By Leslie Kanes Weisman
THE BEGINNING OF NFWFWF
The North Fork Women For Women Fund was conceived one spring evening in 1992. Two feminist activists and part-time North Fork residents – Lucille Goodman and Beva Eastman – came up with the idea of creating a fund to provide financial assistance and services to lesbians in the North Fork community who were facing health and aging problems. Soon after, the two women invited the late Janet T. Swanson to breakfast and, in Lucy Goodman’s words, “told her in no uncertain terms that as a retired nurse and lobbyist, she was the perfect person to create such an organization.” After thinking it over for a few days, Jan said “yes.” Jan, Lucy and Beva began meeting regularly for breakfast in the Southold Luncheonette.
With Lucy and Beva’s approval Jan devised a model of inclusive representation for the original Board of Directors. She selected lesbians from each age group by decade – from their twenties to their seventies – and each person lived in a different North Fork hamlet. Later on Shelter Island was included.
Jan named the organization and selected its founding officers and board. She became president, Lucy Goodman was secretary and Carole Marcus was named treasurer. They were joined by board members Claudia Slacik, Melissa Spiro, Marianne Weil, and the late Ginny Moore. Under Jan Swanson’s leadership the first bylaws were drafted and NFWFWF was incorporated as a not for profit 501(c)(3) organization with guidance from member and attorney Mary Dorman.
To jump start the healthcare grants program an anonymous donor gave the organization $720 earmarked to reimburse a dozen North Fork lesbians the $60 it cost for a mammogram at the local women’s health clinic. Soon the first NFWFWF newsletter, co-authored by Melissa Spiro and Marianne Weil, was mailed to members to inform them about the availability of healthcare grants and fundraising events. Over time, under the editorial leadership of the late Dolores Alexander and Lisa Scott, this informal bi-annual communication grew into a quarterly publication that included articles on women’s health, poetry, film, book reviews, a community gossip column, and ads by NFWFWF members offering professional services.
The Founding Board of Directors conceived of NFWFWF’s first Auction Benefit which was held on July 18, 1992 at the home of two women who were renting that summer on the North Fork. The event raised $6,807 which became the seed money that NFWFWF grew on. In 1993 and 1994 the auction was held at Marianne Weil’s home in Orient, and from 1995 onward, at Founder’s Landing in Southold. Jan Swanson was the chair and producer of every benefit auction until her illness and death in 2000 when Marianne Weil took over.
From the very beginning, the founding board struggled with defining the meaning of “health.” Although Jan Swanson disagreed, Lucy Goodman, Beva Eastman and Marianne Weil argued that an individual’s health is defined both in medical terms and in relation to her life within the context of a community; that people live healthier lives when they feel connected to others and are not isolated.
NFWFWF AND THE LESBIAN COMMUNITY
Toward that end, Lucy Goodman proposed the creation of the Cultural Arts and Education Committee which she chaired until 2007. The CAE committee, made up of NFWFWF volunteers and board members, organized many memorable fundraising and social activities. There were film nights, musical performances, talent shows, the summer games, literary and poetry readings, garden tours, dances at local vineyards, sunset cruises and a wonderful evening called “Here Come the Brides” which celebrated and informed the lesbian community about every aspect of same-sex marriage.
Assessing the needs and interests of the lesbian community was of central importance to NFWFWF’s beginnings and has remained an ongoing activity throughout the evolution of the organization. In 1993, Marianne Weil and Leslie Weisman developed the first community questionnaire to help prioritize NFWFWF’s activities and improve the organization’s outreach to potential grant recipients. Ten years after NFWFWF’s founding, under Weisman’s presidency in 2002, the Board of Directors conducted a major survey to gather census data that described the educational, economic and age diversity of the growing North Fork lesbian community. They wanted to ensure that in the future NFWFWF would continue to reflect the priorities, needs and creativity of the majority of its members.
NFWFWF COMES OUT
In 2009, during Sandra Benedetto’s presidency, NFWFWF reached a real milestone in its visibility as a local lesbian organization. It secured a $25,359 community empowerment grant from the New York State Office for the Aging by partnering with Southold Town Senior Services, Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging & Longevity of Hunter College and the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University. Out of the 77 community-based organizations that applied for NYS grants in 2009, NFWFWF’s proposal, written by Marianne Fahs, Sherry Thomas and Gillian Francis, was one of only 17 to be chosen for funding. The “Aging In Place” project conducted focus groups with NFWFWF members, developed and implemented a survey to determine the needs of the aging lesbian community, identified gaps in local support services, and completed the first ever Resource Directory for seniors on the North Fork.
Throughout the history of the organization each board has dealt with the issue of “coming out to the public.” Jan Swanson had her feet firmly and intractably planted in the closet. In the beginning, names of board members were not listed on newsletters because some felt it might jeopardize their jobs or family relationships. The word lesbian was never publically mentioned in connection with NFWFWF. During the three years that Marianne Weil was president, from 1994 to 1996, she concentrated on NFWFWF’s mission by developing and promoting the grants program and numerous fundraising activities — and all the while heated discussions about being “out” continued. Finally, when Lucy Goodman became president in 1997, NFWFWF formally proclaimed itself a lesbian healthcare organization — though it still protected the privacy of its members, as it does today.
That same year, HelpHer was established to provide non-emergency assistance to those who are limited or homebound by illness, injury, disability, aging or isolation. HelpHer volunteers, ably coordinated by Anne Wyden and Peg Heller from the subcommittee’s inception, run errands, grocery shop, cook meals, relieve primary caregivers, make hospital visits, and provide transportation to doctors’ appointments.
In 1998, a grant from the Long Island Fund for Women and Girls, co-authored by Nancy Tooney and Marianne Weil, enabled NFWFWF to publish an excellent brochure to inform the local lesbian and straight communities about the organization’s programs and goals. When Elaine Romagnoli became president in 2000, with help from Melanie Mitzner and Nicki Gorney, she and her board took the next big step toward public visibility by organizing the first Gay Pride Dance on the North Fork. Called “Out on the Vine,” the big event was held at local vineyard Castello de Borghese. It drew a huge crowd of lesbians and gay men from all over Long Island and welcomed many supportive straight friends and neighbors. Some members who attended the dance were fearful of being harassed by conservative locals, but no such thing happened.
BECOMING PART OF THE GREATER COMMUNITY
The following year when Leslie Weisman was president, the Suffolk Times published a featured article called “NFWFWF Steps Forward” (August 29, 2002) in which reporter Julie Lane interviewed and photographed her with two other NFWFWF board members. Despite some apprehension, the response from the straight community was only positive. Several more local business owners placed paid ads in the Lavender Pages, a directory of local gay-friendly businesses and professionals published and distributed by Weisman’s board that year. 2002 was also the year the late Anne McKay proposed to establish a NFWFWF archive at Smith College. It was ably developed by Anne and many other volunteers, including Lisa Scott who assumed the presidency in 2005 and ’06.
Two sold-out public concerts at Southold High School followed. The first was a concert by lesbian vocalist Suede organized by President Phyllis Zwarych and her board, and facilitated by long time treasurer Jere Jacob. The second concert featured lesbian comedienne Kate Clinton which was organized by President Lisa Scott and her board. The organization’s outreach and visibility was also dramatically furthered by President Sandra Benedetto who used her technical know-how to expand and professionalize the NFWFWF website, which had been started as a labor of love by Jackie Wolfson under Beva Eastman’s tutelage. Benedetto institutionalized electronic and online communications among members and linked NFWFWF to a national network of LGBT groups.
SCHOLARSHIPS AND THE FUTURE
In 2013, President Deb Roth and her board brought the organization to the attention of local high schools through establishing the Anne MacKay Scholarship Fund. The scholarship bestows a $1,500 award each year to a deserving public high school senior with the best essay on inclusion and diversity in their school or community.
Certainly NFWFWF’s founding President, Janet Swanson, was the unstoppable force that defined and shaped the organization in its early years. But this unique nonprofit grew and has been sustained by the creativity and dedication of each of the exceptional women who served on the many NFWFWF boards. Generous donors, many contributions and countless volunteers have provided the woman-power and financial support that has enabled NFWFWF to meet and expand its outreach and mission. It continues to do so today.