Debra Hirshberg (b. 1954) grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to Cleveland in 1972 to attend Case Western Reserve University. She discusses coming out as a lesbian in the 1970s and becoming an active member of the East Side lesbian feminist community in Cleveland Heights in the mid-1970s. Hirshberg describes her involvement in Cleveland Heights' vibrant lesbian feminist communities in the 1970s and 1980s, including her role as a founding member of lesbian feminist collectives Hag House (Berkshire House), Oven Productions, and the Land Project. Debra also describes lesbian feminist spaces, activism, and cultural production in Cleveland, including the Three of Cups, the Womyn's Variety Show, and her work with the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.
Debra Hirshberg [00:00:22] You're welcome.
Riley Habyl [00:00:22] To begin, could you state your name for the record?
Debra Hirshberg [00:00:26] Debra Hirshberg.
Riley Habyl [00:00:28] Thank you. So Debra, where and when were you born?
Debra Hirshberg [00:00:34] I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on (redacted) 1954.
Riley Habyl [00:00:43] So, when did you move to the Cleveland area?
Debra Hirshberg [00:00:46] I came to Cleveland in September 1972 to enroll in Western Reserve College, which is now part of Case Western Reserve [University], or Case. I don't know what the current name is.
Riley Habyl [00:00:58] What drew you to move to Cleveland?
Debra Hirshberg [00:01:03] Going to college, I wanted to get away from Boston. I applied to schools in Ohio because I had an aunt and uncle in Columbus and my parents said, "Okay, Ohio is okay." And I chose Cleveland because it had a major medical center and it had a vibrant Jewish community, and the University had what I wanted, which was a non-sectarian department of religion and an active theater department.
Riley Habyl [00:01:42] What is your current occupation, or previous occupations?
Debra Hirshberg [00:01:46] I was a software consultant. I am retired, and that's what I was—in business.
Riley Habyl [00:01:58] What is your level of education, or (crosstalk) educational background?
Debra Hirshberg [00:02:06] I have a B.A. in religion and technical theater.
Riley Habyl [00:02:15] Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and family background?
Debra Hirshberg [00:02:23] Let's see. I was born with a heart defect. I have congenital heart disease and so a major part of my childhood was dealing with my health. I was not expected to survive my youth, and I did. I had open heart surgery when I was five in 1959—one of the earliest. And then, you know, various things happened, and my childhood was not very happy because of my health. And then as a high schooler, I became much more aware that I was probably a lesbian. So it was—I was not part of the social scenes, and in the seven—early seventies, late sixties there wasn't much visibility or that. I got into feminism and that is what affirmed me as being a lesbian. That yeah, I'll dedicate my life to women.
Riley Habyl [00:03:32] How did you first become aware of feminism and lesbianism—or how did you first make contact with people in the community?
Debra Hirshberg [00:03:42] Well, I didn't have a community in Boston, but I had a student teacher in high school. She was the student teacher, and at an after-school voluntary reading thing we read Sisterhood Is Powerful and it changed my life, and that's how I became aware of it. And I went to Campfire Girls summer camp, along with some Jewish summer camps, and I fell in love with somebody at camp—Campfire Girls summer camp. But it took us a long time to do—to get from being friends to being lovers. Years. But by the time I was out of high school, we were lovers.
Riley Habyl [00:04:29] What year would you say that was around—when you first met at the camp?
Debra Hirshberg [00:04:33] 1970 (crosstalk).
Riley Habyl [00:04:33] '72?
Debra Hirshberg [00:04:36] '70. We met in 1970, and I'm still very good friends with her. I hope she's coming in August to come visit me here in PA [Pennsylvania].
Riley Habyl [00:04:51] Were you out to your family? And if you were—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:04:54] Not initially. No, it took years, years, years. We never had really the sit-down conversation, "Look, mother and dad, this is what I am," but I was very open about what my life was about.
Riley Habyl [00:05:10] Mhm.
Debra Hirshberg [00:05:11] So, they made the inferences and met my girlfriends and that kind of stuff—but not with Sharon, you know, my early partner. We were not out. We would bring down the cot from the base—from the attic, put it in the bedroom. We would sleep together in my single bed, then we would mess up the cot in the morning. We very under the radar.
Riley Habyl [00:05:45] Would you say that your awareness of lesbianism in general was—or, I'll rephrase that. How did you become aware that there were other people like you, that there were other people that shared the same feelings and experiences that you did if it wasn't something that you saw in—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:06:03] Reading.
Riley Habyl [00:06:04] Reading? Yeah.
Debra Hirshberg [00:06:04] Yeah, reading. Books were very important to me. Sisterhood is Powerful. I read Lesbian Women by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. I—. What were some of the other early books I read? I don't know. When I was at Reserve—Western Reserve—I went to the medical library and looked up lesbianism. I was horrified but, you know, I was researching it like a good student does. But mostly I was into feminism, so I did a lot of, you know, women's activities.
Riley Habyl [00:06:58] Would you say there was— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [00:07:03] I worked at a summer camp, a Jewish summer camp in New York State, and several of the high school women that came there—. It was for high school kids. It was like a youth group thing for high school kids—educational, all kinds of stuff, not athletic—and kids would come, women would come, young girls will come—who wanted abortions, who came knowing they were pregnant—coming to New York State and knowing that they could get an abortion in New York before it was legal nationally.
Riley Habyl [00:07:44] How were you introduced to feminism at Case Western? Through reading or did you get in contact—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:07:50] It wasn't at Case Western, it was in high school. Yeah, it was in high school—Sisterhood is Powerful. At Case [Western], well, there was a Women's Center. And Mortarboard—are you familiar with the organization Mortarboard? You know, would sponsor people. And Charlotte Bunch came in from the magazine Quest—which was a very early feminist journal, lesbian feminist journal,—and spoke in, I guess it was 1974 maybe, or '73, at Mortarboard. And I was involved with the food co-op, which was—didn't have a place at the time, but it was—it distributed food at the church, and I was a buyer. And many of the community women involved were active feminists. They weren't lesbians, but they were active feminists, they were working on all the feminist issues at the time. And I spent my junior year in Israel. 1974, '75 in Israel. When I came back in the fall of 1975, Cleveland hosted International Women's Year, a UN [United Nations] conference where Betty Ford came and Lily Tomlin—. Betty Ford was the first lady at the time. You know, it was a very big deal. It was at the convention center and really a very big deal in 1975. And I went representing the Case Western Reserve Women's Center to the International Women's Year, and then I got involved in local activities in Cleveland. The core mission group that eventually founded WomenSpace was an outcrop of the International Women's Year thing, and there were women from all different kinds of organizations. And we had meetings and retreats. And I was like the token lesbian, really, but I came through the [Case Western Reserve] Women's Center—that was the organization. And how I got connected to the community—to the lesbian community—is the lesbian community came into the Women's Center wanting to use our facilities—you know, venues at the university—to host events that they were doing, and they wanted to use our money to help co-sponsor events. So we started meeting about who we were gonna bring in and where we were going to do it, and so I got involved through that with the lesbian community, through Oven Productions and—. At IWY [International Women's Year] there was a card table, and a yellow pad of paper and a sign that says—this is D.Y.K.E., D-Y-K-E, Dykes You Know Everywhere—and if you wanted to join, put your name and phone number. Of course, I was very paranoid. I didn't put my name and phone number, but they eventually—. I eventually hooked up with them.
Riley Habyl [00:11:05] Can you describe the general attitude of the women that you worked with at the [Case Western] Women's Center towards lesbianism? Was there any sort of coalition between feminists and lesbians as separate groups at that time?
Debra Hirshberg [00:11:18] No. No, no, we were all together, and I would say most of the active women eventually came out as lesbians. Some didn't, but most of them did—and the ones that didn't were fine with the ones that were. It was all volunteer. There wasn't a faculty, there was—wasn't the center. Matter of fact, when they started the Women's Center, Dorothy [Miller]—. I got mad at her saying, "This is the first Women's Center at [Case Western] Reserve," and I kept saying, "No, it isn't! We had a Women's Center when I was there," blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah—but it wasn't staffed and it wasn't fund—. Well, we had funds, we applied through student organizing for funds, but we didn't—it isn't what it is now. It wasn't sanctioned by the university as part of the educational thing, offering. It was like a volunteer organization—like any student group—and we met at the student center. We had a little office. We hung out in the little office, yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:12:37] So what drew you to feminist organizing and feminist activism, and actually becoming involved with the Women's Center and with these organizations—at least the non-lesbian-specific organizations at first?
Debra Hirshberg [00:12:50] At first I agreed with the premise that women needed to organize ourselves in order to gain equality, or equity. Not so much equality, but equity. We don't have to be equal to something, we just have to have equal access to things. And I felt like marriage was a trap for women who got stuck in it for economic reasons—and because there weren't society organizations to support raising families—that marriage really was the way to do it and it was not good for many women. And I wanted there to be universal health care—universal childcare, you know, public housing. Just all kinds of access things—you know, Cleveland Women Working—that allowed women to be able to support themselves and their families without the dependence on a man who may or may not have been kind to them—in a kind way.
Riley Habyl [00:14:18] So, broadly speaking, how would you describe the lesbian community in Cleveland in the early 1970s when you first were introduced to it, or when you first encountered it?
Debra Hirshberg [00:14:31] Really vibrant. I would say we were gung-ho. We were positive. Jimmy Carter was president, there was an office on women. There were—there was an out lesbian representative in Massachusetts. Things were—. We thought we could make headway. Abortion had become legal. There was money for rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters for the first time that it was recognized—but they weren't institutionalized—they were all feminist organizations, you know, not run by social workers or, you know, professionals. They were run by feminists. Art was a big thing. I was very active in Oven Productions. I believe art changes people's minds and allows for self-expression and is very important to—for individuals to see themselves reflected in something like art, whether it's music or poetry or theater or dance. Oven [Productions] was very active. We did conferences. I don't know—I thought the community was really active. We didn't have a place until, I think 1977, the Three of Cups [12814 Buckeye Rd.] opened—which was a lesbian bar, a lesbian community bar—and so then there was a place. Otherwise, you know, we went to bars and Oven [Productions]—Oven was a big place—and the dances that we did ourselves, but there wasn't a public place except for the productions, which were maybe once a month. So it was a big longing. But many of us were involved in many things, so we'd see the same people everywhere (laughs), you know, and all my best friends were women that I was active with and stuff.
Riley Habyl [00:16:51] In the early years, would you say it was a very close-knit community? I know you mentioned that there were a lot of women that were active in a lot of the same organizations throughout the city.
Debra Hirshberg [00:17:03] Well, there was a group of us that were very close-knit not (unintelligible)—and then there were other lesbians in Cleveland that we would see at events that weren't active in our community. That didn't mean they weren't doing anything, they just weren't in the—what I would call the [Cleveland Heights] East Side lesbian community. We were marginally involved with the [LGBT Community] Center—very marginally—like, I gave them money, that's how marginally, but I never went. [Laughs] But we could use the [High] Gear magazine and, you know, to advertise our stuff. We had our own magazine—What She Wants—and that was feminist, it wasn't just lesbian. And it, you know, stimulated ideas and promoted at events an organized people. It was a phenomenal tool. So if you go back and look at some of the What She Wants from the seventies, you'd be really impressed with the quality of the newspaper at that time.
Riley Habyl [00:18:18] To circle back a little bit to your early introductions to Cleveland's lesbian community—. How did you sort of come to a—an understanding of your identity and your politics within Cleveland's lesbian community? Would you say that you identified more with the lesbian community in general, or with a specific lesbian feminist subgroup within that community?
Debra Hirshberg [00:18:45] Yeah. And the lesbian feminists. The women that came to the women's center. The lesbians that came to the Women's Center who wanted to bring in, like, Rita Mae Brown or Susan Rennie—or we brought in Flo Kennedy, and we were bringing in activists to talk about changing the world. That's what we were interested in, and there was a like group of women that were interested in doing that. And occasionally we'd bring in a band or something.
Riley Habyl [00:19:24] Can you talk a little bit about how you first encountered lesbian feminism, and how that sort of motivated your activism and your politics in the early-to-mid 1970s?
Debra Hirshberg [00:19:39] I encountered it through the [Case Western Reserve] Women's Center. Yeah, before I was just this isolated lesbian with this remote girlfriend in Massachusetts, and—and then I met women in the community and we would talk ideas. There was something called the Feminist Forum, which met at somebody's house once a month to talk about ideas, you know, strategies. There were—. It was a conference to say, "What did we want to do as a community? What organizations did we need to support ourselves?", and to encourage the—strengthening women's participation in society. A lot of women work that Preterm, the abortion clinic. I never worked within the feminist community—I'm all volunteer. Well, there was a very short stint that I was an Interim Executive Director of the Women's Community Foundation, but I was—my life has been a volunteer. My work has been as a software consultant. I don't know how I encountered them, I—. The three women who I first met at one of the—at Godmothers [Godmothers II, 1014 E. 63rd], an old bar—Susan [Woodworth], Jamie [Hecker] and Sally [Tatnall] are still my best—you know, my really good friends. So I'm in a relationship with Jamie [Hecker]—(Debra's phone rings) I was in a relationship with Susan [Woodworth], and I met Sally [Tatnall] and Jamie [Hecker] in a collective. And yeah, I just—. And I'm still engaged with Sally [Tatnall] in her life, and her daughter, and her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Riley Habyl [00:21:37] Just to clarify, is the Sally that you're referring to Sally Tatnall and her house, the Berkshire—I think—Hag House collective? Is that the one?
Debra Hirshberg [00:21:49] Yes, I was part of that. Yeah, Yeah, I was in there—one of the founders.
Riley Habyl [00:22:03] So how did you find out about the concept of collectivist living? Or how did that—the idea of collectivist living sort of become something that you and the other founding members of the collective you were part of wanted to pursue?
Debra Hirshberg [00:22:22] Quest, the lesbian feminist journal, was written by a collective of lesbian feminists, and they wrote about collective theory, and I knew the family wasn't the best organizing tool. What are our alternatives for organizing? I had spent a year in Israel, so I was very familiar with the Kibbutz, and the Kibbutz organizing tool—and yet it didn't support women in the same way it supported men, and so it was still not really ideal and—. But it was a bet—. It was a good experiment, it's—it was a good change. But I thought that there need—. I don't know. I was willing to pursue other alternatives. I wasn't going to have children. It wasn't about being a family to raise children, but other alternatives to support ourselves and allow ourselves to have greater access to do the things we wanted to do because we didn't have to spend as much time just surviving. It was very, very economical to live in a group and to support each other, and out of the collective we did a lot of organizing individually and as a collective. And it gave us a foundation where we weren't focused on our own survival. So it was, it was good. It didn't succeed, and it was—the worst breakup of my life was the breakup of the [Hag House] collective. But I'm still very good friends with everybody, wherever they are. I spend time with all of them—not all of them, but with Willow [Bentley] and Phyllis [Balcerzak].
Riley Habyl [00:24:40] To get a little int—or, to get into more detail about the [Hag House] collective—do you remember what year it was founded, and for how long it lasted until it dissolved?
Debra Hirshberg [00:24:49] Okay. We started meeting in 1977. We met for almost a y—almost two years before we moved in. We moved in in 1979. And I left—. I left. I was—. I left in 1988, so I was there nine years.
Riley Habyl [00:25:17] What happened in the two years— (crosstalk).
Debra Hirshberg [00:25:20] It dissolved when I left. (laughs) What happened in the two years we were meeting?
Riley Habyl [00:25:28] Yes. Yeah, before you ended up moving in, was that time to sort of— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [00:25:34] Theory.
Riley Habyl [00:25:35] —plan out how it would work? Yeah.
Debra Hirshberg [00:25:36] Yeah, theory. What we wanted. Why we thought it was a good idea. How we thought we could work together. What the parameters would be. How it would be structured. Yeah, we made a fatal mistake—which was moving into a house that was owned by Sally [Tatnall]. And so, in the end Sally [Tatnall] had more say than the rest of us, even though we took on shared responsibility for the house (unintelligible) and blah-blah-blah. We should have purchased collectively our own place. That's what I would recommend for other people who want to do a live-in collective is—you have to all start on equal ground.
Riley Habyl [00:26:32] Mhm. Would you say then there was a hierarchy to the house dynamics that wasn't intended to be there in the first place?
Debra Hirshberg [00:26:46] Not so much within the house. No, there wasn't a hierarchy in the house, but it—when the going got tough, it became clear that I had to leave. Jamie [Hecker] had to leave. Sally [Tatnall] wasn't going to be the one to leave because it was her house.
Riley Habyl [00:27:14] That makes sense.
Debra Hirshberg [00:27:15] You know, and Phyllis [Balcerzak] left, and Willow [Bentley] left—you know, people left and Sally [Tatnall] was left in the house [2953 Berkshire Rd.]. Whereas if it had been a joint property, we would have disbanded together or worked it out together.
Riley Habyl [00:27:39] Did you leave on—. And I know that you mentioned that you're still in contact with a lot of the women who were part of the collective. Did it dissolve on relatively rocky terms? Or, well, sort of a—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:27:56] It dissolved over time. Sally [Tatnall] tried to keep it going. I would say—I was hurt, I was very hurt emotionally—and I maintained a relationship with Sally [Tatnall], and we have come to—we overcame it nearly 30 years ago. But yeah, I mean, it's been a long time. We've been in each other's lives for a long time. You don't throw that stuff away. But, you know, of course there were feelings that have to be worked out. But yeah—. We love each other. No problem.
Riley Habyl [00:28:47] Can you tell me a little more about the dynamics of living within the house and the [Hag House] collective?
Debra Hirshberg [00:28:57] Well, let's see. We had weekly meetings. We tried to eat meals together. We had—. We planned events together. We supported each other's activism, whatever the other ones were doing. Sally [Tatnall] and I were very engaged in bringing the Dinner Party—Judy Chicago's Dinner Party—to Cleveland. That took up a lot of our time. Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] were very engaged in hosting a Radical Thought Conference, and that took up a lot of their time. We supported them. We had Feminist Forums at our house. We developed our own winter holiday that we did every year, and we would invite the community to it. We had parties, lots of dance, disco parties. We had a disco machine that I was involved in—in the community that we use for community dances. But it was stored at our house so we could just use it at our house whenever we wanted to have a disco party. We babysat infants—we got involved in some childcare stuff. We—there were lots of meetings there. If somebody was involved in an organization or a group, oftentimes it met at Berkshire [2953 Berkshire Rd.] because it was a big house. We did the holidays—the solstices and equinoxes—that were open to women. We did a Thanksgiving dinner that was open to women—anybody—any woman who wanted to come. We were pretty much savages. But, you know—.
Riley Habyl [00:31:07] Do you remember the name of the holiday that you mentioned?
Debra Hirshberg [00:31:12] Oisia.
Riley Habyl [00:31:15] Could you spell that out for me?
Debra Hirshberg [00:31:22] O-i-s-i-a, but I'll look at my folder and I'll send you an email. Oisia. It's a word we got from Madeline L'Engle. Do you know her? She wrote A Wrinkle in Time. Anyway, she's an author. She wrote some more spiritual books, and Oisia was some kind—. You know, I don't even remember anymore—that's awful—but it had meaning at the time. Let me get back to you on what that meaning was (laughs). But what we did was we hung apples from the ceiling and we put fortunes on the apples—we wrote fortunes, we wrote our own fortunes—and that women would come, and they would pick an apple with them fortune. And we would have conversations about the solstice and the rebirth that comes with the winter solstice, the darkness, and then the coming of the light. Everything doesn't end, it starts over again. Yeah, I think we had like five nights of Oisia. Some were dinner parties with some of our closest friends, some are open to any woman that wanted to come. You know, different kinds of events—but we had these events. My file cabinets are behind me. I could look it up, but I would—it would take time for me to find the Oisia folder. But I'm sure I have it, and if I don't have it, Jamie [Hecker] has it.
Riley Habyl [00:33:06] What were some of the events that you held at the house?
Debra Hirshberg [00:33:13] Feminist Forums. Conversations. We did a whole book discussion on Mary Daly's Gynecology—that was interesting. We read other books that people in the community would come to. We did the holidays, the solstices, and equinoxes, the Oisia, parties. And then whatever women were involved in. Like if I was involved in a Jewish lesbian group, we sometimes met at the house. Or SOAR [Stop Oppression and Racism]—are you familiar with SOAR?
Riley Habyl [00:33:53] I don't believe so.
Debra Hirshberg [00:33:54] Anti-racism groups that met a lot at the house. I don't know—we planned conferences, we planned a [local radical feminist] conference in 1981 out of the house. We planned the [Radical Thought Conference] Conference in 1987 out of the house. The Building Project—the Community Foundation—you know, all these things some of us were involved in.
Riley Habyl [00:34:36] Was the core group that you were involved with—that was also part of the collective—involved in the development of a lot of the lesbian feminist organizations and conferences and events and spaces that later emerged in the late seventies and eighties? Like—I'm thinking about the—like the Womyn's Variety Show, and Egg Moon Farm, and things—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:35:06] Not Egg Moon Farm. We were involved in the Land Project—we had Land Project meetings at the house. The five of us of the original collective were all members of the Land Project, and then—I'm still a member of the Land Project, so is Jamie [Hecker], yeah. Yeah, so the Land Project—Egg Moon Farm was a split—something that happened when some people left the Land Project. Yeah so, yes, we—some of us more than others. A lot of—Willow [Bentley], Jamie [Hecker], and Sally [Tatnall] all worked at Preterm at some point. Jamie [Hecker] retired from Preterm, so she worked there like 35 years. And Sally [Tatnall] and I were involved with the Dinner Party. Jamie [Hecker] and I were involved with the Building Project. All of us—Jamie [Hecker], Sally [Tatnall] and I, and Willow [Bentley]—did the conference. And then Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] and I did the Radical Thought Conference. Phyllis [Balcerzak] and Sally [Tatnall] were active in SOAR [Stop Oppression and Racism], and I was marginally active. I wasn't an organizer, but a participant. Sally [Tatnall] and I were active in the [Women's Community] Foundation. I became very active in the Women's Community Foundation, and—. But the collective helped me—like when I was writing guidelines for the allocations committee and funding guidelines, and how we were going to start. I did all that work within the collective. We would-—. At our meetings I'd say, "What do you think about this idea? Help me develop this idea." And so the funding guidelines and the philosophies of some of these things came out of our group thinking, because it's always better to have a group think out of one mind. I don't know. It was an open door, our collective—people would come.
Riley Habyl [00:37:39] How many members would you say there were at the peak of the collective? Aside from the five—
Debra Hirshberg [00:37:46] Five w—.
Riley Habyl [00:37:46] —foundational members?
Debra Hirshberg [00:37:48] Yes, it's—. Only five women ever lived there at the time. As some women left, some other women may have joined. And so the five of us—Sally [Tatnall], Willow [Bentley], Pam [Markley], Jamie [Hecker] and myself were the founders. And then Pam [Markley] left and there were four of us for a long time. Rebecca [Levin] joined—Rebecca Levin—but she joined and left. Catherine Sicilian came and left. Phyllis [Balcerzak] came after Willow [Bentley] left. It was Jamie [Hecker], Phyllis [Balcerzak], Sally [Tatnall] and I for a while. And then I left, and Jamie [Hecker] left shortly thereafter—and it was Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] and whoever they got involved in the collective. But most of the people that lived there after that were just living there—were not part of the collective. Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] maintained a collective of two for quite some time, until that fell apart. Have you heard about the Woofer Tweeter Theory?
Riley Habyl [00:39:03] I think I've read that—I've read that term somewhere, but I honestly can't recall quite where I've heard that.
Debra Hirshberg [00:39:11] Okay. That was something Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] developed of sexual response—dominance and submission—butch-femme. Woofer Tweeter is what they called it, and there's a chapter that they wrote in Sonia Johnson's book, Diving Into the Wreck. I think that's the name of the book. Do you know who Sonia Johnson is?
Riley Habyl [00:39:31] No.
Debra Hirshberg [00:39:31] She was an excommunicated Mormon who became a lesbian and wrote several books—and became a radical feminist really, and that's why she was excommunicated. But she wrote a book, Diving into the Wreck, which you could look up online—and there's a chapter in there on the Woofer Tweeter Theory, and that was developed by Sally [Tatnall] and Phyllis [Balcerzak] as part of the—in the [Hag House] collective.
Riley Habyl [00:40:10] So I know that you've mentioned that there have been a lot of good things that came out of the dynamics of the collective and a lot of things that were organized through collaboration within the collective but—. What were some of the biggest hurdles, or biggest challenges, that the collective faced over time?
Debra Hirshberg [00:40:32] In the Land Project—all of us were in the Land Project—but the other women in the Land Project thought we were a power group that talked among ourselves. Of course, we did sometimes, and came as a block to the Land Project—which is another collective. The Land Project is—I don't know if you know anything about that—but a collective of women that own land right across the street here in western Pennsylvania. It's been going since 1975—and it purchased land in 1979. And we still own the land and we expand it and lots of new people are-—have come and are part of it. Jamie [Hecker] and I are the only two still there from the beginning. But—. So there was a little tension because we would come and people saw us as a power group. What was your question? What were some of the problems of being in a collective?
Riley Habyl [00:41:32] Some of the problems, or some of the issues that you faced?
Debra Hirshberg [00:41:42] There was a sister collective—at Hampshire House—of women that we had been involved with in many organizations over the years, and they did their own collective. So we were Hag House and they were—. Jesus, I'll think of it. I'm going to write it down what Hampshire House's name was. And so parties started happening there and—. And many of them were in the Land Project also so, you know, it's like part of the initial core group of active lesbian feminists—some at Berkshire, some at [Hampshire]—what is it called? I don't know. I don't want to spend time thinking about it. But you know, we lose facts as we get older (laughs).
Riley Habyl [00:42:48] Do you remember approximately what year it was—that it was where you were talking about Hampshire House and [Berkshire] Hag House and the disagreements between the two? Do you know roughly what timeframe that was—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:43:03] We didn't disagree. We collaborated. We collaborated, we didn't disagree. We collaborated, but we were both seen as these power things. It was in the mideighties. Well, maybe the early eighties, the early eighties—soon after we moved in, maybe a year and a half. I don't know. I think it w—. I don't know. Many of those women moved to California. Matter of fact, they all ended up in California at some point. All five of the original members of the Hampshire House, yeah. But I'm still in contact with three of them—very, very close—well, one of them just passed away in April, Rita [Coriell/de Quercus]. It was very sad. She had moved back to Cleveland, but yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:44:10] I'm sorry.
Debra Hirshberg [00:44:16] And that put me in close contact with the other two that I'm in contact with—because Rita [Coriell/de Quercus] had been ill for two years—and so I had much more regular contact with Mary Ann [Huckabay]. And some with Wegi [Louise], some. But if I go to California, I always see Wegi [Louise] and Mary Ann [Huckabay].
Riley Habyl [00:44:47] Do you remember the—(crosstalk).
Debra Hirshberg [00:44:48] I just got a text from Mary Ann [Huckabay] this morning. I just got a text from Mary Ann [Huckabay] this morning. She's traveling in Scotland, and she took a picture of herself under a sign that said "Dyke"-something with a smile.
Riley Habyl [00:45:02] (laughs) Wow. Do you remember what year it was that the planning and development started for the Land Project? And do you know where the—.
Debra Hirshberg [00:45:18] 1975. I know exactly the history of the Land Project. From 1975 Rita [Coriell/de Quercus] started meeting with people in Athens, Ohio. She had—some women from Cleveland went down there, Sally [Tatnall] and Jamie [Hecker] and Susan [Woodworth]—and then she realized that if it was going to happen, it was going to happen more with the Cleveland women—so she moved to Cleveland. And by 1976, I got involved and we put our money together. We started collecting money every month from everybody in the group, and saved our money so that by 1979 we could buy land. But we had done extensive, extensive research on where we wanted land. Back in the day, they had these overlays that you could draw on and project and we would have these overlays—I think I actually still have the—where we would say it has to be within this distance from Cleveland. And then we wanted it not to have strip mining, we wanted it to have water springs, we wanted it to have woods, we didn't want it to be by a dump. And so we had all these criterias and it turned out that the place that satisfied the criterias was the same neighborhood Jamie [Hecker]'s parents had bought land in, and they said the guy across the street was selling his land up because of a divorce. And we looked at it and we bought it in 1979, 20 acres. We mortgaged it. We didn't have all the money to buy it, but we had enough to put half down. And then, you know, it's just grown since then. That house eventually burned down—the house we initially purchased—and then we bought another house adjacent to the property so that it's connected and, yeah, that house is still there—but the barn is still there on the original property and it's all connected now.
Riley Habyl [00:47:43] Now tell me a little bit more— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [00:47:45] Twelve women who are—. Yeah, there are 12 women now who are in the Land Project. Linda Jane joined in the early eighties, and then everybody else is newer than that. Some of them came from Magnolia Farm. Some of them just came because we invited them and then they invite other people. I don't know how. You know, so-and-so knew so-and-so and wanted to be a member. It's not something anybody can join. Anybody can say they want to be a member, but the membership has to approve them. And the membership even has to approve associate members who are not part of the decision making collective but support the group with a financial contribution every year. Whatever they want. We suggest $100, but they can give us whatever they want, and they gain access to the land. They get a key to the house as an associate member. And some of them come a lot. Some of them never show up, just supporting the, the effort. And we still—. Everybody pays monthly. It's a $10 minimum fee a month, but people pay up to what they want. Some people have paid up to $200 a month. Right now, I think it goes between $10 and $75 a month, and it's just whatever. We develop a budget. "Here's the budget,"—and then everybody says what they're willing to pledge—and if the pledges cover the budget, great. If they don't, people say, "Okay, I can pledge another $5 a month." We talk about it until we get to the point where we're covering the budget—or we make a decision that we're going to take the money out of savings to make up the shortfall—which we've only done once in the 25-30 years, or however long it's been going on, have we taken—oh 40, years, 45 years, it's been going on a long time. Only once have we taken money out of savings to cover the operating budget. So the savings is used for purchasing other lands, putting new roofs on the house, you know, major expenses as well we use the savings for so. But yeah, it's a collective and about, I don't know, ten years ago we made a decision that we were gonna be able to have a decision would be collective minus one. If there was only one person who disagreed with what we wanted to do, we could move forward with that decision because we have—at times over the 40 or 50 years, there's been one person who's disagreed with things, and it holds up everything because it has to be unanimous. And then we finally said, "We'll make a decision. We'll do collective minus one." (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [00:51:07] Could you tell me a little more about how the—or the importance of collective decision making and doing things as a collective helped to sustain the land and sustain the community that you were trying to develop on the land?
Debra Hirshberg [00:51:26] It—. I would say it puts more people in leadership than if it's not collective—because people would say the whole collective are leaders. The whole Land Project are leaders. You know we've had open weekends for the community. We did a girls camp. You know, we did things years ago. We were much more active within the lesbian community because the lesbian community was much more cohesive years ago and-. So instead of being a leader, you know, or two leaders, it dif—diffused the idea that there are leaders and followers, that—that it's collective, that this is a—something that you too—you too, Riley, could be in the decision-making capacity of an organization—even if you didn't feel like you had leadership qualities, you know, you didn't want to speak in public, you didn't want to raise money. You know, whatever the things are that prevent people from being leaders. You can be part of a collective and have that satisfaction of making things happen. Activism, that's what I always say. If we want things to change, we have to be active in our own behalf. That's one of my favorite sayings. We can't just sit there and hope and wish things would be different. If you're not active to make things different, they're not going to be different. So I'm a big believer in activism on our own behalf. And because I—. Empathy is, you know, we all have empathetic to other people's situations. Of course, I support Black Lives Matter and Native American reclamation of land and, you know, all kinds of things that I'm not, I'm not. And it's—. It's not just out of empathy, it's out of that solidarity that everything is connected. Everything is connected, but my responsibility is to be active on my own behalf and to be an ally and a supporter of other people who are active on their own behalf. But I don't—. It's not my responsibility to lead those organizations, it's their responsibility to lead and define and articulate what they want to do. And I can be present, I can be a body, I can be a money, I can get other people engaged in it, I could write letters. You know, I can even go to meetings and stuff, but I don't—. I shouldn't be a leader in other people's struggles, I need to be a leader in my struggle—whatever that is. And I believe collective organizing is very important. All the—. The Women's Building Project was collective. Oven [Productions] was collective. Yeah, some things weren't. The Community Foundation was a traditional board committee, but—. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:55:07] Would you say— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [00:55:08] It's a lot to take votes.
Riley Habyl [00:55:17] What do you say that collective organizing, and the collective structure of a lot of the lesbian feminist organizations in the Cleveland area—that the emphasis on collective organizing and collective collaboration within those organizations contributed to the vibrancy of the community in the seventies and the outgrowth of just how many organizations and spaces emerged from it?
Debra Hirshberg [00:55:47] Yeah, like the Rape Crisis Center was a collective, you know—. A group of women started the [Rape] Crisis Center. One person did—was the staff person, but everybody, you know, was all collective. They themselves were the board. We were the board and the volunteers of the organizations. Yeah, and the battered women's shelters were a little different because they required facilities—you know, a space—and somebody had to be responsible for that space. So we initially used the Celeste Home, when Celeste was governor, as the battered women's shelter. When they were in Columbus, their home in Cleveland was the first battered women's shelter. Do you know Roberta Steinbacher at Cleveland State? Have you heard of her?
Riley Habyl [00:56:54] No, I haven't.
Debra Hirshberg [00:56:57] Did you get to—. I don't know even if she's still alive. But she was trying—. She was collecting archive material for Cleveland State, I think. And she's a feminist and she's old. Much older than I am, and going blind. The last time I saw her she was practically blind, and that was maybe two or three years ago. But if she's still around, you should get to know her because she was—. She's not a lesbian as far as—. Maybe she is a lesbian. I think she was in a relationship with Dagmar Celeste, the wife of the governor. But she's not an out lesbian, and—. Anyway. She was an active feminist, active in feminist things at Cleveland State.
Riley Habyl [00:57:59] Could you tell me a little bit more about some of the lesbian feminist spaces that emerged in Cleveland in the seventies and eighties? Like the spaces like Three of Cups and Oven Productions and the Womyn's Variety Show.
Debra Hirshberg [00:58:18] Womyn's Variety Show was done by Oven Productions. Oven [Productions] produced the [Womyn's] Variety Show, and I worked on the [Womyn's] Variety Show for 40 years. I have 40 years worth of [Womyn's] Variety Show stuff in my file cabinet. Let's see—. What were the other things? I got sidetracked, sorry.
Riley Habyl [00:58:44] No worries.
Debra Hirshberg [00:58:44] Say the organizations again?
Riley Habyl [00:58:47] Three of Cups and Oven Productions—
Debra Hirshberg [00:58:50] Okay, okay.
Riley Habyl [00:58:51] Yeah.
Debra Hirshberg [00:58:52] Let's do one at a time.
Riley Habyl [00:58:53] Sure.
Debra Hirshberg [00:58:53] Okay (laughs). Three—. Three of Cups. Three of Cups. Roberta Steinbacher and Ruth Miller of the Miller-Shafford-Ratner Foundation Family—The Ratner Family—Flower City Products. Ruth Miller was married to—she was a Ratner—she and Roberta [Steinbacher] were the primary investors in the Three of Cups. Sally [Tatnall] and Jean [McCullough] were the employees. They ran it, and the rest of us were volunteer bartenders. I had Tuesday night. Me and Susan [Woodworth] were in charge of Tuesday night. Jamie [Hecker] had Saturday night. You know, like, we all took different nights and were the bartenders. It ran on volunteer labor—except for Jean [McCullough] and Sally [Tatnall]. Jean [McCullough] did all the daytime stuff. Sally [Tatnall] was still working at Preterm, but she did like, the books and the ordering and the sort of the paperwork. Jean [McCullough] did the daytime bartending, and the women from the community did the evening bartending. And we washed the floor, put the chairs up, and did all the things that you do if you run a bar in the night. And I learned how to bartend, that was great. So it was a place, it was a place where events could happen and they had a restaurant. My college roommate was the cook and Sharon was the cook. And, you know, we just—. But it wasn't specifically lesbian, it was the community bar. People from the community came in, but not in the evenings. And we would have events that were women-only, but—. And straight women participated in the Three of Cups because they were feminists. There wasn't that divide here in Cleveland between the feminist straight women and the feminist lesbians. We worked together. As a matter of fact, at some places, like at the music festival, Michigan [Womyn's] Music Festival, they didn't even want me in this separatist camp because I worked with straight women—it's like, come on, you know—even though I kind of considered myself a separatist because I worked with women. But I wasn't separatist enough for the lesbian separatists at the music festival. But I always felt like my allegiance was to feminist organizing and the straight women—the Jean Van Attas and the Mickie Stearns, you know, who wanted to work with us—Jeri Chaikin—you know, were fine. And some of our organizations, they said, "Oh, that's a lesbian organization because a lesbian was involved in it." You know, and they'd say, "No, it's not. I'm involved in it and I'm not a lesbian," or Jean [Van Attas] would famously say, "Well, it's an honor to be considered a lesbian even though I'm not." But you know, you don't make a derogatory. Yeah, so we really worked. It didn't matter your sexual orientation when it came to the feminist part of things. WomenSpace was a little different because they were trying to be mainstream, and they kind of wanted the lesbians to be less visible—but they can want all they want.
Riley Habyl [01:02:30] So would you say then that the separatist impulse wasn't as strong may be among lesbians in Cleveland, and the lesbian community in Cleveland, as it was in—maybe other areas at the same time?
Debra Hirshberg [01:02:43] (Unintelligible)
Riley Habyl [01:02:44] Yeah.
Debra Hirshberg [01:02:45] It wasn't— Yes, I would say that it wasn't based on sexual orientation. It was based on being female, a woman—and we organized among women. Yeah, that's what I would say. We always had straight allies. And that's when we were younger, when I was in my twenties, before I had the kind of resources that you get when you're in your forties and fifties. You know, we got—. We raised money among our straight allies. They had more access to resources than we did while we were beginning our work life.
Riley Habyl [01:03:47] And is this in the early seventies, early-to-mid seventies that you're referring to?
Debra Hirshberg [01:03:53] Late '70s, late seventies. I graduated college in '76, so we're talking from '76 on. Before that, I mean, I was active in the Women's Center, but not so much in the community. Well, Oven [Productions]. I was active in Oven [Productions]. But when I graduated college I moved into a duplex on Glenmont. Have you heard about Glenmont? The [lesbian] community on Glenmont [Glenmont Rd.]?
Riley Habyl [01:04:24] No, I haven't.
Debra Hirshberg [01:04:25] Off of Mayfield [road]? Okay, so Glenmont is a series of rental duplexes that lesbians lived in. And we had one, two, three, four houses—eight duplexes—and we operated semi-collectively. We put a washing machine and dryer in the basement of one of the duplexes, so we had our own laundromat that everybody on the street could use. We had a clothing exchange in the basement of another duplex that everybody would put their clothes they didn't want and pick up clothes that they did want. There we had—. You know, if it snowed everybody would get together and push everybody's cars out. And you know, so we kind of had the street organized in this—. And there was a house on Belmar [1633 Belmar Rd.]—which is one block over—that we allowed into our collective operating (laughs). You know, it was very social, of course—at the time and, you know, sit on the porch and chitchat. But before Berkshire, the organizing happened on Glenmont. Before it happened out of Berkshire it happened on Glenmont. D.Y.K.E. [Dykes You Know Everywhere] was at Glenmont. C.A.L.F.A. [Cleveland Area Lesbian Feminist Association] was at Glenmont. Have you heard about D.Y.K.E.? D-Y-K-E, Dykes You Know Everywhere? And then it was followed by C.A.L.F.A., Cleveland Area Lesbian Feminist Association. And both those, the telephone—no cell phones—the telephone for C.A.L.F.A. was in half the duplex next to me where Jamie [Hecker] lived—Jamie [Hecker] and Rita [Coriell/de Quercus] and Mary Ann [Huckabay] and Pam [Markley] lived—and that's where the C.A.L.F.A. phone was, and Oven [Productions] met there. And we had parties over at Melinda [McGeorge]'s, about two houses down. The Olivia [Records] distributor lived one house over, you know, and so that's where the activities grew from. You know, the Land Project met on Glenmont. The organizing that happened—. I moved in when I graduated in June of '76, but it was already going by the time I moved in because D.Y.K.E. was there that became C.A.L.F.A. And so if you were a stray lesbian looking to connect with other lesbians, you could look at What She Wants and there would be a number for C.A.L.F.A.—or number for D.Y.K.E.—and that would ring at the other half of the duplex on Glenmont, and they would tell you where you could come, where a group of lesbians would be congregating and, you know, move on from there. We did not do a dating service, so don't think that we did that.
Riley Habyl [01:07:38] Do you know how the living situation came about? I mean, was there a specific (crosstalk) choice of people moving into this specific neighborhood?
Debra Hirshberg [01:07:56] Somebody lived there and said, "Well, there's a duplex over here," and then someone else said "And there's one next door," and then "How about this one?" And that one is just—you're looking for a place to live? Here, live there. I now own a condominium in the Georgian—have you heard about the Georgian [Condominiums in Shaker Heights]? Well—
Riley Habyl [01:08:14] No.
Debra Hirshberg [01:08:15] —several other lesbians own condominiums in the Georgian, too. Why? Because I owned a condominium in the Georgian. "Oh, you're looking for a place to live. Why don't you move into the Georgian?" So we have my condominium, we have Dawn Lynne [Dengler]'s condominium, Esther's condominium, Susan's condominium, Joanna and Leslie's condominium, Sumica's condominium—so we have six condominiums now in a building that has 60 units—Louise used to live there, now she's in a nursing home. But, you know, it's like—I have this urge to say, "Come live with me." Not with me, but near me. And we had—. Before COVID, we had Friday night socials at the Georgian. Oh, Pat lives in the Georgian. Yeah. It's like—. There's still that urge to support each other, and make each other's lives easier. Sharon [Owen] lived in the Georgian—Sharon Owen—she passed away several years ago from cancer. But when she passed away, she left her condominium to Susan who now lives in it. It's like, you know, we have that collective urge, so, let me just say, amongst some of us. And in the Georgian, Dawn Lynne [Dengler] and Esther are now—are in the Land Project, and so are Jamie [Hecker] and I. So four of the Land Project members live in the Georgian. Four out of twelve, so that's one-third. So you know, yeah, it's very—. I don't know. I would never say I'm an individual doing something on my own, so I'm very different in that way than other people who you may think of as leaders in the community. Nothing I do is by myself.
Riley Habyl [01:10:29] If I could circle back to Glenmont for a moment—. Do you know what year, give or take, that the concentration of lesbian organizing in that area began—in (unintelligible), within the duplex?
Debra Hirshberg [01:10:45] Well, I moved in '76, so I would say '75 or '74. Yeah, maybe '75 when Jamie [Hecker] and Rita [Coriell/de Quercus]—when the Land Project—when Rita [Coriell/de Quercus] moved up from Athens and Jamie [Hecker] and Mary Ann [Huckabay] and Pam [Markley] started living there in '75 is—by the time IWY [International Women's Year] happened in the fall of '75, D.Y.K.E. was formed—D-Y-K-E—and that phone number was ringing in Glenmont, at 1688 Glenmont. So I lived at 1686 Glenmont—the other half of the duplex—and as soon as I graduated college I moved in. Yeah. And then some of us were involved already in things. I was already involved in WomenSpace. All of us—. Many of us were involved in other—. We did things like when the Dinner Party opened in California—in San Francisco—we had a dinner party on Glenmont to celebrate the opening of the Dinner Party. We actually had a dinner party, you know, we had the goblets. We just, you know, made our own dinner party to celebrate the opening of the Dinner Party in California. And people went to conferences. We went to the National Womyn's Music Festival, that's how we got in touch with the women who were doing Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival]. We went to the first Michigan [Womyn's Music] Festival. I worked on the first Michigan [Womyn's Music] Festival. I did lighting for the first Michigan [Womyn's Music] Festival. The women who—. In Cleveland, we organized at that first festival and went and camped at one of the gates to provide security for the festival. And, you know, we were just visible. The Cleveland lesbian community was like—on it. A happening place. I'm very lucky to have been alive at that time.
Riley Habyl [01:13:09] Can you tell me a bit more about the involvement of the Cleveland women's community in the Michigan Womyn's [Music] Festival and how—I guess, in what capacity were you and other women from the Cleveland area involved in the development of the festival and—?
Debra Hirshberg [01:13:25] Well the women who were producing the Michigan [Womyn's Music] Festival had never produced a concert in their life, and so they had no idea what they were doing. And we were experienced from Oven Productions, so we just, you know, talked to them about it. We just had chats about it the whole time we were at the National Womyn's Music Festival. We sat down with them and chatted and chatted, and I said, yes I'd come and do the lights. I was not in my professional career at the time, and I sold ticket—. I worked at a gas station on the corner of Coventry [road] and Mayfield [road], and I sold tickets to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival out of the gas station. And the—. And when I got there they didn't have a stage crew. They didn't know what they needed. They had hired a sound woman. They hired me as a lighting woman, and so I got Cleveland women involved to help set up the mics and break down this and you know, we slept under the grand piano, you know, to just—. I just got my friends engaged to help there. And then the second festival, Rita [Coriell/de Quercus], who's a musician—she's the one who just passed away in April—she and her friends, all these other women from Cleveland—performed at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival on the main stage. So, you know, that's how—. That's what our involvement was. So then we kind of got into—. I got less available because I was into my career, you know? I couldn't take a month to go to Michigan, I could—. I didn't have the same kind of flexibility that I had previous to my career. My career meant nothing to me except money. It was an excellent source of money. But it did limit my engagement in certain things.
Riley Habyl [01:15:45] Before we talk a little bit more about women's cultural production in Cleveland—. How were you—and the collectives that you were part of—able to fund what you were doing? How were you able to collect the funds to sustain these organizations and initiatives that you were a part of?
Debra Hirshberg [01:16:09] Okay, that's a good question. The Land Project we all contributed according to our own choice of how much we could give to the Land Project. It was a $10 minimum amount, so you had to be able to come up with $10 a month and—and it's still a $10 minimum a month 40 years later. So ten dollars is a lot less—. A lot easier to come by now, versus when you're making $3 an hour. We self-funded the Land Project. Oven [Productions]. We raised money for sound equipment from older women—older lesbians who were in their careers who could give us $100 or something, and from straight women who would give us money, and, you know, feminists. Not random people. And we charged admission to events, you know, and tried to sustain ourselves through the events. We bought the disco equipment by borrowing $50 from ten women, and then every time we did a party we charged $50 for the disco equipment and paid a woman back. And so, you know, we did that. Like Gold Flower [Defense Comittee]. We had a [Gold Flower] Defense Committee defending a woman who killed her abuser. We raised money. We just had a lot of fundraising. You know, people would sometimes say, "Oh, Debra's coming." Yeah, the women—. The Dinner Party—which we brought to Cleveland in 1981—was a collaboration, broad collaboration. Some lesbians were very active in it, but it was a lot of straight women and a couple—and a few men, two men. And—. But one of the men had resources, so that was very important. And we raised money through foundations, and through fundraising, and sponsorships and things like that. And then we made money. The Dinner Party made money—and that's what founded the Women's Community Foundation and the Women's Building Project was proceeds from the Dinner Party exhibit. And we also gave money to Akron, because it was a joint venture between Cleveland-Akron. And so some money—. Some of that profit was given to Akron women. I don't know what they did with it, but we did those two ventures with the money that was raised from the Pinner party. Conferences. Again, people paid for the conferences, and we did some fundraising. Because we were living in the collective we had money. If it only cost me—I don't know how much it cost me—$300 a month for all my living expenses rent, utilities, you know, $300 a month—well, we have extra money, you know? I'm now a software consultant. You know, I know I started it at $800 a month, but, you know, I was making—. Let's see. I don't know, my goal was to make my age. So when I was 30, I wanted to make $30,000. When I was 40, I wanted to make $40,000. But I surpassed that at some point, and—. But I had extra resources, and many of us do. You know, I wouldn't say that we were wealthy, I would say that we were smart. And we also invested in our retirements. We did a—. I did a lot of financial education as part of the Land Project where I went to workshops and stuff about money markets and investments so that we could invest the Land Project money. You know, here we were collecting money. We didn't own land. What were we gonna do with it? So I went to seminars. You know how they have those seminars at hotels, "Come and listen to so-and-so and such and such"? Well, I was on that committee and I volunteered to learn all about this stuff, and so I learned all about it and it has served me very, very well. And I still invest the Land Project money. So to this day, that's my job, and it does very well. The Land Project does very well—better than I do with my own money—but I don't invest my money. But we all—. We're focused on "How are we going to support ourselves once we stop working?", and we have that focus from our early twenties and thirties. We were smart. We didn't sp—have to spend a lot of our own resources on our living. We were earning enough money that we could put money aside and support the organizations that we were involved in. That's a benefit of collective living.
Riley Habyl [01:22:03] You mentioned the Women's Building Fund and the Women's Building Project. Can you tell me a little bit more about the purpose of those organizations, or the purpose of those groups and how they came about?
Debra Hirshberg [01:22:15] Yeah, it's—.The Women's Building Project started after the Dinner Party, and we rented space in the Civic [3130 Mayfield Rd.], which is where the Dinner Party was. And it housed—. It provided a center. Some organizations were in a house associated with a church called the White House, and the Women's Growth Co-op was there—they were like counseling, a counseling organization. And the coffee house was there, and Oven [Productions] had its office there, you know. After we moved—everybody moved out of Glenmont and were in these separate collectives. Oven [Productions] office moved to the White House, and then we moved to the Women's Building Project. And so we had a community room where events could happen. And Chevrei Tikvah had its synagogue there for many, many years. What She Wants had an office there, and a library. The Women's Growth Co-op—which became something else. The Women's something-something—but it was counseling and massage. And then there was the women's gym there, and aerobics were taught in the community room. We had events in the community room. Small events—maybe events that would be like 100, 125 people. But we used the Civic for the parties and the [Womyn's] Variety show and, you know, so we had access to the whole building, you know, through our association—through the association with the Dinner Party, because the Dinner Party was at the Civic, and some of us—. I was the treasurer of the Dinner Party group, and so I was in contact with everybody that we were paying bills to, which included the owners of the Civic. So I could just use that contact for my own purposes. And the Women's Community Foundation—was the Women's Community Fund and changed its name to the Community Foundation—was also seeded with the same money, and it became a grant-making organization to grassroots women's organizing. And it was a traditional structure—board and committee—and it met at the Building Project for years and years, but over time it became professionalized. They didn't like us non-professional people running it. But lots of—. I don't know. Jeri Chaikin, who's manager at Shaker Heights—straight woman, nice woman—she was president of the Community Foundation for a period of time, she worked at the County Commissioner's. Very, you know, connected. But she said she learned her organizing skills at the Women's Community Foundation because of how we organize, how we had meetings, we had agendas and, you know, blah-blah-blah. I am who I am because of my feminist organizing, and I think I learned my feminist organizing in Campfire Girls when I was a kid because we used to have—learn how to run meetings and be treasurers, and stuff like that. But, you know, my job—. I was successful at my job because I know how to run a meeting, I know how to take minutes, I know how to track things. I'm president of my condo association board—same thing. You know, I try to train people, "This is how you get things done." And I'm very collaborative, as you can imagine—and, you know, I want to know everybody's opinions before I make a decision. So it's like, "Well, what do you think? What should we do? What direction should we go? Tell me what you know."
Riley Habyl [01:26:41] Do you think that that collaborative impulse and spirit behind organizations like Oven Productions and the Land Project has helped sustain them for so long? I know Oven [Productions] has been—
Debra Hirshberg [01:26:56] Absolutely. (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [01:26:57] —approaching over 40 years, and so has the Land Project.
Debra Hirshberg [01:27:02] Yeah. Oven [Productions], I don't even know if it's still—. I mean, I keep contacting Marcia [Sindelair]—Swamp—and say "I've got ideas of what to do with Oven [Production]'s money. I want to give its finances to the [LGBT Community] Center—the Lesbian Gay [Community] Center—as a fund to bring in women's culture to the [LGBT Community] Center to produce events at the [LGBT Community] Center that support feminist women's culture, and use the other money that's left over to pay the performers. They have the venue, they have the communication publicity thing all set up, they can have a party afterward. They've got everything we always dreamed of, and why don't we give them the money to bring in these voices that we all want to hear?" But I can't get Marcia [Sindelair] and Char [Portman] to meet and agree to that. I don't know what they're doing with the money. So I haven't been involved in Oven [Productions] for a while. I think the 40th [Womyn's] Variety show was—. Let's see, I don't know. 2018, 2017, something like that. Five years ago, six years ago? I'll look up and—and that's when I stopped doing it. Some of these things, like the president of the condo board, I've been trying to get out of for years but I can't find somebody to do it. Like Oven Productions—I tried to stop doing it. I was doing the [Womyn's] Variety Show, and I was trying to get out of that for years. But I have a—do have a theater background from college. I majored in technical theater, how about that? Or, minored in it. I majored in religion. That hasn't helped me, but yeah. I'm going to get back to you with the dates.
Riley Habyl [01:29:30] Sure. This is sort of circling back a little bit—and we've already touched on it a little bit as well—but I was kind of wondering, could you speak about some of the women's cultural production that came out of Cleveland?
Debra Hirshberg [01:29:48] Like Oven [Productions]?
Riley Habyl [01:29:49] Specifically—Women's music, Oven [Productions], the Womyn's Variety Show.
Debra Hirshberg [01:29:55] Yeah, the [Womyn's] Variety Show was really—. It started as, "It's the winter, we don't see each other, we're not sitting on our porches hanging out, we're not playing softball." I never played softball, but these were the— (Debra's audio and video feed cut out)
Riley Habyl [01:30:18] My apologies, I think your audio has cut out. I see your video as moving again. I apologize. Your audio cut out for about the last 20-30 seconds.
Debra Hirshberg [01:30:42] Oh, my internet is unstable, and I saw the sign. That's cause I'm out here in the country, so—and we don't have good Internet. Okay, can you hear me now?
Riley Habyl [01:30:54] Yes, I can. No worries. Thank you.
Debra Hirshberg [01:30:57] Okay. So we would see each other socially in the summer at softball games or whatever and, you know, sitting on the porches at Glenmont and, you know, just hanging out. But in the winter, we didn't, and so we did the [Womyn's] Variety Show and we would have meetings every week and write skits, and rehearse, and see each other. And it was a way for us to be—stay connected. And we made fun of ourselves. The whole thing of the [Womyn's] Variety Show was seeing each other perform in crazy ways. It wasn't a talent show. I kept saying for 40 years, "It's not about talent. It's about variety. It's about variety." It turned into more of a talent show as more women were musicians and had their own aspirations to be musicians. They weren't just singing for us. They wanted to sing for other people, you know, and so it became much more of a talent show and less skits and less politics, you know, like—. The Self-Help Collective did a skit, the [Rape] Crisis Center would do a skit, Hard Hatted women would do a skit. These were community things that women in the community participated in. It's not all lesbian, you know. This was just women, women. But it obviously had a lesbian feel to it, you know, I would say like the music festival, like Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival]. Lesbian atmosphere. Open to all women, you know, but that's not the criteria. The criteria—. I don't know. I don't think we should organize over our sexual preferences. I think we should organize over our political agendas.
Riley Habyl [01:33:18] Mhm.
Debra Hirshberg [01:33:18] So the [Womyn's] Variety Show was Oven [Productions], and we brought the Dinner Party—that was an enormous cultural event, obviously, and it was open for a little more than three months, and lots of lesbians volunteered at it. We set up the table—we got to be close and in-person with the Dinner Party, painted the venue, you know, and just—. it was a big thing, but it wasn't just lesbians. It was all—everybody, and—. But it was a big party every day. So it was a place you could go. There was a little coffee shop there, so it was a place you could go get something to eat. The Three of Cups was a big place. I went after work probably, you know, four out of five days after work I would stop at Three of Cups and have dinner, you know. It's—. They were just big, big event—big places to socialize, not necessarily organized out of. The organization happened where we lived, or—except the Building Project. Well, we met—. The Building Project met regularly at the building—but we all just participated in other events that other people planned. We would plan some events. We did some memorial services for women that passed away. We did events like—. There was a [Women's] Peace Camp up in Seneca Falls [New York] for a couple of summers, and we did teach-in events about the [Women's] Peace Camp at the Building Project. And a lot of women I met through the Peace Camp movement later came out as lesbians and got involved in the lesbian community. You know, it's like, "Oh, yeah," but it didn't start—it wasn't a lesbian thing. It was a feminist Peace camp, Women's Peace Camp thing. We were camping out to try to prevent nuclear war. Oh, yeah, that worked. But, yeah, I don't know. Well, it has worked. We haven't had a nuclear war, but—.
Riley Habyl [01:35:41] This is a little bit tangential to the vibrancy of women's spaces in the early-to-mid-to-late seventies—. Was there a lot of overlap—. Or, rather, was there any overlap in organizing between the lesbian feminist community—and women's feminist communities in Cleveland in general with, say, the like—gay men's community organizing or gay men's community spaces? At least in the seventies or so?
Debra Hirshberg [01:36:15] Not from me. Yeah, not from me. Yes, there were women who were organizing with gay men, and I knew some of the—but I wasn't involved in that. So the [LGBT Community] Center, you know, the [LGBT Community] Center was active. High Gear—. I don't know if you know, High Gear was a newspaper that the [LGBT Community] Center published and, you know, we wrote articles for it and stuff. But we were focused on What She Wants, they were focused on High Gear. There was—. I don't know, at one point Brynna [Fish] produced something that was a variety show kind of thing with men and women, because I think—. I don't know why, frankly, but—. So I went to it. Chevrei Tikvah was mixed gender—the gay congregation, Jewish congregation—so I knew men. For that matter, at the Women's Building Project, I was engaged with it, you know, and found—you know, one of the first. And so I guess that would be my involvement with the gay men—would be through Chevrei Tikvah. And not much, frankly. After a fashion—. By the end of the nineties, I got involved—heavily involved in Israel Palestine organizing for a Palestinian state and, of course, I worked with men. And not gay men, just men—and it was a shock to my system, but I did it. So I had kind of ignored my—the Jewish organizing part of me because of the gender. I'd much rather put my energy into women. I had made a decision—I was going to focus on women's liberation. That was going to be my focus. And so Palestine—the issues with Palestine—were always there and always important, but we weren't going to take my organizing efforts—until some lesbians who were very active knew Jewish agenda and I started to meet them and I said, "Oh, I—" (unintelligible)—some of the organizing because I was attracted to some of those lesbians. Not physically, but mentally attracted. Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz and, you know, Felice Newman. Just some really powerful lesbians, writers, and thinkers. And yeah. I would recommend a book to you. The Issue is Power by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz. And she's passed away—
Riley Habyl [01:39:39] How do you spell that— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [01:39:41] —recently. K-A-Y-E dash Kantrowitz. K-a-n-t-r-o-w-i-t-z, I think. But if you say Melanie K dash Kan—. Yeah, you'll find it. The book is called The Issue is Power, and the first essay in the book is about women needing to gain power. If we're gonna be killed because we're women, why aren't we arming ourselves? And then the rest of the book is about Israel Palestine (laughs). But it's really a good book—really the book, and it's about antisemitism, and—. When I was active in SOAR [Stop Oppression and Racism]—the anti-racism group—I was bringing up antisemitism because there's—. Antisemitism on the left is a big deal. It's obv—. It's not—. It's not just on the right, it's also on the left, and so it's—. Yeah, I don't know. It's unfortunate. That's all I want to say. Unnecessary and unfortunate.
Riley Habyl [01:41:12] Since it's about 2:46, I don't want to keep you too, too long, so I don't know if you—
Debra Hirshberg [01:41:19] Just about 2:46. Very exact. Okay. (Riley laughs)
Riley Habyl [01:41:27] I was wondering how—. If you could describe the change in Cleveland's lesbian communities and feminist communities from the seventies to present day, how would you sort of describe the change or evolution of the communities that you've been a member of, or that you've been involved with in some way?
Debra Hirshberg [01:41:48] Okay. I would say there is not a consistent way to connect to the community, except that there are social gatherings that I know are being held at public restaurants or bars or something, and that women participate in—lesbians participate in. I know it's happening. I don't participate in it, but I'm not at that stage in my life where I need to go to a bar. I'm not a drinker, I'm certainly not a cigarette smoker. You know, it's just not the place that I want to hang out at mostly—but I'll go to an event now and then if there's an event. So I would say that's happening and I would say the [LGBT Community] Center has some women-focused activities. Not many, but some. And that's a place that lesbians can hook into. I think the feminist community is pretty diverse. It's been—. I run into most of my old feminist colleagues in political activity. Electoral politics activity, okay, that's where I run into them. The Cuyahoga Democratic Women's Caucus—I see a lot of my feminist buddies there. That's where I last saw Roberta [Steinbacher]. I was at a Sherrod Brown thing on Sunday, and I saw some feminist buddies there. It's a different group. You know, they're older. I don't know. I don't know what I want to say about the lesbian community. The East [Side] lesbian community mecca is no longer—. You know, where the Cleveland Heights lesbian community was kind of a focus for a while. There were spaces—. There was an Art for Us space. The [Women's] Building Project. You know, there was a lot of things going on in the Heights, and that has not—. That has dissipated. Think politics is different. I think it's—there's now a lot of gender politics versus feminist politics. Not versus, but instead of feminist politics. I think gay marriage—. I'm not opposed to gay marriage, but I'm opposed to marriage as the organizing tool in society. It privileges people and relationships that—. We should be—. Individuals should have access to health care, not because of marriage. Individuals should have access to services, not because of family status. So, you know, I just didn't believe that marriage was the political issue. I thought universal health care was a much better political issue to organize around than gay marriage. I'm—. Not that I'm opposed. And Jamie [Hecker] and I got married because it made our estate planning easier—but it's not the thing that I would have put energy—. I didn't put any energy into organizing for it—but never against. You know, fine. Gay marriage, fine. I don't really believe in or support the Human Rights Campaign because it is so focused on LGBTQ issues that it has supported candidates that were anti-choice—and they came out against the Michigan [Womyn's] Music Festival, and supported the boycott of the Michigan [Womyn's] Music Festival. It's like, no. No, these—. You know, I'm not going to support you when you don't consider the feminist ideas. Choice is so central to women. It's so critical. Way more critical than lesbianism is to women is control over our reproductive rights. I don't understand why an organization—even led by lesbians—can support a candidate who supports who's anti-choice, even if they're good on gay issues. And that happened years ago. 20 years ago. You know, it's like—. And I know people who were chairing the HRC [Human Rights Campaign] dinner here in Cleveland. I used to go because I knew the people who were leading it, but once they started doing that it was like, nuh-uh. And I don't know, I just think that—time has come and gone. But—. I'm going to the Michigan land in two weeks—to Big Mouth Girl—and I think that's a place that lesbians and women, and women—. Every woman should go to Michigan, whether they're lesbian or not. Every woman should go and experience what it's like to live for a period of time when you're surrounded only by women. What that freedom feels like, what that safety feels like, what—. You can leave your chair against a tree and come back 24 hours later, and there it is against that same tree. You drop your $200 in cash, and you go and somebody turned in $200 in cash. You know that everybody talks to you. It's diverse—age, race, economic ability. You know, they created a community from nothing that was different, that was listening into being. It was, "Let's hear what you have to say. Let's all listen to each other." That "If we don't listen to each other, how are we going to move forward?" And the diversity of ideas on everything—not just gender expression, but on everything—was phenomenal. And what I learned every time I went to Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival]. I didn't go every year. I maybe went 25 out of the 40 years, but I always learned something when I went to the Michigan [Womyn's Music] Festival. And I went to Big Mouth Girl last year and I learned something—and it challenged my thinking and it made me grow. Well, helped me grow. And there's something about when women respect each other and share our feelings and thoughts and ideas that is really powerful. And if you have never gone to the [Michigan Womyn's Music] Festival land, there's now opportunities. Much different, very different—but the same. Different and the same. So I recommend next year you try to go to Big Mouth Girl. That's my parting thought, if you haven't been.
Riley Habyl [01:49:35] I have never been. I know, Mich[igan Womyn's Music Festival]-. The last Mich[igan Womyn's Music Festival] was 2015, and I've heard that there has been an effort to purchase the land where it was held at—the 690 acres of land there.
Debra Hirshberg [01:49:53] Yeah. Yeah, I'm a Land Mother. I give money every month to help buy the land, and—they now have, for the past three or four years, they've had mini-festivals. Week-long mini-festivals, but they are maxed out at 500 women as opposed to 5,000. And some of them, they're defined differently. So Big Mouth Girl is specifically female, but some of them are open to anybody who identifies as a woman, so they're trans-friendly, they're—you know, women. However you define women. And some of them are sober, only for—. You know, you have to be sober or agree to sobriety during the week—and so there's different focuses. They're not all specifically female. I choose to go to one that's specifically female, but there's many that are not. So depending on, you know, how you feel women are identified and where your group is.
Riley Habyl [01:51:13] That's fantastic that it's still—that there are still efforts still keep the spirit and the opportunity of what those sort—. What women's spaces can provide, and the environment—. I think that really still speaks to the enduring importance of women's spaces and of—you know—
Debra Hirshberg [01:51:38] Yeah. Go to W-W-T-L-C dot org [WWTLC.org]. W-W-T-L-C dot org. We Want The Land Collective dot org. The original Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival] thing was W-W-T-M-C, We Want The Music Collective—and now this W-W-T-L-C, We Want The Land Collective. Yeah, collective organizing. I will tell you, it's not easy. There's a book, a pamphlet—. Two pamphlets on collectivity that were very instrumental in my thinking. Anti-Mass is one of them. I can't remember the other one's name, but I have it so I could send it to you. I don't know if you want any of this follow-up information or not.
Riley Habyl [01:52:35] I would love it. Yeah.
Debra Hirshberg [01:52:38] Okay. Because—. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:52:43] Thank you very much. Since it's a few minutes— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [01:52:48] You're welcome. Once you ask me for information, I can just pile it on. But yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:52:55] I would love that, honestly.
Debra Hirshberg [01:52:58] Really? Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:52:59] Yeah. I've got a reading list that's about a mile long, but I'm working through it (laughs). But since we're almost at 3 p.m., I'll say that I've reached the end of the majority of my questions. So before we end the recording, is there anything else that you'd like to share or forgot to mention?
Debra Hirshberg [01:53:22] No. Thank you very much for asking me. I don't know how you got my name, but thank you. Yeah, thanks. They were very happy times in my life.
Riley Habyl [01:53:39] Is there a message that you would—that you have that you would like others to hear about your experiences or the experiences of others like you? (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [01:53:52] You have—. Yes. You can't just hope and pray that things will be different. You have to be an activist on your own behalf. You have to act. You have to do something. You can't just think something, you can't just hope something. If you want the world to be different, you have to do something. Don't count on other people doing it on your behalf. We can't do everything, you know. We can't do everything, so we have to pick, you know. If we act on our own behalf—and we then support other people who are acting on their own behalf. We can't ignore the fact that me—as a white lesbian—are not the most oppressed group of people in the world. There are other people that need a lot more immediate attention to improve their day-to-day life, and I can support that. But if I'm not acting on my own behalf, no one else will. No one else will.
Riley Habyl [01:55:10] Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us, Debra.
Debra Hirshberg [01:55:16] You're welcome.
Riley Habyl [01:55:19] Is there anything else you like to say before I— (crosstalk)
Debra Hirshberg [01:55:23] I hope I wasn't too preachy. Sometimes I get on my high horse.
Riley Habyl [01:55:30] No, I've greatly enjoyed speaking with you, Debra. Thank you so much. I'm going to press end on the recording.
Debra Hirshberg [01:55:35] You're welcome.
This collection features oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Same-Gender Loving) community members, leaders, and activists in the greater Cleveland area. Interviews explore the history of Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ communities, groups, organizations, places, and spaces both past and present. Interviews in this collection were conducted by Riley Habyl, a graduate student at Cleveland State University Department of History, beginning in the summer of 2023.…