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How I Became a Feminist and Learned to Empower Myself, by Laurie Baumgarten

1 Feb
Laurie Baumgarten first became politically active during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. She later taught grades K-8 for 35 years in the Berkeley schools. In the past seven years she has been active in the climate movement, working with the Sunflower Alliance in Richmond, CA, a front-line fossil fuel community. She helped develop a basic climate education curriculum for adults based on the dialogic methods of Paulo Freire, which has been used in over 30 local workshops. Her current political concern is how to incorporate a democratic decision-making structure into organizations as they build a mass movement for change.

When I came out to California in 1964 from Connecticut to go to the University of California at Berkeley, there wasn’t yet a second-wave women’s movement on campus, but obviously there were foundational things happening that I was not aware of. Betty Friedan had by then written her book, The Feminine Mystique (1963). The whole environment of growing up in the suburbs—the isolation of women there and their infantilization as wives and mothers in these isolated communities—was already giving rise to a kind of despair that she picked up on and wrote about.

At Cal I got involved in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). At that time the Berkeley chapter of SDS was doing a lot of civil-rights organizing on campus, fighting against segregation in various industries in Oakland. Things were pretty segregated in terms of hiring practices at the auto shops and restaurants, so SDS would join with the Black community and picket these establishments on the weekends. While SDS was part of the New Left, and believed in participatory democracy, it was still male-dominated. My feminism grew out of this involvement.

The women in SDS played fairly traditional roles. We were typing the leaflets, getting the refreshments together, and doing a lot of the legwork of running the organization. We would go to meetings, but it seemed that we were essentially there to be playmates for the men. Many of these male leaders were married, and their wives were taking care of the children and putting their husbands through graduate school, but the undergraduate women on campus were being “horizontally organized,” as the joke went. I wouldn’t call it sexual harassment in the way that term is used today, but we were playing a particular role with which we became increasingly uncomfortable; we felt that our own identities were invisible.

I remember one specific meeting at the beginning of a semester, in which it was suggested that the women organize a little auxiliary to bring refreshments to all the meetings. There were a few women, of course, who were not in that mode. There was Bettina Apetheker and some of the women who had played more leadership roles in the Free Speech Movement. But they were kind of masculinized in the sense that they were seen as a little bit oddball up there as women with essentially male leadership.

But I was not coming from that place; I was one of the troops. In SDS, we began realizing that there was something wrong with this picture, that we were not feeling confident in our own abilities to think through political positions within the struggles taking place in SDS. There’d be meetings with votes on various positions and a lot of us didn’t know which way to vote—we would just vote the way our boyfriends did. The roles we played as women were not as full-fledged members of SDS. This unease grew as the struggles within SDS became more intense and the factionalism, which was rampant in the organization on campus, increased.

So a group of us women on the Berkeley campus got together, as was happening all over the country in different contexts, and decided to form a women’s caucus to think through the issues together before the meetings. This was probably in ’65 or ’66. I do remember the first leaflet that we wrote. We decided to go public with it to the students on the Berkeley campus. Its title was: “Do Your Politics Change When Your Boyfriend Changes?” It continued, “If so, join the women’s caucus and let’s talk about the issues.” And so we began meeting regularly in a women’s group; there would be between ten and fifteen of us, mainly women who were active in SDS. We met at my home on what was then Grove Street. We would look at the upcoming agenda and develop our own abilities to think through the issues. We would debate, talk, and try to figure out where we stood on each issue both individually and as a group. That was my first experience with what later became known as consciousness-raising groups. As SDS grew and developed different campaigns such as the SDS Anti-Draft Union, we women stepped up more easily to leadership roles.

These small, informal, local groups were the backbone of the second-wave feminist Women’s Liberation Movement. They spread like wildfires all round the country, and eventually a women’s movement developed. We would meet and get down to the nitty-gritty of supporting each other—first of all, by reading feminist literature that was coming to the fore, and then defining issues in our lives.

After graduating from college, I became a teacher. A group of us teachers in the Bay Area who opposed the Vietnam War formed a collective called Bay Area Radical Teachers Organizing Collective or BARTOC. The group was multi-gender, and we mainly developed anti-war curriculum for our students, but we also formed as a spin-off of a women’s group to address problems we were having as working women.

I remember one meeting where we decided as a group that we were going to go home and ask our boyfriends to do the dishes. We were doing the cooking and the cleaning, and we were working. We felt we shouldn’t have to cook and do dishes at the same time: we had two jobs and they only had one job. So we decided we were going to get up the nerve to go home, sit our men down, and tell them they should do the dishes. Then we were going to report back how it went. At that time I was living with a man named Dennis. I said to him, You’re going to do the dishes from now on, and he agreed! So we all went back to the next meeting two weeks later, and everyone reported in. Some men were more cooperative than others, but at that point that struggle for the division of labor was primary.

Then there were all the issues of how we were feeling about ourselves—the self-hate, the feelings about our bodies never being good enough, no matter how skinny or how big-breasted, or whatever we were; we realized that all of us hated our bodies—they didn’t meet up to the image of what we thought a perfect body should be. So there was a lot of discussion about that, and about birth control, abortion, and other issues of female anatomy.

It took a long time of meeting in small groups for us to understand that the personal is political. That was the deep message that we were trying to get out: that what was going on in our personal lives had this political dimension, that it was a reflection of our own status in society.

There were struggles within these small “consciousness -raising” groups, of course. There were personal things that came down. Women were divided sometimes. I remember I was at one feminist meeting in which the speakers were dressed very sexily and wore high heels, and my friend said to me, Slaves. They’re dressed like slaves. So there was a lot of judgmental stuff going on, like How come you’re not wearing your overalls? There was one very painful split that happened in our BARTOC group. One woman kept suspecting that another woman in the group was having an affair with her live-in boyfriend. Everyone kept denying it: Oh, that couldn’t be, you’re just paranoid, we’re sisters and sisterhood is powerful, and it turned out that the affair was true. That was painful because sisterhood wasn’t so powerful in that group after all!

There were also political differences and struggles amongst us. There were women who wanted to liberate women only from the confines of gender restrictions. These were more liberal, more reformist women, women who identified more within the Democratic Party. And then there were feminists who were more radical and identified themselves as Marxists. They wanted to do away with the capitalist system. We were all women, but first and foremost we were young people trying to sort out our world-views.

Women like myself who were active in the New Left were fighting for equality for others, but we ourselves were not being respected. Men did not want to give us equal speaking time at rallies and would laugh when women stood up and started articulating a feminist position. It was quite a struggle to change men’s consciousness and for them to get it. And as we know from today’s revelations about sexual abuse, there is deep down in the male psyche a tremendous objectification of us as women. I don’t think all men were equally insensitive. There were clearly some who got it, as Frederick Douglas had in the early suffragette movement when he attended the first women’s convention at Seneca Falls. But most men didn’t—then or now. Even ones who were considered “heavies” in the movement—I mean, some of the most respected of the leftist men, building the student movement, building the anti-war movement at the time, building the Black Power Movement—still didn’t grasp the nature of sexism.

In the early ’70s, I was living in San Francisco with a man who was an activist and with whom I had previously worked on The Movement newspaper, a national SNCC/ SDS paper [SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. I’d been living with him for nine years and had helped raise his child from a previous marriage since the age of two. I began to realize that this relationship was feeling more and more oppressive to me. I was tolerating a lack of closeness and respect that I did not want to live with anymore. I wanted to break free from patriarchal dynamics. My two closest friends in San Francisco, who also lived with well-known movement men (one had actually written a book on the family and became well-known for it), were also breaking up. The men weren’t getting it, they weren’t changing. Maybe they were changing at an intellectual level, but not in their personal lives.

There was progress around some of the division of labor issues, but at a deeper emotional level, the men could not grasp something about our interior landscapes and who we were as full human beings—that was, and still is, very difficult for many males. Even if they agreed to do the dishes or share some of the childcare, we were still objects for their pleasure or their needs. We were still supposed to look and act certain ways, be subservient in certain ways. That was certainly true in my relationship, and I wanted to break free from all that. A huge part of my coming into my own was in leaving this guy, whom I had greatly looked up to as an influential leftist. I had gotten some vicarious kudos from being with him. We’d been in study groups together, and he had a certain gravitas because of the role he’d played in the movement. But it was oppressive. I felt stupid, depressed, and self-hating most of the time.

I think I stayed in the relationship so long because in some basic way it imitated the family I grew up in. My mother had internalized a lot of self-hate, too. She wasn’t allowed to fully express who she was. She was supposed to just take care of those kids and get the food on the table. There was a whole artistic side to her which she never got a chance to develop.

It is always painful to break up, and even though I had made up my mind to do it, I felt like I was losing my family, my home and my security. The day I moved out from the our house into a tiny apartment, I said goodbye in the morning. The Black Muslims had a moving service; they were supposed to come and move me. I wanted to be out before 4 o’clock. (He was working in the steel mills and his shift ended about then.) It was getting later and later and the moving truck had still not arrived so I called my friend and said, What am I going to do? And she said, Call them up and tell them they have to get the truck there because your boyfriend threatened to beat you up if you were still there when he got home. So I called them.

Oh, lady, they said, we’ll be right there. Our truck broke down in Oakland; we’re going to get you another one and have you out of there by 3:30. I guess they didn’t want to be responsible for my getting beat up.

So I moved out. That night I had this dream of moving from a dark room into a room full of light and sun. It was sort of a “power dream” about being liberated from the confines of this traditional relationship. That dream kept me from going back. It was so clear when I woke up in the morning.

That dream set me on the path to emotional independence just as my teaching credential had given me my own paycheck. I had freed myself from this oppressive relationship, and I began putting myself at the center of my own life. I would be alone and without a partner for many years, but I became a committed activist. I started writing poetry and reading more feminist literature. I studied tai chi daily, and I built a social network of friends I hold dear to this day. I felt as if the cellophane I’d been wrapped up in all my life was being peeled off. I could finally breathe.

I started linking up with other feminists in San Francisco. I became a good friend of Judy Brady (Syfers) who had written her famous “Why I Want a Wife,” the iconic piece that was first published by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and then later included in the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful. She realized that even though she was married to a leftist, she was cooking and cleaning and sexing and raising the children and chauffeuring and doing all the things that she wished she had a wife to do for her. I also met and became good friends with a woman named Chude Pam Allen, who had written a book called Free Space in which she advocated the strategy of consciousness- raising in small groups. She was the editor of the newspaper for an organization called Union W.A.G.E. which when I joined the group organized working class women into unions and focused on women in construction trades and on downtown clerical workers.

The group had been around for awhile, and many of the younger women in that group like Chude and me wanted to broaden the issues to bring a feminist consciousness into the organization. We wanted to raise issues about the structure of the family, about parenting and marriage, about the role of teachers and nurses. The organization became very divided over how broad or how narrow its focus should be. For example, the gay and lesbian movement was emerging, and some of the women in the construction trades were lesbians and wanted Union W.A.G.E. to essentially be a single-issue organization which would support them in becoming unionized and gaining equality with the men in the trades.

There were also issues with the African-American women with whom we were becoming connected through an African-American social worker and psychotherapist on the East Coast named Patricia Robinson. She had been a founding member in 1960 of the seminal Mount Vernon/New Rochelle women’s group composed of poor and working class Black women—often single mothers—who had published their important work called Lessons From the Damned about class struggle in the Black Community. Through Pat we began to anonymously share across ethnic and class differences the letters and essays and poems that we were all writing to our fathers and brothers and husbands and sons as we struggled to understand how the patriarchy was coming down in our lives. Chude, as editor, turned over one issue of the newspaper to the Black sisters of New York to have as a voice for themselves. Many of us supported that move. But some of the trade-unionist and narrowly- focused women were furious that Chude would give over the editorial control of our newspaper to a group of outsiders. Eventually Union W.A.G.E. fell apart over these conflicts after decades of a long and reliable history. Lots of things were coming to an end. Organizations come and go.

The group of us in W.A.G.E., who were trying to build a broader base in San Francisco formed a readers’ theatre called Women’s Words. Women’s Words put together readings in coffee houses based on the poems and letters we were all sharing. We would speak the words of women confronting their families about how they felt. We often included excerpts from earlier struggles, from women fighting in the Labor and Suffragist Movements. These readings flowed back and forth from highly personal stories to deeply impassioned, political narratives.

Pat Robinson was an early Marxist feminist and had been connected with Chude through Chude’s first husband, Robert Allen, the editor of The Black Scholar. Pat was helping women, including myself, deal with how we negotiate, how we function in this patriarchal world that we find ourselves in, in terms of being married or not, having children, working for a living, etc. We would talk to her on the phone, visit with her when we were back East and write her letters, and she would respond as a clear-thinking mentor and therapist.

Finally I confronted my father personally. Robinson felt that if your father were still alive, you had the opportunity to confront him directly. To stand up and own yourself to your father was one way to move beyond that internalization of the patriarchy that we had acquired growing up. So I felt the need to confront my father after an incident at work in which I had been intimidated by my boss.

I was a fifth-grade teacher in the Berkeley public schools, and I was being called on the carpet for not using the mandated spelling program. It’s absurd when I think back on that stupid program that they were using for spelling. It just wasn’t right linguistically; it made no sense. It was some kind of fad that had gotten sold to the district. I refused to use this program so I was considered insubordinate. I knew there was another teacher at the school who was highly respectedyears earlier she’d been my master teacher—and I said that she wasn’t using it, either, thinking I could gain a little bit of “cred” using her name. Immediately I realized that I had done a terrible thing by mentioning her. I felt horrible and ashamed. I went home and wrote to Pat, saying, Oh my god, what was this about, and how could I do something like that?

And I realized it was my fear of authority, my fear of getting in trouble, and that in some way my intimidation dated back to my fear of my father, who had been an authoritarian, and that I had grown up and still was frightened of him. He was passive-aggressive, but still he was a well-meaning man. He was born in the U.S. to a poor, German-Jewish immigrant family. His father had been a roofer. He grew up in the Bronx, worked his way up by going to night school, and became a lawyer. After marrying my mother, he moved his family to the suburbs because he wanted his children to grow up in fresh air. He worked very hard, was never a wealthy man, but his home in Connecticut was his castle, and he was proud of his upward mobility. I had always been intimidated by him.

Through my work with Pat, I came to believe that my intimidation of the principal had to do with this internalization of the patriarchy through my father. Pat was working with women in the movement who were struggling to stand up to the system, to stand up to the “Man”—the internalized Man and the real Man. How do we find the strength and the power within ourselves? For women that often meant taking on the father figure.

So I wrote a letter to my father. I said I thought he had been fascistic towards me growing up. And he had been in the sense that I was scared, and he used to yell at me and make me feel I didn’t have freedom to be myself or express how I was feeling. He was controlling. He was that way with my older sister, too, but I think I was more of a rebel at home than she was, and so I somehow triggered more of an authoritarian response. I had been the easier scapegoat for his anger, as I did not look like or sound like the successfully and fully assimilated Jew. He disapproved of my friends and the type of bohemian crowd I was drawn to. He tried to keep me from seeing these friends, and there was no way to talk through or negotiate our conflicts. So I wrote him this letter where I told him I’d been frightened of him, he’d been oppressive, that he hadn’t considered my feelings.

My mom was kind of his lieutenant. She went along with his ultimatums and did not defend me. She was a typical housewife. I’ve come to understand her strengths and skills, but she was basically a suburban housewife, and of course her livelihood was through his paycheck. He would dole out an allowance, from which she had to manage the household. She didn’t have her own paycheck, which immediately puts a women at a terrible disadvantage. By the time I confronted my father, I was earning my own living. I didn’t want to “be like my mother” and be dependent on a man, so I was happy when I became a teacher and got my own job. It was such a relief to know I could support myself in the world and would never have to be dependent on my father or on a husband.

My father was furious with my critical letter. For two years he didn’t speak to me. He was hurt that I called him a fascist, which was the worst name you could call someone who was Jewish. I regret it now and realize I could have toned it down a little. Finally he did speak to me again. I went home to visit at one point but the confrontation continued because something I said triggered a furious reaction, and he started screaming at me, and I said, don’t you ever scream at me like that again. Fuck off. He picked up a chair!

He had never hit me—my mother did some of that—but he picked up a chair and came at me. He was so enraged that I’d stand up to him in that way, and I just looked at him. He stopped, and—this was a most embarrassing moment—he got down on the floor and started kicking and screaming like an infant! I couldn’t believe it! My mother came running into the living room and said, What have you done to your father? What have you done to your father?

Now my father was a dignified man, a well-respected lawyer; he was on the school board, he was brilliant, had worked his way up by getting all the awards from the public schools in New York, and now he was down on the floor. A shift occurred in me when I saw that. He was internally dethroned. I began seeing him as a kind of vulnerable human being who’d suffered a lot of anti-Semitism, a lot of pain in his family; he was a traumatized individual, who had worked his butt off for his kids. His masculine power was a bubble that had burst. It was a paper tiger. The next day he was driving me to the airport to return to California, and it was strange but I do remember this kind of opening in my heart toward him, and I think I felt love for him for the first time. I felt a softness toward him that I’d never felt before because I’d been so frightened of him. You can’t love somebody in a deep way if you are scared of them. This confrontation of our parents and confronting the male authority that we had so internalized was part of the process that many of us were going through to become stronger, more liberated, for ourselves and for our children. We had been inculcated with patriarchal and hierarchical power relationships in our childhoods that had left us feeling helpless, and we were determined to overcome them.

I eventually moved back to Berkeley and got involved in the anti-nuclear struggle with the Abalone Alliance. This state-wide network organized a massive civil disobedience of Livermore Lab with 1600 arrestees. It relied on small affinity groups and feminist process. And when I went to jail with my comrades, I never thought for a minute about whether my father would approve or not!

 

Laurie and her husband Michael today

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My Path towards Feminism, by Leslie Gersicoff

23 Sep

Leslie Gersicoff is involved in the movement for single payer health care for all Californians. She is Executive Director at the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, which works with labor and the community on issues affecting workers, including human trafficking. Her home is in Los Angeles.

Leslie GersicoffIn the early ‘60s I was still in high school in Rochester, N.Y. and was very “repressed.” What I mean by that is that I didn’t speak out about anything. My brother and I lived with my grandfather. He emigrated around 1914 from Minsk [Note: formerly part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and now the capital of the independent Republic of Belarus]. A tailor and dry cleaner by trade, he was also a Democrat, interested in electoral politics, and a faithful reader of the Rochester Times Union and the Democrat and Chronicle. I remember that his heart broke over JFK’s assassination.

After my grandmother died, when I was ten, our house continued to be a “gendered” one. I was expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I was lousy at housework. I burned the meat and frozen French fries and broke the washer by stuffing it with 17 sheets at once. After that, because I could drive, I used the Laundromat. There I encountered many creepy guys “on the make.” I had no feminist awareness but at 16 years of age I felt that creepiness to my bones.

I had finally learned to drive and I got my license because my grandfather needed help to get around. This delighted me because for the first time I acquired a measure of freedom and independence beyond my capacity to walk and take public transportation. The first car I drove was a light blue Plymouth Valiant with a push-button transmission. It was one of the first compacts. (Cars were still configured to male dimensions in the sixties.)

In 1965 I attended Alfred University, a small private school 80 miles south of Rochester inLeslie.Alfred.New York
the middle of nowhere, hills and fields all around, and no street signals. (I had wanted to attend Santa Cruz, but my grandfather said reluctantly that he would never see me, it was so far away.) Alfred was popular for its ceramic design school. The town of Alfred was filled with Seventh Day Adventists. Women weren’t allowed to be seen on the streets in hair rollers. In the dorms there was a curfew (something I had never known) for the women.

Alfred is where I gradually began to get the idea of “social sexism.” The Sexual Revolution was just starting. Men were starting to look better with longer, fuller hair and tighter jeans. In my junior year, while looking for a doctor who would perform an abortion, a woman in my dorm found a country doctor who was willing to write prescriptions for birth control pills called Enovid E.  At that time, it was socially unacceptable for unmarried (and even married) women to use birth control, so when mLeslie.EnovidEy friends and I visited his office, we wore rings turned around to appear like plain wedding bands. I had the impression that this doctor was a kindly man who was onto our tricks but wanted to help us anyway. He’d probably seen young women die from complications of illegal abortions and suffer from the social stigma surrounding their pregnancies. The pills were high-estrogen, but I was relieved to have them and would never admit they were the cause of leg cramps or weight gain.

At that time the first steps toward my becoming an independent woman were a driver’s license, birth control, and an education. Most women I met at the time were not going to college to become independent but were pursuing an education to get a degree so they could either find a professional man to marry and take care of them financially or teach until they met “Mr. Right.” Settling for security broke up many potentially better matches. Perhaps that contributed to women not being taken seriously in any field in higher education. Or perhaps that was why we were not taking our own abilities seriously enough.

I transferred to the State University of New York in Buffalo and lived with my boyfriend in a large politically radicalized building called the Fenton Arms. Our railroad-flat style apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up, had three parlors, gas fixtures, and tin ceilings.  Many students and hippies lived in the building, as well as a pair of brother and sister tenants who didn’t want to move out of their apartment because the sister believed their deceased Mother wouldn’t know where to find them. While she worked at the university, he listened to religious radio programs most of the day.  (As a point of interest, Paul Krehbiel, contributor of a previous blog here, knew many of the same people I did, and we met again 43 years later through Labor United for Universal Healthcare, which advocates for single-payer healthcare in California.) Downstairs were storefronts (the original mixed-use buildings), one of which was occupied by a draft resisters’ organization. My boyfriend hung out there. Off of Main Street a half block up from us at West Ferry St. was a bar. The American Nazi Party had held meetings in the back room there during World War II.  The air smelled raunchy with cigarette smoke. I suspect that ghosts goosed the evil ones in the neighborhood.

The Fenton Arms was in police district number 6 or 8, I can’t remember which. It was notorious as a tough, brutal station. One night the police beat up the guys in the draft-resisters’ office. They had been verbally taunting the cops, who then attacked them viciously. My boyfriend was in the hospital for several days. On his buttocks was a boot heel mark where a policeman had kicked him.  Many of us later held a demonstration outside that police station, led by a woman named Judy Goldsmith, who later served as President of NOW from 1982 to 1985. We were not arrested, although we were prepared to be beaten. My stomach was churning but we went on with the demonstration without being hurt. We heard later that the attorney for the police warned them he was through defending them for brutality so they should behave better. They may have—that is until political unrest broke out on campus. Then batons and tear gas replaced classes and student union beers.

One demonstration that took place against the war in Vietnam occurred on campus. As we were marching around in a large circle, someone introduced a chant that went something like Death to the Vietcong or to the USA or somebody. I was horrified. I didn’t want anybody to be killed. I couldn’t chant. I stayed silent, but I kept marching. Something definitive shifted in me that day. I started to pay closer attention to what people were saying and to what I was thinking.

All of these events helped politicize me, although slowly. Even more slowly, I moved to embrace feminism. It seems women were still fighting for men’s causes. I wasn’t only a little aware of women’s issues at that time. (I was not yet hearing the term “feminist.”) I was first aware that abortion rights were legalized in New York State in 1973. Leslie.Abortions'Some women in my building tried to organize me to go to a meeting on women’s rights. We became more aware of the grunt work that women were expected to do at meetings – typing, copying, coffee-making, hand-holding. I think that one reason Vietnam vets had a harder time than prior vets is that they no longer had women waiting at home for them who were willing to take care of them and do this traditional women’s work.  We had started taking care of ourselves instead.

In 1970 I moved to Coconut Grove, a beautiful “cityburb” in Miami, Florida. I lived in Florida for two years with no awareness except personal awareness – getting that experiential knowledge. For a while I worked in the Child and Family Services Department of the state welfare system, which was listed as 47th to the bottom of all states in providing social services benefits. Most of the young people I met were involved heavily with drugs. I myself was an overeater. It was the time of heavy drug culture, beyond smoke and hallucinogens, for white youth. Women were becoming more involved in drugs. I think this tipped the balance of power that had previously been dominated by males in many bizarre ways. There was dependence and there was independence.  Women could sell as well as buy their own drugs. There was a monetary avenue that was risky, dangerous. For some, satisfying; for others, deadly. Mother’s Little Helpers were causing many women to become addicts. There was a breakdown in the roles males and females were supposed to be playing. If a woman was stoned, she didn’t really care as much about cooking dinner as she may have prior to the cocktail hour. And girdles were definitely dead!

With my new job, I had opportunities to go into the field to visit families, mostly African-American mothers. I saw the projects in Northwest Miami. They were like cells, with few windows and with dark, ominous outdoor walkways. I remember one interview with a woman who told me, I’ll never remarry because I have daughters and their stepfather might molest them. I was shocked. It was a moment I can’t forget. My naiveté had kept me from realizing that such things went on.  Her comment illuminated a huge need to investigate the world of human behavior and find out why I was so ignorant. And that light shed an eerie glow over tears shed for others I considered so less fortunate for the knowledge they already had suffered.

Yet another experience in stupidity, or to be kind, naiveté, involved my innocently quitting the welfare department to take a job as a waitress in a bar called (I’m not kidding!) The Trojan. The waitresses’ uniforms were leopard-skin mini-skirts. I found out too late that we were supposed to climb up onto the bar and dance, with all these slobbery old men looking up at part of us. I was outraged by that demand. I couldn’t figure out why another waitress looked as if she enjoyed dancing up there. I refused and got fired. While searching for these plum jobs, the manager of another bar assessed me accurately. He said, You don’t know what you’re getting into. You don’t want this job. From his tone, I concluded he was a basically decent man in an indecent business.  I don’t know what his real business was. I think this was an intersection in my life where my fate was mysteriously protected and I was able to get on down the road.

In 1972 I went back to school in Buffalo. The Women’s Center had opened. I got involved in women’s communities. We had lots of democratic discussions—quite different from the top-down process in male-dominated groups Women working together—we experienced ownership of a project, and we could take credit for it. Women’s issues were artistically, culturally, and politically related. Attending meetings there was an amazing experience.

Another step toward my feminist consciousness was that one day, after returning to school in Buffalo, I was walking behind a couple on the sidewalk. The man said to the woman, Good idea! You keep having the ideas. I’ll make it happen. I was shocked and disheartened that it was so automatic for men to expect women to be passive while the men actively made changes founded on women’s thoughts.  Hearing that suggestion that women were not able to bring their ideas to productivity pissed me off a lot and brought a lot of anger to the surface.

At the Women’s Center there were, of course, personality conflicts. We had moved from a larger site to a much smaller one. At one point there was a territorial fight in which the majority of us were forced to move into the store-front basement because a more aggressive woman wanted to take over the bigger space and teach martial arts. I learned how damaging it could be to exploit each other. Those wounds cut deep. I’ve worked hard to keep such divisions out of feminism. I had to develop astuteness.

At one of our marches for women’s rights, some men joined us, to be supportive, I believe. The press was there, and my close friend and mentor Roberta said, Don’t talk to the press about the men here because it’ll be all about them. But someone did talk, and sure enough, the press interviewed the men only and ignored the women. I am so thankful for changing times and for Wendy Davis.

By the time I graduated in 1973, some working and student nurses had started a Feminist Health Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves had just been published. Leslie.Our Bodies Ourselves I will never forget one of the activities in the book that about 20 of us participated in at the Women’s Center. The “teacher” explained to us that everyone’s sexual organs were unique. The idea was to explore the part near our cervixes called the os and to see others’ os to realize how different and beautiful they were and how they looked during different phases of the menstrual cycle.  We all used plastic speculums (which we had to fight a pharmacy supply house to purchase) and mirrors and lay on the floor in a circle. We observed our own os, and then got to go around and view others’. It was amazing. Never before had I felt such pride in being a woman—it was a combination of realization, choice, and healthcare. We were also seeing our own mysterious beauty, part of that “miracle of life” that then defined us socially as women. Nobody else had shown interest in revealing this to us. Seeing really was believing. I can picture us all in that circle even today, 40 years later. That belief system grew beyond the Land of Os.

[Ed. note: The os. The part of the cervix that can be seen from inside the vagina during a gynecologic examination is known as the ectocervix. An opening in the center of the ectocervix, known as the external os, opens to allow passage between the uterus and vagina. The endocervix, or endocervical canal, is a tunnel through the cervix, from the external os into the uterus. Source: http://women.webmd.com/picture-of-the-cervix%5D 

There was also a feminist therapy group. I recall one woman saying, I wish I’d been born a man. I felt stabbed through the heart. It seemed to me that no matter what we did, it wasn’t good enough: we were the weaker sex and as we all know, survival of the fittest is the way things work.

In 1974 I worked with a program called Bridge that matched citizen sponsors to prisoners who had impending paroles. There I met ex-Attica prisoners. One of them Dewitt Lee, Jr., became the director of the organization. He’d served 17 years for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery in which a man had been killed. The two men who had committed the robbery and murder were the last two prisoners to be executed before a moratorium was put into place on executions in New York State.  DeWitt told us stories about life inside prisons that made us laugh hysterically and cry for the sadness and misery which no one can escape, especially in prison. This was my introduction into social justice.  Social justice and feminism cannot be separated.

Today I like to believe I’m much more aware. Over the years I had a number of unhealthy relationships and pursued therapy for a long time. I needed to deal with my anger. I realized how personal experiences affect social/political behavior more than political experiences affect personal behavior. I became very comfortable with being a feminist who is finally free to pursue fairness and justice for all because I don’t put up with any crap anymore. Thank you, Sisters.  And thank you, too, to those good men who truly have embraced feminism.

But mostly, thank you, Sisters.

Sex After the Sexual Revolution by Helen Colton

5 May

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Helen Colton is 95 going on 60. Although she never earned a college degree, she considers herself a polymath—a self-taught person who has no formal education but is very well-educated because they love to learn. She received a California teaching credential in Family Relations and taught at Beverly Hills Adult School and the Los Angeles Board of Education Adult School. All her working life she was a sex educator and teacher of family relations .

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Helen recollects with fondness raising her two children “not to bear grudges” and to have a “high sense of ethics.” She has three grandchildren. Her home is in Los Angeles. She enjoys Netflix, checks her email daily, and still does her own housework and yard work.

I was born in 1918 into a lower middle-class Jewish family, the third of six children. My parents had to get married—my mother was 16, my father 15. I believe that was what motivated me to become a sex educator, and I’ve written several books and dozens of articles on that subject.

The west end of Hollywood has been my home for many years. I divorced my first husband in 1965 when I was almost 50. He had been a Communist Party member but was expelled because he wouldn’t stand on street corners selling The People’s World1. During that time I attended protests and meetings; for example, around the defense of the Hollywood 102. Much of my political activity had to do with Hollywood. My long-time companion of 25 years (I no longer believed in marriage—marriage is confining world-wide) was Robert Lees, who was murdered nine years ago3 .

On May 1st, 1963 I marched in downtown Los Angeles with the Women’s Strike for Peace. Upton Sinclair had written that public protesters must be well-dressed, not grungy, so most of us wore nice clothes. Men on the sidelines jeered: Why aren’t you ladies home fixing dinner for your husbands?

I wrote hundreds of articles and several books over my career. The Gift of Touch and Sex after the Sexual Revolution were two of them. They are out of print but still relevant today. A pamphlet I wrote—What’s On Woman’s Future Agenda?—was used for years as required reading in college classes. I wrote for many magazines including McCall’s, Redbook, Coronet, Pageant, Self, Mademoiselle, and others, many of which are no longer in print.

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In an article in McCall’s which I edited, entitled “I Am a Selfish Mother,” the writer dared espouse the revolutionary idea that children shouldn’t come first all the time.

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I worked out of my home as a sex educator and also as a free-lance writer and consultant. I was on the faculty of an institute on sex education, which held weekend programs for doctors around New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco, and San Diego areas, etc.

A neighbor, Doris Fleishman, urged me to attend a conference at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco in 1964. Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique had just been published. There were feminist conferences at UCLA and Lake Arrowhead. We were involved in changing unfair laws such as the one that women could collect social security from their former husbands only if they’d been married 20 or more years. We got it dropped to ten years. My preferred activities were those that attempted to change laws.

Among my articles was ”Is Marriage Here to Stay?” in which I argued that marriage was for the benefit of society, not for the benefit of the individual. People are very often miserable in marriage, but society pressures us for many reasons to be married.

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Despite personal difficulties, I found time to be active in the ACLU and other meetings and anti-war protests, and to give lectures. On January 20, 1974 I was on the Dinah Shore Show, where I was discussing my book Sex After the Sexual Revolution. A panel of women asked questions. One woman asked something like, “I’m a widow who still gets sexual urges but I have no male companion. What can I do?” I answered: “Masturbation.” Little to my knowledge, the program had cut away during her question for an important news update on Henry Kissinger’s visit to the Paris peace talks with Le Duc Tho. When the show returned, all that the TV audience heard was the word “masturbation.” No context. Coffee cups dropped, people were horrified, NBC and the station were flooded with complaints from women. The rest of the program was cut and never shown in its entirety.

As you can see, language about sexuality was censored to a great extent. Years later when Dinah Shore was interviewed, she said that out of all her shows, the event of which she was the proudest was the program “on sex education.”

I felt wonderful about that.

Notes:

  1. The People’s World was the Communist Party’s newspaper.
  2. The Hollywood 10 were the following ten people, cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted after refusing to answer HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party: Alvah Bessie, screenwriter, Herbert Biberman, screenwriter and director, Lester Cole, screenwriter, Edward Dmytryk, director, Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter, John Howard Lawson, screenwriter, Albert Maltz, screenwriter, Samuel Ornitz, screenwriter, Adrian Scott, producer and screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter.
  3. Robert Lees (July 10, 1912 – June 13, 2004) was an American television and film screenwriter. Lees was best known for writing comedy, including several Abbott and Costello films. In the early 1950s, Lees’ career was virtually destroyed when he was put on the Hollywood blacklist by movie studio bosses during the McCarthy Era for alleged Communist activities. As a result of his blacklisting, he had associates submit manuscripts to the studios under the pseudonym “J. E. Selby.” He was killed when he was 91 by a homeless man who broke into Lees’ house.