A Herstory on Lesbians

Authored by Nicole Loder

Image of Joan Nestle, Polly Thistlethwaite, and cat. Lesbian HERstoy Archive Collection. 1994.

Pictured are activist and writer, Joan Nestle, current Chief Librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center (Thistlethwaite 2014) Polly Thistlethwaite, and cat at the Lesbian HERstory Archives (LHA) in 1994 taken by the photo collection manager, Saskia Scheffer. I discovered this picture, with the help of an archivist, in a crammed filing cabinet, not too far from where the picture was taken. The cabinet was organized with an eclectic cataloging system, determined by the many archivists over the years. I was searching for content involving cats for an upcoming exhibit when we discovered this artifact. As I held this image, I wondered when the last time someone took notice of this seemingly insignificant photograph.

The LHA was conceived in 1973 by a group of activists, including one of the photograph subjects, Nestle (Rapp 2015, 1-2). This archive, which began in Nestle’s and co-Founder Deborah Edel’s Upper West Side apartment (Rapp 2015, 2), is among the largest collections of Lesbian artifacts in the world today (Rapp 2015, 1-2). The archives began to outgrow its original accommodations and sought assistance to find a new home (Cohen 1996, 1). In 1993, the archives moved to a Brooklyn townhouse, masked by the complementary buildings that neighbored (Cohen 1996, 1).

For a period, the location of LHA was an honored secret (Cohen 1996, 1) but in the age of the World Wide Web, one only needs to have access to an online map to discover it. While safety and governance may not be as much of a concern today, the LHA was formed during a time of political turmoil. Issues of race, gender, sexuality, and more were threatening the safety of United States citizens (Nestle 1990, 86) and many individuals wanted change. The LHA strived to be a collection built for lesbians, by lesbians (Nestle 1990, 87) to ensure the preservation of the many perspectives of lesbian life. As Nestle once said, “The roots of the archives lie in the silenced voices, the love letters destroyed, the pronouns changed, the diaries carefully edited, the pictures never taken, the euphemized distortions that patriarchy would let pass” (Thistlethwaite 1989, 36).

Archives are typically intended for scholarly use, but the LHA was unique in existing for the community they were actively preserving (Nestle 1990, 88). The LHA mission has been to allow access of preserved lesbian history to educate and sustain identities of future queer women (The Lesbian HERstory Archives). Founder and subject, Nestle understands how complicated an individual’s identity can become. Lesbian women are much more than just the partners they choose. Not only does Nestle identify as lesbian, but as a fem woman, feminist, Jewish (Douglas 1993, 2-3), and later a cancer survivor (Queen 1998, 8). There are many aspects that intersect within an individual’s identity that affect the choices and opportunities they are provided. Perhaps influenced by the many challenges she faced, Nestle’s goal for the LHA was to provide a space for queer women to dominate and flourish (Nestle 1990, 93).


Cohen, M. F. 1996. “In lesbian archive, education and sanctuary.” New York Times (April). Retrieved from http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/430535252?accountid=14068.

Douglas, Carol Anne, Amy Hamilton, and Joan Nestle. 1993. “Interview: Joan Nestle: A Fem Reflects on Four Decades of Lesbian Self—expression.” Off Our Backs 23, no. 8 (Aug/Sept): 2-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20834527.

Nestle, Joan. 1990.”The Will to Remember.” Feminist Review, 0, no. 34 (Spring): 86-94. http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/1300474834?accountid=14068.

Queen, Carol. 1998. “Her Story.” Lambda Book Report 7, no. 3 (October): 6. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost

Rapp, Linda. 2015. “Nestle, Joan (b.1940).”Glbtq, inc. http://www.glbtqarchive.com/sshindex.html

The Lesbian Herstory Archives. n.d. “History and Mission.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/history.html.

Thistlethwaite, Polly. 2014. “About.” Polly Thistlethwaite. (April). https://pollythistlethwaite.commons.gc.cuny.edu/.

Thistlethwait, Polly. 1989. “To Tell the Truth”. Out/Week Magazine, (September) pp. 36-39.