Cultural organizing through literature, art, and music aided in political education by making room for people to soak up ideas with their bodies and spirits, experiment together, and find joy to continue the struggle for justice. The Women’s Project practiced a vision of the transformed world they sought.
The explosion of feminist musicians and publications in the 1970s spoke volumes about the hunger and deep need for art and culture in social movements. These resources became an especially important lifeline in the 1980s as conditions for political action grew harsher and more restrictive. Organizers were not seeing the same kinds of victories they had in previous decades. Many movement leaders were incarcerated or in hiding. But the movement built strength in new ways, such as through the music of the Black a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the white queer singer-songwriter, k.d. lang. Hundreds of musicians that traced their lineage to the Black freedom, gay liberation, and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s criss-crossed the United States spreading ideas, sparking joy, and shoring up the courage of their audiences.
The Women’s Project created gathering spaces outside of the office by organizing concerts by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Castleberry-Dupreé, Odetta, and dozens of singer-songwriters who performed at monthly women’s coffeehouse gatherings. They sponsored poetry readings, a film festival, parties, retreats, and songwriting workshops to reach new people, expand political education, and build a culture that imagined a different future.
The Women’s Project worked with local churches and other organizations to bring Sweet Honey in the Rock to Arkansas for the first time in 1981, then every few years after that. Arkansas was often off the beaten track for big artists, so people traveled from rural areas all across the state for the concerts. It was a powerful way to spread messages of social justice in a joyful and motivating setting.
Jane Sapp, a nationally renowned gospel and blues musician and cultural worker, was a regular visitor to Arkansas. The Women’s Project invited Jane to perform at events and to run songwriting workshops with children across the Delta region. Suzanne Pharr noted, “if you got to witness that you would see children move from shyness to a sense of we can sing with power and we can sing the truth about ourselves.”
In 1990, Jane Sapp performed at the African American Women’s Conference, which the Women’s Project organized to bring Black women from across the state together to build power. Topics included everything from single parenting to economics to disability justice.
“We realized that there was a need for a safe space for Black women to deal with some of our issues ourselves. There was time for coalition building and working with allies and there was also the need for internal community-specific work and so we started really mobilizing women. It was a clamoring, overwhelming ‘Yes.’ And so the agenda for the conference was one that was collectively formulated.”
Kelly Mitchell-Clark, 2018 Oral History
The Women’s Project followed up with attendees to support local organizing after the conference. Attendees from Marianna were particularly fired up, so Women’s Project staffers Janet Perkins and Damita Jo Marks started visiting more often to strengthen relationships there.
Music and literature were intimately intertwined in a nationwide, feminist, grassroots network of print and word-of-mouth information sharing. This network was anchored by women’s bookstores and independent libraries, which started popping up in the 1970s but were almost all gone by the late 1990s due to the rise of big box and online booksellers. Famous institutions in the feminist bookstore world included Charis Books in Atlanta, which is one of the few such stores still in operation as of 2021.
Feminist bookstores often carried publications from the hundreds of lesbian printing presses that proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s. In this time before widespread internet access, lesbian printing presses were one of the primary modes of communication among feminists across the country.
The Women’s Project subscribed to many of these publications and made them available in an enormous library at their headquarters. The library was filled, floor to ceiling, with queer, women’s, African American, and children’s literature, videos, and articles. It was stocked with the work of writers that had a major influence on the political philosophy of the Women’s Project, such as Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde.
The library emerged from Lynn Frost’s vision and initiative after she moved to Little Rock in the late 1980s. A woman in the nontraditional jobs program built the first bookshelves, and the collection kept growing until it eventually took up three rooms.
“I started going to the Women's Project mainly for the library. They had the most progressive, race conscious, queer conscious library I'd ever seen. At that point in my life most of the images that I saw, particularly around being gay or queer in the South, were white men. And so it wasn't until the Women's Project and their library that I got to read books by other Black gay authors, getting connected to newsletters from all across the South, from all across the nation, really, that focus on Black queer issues, particularly in the South.”
Eric Reece, 2021 Oral History
Building on its success with the library, the Women’s Project branched out into bookselling. Frost would pack up books and a card table to offer literature at community events. She also sold calendars, postcards, and other paper items to raise money for more books and periodicals for the library.
By offering wider access to feminist books, the Women’s Project generated demand for the authors to share their ideas in person. Over the years, they brought many authors to speak in Arkansas, including Leslie Feinberg, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and Minnie Bruce Pratt.
In addition to sharing the work of others, the Women’s Project also created their own literature that was key to pushing national conversations further and deeper. They published and sold copies of a book edited by Kerry Lobel, Naming the Violence: Speaking Out about Lesbian Battering (1986). They also sold Suzanne Pharr’s books, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (1988) and In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation (1996).
Money made from book sales was cycled back in to fund the organization’s work. In 1994 alone, the Women’s Project made over $17,000 (equivalent to more than $30,000 in 2021) in sales from Homophobia.
Alongside the books, the Women’s Project’s newsletter, Transformation, played a significant role in complicating movement conversations nationwide. It also pushed Women’s Project members to articulate their politics. Transformation offers an incredible record of issues, political analysis, and news from the 1980s and 1990s, much of which is still directly relevant today.
Years later, disaster hit the Women’s Project library.
The back of the house could not be saved. Frost sorted through the thousands of books, CDs, audio tapes, DVDs, and vertical files. The Women’s Project no longer had the space or staff to maintain an extensive library. Many books were thrown out because of water damage, but hundreds were sent to community organizations and schools around the world.
“That library was just an amazing piece of love. As the recipient of many cases of books when the library closed to be able to give them on, I was just really moved years later, actually by just the thought and care put into choosing books and just really how ahead of its time the library was… I personally read so much more than I ever would have because of that.”
Kerry Lobel, 2020 Story Circle
The Women’s Project saw reading, listening, and gathering together as integral to struggle. They worked to build a world full of access to ideas, music, and joy. These spaces of cultural work put freedom on the horizon.