Born On This Day, 1929: Jill Johnston

Jim Burroway

May 17th, 2016

JJ_JillJohnston-gay(d. 2010) She hired on as a dance critic for the Village Voice in 1959, and became a fixture among dancers, composers, artists, poets, performance artists and the avant-garde generally in the city. Her dance column soon evolved to encompass a much wider scale. “I had a forum obviously set up for covering or perpetrating all manner of outrage,” she later wrote.


At Town Bloody Hall

She perpetrated her most famous outrage in 1971, during a panel discussion in New York’s Town Hall on feminism with Normal Mailer, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling and Jacqueline Ceballos, who was then the National Organization for Women’s president. The debate was called in reaction to Mailer’s anti-feminist rebuttal, The Prisoner of Sex. Johnston took to the lectern and recited a poetic manifesto (titled “On a Clear Day You Can See Your Mother”) and announced that “all women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet,” After Johnston exceeded her allotted ten minutes, Mailer became impatient and demanded she leave the stage. “Come on, Jill, be a lady,” Mailer mocked, before calling for a vote to determine whether she should continue. That’s when two other women joined Johnston on the stage, and the three began kissing and hugging, and soon they were rolling on the floor. When Mailer got up to introduce the next speaker from the lectern, the trio quietly left the stage, having successfully upstaged Mailer and rendering the rest of the debate mostly forgettable. Feminist author Kate Millett later said, “Jill made a wonderful performance art piece out of it. She wasn’t going to debate anything.” That performance has since been immortalized in a 1979 documentary as “Town Bloody Hall“.

Jill Johnston with Dick Cavett, 1973

Jill Johnston with Dick Cavett, 1973

In 1973, Johnston collected a series of Village Voice essays for her radical lesbian feminism manifesto, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution.. In it, she began championing a separatist brand of lesbian feminism, labeling women’s relationships with the men a collaboration with the enemy. “Many feminists are now stranded between their personal needs and their political persuasions,” she wrote. “The lesbian is the woman who unites the personal and political in the struggle to free ourselves from the oppressive institution [of marriage] …. By this definition lesbians are in the vanguard of the resistance.”

What she wrote was only somewhat more controversial than how she wrote.  Her Voice columns were famous for following the hippie-freeform esthetic of the era, which one critic described as “part Gertrude Stein, part E. E. Cummings, with a dash of Jack Kerouac thrown for good measure.” She spurned paragraphs, capitalization, and punctuations, and adopted a style that she described as “collage-like assemblages.” Her method was so controversial that in the late 1960s, Andy Warhol and other avant-garde artists held a panel discussion about her work titled “The Disintegration of a Critic.” She later described those days as her “east west flower child beat hip psychedelic paradise now love peace do your own thing approach to the revolution.”

But by the time she wrote those word in 1973, she was already moving to a more conventional tone. She began writing for the magazine Art in America and the New York Times Review of Books, and she published two personal memoirs, Mother Bound (1983) and Paper Daughter (1985). She described her 1996 book Jasper Johns: Privileged Information as “my first ‘mature’ work. Its publication was very controversial, ostensibly because I used so much biography in backing up my views and descriptions of the artist’s work, but possibly more because of the radical reputation that preceded me. …Retrospectively, I see Lesbian Nation as a period piece.” In The New Yorker, she described herself as “an R.L.F.W. — a recovering lesbian from the feminist wars.”

Johnston 2008By the 1990s, she had become something of traitor to her 1970s self. Having scorned marriage in Lesbian Nation, she married her spouse, Ingrid Nyeboe, in Denmark in 1993, and again in Connecticut in 2009. She also became an ardent Obama supporter in 2005 with her book At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics, which led to her passing over a chance to support Hillary Clinton in 2008. If she was now a reformed separatist lesbian, the emphasis should probably be placed on reformed, which is not at all synonymous with abandoned: “The centrality of the lesbian position to feminist revolution — wildly unrealistic or downright mad, as it still seems to most women everywhere — continues to ring true and right.”


May 17th, 2016

Thanks for the article, but i feel i have to point out a typo. The title gives her birth year as 1929, not 1959.

I’m glad you guys are back!

Jim Burroway

May 17th, 2016

That’s because she was born in 1929. The title is correct. She started a working at the Voice in 1959.


May 17th, 2016

Sorry, I misread the article. My apologies!

Joseph Singer

May 18th, 2016

Jim, I’m glad you are back! You were missed.

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