Content Warning: This post discusses issues related to sexual assault, abortion, and homophobia.
I just feel like women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.Jo March, Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2019)
Mother nature. Lady Liberty. The Divine Feminine. Womanhood and femininity are intertwined with our vocabulary, inherently linked with our everyday interactions, with the way we speak, the way we think, and the way we see the world around us. Maryland and Historical Collections (MDHC) here at SCUA wants to emphasize that intertwining and uplift women and femme-identifying individuals by highlighting one of our collections that centers their voices.
Specifically, this post will highlight MDHC’s off our backs records. off our backs, or oob for short, was a non-profit feminist journal by, for, and about women, published from 1970 until 2008 in Washington, D.C. The journal covered a wide range of radical and difficult topics, moving seamlessly from local to national to international women’s rights issues, extending its broad reach to ensure everyone who opened the journal’s pages felt seen and included.
The journal gave readers a uniquely diverse knowledge of where women stood in the midst of worldwide issues, such as highlighting the plight and fight of Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War (Vol. 3, No. 7), while also providing local information to women in the DMV area, such as a full-page spread listing out the pros and cons of different abortion clinics and gynecological offices in the D.C. Metro area, published directly after Roe v. Wade (Vol. 3, No. 10). In addition, the journal included general survival tips that were useful for women everywhere, with one issue laying out different tactics for physically fighting off would-be rapists (a finger in the eye socket seems to do the trick).
off our backs balanced these necessary but sometimes upsetting facts and stories with the inclusion of beautiful art, prose, and poetry, all created by a diverse group of women. Issues of off our backs are easily recognizable, thanks in part to their bold cover art and unique illustrations.
In addition, while the journal took women’s rights issues very seriously, they refused to take themselves seriously. Tongue-in-cheek humor and razor sharp wit was a staple of any off our backs issue, utilized as both a way to counter the incessant violence and discrimination women faced, and as a peculiarly convincing sales technique, as demonstrated by the below image.
The off our backs collection at SCUA is vast, and includes most of the physical issues of the paper from 1970 until about 2008. The collection also includes the internal workings of the journal, such as bills, invoices, personal correspondence between employees and writers, manuscripts, and a colorful collection of illustrations, protest photographs, cartoons, and various other cutouts from feminist periodicals––some with evocative titles like “bitches, witches, & dykes: a women’s liberation newspaper,” a newspaper that was based halfway around the world in Auckland, New Zealand. Some of these clippings and photographs are shown below.
The ability this collection offers to follow key events in the fight for women’s rights as the events were actually happening is truly awe-inspiring. Charting the progress of feminism and women’s liberation through each issue and article, reading what the sentiment was among women during the Roe v. Wade trial, poring over photographs of different lesbian pride events, and reading poetry that passionately details what it feels like to be a woman in America allows us to better understand how far we’ve come, and more importantly, how much further we need to go.
Recent events remind us that the fight is not over, with dark pockets of sexism, racism, and homophobia still lurking and threatening to spill over. This past winter, the protective power of Roe v. Wade was thrown into chaos during the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization trial. In addition, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was passed in Florida recently, sends a clear and menacing message to LGBTQ+ individuals and their children. And just last year, right here on campus, President Pines’ controversial remarks regarding rape culture on campus, specifically regarding allegations against the fraternity Phi Kappa Alpha, caused an uproar and a subsequent protest demanding accountability.
These references are not meant to diminish or ignore the immense progress already made in the fight for both women’s and human rights. In fact, they should impel us to fight even harder. The resilience that off our backs highlights can act as both a form of inspiration and as a guidebook, a resource to draw upon to discover how to apply old tactics to confront new problems. Instead of feeling downtrodden due to the continued presence of violence and discrimination, off our backs offers a potent reminder that we have fought and won this battle before, and we can and will do it again.
NOTE: This collection is unprocessed. To request materials from this collection, please submit a manual request or reach out to AskHornbake@UMD.edu for assistance.
Emma Bailey is a senior undergraduate English and Theatre major and a student assistant in Maryland & Historical Collections, Special Collections and University Archives.