This past Sunday I attended a birthday party to celebrate Dell Williams' 90th Birthday. I had been asked to MC the affair that turned out quite a number of aging feminists as well as a few young ones.
The apartment belonged to Irena, my contemporary who had a severe case of Osteoporosis where the spine could no longer support her head. Since my hearing loss even wearing hearing aids, I still need to see the person’s face I’m talking to. Irena was so bent over it was very difficult for me to understand what she was saying. Old age is a bitch!
My birthday gift to Dell was a copy of the 1974 edition of my first self-published book, Liberating Masturbation: a Meditation on Self-love. Attached to the cover with a paper clip was a crisp new 100 dollar bill. Dell stared at the cover a few moments as her brain struggled to recall until she read my greeting:
“Against all odds, you made it to your 90th Birthday. Congratulations! This little book and Eve’s Garden kicked off the feminist sexual revolution!”
Unfortunately women’s sexual liberation still remains on the feminist launching pad. East Coast women who formed Ms Magazine were primarily a group of conservative college graduates who had all been proper sorority girls. Even Betty Friedan was a Westchester matron living in high style. I was an uneducated cowgirl from Kansas and Dell was a middle class Jewish girl. We both were single and had to earn our keep. Most feminists didn’t want to embrace any form of sexual freedom. They all wanted to marry the men of their dreams while they ignored lesbians as the ”Pink Menace.” But in truth lesbians were no longer dependent upon men and could teach straight women quite a bit about being independent. At that time, bisexuals had yet to be fully acknowledged.
Dell began selling my little book along with two vibrators from her 57th Street apartment via mail order. This was the beginning of her store Eve’s Garden. Dell had been a copy writer in an advertising agency and she was good at it. She had begged me to go into business with her but I knew it would never work. Half of the time I admired her feistiness but her other half annoyed the hell out of me. She had an air of belligerent determination coupled with an equal part of helplessness.
At the end of the sixties, Dell and I first met when we both attended one of those New Age growth centers. We had been paired off as roommates. As we talked, we discovered we were both Wilhelm Reich’s enthusiasts. Not many women had ever read Reich and agreed on the importance of orgasm for a person’s over-all well being. We exchanged phone numbers and our conversation continued for the next five decades. We connected again when Dell signed up for one of my early Bodysex Workshops in ‘72. She was sold on the work I was doing with women and claimed the workshop had totally transformed her life.
That same year, Dell was on the planning committee for NOW’s first (and last) Sex Conference to be held the following year in 1973. She contacted me and insisted I get involved. My artist’s sensibility and vast experience with multiple sex partners and bisexuality during America’s sexual revolution set me miles apart from these predominantly married and conservative heterosexual women who made up most of the NOW organization. But Dell finally got me to a planning session. When it was my turn to speak, I offered to do a “Split Beaver Slide Show for Feminists.” Then I explained why it was important.
I described how I believed I was genitally deformed for the first 35 years of my life, convinced I’d stretched my inner lips from too much childhood masturbation. I had that false notion until my post marital lover showed me his Girlie Magazines. The photos had women displaying their vulvas and many had extended inner lips like mine. Most women have no idea what other women’s genitals look like. The title for my presentation was “Creating an Aesthetic for the Female Genitals.” I produced 50 slides of 15 different women’s vulvas. It was a ground breaking occasion. At the end of my presentation, the entire room rose to their feet for my first standing ovation.
As successful as my presentation had been, NOW didn’t want to hear from me again. It’s still true today; many women do not want to confront their own or other women’s sexual repression. Feminism has yet to make any kind of statement about what women want when it comes to our sexuality. We only discuss what we don’t want such as domestic sexual abuse and harassment in the work place. We agree on our demands for easy access to contraception and the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. Since the women’s movement never took a stand on women’s sexual pleasure, that left Dell’s Eve’s Garden and my Bodysex workshops to carry the load toward women’s sexual autonomy and liberation.
Although Ms Magazine refused to carry Eve’s Garden ads, they did request that I write an article about masturbation. It finally appeared in 1974 which led me to self-publish Liberating Masturbation. Readers were told if they wanted the entire 18 page manifesto they could send $3 to the Magazine. As the orders poured in, I ended up with enough money to publish my first book. So in a sense, Ms. had put me into business as I became a feminist publisher. However, distribution turned out to be more than I’d bargained for so I eventually sold my little book to a mass market publisher in the eighties.
Over the years Dell often asked me to come in as a partner. I knew it would be a disaster if I did. Then in the early nineties, Dell wanted me to buy Eve’s Garden outright, but she wanted an amount that would give her enough money to live comfortably for rest of her life. I spent months with a calculator trying to figure out her business. She had several minor stock holders who wouldn’t sell. As my lawyer said, “Why build a new business on a toxic waste dump?” After I turned down her offer, Dell and I grew further apart. When we talked on the phone, she would often cry. Whereupon I’d say, “If you’re going to cry, I’m going to hang up. As strong as she was she was always wallowing in regrets and self-pity.
Just a month ago, I visited her in the nursing home and it was dreadful. She was lying helpless in bed literally wasting away. Her body was a series of bones held together with skin pulled over them. Oh no! Never would I ever want to end up like this. Several of my good friends have agreed to take me out if I ever reach that stage. As I sat there talking to Dell, I asked why did she cling to life? What was her unfinished business?
Her answer was that she wanted to write a letter to Billie Jean King and inform her that her mother was a tennis champion in her own right. The irony of it all— I clearly remember Dell did not like her mother. Next she said she wanted to see to it that the right person got her art collection. I happen to know she was talking about two of my Love Picture prints along with a couple of paintings by her brother that were nothing to boast about. I told her when she was ready to leave the planet, I would help her exit. She looked confused and asked me how. I would manage to get some pills, or just hold a pillow over her face. She looked horrified while I considered it an act of love.
Dell’s legacy is now solid. She was a pioneer with the first sex shop for women in America. Her store was in an office building on 57th Street. The next woman owned sex store was Good Vibrations in San Francisco with the first ground floor store selling sex toys and books to both women and men. Many times, Joni Blank the proprietor would try to usurp Dell’s position but she had me to contend with as I always jumped in to defend Dell’s rightful place in history.
Now, I’ve washed my hands of assisting Dell in her last hours or remaining involved. People need to “let go” of an aging body when there’s no hope for recovery. Yet many continue to hang on only to deplete our health care system until their last breathe. We need to learn how to live fully so we can embrace death as our final lover. RIP old friend. You fought the good fight now you can rest eternally. Know that I loved you in my own way but I will always remain focused on the living not the dying.