We Set the Night on Fire: Ignit­ing the Gay Revolution

  • Review
By – December 11, 2023

In this mem­oir, Martha Shel­ley charts her ear­ly life in Brook­lyn and her cru­cial activism as a les­bian fem­i­nist in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The book is divid­ed into forty-three short vignettes, sev­er­al of which recall Shelley’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Her moth­er left Poland for Cuba in 1921, then moved to Flori­da and even­tu­al­ly land­ed in New York. Her father was born in Brook­lyn after his fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed from Rus­sia. Shel­ley recounts spend­ing her child­hood sum­mers in the Catskills, attend­ing Sci­ence High, and matric­u­lat­ing at City Col­lege of New York when it was free. 

Dur­ing the 1960s, Shel­ley was in cir­cles that sub­scribed to Sul­li­van­ian” psy­cho­analy­sis, which cri­tiqued the nuclear fam­i­ly and offered a space for alter­na­tive lifestyles — and then tipped into the realm of a cult. Shelley’s accounts of this com­mu­ni­ty pro­vide insight into how the group’s mode of think­ing helped her under­stand her incip­i­ent les­bian­ism pri­or to the lib­er­a­tion move­ments that emerged at the end of the six­ties. In these ear­ly chap­ters, Shel­ley describes the chal­lenges that young women faced pri­or to fem­i­nism: pres­sure from par­ents and fam­i­lies to mar­ry, strug­gles to secure mean­ing­ful work, encour­age­ment to have rhino­plas­ty, and the per­ils that exist­ed for women who want­ed to live out­side these strictures.

We Set the Night on Fire is most illu­mi­nat­ing when Shel­ley recounts her expe­ri­ences with the women’s and gay lib­er­a­tion move­ments. She played an impor­tant role in les­bian fem­i­nism in New York City and, lat­er, in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. She wit­nessed the Stonewall Rebel­lion and then encour­aged the Daugh­ters of Bili­tis to protest the treat­ment of gay peo­ple at the Stonewall Inn bar. She was involved in the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front in New York, the RAT News­pa­per, the Laven­der Men­ace protest, the takeover of the 5th Street build­ing by fem­i­nists, and the les­bian fem­i­nist radio pro­gram at WBAI. Shelley’s vignettes of these expe­ri­ences are detailed and engaging.

The mem­oir con­cludes in the ear­ly 1980s, with sto­ries about the Women’s Press Col­lec­tive — a vibrant les­bian fem­i­nist pub­lish­ing orga­ni­za­tion that oper­at­ed in the Bay Area dur­ing the 1970s — and an exten­sive road trip that Shel­ley and the author Max Dashu took across the coun­try to research Indige­nous and Jew­ish his­to­ry. Shel­ley and Dashu then left the Bay Area for north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, near Ore­gon, to write. In the years fol­low­ing, Shel­ley would go on to pen a tril­o­gy about Jezebel, an oft-vil­i­fied Phoene­cian princess who mar­ried the king of Israel in the ninth cen­tu­ry BCE

We Set the Night on Fire joins a spate of mem­oirs by women about the ear­ly years of women’s lib­er­a­tion — a heady and excit­ing time. Shelley’s book adds tex­ture to our grow­ing under­stand­ing of fem­i­nism, les­bian fem­i­nism, gay lib­er­a­tion, and the role of Jew­ish women in these movements.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

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