The Thinking 

Northampton, Mass: Lesbian Capital of America

July 13, 2012


Smith College basketball team in 1902, long before the school became well known for its lesbianism



Northampton, Massachusetts, home of Smith College, has been an epicenter of feminism for decades. Both Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan graduated from the Seven Sisters school, which in recent years also has had a reputation as a place where brainy women resolve their identity crises by becoming lesbians, either permanently or just for the college years.

It is no surprise, given this history and the fact that Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same sex “marriage” in 2004, that Northampton is the lesbian capital of the United States.  Fully six percent of households with children in Northampton are headed by a lesbian couple and almost eight percent of “romantic partnerships’ are between women. Nearby East Hampton and Greenfield, Massachusetts also have relatively large populations of lesbian couples who live with children (156 in Northampton, 52 in Easthampton, and 38 in Greenfield). These are by wide margins the highest such ratios in the United States.

While lesbians are still a small minority of the total population in Northampton, they have unusual visibility and acceptance.

Northampton elected its first openly lesbian mayor, Mary Clare Higgins, in November 1999. She served continuously as mayor until she resigned the position in September 2011 to head an anti-poverty agency in the area.

And, Smith makes no secret of its warm approval of lesbianism. Its commencement speaker this year was the televison celebrity Jane Lynch, who spoke fondly of her “wife,” a Smith alum.

“You are the women of Smith,” Lynch said in her commencement speech. “You are fiercely independent, wicked smart, trail blazing, uber confident and shockingly entitled. Like I told you, I live with one of you. I have no doubt you will continue with this legacy and you will change the world. And, we need you to, women of Smith College — now more than ever.”

Lara Embry, Lynch’s lesbian girlfriend, exemplifies this spirit of change. She sued her ex-lesbian lover for partial custody of the woman’s child and won in a Florida court of appeals, thus redefining adoption rights there.

The Northampton lesbian lifestyle has radiated outward from its famously feminist women’s institution, Smith College, which was founded in 1871 with a bequest by Sophia Smith, an unmarried woman who lived all her life in her parents’ home, enjoyed reading the Bible and was said to never speak ill of marriage. She was left a large sum by her father. Smith had some initial ambivalence about founding a woman’s college (the idea did not make it into several early drafts of her will), but her pastor in the Congregational Church strongly urged her on. She said she wanted the education at Smith to be equal to that of men. Thus from the start, Smith was guided somewhat by the idea of imitation. Smith’s will stated:

“I hereby make the following provisions for the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men.”

The college’s presidents were all men until 1975 (excluding an acting president who served for one year.) The early curriculum was so rigorous, especially in its stringent standards for reading the classics in Ancient Greek and Latin, that students were drawn from the most scholarly. Quite a few went on to become unmarried teachers. Later, the curriculum was eased, and the ideal end for many students was to be cultured — and marry a man from Amherst or other Ivy League schools.

Feminism became entrenched at Smith during the sixties. Some famous (or infamous) alumnae include Catherine McKinnon, Sylvia Plath, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson.

Regarding the growth of lesbianism, below are tables showing the full breakdown of families with children for the nation overall, San Francisco, and the three centers of lesbianism in Massachusetts; as well as the full breakdown of romantic living arrangements for the same locations.

Definitions: All the columns add up to 100% representing the total of families with own children under 18 years old. An “own child” is the biological or adopted or step-child of the householder. In the homosexual context, a child is an “own child” if the child is adopted or is the biological child of either partner. In the heterosexual context the child is an “own child” if either parent is the biological parent or the child is adopted. “F / Homosexual” means female homosexual couple; “M / Homosexual” means male homosexual couple; “Mar.” means a heterosexual Marriage; “Coh.” means a heterosexual cohabitation; “Single F” means a Single Female not living with a romantic partner; “Single M” means a Single Male not living with a romantic partner. The total population, all races combined, is represented.

Distribution of Families with Own Children from the 2010 Census

F / Homosexual
M / Homosexual
Single F
Single M
United States
0.21% 67.9% 7.7% 19.6% 4.2%
San Francisco 0.89% 0.56% 73.8% 4.9% 16.0% 3.8%
Northampton 6.05% 0.31% 59.4% 5.7% 23.2% 5.4%
Easthampton 3.33% 0.13% 65.8% 8.3% 18.2% 4.2%
Greenfield 2.12% 0.17% 55.2% 11.1% 25.9% 5.5%
Definitions: All columns add up to 100% representing the total number of households based on a romantic relationship. “Married” means heterosexual Marriage; “Cohabitation” means heterosexual Cohabitation; “Female Homosexual” is a female homosexual couple; “Male Homosexual” is a male homosexual couple. The total population, all races combined, is represented. 

Distribution of Romantic Partnerships from the 2010 Census

Female Homosexual
Male Homosexual
United States 87.9% 10.6% 0.74% 0.66%
San Francisco
15.3% 1.95% 5.39%
Northampton 77.0% 13.9% 7.65% 1.48%
Easthampton 80.6% 14.4% 4.31% 0.63%
Greenfield 78.4% 17.3% 3.45% 0.87%
Susan McKenna wrote a book-length doctoral dissertation on the development of lesbianism in Northampton, Massachusetts from the 1960s to the 1980s with the title Seeing Lesbian Queerly.

“In queer theory, identity is seen as constructed and fluid, and normative categories of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation are problematized. Instead of two gender roles, or two sexual orientations, queer theory argues that a range of possibilities exists within and outside these categories. Hennessy elaborates, ‘queer theory calls into question obvious categories (man, woman, Latina, Jew, butch, femme), oppositions (man vs. woman, heterosexual vs. homosexual), or equations (gender = sex) upon which conventional notions of sexuality and identity rely’. It is also useful to consider the distinction between identity and identification. In critical usage, identity is understood to mean a socially and historically constructed category. Identity is fluid and unstable. According to Annamarie Jagose ‘identity is a constellation of multiple and unstable positions’, and is ‘ongoing, and always incomplete, it is a process rather than a property’. In contrast, self-identification is an individual act and an effect of social structures. Simply put: queer theory seeks to interrogate identity categories as a way to displace the traditional notion of what it means to belong to a particular group in a particular time.”

In the 1960s, lesbianism in Northampton was an underground phenomenon. In general, lesbian social networks during this time consisted of women interacting with each other in bars, on softball teams, or as friends in each other’s homes. McKenna quotes a recollection from a woman referred to as Jenna:

“You were out there on your own. That was true especially if you were single. The bars were one place to meet others, but the bars were better in the cities. The big thing was these groups of friends. I’m not sure how we found one another. You used to ask: ‘Is she a member of our church?’ Some of these women I’m still friends with today. We still get together.”

Bets offered her own interpretation of why bars were a primary place for lesbians to get together:

“What you have to think about is that the reason that the women were going to the bar is that most of us were drunks to begin with. Because we didn’t fit in the world and that’s the only place we could go. The only community we had. You also had to worry about who might see you if you went to those places.”

Marian adds in with her own recollections:

“I left my family at that age [seventeen] and somehow I had the wherewithal to find a gay bar. And it was very out of my family’s life, I really left my whole sort of culture. I left my class. I had to leave everything to do that. It was very traumatic. Not without it’s sacrifices. There wasn’t like gay lib or like feminism. I remember like sitting in the bars, there were lots of, a lot of women, there was like a lot of physical fighting, the butches. I remember there were a lot of like drug addicts and a lot of them were prostitutes, and a lot of the butches were pimps. It was just like a really different scene. There was a lot of like really, really serious drinking and drug use.”

As time moved forward things became more friendly to lesbianism in Northampton. The emergence of feminism was key. As McKenna describes it: “Until the early 1970s the Northampton lesbian population came together only through bar going, informal social networks, and isolated individual relationships. The emergence of the subcultural community was closely allied with the late 1960s/early 1970s advent of women’s liberation and the feminist movement that [was] escalating in the region. Early 1970s area feminist organizations such as Amherst Women’s Liberation gave rise to consciousness raising groups that were spaces for discussing feminist values, and, for many, spaces to come out as lesbians.” As Arlene Stein put it, “consciousness-raising groups often became coming out groups in which individuals were socialized into the lesbian world.”

Andrea, another woman quoted, added:

“That was what we did. We got together and talked about being lesbians. Everything was about lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. Lesbian was the beginning and the ending point of it all. My focus was on women and other lesbians and everything I did was for that. It was a time of empowerment. You knew there were women all over the country doing the same thing. There’s really been nothing else like it in my life. . . . a group of us from then was always talking about lesbians.”

Man-bashing was also on the agenda. As Sid recalled:

“We were angry and there was every reason to be angry. We talked about it all. When you walked down the street and someone whistled or made a comment, we talked about what to do. How to fight back. We were brave. Something else we were angry about had to do with men, violence against women, harassment on jobs. We were very offended by commercials. . . . it was terrible discrimination and when we first talked about this, I almost died, it was like I can’t believe this.

That kind of sexism was everywhere.”

As Laura put it:

“We valued women; we valued women’s contributions. We wanted to encourage women. It was about valuing women, about more than a definition of who you were sleeping with. Feminism to me is about the empowerment of women. We were building a women’s community. For me it also had to do with recognizing the oppression of women and the power of that in women’s lives individually.”

Andrea also chimes in regarding the 1970s time period:

“I was a radical feminist then. Still am. Probably a counter-cultural, radical coming out on the traditional spectrum. We saw ourselves as being part of a movement dedicated to winning power for women, more power for women, equality and fairness. There were powers that men would need to give up, you know, the power to abuse and the power to aggress and things like that.”

Lesbianism hit the big time in Northampton in the 1980s. The first Northampton Gay Pride Parade was in May 1982 attracting 500 participants. In 1983, the local paper The Northampton Daily Gazette ran a series of prominent front-page articles on lesbianism in the region and homosexuality in general. In comparing Census Data from the 1970 Census to the 1980 Census it was discovered that the population of women 25 to 34 years old in Northampton increased 98 percent.

What lesbians most liked about Northampton when first arriving in the 1980s was their ability to quickly and easily spot other lesbians “walking down the street”. As Ruth in McKenna’s dissertation put it:

“I came here so that I would be able see others like me, other lesbians, out in public when I walked down the street. Here you would see women. Women that you would know were dykes. There were the clothes, the haircuts, the way of strutting down the street. There was the way someone would catch your eye nobody pays that kind of attention today. It’s just not a big deal. . . . You could pick them out and they were noticing you too.”

Bets described the pleasure of seeing other lesbians on the street more directly:

“It was very seductive to me, to be here surrounded by lesbians. That was the community too. I loved having lots of lesbians around. I wanted to live somewhere where women being affectionate, being sexual together, women loving women, was okay. It’s very liberating to be able to touch your lover in public. It’s definitely the type of thing hets don’t have to think about. I loved seeing them everywhere I went.”

Jane Lynch, who stars in the TV show Glee, is an open lesbian who says she had an alcohol and cough syrup addiction from age 14 to about age 40. Lynch pumped up her audience of Smith Graduates (all women) with her call to action. She also broached the issue of family in her speech, saying:

“Life is not all about work — and the scariest places to say “Yes And” are also the most rewarding…in a relationship.

Whoever [sic] you choose, your husband, wife or partner, will make you see more about yourself than any navel gazing in solitude could ever reveal.”

Lynch also broaches the subject of children, she says:

“The day after I met my wife, I met my daughter. I don’t really like kids; I’m a dog person. But you couldn’t have designed a better kid for me. She’s witty, wise beyond her years, she has a huge heart, and such patience with the frailties of human nature. I don’t mean to make her sound like the Dalai Lama, but she is exceptional. One day you will meet your child; you may give birth to her, adopt her, she may just wander over or follow you home. We do ‘meet’ them because they are born who they are. We don’t make them, we welcome them. Nothing like knowing they are watching you will make you want to be your best self. Haden was 7 when I met her, she’s now 10 and in eight more years we hope to be dropping her off right here.”

The sordid story of Jane Lynch’s two children is that they were both conceived by artificial insemination but they have two different biological mothers; Lara Embry and Kimberly Ryan, Embry’s former lesbian partner. Lynch says regarding children “they are born who they are. We don’t make them, we welcome them.”

Judging from the public record, there has been little opposition to Northampton’s lesbian culture. One wonders how Smith’s older almunae have processed the changes in their school. One almuna of the 1980’s made public her disapproval.

Anne Spurzem, a 1984 graduate, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Smith newspaper:

The people who are attending Smith these days are A) lesbians or B) international students who get financial aid or C) low-income women of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college and will go to any school that gives them enough money. Carol emphasizes that this is one of her goals, and so that’s why the school needs more money for scholarships or D) white heterosexual girls who can’t get into Ivy League schools.

“… I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships.”

She later retracted much of her statement.

Lara Embry, a Smith graduate, with her celebrity girlfriend, Jane Lynch

                               —- Comments —-

Sheila C. writes:

I graduated from Smith in 1980. I first became aware of lesbianism during my four years there; a friend who had been an evangelical Christian decided to become a lesbian (she later recanted and married a man). I was fortunate that there remained enough older professors who had been classically trained that I was able to get a marvelous liberal arts education. While I remember my years there as happy ones, I would never consider recommending the school as it is now to anyone. I had them remove me from their mailing list about ten years ago. Anna Spurzem’s comment is very apt; even when I was there Smith was working hard to increase the number of black students. They lived almost exclusively in two houses on campus which, surprisingly enough (heavy sarcasm), had a problem with mail and personal items being stolen (I never had a thing taken during my time there). Even in the late 70s, Smith’s proportion of legacy students (those whose mothers/grandmothers were alums) was shrinking. There was a large contingent of Jewish students, although they were not yet militant enough to complain about Smith’s Christian chapel. While Sophia Smith wanted to found a school providing women with an “equal” education to men, Smith’s traditions and focus for its first 85 years or so was in no way feminist, and from about 1910 – 1965 the typical graduate did, indeed, become a well-educated mother to well-bred children. Alas, another once Christian institution has fallen to the barbarians.

Laura writes:

Smith is so far gone that alumnae have not joined together to speak out against its open endorsement of lesbianism.

Here is a recent photo (small size only available) of Smith students before the annual convocation ceremonies.

Smith students before a recent convocation

MrPowell writes:

During my research on this subject, I ran across an extraordinary video of Smith students engaging in “queer activism” where students disrupted a speech being given by Ryan Sorba on the subject of “The Born Gay Hoax.” Sorba was invited to give his presentation by the Smith Republican Club in 2008 but 15 minutes into the presentation Smith students started chanting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” and the disrupters were able to shut down Sorba’s presentation. When Ryan Sorba gave up, the lesbian activists broke out into wild cheering and celebration.

A more thorough description of the event and the accompanying video can be found at the Mass Resistance website: Lesbian activists at Smith College riot, shut down Ryan Sorba speech.




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