Discover LGBTQIA Los Angeles: The Crenshaw Women’s Center

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
Women gathered in a circle on a carpeted floor for a meeting at the Los Angeles Crenshaw Women's Center
At the Crenshaw Women’s Center, the Lesbian Feminists initiated gay-straight rap sessions to promote understanding between the women, which was groundbreaking since it was the first time most of the straight women had ever talked to a lesbian

Los Angeles has over 1,200 Historic-Cultural Monuments, yet only a dozen have been designated because of their association with the LGBTQIA community.

This is part of a series we have put together for Pride Month that tells the stories of historically and culturally significant LGBTQIA places across Los Angeles and the grassroots efforts to save them.

Part Two: The Crenshaw Women’s Center

The small, nondescript duplex on South Crenshaw Boulevard is easy to overlook. The bright orange stucco building is now a car rental business, but from 1970 to 1972, it was home to the Crenshaw Women’s Center. The Women’s Center offered myriad services and support for women, including mental health, self-help guidance, meeting space, and a bookstand. Thanks to the efforts of historic preservation consultants Kate Eggert and Krisy Gosney, the Crenshaw Women’s Center has been nominated to be a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, one of the few associated with lesbian empowerment.

I will let them tell the story from here.

The Crenshaw Women’s Center has been on our radar since the City of Los Angeles came out with their 2012 SurveyLA LGBT Context Statement which listed the small building as a known resource for being the “center” of the radical feminist movement, the women’s health care movement, and lesbian feminism. The center was among the few lesbian-significant places that was listed as “known resources” in the City of Los Angeles. Being on our radar meant that we started the research for a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) nomination and every month or so we plugged in the address into the Los Angeles Building and Safety site via the “check permit status” link to see if a demo permit was pulled.

Too quickly, a demo permit popped up for the Crenshaw Women’s Center building, which admittingly sent our hearts to our stomachs. But here was our chance to finally research and write about a place for its Los Angeles lesbian history and learn about feminist history in Los Angeles. We had three weeks to do it! When you have less than three weeks to research and write a nomination, you’re setting yourself up for some anxiety, panic, and no weekends.

Just like the start of any Buffy episode when an unknown villain comes to Sunnydale, we hit the library for research. Or, in our case, the internet. Our first step was to go to the Los Angeles Public Library site and scroll down to the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives link. In between reading, clicking, and downloading articles, we jumped over to the City Directories Index link and typed in the address and names associated with the building. We let ourselves get a little sidetracked with the advertisements; tiny anecdotes to the time period.

We had a good grasp on gay history in Los Angeles since we had already done the nominations for Morris Kight’s 4th Street House and The Factory/Studio One building in West Hollywood. We knew we would also use for the radical feminist sections SurveyLA’s Women’s Rights Context Statement and Daphne Spain’s book Constructive Feminism.

It was quickly obvious the Center had a profound and extending influence on the national women’s movement in its three years at its South Crenshaw location. The small duplex provided a space that was familiar to most women—a home. The shotgun-style home had a living room at the front, which directly led to the dining room, kitchen, and bathroom, with the bedroom in the back. It was filled with hand-me-down furniture, area rugs, and an overflowing bookcase with pamphlets and books about women’s liberation.

From 1970-1972, the Crenshaw Women’s Center was active almost 24 hours a day, 6 days a week offering lectures, abortion counseling, consciousness-raising (C-R) “rap” group sessions, and mechanic and legal classes. While the center was the meeting place for feminist groups like National Organization for Women (NOW) it was its radical feminist groups and organizations that set the trajectory for the center to be cemented in history.

We learned about Joan Robins, Carol Downer, and Del Whan, and groups like Women’s Self-Help One, the first woman health care clinic, which single-handedly started the women’s health care movement and was the site of the Great Yogurt Conspiracy, the Anti-Rape Squad, which addressed head-on the violence against women with guerilla activist tactics, and the Lesbian Feminists, who were pivotal in bridging the divide between lesbian and straight women.

June is a great month to highlight the Lesbian Feminists. LGBTQIA Pride Month is about having pride in our culture and our history as well as having self-pride. We have a long history of fighting and June is a month when we can learn and celebrate how far we’ve come while coming together for the future fights that will inevitably come our way. So in celebration of LGBTQIA Pride Month, here’s a look into our research of the Lesbian Feminists.

Crenshaw Center negatives of their bldg
Crenshaw Women's Center, exterior and interior during a group meeting. [nd]. Photos courtesy of Carol Downer

The Lesbian Feminists

Into the 1970s lesbians and gays experienced a void of social services to address homelessness, suicides, and health risks associated with sexual activity. Among the earliest organizations to support medical and mental health needs for lesbians was the Women's Center on Crenshaw Blvd. For lesbians to be accepted into the Women’s Rights movement via the Crenshaw Women’s Center would be a watershed moment in history.

The group was started by gay liberation leader Del Whan and her colleagues in early 1971. Frustrated by male dominance and chauvinism in the gay civil rights movement, Whan and her colleagues ran an advertisement in the Los Angeles Free Press announcing the formation of the “Woman’s Caucus.” The group was a women’s liberation group with an emphasis on lesbian oppression. When the group began meeting at the Crenshaw Women’s Center, they changed their name to Gay Women’s Liberation.

The group changed its name again to Lesbian Feminists when a N.O.W. member saw lesbians kissing at a staged kiss-in. She barked, “oh, you lesbian feminists!” and the name stuck. The name of the group soon encompassed an identity that is still espoused today—a lesbian feminist.

The rift between lesbians and straight women was very palpable at the time. The leading conservative woman’s organization, N.O.W., was intolerant of lesbians in their chapters and platform. The Women’s Rights movement and second-wave feminism largely dismissed lesbian rights from their platform for fear it might discredit and distract their ability to achieve social and political change for women. Never mind that lesbians are women!

In response to this intolerance, the Lesbian Feminists invaded a Los Angeles Chapter N.O.W. meeting and invited them to “confront their low level of consciousness,” fear, and ignorance. After a rap session between N.O.W. L.A. Chapter, Lesbian Feminists, Daughters of Bilitis, and Del Whan’s Gay Women’s Service Center, a resolution was passed wherein the N.O.W. L.A. Chapter acknowledged the oppression of lesbians “as a legitimate concern of feminism.”

Lesbian feminists newspaper article
The Lesbian Tide: Lesbian Feminists photo courtesy of June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives

The position paper that was eventually crafted through the rap sessions was a “consciousness-raiser” in that it served as “a pointed reminder to anti-lesbian N.O.W members that they have fallen short of the goal of sisterhood.” Ultimately, the rap sessions and their participants overhauled the national N.O.W. policy. By the end of 1971, a lawyer on behalf of N.O.W. was representing a lesbian in a custody battle for her child in San Francisco, California.

Lesbian Feminists spoke at colleges and other organizations to promote education between gay and straight communities. At the Crenshaw Women’s Center, the Lesbian Feminists initiated gay-straight rap sessions to promote understanding between the women, which was groundbreaking since it was the first time most of the straight women had ever talked to a lesbian.

The Lesbian Feminists ran the Sisters Coffeehouse at the center every Saturday night from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. The coffeehouse served beer, wine, soft drinks, and dinner. But it was known more for the dancing and conversations that took place there. Even lesbian feminists need to have fun plus gays and lesbians have historically advanced our culture and politics through the then-radical act of dancing together in a public space.

purple and pink NOW brochure
Now Brochure, [1980]. Courtesy of June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives

The nomination was turned in earlier this year, but the research continues. We were recently at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives. We dug through the archive’s boxes dedicated to the Crenshaw Women’s Center. We read through the center’s original newsletters, first-hand accounts of the Lesbian Feminists, and N.O.W. ephemera related to the Lesbian Feminists.

Lesbian Nation ephemera
Lesbian Nation, Sister newsletter, [nd]. Photo courtesy of June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives

The outstanding demo permit was paused when we submitted the HCM nomination a couple of months ago. At the first Cultural Heritage Commission meeting, the commission voted to take the Crenshaw Women’s Center nomination under consideration. The commission visited the site a couple of weeks ago. Although a lot of the building’s character-defining features still remain, the building’s humble appearance makes it hard to tell that such monumental life and culture-changing events took place there. But that is the dilemma of the lesbian and gay historically significant buildings. Our history has not taken place in the prettiest or most architecturally significant building on the block by necessity but that doesn’t diminish their importance to remembering and understanding the story of our culture.

—Written by Authors Kate Eggert and Krisy Gosney, and reprinted with their permission.