Sinister Wisdom: Lesbian Feminist History

The Oral Herstorians Collection from Sinister Wisdom.
The Oral Herstorians Collection from Sinister Wisdom.

Sinister Wisdom is an American lesbian literary, theory and art journal published quarterly. It is the longest established lesbian journal, with 128 issues as of 2023. Sinister Wisdom began publishing in 1976, during what editor Julie Enszer calls “a flowering of lesbian-feminist publications in the U.S.”

Enszer says the journal was born when Sinister Wisdom’s founders, Harriet Desmoines and Catherine Nicholson, were saddened that Amazon Quarterly stopped publishing because its founders wanted to go on and explore other things. Amazon Quarterly, which first began in 1972, was the first national literary magazine with a lesbian perspective.

As Enszer explains, “At the end of Amazon Quarterly, Desmoines and Nicholson decided they wanted to publish a replacement of sorts — a new journal that would continue those vital conversations. They committed to doing Sinister Wisdom for one year, and continued because so many women responded positively and sent subscriptions.”

The publication’s mission statement is succinct: “Sinister Wisdom is a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal that publishes four issues each year. First published in 1976, Sinister Wisdom works to create a multicultural, multi-class lesbian space.”

The mission statement continues, “Sinister Wisdom seeks to open, consider and advance the exploration of lesbian community issues. Sinister Wisdom recognizes the power of language to reflect our diverse experiences and to enhance our ability to develop critical judgment as lesbians evaluating our community and our world.”

Enszer has been editing Sinister Wisdom for more than a dozen years. She said, “I started co-editing the journal with Merry Gangemi in 2010. Merry left as co-editor in 2013 and so I’ve been editing myself, with a fabulous cohort of volunteers, co-conspirators and fellow travelers since 2013.”

Enszer said, “Sinister Wisdom 130: We Teach Sex (to Everyone!) is the 50th issue of the journal that I have been involved with editing and publishing.”

Enszer got involved with Sinister Wisdom after responding to a call for lesbians to take the helm. She says, “When Fran Day was ready to end her editorship, she reached out to a range of lesbians and I was the one who said, yes, I’ll do that. I was in graduate school at the time. Lesbian-feminist publishing, then and now, is a passion of mine and the opportunity to be involved with producing the quarterly journal is one of the great pleasures of my life.”

Many feel lesbians are under threat now from the GOP and from the creeping fascism in American society. Sinister Wisdom has a long history of supporting the work of lesbians and highlighting lesbian voices — particularly those in historically marginalized communities. That work is ongoing and, as Enszer explains, more important than ever.

“When I started editing the journal in 2010, many women said to me, ‘oh, Sinister Wisdom is still publishing? Do we really need it now? We have accomplished so much!’” Enszer said. “And then when same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. in all 50 states, women would say, ‘well, we have marriage equality, so many of lesbians’ needs are met.’”

She continued, “Then of course, 2016 happened and women in the United States were reminded of how quickly fascism can rise in our own country, something women in other global locations knew already or had never forgotten.”

Enszer said, “At Sinister Wisdom, we talk regularly about the contemporary threats facing lesbians as a result of the rise of right-wing extremism in the US and around the world. Our response is quite simple: we want to be more open to understanding lesbian experience in a variety of forms. Recently, we published Sinister Wisdom 128: Trans/Feminisms to explore how trans, feminist, lesbian and queer experiences mash up in new understandings of gender and sexuality. One thing that issue does so brilliantly is trace the influence of lesbian-feminists of color on contemporary trans political, social and theoretical formations.”

And the journal is unafraid of potential controversy. At a time when books are being banned by Moms for Liberty and Republican-led state legislatures and school boards, the need for lesbian visibility in a time of national erasure is paramount for Sinister Wisdom.

Enszer said, “Sinister Wisdom 130: We Teach Sex (to Everyone!) has on its cover a gorgeous photograph of an embroidery piece of a woman’s vulva. Publishing that image and distributing it in the contemporary climate, particularly publishing from the state of Florida, is a powerful statement that Sinister Wisdom will not be intimidated or retreat from the work that we do so well: making lesbian lives, lesbian bodies, lesbian spirit, lesbian literature, lesbian art, and lesbian ideas visible.”

In this volatile political atmosphere, Enszer detailed what she feels are the most important issues Sinister Wisdom has covered in recent years.

She said, “As the editor and publisher, of course, I feel like every issue is the most important one we have ever done!”

But she added that there are three issues that “seem crucial to me right now. First, I am deeply interested in and committed to thinking about generational transfer within lesbian communities. How do we nurture and sustain institutions, like Sinister Wisdom, like Astraea, like Lesbian Connection, like NCLR [National Center for Lesbian Rights], that will serve lesbians and queer women for generations to come?”

She said that “part of that work, I believe, is listening to and knowing lesbians of multiple generations and bringing the capacious openness of our communities to women. How do we build connections and understandings between and among multiple generations of lesbians and queer women? How do we respect and honor our storied pasts while making room for radical new visions and understandings for futures? This issue is crucial and I imagine Sinister Wisdom in a community wide dialogue about it.”

But there is a lot more to explore. Enszer said, “Second, how do we understand lesbian and queer women’s literature, culture, art and creative production as emerging from multicultural experiences? Given how life in the United States and many other spaces in the world is rigidly organized by race, class, gender and sexuality, how do we forge communities that challenge the material conditions of our lives? That is another vital conversation in which I seek to engage Sinister Wisdom.”

According to Enszer, “Historically, Sinister Wisdom has published important issues that brought greater understanding to Native American lesbian experiences — for instance, in the case of the issue that Beth Brant edited A Gathering of Spirit, and to Jewish lesbian experiences, as in The Tribe of Dina. In more recent years, we have explored Asian lesbian identities and African American lesbian identities. Generally, I want our work overall to be rooted in values that challenge and decenter whiteness and lift up marginalized voices.”

And then, she continued, “Third, to what lesbian literary traditions are we contributing and how are we sustaining, developing and furthering lesbian literary traditions? Every writer and artist is working in a vibrant context in the world. Sinister Wisdom is invested in creating a context for lesbian and queer women artists in which our work can be understood, interpreted and celebrated.”

Those are the big issues that Enszer said she is thinking about and always engaging in editing and publishing in Sinister Wisdom.

Sinister Wisdom’s “classics series” has collected works from major lesbian writers and theorists like Joan Nestle and Pat Parker. Enszer developed that arm of the journal and said it is critically important to her because it is keeping lesbian work visible, present and contextual for generations of lesbians and other queer readers.

“The Sapphic Classics series is a vital foundation of that work of sustaining and developing a lesbian literary tradition,” she said. “Many vital lesbian literary books have been published by independent, feminist, lesbian, queer publishers that have gone out of business. Keeping these books in print and in circulation to new readers has become part of Sinister Wisdom’s mission.”

Enszer is passionate about maintaining a lesbian library and a lesbian literary canon and history — something Sinister Wisdom has been doing for decades when no one else was. She concluded, “There is so much work to do on this front — I am always encouraging other people and organizations to engage in it. If we cannot read the work that our forebears have done, we have a more paltry context in which to do our own work.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.