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A place for women



Gay men could claim a variety of spaces reserved for them in and around Little Rock. Few such spaces in Arkansas were reserved for lesbians. The exception lay in the mountains of Northwest Arkansas. Settling around the then liberal college town of Fayetteville, a short drive from Eureka Springs, lesbians took advantage of a rise in feminist visibility among women attending the University of Arkansas. In many ways, Fayetteville was the epicenter of the feminist movement in Arkansas. During the 1970s, feminists in Fayetteville, through a combination of university funding and private donations, were able to secure a separate space from which to serve women's needs in the area. The group had been operating out of various locations since 1972 but in the fall of 1978 the Fayetteville Women's Center opened its doors at a new facility, a small converted house provided by the University just across from the football stadium.

The new Women's Center was advertised as "a space where women of the campus and community of Fayetteville can come together and relate to one another as women." The center offered a rape crisis and pregnancy hotline, a battered- women's shelter, a health collective, a women's sports collective, a women's coffeehouse, a chorus and other services. The center also provided space to a lesbian student group, the Lesbian Rap Group, that was advertised as a "group formed to help lesbians deal with social pressures concerning lifestyle and attempts to promote a more accurate image of lesbianism though educational programs."

The University of Arkansas provided the property and the bulk of the women's center funds through student-generated accounts and the larger university budget. With university funds came less autonomy, but the women, desperate for funding, were willing to accept this. The group was progressive, and with funds and an allocation of a facility, members were most encouraged. However, things quickly soured within the first three months of the center's creation. With the support of the women's center, the Lesbian Rap Group found themselves growing in numbers and visibility on campus early in the fall semester. However, the lesbian student group grew increasingly disenchanted with the politics of the Women's Center, which concentrated on issues such as abortion access and other feminist legal matters that the Rap Group deemed largely irrelevant to lesbians. While the center assured them that this was not the case, skepticism as to the motives and goals of the Women's Center grew among politically involved lesbians on campus.

A rift between the two groups only widened in the fall of 1978 when the Lesbian Rap Group decided to rechristen themselves as the "Razordykes," capitalizing on the popular University Razorback mascot, and began promoting lesbian goals on campus. Group leaders thought the name reflected both "gay pride and humor," but for other students, it quickly became a name associated "with fear and hatred." The Razordykes sought for class time from willing health and psychology faculty to deliver presentations on homosexuality and, using Women's Center funds, purchased reading materials on gender and sexuality, distributing them around campus.

The increased visibility of the Razordykes brought increased scrutiny by University of Arkansas officials of the rap group and the Women's Center. Early in the semester, the Razordykes announced a potluck dinner at the Women's Center to be followed by an open forum for discussing lesbian issues on campus. An advertisement for the dinner in the student newspaper, the Traveler, provoked a string of letters condemning the Razordykes, many of which also criticized the administration of the University of Arkansas for funding a group comprising "degenerates and perverts."

It was not long before the matter came to the attention of state legislators in Little Rock. Already having made their position on homosexuality clear through the reinstatement of the sodomy law the previous year, legislators put subtle pressure on state-appointed university administrators to close the Women's Center and eliminate funding for the Razordykes. Alumni and University donors also began to raise concerns after an influential alumna, the wife of a wealthy local banker, was sent anonymously an invitation to a lesbian dance hosted by the Razordykes. It is not known whether a friend or foe of the group sent the invitation, but, nonetheless, frustration with the Razordykes and the center grew and put the future of the center in jeopardy. University administrators pleaded with group leaders to at least change their name to something "less volatile." The Razorbacks mascot, in football and basketball, was a cherished and guarded image throughout the entire state, and university officials recognized this. Group leaders, ever obstinate in their politics, refused to even consider a name change. At the root of their stubbornness was the issue of self-determination, which went beyond simply wishing to name themselves what they pleased. They felt that to surrender and pick a name not so close to the one cherished by university officials, students, and alumni would be to acknowledge that they did not belong and that certain aspects of university life were entirely off-limits to queer students. In light of the women's refusal, university administrators, stung by the unwanted attention from Little Rock and alumni regarding the Razordykes, acted to "get rid of the Women's Center." By October, two months after the center opened and two months after the potluck and lesbian forum was announced, the Associated Student Government, the elected student body representatives responsible for doling out public funds to student groups, informed the Women's Center that their funds for the year were now frozen pending investigation. The student government charged the Women's Center with using student money to fund a facility providing services to non-students. The Women's Center did not deny that women from the larger community took advantage of its services but was able to show that more than 80 percent of its users were students. However, the fact that 20 percent were not U of A students was enough for the student government to drastically cut the Women's Center funding for the 1979-80 academic year. The student government took away the center's facility, the off-campus house the university provided, and relocated the Women's Center in a single room in the basement of the campus student union. In further discouragement, knowing that the Women's Center acted as an umbrella organization that then dispersed funds to other, smaller groups such as the Razordykes, the student government openly encouraged other campus groups to solicit the Women's Center for funds, whatever the groups' political leanings. When campus anti-abortion groups began to ask for money from the center for their programs, the leaders refused to hear their request. In response, the student government accused the group of being a "feminist clique" and denied its funding for the next academic year altogether. Unable to secure enough funding from outside sources to carry on its programs, the Women's Center closed its doors.

Many Women's Center advocates privately blamed the Razordykes for the closure, seeing the lesbian group as a lightning rod for unwelcome campus criticism. Many Razordykes considered the Women's Center as unwilling to support its feminist allies in their time of need as campus pressure continued to mount. For the Razordykes, encouraging others to "come out" was at the heart of their political agenda; the very act of coming out, for them, was political. Whatever the reasons, the division between the two groups reflected a national trend in the feminist movement as lesbians felt increasingly disenfranchised by the larger feminist movement. The split of larger feminism and lesbian politics proved dramatic in Northwest Arkansas. It was also highly concentrated at the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where lesbians sought to further separate themselves from the larger political movement that some regarded as having abandoned them outright during the struggle with the university. Many lesbians in Northwest Arkansas who were either active in the Razordykes or nonetheless shared their frustration with the larger feminist movement borrowed ideas and politics from a newly growing back-to-the-land movement by searching for land on which to establish separate lesbian-only communities. Almost a decade before the Women's Center found itself at the center of controversy, lesbian women had been eyeing the Ozarks as a possible space to organize women's communes and communities. Signs advertising lesbian land and the construction of lesbian communities in the rural Ozarks were oftentimes subtle.

Land for Sale: 1,000 acres of land located in scenic Johnson County, Arkansas. Panoramic views of beautiful Boston Mountains. Nice retirement area. Write: H. E. Harvey, Rt. 1, Box 259, Stone Hill Rd., Clarksville, Ark. 72830.

The advertisement above was posted by Mr. H.E. Harvey in the classified section of Ms. magazine in the winter of 1972, the same year as the founding of the Women's Center and some six years before it disbanded for good. Tucked away in the back pages of a popular feminist magazine lay an invitation to queer Arkansas: land for sale. A woman thumbing through Ms. could stumble upon new and subtle possibilities for queer formations in Arkansas. Searching for different outlets to queer identity, perhaps a rural one, women only need look at the small print to discover the possibility of establishing queer spaces in the Arkansas Ozarks. Lesbians, especially in rural areas, depended on such small print much more than gay men, who often had larger networks with access to information. Mountain spaces like the one advertised above, secluded and, perhaps more importantly, cheap, had been selling for sometime since the early 1970s to feminist groups and lesbian separatist organizations seeking freedom from the restrictions of an overly masculine world. Lesbians had lost their space at the university, but other spaces were being constructed in the surrounding mountains.

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