It’s another Saturday night in Adams Morgan. But beneath one of 18th Street’s crowded bars, down steep basement steps, a light burns as workers toil in the name of revolution. A small sign on the door testifies: “off our backs: Feminism Spoken Here.”
Off our backs was conceived in D.C. by a small collective of women active in the women’s liberation movement. Its philosophywhich closely resembles that of the consciousness-raising groups that began forming in the late ’60sremains what it was in the beginning: that the experiences of women’s lives are bigger than the individual and that women’s sharing information is radical in itself. Today, oob (as it is affectionately abbreviated), which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, is the nation’s longest-surviving feminist newspaper. And it’s still publishing material as brazen as the diaphragm-insertion diagram that ran in its first issue.
Mainstream news magazines such as Time and Newsweek have declared feminism dead many times over the years, but oob has remained unfazed, giving women worldwidefrom jailed and battered women in the United States to Croatian rape victims in Sarajevothe opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. “Feminism arises in the lived experiences of women in a very material way,” says collective member Karla Mantilla. “Women aren’t as afraid of the word [feminism] as the media would have us believe.” The newspaper is a staple of university women’s studies departments, but it is also an important bridge between grass-roots activists and academics. Oob has taken positions controversial among women’s groups and publications, deeming gay marriage oppressive and challenging postmodern “queer theory” as a threat to feminist solidarity.
“We publish things in the extreme and let people come to their own decisions,” says collective member Jennie Ruby. “If someone disagrees with an article, we write or find an opposing piece. We know we’ve been successful if we get mail from five different angles saying ‘How dare you take the other side!’”
Oob is not bound by editorial hierarchy, and all five current collective members share the writing, editing, layout, fundraising, and general business of the paperin addition to their full-time day jobs. “Fortunately, putting out 11 issues a year, there is just no time or energy left for interpersonal fights,” says Carol Anne Douglas, a collective member for 27 years.
Several times, limited finances have threatened to shut the paper down. Poor plumbing in the space upstairs once caused the office to flood; the disaster was compounded when a plague of flies descended on the scene. “The landlord never did anything about it, so we didn’t pay the rent for five months,” explains Ruby. “We had to do the entire paper crammed into the entrance to the office, but if we had paid the rent, we would have gone under.”
Barring a locust invasion, the collective is hopeful about oob’s future. “The next generationthe 18- and 19-year-old interns that come hereare so excited,” says Jenn Smith, 25, the collective’s youngest member. “They are radical and rooted.” Shauna Miller
For more information, visit www.igc.org/oob.