Marge Nelson

photo of Marge
Marge Nelson

Marge Nelson, long time human and women’s rights, peace, lesbian and fat liberation activist died in September. She was 89.

Marge grew up in New Brunswick, NJ. She married at age 19 and defined herself primarily as a wife and mother for the next 20 years. Inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Nelson returned to college in the mid-1960s and began to participate in the radical political movements of that decade. She graduated from the University of Akron with a B.A. in 1966 and an M.A. in 1968. She was awarded a Ph.D. in Sociology from SUNY of New York at Buffalo in 1976, having completed a dissertation which examined the National Woman’s Party, and was instrumental in the founding of Women’s Studies at both SUNY-Buffalo and Antioch College in Ohio. Among her notable political activities were lobbying for the ERA in Congress, organizing to free Joann Little and the Wilmington Tenn, and co-founding the Women’s Building in San Francisco. Her articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of feminist publications including Sinister Wisdom, Sojourner, Off Our Backs, and many others.

She came out with Polly Taylor, a Quaker pacifist, moving to San Francisco in 1978 in search of older women’s community.

We’re meeting really radical women who are our age.  The young women are great but, you know, we want people our own age, and here they were. I immediately decided I wanted to organize. I wanted to find a group. We went to a menopause workshop, where we met a couple of women who were our age, who were radical women, and we liked them … But I wanted a radical group, and so organized the Crones Caucus.

Marge lived in San Francisco ever since. She worked as a feminist therapist and a lesbian feminist activist.

 “As we all got older, I began to be involved with older lesbians organizing. There was a conference in San Francisco in 1989 I went to their conference, and there was a struggle, and a lot of us wanted to have an organization that would be political. That’s where Old Lesbians Organizing for Change came into existence.  I’ve been with them ever since … we’re saying, life isn’t over because you’re 70.  We’re also doing a lot of work about facing dying and what you need to do to take care of yourself when you become infirm. Well, you clearly need a community to support you.”

(quotes are from a 2005 interview for Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Smith College. https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Nelson.pdf)

Marge is listed in “Feminists who Changed America 1963-1975.”She was a 2004 honoree of the Pat Bond Memorial Old Dyke Awards. Materials from her life as a lesbian activist (1947-2006) are in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, an internationally recognized archive of women’s history. 

Her life story is an example of how the second wave of the women’s movement changed many women’s lives.

A passionate gardener, Marge cultivated gardens of great beauty and abundance. She is survived by her partner, Sandra Shepherd; three children; two grandchildren; and a son-in-law. And many friends, including us in LAGAI,  who will miss her very much.

When I think of Marge, I think of her compassion, her intellect, and of course her smile and laughter. I’m not even sure what groups Marge and I were in together but I do remember meeting in the 90’s at her house, which was somewhat of an art/political museum. The last demo I remember being on with Marge was an older lesbian Occupy demo in front of the BofA on Mission Street. And I remember seeing her at the Modern Times farewell, up front with her wonderful spirit and smile. I’m sorry I never returned her Elaine Brown book, which she often graciously reminded me to do. Now I will keep it. Goodbye to you Marge with love, Deni

What struck me most about Marge was the combination of her sense of humor, smarts, knowledge and experience with a whole lot of issues, open-heartedness, thoughtfulness and commitment. She was a great advocate of seeking social justice, plus it was always fun to do actions with her. Goodbye Marge, I’ll catch up with you someday at the big protest in the sky, and we can finish that long delayed conversation we were having. — Chaya

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is www.lagai.org.

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