Welcome to Maoist Orange Cake. Each week one of our Divas posts a thoughtful (but not necessarily serious) essay on whatever calls forth her Voice or strikes her Fancy. We invite you to join us wherever the discussion leads.
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"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

HAPPY 58TH BIRTHDAY TO A DYKE'S DYKE, LIZA COWAN -- by Maggie Jochild



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

3 comments:

Liza said...

Maggie! What a fabulous birthday surprise. You've left me practically speechless.

On my birthday I am feeling honored to have been born to such an amazing family and to have made friends and family with so many wonderful people. Including you.

Two small addenda: since you mentioned most of my sibs I must add my beautiful, brilliant, activist sister in law, the first woman convert rabbi, Rachel Cowan.

And if I had anything to do with those letters from my brothers in Mississpi, I must have been in a teenage haze. I recall my sister Holly doing all the work.

So, happy Gemini birthday to me and all others born today.

Thank you so so much.I've never had a present like this.

Now if only I hadn't forgotten to lay in a supply for my traditional birthday breakfast of fried baloney on english muffins....oh well, I'll have my traditional birthday strawberry shortcake later.

Love ya. Liza

shadocat said...

Liza,

Happy, happy, joy,joy to you and yours! Wishing you all the "fabulousness" you deserve!

Reading Maggie's tribute makes me me realize how lucky I am to be in the company of such amazing women.

P.S. We're also having strawberry shortcake today---now I can say it's in your honor!

feminista said...

Congratulations,Liza,and thanks to Maggie for an excellent biography.

Yeah,we Boomer women rock. Attended a 5 hour workshop with Starhawk earlier this month,and while I'm not down with all of the Goddess stuff,I appreciate her roots in the 70s women's liberation movement and all that she's done for peace and sustainability. And she's my age--turns 56 next month,and radiates calmness and gentle humor.