BARBARA DEMING, 1917-1984

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Barbara Deming, author and activist, was born on July 23, 1917, in New York City, the daughter of admiralty lawyer Harold S. Deming (1883-1954) and former singer Katherine (Burritt) Deming (1891-?). The second of four children, BD had three brothers: MacDonald, Quentin (Chip), and Angus (Bim). She grew up in New York City and on South Mountain Road in New City, N.Y., west of the Hudson River. The Poors (writer Bessie Breuer, painter Henry Varnum III, and their daughter, writer Annie) lived on the same road in New City. Bessie and Annie became BD's lifelong friends.

BD attended a Quaker school from kindergarten through high school. When she was sixteen she fell in love with a friend of her mother's, Norma Millay (sister of Edna St. Vincent); they were involved for about two years, probably until BD left for college. Although she had long-term relationships with several women and lived, as she said, as a lesbian, BD did not "come out" publicly until she was in her fifties.

BD looked back on this event, falling in love for the first time, as a doubly significant moment: when she realized that she was a lesbian, and when she began to write. Writing served as an outlet to express lesbian feelings frowned upon by society, and as a process through which, as she said, "I struggle to know more truly or to affirm more stubbornly what it is that I feel and that I know--or intend" (Kalliope; see #14). In a 1984 interview, she described her writing as a kind of activism. Another form of activism that, in hindsight, she said she had undertaken was "as a woman and a lesbian...to claim my life as my own, to affirm that it didn't belong to the patriarchs, it belonged to me" (Ms.; see #5). Decades of such personal activism prepared her for the public political activism that she undertook in the 1960s.

BD majored in drama at Bennington College in Vermont (B.A., 1938) and earned an M.A. from Cleveland's Western Reserve University (later Case Western Reserve) in 1941. She worked as a stage manager at Mercury Theatre in New York City for a winter term during college and for two months the winter after graduation. She co-directed the Bennington stock theater during the summers of 1938 and 1939, and was a teaching fellow at the Bennington School of the Arts the summers of 1940 and 1941. In the late 1930s she began to write essays about plays and the theater. She wrote poetry throughout her life.

Perhaps as the result of a job at the American Film Center in New York City in the spring and summer of 1942, BD's interest in the stage was augmented by an interest in movies. As an analyst for the Library of Congress (LC) film project (1942-45), she worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the late 1930s and early 40s, along with the jobs listed here, BD did editorial work for Bessie Breuer Poor, William Scott Publishers, and others, and sometimes worked as a secretary.

In 1945, BD decided to become a full-time freelance writer. Through the 1950s, her film reviews and some theater pieces and poems were published in New Directions, Chimera, Wake, Voices, Vogue, Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Charm, City Lights, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Tulane Drama Review, and other periodicals. Many of her short stories, poems, and books did not reach print until the early 1970s, however, especially those that analyzed social values. She finished Running Away from Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, based on viewings she began when she worked for LC, in 1950, but it was not published until 1969.

In the 1940s, BD began a love relationship with a fellow Bennington graduate, Vida Ginsburg. VG was a professor at Bard College during some of their years together. BD and VG lived together for eight years. Her brother Quentin also fell in love with VG, however, and, once BD gave him her "blessing," he courted VG and they were married in 1949. By 1947, BD had moved from New York to New City. With money from her maternal grandmother and from her father, she traveled to Europe from June 1950 through the following July, spending most of her time in Italy and Greece. When she returned to the U.S., she began a "fictional" chronicle of her emotional and physical travels, which included falling in love with Annie Poor (not reciprocated), and becoming a friend of Truman Capote and others. Friends who read the first chapter responded unfavorably; BD later realized that they were embarrassed for her because she "revealed [herself] in it as a lesbian" (Kalliope; see #14). BD put the book aside until 1972, when she began ten years of work writing it, and several more trying to get it published.

In 1954, BD met artist Mary Meigs at the Poors'. They became lovers and lived together in Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod and in a rustic house in Somerset County, Me., until 1969. BD traveled in Mexico in 1953 and again in 1956, and in 1959 BD and MM went on a "world trip" that included Israel, Japan, and India. Upon her return, BD began to read the writings of Mohandas Gandhi; his ideas of active pacifism and nonviolent resistance to injustice struck a chord and served as her bridge to public political activity

BD realized that Gandhi's philosophy of satyagraha (which she translated as "clinging to the truth") made sense of her life up to that point. A three-week trip to Cuba in 1960 opened her eyes to the vast gulf between Cuban reality and the Cuba portrayed in the U.S. media; she saw too that Cubans wished to be free of U.S. intervention. These revelations led her to attend a sixteen-day training program in nonviolent methods run by The Peacemakers in New London, Conn., in August 1960. There she met a number of Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) activists who were protesting the Polaris submarine. Among such people, and in their movements, she finally found a sense of community and meaning.

That same year, 1960, BD wrote her first journalistic essays, based on her experiences in Cuba; one was published in The Nation. She became active in the national and New England CNVAs and the War Resisters League (WRL). She began taking part in nonviolent actions against nuclear weapons testing and for unilateral disarmament. Her ability to analyze literature and film and their social and historical context had been evident in her reviews and other work. She now used this talent to write essays about current events. These writings were published much more rapidly than her earlier pieces, appearing in such magazines as The Nation, The Catholic Worker, CNVA Bulletin, Liberation (for which she was an editor, 1962-69), and WIN.

Because there does not yet exist a chronicle of BD's life as an activist for peace and civil rights in the 1960s, the following information is provided in some detail to help make sense of these papers. In May 1961 BD spent a week participating in protests in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In October she briefly joined, and wrote articles about, the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. In late 1961 she attended a conference near Beirut, Lebanon, to establish a World Peace Brigade for Nonviolent Action. The first of BD's many experiences in prison came in March 1962, after a sit-in against nuclear testing in New York City, when she spent time (probably a day) in the Women's Detention Center. Later that year she participated in a Nashville to Washington, D.C., Walk for Peace, which, upon CNVA's decision to integrate it, turned into an interracial walk for peace.

BD was involved in Women Strike for Peace, and attended its hearings before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in April 1963. In May, she was in the South, arranging accommodations for the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace (QWGWP), when lone integration walker William Moore was shot to death. She went to Birmingham to join the demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and was jailed there. In October she joined the QWGWP; since it was integrated, this walk was also a civil rights march once it reached the South. BD was arrested for handing out leaflets in Macon, Ga., in November. On January 27, 1964, BD, Yvonne Klein, Mary Suzuki, Kit Havice, Ray Robinson, and others were arrested and imprisoned; BD left the walk after she was released on February 22. After she recuperated from the rigors of jail, she began to write what became Prison Notes (1966).

Although she continued to be concerned about civil rights, in 1966 BD's focus shifted to the war in Vietnam. That spring, she, A.J. Muste, Brad Lyttle, and others went to Saigon, seat of the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese government, to stage a protest. They were expelled from the country. At the end of the year, she went with three other American women to North Vietnam to meet Ho Chi Minh and members of the National Liberation Front, and to tour areas devastated by U.S. forces. When she spoke against the war, she made a point of criticizing "our" rather than "the U.S." government.

In October 1967 BD took part in a demonstration at the Pentagon, where she was one of many arrested but was not sent to jail. For three weeks during the summer of 1968, BD lived in the Poor People's Campaign's Resurrection City, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That October she went to Baltimore to support the "Catonsville Nine," on trial for burning selective service records.

By 1968, BD was having some difficulties in the relationships among BD, Mary Meigs, and artist Marie-Claire Blais. She renewed her acquaintance with Jane Gapen (Watrous) Verlaine (JV), a fellow Bennington graduate, painter, and writer. They began to fall in love and BD moved to North Carolina to be with JV. An ugly custody battle erupted between JV and her ex-husband Oscar, who vehemently disapproved of JV's new relationship. In 1969 BD and JV, and eventually the children, moved to Monticello, N.Y.

In October 1971, on the way to the National Conference of the WRL in Athens, Ga., BD was in a serious automobile accident. As a result she spent eight months in a body cast. She never fully recovered and henceforth pursued her activism, which continued to be publicly political, through her writing.

In the early 1970s, BD developed a radical feminist consciousness. Although she refused to repudiate men or become a separatist, she saw "sexism [as] the root of imperialism" and therefore the "fundamental political struggle" (Ms.; see #5). Eradicating sexism, she believed, would not only end wars but also free men and women alike. She and JV helped organize a branch of Women Against Violence Against Women in Monticello. BD came out publicly as a lesbian, and began to write about women's and lesbian issues in left-wing and feminist publications (including Sinister Wisdom and Quest). She never lost her interest in nonviolent tactics, however, and urged feminists to use them. In 1976, BD and JV moved to Sugarloaf Key, Fla., for BD's health, and helped build a feminist community comprised of several households. After she received an inheritance (perhaps from a paternal aunt) in the late 1970s, BD founded Money for Women, which provided grants and loans to feminist projects in arts and education. After BD's death it was renamed the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.

In 1983 BD joined the last part of the Feminist Walk of the New York City Women's Pentagon Action, organized by the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice (Romulus, N.Y.); with other women who revealed their names only as "Jane Doe" she served her final jail sentence. Early in 1984, BD was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After several attempts at treatment, including conventional and holistic medicine, and friends' circles, spells, and incantations, BD realized that she was soon to die. Rather than "die discreetly," she spent two weeks putting her affairs in order, calling friends and family, and "dancing toward death." She died at home on Sugarloaf Key on August 2, 1984.

For a discussion of BD's literary style and philosophy, see the introduction to We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader. For BD's reflections on her life's work and thought, see the interviews with her, #4-8, 11at-14, which were published in Ms., Kalliope, and Feminary; the last was reprinted in Pam McAllister's Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, Philadelphia: New Society, 1982. For BD and Jane Verlaine's discussion of being gay before the Stonewall riots (1969), see the film Silent Pioneers. For Mary Meigs's account of their life together, see Lily Briscoe: A Self Portrait. For a recording of "Living Her Life: Homage to Barbara Deming, Activist," the tribute to BD held at the Schlesinger Library in October 1990, request audiotape T-196. There is also an oral history with BD regarding her theater work in the Mercury Theatre/Theatre Union Project at Columbia University's Oral History Research Office.

BOOKS BY BARBARA DEMING Prison Notes. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1966. Running Away from Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969. Revolution and Equilibrium. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971. Wash Us and Comb Us: Stories by Barbara Deming. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972. Drawings by Jane Watrous. We Cannot Live Without Our Lives. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1974. Remembering Who We Are: Barbara Deming in Dialogue with Gwenda Blair, Kathy Brown, Arthur Kinoy, Bradford Lyttle, Susan Sherman, Leah Fritz, Susan Saxe. No place: Pagoda Publications, 1981. Cover by Jane Gapen. We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader, edited by Jane Meyerding with a foreword by Barbara Smith. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1984. Prisons that Could Not Hold: Prison Notes 1964 - Seneca 1984. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1985. Includes reprint of Prison Notes. A Humming Under My Feet: A Book of Travail. London: Women's Press, Ltd., 1985. Drawings by Jane Gapen.

From the guide to the Papers, 1908-1985, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers, 1908-1985 Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Cape Cod (Mass.)
Greece
Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace
New York (State)
Vietnam
United States
Florida Keys (Fla.)
Italy
Albany (Ga.)
Mexico
Subject
Afro--Americans--Civil rights
Occupation
Function

Person

Birth 1917

Death 1984

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