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Wolverton, Terry (b. 1954)  
 
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Throughout her varied career as a writer, editor, teacher, and performance artist, Terry Wolverton has consistently worked to document glbtq history and increase the visibility of the community.

Terry Lynn Wolverton, born August 23, 1954, grew up in Detroit and attended the city's most prestigious public school, Cass Technical High School, among whose graduates are not only many scientists and engineers but also entertainers including Diana Ross and Lily Tomlin. Wolverton studied stagecraft and dreamed of a career on Broadway.

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After her graduation in 1972 she enrolled in the BFA program in theater at the University of Detroit but was discouraged by the lack of support from her instructors, all of them male, who gave choice roles to women who "were both conventionally pretty and submissive to authority."

Disappointed by the treatment of women students, she left the program after a year. Frustration with political developments in 1972--especially the reelection of Richard Nixon and the defeat of an abortion rights proposal in Michigan--led her to move to Canada. She enrolled at the University of Toronto, which had a fledgling women's studies program. While there, she began to combine her interests in the women's movement and acting by performing in feminist theater works.

Early in her second year at the University of Toronto, though, Wolverton dropped out. She returned to Detroit, where she supported herself by working as a waitress.

In Detroit, Wolverton felt "isolated both as feminist and artist." She was therefore delighted to read an article in the Detroit Free Press about "an independent institute for the study of feminist political theory" at Goddard College in Plainsfield, Vermont. She was accepted to the first session of the Sagaris Institute in the summer of 1975.

Wolverton was pleased that the faculty included luminaries such as Charlotte Bunch, Mary Daly, and Rita Mae Brown and that the student body was, by her estimate, "approximately 80 percent" lesbian. Her experience at Sagaris proved disappointing, however. Discord over the vision and direction of the program led to rancorous squabbling that spelled its doom.

In the fall of 1975 Wolverton continued her studies at Thomas Jefferson College, an experimental institution near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Students were able to design their own majors, and Wolverton chose to work in feminist theater. After the administration revoked permission for her to present her performance piece for a women-only audience, she "no longer believed TJC was a supportive environment in which to produce [her] work." Also disappointed in the lesbian community of Grand Rapids, whose members did not see art as part of the revolution, Wolverton moved to Los Angeles in October 1976 to study at the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW).

The FSW had been founded only a few years before and, after convening in improvised spaces, had found a home in the Woman's Building, a squat red-brick structure built by the Standard Oil Company in the 1920s, located in a bleak industrial district that local gangs called "Dogtown" after an animal shelter that had recently closed its doors due to budget cuts.

In this unpromising environment Wolverton found a community that nurtured her as an artist. She completed her studies at FSW and stayed on at the Woman's Building, first as a teacher and then an administrator. She eventually became executive director.

In her memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman's Building (2002), Wolverton wrote, "No one could ever describe the Woman's Building. It would require a language that could encompass the passage of time as well as contradictory points of view. Perhaps no language could accomplish it. Perhaps only music would be capable of sounding those myriad notes--the harmonies, the dissonance, syncopation, counterpoint--to arrive at a composition of the whole."

Her comment reflects the complexity of the lesbian experience of the period. Feminism and the empowerment of women were ideals to be embraced, yet there was disagreement about how best to accomplish the goal. Some argued for lesbian separatism; some advocated a wider community. Each was seeking to find her own voice.

Wolverton initially found that expression in performance art. She staged FEMINA: An Intraspace Voyage, a story of women who leave Earth to create a new society, in 1978, and An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism the following year. She was also able to explore topics of both social and personal importance, notably in the Incest Awareness Project, three years in the making, in the course of which she was finally able to talk to her mother about abuse by her stepfather, from whom her mother was by that time divorced.

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Terry Wolverton at the West Hollywood book fair in 2006. Photograph by Angela Brinskele.
  
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