LFOC newsletter, 1987, Tretter collection from SVC

“We are working for the destruction of patriarchy”

Published March 19, 2014 by Stewart Van Cleve

Guest blogger today is Stewart Van Cleve, a graduate student in the program for Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University and the author of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota. In this post, Stewart writes about Minnesota’s first statewide lesbian organization: the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee.

Since her 1980 election to the Minnesota Legislature, Representative Karen Clark has become a powerful voice in state politics. She and State Senator Scott Dibble helped lead the battle against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and, more recently, she became the House sponsor of Minnesota’s same-sex marriage bill, which Governor Mark Dayton signed into law last May. She looked on with her partner, Jacquelyn Zita, as Governor Dayton signed the bill, ending a fight for marriage equality that originated alongside Clark’s political career in the 1970s.

Clark’s foray into politics began four decades ago, when she participated in the landmark Sagaris Institute, a 1975 feminist conference held in Vermont. Though the Institute collapsed due to participant infighting and fears of FBI infiltration, Clark returned to Minnesota with inspiration, and she began organizing women from her home in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood. After a series of discussions with a diverse group of Minnesota women from around the state, she helped create Minnesota’s first statewide lesbian organization: the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee (LFOC). Though it only lasted for six years, the LFOC forged a local lesbian community that built the political infrastructure necessary for the immense cultural changes that transpired four decades later.

From the beginning, the LFOC called for radical change. “Lesbians are an oppressed minority,” the organization stated in its “Principles of Unity,” “…[and] we are working for the destruction of patriarchy, and for the development of a system in which there is an equitable distribution of power.”  To help achieve the LFOC’s broader goals, Clark devised an innovative organizing strategy inspired by Marxist thought; she helped women create largely-autonomous “cells” that determined its own needs and objectives while simultaneously assisting the activities of the “mother organization,” which published newsletters and led organizing workshops for cell leaders.  The structure proved extremely effective in responding to the myriad and often immediate needs of Minnesota lesbians. In an interview for Land of 10,000 Loves, one of the LFOC’s principal organizers, Janet Dahlem, remembered: “when people came to us with needs, we were able to respond and create a committee or a subgroup…we had a Lesbian Mother’s Legal Defense Fund because a women had lost her  children to her heterosexual husband simply because she was a lesbian.” In addition to the Mother’s Defense Fund, the LFOC also led an organizing effort to curtail anti-lesbian hate crimes, which were ignored by both gay and mainstream news sources.

Simply by creating a political structure that gave women leadership roles, the LFOC helped destabilize male dominance in local politics, especially in south Minneapolis, where most members lived.  The LFOC also helped Clark establish a mobilized base of dedicated volunteers who helped her first successful bid for elected office in 1980. Without the LFOC, Clark’s career, and thus the marriage equality legislation that defines it, would likely have not been possible.

The image above is from the December 1978 newsletter of the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee. It comes to Historyapolis courtesy of the Lesbian Feminist Organizing Committee (LFOC) records, part of the Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Porn protester for Kevin's blog post,  Pioneer Press, November 10, 1984

“Pornography is the theory and rape is the practice”

Published March 18, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Today’s blogger is Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a senior history major at Augsburg and one of the student interns at the Historyapolis Project for 2014. Kevin will be a regular presence on this blog. Today he shares some of the research he has been doing for his senior thesis, which examines the conflicts and controversies engendered by the burgeoning pornography industry during the 1970s and 1980s.

This photo from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, published in November, 1984, shows an angry group of women protesting a pornographic bookstore on Lake Street in Minneapolis. They were part of a national movement of women  who rallied under the phrase coined by radical feminist Robin Morgan: “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” The idea was that not only was pornography degrading to women, it promoted misogynistic violence.

By the early 1980s, communities across the country were consumed by this issue, which sparked what many observers came to call the “sex wars.” But there was no city where this issue was as contentious as in Minneapolis. And on December 30, 1983 the Minneapolis city council voted to ban pornography.

This ordinance was authored by radical feminists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. But it had the backing of women like the protesters pictured here, who had become increasingly upset about the growing presence of pornography theaters and bookstores along Lake Street in South Minneapolis.

In the early 1980s, these women decided to make it difficult for these establishments to do business as usual. Once a week groups of women would meet to “browse” the porn stores. This meant “walking unannounced through the stores, standing behind customers, watching customers watch the quarter movies,” according to the Minneapolis Tribune. According to protester Jacqui Thompson: “It makes the people in the stores uncomfortable, and that’s the point.”

These weekly “browsing” sessions sometimes became full-blown demonstrations like the one shown here. On December 2, 1983, nationally renowned radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, led approximately 150 women into a bookstore at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. One of the participants was Bonnie Fournier who later wrote a letter to local gay and lesbian paper, Equal Time, chronicling her experience. “It began gently enough: wanting to see the reality, wanting to experience the shock, milling around, pointing, gasping…More and more women entered. Filling the aisles, marching, touching, depositing magazines on the floor, tearing, throwing objects, shouting, trampling.”

Usually, however, “browsing” was more of a low key affair involving around a dozen women, albeit one that most certainly made the bookstore customers uneasy. When several browsers stood in front of the bookstore on 401 E. Lake in the July of 1979 to pose for a picture, a man who had just walked out from the store dove over a bus stop bench to avoid having his face caught in the frame.

Browsing was a simple and effective way for women in South Minneapolis to demonstrate against the pornography business that they felt were endangering them and their communities. And it certainly worked, at least as far as making the customers uneasy. As the clerk at the 401 E. Lake bookstore said, “They been in here before. It just doesn’t look right to have a bunch of women standing in here.”

The city ordinance banning pornography was vetoed by Mayor Don Fraser in early 1984. But the protests in the Minneapolis pornography district continued until technological changes made brick and mortar theaters and bookstores obsolete and ultimately unprofitable.

-Information from: Tom Sorenson, Minneapolis Tribune, “‘Browsing; is the weapon women use to attack neighborhood pornography,” July 28, 1979. And Bonnie Fournier, Equal Time, “Feminists: This voice cries no,” December 28, 1983. 

Lost to History: the South Minneapolis Pornography District of the 1980s

Published March 17, 2014 by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg


It’s Map Monday. Today we have a custom map created by Historyapolis student researcher Kevin Ehrman-Solberg. It shows the geography of pornography in the 1970s and 1980s, when Minneapolis saw an explosion of the commercial sex industry. On this map, the red pins are are for theaters, the green denotes bookstores and the blue pins mark the location for other businesses related to the commercial sex industry. Pornography and prostitution had always existed in the city. But for the period between World War I to the late 1960s it had been driven underground by obscenity laws and zoning regulations.

Many of the theaters and bookstores shown on this map were owned by Ferris Alexander, who was known in Minneapolis as the “Patriarch of Porn.” Followed by the FBI and hated by city administrators, Alexander defied constant efforts to drive him out of business and perhaps out of town. The city passed a zoning law in 1977 to force his establishments off of Lake Street. Alexander challenged the law in court and won, much to the consternation of city leaders and the residents of the Powderhorn and Phillips neighborhoods, which adjoined the Lake Street corridor dominated by Alexander’s businesses. By 1986, the city attorney had charged the businessman with everything from housing code violations to obscenity charges. Nothing stuck.

Alexander was not the only person in Minneapolis in the pornography business. But he was the most visible. His businesses–shown on this map–attracted men wanting to explore gay sex in an anonymous environment. And they drew feminist activists, who began targeting his businesses in the early 1980s.

In 1983, feminist protesters attacked Alexander’s notorious bookstore at Chicago Avenue and Lake Street. The women knocked down shelves, tore up magazines and spray-painted anti-pornography slogans on the walls. The police finally intervened when the destruction turned violent. This crusade ultimately culminated in the short-lived city ordinance banning pornography, which was vetoed by Mayor Donald Fraser before it could go into effect.

Alexander’s bookstores were also a magnet for men seeking anonymous male sex. Ferris helped to facilitate these encounters. According to local gay activist Tim Campbell, “Ferris or his employees would put holes in [the plywood walls that separated the individual viewing cubicles] about the size of an orange…and they became known as glory holes and they allowed you to have sex with somebody in the other booth.”

Stymied by their inability to regulate or ban Alexander’s businesses, city officials appealed to the police department to help. Starting in 1980, the city’s vice squad targeted the bookstores, arresting thousands of customers each year. Undercover officers would hit on men, who might respond with a sexual overture. An arrest for indecent conduct would follow. These vice squad arrests prompted gay activist Tim Campbell to file a joint suit with Alexander to block the city’s bookstore entrapment campaign.

By the late 1980s, the Alexander pornography empire was on the wane, under siege from both feminists and technological changes that put VCRs in every home. His businesses on the decline, Alexander was unable to beat back criminal obscenity charges. He went to prison in 1992.

Today there is little sign that there was ever a contentious pornography district in South Minneapolis. Like the early twentieth century brothel district described by Penny Petersen last Monday, this once-sexualized urban space has disappeared from the modern streetscape.

Information for the text and map are drawn from: “The 7th Annual Urban Journalism Workshop Reports On Adult Bookstores in Minneapolis” August 4th, 1977. And “Empire/Alexander Called a Modern Robber Baron,” St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, January 26, 1986 and oral history with Tim Campbell, in the possession of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg.


“Where are the men who make these girls what they are?”

Published March 11, 2014 by Tamatha Perlman

Today’s guest blogger is Tamatha Perlman, a writer and museum professional, who is working on a book about murder, madness and unrequited love in 19th century Minneapolis. In this post she describes one of the city’s most colorful founding mothers, the indomitable Charlotte Van Cleve, who established the Sisterhood of Bethany in 1874 and helped to challenge social prejudices against women who had worked as prostitutes in the city’s burgeoning commercial sex industry. Tamantha writes:

The man behind the bar let out a string of profanities. Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve took the lily-shaped horn she used to amplify conversation out of her ear and rested it on the counter, hands folded over the curved neck.

Charlotte wasn’t easily ruffled.

She was the daughter of Charlotte and Lieutenant Nathan Clark, who had travelled from Connecticut to “a bend in the St. Peter River” in 1819 to found what became Fort Snelling. When Charlotte was born along the way at Prairie du Chien, her father’s compatriots insisted that the new baby–the first “American” born in an area still controlled by Native Americans–should be called “Ouisconsin,” to commemorate her Wisconsin territory birthplace.

Blessed with native intelligence, her childhood as a military daughter at a frontier outpost shaped her into a woman of both persistence and compassion. She brought these considerable gifts to bear on the early social structures of Minneapolis, nurturing institutions that would change life for women and children in the growing city.

When the saloonkeeper finished his barrage, Charlotte smiled serenely. “Yes, yes. I agree with everything you say,” she said. “And now I’ll take your donation, please.” 

The man reached into the till and handed Charlotte his donation for the Sisterhood of Bethany. 

The Sisterhood of Bethany was established in 1874 to create a refuge for “fallen women” by Charlotte and a trio of female compatriots. Harriet Walker (wife of lumber magnate T.B. Walker) represented the Methodists in this effort; Euphoria Outlook brought her Adventist beliefs to this moral reform work; and Abby Mendenhall put her Quaker principles into action through the Sisterhood, which sought to help women who had worked as prostitutes in the city’s burgeoning commercial sex industry.

Charlotte always asserted that if you’re “fallen” you can always get back up. The Sisterhood extended a helping hand for women seeking to climb back into respectable society. They defied those who believed that sex workers bore a moral stain that could never fade. And they asserted that prostitutes should not bear the sole blame for their situation. “Where are the men who make these girls what they are?” Charlotte demanded. “Go find them in our business marts, drawing rooms, and churches…Men are getting rich on the toil and tears of famishing women and children.” 

The Sisterhood made an arrangement with the city to rehabilitate women arrested for prostitution. In 1875, Charlotte rented a small house at 316 Sixth Street SE and accepted her first two “inmates.” A few days later, two more women arrived. They were met with a message of moral reform that was undoubtedly tiresome. Of the original four women, two took their complimentary bibles to the pawn shop and themselves out on the town. 

bethany home,  image 1, side 1

Charlotte was undeterred. Bethany Home grew and in expanded to accommodate the inevitable children who arrived as well. As president of Bethany Home, Charlotte replied to letters from desperate women, reunited repentant daughters with agonized fathers, nursed countless babies and spoke throughout the region on behalf of “her girls.” In addition, she was the first female elected to the Minneapolis Board of Education in 1876 after a law was passed to allow women to run for offices “relating to the education of children.” 

By the time Charlotte died in 1907, she had raised 22 children–her own biological children and those she adopted. By 1914, the Sisterhood claimed that it had helped 7,500 women and children leave the sex trade.

This photo shows Charlotte on her 80th birthday. It is from the Minneapolis Photo collection at the Hennepin County Central Library.

brothel district, 1911, from penny p

Mattie St. Clair and the Riverfront Red-Light District, 1910

Published March 10, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This map shows the Minneapolis brothel district in 1910, as described by Penny Petersen in her book, Minneapolis Madams. Penny–who works as a researcher for a Minneapolis-based historical consultant–is our guest blogger today, with a post that remembers the notorious madam known as Mattie St. Clair. 

Mattie St. Clair was a successful sex worker with a career that began in the 1870s and spanned three decades during Minneapolis’s era of tolerated prostitution. Over the course of her professional life, she rose from being a “boarder” in various bordellos to that of a madam.

Like most sex workers, she had several known identities: Mattie/Matilda St. Clair, Matilda/Mattie Sinclair, Amanda Coine, and Amanda Nichol. Likely, none of these were her real name. In 1905 St. Clair told the census taker that she had lived in the state for 15 years and was born in Maine 35 years earlier. Had this statement been true, she would have been nine years old when she was working for Main Street madam Nettie Conley in 1879.

The newspapers enjoyed reporting on her adventures. She was among a group of madams who went to court in December, 1886. According to the St. Paul Globe, the women “attracted considerable attention, but seemed entirely unaffected by the glances cast at them. They were all dressed in the height of fashion and all but one or two treated the whole matter as a big joke to be smiled at and dismissed. Mattie Sinclair was the first one to be called up. She was given until Dec. 14 and placed under bonds of $500.”

St. Clair also made headlines when she went to recover jewelry she had pawned. As one newspaper told the story “the central figures in the drama were Mrs. Amanda Nichol, otherwise known as Mattie St. Clair. It appears that she owned a pair of diamond solitaire earrings, which were held by [W. H.] Harris as collateral for a loan of several hundred dollars.” St. Clair had a writ of replevin in hand when she, her attorney, and a policeman went to Harris to recover the diamonds. “Harris produced the sparks and the woman grabbed them eagerly, at the same time yelling for the officer.” After a struggle with Harris, Mattie broke away and “taking advantage of the lull, ran out the rear balcony and jumped to the ground,” escaping with the jewels.

In 1903, St. Clair moved her brothel to 1115 South Second Street. This was the heart of the Eleventh Avenue red-light district, a two block area with twenty brothels. Although the district was shuttered by the city in 1910, St. Clair continued working until her arrest in 1911, when she seemed to disappear from the newspapers, city directories, and Minneapolis history.

This map was created by Ted Tucker for Petersen’s book, Minneapolis Madams: The Lost History of Prostitution on the Riverfront (University of Minnesota, 2013).