Julia Penelope, 71, an author, philosopher and linguist, died Jan. 19 in Texas. She was part of a movement of critical thinkers on lesbian and feminist issues.
Penelope, who had come out to her family as a young child, was kicked out of two colleges. Her dismissal in 1959 from Florida State University was part of the high-profile lesbian and gay witch hunts in that state, conducted by the notorious Charlie Johns Investigating Committee on Communism and Homosexuality. Her dismissal in 1960 from the University of Miami was actually because she had men in her room.
She received her BA in English and linguistics from New York's City College and in 1971 completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas. She taught for two decades at universities (including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), but was reportedly passed over for promotions because of her focus on lesbian issues.
In 1988, she co-edited For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology with Chicagoan Sarah Lucia Hoagland.
Among her other books: The Original Coming Out Stories (1980-89); Finding the Lesbians (1990); International Feminist Fiction (1992); Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism (1993); Lesbian Culture: An Anthology (1993); Out of the Class Closet: Lesbian Speak (1994); and Crossword Puzzles for Women (1995).
Penelope wrote the following in Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory (Crossing Press, 1992): "But some survive. Many of us have lived to tell our stories, to create Lesbian texts, to read Lesbian texts, even to write commentaries and criticisms of Lesbian texts. All of these activities must be pluralized, multiplied, complicated, and pluralized again, because there is no single, narrow, one-sentence definition of 'The Lesbian.' The sexologists may have been the ones to name us, but we can, and do, create ourselves. Our of a mishmash of disinformation, misinformation and outright lies, each Lesbian constructs some story about who she is and who she might someday be … ."
Chicago lesbian activist and retired philosophy professor Jackie Anderson noted Penelope's impact: "Julie Penelope mattered. She mattered because she was another who 'spoke truth to power' and paid the price. However, she mattered to me because she made things clear without compromise. She was critical because there was stuff, often our stuff, that needed to be criticized. She mattered because she left us so much important work from which I learned much. Julia mattered to me because she was fun. I always had a good time when we were together. Her frustration and anger were not without warrant and she left us because of it a while ago. I missed her deeply. I am very sorry that she has died, but I am glad that her suffering is over."
Kathy Munzer, another Chicago lesbian activist, called Penelope "a brilliant and brave, funny lesbian. She was often angry at the injustices done to lesbians, including herself. During her life, there were many instances of misunderstandings, miscommunication, adversarial encounters and hurt at the lack of appreciation of her work. She wrote and raged and was an inspiring author, linguist, activist and writer of haiku. She could be a goofy and hilarious companion and she had an impish grin and a great laugh that was deep and booming and could on and on and on. She has been quoted and misquoted and found pleasure in being a true rabble rouser. Her soft butch presence could be sweet and kind. She was passionate and compassionate. Julia could be either your best friend or your worst enemy, with no in-between."
Chicagoan Anne T. Leighton also knew Penelope's work well. "I imagine Julia, 'Lesbian Linguist', laughing as we attempt to capture some elemental overview of her with words. Her love of language echoed her love of Lesbians. She struggled with both. Languagelimiting, shaping, powerful, expanding consciousness, this she taught me with theory and conversation. Lesbianpowerful, growing consciousness, shaping and shaped, limiting and limited, this she taught me thru engagement. As a Native Speaker of 'Lesbian' Julia defies capturesnorting and rolling her eyes at the attempt.
"Yet I offer her one word. Julia, delightedly addled on acid, standing mesmerized in the bakery section of a Midwestern supermarket, fondling a package of rolls. While we worried about security guards, Julia remained amazed. With a shyness she rarely let others see she gestured with the rolls, offering her pronouncement then beaming at our understanding. 'Breasts' she whispered. Julia: alive to the wonder of a world filled with breasts."
Women's Studies: A Recommended Bibliography (2004, by Linda Krikos and Cindy Ingold) summarizes the Call Me Lesbian book: "Penelope offers a sampling of nine of her essays exploring lesbian lives and perspectives. She tackles questions of lesbian history, identities, sexuality, and politics in provocative ways that acknowledge inherent ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions. Along the way, she provides insights into such issues as role playing in lesbian relationships, lesbian separatism, sadomasochism, incest, lesbian femininity, and the necessity, in her view, of a radical feminist framework. She challenges notions of a unitary lesbian identity, rejecting even reductionist sexual definition. Rather, lesbian identities are multiple, deriving from the varied backgrounds and lives of individuals. It is this lived experience, she argues, that must be shared and communicated, breaking silence and isolation, to build community. Reflecting back on the sources of her own life, she attempts to understand and theorize broader lesbian existence and asserts that lesbian perspectives, originating through resistance and a profound sense of difference, challenge conventional interpretations of the world and ways of knowing and seeing. Key to this process, she maintains, is language and the power of words not only to reflect but also to shape values, experience, and possibilities."
A biography of Penelope ran in the Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, Volume 1, edited by Bonnie Zimmerman and George Haggerty (1999). In it, they say Penelope was open about being a kept butch (which was a brief period of her life), "a butch who is supported by another woman, often, but not always, a prostitute, a call girl, or the mistress of a wealthy man."
The Encyclopedia also notes that she "was a separatist whose lesbian publications were often controversial, criticizing sadomasochism and other practices within lesbian communities." In her later years, she worked editing copy for commercial presses.
What follows is the official Penelope obituary provided by her designated executor, Sarah Valentine:
Julia Penelope (Stanley)
June 19, 1941 Ja. 19, 2013
Julia was a white, working class, fat, butch dyke who never passed. She was a linguist, writer, academic, organizer and force within and for the Lesbian community. She was the unique combination of theorist and activist. She felt that creating community and community access to academic conferences such as NWSA and MLA was essential for moving ideas into actions/change in the world.
Julia was not afraid of her anger. She took her rage at injustices such as being kicked out of university for being a Lesbian, being verbally harassed walking down the streets or being challenged walking into women's restrooms and forged it into a weapon that she used to knock down barriers. She worked within the Gay Academic Union in the early 70s, was a delegate to the international woman's' conference in Houston in 1977, and her early work on sexism in language made her work the staple of footnotes by other Lesbian feminists. Julia could be hard to deal with, her anger being the main protection she used against being hurt.
Julia made things happen. While Lesbians talked, Julia acted. She was a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives which sprang from a CR group. She founded many activist groups in the 70s such as 'Lincoln Legion of Lesbians,' through the 90s such as 'Lesbians for Lesbians' in an effort to create Lesbian visibility. She taught the first college course on Lesbian novels, 20th Century Lesbian Novels, using the word Lesbian boldly in the course title. She took joy from knowing that the governor of Nebraska wanted the word Lesbian to stop appearing on the front pages of the Lincoln newspapers in the late 70s, early 80s.
Julia was a rock hound who created a slide show of rocks in the early 80s. The smoothness of rocks, the crevices of geodes, the various colors of reds and pinks were molded by Julia into a very erotic experience. Women would ooh, ah, sigh, and moan in darken rooms watching pictures of rocks. Julia loved to garden. She took mail order twigs and under Julia's green thumb grew them into large trees. She created several gardens. She loved watching the humming birds, butterflies and bees that came to enjoy her well planned gardens.
If Julia visited your home and there was a closed box on your mantel or table, she would open it up before the night was over. Julia was compelled to open things up. She wrote about the hard things: power and control. Power of the patriarchy in this world and how it harms women. The power and control that Lesbians seek in assimilating, in roles, in sexuality. She stood and asked, sometimes demanding, that Lesbians ask the hard question: from where is this desire coming? She wrote about her experiences with power/control in essays like "Whose past are we reclaiming?" She tried to show the unlimited potential of Lesbian living in essays like "The Mystery of Lesbians." She believed in the conscious living.
Julia was witty and funny. For those who had the good fortune of hanging out with her, we can hear the echo of her unmistakable laughter. She laughed so hard she would start coughing and then you would start to panic thinking she was gonna choke and die on you. With Julia you experienced the highs and lows. Julia was generous, opening her home to Lesbians from around the world. Guests ranged from New Zealand Lesbians, to a Lesbian needing a place to live while she transitioned to a new area of the country, to more than a dozen Lesbians that gathered to organize a march. Julia loved to talk with Lesbians, to hear about their lives and throw another steak on the grill.
Some of Julia's activist works are remembered and recorded by others, most are lost in time. Julia's words remain in this world in the following books: The Coming Out Stories (1980) with co-editor Susan Wolfe; For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology(1988) with co-editor Sarah Lucia Hoagland; The Original Coming Out Stories (1989) with co-editor Susan Wolfe; Found Goddesses: Asphalta to Viscera(1989) with co-author Morgan Grey; Finding the Lesbians (1990) with co-editor Sarah Valentine; Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Father's Tongue (1990); International Feminist Fiction (1992); Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory (1992); Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism (1993) with co-author Susan Wolfe; Lesbian Culture: An Anthology (1993) with co-editor Susan Wolfe; Out of the Class Closet: Lesbian Speak (1994); Crossword Puzzles for Women (1995); and Flinging Wide The Eyed Universe: Poems by Julia Penelope (1998).
The following was submitted by Chicago lesbian author and academic Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Penelope's co-editor on For Lesbians Only:
Julia Penelope was a master strategist, fomenting lesbian culture, a trickster, a raging lesbian, and brilliant.
She was a master strategist. One example: It was 1977 and preparations were underway for the International Women's Year Convention (IWY) in Texas. Each state was to select a delegation and vote on resolutions to bring to the convention. In 1976, Julia had organized The Lincoln Legion of Lesbians in Nebraska. In preparation for the state conference she developed our strategy: There were a number of rooms at the conference site in which different resolutions were being discussed and voted on. While most of us were in arguing about various resolutions, we had a dyke posted at the door of each room and a hall runner. Whenever an anti-choice or anti-feminist resolution was about to be voted on, the hall runner would alert the dyke at each door who would signal the dykes in the room. We would leave and go vote down the resolution and then return to our rooms. When it came to voting on the delegation going to Houston, everyone was in one room, and we were out-numbered. As the delegation stood smugly in front, I remember Julia's rage, her face red as she yelled "We will be there too!" But what was most significantnot one anti-choice proposal made it out of that conference, not one anti-feminist resolution could be brought by the Nebraska delegation to Houston. And we all went to Houston on our own funding. Interestingly, a group of gay men on motorcycles showed up outside where we were staying, supportive of what we were doing, just wanting to be there, watching out for us.
When Holly Near and Meg Christian closed their concert to men at the 2nd National Women's Music Festival in 1975, I went to Julia asking her to help me understand the strategy. All she said was "Power." As we talked she added, "You need power to coalesce. Women have very little history of being able to ban together for a cause."
Fomenting lesbian culture: For many years, Julia incited lesbian culture, spinning lesbian gatherings and engagings. In Nebraska she brought in Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Pat Parker, Chrystos and others to read their work at the university and then hang out with us. She encouraged Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines to bring Sinister Wisdom to Lincoln. In 1977 at the Modern Languages Association (MLA) Convention in Chicago she organized the Lesbian Languages and Literatures panel with Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, Judith McDaniel, and Adrienne Rich as speakers to which over 700 women came. All the anthologies she co-edited with Susan Wolfe, myself, and Sarah Valentine, and the books she wrote with Susan Wolfe and Morgan Grey, were designed to put lesbian voices out there, enabling us to question what we'd internalized from heteropatriarchy and to develop lesbian meaning.
Julia and I began work on For Lesbians Only after guest-editing Sinister Wisdom 15, the special issue on violence against lesbians, in 1981. The anthology was constructed to disrupt dismissals and encourage the discussion to continue. For the next four years we proceeded between busy university schedules and across 500 miles. Finding the material, contacting seps, working with contributors kept us heartened and struggling during those times, for we encountered much feminist resistance, including refusals to even print our call for contributions, much less willingness to publish the anthology. In 1986 a London feminist press finally contacted us, excited and enthusiastic, Onlywomen Press, and FLO came out in 1988. Sidney Spinster gave it its name, for we knew we could not restrict sales to lesbians only, that would cause too much difficulty for feminist bookstores. In the past, many magazines had been stamped "for lesbians only," distributed through lesbian undergrounds. But this was a book. So Sid suggested we put the words on the cover in the form of the title. We loved it. Julia was always about challenging everyone to examine and acknowledge their choices.
And she was always stirring up trouble. Regularly someone from the Lincoln Legion of Lesbians, often Julia, would write a letter to the Lincoln newspaper saying something outrageous, causing a flurry of angry letters in reply, for example, advocating a curfew on men after some act of male violence. Her goal was to keep lesbian existence and non-conformity in the public consciousness, to not let mainstream erasure prevail, and to spark isolated lesbian and women.
She was a trickster. One example: periodically we would start rumors just to see, linguistically, what version would come back to us from around the country weeks later. One time I heard a rumor that she and I were lovers. I rushed to tell her what I'd heard, thinking she would be upset, and said I couldn't imagine who would have put that out. Her impish grin formed and she said, "I did it."
One story she told me from the early years: She was in NYC on the subway, dressed in a skirt and heels, and some man grabbed her ass. She turned and slammed him against the pole, and, when the subway door opened, dragged him on to the platform and beat the crap out of him. When the police came, they asked her if she wanted to press charges. In her sweet, endearing voice, she asked, "What would that involve?"
She was brilliant. She was, as she loved to refer to herself, a cunning linguist. Her work in Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of the Father's Tongue and her papers in linguistics, exposed the various strategies of PUD (the Patriarchal Universe of Discourse), the misogynistic parasitism of patriarchal framings of women and the consequent erasure of lesbians including:
the blatant and overt sexism as the first grammarians worked to standardize English;
the anomalous appearance in English of "she" (the Old English words were 'heo' and 'hea', easily confused in lyric poetry, and allowing for lesbian readings);
debunking the "purity" of English, in her words, English is a mutt language;
how the Latin grammar imposed on English yielded ridiculous rules, such as 'no split infinitives,' which we are supposed to uncritically follow (in Latin, the infinitive is one word and so can't be split);
how in history, any word for women in English eventually becomes a pejorative, an insult or sexual slur;
the pseudo-generic 'he,' a legislated (1850) grammatical rule (nouns and pronouns are to agree in number and gender, but, of course, 'he does not agree in gender,' moreover ordinary people used 'they' which does agree in gender (e.g. "Any student who wants to get their book should go now.");
examining the definitions of 'male'/'female', 'man'/'woman', 'mannish'/'womanish' that yield the essential person: + or male;
the semantic set of words for women, the paradigm of prostitute, that can be mapped on a grid with three axes: cost, method of payment, length of contact (time expected to remain with a man), (later one of her students added: degree of fidelity);
the blaming-the-victim transformations of the passive voice (from John beat Mary to Mary is a battered womanfocusing attention on her nature and losing sight of him altogether;
and so much more.
Julia is one of a handful of lesbians of my generation (including Mary Daly and Audre Lorde) whose uncompromising clarity lit paths for us to work our ways out of the doublespeak of PUD, to question what we were comfortable with, lesbians who put themselves out there, whose rage made possibilities for the rest of us to do our work. And the result was alienation, for Julia as the Women's Liberation Movement shifted to disavow its radical origins and become respectable (for example, at the IWY convention, see "The Mystery of Lesbians"). I call them friends. Julia, in particular, was my friend. And I love her.
"The language that evolved out of our learning together was a language of acting in the world, rather than 'events;' it was a speaking of our living, not our 'lives;' of our doing, not our 'deeds'; of our touching, eating, tracing, dancing, of moving, not 'motion;' of dying not 'death.' The nouns of men became our verbs, what had been 'objects' became doers." (From Julia's "A Cursory and Precursory History of Language, and the Telling of It").
Julia Penelope biography here: www.lesbianpoetryarchive.org/juliapenelope .