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Joan E. Biren papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00587

Scope and Contents

The Joan E. Biren Papers document JEB's professional and personal life. They include correspondence, notes, hundreds of photographs, slides and contact sheets, as well as press releases, reports, fliers and publicity materials, journal and newspaper articles, newsletters, audiovisual materials, transcripts of interviews, and memorabilia.

The bulk of the papers date from 1975 to 2003. Major topics found throughout the papers include photography, film, lesbianism, Judaism, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, and the numerous political movements she participated in and documented, including the anti-nuclear movement. Biren was an avid collector of lesbian and social justice materials, and the papers are rich in images, clippings, and ephemera collected during events such as the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Justice. Materials related to Biren's filmmaking include extensive raw footage, research materials, and transcripts of interviews, conference panels, and events. Notable correspondents include Audre Lorde, Alison Bechdel, Tee Corrine, Barbara Smith, and John D'Emilio.

There are also digital versions of selected works by JEB, including: Out of Bounds slideshow, Beyond Coming Out, A Simple Matter of Justice, and No Secret Anymore trailer. There are also a number of more recent digital recordings of presentations and events.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1944-2019


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use with the following restrictions, in accordance with agreements between Joan E. Biren and Smith College.

The following materials will not be available for research until January 1, 2050:

-- photographs for which Biren was not able to secure a model release, as flagged by Biren;

-- some correspondence with Biren's former romantic partners, as flagged by Biren.

The following materials will not be available for research until January 1, 2070:

-- Materials about one of the children of the Furies collective, as flagged by Biren or identified by archives staff.

The following materials will not be available for research until after the deaths of both Joan E. Biren and Minnie-Bruce Pratt:

-- Materials by and about Minnie-Bruce Pratt, as flagged by Biren.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that she owns copyright, JEB has retained copyright until her death in her works donated to Smith College. After her death, copyright in these works will transfer to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators.

Researchers seeking permission to use Joan E. Biren's materials for publication may contact her at

For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by JEB, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Joan E. Biren, or JEB, is an internationally known photographer and documentary film maker who has chronicled the lives of lesbians and social justice movements for over four decades, making visible the often hidden histories of women and other marginalized people. A self-taught photographer, Biren began documenting lesbian lives because “I needed to see images of lesbians.” Her first book, published in 1979, was a ground-breaking collection of intimate portraits of daily life: women at work, at home, making art, playing music, raising families, performing rituals and loving each other. In 1987 she published Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front, a sequel of sorts.

In the 1970s, Biren toured the United States, photographing lesbians at women’s events ranging from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, anti–Ku Klux Klan demonstrations, writing workshops, sporting events, lesbian-separatist communities, and gay and lesbian pride marches. “Wherever lesbians gathered, where I could take pictures, I would be there.” And by making the lives of lesbians visible, she ensured that their history would not be lost.

Beginning in 1979 JEB toured the country presenting her slide show "Lesbian Images in Photography, 1850 to the Present," also known as "The Dyke Show," to women-only audiences. Other shows followed and gradually Biren expanded her art from exclusively still photography to include filmmaking. She documented the 1987 and 1993 gay and lesbian marches on Washington in For Love and For Life and A Simple Matter of Justice, and in 2003 produced an award-winning film on lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, which tells the story of the co-founders, in 1955, of The Daughters of Billitis. The documentary follows Martin and Lyon's story through half a century, tracing a journey “from the fear of discovery to an expectation of equality.”

Biren was born in 1944 and grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. She majored in political science and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1966. She completed three years of doctoral work in political science at Oxford University and later did graduate work in communications at American University. She joined The Women's Liberation Movement in Washington D.C. in 1969. Coming to feminism with a New Left political science background, Biren was actively involved in the formation of feminist and lesbian theory at a critical time in movement history. She and others, including Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch, formed a separatist lesbian-feminist collective, The Furies, in 1971. Though the collective, based in Washington, was short-lived, its members, through its publication of the same name, had a significant impact on the strategies and feminist theories of The Women's Movement.

Best known for her photographic portraits, some of the earliest documentation of late 20th-century lesbian life, Biren came out in the 1960s and realized the need for affirming images and self-expression of lesbian culture outside of traditional patriarchal language. “I couldn’t picture being a lesbian, life as a lesbian, because there were no lesbians living out lives to see.” Her work has appeared in off our backs, The Washington Blade, Gay Community News, and countless other publications as well as LP albums and book covers. In 1997 George Washington University organized "Queerly Visible," a retrospective exhibition of her photographs, which traveled the country.

A popular teacher and lecturer on college campuses over the years, Biren has been a featured speaker at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force annual Creating Change Conference, the National Women’s Studies Association, the National Women’s Music Festival, and the National Lesbian Physicians’ Conference, among many others.


125.673 linear feet (205 containers and 3 flat file folders)

84 Gigabytes (64,400 digital files)

Language of Materials



Joan E. Biren, known as JEB, is a filmmaker, photographer, and lesbian activist who has been professionally known for documenting lesbian lives and communities since the 1970s. She became particularly well known in the 1980s for her slideshow and historical lecture affectionately known as The Dyke Show, with which she toured extensively. This collection includes JEB’s personal and professional records, and is rich in documentation of her photography and filmmaking -- the collection includes all of her photographic negatives and prints, multiple recordings of her performing the Dyke Show, as well as extensive raw footage and supplementary material related to the creation of her films. Biren is also an avid collector of lesbian and social justice materials, and the papers include her files of collected images, clippings, and other ephemeral materials related to events such as the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Justice. Notable correspondents in the collection include Audre Lorde, Alison Bechdel, Tee Corrine, Barbara Smith, and John D'Emilio.


This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

This collection contains digitized materials and files received in digital form that are not currently available online. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request access to this digital content.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

JEB began transferring her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in 2007. The most recent accessions came in 2019.

Additional Formats

Some analog audiovisual recordings have been converted to digital format for preservation and research use.

A slideshow produced by Joan Biren entitled: "Look To the Women for Courage: Stories From the Seneca Encampment for Peace and Justice" is available to view online.

Related Materials

An oral history with Joan Biren is available through the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project.

Separated Materials

In December 2019, 9 folders of previously-available financial records were removed from Series 1 of this collection and returned to the creator at her request.

Processing Information

Preliminary processing done by Maida Goodwin, 2010. Additional processing was done by Ellice Amanna in 2018, and accessioning and integration of the latest two accessions were done in 2019 by Kathleen Nutter and student worker Jessica Flohr.

The contents of computer media (floppy disks and data CDs) in this collection has been copied to networked storage for preservation and access; the original directory and file structure was retained and file lists were created.

Genre / Form


Finding Aid to the Joan E. Biren papers
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:21-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2019-04-22: Digital accession added; and total extent was updated to reflect all digitized and digital content
  • 2019-04-23: Description added for Born-digital content recovered from computer media
  • 2019-06-25: Finding aid published with all 2018 and 2019 accessions addec
  • 2019-08-13: Finding aid published with updated access restrictions, and note about ongoing work with negatives subseries
  • 2019-08-23: Two digital accessions added; total extent updated to reflect all digital content
  • 2019-12-12: 9 folders of previously-available financial records deaccessioned and returned to donor per her request.
  • 2020-12-1: Flat file information imported from flat file spreadsheet
  • 2021-10-12: Corrected description of box 153

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063