A lesbian alumna’s story: From newsprint to novels

Posted on March 30, 2023

BERTHA HARRIS ’59 BA, ’69 MFA was a lesbian feminist writer whose work is stylistically rich, playful, and steeped in both literary history and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

As an undergraduate at Woman’s College, she wrote for The Carolinian, responding to campus issues with edgy wit.

“There has been no sign of a classroom building for us wandering unfortunates of the Fine and Liberal Arts,” she wrote in 1957, criticizing the lack of funding for the humanities. “The indelicate smell coming on the wind from Raleigh means nothing but more politics on this issue.”

She was one of the campus intellectuals and freethinkers known as the “Black Stocking Girls.”

At that time, WC women faced more restrictions than today’s students. One alumna recalls, “We could not wear Bermudas (shorts) on campus without wearing a raincoat over them. It was a time when we had to wear skirts everywhere we went.”

Many in Harris’ generation pushed for freedom related to gender and sexuality. They sometimes shocked the powers-that-be. For example, one WC-era artist, Lee Hall ’56, caused a furor for her nude male drawing in the Coraddi (1954’s infamous “Coraddi Controversy”). The chancellor censured the Coraddi staff, who responded by resigning en masse.

After graduating from Woman’s College and living in New York, Harris returned to UNCG. She submitted her second novel, the emotionally raw and ruthlessly satirical “Confessions of Cherubino,” as part of her MFA degree in 1969.

Though not as well-known as contemporaries like Audre Lorde, Harris’ novels were praised by critics. Fred Chappell called her first novel, “Catching Saradove,” “full of blooms and needles, and as independent as a cat.”

Harris’ final and best-known novel, “Lover” (1976), was inspired by the lesbian movement of the 1970s and has a place in gender studies and queer theory today.

She also published a novella called “Traveler of Eternity” (1975) and two nonfiction books, “The Joy of Lesbian Sex” (1977) with Emily L. Sisley and a biography about Gertrude Stein for young adults that was published in 1996.

She died in 2005 and is memorialized through the Bertha Harris Women’s Center at City University of New York (CUNY).

See Spartan Stories post on Bertha Harris by Stacey Krim.

By Mercer Bufter ’11 MA
Photograph from Pine Needles yearbook.

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