December 9, 2015

Saving the House of the Furies

  • By: Jenna Sauber
Furies' Basement

photo by: Joan E. Biren

DC Washington Furies Collective 1972, packing and distributing the newspaper, at 219 11th Street SE, Washington, DC. Left to right: Ginny Berson, Susan Baker (not a Fury), Coletta Reid, Rita Mae Brown, Lee Schwing.

When Robert Pohl and his wife moved into their home in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Capitol Hill in 2004, Pohl conducted a Google search to find out if there was anything special about the house. He immediately came across a page from a local LGBT organization called the Rainbow History Project that named his “new” house as the operational center and main residence for a small lesbian feminist collective in the early 1970s called The Furies.

Soon after, Pohl became a stay-at-home dad, and while his son napped, he researched.

“I wanted a project to keep me semi-coherent intellectually, and the Furies was a great hook,” he says. That research rabbit-hole ultimately led to Pohl transitioning from his career as a computer programmer to a tour guide, historian, and writer.

Now, Pohl’s research is playing a role in a nomination to make the house at 219 11th Street Southeast a historic landmark, with the help of Rainbow Heritage Network co-founder Mark Meinke.

“I have known about and researched the Furies for some time,” says Meinke, who also founded the Rainbow History Project, and is friends with some of the former Furies. “I was looking for an LGBTQ site to nominate, and thought I would do the Furies collective house.”

Of the twelve founding Furies, eleven are living. Meinke contacted all of them, whom he says were “very forthcoming with their memories and very helpful.”

House of Furies, 2007 image and elevation.

photo by: Robert Pohl

Left: 2007 photo of 219 11th St. Right: Detail of elevation sketch by architect Nicholas T. Haller, April 1913. This sketch was filed with the building permit by the builder William Murphy.

While there were three sites in DC that the Furies lived and worked at, the 11th Street house had the biggest basement, which the women used to host meetings and create their newspaper, called The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly. The ten issues of the paper included a mix of poetry, political analyses, and ideological essays, all with the goal of expressing the Furies’ commitment, according to the first issue, to “the growing movement to destroy sexism” and to “building an ideology which is the basis of action.”

Ginny Berson, a founding member of the Furies, spent a lot of time at the 11th Street house, although she didn’t live there until the collective was essentially dissolved in 1973. She credits her participation in the collective as a formative period in her life.

“Although it was very short, it was enormously important for me, for my own personal and political development,” she says. “I became a much better writer. I learned a lot about how to be in a group, how to work in a group, how to lead a meeting.”

“I hope this will nudge people in the right direction, to look at their houses and learn more about it.”

Robert Pohl

According to the DC Office of Planning, a hearing for the nomination will not be held until 2016 due to a long list of other nominations filed before it. Of the nomination of the Furies Collective home, Associate Director Edward Giefer says his office is particularly interested because they have “initiated a historic context study on cultural resources and architectural sites related to the District of Columbia’s LGBTQ history.”

Currently, the only other DC site designated specifically for association with the LGBTQ civil rights movement is the Franklin E. Kameny Residence, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. If the DC review board approves the nomination, the next step will be to nominate it for the National Register. [Ed. update: The Furies Collective was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 6, 2016.]

“In talking about the history of [second-wave movement] LGBTQ, lesbians often get forgotten,” says Berson. “Lesbians played a very important role in the development and the growth of the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement. This is a way of giving lesbians a little more attention.”

Robert Pohl and Mark Meinke

photo by: Robert Pohl

Mark Meinke and Robert Pohl.

As for homeowner Robert Pohl, he plans to add a plaque in front of the house to more prominently display its historical significance. He notes that there are other homes in the neighborhood and across the country that are also deserving of the status, whether for association with the LGBTQ movement or another period in history.

“I hope this will nudge people in the right direction, to look at their houses and learn more about it,” he says.

Jenna Sauber is a freelance writer and nonprofit communications consultant in Washington, D.C. She blogs about literature, family, and more at jennasauber.com.

@cajunjen

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