Liza Cowan was born on this day in 1949 in New York City, the youngest of four accomplished and big-hearted children born to Louis G. and Polly (Spiegel) Cowan. Liza was raised in Manhattan in a household with deep links to show business, the civil rights movement, art, politics, intellectualism, and a particularly Jewish passion for justice. In her early 20s, she came out as a lesbian and became one of the founders of modern Lesbian-feminism, Lesbian-separatism, secular Jewish feminism, and woman-based art. She is a living example of how the women of the Boomer generation used feminism, political lesbianism, class analysis, and a redefinition of "female" culture/art to rock American society on its axis, a jolt that the backlash has not been able to halt.
Liza's roots provide some intriguing clues to the development of her particular brand of radicalism. Lou Cowan, one-time president of CBS, creator and producer of Quiz Kids and The $64,000 Question, was raised a Russian Jewish working-class kid in Chicago. At age 21, he changed his name from Cohen to Cowan and set his sights on class mobility and education beyond his rabbinic ancestry. Polly (Pauline) Spiegel came from upper-class (Spiegel's catalogue), Midwestern German Jews who were keenly committed in social justice. Their happy, complementary marriage created a fertile environment for their children, who were always told they would be expected to make their own way in the world, both in terms of interests and career as well as financially.
During World War II, Lou Cowan was head of the U.S. Office of War Information, the Allies’ propagandist-in-chief against Nazism. In 1943, Lou was named director of a nascent, BBC-inspired government radio network called the Voice of America. Later, although a Reform Jew, he was chief communications advisor to the Methodist Church and a media advisor to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson during the Democrat’s campaigns for president in 1952 and 1956. After leaving CBS in 1959, Lou join the faculty of Columbia University’s elite graduate school of journalism, where he helped launch the Columbia Journalism Review, and a former student wrote "he conducted a highly civilized seminar with eminent guests from the worlds of business, politics and government."
According to another family biographer, "Polly Cowan, not to be outdone by her husband, was an award-winning producer of the 1950s hit game show Down You Go, and the current-events radio program Conversation. Unabashedly inciting listeners to community activism, her 'Call for Action' program was an early example of exploiting communication technology to advance citizen participation. Polly Cowan’s name is enshrined in the civil rights pantheon. With the redoubtable Dorothy Height, she organized the 'Wednesdays in Mississippi' workshops that brought together black and white women from North and South in dialogues and cooperative action."
In later years, Liza's parents also ran a publishing house, Chilmark Press, that produced works by Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, and other literati. They died together in a freak electrical fire in their New York apartment in November 1976, when Liza was only 27.
As a toddler, Liza was used as a "focus group" by her father to find out which aspects of Captain Kangaroo (a project he created) was most interesting to her age demographic. During their early 20s, her older brothers went to rural Mississippi that dangerous summer of 1964, to help register black voters and start a farmers co-op. Their letters home were collected by Liza (still only 15) and her older sister, printed and distributed, published in Esquire and republished in Letters from Mississippi, a chronicle of the so-called “Freedom Summer.”
Liza went to a private, progressive Manhattan high school (Dalton) where, before she graduated, she landed a job with WBAI radio in NYC. In the early 1970s, Liza Cowan was the producer and host of Electra Rewired, a late night talk show on WBAI. She interviewed Maya Angelou, Yoko Ono, Germaine Greer, as well as local feminist and Lesbian activists. She also produced the live music series, The WBAI Free Music Store. One example of a show by her is given in Pacifica Archives as "A Conversation With Yoko Ono -- Liza Cowan and Jan Albert talk to Yoko Ono, about the evolution of her art in the early 1960's. Among the topics discussed are: concept art, match piece, acting out madness in order not to go mad, Yoko as building superintendent, the early loft concerts, the pea-throwing ritual, and discrimination against Yoko as a female artist. Recorded September, 1971."
However, the most compelling aspect of her time at WBAI is that this is where Liza met and fell in love with Alix Dobkin, a folksinger who went on to produce the first all Lesbian record album, Lavender Jane Loves Women. To quote Alix about the event: "We came out from the rooftops, we were so ready, and practically moments after, we came out on Liza’s radio show." As Liza wrote about it in her later magazine, DYKE: A Quarterly: "In 1971 I would occasionally have women musicians on my radio show. None were feminists, certainly their music was not directed to women. Several women sent tapes of their music to me. None of these women had any talent for writing or singing. I used to say over the air that I was looking for women musicians to play on the show, and one day, Alix Dobkin called me and told me she sang and wrote and would like to be on Electra. I scheduled her to appear on Dec 13, 1971. A few hours before airtime I realized that she was to be my only guest for a five-hour live show, and I had never even heard her. We went on the air, we talked for a little while and then she sang a song she had just written, ‘My Kind of Girl.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. She was fantastic. She sang about a dozen songs, we talked some, and we had to go off the air early because of transmitter difficulties. Two months later we were lovers, four months after that I was fired."
As Alix elucidates after that first show together, "Her mother phoned her the next day. 'What was going on with you two last night?' Neither Liza nor I really knew until Valentine’s Day two months later, when we finally slept together. Earlier, I had written 'The Woman in Your Life is You' as an intro for her show, but she used it as an outro for a later show which she called Electra. Our politics accelerated in the hotbed of feminism inflaming NYC in 1972 and Liza decided that on her new show, Dyke Salad, she would not speak to men during the call-in portion of the show, so she hung up on them, a practice which got her fired." This song, "The Woman In Your Life Is You", has become a Lesbian-feminist anthem for an entire generation.
Liza and Alix had a vigorous, extremely productive partnership for six years, during which time Alix (with Liza's across-the-board help) produced not only Lavender Jane Loves Women but also Living with Lesbians, whose album cover is an arresting and instantly-recognized image from that era (Liza is on the far right). Liza's name, details of their relationship, and ideological influence appears in a great many of Alix's lyrics. Even after they broke up, Liza's memory is evoked more than once in Alix's next album, XX Alix, especially in "Separation '78", which contains this description of their relationship: "Catalysts, confidantes, lovers / And who else we'll be to each other / We'll discover". If Alix is, as she has been called, "Head Lesbian" for a generation of Lesbian-feminists, Liza's name must accompany hers.
The death of Lou and Polly in 1976, a terrible personal blow to Liza, gave her unexpected financial security in the form of life insurance proceeds. She used this income to launch one of the definitive lesbian-feminist publications of the 1970s, DYKE: A Quarterly. Co-editing with her friend Penny House, Liza produced some of the movement's first indepth articles about women and art from a Lesbian perspective. DYKE was big format, glossy and beautiful in an era when many women's journals were still being produced on mimeograph and stapled together by hand. As a cultural theory magazine, DYKE lasted for three years, publishing two long issues per year on controversial topics such as Lesbian-separatism, Lesbian fashion, dykes behind bars, and producing theme issues like an ethnic dykes issue and the proposed but never realized issue on Lesbian cartoons.
Liza continued to write (for instance, she appears in The Original Coming Out Stories edited by Julia Penelope and Susan Wolfe), to contribute interviews and analysis, and to assist in Lesbian-feminist cultural events. After stints running the Woodstock, New York Chamber of Commerce, and working in advertising and greeting card publishing, she went to the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research to get an MA in anthropology. Her Masters Thesis theorized a phenomenon she named Sociosomatic Disease, in which symptoms are transmitted not by virus but by discourse. She interrupted her pursuit of a Ph.D. to reclaim her identity as a painter and also to become a mother to two daughters, a new generation of Cowans now in their pre-teens. Co-mother to these children is Laurie Essig, who was partnered with Liza for 13 years and sometimes chronicled their family life in Salon essays.
Liza now works as an artist and runs Pine Street Art Works in Burlington, Vermont. She has shown her paintings and photographs in one woman and group shows in New York and Vermont. In the summer of 2006, her studio held the launch party for Alison Bechdel's book Fun Home. Liza and her gallery were also responsible for the one-of-a-kind pairing of the art of Bechdel and another Lesbian icon, Phranc, for an exhibit beginning September 2006 called "Paper Play".
Liza's eldest brother, Paul Cowan (now deceased), went to Ecuador with the Peace Corps and later made a career as a progressive journalist and author, writing for the Village Voice. His acclaimed book, An Orphan in History, is a beautiful and moving account of his search for his religious and cultural roots, and a good resource for Cowan family history.
Liza's surviving elder brother, Geoff Cowan, just retired as dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication at USC. His wife Aileen has served major roles in national and California politics and public service.
Liza's older sister, Holly Cowan Shulman, is Research Associate Professor, Studies in Women and Gender, at the University of Virginia. She has written of her family "We remain committed to the beliefs of prophetic Judaism: to help the poor and the needy and to seek justice. As a family we have worked toward that goal in politics, law and the rabbinate, through writing and art, education and the academy."
QUOTES ABOUT LIZA COWAN:
"Today we live in a world of strident talk shows, where received opinions on the state of the world are trumpeted back and forth, and anyone who might dare to unfurl a hope is quickly put down. But at WBAI-FM in the early 1970s, a period of wild and wonderful experimentation in free-form radio was taking place. Pioneers like Bob Fass, Steve Post, Larry Josephson, Liza Cowan, and others could open the phone lines and just let people talk, never screening a single call." -- Margot Adler, A Heretic's Heart http://www.hourwolf.com/heretic/index.htm
"Liza wishes the library / Had men and women listed separately / Ah, but theirs is the kingdom / She knows who she'll find / In the history of mankind / But then she's inclined to be ahead of her time / She's a lesbian..." -- Alix Dobkin, "View from Gay Head" on Lavender Jane Loves Women
QUOTES BY LIZA COWAN:
(Referring to her mother): "The white gloves don't work anymore, but there's nothing quite as amusing as expressing outrageous ideas while twiddling ones pearls."
Liza Cowan's 1970s column, "What the Well-Dressed Dyke Will Wear," in Cowrie documents current opinion on fashion choices of the day: "Makeup, long hair, dresses, stockings, high heels, etc are the basic uniforms of women. I refuse to wear feminine clothes... I would just as soon wear a ball and chain...to pretend that one can transcend the meaning and effect of these clothes is bullshit. Fashions do not happen by accident. Clothes have a function and a meaning." And "Long hair usually indicates that a Dyke trying to pass...It is liberating in fact and symbolic to have short hair". She worries that women will grow tired of "the Dyke Schlepp Uniform" and emphasizes the importance of a "true Dyke fashion" evolving. -- From The Lesbian Herstory Archives
Motto of the MOC: Sincere, yes. Serious? Never!
"I would also like to add that ‘Maoist Orange Cake’ is possibly the best name for a blog ever. Just my twopence." -- The Sixth Carnival of Radical Feminists, 1 October 2007
The Twelfth Carnival of Radical Feminists is up at The Burning Times blog and mentions one of our posts, Helen 'Wheels' Keller, for recommendation. Orangeists spreading our zest!
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Follow this link for the mindbending picture of the day.
It's a wonder that Dick's head doesn't explode from the cognitive dissonance.
Posted by nelleellen at 12:40 AM
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
For those who are curious as to why W remains in office, despite his abysmally low approval ratings, scandal after scandal, and the ever increasing pile of evidence suggesting he is ready, willing and able to break the law to get what he wants, may I suggest this most excellent article from today's edition of Salon:
Seems payback is a mf after all...
Oh, and if you're looking for a good summer potboiler, may I suggest this:
It's a little unbelievable and a bit over the top, but what really sucks is it's true.
Never thought I'd say this,but for this one time, you go ,John Ashcroft; let your eagle soar!
Posted by shadocat at 8:40 PM
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Or Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai, or Another Excuse To Party Day, or whatever you'd like to call it. As I am half Norwegian on my Mother's side, I feel the need to commemorate this day, even though I know one of my sister divas, Ms. Jana will probably do a much better job of it, being as she is from Seattle, which has a much bigger and better Norwegian population than my city, with much bigger and better parades.
Constitution Day has a rather interesting history: After being under Danish rule for 400+ years (those Danish bastards!), Norway held a "peaceful revolution", by calling a constitutional convention which declared Norway a free country in it's own right.
Constitution Day is celebrated each year, not by military parades, or displays of weapons, but with parades of children (and their parents), dressed in colorful, traditional attire, waving flags and singing songs. (cool, huh?)
Sort of makes up for all the lutefiske and leftse...
Norwegian Joke Page:
Lutefiske and Leftse website:
Monday, May 14, 2007
I've watched the first two episodes of the current PBS series "Secret Files of the Inquisition". It describes itself as "Based on previously unreleased secret documents from European Archives including the Vatican, Secret Files of the Inquisition unveils the incredible true story of the Catholic Church's 500-year struggle to remain the world's only true Christian religion." Since Christian (as well as Jewish) religious history is an area where I've done a great deal of reading and thinking, I was looking forward to a new examination of this incredibly horrific half-millenium of human depravity committed in the name of g*d.
Although this series is generating positive reviews and the writer/producer has a solid, apparently apolitical background of investigative documentary work behind him, I still found the series so far to be less critical than I would have hoped. Even the introduction, which reminds us that the late Pope John Paul II apologised for the Inquisition in 2002, stating the Catholic Church should show penitence for "accepting methods of intolerance or even violence in the service of truth", seems to be watered down later in the excusatory tone of remarks of Rev Joseph Di Noia. Di Noia is the Under-secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, successor body to the Inquisition and, until last year, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It is considered "controversial" that the Church allowed Di Noia to even appear in the documentary. Even more "radical", apparently, is his comment "It was a mistake to torture people. However, torture was regarded as a perfectly justified, legitimate way of producing evidence and it was therefore legally justified."
Since when it is radical to admit that torture is wrong? And why do we need more arguments that the people who do it believe they are justified?
I also found a couple of the other historians whose comments are featured heavily in the analysis to be appeasatory or a little too enamored of their own viewpoint. Stephen Haliczer of Northwestern Illinois University is clearly in love with the papacy and its trappings, and has created a Vatican board game where you, too, can advance from Cardinal to Pope (!) Another frequent commenter, Charmaine Craig, is a writer of historical fiction, and the novel from which she quotes is never revealed in the documentary to be a work of fiction rather than scholarly research. A list of the top Inquisition researcher and writers currently in the world today does not hold the names of any of this documentary's commentators, which to me reeks of cherry-picking.
The episode on the Cathars of Langeudoc fails to ever mention Knights of Templar or, even more troubling, the fact that the chief "heresy" of Cathars was the fact that they did not believe Christ to have been an incarnation of God. This rejection of the Incarnation is the most persistent controversy of Christian history -- it demarcates those Christians who, from the outset, rejected Christ's divinity from those who have used all means possible to force the Church to accept this dogma. Its omittance from the documentary is telling.
There is (as yet) no mention of the mass burnings for witchcraft, which was in fact a genocidal attempt to eliminate the heresy of pre-Christian European religions and strong women in general, not technically a part of the Inquisition's focus (which was to eliminate the heresy of Jews and Muslims as well as Christians who believed a different version of Christianity, let's be honest here) -- but still, it was part of the public discourse and a means of terror employed by the same Dominicans conducting the Inquisition. Yet, not a mention.
And, most upsetting to me, was one so-called scholar's assertion that the persecution of conversos in Spain was not aimed at Jews, only at "Christians" who had, of course, been forced to pretend to be Christians under pain of death. To argue in any regard that the Inquisition was not rooted in anti-Semitism is an outright lie. The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Second Diaspora, is a key component in Jewish history and led to some of the greatest cultural transformation and theology in Judaism (i.e., Tikkun Olam), as well as setting the stage for the new forms of anti-Semitism that would result in the Holocaust.
Short shrift is also given to the fact that the principles of the Inquisition are the bedrock upon which conquest of the New World was undertaken -- forcible conversion or genocidal asssault on two entire continents. This gets one line in the documentary, yet Columbus was a direct product of the Inquisition. I was outraged by that point.
The project smells to me of Catholic apologia, possibly in reaction to the venomous anti-Catholic attacks currently by the evangelical fascists in our country, possibly to obscure the Holy Roman Church's direct role in anti-Muslim policies still in effect today, or possibly just more of the same from Pope Benedict, a Brown-Shirt boy at heart. I don't plan to watch the final two episodes. We need better thinking on this subject to break out of the evil being perpetuated by religious fundamentalists today. We need a lot more than pseudo-accountability, which apologizes without self-examination and uses gaps in memory or documentation to avoid responsibility. I'll stick with the Monty Python version for now: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
Monty Python Spanish Inquisition
Thursday, May 10, 2007
I tried my best to find a free picture of "MC Rove" to go along with this post, but alas, that was not possible.
However, I did find this nifty etching of him relaxing at home.
My mission today is to beg all of you good people out there to please, please, PLEASE check out this link!
Posted by shadocat at 1:17 PM
Monday, May 7, 2007
Here's a link to an excellent article regarding my area's latest disaster:
Cant't say it much better than the Times.
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Here's an interesting development: CBS News has had to turn off its comments section on its website connected to stories about Barack Obama because of the extremely ugly and persistent racist comments that get posted. They say the influx was simply too much for them to handle.
Two responses: Well, what do you expect when your radio programs include the likes of Rush Limbaugh, William Bennett and Don Imus? You can't foster hate without expecting it to proliferate.
And: I wonder if this is related to the Secret Service's decision to put Obama under their protection this week.
A copy of CBS's "Rules of Engagement" is below, for your consideration.
On the good news front, a piece of history I learned today: The Mexican victory in 1862 celebrated as Cinco de Mayo is what kept Spain from coming in on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet another reason to celebrate it! Have some mole chicken and green chili flautas on me!
CBS'S RULES OF ENGAGEMENT:
People who want to post comments on CBSNews.com are going to have to follow our rules. We know that not all forums are like that, but this one is.
There’s legal language nearby. Here's the plain English: no libel, slander, no lying, no fabricating, no swearing at all, no words that teenagers use a lot that some people think aren't swearing but we do, no insulting groups or individuals, no ethnic slurs and/or epithets, no religious bigotry, no threats of any kind, no bathroom humor, no comparing anyone to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. We expect heated, robust debate, but comments should be polite and civil. We consider this to be public space so behave and write accordingly.
Yes, what is not allowable is subjective. CBSNews.com absolutely reserve the right to remove posts we think break any of the rules or the spirit of the rules and we reserve the right to ban individuals from commenting. We will use language filtering programs to block certain words and we will use human editing too. .... We require everyone who comments to register and provide a real e-mail address. No exceptions. And posting comments is not the same thing as complaining to CBS News or notifying CBS News of a problem – legally, there’s a big difference.
Friday, May 4, 2007
Or rather, I was the Prince of Poland last Saturday evening. Being an unrepentant opera fanatic, I couldn’t miss The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina, written around 1525 by Francesca Caccini. The singing, by four professional opera singers trading parts, was lovely, but the acting, I admit, was a little stiff. I suppose that’s to be expected when it’s being presented by the Northwest Puppet Theatre and all the actors are marionettes.
Ruggiero is the first opera known to have been written by a woman, and was originally performed in Florence to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Poland. In the prelude, the prince is welcomed by the god Neptune (who has no reason for being there except for the fact that the story takes place on an island), so things don’t make much sense if the prince isn’t around. That’s where I came in.
When I came in, I was one of the first to arrive—on purpose, of course. I’m 4’10” and wanted to make sure I got a good seat. And there before me was the best seat in the house, front and center with an excellent view. This was no ordinary theatre seat. It was a wooden chair with arms and a high back, fancy carving, and a red velvet cushion. My aching back said “Yes!” and I took it.
Before the music began, a woman came out and welcomed us, reminded everyone to turn off their cell phones, and introduced the audience to the Prince of Poland. That was me.
I was sitting on the throne! That made me the Prince of Poland. I was presented with a crown, which was altogether too brachycephalic for me, and a sceptre in the form of a wooden folly stick, which was introduced as my prime minister. His grin did remind me a bit of Tony Blair. During intermission the crown fell off and bent itself into a more comfortably dolichocephalic shape, so I no longer had to wear it dangling over my right ear.
During my evening of royal privilege, I strove to behave with the appropriate self-contained dignity and airy condescension. Only two people were allowed to kiss my hand.
By the way, next year the puppet opera will be Don Giovanni. Maybe I’ll get to seduce someone.
Bio (culled from ten minutes on the web):
Francesca Caccini, (1587 - 1645?) often called La Cecchina, (The Songbird), was born in Florence, Italy, on the eighteenth of September, 1587. Her father was a prolific composer; her mother, stepmother, brother, and husband were singers; and her younger sister, Settimia, was a singer and composer. Francesca herself was a singer, instrumentalist, composer, and lyricist; her performances were admired by Claudio Monteverdi. Although she was one of the most prolific female composers of her time, if not of all time, all that has survived of her work is Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of songs, and Ruggiero alone of her five operas.
For more, see: Francesca Caccini