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Joan Emerson ’57

January 9, 2023, at her Mill Valley, California, home, from Lewy body dementia.

Through her work, volunteering, and community service, Joan dedicated her life to the wellbeing of others.

She was born in Washington, DC, in 1935. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Reed, writing her thesis, “Application of Interaction Process Analysis to Children’s Groups,” with advising from Prof. Howard Jolly [sociology 1949–70]. She went on to earn a PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley and taught sociology at Carleton College and the State University of New York, Buffalo. According to one of her brothers, Joan’s biggest regret was watching the women’s and civil rights movements from the sidelines. Perhaps propelled in part by that regret, she went on to be a force of support and advocacy for the LGBTQ community, of which she was a proud member.

After 20 years of studying and practicing sociology, she left the field to begin training as a psychotherapist for children. She earned her master’s in clinical psychology from the New College of California in 1992.

When Joan was 61, she attended a national gathering of the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) in Minneapolis. She was so impressed by the group’s loving acceptance—of themselves and each other—that she jumped into revitalizing the OLOC San Francisco chapter. For 17 years, she was a leading figure there, fundraising, organizing, and expanding the group.

Joan was a San Francisco resident for 34 years, much of which were spent in partnership with Dottie Fowler. The couple had a tight-knit community of lesbian friends with whom they enjoyed vacationing at Discovery Bay in Washington. After Dottie’s death, Joan moved to The Redwoods, a retirement community in Marin County. But she hadn’t lost her energy for organizing and community support; at The Redwoods, she set up and ran the  orientation program for new residents and taught classes in collage, which she loved. Joan also enjoyed swimming, good food, and creative writing.

In 2014, Joan received OLOC’s Old Lesbian Pride Award at the group’s national gathering in Oakland, California. Even after stepping back from her duties on the steering committee, Joan continued participating in community events as much as she could with the help of her partner, Jan Couvillon.

Jan said the last three years were tough on them both, as Joan’s symptoms from Lewy body dementia worsened. Jan was grateful to have the help of day care, which allowed Joan to continue being part of a social setting, which had always been important to her.

Joan is survived by her partner of 12 years, Jan Couvillon.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Fall 2023

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