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Rita Mae Brown | Biography

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Childhood

Rita Mae Brown was born on November 28, 1944, in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Her birth mother, a teenager impregnated by her married lover, gave Brown up to a local orphanage. Before Brown was a year old, she was adopted by distant relatives of her birth mother: Ralph Brown, a butcher, and his wife, Julia Ellen, a bakery worker, known as "Juts".

Brown was a precocious child who could read by age three and got her first library card at age five. She characterizes her large family as open to debate, with half of them living below the Mason-Dixon Line in Maryland and half living north of it in Pennsylvania. The Mason-Dixon Line, established before the Civil War (1861–65), is the symbolic division between northern and southern states. Her mother marched for women's right to vote, and her parents had gay friends. As Juts put it, "They're just that way." Nevertheless, she expected her daughter to fulfill the social role of women of that time: to get married and have children. When Brown's life took another direction, her mother stopped speaking to her for about a year.

During Brown's childhood, she and her mother fought often, although she related well to her father. Her mother could be cruel. For example, she gave her daughter the nickname "the ill" to remind her she was illegitimate. She criticized her constantly, not wanting her to "get a big head," as Brown says.

Adolescence

When Brown was 11, the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It did not take her long to figure out how to fit in socially while excelling at academics and sports. Brown was a popular and successful student at Fort Lauderdale High School. Although she realized as a child she was drawn to women, she did not fully explore her emerging homosexuality until her senior year.

Because of her excellence as a student, Brown received a scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she began her studies in 1962. She played tennis and pledged a sorority but then immediately became active in the civil rights movement. Such activity was deemed radical at the previously segregated school, which admitted its first seven African American students the year Brown started there. Brown became active as a lesbian as well. In 1964 the university revoked her scholarship and expelled her, specifically naming her civil rights activity as the cause. In actuality, however, university officials were equally appalled to learn she was lesbian, labeling her as deranged and in need of counseling.

Commitment to Higher Education

Determined to continue her education in a more progressive climate, Brown hitchhiked in 1964 to New York City. Arriving there penniless, she slept in an abandoned car in Greenwich Village until she was able to scrape together enough money from working odd jobs to rent a cheap apartment.

Brown eventually got scholarship assistance to attend New York University, where she began the Student Homophile League and remained active in many causes while earning a degree in Classics and English. She also followed her interest in filmmaking to get a certificate in cinematography from the School of Visual Arts. Brown also earned two PhDs, one in literature from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the other in political science from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Activism

The activism Brown displayed at the University of Florida and New York University drove her throughout her life, viewing herself as a citizen who pulled her weight to "do right" by others. She refused to back down when criticized and spoke out readily. Brown worked for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, peace (born out of her disgust for the Vietnam War [1954–75] and its aftermath), and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) relief.

An early and active member of the National Organization of Women (NOW), Brown accepted a paid position within the organization. However, when Betty Friedan, one of NOW's founders, threw her out because of her lesbianism, Brown stood up to her. Taking on the term Friedan used to describe lesbians, "Lavender Menace," Brown organized a large group of lesbians to march in protest at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. Brown thinks the words she used during the protest—"I see a lot of heat in the room but not a lot of light"—resonated with the women who had worked to ban lesbians from the women's rights movement. A year later NOW reversed its position and welcomed lesbians. Eventually Friedan apologized publicly for her stance against lesbians, which she later viewed as wrong.

In 1971 Brown cofounded The Furies Collective, a lesbian-feminist house and collective in Washington, DC. The Collective published a monthly newspaper, The Furies, but its main purpose was to provide women with their own space, outside of college or marriage, to grow as people. The house had a car repair school, a preschool for the children of women seeking refuge there, and an open atmosphere intent on making the women feel empowered.

Rubyfruit Jungle

Brown wrote her first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, in 1973. She shopped it to countless publishers, most of whom rejected it as "perverted" and too radical in its honest presentation of homosexuality. However, a small house, Daughters, Inc., decided to publish 1,000 copies. Although the book was not marketed, it took off immediately through word of mouth. Daughters, Inc. could barely keep up with the demand, printing 70,000 copies in the first year alone. In 1977 Bantam took over the rights and continued producing millions of copies of the best-selling paperback.

Writing as a Career

The unexpected success of Rubyfruit Jungle enabled Brown to embrace writing as a full-time profession. She has spent time in Hollywood working on screenplays and published more than 50 novels, nonfiction books, volumes of poetry, and numerous essays, and she has given candid interviews. Some of her more notable publications since Rubyfruit Jungle include a fictionalized account of her two-year love affair with tennis star Martina Navratilova (1979–81), titled Sudden Death (1983), and a series of mysteries featuring Mrs. Murphy, a cat, and said to be coauthored by Brown's cat Sneaky Pie.

Farm Life

Brown lived in Virginia for years. She bought a mansion in Charlottesville in 1977, which she sold after breaking up with Navratilova, and then a farm in Afton near the Blue Ridge Mountains. She continued to live there, with many cats, dogs, and a pack of fox hounds.

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