Oral Histories Preserve Lesbian Stories

For Sinister Wisdom 131: The Pagoda, Rose Norman interviewed dozens of women, building on the oral herstory work that she did with the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project, On February, 6, 2024, Rose was joined by a distinguished panel of lesbians working on oral herstories in various communities: Cathleen Rhodes of the Tidewater Queer History Project, Alex Ketchum, whose book Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses draws on oral histories of feminist restauranteurs, and Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz a volunteer coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives on the oral history project of the Salsa Soul Sisters. The panel discussed the value of preserving local stories and how people build local projects in their lesbian communities.

Sinister Wisdom 131: The Pagoda

In 1977, two lesbian couples living in St. Augustine, Florida, found a row of small beach houses for sale next to a house they wanted to turn into a feminist theatre. They bought the cottages, leased and later bought the theatre building, and over the next two decades expanded and developed the property as a cultural center, women's retreat center, and residential community. The Pagoda, as it came to be called, offered nude swimming in a private pool, fire circles on the beach, variety shows with bellydancing, poetry readings, comedy sketches, and regular concerts by feminist musicians in a private theatre. Pagoda women produced feminist plays about Cinderella's after-story and sketch comedy by Positively Revolting Hags. They hosted celebrations of the Goddess, Tarot readings, and psychic workshops.

At its height, The Pagoda was a Goddess church running a cultural center and guesthouse surrounded by twelve tiny, custom-built, knotty pine cottages and a duplex, all owned by lesbians. The cultural center and guesthouse lasted twenty-two years as an active operation run by the incorporated, tax-exempt Pagoda-temple of Love in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and another sixteen years after that shepherded by Fairy Godmothers, Inc., four women with a different vision for the space. This is the story of how all that happened.

In The Pagoda: A Lesbian Community by the Sea, Rose Norman expertly synthesizes interviews and extensive archival research to tell the story of the women who made that community a place for lesbian culture to bloom and grow.

Praise for The Pagoda

With the informed, wise style of a true Southern historian, Rose Norman guides us through the storied legacy of the Pagoda: until recently, a lived community and dedicated venue of lesbian feminism on Florida's Atlantic coast. Every page rings true with descriptions of on-site goddess rituals, playful theatre performances, residents' romantic entanglements, and above all, long-term commitment to building woman-centered space for participants and visitors. Those lucky enough to have stayed at the Pagoda, myself included, will sigh at the vivid depiction of a time just gone by; and those new to important lesbian sites in the South will discover a radical vision of community made real through hard work.
—Bonnie J. Morris

The Pagoda in St Augustine offered a refuge and was a spot I could always play and know I'd be received enthusiastically. We stayed upstairs, basically two floors up from the performance area in the converted basement. Directly below was the kitchen and that wonderful library. The Pagoda was a place where you could dream. I reveled in it.
—June Millington

Women who remember The Pagoda from the old days will revel in details of the development of this amazing community along with the complex dynamics involved. Women who have never heard of The Pagoda will find a gift in this fascinating piece of our lesbian herstory.
—Merril Mushroom

About Rose Norman
Rose Norman is a retired professor who taught English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville for twenty-seven years. She directed the Business and Technical Writing Program, co-founded and was first Director of Women's Studies, and for her last four years chaired the English Department. She taught graduate and undergraduate classes in women writers, women’s autobiography, and technical writing, and for four years was regional coordinator of a national high school poetry competition, Poetry Out
Loud. Her work as general editor of the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project ( led her to over ten years’ research on the Pagoda residential community and cultural center. During that time, she has interviewed over a hundred lesbian feminist activists and co-edited six special issues of Sinister Wisdom.

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