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.