A Stur­dy Yes of a Peo­ple: Select­ed Writings

  • Review
By – April 11, 2023

A sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist leader, Joan Nes­tle is known for hav­ing cofound­ed the Les­bian Her­sto­ry Archives. Now, she has pub­lished a col­lec­tion of the essays she wrote between the 1970s and 2000s — an amal­ga­ma­tion of the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal. The col­lec­tion is divid­ed into five sec­tions: Lib­er­a­tion, His­to­ry, Sex, Edu­ca­tion, and Archives. Each bears a draw­ing of a tri­an­gle on its first page, which is rem­i­nis­cent of Judy Chicago’s The Din­ner Table,” an art instal­la­tion that hon­ors the life and work of numer­ous rarely acknowl­edged women. Nestle’s essays do the same in a lit­er­ary con­text, uplift­ing lit­tle-known women whose voic­es would oth­er­wise be lost.

When Nes­tle dis­cuss­es the dis­pute over sex and pornog­ra­phy in Les­bian Sex and Sur­veil­lance,” she draws a direct line between the pick­ets by anti-pornog­ra­phy fem­i­nists and the bar raids of the 1950s. Whether you agree with Nestle’s point of view or not, her sto­ry­telling — of her own life and oth­ers’ — is tan­gi­ble and riveting.

At first glance, A Stur­dy Yes of a Peo­ple does not engage a great deal with Jew­ish issues or top­ics. Only two of the thir­ty-one essays are explic­it­ly Jew­ish: A Restrict­ed Coun­try” and The Beau­ty of an Unharmed Body.” A Restrict­ed Coun­try” tells the sto­ry of a fam­i­ly vaca­tion in Ari­zona in 1956, when Nes­tle was six­teen and her fam­i­ly had to flee an anti­se­mit­ic resort to a mid­dle-class Jew­ish resort. Her wid­owed moth­er, Regi­na, a Jew­ish work­ing-class woman who embez­zled mon­ey and turned tricks to keep us togeth­er,” was not com­fort­able there. Nes­tle goes on to exam­ine the ways in which her moth­er always felt like an out­cast among the women in her com­mu­ni­ty. Their hus­bands fucked me first and then went home for Shab­bas,” Regi­na wrote to her daughter.

Regi­na’s expe­ri­ence of feel­ing like an out­sider informs the author’s stance against soci­ety’s mar­gin­al­iza­tion of sex work­ers, les­bians, and oth­ers whose sex­u­al­i­ties do not con­form to het­ero­sex­ist norms. In This Huge Light of Yours,” she recounts how par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Civ­il Rights Move­ment in the fight against Jim Crow led to her activism for les­bian rights. In the essay The Beau­ty of an Unharmed Human Body,” she describes vis­it­ing Israel and shows her sup­port for the queer women who speak out against the injus­tices of the Israeli regime.

For Nes­tle, both Jew­ish and work­ing-class iden­ti­ties ren­der one an out­cast — unheard and policed. But this is not a victim’s sto­ry. Nes­tle becomes a trail­blaz­ing, sex-pos­i­tive fem­i­nist and the founder of an archive that pre­serves women’s stories.

Dana G. Peleg is a Hebrew/​English author, poet and trans­la­tor. She received the 2018 Andresen Cer­tifi­cate of Hon­or for her trans­la­tion of Anna and the Swal­low Man by Gavriel Sav­it. Her orig­i­nal works and trans­la­tions appeared in Israeli pub­li­ca­tions, as well as the Porter Gulch Review and Asymptote.

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