Pictured From left, flyers from circa 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, and 1990. See more copies online at www.windycitymediagroup.com . Faye Robinson, Kathy Munzer and Jackie Anderson pictured in August. Photo by Tracy Baim A 1999 schedule, and a photo of the WICCA/MMCH front door, circa 1970s when the two groups operated together.
When I graduated from college in 1984, I was fortunate to hear about a part-time editorial job at GayLife newspaper. Some of my first assignments were to cover women's institutions, including the Jane Addams Bookstore, Women & Children First Bookstore, Women in Crisis Can Act ( WICCA ) , the newly started Hot Wire: Journal of Women's Music & Culture, Artemis Singers, and Mountain Moving Coffeehouse.
As a 21-year-old lesbian who had already attended the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival while in college, these stories helped me immediately connect to my community while also trying to make my way in a larger, often sexist, gay community. The women I met covering these stories welcomed me into their communities and many became my mentors, colleagues and friends. Among the amazing women I was able to meet were collective supporters and members, fans, and Chicago lesbian legends—many of them now in the Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame, including Marie Kuda, Toni Armstrong Jr., Jorjet Harper, Jackie Anderson, Sarah Hoagland, and Kathy Munzer. Mountain Moving itself is also in the city's Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
Some of those strong women's traditions and activists from 1984 are still around today, but many are gone. Mountain Moving has endured as the oldest known continuously operating women's coffeehouse in the world. It started in the early 1970s, and suffered the normal growing pains and personality conflicts all groups go through. Its own internal struggles paralleled what was going on for many women's groups—issues of politics, gender, separatism and more.
While the Coffeehouse in more recent years operated mainly as a music performance venue, in the 1970s and 1980s it also featured workshops, panels, films, potlucks, and more. New names to the burgeoning women's music and culture scene stopped by, including Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Kate Clinton, Maxine Feldman, Alix Dobkin, Linda Tillery, Teresa Trull & Barbara Higbie, Ginni Clemmons, Mary Watkins, Kay Gardner, June Millington, and many more nationally and locally known acts.
The coffeehouse also moved locations several times, eventually winding up in Andersonville. Its women-only policy ( 'women-born women' ) caused friction in the community. The culture has changed around the Coffeehouse, but the collective members stayed true to the original mission, not worried about losing audiences to newer groups such as Estrojam, which were open to all. But their core audience and volunteer base is growing older, and due to time and financial burdens, this 31st season of the Coffeehouse will be its last: Vickie Shaw performs Sept. 17, Lucie Blue Tremblay Oct. 22, Tret Fure Nov. 5 and Deidre McCalla with special guests in a final show Dec. 10, all at 1700 W. Farragut, 7:30 p.m.
What follows is an interview conducted by myself and Windy City Times intern Amy Wooten in August with four of the Coffeehouse's current and past members.
— Tracy Baim
WCT: Say who you are, and what you do in your other non-Mountain Moving life, and the period of time you were involved in Mountain Moving.
Kathy Munzer: I've been with the collective of MM since '81, and I was a producer since '84 for the collective, bringing performers. And my other life, I work for child support. So, I work for the State of Illinois Child Support, and I'm a social service manager.
Sarah Hoagland: I've been a friend of the collective for I don't know how long, but I've been attending the coffeehouse since I came to Chicago in 1977. And I used to give lectures there, particularly. Particularly leading up to and after my book, Lesbian Ethics. But I've also done For Lesbians Only, which is an anthology on separatist writings and an anthology on Mary Daley. And I'm a professor of philosophy and Women's Studies.
Faye Robinson: I came to the collective, it must have been in the early '70s. ... We had the coffeehouse going on at the Gargoyle in Hyde Park and WICCA was going on. And WICCA people were coming down to our coffeehouse. And then the Mountain Moving Coffeehouse started, and I don't quite know what the relationship is there, or what the time line is. But then we stopped that coffeehouse and started coming to this coffeehouse. And they moved to Peaches [ Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant ] . And then I came on the collective—people who started the collective: Eileen and people from WICCA. They said they were going to close down the collective—this was at Peaches—and then I left when Kathy [ around '81 ] .
WCT: So, to clarify the timeline was in the early '70s it was part of WICCA—
Robinson: It was part of WICCA, and then it became stand-alone.
WCT: Sometime in the early to mid-70's?
Robinson: Yeah. And right before I retired. ... I was in social services for the state of Illinois, in direct services. And then I was a manager at social services as Kathy is now.
Jackie Anderson: I don't know when I started at the coffeehouse. I started being a producer with Kathy and it was when the coffeehouse met every Saturday. ... It would have been sometime in the '80s ... . When I started going, it was School Street every Saturday. What I do for money is I work for City Colleges—philosophy. But I'm involved in the community, too.
Kathy: She's part of Pow Wow.
Anderson: I was board president for four years [ of Lesbian Community Cancer Project ] . I was on the Lesbigay Radio board. I was on Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays' board..
WCT: What were the physical location timelines?
Robinson: WICCA and the Mountain Moving Coffeehouse were on Western. And then the coffeehouse moved to—
Munzer: Sheffield and Roscoe?
Robinson: Yeah. And then from Peaches on Sheffield to School Street [ a church ] .
WCT: So then it went from School to Rodgers Park?
Munzer: That's right. On Morse Street. And then it went to Ebenezer. Now, we should also put that we got kicked out of two coffeehouses. Two churches. We got kicked out of School Street, where we were for like 13 years, again because of homophobia. And I would say the same thing with Ebenezer.
Hoagland: I wouldn't say homophobia. Less homophobia than misogyny.
WCT: On School Street it was because the church changed what type of church it was?
Munzer: No, no. A new pastor came in. ... The church closed down because of her. ... It's a Spanish church now.
WCT: Who comes first to mind as your favorite artists?
Munzer: I'm not sure I want to say who my favorite is.
WCT: Well, maybe memorable would be? No?
Hoagland: I'll say Diedra [ McCalla ] . She, of all of them, has been the one there every year.
WCT: What is your first memory of womyn's music and how do you define it?
Hoagland: It's not just womyn's music, it's womyn's culture. Or lesbian's culture.
Robinson: It's kind of a separatism, to start with.
Hoagland: And we could get a certain sense of what that meant, which is getting together on our own.
Robinson. And coming out of WICCA, because WICCA, it was for abused women. It was kind of a place of safety. So safety was one of the big starting issues, and then being separately found—
Hoagland: So, there were comedians, there were comics, there were writers—
Hoagland: Theorists, discussions. I mean, when I would give a talk, the place was full, you know. I'd present a certain amount of Lesbian Ethics, some material I was working on, and there would be really neat discussions afterwards. There would be poetry readings, what were the women—
Munzer: They were called Women on the Couch.
Hoagland: WOC, so they were called Women on the Couch, yeah.
WCT: What Mountain Moving has evolved into is a lot of performance and music. So, really what it came from was politics and safe space and culture—all kind of culture.
Hoagland: One thing I might say, and you all might disagree with me … but in the early days it was politics. The politics of what we were doing, which is not necessarily what everyone else was. Politics. And at some point, it really shifted to affirmation, I think. And that's sort of where some of the women come in, you know, to see what it is they saw 20 years ago. And with that, it's not affirmation for everyone. And politics is just—
Hoagland: It's all assimilationists. And we were never about that.
Faye: We were about finding each other.
WCT: So, do you think that's a natural evolution? And do you feel a sense of loss that it's not what it used to be?
Robinson: I do.
Hoagland: It's the whole Chicago community.
Robinson. Everything changed.
Munzer: It's not something we did wrong.
Robinson: You know, right now we're just … lesbians at a coffeehouse. No national, political campaigns.
Munzer: And now there's so many places for lesbians to go. You know, any place, every place. The coffeehouse was the only place besides the bars where lesbians had to meet.
Robinson: We were an alternative to the bars. This was an alcohol-free space.
Munzer: But, you know, for me, I went to the first Michigan [ Womyn's Festival ] . I wasn't even out. I was a feminist. And I went to the first Michigan, and I think that stayed with me. That feeling of celebration, creating something with other lesbians. ...But then I saw the coffeehouse, and I was like, 'Oh, OK, this is kind of like Michigan, this is in Chicago, and this is fun. This could be definitely fun to hang out with friends and make new friends and do something for the community.' That's what I've always felt, too.
WCT: What about you, Jackie? What do you think about the culture, the politics? You came in the late '80s, and there were still lots of workshops and things. So, what do you think of the change?
Anderson: I think the change is a change that's happening in the country. I think it's a change that every identity group relates to. I mean, I remember when I could have said the same thing about the African American community. … I think that it's an unfortunate inevitability. It's a loss. We're historically losing music festivals … but it also indicates that each generation has different concerns and issues and different struggles. And so I think that it's harder now. I think that each generation of lesbians are expressing themselves. And no, it isn't the way that I would express myself, but I'm not engaged in—that's a different context than my own. And there's also a difference that we never really speak of, since I've lived all over the city, there is a difference—a cultural difference—between the Southwest Side, South and West Side, and the North Side. And I live those differences, as well. So, the interesting thing is the South Side is a tad more political than the North Side because of people of color who are unable to assimilate anyway.
WCT: And it's true that Mountain Moving, the predominance of its collective is relatively majority whites. Do you feel that women of color fully embraced it?
Anderson: Mostly women of color at the coffeehouse didn't exist, actually. Until … because they didn't come North. It's not that they didn't exist. We didn't have people moving comfortably between North and South. The reason, I mean, because they all know, there was a bar called Augie and CK's that used to discriminate when they carded ... . You know, women of color like each other, too, so the South Side had a different networking that we did that connected us. And generally speaking, we don't play womyn's music.
WCT: What is womyn's music? … What does it mean to you?
Anderson: My most favorite womyn's music performer is Ferron. I do find her lyrics and style to be very comfortable and particularly emotionally captivating. So, I love Ferron.
WCT: What about the genre does or doesn't speak to you, as Jackie was saying, as well as individual artists that you think kind of made womyn's music mean something? So, Kathy, you went to Michigan and now you see it defined womyn's music. And me, actually, when I was in college in '84, '83, somebody played me a Cris Williamson tape, and whatever. And I went to Michigan and heard it live, then I got it. I got what womyn's music was. It took hearing it live and with thousands of women for me to get it.
Robinson: It's music for women and to women.
WCT: So it was mostly because it's lesbian?
Robinson: I think sometimes it might have been background music, just so people could get together, you know?
Munzer: But I think it's called womyn's music, it's kind of code for lesbian.
Hoagland: Yeah, it really is.
Munzer: I think it is. Because there's songs … just like the coffeehouse, it's a lesbian pocket for the most part. You get some—very few … But it really is. It's kind of code for lesbianism. For women, by women, about women. It's a lesbian collective.
Anderson: But I think—I, at least—and I've always enjoyed womyn's music in context with lots of women. Somehow it doesn't resonate the same when it's just me. When I'm at Michigan, I tell you, I love womyn's music. I always thought that, what was always for me, when I think of something that's womyn's music, is the theme of it. We think about the songs we all know and all can sing, they all have themes that are very much about us.
Hoagland: They are saying things that straight music doesn't say, that mainstream doesn't say—
Anderson: At least in those days the music was capturing a something that was unique to us as lesbians. Because I think what most of us have to be aware of is that … there was also a very conscious and deliberate effort to talk about, to think about how to create lesbian culture. And womyn's music—part of that—is things like the Michigan Festival as part of that. So, this was also a very conscious effort to say that we're lesbians, we're not just like other women except that we have this little, quirky thing about only wanting to be intimate with each other. That we are different in other ways. That our lives take different tangents, that we struggle with different things. And we don't feel the same way as women who are not women-loving women. So, the music was that, and it spoke to that. The themes were that, the idea, the feelings, the styles.
Robinson: I think the artists, too. The women who came in to sing.
Hoagland: They were creating something.
Robinson: They were taking chances. They were getting out there. And they were expressing for a lot of us. Just the artists themselves. The opportunity it gave them, you know, to grow.
Hoagland: You think of standard fare, which is true in straight society now as much as it was then … it's woman-hating. And we're not about that. We're about loving women. And everywhere you went, there was stuff that put down women. You know, oh my man, he beat the shit out of me, you know, but I'm going to be loyal to him for the rest of my life.
Munzer: Stand by your man.
Hoagland. Hell no. And so you have Chicago Women's Liberation Band, don't put that shit on me, stuff like that. We were outraged, and we were expressing it. And we were coming together and creating a reality that didn't exist.
Munzer: And I just want to say about the women of color thing. Since I've been a producer, back in the early '80s, I really tried to bring women of color to the coffeehouse. I felt like some women of color live North, a lot live South and West, but I just felt like it was one of the goals of the coffeehouse to make it more welcoming. So I tried to produce, and we had Women on the Couch, they were at the coffeehouse for many years.
WCT: Talk about the transition of bringing in new people. Has it gone through three or four generations of women?
Robinson: The more I think about it, yeah. Yeah, you've been through three or four yourself. I would think at least four.
WCT: Four generations of different women. And was it really younger women, or just new political women?
Robinson: Well, we came out because we were just activist types.
Hoagland: That's what created the collective was activists.
Munzer: And I think it was activists and I think just women who were into womyn's music and women's culture.
Robinson: Well, nobody was into it. I didn't even know what it was. And we still don't even know tonight [ laughs ] .
Hoagland: I want to say something about that. I think it's a real mistake to try to define and raise a question. Because what is mainstream music? And if you had to define it, what would you say? You are only asked to define something that because it's not considered the norm, or something like that. And, you know, that was just the world we lived in. We were activists, we were angry, we were loving women, we were creating different possibilities for our lives, and we expressed it in all kinds of ways, again through poetry, through comedy, through music. And so womyn's music or women's culture, I really hope that the article doesn't go into that: What is it? Because that's a straight society question. You know, prove that you're something to us.
Anderson: One of the things that was very important that you don't usually hear: We like being with each other. And the notion of women really consciously coming together like this, why do we bother? Because we love hanging together with each other. But that was, again, an important thing to speak to because that is not the way that women are constructed. Any of us, growing up, were supposed to desire the company of men.
Hoagland: And betray each other.
Anderson: And a bunch of girls. Well, they're just going to be silly and … well, we see it on some of these new shows ... . So part of it is just the fact that we enjoy each other as women. And that's what I think was very, very, very important.
WCT: I think what it was was threatening. And this maybe brings us into the transition of what separatism is, and how it was used. There was the controversy in the late '80s, early '90s about women-only space, which Mountain Moving has always been, but it's male children over the age of two at this point. I think it was over the age of eight at one point.
Munzer: Now it's just women.
Hoagland: Only girl children.
WCT: When that whole stuff flared up, the fact that women just wanted to be with women a few hours a week, the total number of hours equaled less than one weekend at Steamworks [ bathhouse ] . That was what was threatening. It was just the fact that women didn't want to be with men and enjoy their own company that was the threatening part but they were—
Hoagland: Talking to each other.
WCT: They were talking to each other and, you know, plotting to change the world.
Hoagland: We were determining access
WCT: Was separatism ever something that you internally debated when you first came across what that topic was? What was your first experience with the word, the concept? Was it Mountain Moving, what it another place? Talk about that.
Robinson: For me it was Linda Shear. She would have been around around the early coffeehouse. Because she had her band, and she had lesbian-only concerts. And it was a big debate whether or not her good friend … could come to the concert on Halsted at the Women's Center or not because [ she ] was straight.
Anderson: I want to say one other quick thing, and that is we never worked with the notion that somebody was looking over our shoulder. We were creating, not reacting. So, I think it's important to understand that it was pro-action, not reaction. We weren't saying, 'Oh, this is what they think of us, so we're going to do that.' We simply decided this was what we were going to do. So, I don't want the impression to go out that we were spending our time trying to prove ourselves in any sense in anyone else or allowing anyone else to set the terrain of our choices.
Robinson: Well, that's good because it was that. At … the first Michigan, I remember the sense of joy, you know, and in a lot of ways the coffeehouse became that for a lot of women who haven't had any experience with women-only space coming in. And separatism. There were a lot of arguments in the collective about the boy children, how old, and so on and so forth. And some of the women around the collective ... had sons. But for myself, I was always more or less in favor of the separatism. .
Hoagland: See, in terms of the male children, it's always seemed to me, first of all, that all kinds of women send their kids to summer camps, and the summer camps are segregated by sex. What's the problem? For me, the important thing is, I think it's a good lesson at least for boys to learn that they do not have the right to all parts of women's space. And if mothers would teach them that younger, it might be a little easier to get that point across when they're older. Another thing is I remember when I was teaching at Vassar and there was a women's—Diedra was performing—and there was a women's music performance. And there was this faculty member who I knew came and wanted to go out and wanted me to get him there, so I went there, and he ruined the whole atmosphere. And all he was doing was to gawk. And that's what I had with some of the male students in my classes in the early days, and it was incredibly disruptive. So, why were they there? But, the male child issue just seems to me ridiculous that women don't get that. Certainly the little girls can't go everywhere. Now, I remember one time at Michigan Alix Dobkin held a meeting with the girls who were at Michigan and decided to ask them what they though about boys, because adult women will go, 'Well, little boys aren't threatening.' Well, they aren't to adult women. So why don't we ask little girls? Well, Alix held a meeting with a bunch of little girls and asked them what they thought about it, and the girls said no, they didn't want them around. They were furious that they would even consider it.
Munzer: But there's stuff to me at the coffeehouse that's not just a separatist space, but being yourself. Being able to be yourself.
Coming up: Part Two.