Sparks flew when radical lesbian feminist Jill Johnston sat down for an interview with Studs Terkel in 1973. Jill had just published a controversial manifesto called Lesbian Nation, which advocated that women break with men entirely. It was provocative stuff—even for the usually unflappable Studs.
Episode first published December 10, 2020.
Johnston wrote for the Village Voice for 15 years. She became known for her experimental writing style—punctuation and indentation optional—which reflected her affinity for the avant-garde cultural scene she covered. You can read some of her pieces here, here, and here. In two columns written in 1970 and 1971, Johnston came out as a lesbian; find out more about the first column here and read the second column, titled “Lois Lane Is a Lesbian,” here.
On April 30, 1971, Johnston participated in a legendary panel on women’s liberation, held at New York City’s Town Hall. The event was billed as a battle of the sexes, in which the female panelists (who also included Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling) were to square off against moderator Norman Mailer, who had just published his controversial essay “The Prisoner of Sex.” The panel was the subject of the documentary Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, which you can watch here. Johnston’s raucous segment begins at 21:30 and ends with Johnston and two friends engaging in a memorable bit of proto-performance art when they start hugging and rolling around on stage.
In 1973, Johnston published Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, a collection of essays from her Village Voice column. It was a seminal lesbian separatist work that argued for a complete break with men and male-dominated capitalist institutions. Hear Johnston discuss the book in this 1975 interview (click the link at the bottom to stream), read her 1973 interview with Lesbian Tide here, and check out this 2007 interview about the book’s legacy.
Johnston discusses lesbian feminism here, starting at 39:49. To learn more about the subject, listen to lesbian feminist theorist Charlotte Bunch here. And check out this conversation (courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives) between Johnston and Radicalesbian Martha Shelley about the pleasures and politics of being a lesbian on Shelley’s radio program, aptly titled Lesbian Nation. (Martha Shelley is featured in this Making Gay History episode.)
Johnston’s work had a profound impact on many of her lesbian contemporaries; read tributes by journalists Michele Kort and Victoria A. Brownworth here and here. But opposition to Johnston’s views came from many corners, including trans activists and more mainstream feminists like Betty Friedan, who once pronounced Johnston “the biggest enemy of the movement.”
In 1993, Johnston married her longtime partner Ingrid Nyeboe in Denmark; read about the ceremony and see photos here. They married again in Connecticut in 2009, a year before Johnston’s death in September 2010.
Johnston ephemera: Watch 16mm clips of one of Johnston’s gatherings for lesbians here, courtesy of the Phyllis Birkby Papers at Smith College. And play this lesbian crossword puzzle on page 14, whose first clue reads “Jill Johnston’s book.”
Studs Terkel: “This book is for my mother, who should have been a lesbian, and for my daughter in hopes that she will be.” It seems quite an outrageous epigraph, is it not? It seems that way. Lesbian Nation is the book by Jill Johnston. Well, quite obviously, you know, the much overused word controversial applies, but it’s, it’s provocative—I like the word provocative. It is that she provokes quite obviously, anyway, and quite marvelously, I think, too, though I disagree with her, of course, on many matters. Say I, this is my way of saying—
Jill Johnston: It’s your way of saying you’re a man.
ST: Way of saying I’m a man, of course. At the same time knowing full well that a great deal of what she says is, is bone deep truth.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus, and this is Making Gay History.
One of the things I love about mining the Studs Terkel Radio Archive is the time travel—the chance to go back decades and hear the voices of people I’d only read about. Like Lorraine Hansberry and Christopher Isherwood. Or the stories of people who are long forgotten, like female impersonator Les-Lee.
I also enjoy listening to Studs Terkel—his curiosity, his proudly lefty opinions, and the way he connected with the people sitting across from him. But sometimes that was a struggle, as you’ll hear in his early-1970s interview with lesbian feminist separatist Jill Johnston.
Jill Johnston was born in London in 1929 to an American nurse and an English bellmaker. Her father left the picture soon after Jill was born. She was raised by her mother and grandmother in Queens, New York.
In 1959, Jill started writing for the alternative downtown newspaper, the Village Voice. She began as a dance critic and later moved on to writing more personal columns where she embraced all things avant-garde and countercultural.
A year after the Stonewall uprising, Jill came out in print as a lesbian. Her focus shifted from the cultural to the political, and she began advocating for a complete break from men and their institutions. She got a lot of attention for pronouncements like “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet.” But there was more to Jill than just her talent for provocation. Her work was welcomed by women who felt sidelined both in the male-dominated gay liberation movement and the feminist movement, which was often hostile to lesbians.
Even at a time when radical thought was widespread, Jill’s views pushed the envelope. And pushed Studs Terkel’s buttons when he interviewed Jill about her book Lesbian Nation. Let’s join the two of them as they lock horns in a conversation first broadcast on June 29, 1973.
ST: I’m thinking of something as you’re talking now, because there’s something I wanna ask you about—not challenge you, but just wonder about. You say that a woman is not free and liberated unless she’s a lesbian. Now, isn’t this kind of fascistic on your part?
JJ: Well, it’s, it’s, uh, the use of the word fascistic is—
ST: No, you, I say this… I’m saying, when you say no woman can be a free woman, unless she’s— Aren’t you denying people the right to be what they are, no matter what?
JJ: Well, we, as women, as you know, there is a feminist movement and women have been denied the right to be what they are. So—
ST: Oh, I agree. I agree with that.
JJ: So, you know, we have to start with beginnings. Um, the, it depends how you’re defining lesbian. You see, I have a political definition of lesbianism, and, uh, it, what it really means is self-commitment. And we know that, um, we have a feminist movement because women have been, been denied self-commitment, and, uh, we’re just updating feminism by calling it lesbianism because we feel that, um, total commitment to ourselves would include every phase of our activities.
ST: I see. So you’re using the word then…
JJ: Bonding of women…
ST: … using the word lesbian in a much broader sense then.
JJ: Oh, yes, sure.
ST: I see. Well, that perhaps, it should be made clear.
JJ: That’s why this book is a political book, basically.
ST: Yeah, yeah. As a result of which sometimes your stuff seems outrageous, but it’s almost deliberate. I mean, isn’t that the point? That is, to outrage, to disturb.
JJ: Hmm. Well, I, I, it’s a funny thing, you know, I just say what I’m into—
JJ: You know, I don’t—
JJ: I don’t set out to outrage. I mean, I, and it seems that, that where I’m at is not, it does tend to be outrageous.
ST: Perhaps we could talk about that, reactions to you when you appear publicly.
ST: I’m talking, I’m not talking about the inner circles of New York or Village, the Village, I’m talking about outside, west of the Hudson. When you appear, what is the first reaction?
JJ: Uh, there’s a great range, you know, from dummies to smarties and, and people in yellow dresses and heels and stockings and girdles to, um, to, um…
ST: You’re not calling them dummies, though, are you?
ST: Girls in yellow dresses, why?
JJ: Well, I had this experience in Seattle recently, a woman in a yellow dress, just like that, who just stopped me before I got on, you know? She did, took a look at my boots and she signaled the director to cut our time in half, and, and she was, uh, extremely hostile to, really, you know, just acting as a censor.
ST: Yeah. Now what do you think made her do that, fear?
JJ: Yeah, I suppose. Well, I mean, I think, um, it’s the way the culture, uh, uh, has brought us all up, you know, and, uh, it’s in the last decade or so that, um, with psychedelics and people’s heads have opened up more and they’re, uh, more accepting, if not just tolerant, of, uh, all different ways of behaving. America hasn’t been noted for its, uh, tolerance of, uh, just eccentricity, people who are eccentric.
ST: People who are different, yeah.
JJ: Yeah. Just because they wear checkered hats or something.
ST: How did it begin—yourself, your consciousness, your awareness that, say, you are a lesbian? A lesbian now in the sexual sense, you know.
JJ: Yeah. Well, I was born a lesbian, you know. I suppose, all men are lesbians, too, from that point of view, ’cause all men came out of their mothers.
JJ: Uh, our first great sexual experience was with our mothers, and I think that all sexual experience afterwards is a recreation of that experience. And so from that point of view, it’s a perversion for women to sleep with men or to, to be invaded by men. I think that, uh, that women as well as men want to recreate their original unity with their mothers.
ST: But isn’t this, forgive me, you see, you have your right… Aren’t you denying what is the natural impulses of people, each of whom is different and unique? Aren’t you denying that right?
JJ: We live in a culture, you see…
ST: You say it’s a perversion for a woman to sleep with a man, you see—isn’t that an individual matter?
JJ: Well, we live in a culture, and by definition a culture is a perversion of nature.
ST: Well, I don’t know, keep going. I don’t quite… You lost me there.
JJ: Well, you see, when you say natural instincts, we don’t know too much what our natural instincts are by this time in history, because we have been so diverted by, uh, cultural conditionings of all—all of us have been so heavily conditioned. And, um, so I think, this, my book is a story of growing up as an, as a conditioned person who was instinctively at odds with, um, the social forces around me and not knowing that, you see. I was just a naturally acculturated female, although I had certain advantages as a female: I didn’t have a father or brother, and, um, uh, this permitted me more mobility, you know. I wasn’t stuck in a girdle as soon as I was born or anything. I was very athletic and what they would call a tomboy or something.
JJ: And, and, uh, then I became intellectually curious, and so I, uh, was, um, mentally mobile too. And, um, I, I found that all of this mobility was in opposition to the social forces of, of the male world, which, um, which tends to prohibit women from this mobility at every turn. But I didn’t know that this was happening. So this threw me into conflict with my culture. And, um, so, so that I think that my emergence as an outrageous person, um, is really a recovery of my original mobility, if you will…
JJ: … you know, and a reassertion of that and the, the advantage that I experienced as a child.
JJ: I think that the, that which has passed between a woman’s legs has gotten out of her control, that seems to me a pretty basic way of, basic way of putting it.
ST: That’s very interesting. Absolutely, yeah. So she produced… But it was a mutual production, though, wasn’t it?
JJ: I don’t know. We don’t know how it, how it all came about.
ST: It couldn’t have been produced—I mean, there was a seed, you see. Where’d the seed come from?
JJ: Um, well, of course we, we might have been closer to parthenogenetic, uh, types of animals. We don’t know how this, um, interdependent reproductive process emerged. We don’t, we don’t, uh, we, we really don’t want to be dependent on another creature for our reproduction. I don’t think psychically that we want to, and I think this is the tragedy of animals that are divided into two sexes, you see.
ST: You know, aren’t you talking about something else? We hear the overused word alienation, yet we know there’s a truth to it. People remove one from the other… Aren’t you talking a step further in removal? A person being uniquely, not, so… Autonomy, by all means beautiful. You’re talking now about removal from another person entirely, when you speak of a parthenogen—
JJ: Well, autonomy does tend to mean that, does tend to mean removal.
ST: Autonomy to me means control of self.
JJ: Or it means, uh, yes, control of self, and control of self would mean, um, bonding with your peer group. You see?
ST: What about bonding with other groups? Isn’t this what, isn’t this what the hope, the salvation of the, of the human race would be?
JJ: You mean separate but equal or something.
ST: No, no, don’t put words in my mouth.
JJ: I don’t know, I don’t know what you mean exactly.
ST: I’m talking the fact that, you say it’s a perversion for women to sleep with men… I’m talking now about the natural impulse of each individual to be a lesbian woman, to be a homosexual guy, or to be a, a heterosexual man or woman. And you’re right, of course, it’s a heterosexually dominated society…
ST: … a world, I agree. But let both, or let all three or four or five or six, whatever dimensions there may be, flower.
JJ: Yes, but we’re now engaged in revolution. You’re talking in a post-revolutionary sense.
ST: But you are thinking, but don’t you have to think in that sense, too? In other words, you are taking what’d be an extremely militant position, deliberately, and the outrage is necessary. But you, you don’t see this as the end, that’s what I meant. I was assuming that you see this as the ultimate, the ultimate destiny of human—
JJ: Well, you know, just speaking and thinking of the end is a kind of, uh, a desultory exercise. It’s, it’s, you know, it’s an, it’s a, it’s a fantasy, why… We’re, we’re engaged in the immediate now, you know.
If, if we did live in a liberated society as some utopian idea, uh, just engaging in heterosexual sex for a woman would not necessarily mean being oppressed or, you know, uh… But, uh, I think you have to separate the notion of the actual activity from the institution which lies behind the activity. And, uh, so the, we are defining ourselves as a class. The class of men oppresses the class of women, and the ins—and, uh, the institution through which they do that is the heterosexual institution.
ST: But you also, do you have a child?
JJ: Yeah. Two children.
ST: Now, how, that’s what I mean.
JJ: Yeah, well, I just, I succumbed to the male corporation. I did what normal peo—women are supposed to do and I got married. So I was married for three or four years.
ST: Was that rough?
JJ: It wasn’t very nice. My line about that is that my marriage was an exercise in violence interrupted by short periods of violence.
ST: Are you sorry you had the children?
JJ: Well, I, no, I, I couldn’t say I was sorry. I’m not sorry about anything. I would only say that, uh, I’m, I’m quite certain if I, if I knew better then I probably wouldn’t have had children. If I had been politically aware. Because for, you know, what, how it, what it is for a woman to have a child in society now without our communal childcare centers and so forth, it’s an impossible situation. It’s a sacrificial action and we are now, I think, uh, directed towards non-sacrifice as women.
ST: But isn’t there something else? Of course, obviously we’re in agreement about childcare centers and the, um, the rights of women and mothers, mothers, I said. Um, so what, what, what about your two chi—I don’t mean to be too personal, so stop me.
ST: What about your two children, your thoughts and their thoughts?
JJ: I don’t think about it much.
ST: Do you see them?
JJ: Not much.
ST: Back to, uh, the theme… There are now millions of lonely, alienated people living behind the billboards, non-celebrated—homosexuals, lesbians, heterosexuals. How is the lot of these people to be endured and improved, how, you know, in our society?
JJ: Well, you can’t have, you can’t have a socialist revolution without a woman’s revolution. I mean the people at the bottom of the heap are women. When people bring up human liberation, I say, well, are we talking about feminism or not? See, feminism is about women.
ST: We’re talking about feminism plus.
JJ: Well, I’m talking about feminism because I’m involved in, in a partisan movement. Because I’m involved in the movement that most directly concerns me. I never thought I’d get into a social trip, you know.
ST: What does that mean?
JJ: Well, I was so much on the artist trip. And the mystical religious artist trip.
ST: Oh, yeah, that might be worth, during the time remaining perhaps… That, how did that shift occur? You, you were an artist, and you’re in Greenwich Village. When did the political and social aspects—
JJ: Well ’69, really, basically. 1969. There was all that feminism around already for two or three years, or more. And I didn’t, I, I just had glimmerings of it. Heard a little bit, sifted in a bit. I think the way I came to it was that I was by that time an angry lesbian. I was, I was pretty certain by this time I was being discriminated against, if not as a woman, at least as a lesbian. That had become increasingly clear. So I had by this time a personal, uh, confessional sort of autobiographical column.
Uh, so I was beginning to come out, and then all of a sudden there was the conjunction of me and my anger and my life with uh, with the Gay Liberation Front. And, uh, that threw me into my, my first kind of consciousness of myself as a political person. So then, then I gradually over a period of two years, by 1971 I would say, I had read enough basic feminist literature to put the two things together, you know. And then the problem seemed to me to articulate a lesbian feminist position. It was very clear. I couldn’t separate myself at some point, uh, being a lesbian, being a woman was all the same thing to me, you see.
ST: But you see…
JJ: It means being a woman-identified woman.
ST: But you see your condition, though, as connected with the condition of others that now aside from—
JJ: Oh yeah, I started to go to those indignation meetings, right? I went to, I went to a few of those. And I could see these people were angry, and at first they were the other to me, you know. They, you know, how something is different…
ST: Who’s the “they” you’re talking about now?
JJ: Well, these women at, women and men at Gay Liberation Front meetings. Everybody yelling and carrying on, and really angry. They didn’t represent me at that time. They were still the “other,” freaky people. ’Cause I wasn’t who I was.
ST: I’m going a step beyond. Now did you become interested in other matters, too, outside of gay liberation…
JJ: Well, that, that, of course, then stimulated my, uh, latent interest in Marxism and, uh, socialist thinking.
ST: I’m thinking also anti-war protests et cetera.
JJ: No, I never got into that. I think that’s a man’s game.
ST: How, what, how come?
JJ: Peace demonstrations and all that stuff.
ST: Tell me about that.
JJ: I never went to one of those.
ST: We’re onto something now. Wait just a minute now. So you don’t see, uh, anti-war sentiments expressed in coalition and group as being anything to do with women’s liberation?
JJ: Well, yes, but I mean to, to just get into anti-war demonstrations with men is to participate in the man’s war against men. And to come, just to say “I’m against war” seems to me very simple-minded. It’s so simple-minded.
ST: No how, you didn’t take part… I’m not being righteous now—
JJ: Well, feminism—
ST: I’m talking now about the killing of women and children, and attempts to stop the killing of women and children. So you think that’s not your—
JJ: Yes, but because as long as we live in a man’s culture, man will go on killing women and children. So what we are doing is—
ST: So what do you—
JJ: We’re working on a woman’s, we’re working on a woman’s culture to stop this. You can’t, you can’t—
ST: I’m talking about a direct stopping of a bombing of Cambodian villagers right now.
JJ: Well, if they don’t do it there, they’ll do it someplace else. As long as we have men in the government, they’re going to continue doing that.
ST: You know what, I hate to say this, if this is your approach, Nixon has nothing to worry about.
JJ: He, well, that’s been my position all along. ’Cause Nixon is just one guy. Nixon represents the—
ST: No, I’m saying that if your approach were the approach of all women he has nothing to worry about.
JJ: Nixon represents the American people. And the American people are basically men. Nixon is no big deal, he’s just like all the other guys.
ST: I’m saying something else.
JJ: Oh, excuse me.
ST: I’m condemning you.
ST: I’m saying that if this was, is your approach about, talking about anti-war demonstrations and the stopping, involving men as well as women—
JJ: I have to use a metaphor to describe what I mean.
ST: Yeah. Yeah.
JJ: That is you have, um, uh, let’s say you have a tower, uh, made of, um, blocks. And, um, supposing the inside of this tower is rotten, you know. And, um, feminism is working at the bottom of this rotten tower. And until, until woman’s culture and until feminism and the female principle has more leverage in the world at large, they’re going to go on having this rotten tower. And women and children are killed in the homes, never mind, uh, never mind Cambodia.
ST: Both. Why, why not—
JJ: It’s the killing in Cambodia is a reflection of the killing of women and children in the homes. It’s just a reflection.
ST: Not denying that. I’m merely saying that, metaphor or no metaphor, of course the tower has to be rebuilt, but in the meantime there are human lives involved. In the home, of course, as well as in Cambodia.
JJ: I know but if I, if I diverted all of my time into stopping the bombing in Cambodia, uh, you know then I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have time to work on the real basis.
ST: It’s obvious that Jill Johnston and I are just beginning our conversation. We’ll call this an open-end close, you know. I find that it’s narrow. I mean, uh, much as I admire your position, I think it’s narrow in that it does not include the other, that there has to be cooperation with this other species called man, too.
JJ: Well, women have cooperated with men for a long time.
ST: Any other thing you feel like saying?
ST: Anything you feel like saying as we’re saying goodbye?
JJ: I think you’ll see that, uh, that, uh, in the end you’ll see that we’re right. That this is the really broad approach to the world’s problems.
ST: One of them. Jill Johnston. Thank you very much.
JJ: Yeah, thank you.
EM Narration: Jill Johnston remained committed to the feminist cause, although she later came to refer to her book Lesbian Nation as a “period piece.” She continued to write, as a cultural critic and about her own life. Her final book was a biography of the father she never knew.
In 1993, Jill married her longtime partner, Ingrid Nyeboe, in Denmark. The couple married again, in Connecticut, a year before Jill’s death on September 18, 2010. She was 81.
Many thanks to everyone who makes Making Gay History possible: senior producer Nahanni Rous, co-producer and deputy director Inge De Taeye, researcher Brian Ferree, photo editor Michael Green, genealogist Michael Leclerc, and our social media team, Cristiana Peña, Nick Porter, and Denio Lourenco. Special thanks to our guardian angel Jenna Weiss-Berman and our founding editor and producer, Sara Burningham. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Myers.
Making Gay History is a co-production of Pineapple Street Studios, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Season eight of this podcast is produced in association with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which is managed by WFMT in partnership with the Chicago History Museum. A very special thank-you to Allison Schein Holmes, Director of Media Archives at WTTW/Chicago PBS and WFMT Chicago, for giving us access to Studs Terkel’s treasure trove of interviews. You can find many of them at studsterkel.wfmt.com.
Season eight of this podcast has been made possible with funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, proud Chicagoans Barbara Levy Kipper and Irwin and Andra Press, and our listeners, including Van and Tina Van De Water and Hal Brody and Don Smith. Thanks, Van and Tina! Thanks, Hal and Don!
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So long! Until next time!