Partner Bertha Harris, Harriet Desmoines

Queer Places:
205 Emerald Pond Ln, Durham, NC 27705

Catherine Nicholson (August 8, 1922 - June 9, 2013) was the founding editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom with her partner Harriet Desmoines. Catherine and Harriet published Sinister Wisdom from 1976 through 1981. For a time, Nicholson was involved with Bertha Harris.

Catherine Nicholson was born in Troy, a small town in the Scottish Presbyterian sandhills region of North Carolina, on August 7, 1922, but her father Mike, the town druggist, registered her birth as August 8. Catherine celebrated both days. When Catherine was four, her older sister, Edna Earle, died at home from an overdose of morphine given her during an asthma attack by a new doctor in town. The morphine had come from Mike’s drugstore, a hard fact which Catherine’s mother never forgave. She took to her bed for a year, and during that year taught Catherine to read. Catherine’s head start on schooling and her love for literature were born out of her mother’s unassuageable grief. To escape the thunderclouds at home, Catherine spent much of her time outside the house. She read the magazines and drank cherry cokes at the soda fountain in her father’s drugstore, and watched every Hollywood movie that came to town—for free, in her uncle’s movie theatre. She played long hours with Nancy and other friends in the neighborhood: one of their best games was Plike (short for “play like you’re x . . . ”), a form of theatre that didn’t require adult supervision or resources. And, when her mother didn’t intervene in time, Catherine gave her toys to the other children.

Catherine graduated from a small woman’s college near Troy that had been named after the eighteenth-century Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald, remembered by the Scots for her courage, fidelity, and honor. Then Catherine went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s in English literature. She taught in Winston Salem, and asked W. H. Auden to read at the campus. He arrived on the train from New York City, and she and her roommate invited all the beautiful, intelligent young men they knew for him to converse with. Catherine herself was working seriously on poems, but Auden never knew that. Catherine's passion shifted from words on the page to live theatre, and she took the extraordinary step of moving alone from North Carolina to Chicago, to study at Northwestern University under the great acting teacher Alvina Krause. Catherine earned an MA and a PhD in theatre and oral interpretation at Northwestern, writing her dissertation on the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy. It was during those years in the Midwest that Catherine made three discoveries which would shape her life until its closing: she discovered that, though she made a good actor, she made an even better director; she discovered the books of Jane Ellen Harrison, intellectual revolutionary who uncovered the violent destruction of female-centered culture which lay at the root of Western “civilization”; and she discovered Barbara, then an undergraduate in sociology at Northwestern and Catherine’s frst real love.

Catherine directed the university theatre for nearly twenty years, frst at Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, then at the new branch of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she and the painter Maud Gatewood had begun the interdisciplinary arts program. She directed what would be her fnal play at UNCC, “Twelfth Night,” casting irrespective of sex.

Catherine’s mind was a library, and she could talk a blue streak—from morning cofee, when she would recount fabulously detailed, richly theatrical dreams, to the last drop of bourbon nearly twenty hours later. She was ffty-three, she was at the top of her game professionally, and she drank a lot. After the “Twelfth Night” performances a few months later, Catherine left her tenured teaching position, explosively. In practical terms, she could have stayed. The administration was upset about the sex discrimination suit she’d fled, but they still needed her. The real reason she left was that she had reached the limits of what the patriarchal theatre tradition could do. She’d directed Greek tragedy, knowing that the stories the old plays told were stories of the defeat of women. She’d directed Shakespeare, playing with gender roles even more than he had. She’d directed Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg and the frst North American production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” She’d been there, she’d done that, and she wanted to create something new.

Nicholson is best known as the co-founder of the lesbian feminist literary journal Sinister Wisdom. From 1976 to 1981, Catherine Nicholson and partner Harriet Ellenberger (also known as Harriet Desmoines) published and edited the journal, before passing control to Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff. Through the stewardship of several editors, Sinister Wisdom has continued into the twenty-first century, and as of 2009 is the oldest surviving lesbian literary journal. Nicholson retired to Durham, North Carolina, where she maintained involvement in lesbian activism and continued to direct plays through the 1990s.

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