dorothy and her “off and on” lover Morgan Gwenwald moved to New York by way of Washington DC and Tallahassee before that. According to lore that still floats around the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Dorothy and Morgan came to New York to visit the growing lesbian historical collection housed in Joan Nestle and Deb Edel’s apartment. Away for the summer, Joan and Deb promised to leave a key for the visitors. At the end of the summer, Joan and Deb returned home to find Dorothy and Morgan still in their apartment. Nearly forty years later, Deb laughed at this memory as she recounted this story to me. Eventually, Dorothy and Morgan rented their own apartment in Brooklyn, which Dorothy kept after the relationship “blew up.” Once settled, Dorothy enrolled in a graduate program at the New School and found a job at Poets & Writers.

Dorothy Allison with a cat (not Alice B. Toklas) (Photo by Morgan Gwenwald, courtesy of the author)

Amber had moved to New York in 1982, three years after Dorothy. While still living in San Francisco, Amber participated in the planning process leading up to the 1982 Scholar and the Feminist conference at Barnard College, an annual feminist conference series, which was organized around the—ultimately controversial—theme of sexuality. This theme partially responded to the growth of the feminist anti-pornography movement, which aimed to combat violence against women by fighting against pornography. Organizers hoped the conference would serve as a forum for generating new approaches to sexuality that broke from the anti-pornography movement’s framework. In response, the Women Against Pornography (WAP) picketed the event, standing outside Barnard’s gates with leaflets that singled out participants like Amber, Joan, and Dorothy as evidence of the conference’s support of “the very sexual institutions and values that oppress all women.” As well as successfully terrifying Barnard’s administration the conflict reverberated in the feminist press, serving as a catalyst for a turbulent and extended debate about sexuality, commonly called the feminist sex wars.

Although the WAP picket line profoundly shook conference participants, the Barnard conference simultaneously helped fortify already existing networks of friendship and support among the (primarily lesbian) feminists vilified by the anti-pornography movement. Amber and Dorothy, for example, met for the first time in the months leading up to the conference, after years of hearing about each other through their many “friends in common.” Dorothy remembers that she “instantly trusted and understood” Amber, while Amber attributes the quickness of their bond to the “vicious, traumatic” events of the Barnard conference, and their shared vulnerability to attack, compounded by their working class roots.

Amber also met Esther Newton, an anthropologist at SUNY Purchase, during one of Amber’s visits to New York as a “long-distanced member” of the conference’s planning committee. In 1982, Amber moved into Esther’s Upper West Side apartment. There they planned a party that would function as “some sort of witnessing of their relationship” by the time Amber called Dorothy in the summer of 1982, four months—almost to the day—after the Barnard conference.

We gossiped,” Dorothy noted in a journal entry after the phone call. “I like Amber enormously.” As well as a social call, Amber asked if Dorothy would be willing to watch their cat, while Esther and Amber spent the remainder of August traveling, including a trip to Joan and Deb’s summer house in New Hampshire. According to Amber, Esther’s friend Shirley Walton might “be able to watch Alice.” However, if not, Dorothy should “make some arrangement to get Alice” from Shirley. “I don’t know about all this,” Dorothy admitted in her journal.

Alice B. Toklas was approximately nine years old in 1982. In an email, Esther remembered Alice as a “slender, chocolate brown, athletic looking” Burmese cat with “yellow eyes.” According to Esther, Alice was “a great traveler.” Alice even accompanied Esther on her frequent trips to Paris between the years of 1975 and 1979, while she was seeing a French woman, whom Esther refers to as Dominique (a pseudonym) in her memoir, My Butch Career. Begging to differ, Amber told Dorothy that Alice “would be a pain in the ass to travel with,” even as she was “our love.” An adventurous creature, Alice never turned down the opportunity to “investigate a door or window” during her trips outside the city, Esther admitted. Agreeing to leave Alice with Dorothy, Amber typed a note (signing it with her name and Esther’s) with care instructions. “Like all cats, she can act like a Queen then turn around and purr like mad,” Amber told Dorothy.

In 2010, Amber’s cat instructions ended up at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, after the library acquired Dorothy Allison’s papers. I stumbled upon them while researching the sex wars. In reading, I was amused by their close resemblance to cat sitting instructions that I have given and received. However, I was also struck by the instructions as ephemeral evidence of a mundane act of friendship, which pointed towards a way to write about the sex wars that decentered the polarization between “pro-sex” and “anti-porn” factions to attend more closely to the networks of care that shaped feminist and queer thought before and after the sex wars.

Rachel Corbman is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wake Forest University. Her current project, “Conferencing on the Edge: A Queer History of Feminist Field Formation, 1969-1989,” is a history of the conflicts that shaped U.S. women’s studies and gay and lesbian studies in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to her scholarly research, Rachel curated “The Wide World of Lesbian Cats,” which opened at the LGBT Community Center in New York in July 2019. She lives with her cat Artemis “Artie” March in Winston-Salem. She tweets @rachelcorbman.

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