Voice 2: Radical Archiving: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective by Joan Nestle

Last Edit: March 15, 2022

Joan Nestle, “Notes on Radical Archiving from a Lesbian Feminist Perspective,” Gay Insurgent, nos. 4-5 (Spring 1979): 11.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives contradicts almost all the main points of Jim Monahan’s article, but this is not surprising because the experience giving birth to the conceptions is very different. Radical lesbian feminism is a challenge to do things differently, to recreate the energy of hags (1) and form a world reflective of an age old spirit reborn. We cannot trust “historical understandings” or “academic institutions.” Both of these terms are failures. Historical understanding does not change because data exists to disprove myths or dethrone prejudices. If this were so, Black Americans would have been given reparations years ago. Academic institutions are mostly both educational and cultural failures, even for the students they seek to serve. A people must experience their own history in such a way as to change history. The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture is on 135th street, not on a college campus. It is for all those who wish to know themselves through their own images, that are the only rule of access.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives must stay in its community, not out of parochialism but out of herstorical vision. We do not exist in historical understanding or academic institutions, though we travel incognito. We live on our homes, on the streets, in the bars, at our desks, at our jobs, with our children, in our groups, and we create our history every day. It is this story the archives wants to preserve and share. Once Lesbians have generations of herstory to experience, they will change history by the force of their presence. To ask the patriarchal destroyer to preserve is a suicidal act. It does not express our sinister wisdom. We would be surviving in their context, in an on-going world dedicated to power, elitism and survival of the patriarchal fittest.

The archives described by Jim is a researcher’s world. Our archives is for researchers as well but more importantly it is for all of us, all lesbians who need to touch their past for whatever reason, to get through the day, to keep a child, to write a poem, to see a face of another time, to recover the fullness of ourselves in all expressions. The archives must be nurturing not selective or inaccessible. And already the archives has the record of how we are changing history—our refusal to use parts of a woman-hating language, our creation and rediscovery of lesbian visual forms, our celebrations in music, images and word, our searches for other ways to live, other health supports, alternatives to rule of money and power. When a people transform a world that is never parochial; it is the other world that must question its ways. Our concept of an archives must be different; we are different. But difference is not invisibility; it is presence in our own land.

(1) See “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” particularly the section by Mary Daly. Sinister Wisdom 6 (Summer 1978), 4-25


Notes on Radical Archiving from a Lesbian Feminist Perspective:

1. The archives must serve the needs of the Lesbian people

a. All lesbian women must have access to the archives: no credentials for usage or inclusion; race and class must be no barrier.

b.The archives should be housed within the community, not on an academic campus that is by definition closed to many women. The archives should share the political and cultural world of its people and not be located in an isolated building that continues to exist while the community dies. If necessary the archives will go underground with its people to be cherished in hidden places until the community is safe.

c. The archives should be involved in the political struggles of the Lesbian people, a place where ideas and experiences from the past interact with the living issues of the Lesbian community.

d. The archives should be staffed by Lesbians so the collection will always have a living cultural context. Archival skills shall be taught, one generation to of Lesbians to another, breaking the elitism of traditional archives.

e. The community should share in the work of the archives, contributing material, indexing, mailings, creating bibliographies and other forms of information sharing.

f. The archives will collect the prints of all our lives, not just preserve the records of the famous or the published.

g. Its atmosphere must be nourishing, entry into our archives should be entry into a caring home.

h. The works of all our artists must be preserved—our photographers, our graphic designers, our scribblers, our card makers, our silversmiths.

i. The lesbian feminist archives must refuse cooption from the patriarchal society around it even if it comes in the name of a “woman’s college.”

j. The collection must be kept intact and never be bartered or sold.

k. The archives is an act of mothering, of passing along to our daughters the energies, the actions, the words we lived by. It is a first step in reclaiming a place in time, our response to the colonizer who makes us live on the periphery or not at all.


2. There should be regional Lesbian Herstory Archives, preserving and gathering the records of each Lesbian community. A network can then be set up.


The Lesbian Herstory Archives is attempting to carry out these principles. We are located in a Lesbian home and thus a visit to it is a visit to our lives. Some day the archives will have its own space, we dream, with room for Lesbian artists to exhibit and space for women to sleep and eat and play.