Brown was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Florida, and as of 2004 lived outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
In the 1960s, Brown attended Broward Community College and the University of Florida but transferred. She moved to New York and attended New York University, where she received a degree in classics and English. Later she received another degree in cinematography from the New York School of Visual Arts. Brown received a Ph.D. in literature from Union Institute & University in 1976, and holds a doctorate in political science from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
In the late 1960s, Brown turned her attention to politics. She became active in the American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the Gay Liberation movement and the feminist movement. She took an administrative position with the fledgling National Organization for Women, but angrily resigned with Michela Griffo in January 1970 over Betty Friedan's anti-gay remarks and NOW's attempts to distance itself from lesbian organizations. She played a leading role in the "Lavender Menace" zap of the Second Congress to Unite Women on May 1, 1970, which protested about Friedan's remarks and the exclusion of lesbians from the women's movement.
In the early 1970s, she became a founding member of The Furies Collective, a lesbian feminist newspaper collective which held that heterosexuality was the root of all oppression.
She has said, "I don't believe in straight or gay. I really don't. I think we're all degrees of bisexual."
Brown has been in relationships with tennis player Martina Navratilova, actress/writer Fannie Flagg, socialite Judy Nelson, and politician Elaine Noble.
Brown enjoys American fox hunting and is master of her Fox Hunt Club. She has also played polo, and started the women-only Blue Ridge Polo Club.
To me, Rubyfruit Jungle was the opening act of the Renaissance in LGBT lit. Before that, I was at the library searching out dusty tomes from the 20s and 30s like “The Well of Loneliness,” and then, wholly unable to get through them, trying to decide if they were more boring or more depressing (hint: sometimes it’s a tie). Rubyfruit Jungle was different. It was alive. It was normal. It was like opening a window and letting air into a painfully stuffy room. I breathed as if I hadn’t breathed in years. I probably hadn’t. I was about 18 when this novel came to be. I would have liked it a couple of years earlier. Better late than never. --Catherine Ryan Hyde
Skip forward to adolescence. And a wise old librarian whose name I never knew (or have failed to remember) who spied a weird little tomboy sitting in the stacks and slipped her a copy of Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown that would let her know that she wasn’t the only oddball in the world. --A.M. Riley
When RubyFruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown came out in the early 1970’s all the male homosexual novels around were weepy, whiney and annoying. Brown’s rambunctious young tomboy lesbian heroine was not only someone I could easily identify with, she was also someone who lived a life of let’s-see-what-happens-next adventure that became my own mantra for the entire period. By turns, it’s searingly honest, witty and quite satirical -- power-lipstick lesbians take the worst hit. Brown never topped this book. --Felice Picano
Long known as a lesbian author, Six of One by Rita Mae Brown is a charming and heartfelt tale which follows three generations of an incredibly eccentric family who live in an even more incredibly eccentric town astride the Mason-Dixon line. The antics of these loveable kooks still resound in my memory even twenty years after having read the book. Brown built a comic novel of Southern Gothic insanity on a solid foundation of deep love and friendship. --Hal Bodner
The men in GLF and GAA had grown up in a prefeminist world. Their actions, even after lesbians confronted them, often reflected their upbringing, which was not to take women and their concerns seriously. Nevertheless, many lesbians joined these groups because they were not welcome in the National Organization of Women (NOW) or even in some radical feminist groups. Betty Friedman's antilesbian sentiments were so present in NOW that a group of lesbians, including Karla Jay and Rita Mae Brown, formed the Lavender Menace, a guerilla action group. They confronted NOW's members at its Second Congress to United Women in May 1970, where they passed out their manifesto, "The Woman-Identified Woman". A year later, NOW passed a resolution affirming that lesbian rights were "a legitimate concern for feminism". But a critical break had occured. The Lavender Menace, who now called themselves Radicalesbians and understood that their concerns were distinct from those of heterosexual women and gay men, began a distinct movement: lesbian feminism.
Lesbian feminism created a new political and social identity for lesbians than had not existed previously. Jill Johnston, a New York-based dance critic and activist nationally famous for her outspokeness and flair for publicity, stated in her 1973 book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution:
"Historically the lesbian had two choices: being criminal or going straight. The present revolutionary project is the creation of a legitimate state defined by women. Only women can do this. Going straight is legitimizing your oppression. As was being criminal. A male society will not permit any other choice for a woman."
Faderman describes lesbian feminism as being "pro-women and pro-children" and compares it to the utopian vision of reformers such as Jane Addams. In the early 1970s, women started national network of small presses, such as Daughters Inc., which published Rita Mae Brown's groundbreaking lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle. --A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski
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