Eleanor Cooper was determined to keep 243 West 20th Street from turning into an icebox. This almost seemed like a joke, if she thought about it, since the building had been a fire station not six years earlier and for decades and decades before that. The three-story firehouse was decrepit and absolutely freezing, but if she had to shovel coal into the furnace herself she’d do it to keep the Women’s Liberation Center open.
The Center had opened its doors on West 20th Street in June 1972, but when Cooper joined as a leader of Lesbian Feminist Liberation in 1973, it was still in a state of utter disrepair. The Center had relocated from a loft building on 22nd Street, where activists had also gone without heat, but the new Center wasn’t in much better shape.
“Perhaps it’s Prometheus’s Law that firehouses do not burn down, but this building is in almost total violation of all fire dept. regulations,” a Women’s Center newsletter from the summer of 1973 quipped.
243 West 20th Street had promised to be a “new lease on life” for the Women’s Liberation Center, but the group admitted “it has sometimes been difficult to see the possibilities in the peeling paint, grunge of years and the uncertainty of duration of our tenancy.” They’d gotten the building for $1 from the City of New York and turned the lights on with $100, but a year after moving in, the cold had become unbearable. “The only real warmth we knew was at the party on Happy New Eve’s Year,” the newsletter concluded.
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This past June, 47 years after 243 West 20th Street became the Women’s Liberation Center, the City of New York landmarked the building in its first wave of LGBTQ landmarkings since the Stonewall Inn. Alongside James Baldwin’s residence on 71st Street, Audre Lorde’s home on Staten Island, and three other buildings, the Women’s Liberation Center will be preserved from future alterations and celebrated as one of the early hubs of queer life in New York City.
Although the Landmarks Preservation Committee admired 243 West 20th Street’s “Anglo-Italianate decorative motifs” and “a cast-iron enframement with flowers and fluted pilasters,” the Women’s Liberation Center was far more than its weathered bricks. During its 17-year history, the Center hosted the first women-controlled abortion referral service, the first program serving rape victims, and the first lesbian collective to split off from the gay rights movement in favor of the women’s liberation campaign. With heat or without, feminists, lesbians, socialists and even Black Panthers gathered for workshops, support groups, and karate classes as the women’s lib movement came to life across the country.
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The Women’s Liberation Center first took up residence just two blocks away from the newly landmarked building, in a space at 36 West 22nd Street. In March 1970, activists staged a sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine and negotiated a payment of $10,000 for writers who had contributed a forthcoming spread on women’s liberation. Half of that fee would pay for the Center to open a clearinghouse for information about the movement on 22nd Street.
On the building’s second floor, women gathered to form a literature collective, an anti-rape squad, the Gay Women’s Liberation Front, a “food conspiracy,” an abortion project, and a defense fund for incarcerated Black Panthers like Joan Bird, one of 21 Panthers arrested but acquitted of charges of planning to bomb two New York City police stations and an education office. Although money was so short the building went without heat on the weekends, the Center was key to early abortion and lesbian rights movements. Activists sold early editions of Our Bodies, Our Selves for 35 cents and Lucy Stone posters for a dollar, and somehow managed to keep the lights on.
These were the days before Roe v. Wade; women across the United States flocked to New York City, where abortion laws were less restrictive than nearly anywhere else in the country. “In 1970 we won the most liberal law in the United States,” a March 1972 Women’s Center newsletter read. “Since then more than 50,000 women have chosen to have legal abortions in New York State.” To find the most affordable and safe clinics, or a place to spend the night, many placed calls to the Women’s Abortion Project headquartered at the Center.
Rachel Fruchter was a 30-year-old mother of two, with a PhD in biochemistry from Oxford University, when she helped launch the Abortion Project in 1970. She’d go on to earn another degree in public health from Columbia, teach obstetrics and gynecology at the State University of New York’s Health Science Center, and contribute research on gynecological cancers, AIDS, and health disparities among immigrant women before dying in a Brooklyn biking accident at the age of 57. But when a reporter from the Dayton Daily News profiled her in October 1970, she was just another women’s libber in “oversize glasses” and “flare-leg pants,” distinguished slightly by her English accent.
At the time, the Women’s Health and Abortion project had gathered “an enormous amount of information about the quality and cost of treatment in New York hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices,” she told the paper. With that information, the project recommended clinics where women could procure an abortion for under $100.
Although the group itself had no funds, the activists did what they could. “Sometimes we get a girl who is broke and has nowhere to sleep,” Fruchter said. “Those of us who have room (and that is rare in New York’s tiny apartments) may take her home for a day or two.”
Despite the group’s limited resources, something about their service must have worked. “A growing number of women working with the project became involved after obtaining an abortion through us,” activist Nora Casey wrote in a May 1971 edition of the Center’s magazine, Majority Report.
The group was most skilled at providing information and support. Women who called the project’s phone line could expect to be walked through the details of the procedure. If they traveled to New York, members of the Women’s Center would pick them up at the airport and stay with them at the doctor’s office.
Although abortion was legal in New York, members of the Women’s Liberation Center fought against threats to limit that access. In a March 1972 newsletter, the Abortion project explained, “the forces that oppose abortion (largely the Catholic Church and conservative doctors) have organized to try and change the law so that fewer women can have abortions.” A new bill threatened to restrict abortion care to women in their first trimester, who lived in New York state, and had the procedure in a hospital.
But, before New York law could change, abortion reached the Supreme Court and became legal nationwide in January 1973.
Perhaps that’s why, when the Women’s Liberation Center relocated to 20th Street, its focus shifted from abortion rights to lesbian liberation.
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The plot of land at 243 West 20th Street (barren until the 1850s) had been home to fire stations for over a century when the Women’s Center took over the space, an irony not lost on the group’s members.
“If, thousands of years from now, archaeologists were to excavate the ruins of the firehouse at 243 West 20th Street in Manhattan, they would be in for a real twitch of the whisk,” read the Center’s summer 1973 newsletter. “A sober 1881 manual of N.Y.C. fire codes and a flamboyant feminist 1973 MAJORITY REPORT, the latter showing evidence of having been read–What was the Battalion Commander of Company No. 7 reading when the fire went out?”
“The former firemen’s dormitory on the top floor is now a karate and dance studio,” The New York Times reported in October 1973. “The firemen’s lockers contain the office files or archives of such groups as the Radical Feminists, the Anti-Rape Group, the Lesbian Lifespace Project and Older Women’s Liberation.”
In 1866, architect Charles E. Hartshorn designed the firehouse to replace a smaller station— at the address since the 1850s. In 1967, Hook and Ladder Company No. 12 left the station and the City of New York declared the lot “surplus property” ready for auction. In March 1968, Bernard Gersten, associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, bid $77,000 for the lot, with plans to convert the firehouse into a residence. But the deal fell through and the building lay vacant for another five years, until the city granted the Women’s Liberation Center a temporary lease at what the group called a “beautiful but decrepit” building.
Though the Women’s Center had a new home, its members were uncertain how long their fortune would last. Their Chelsea neighbors wanted the building for a community counseling program and hoped to boot the Women’s Center from the space. But by late 1973, the City of New York had granted the Women’s Center a long-term lease which would secure its future.
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During its first months at the firehouse, the Women’s Center limited membership to groups already involved in the movement, to ease the transition from space to space. But new groups soon joined the established collectives, and the Women’s Center became a hub of lesbian life. The Lesbian Food Conspiracy ran a food cooperative out of the ground floor; the Lesbian Lifespace Project, the Radicalesbians Health Collective and the the Black Lesbian Caucus gathered for monthly meetings; and the Lesbian Switchboard operated a phone line.
In 1970, The New York Times had brusquely described “the Lesbian issue” as the “demented child” that has been hidden away “ever since the women’s liberation movement came into being in 1966.” But that December, “nine leaders of the movement held a press conference at the Washington Square Methodist Church, 133 West Fourth Street, to express their ‘solidarity with the struggle of homosexuals to attain their liberation in a sexist society.’”
At the Women’s Center’s first location, lesbians organized to form the Gay Women’s Liberation Front. They collaborated with the Gay Activists Alliance, headquartered in Soho, and published a newsletter called Purple Rage filled with poetry, art, and essays by queer women. (A March 1972 issue features a song titled “I Enjoy Being a Dyke” with lyrics proclaiming “I’m a fully lesberated woman / I work for the revolution now / I struggle and I cuddle with my sisters / And I don’t need a man to show me how.”)
At the Center’s new location, lesbian liberation would come to the forefront of the movement, especially once Eleanor Cooper and Jean O’Leary arrived. Cooper and O’Leary were members of the Gay Activists Alliance, where membership was over 85 percent male in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lesbian activists noted that gay men dominated the coversations and even the physical space at the GAA’s Soho firehouse. To focus on lesbian issues, women at the GAA formed a new group: Lesbian Feminist Liberation. LFL remained at the GAA firehouse for a year, but O’Leary eventually recommended that the group move to a more female-friendly space.
At the Women’s Liberation Center, Lesbian Feminist Liberation would become the premiere advocacy engine for gay women. In 1977, Cooper would found the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which spearheaded anti-discrimination and hate-crimes legislation across New York state. When she wasn’t shoveling coal to keep the Center warm, Cooper was organizing protests and pickets, speaking on the radio, or meeting with politicians. Meanwhile, O’Leary (to whom The New York Times gave the epithet “Former Nun Who Became a Lesbian Activist”) organized the first White House meeting of gay leaders and the first National Coming Out Day.
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For all the progress the activists at the Women’s Center inspired in the abortion access and lesbian liberation movements, the space prioritized a kind of universality that went beyond belief or orientation.
As women’s liberation splintered into socialist, lesbian, or healthcare movements on one end, and gave off an aura of elitism that precluded poor, disabled, or non-white women from joining in the first place, the Women’s Center stuck to a simple mantra: “If you are a woman, You are invited.”
“We come from different places and have different political views. We consider ourselves feminists because we realize that our deepest oppression is our oppression as a sex, and because our first commitment to political and social change is the liberation of women,” read a 1972 pamphlet distributed by the Center’s socialist collective Operation Sweep. “We are not primarily socialists, anti-imperialists, pacificts, or whatever; we are primarily feminists.”
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The Women’s Liberation Center remained open through most of the 1980s, governed by a board of directors that met four times a year and tried to attract more groups to the Center to share the building’s expenses. But, while the Center was undergoing repairs in 1987, one of the groups decided to relocate to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (today the LGBT Community Center) in Greenwich Village. Other lesbian collectives followed suit, and just like that the Center disbanded. When the Center finally closed its doors in 1987, it wasn’t after a long decline or a tragic defeat. The activists, after all, kept the work alive; not the building.
Cooper kept busy with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and married her partner Jay Kallio in 2008, 36 years after they’d met at the GAA firehouse. O’Leary became the first openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention, and worked on the Democratic National Committee for 12 years. Fruchter dove into work providing healthcare to Carribean women in Brooklyn, and contributed essays to Our Bodies, Our Selves.
At no point did 243 West 22nd Street lose its feminist inclinations. When the Women’s Liberation Center moved out, Nontraditional Employment for Women moved in. The new tenants took over a 35-year lease in 1987, and are still in the space today.
A nonprofit designed to teach women construction skills, Nontraditional Employment for Women was itself surprised at the “backlog of applications from women, many on welfare, who want to be carpenters, electricians and construction workers” that it received upon opening.
In 1996, the nonprofit’s students renovated the Chelsea Firehouse, enlarging a basement tool shop and rearranging office space. Though the interior that hosted the Women’s Center is today entirely different, the spirit of the space is alive and well. Every morning, women come through the building’s doors to enter community in what is now a warm and well-heated space.