Lesbian Feminist Liberation march in New York, 1970s. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Lesbian Feminist Liberation-led demonstration in front of the American Museum of Natural History, August 1973. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Lesbian Feminist Liberation-led demonstration with lavender dinosaur in front of the American Museum of Natural History, August 1973. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Jean O'Leary, founder of the Lesbian Feminist Liberation, speaks at the National Women's Conference, 1977. Photo by Bettye Lane. Courtesy of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Letterhead of the Lesbian Switchboard. Source: Cait McKinney website.
Logo of the Lesbian Switchboard. Source: Cait McKinney website.
Informational ad of the Lesbian Switchboard. Source: Cait McKinney website.
Flyer of the Lesbian Switchboard. Source: Cait McKinney website.
243 West 20th Street, c. 1980s. Courtesy of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Women’s Liberation Center was a meeting and community space for numerous women’s organizations, including lesbian groups. Dances were also held here on the ground floor. The Center was originally located at 36 West 22nd Street from April 1970 until its move to this city-owned, former firehouse on West 20th Street in the summer of 1972. It appears that it was located in this building until 1987.
In 1973, Lesbian Feminist Liberation, a lesbian rights organization, began meeting here and had its office on the second floor. The group, which had originally been the Lesbian Liberation Committee within the male-dominated Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), was founded a year earlier by Jean O’Leary. The group sought to bring attention to such issues as the difficulties divorced lesbian mothers faced in trying to keep custody of their children. It also worked to make lesbians more visible at political rallies and pride marches.
“We must dedicate our energies primarily to discovering ourselves and our special causes and acting as our own spokeswomen, to promoting ourselves everywhere, at all times, as lesbian women.”
Lesbian Feminist Liberation constitution
While headquartered at the Women’s Liberation Center, the group took part in a number of activist events in 1973. In August, for example, it led a 200-person demonstration – featuring a large lavender female dinosaur – at the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West to protest the museum’s tendency to depict females of all species as subservient.
The Center was also home to the Lesbian Switchboard, an evening telephone service, from 1972 to 1987. The volunteer-staffed Switchboard provided counseling, referrals, and information about events and organizations of interest to the lesbian community. When this building underwent renovations in October 1987, the Switchboard moved to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) in Greenwich Village. It would remain there until it closed in December 1997.
A 1973 New York Times article notes that the files of the Lesbian Lifespace Project were stored in the former firemen’s lockers, along with those of Radical Feminists, the Anti-Rape Group, and Older Women’s Liberation. It also mentions that the ground floor held the Food Conspiracy, which had previously been known as the Lesbian Food Conspiracy. The center’s third floor held karate and self-defense classes. The city’s first feminist bookstore, Labyris, also held events here.
Landmark Designations for LGBT Significance
In June 2019, based on recommendations by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Women’s Liberation Center a New York City Landmark. In May 2021, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s nomination of the Women’s Liberation Center to the National Register of Historic Places was approved by the National Park Service, following the site’s listing on the New York State Register of Historic Places in March 2021.