A Home for Us: The Lesbian Herstory Archives Moves to Brooklyn

Authored by Elana Weber

Taken in 1993, this photograph shows the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) coordinators, or Archivettes, in front of LHA's new Brooklyn location.

Gwenwald, Morgan, Group of LHA Coordinators, June 1993, photograph, 8” x 10” (20.23 x 25.4 cm), Lesbian Herstory Archive, Brooklyn, New York, www.lesbianherstoryarchive.com. Courtesy of Morgan Gwenwald.

In 1986, Marge McDonald passed away. A midwestern lesbian, McDonald left her journals, books, and photos to the Lesbian Herstory Archive (LHA) (“Friends in Ohio” 1988, 2). Unfortunately, her family began auctioning off her belongings. LHA contacted the auctioneer, who would allow representatives a single day to come in to salvage what they could of the 6,000 belongings (“Friends in Ohio” 1988, 2). With the eyes of McDonald’s family and the community of Nelsonville, Ohio on them, two local lesbians worked until the 5:00PM cutoff to pack as many of McDonald’s items as they could into a pick-up truck bound for New York City (“Friends in Ohio” 1988, 2). Today, those rescued belongings form the “Marge McDonald Special Collection.” McDonald wasn’t famous. She was an ordinary woman.

This story embodies the spirit of LHA, founded on idea that “if you have the courage to touch another woman, you are a famous lesbian” (Nestle 1990, 88). No matter her race, physical ability, or class, a lesbian’s story is worthy of being told (Nestle 1990, 88). But, even after a narrow escape from destruction, the McDonald Collection faced another challenge: LHA lived in the Manhattan apartment of one of its founders, Joan Nestle, which was filled to capacity with donations (Wolfe 1998, 20).

When LHA was founded in 1974, it was only ten milk crates of documents, which were easily stored in a pantry (Corbman 2014, 1). To encourage lesbians to share their stories, the archive coordinators, “Archivettes,” would bring samples of the small collection to homes, bars, churches, synagogues—anywhere they could reach someone (Thistlethwaite 1998, 7). When some collections became too fragile, the Archivettes made slideshows of them so they could continue bringing the archive alive for all they met (Kelland 2013, 184). In the Vincentian tradition of “representing… those who are under- or misrepresented within our cultural heritage records” (Angel, n.d., 5), LHA never refused a donation (Thistlethwaite 1998, 2).

Through small monetary donations from lesbians all over the country, the Archivettes bought a Brooklyn townhouse in 1990 (Wolfe 1998, 20). Lesbian architects and construction workers renovated it, and, by 1993, LHA moved in (Cohen 1996). This is the moment depicted in the above photograph: the Archivettes at the opening of that Brooklyn space. As a former home, the brownstone is both private and domestic. A xerox machine lives in the kitchen (Cvetkovich 2002, 109). Boxes of posters rest in the bathtub of the “All Genders” upstairs bathroom. LHA is a community gathering space, museum, library, and photo album (Wolfe 1998, 20). However, all its chameleonic forms can be summarized into one: a home created by lesbians, for lesbians. This picture is emblematic of LHA’s commitment to sheltering stories like McDonald’s, reflecting the Vincentian heritage of celebrating “the intrinsic worth of all members of our community” (St. John’s University 2018). The fist of triumph and smiles of the Archivettes forever in this photo illustrate the pledge to always having a home for those who need it.


Angel, Christine M. n.d. “Information Representation through the Vincentian Lens of Transparency: Providing the Under and Misrepresented with a Voice within Our Cultural Heritage Records.” Evolution of Teaching Philosophy: 1–7. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VkY3xbRv1Ikuny5LApVmVWmSiZ81OTtUyJ6aSl_I3xo/.

Cohen, Mark Francis. “Neighborhood Report: Park Slope; In Lesbian Archive, Education and Sanctuary.” New York Times, April 7, 1996. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/07/nyregion/neighborhood-report-park-slopein-lesbian-archive-education-and.html.

Corbman, Rachel F. 2014. “A Genealogy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, 1974-2014.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 1, no. 1: 1–16. https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=jcas.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2002. “In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings: Documentary and Popular Culture.” Camera Obscura 17, no. 1 (May): 106–147. https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-17-1_49-107.

“Friends in Ohio Assist in Rescue of Materials.” 1988. Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletter 10 (February): 2. http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/pdf/Newsletters/LHA%20Newsletter%2010%201988.pdf

Kelland, Lara Leigh. “Clio’s Foot Soldiers: Twentieth-Century U.S. Social Movements and the Uses of Collective Memory.” PhD diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 2013. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv3s8ttn.

Nestle, Joan. 1990. “The Will to Remember.” Feminist Review 34 (Spring): 86–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/1395308.

St. John’s University. “Office of Equity and Inclusion.” Updated September 7, 2018. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/leadership-and-administration/administrative-offices/office-equity-and-inclusion

Thistlethwaite, Polly J. “Building “A Home of Our Own”: The Construction of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.” In Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History, ed. James Vinson Carmichael, Jr., 1–7. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1998. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/34 .

Wolfe, Maxine. 1998. “The Lesbian Herstory Archives.” South African Archives Journal 40: 20–21. https://web-b-ebscohost-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=e8146b6c-4278-43b0-a693-0652fee823cb%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2721429