Tag Archives: feminism

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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Long-time Activist by Anonymous

10 Nov

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles, more precisely, in the South Bay, a post-WWII suburb of mainly aerospace workers—the “white collar” of the “blue collar” workers who strongly identified with the patriotically conservative, non-political, hysterically anti-communist 1950’s “Leave It to Beaver” image of a white picket fence, two-car garage America.  My parents were the absolute antithesis: children of Communists who grew up in the depression and the radical ‘30s.  Although my schools were racially mixed, my little neighborhood was Caucasian, except for the family of a Mexican-American doctor who, at any rate, lived in the adjacent area of the cheaper, “flat-roof” slab houses.

Because my parents were very involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements, I had a number of African-American (at that time, the politically-correct terminology was “Negro”) friends.  I had to walk over to their neighborhood to play with them—they did not feel comfortable coming to my house as it meant being stared at as they walked through the streets of my White neighborhood.

I felt more at ease with my non-Caucasian friends because I felt I could be more myself with them – I didn’t have to hide my parent’s political views like I had to with my (White) neighbors who lived closer to me – although I still didn’t feel that I could acknowledge my parents Marxist beliefs with my non-Caucasian friends—that I had to hold in check until the weekends, when we either went to visit my relatives (and their friends) in the bohemian (and by my era, hippie) neighborhood of Venice, or to visit the children of friends of my parents who lived in the city of Los Angeles and who were also “fellow travelers”.

The racial disparity became even more apparent starting in middle school—what was then termed Junior High School.  The classes were divided according to IQ test, and in my grade, there was only one Black/African-American in the “smart” class. Due to this, and  because her mother, who ran the local Head Start program. was an acquaintance of my mother’s, she became one of my closest friends.

In June 1967, there was a large protest in Century City against the war in Vietnam.  My mother, who was involved in Women Strike for Peace, took me and my siblings.  At some point, the police started to break up the demonstration.  They yelled through megaphones to disperse—but nobody could understand what they were saying because the sound was so distorted.  They had their billy clubs out and were indiscriminately swinging them at anyone in their path.  They almost hit my gentle, diminutive, grey-haired mother, and they did get one of my brothers, although he wasn’t seriously hurt.  I was so incensed by this—even more so than not allowing a legitimate, legal demonstration to take place—because the police were so stupid that they were shouting dispersal instructions which no one could understand through these ridiculous bullhorns.

By the time I got to high school, I was totally alienated from all but one or two of my neighbors and longed to go to an LAUSD high school where there were identifiable groups of student anti-Vietnam war activists.  So I got out of there as soon as I could, skipping my last year of high school and going to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade in the fall of 1970.  We traveled in a cross-county bus, headed to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, where we would sail to Cuba. This was at the time that Angela Davis had gone underground, when she was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.  Angela’s sister Fania was with us, which gave the police an excuse to continually harass us and stop the bus to haul her out—each time insisting that she was actually Angela in disguise.  The FBI disseminated all sorts of rumors and negative publicity to the local population in the towns we went/traveled through, stoking McCarthy-like panic.  By the time we got to Bangor, Maine, the hysteria was so frenzied that our bus was attacked—shades of Peekskill!

We boarded an old Cuban cargo ship that had been specially retro-fitted for us by slinging hammocks down in the bottom deck for us to sleep—separated into women’s and men’s sections.  It was hurricane season and we sailed through some rough seas—everyone, i.e., the Brigadistas (not the Cuban  sailors), got seasick and for a few days, the only food we could hold down was a few bites of hardtack.  The only relief was from a Brigidista, a gay guy from New York, who led us in mindful meditation.  Lying stretched out on the battered deck, his hypnotic voice led us–or at least me–into a euphoric state in which I actually felt that I was floating above it all.  It was such a soothing feeling which I continue to replay in my mind even now.

We were supposed to help in the Cuban campaign for the “Zafra de Los Diez Milliones”, but by the time we arrived, sugar cane season was over, so we were sent to the Isla de Juventud to pick citrus.  When we were done, Fidel Castro came to personally shake each of our hands in thanks for our solidarity against the blockade. In addition, we were toured all over the country, and as it was also the anniversary of “El Camino del Che”, we hiked through the mountains in the footsteps of that long march.

On the cross-country bus trip back from Canada, I decided to not return to Southern California, so had the bus drop me off in San Francisco.  I had the address of an acquaintance of my parents, a nurse who had gone to Spain to drive an ambulance in the fight in their civil war against fascism.  She lived at the very top of Portreo Hill.  I didn’t have any money so I trudged all the way up those steep streets, dragging my heavy duffle bag, only to find out when I finally got up there that she wasn’t home, but out on Alcatraz, as a nurse volunteer in the Native American occupation of the Island.  I hitchhiked back over the Bay Bridge and found a place to stay in a communal-living house on Channing Avenue in Berkeley, a few blocks from the water.  It was not a particularly safe neighborhood in general for a naïve teenage girl, but I quickly found out that I didn’t have to worry because it was around the corner from the West Berkeley Black Panther headquarters, which had the neighborhood kids marching around military-style, patrolling the streets.  I liked to watch them, dressed in army fatigues with their red-capped berets covering their Afro-styled hair, shouting out their revolutionary slogans as they paraded by in formation.

I needed to find work, but there was a recession on, so after days of systematically walking down the commercial streets, one after the other, knocking on the door of each and every establishment asking for a job, I finally managed to get hired at the MacDonald’s in East Oakland, on Hegenberger Road.  Also not a safe neighborhood, but I had become very friendly with a Venceremos Brigade member from New York, a Borrinqueno leader of the Young Lords—it turned out that his cousin, quite co-incidentally, was one of my customers, and as he was in the local gang, he looked out for my welfare.  The supervisor at McDonalds was intrigued because I had gone to Cuba illegally, and he tried to recruit me into training for their management program—go figure!  I barely made enough money to get by but the manager let me take home the food that was left over at closing.  As my roommates were vegetarians, we usually fed the hamburger meat to the dog.

One day, I was with a roommate at the Berkeley Co-Op (Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley) supermarket, and she took a piece of fruit while we were in the store and offered me a bite.  The store had two-way mirrors all around, up at the top of the walls, to catch shop-lifters.  They saw this happen, accused us of stealing, and called the police.  They let my friend go but because I was underage, they arrested me and I was sent to juvenile detention.  I was in jail two days. There were some pretty rough girls in there and at the beginning I had some trepidation. But after hearing how I had had the bad luck to be so stupidly arrested and was being shipped back to my parents against my wishes, they became sympathetic and friendly and we passed the time chatting. My parents had to pay the $10 it cost to fly me back–that was a day’s wage for me—but as a consequence of my sudden departure, all my things were left behind, including my most prized possession: a bust of Marx carved by a comrade from a bar of Ivory soap.

Now being back in L.A at my parent’s house, I was visited regularly by the FBI as a result of going on the Brigade.  My bedroom was adjacent to the front porch, so whenever there was an early Saturday morning knock—which was always when they came–I peered through the curtains of my window to see who it was before answering the door.  If I saw two young men dressed in suits, I knew it was agents and not Jehovah Witnesses –who always came with at least one woman–so I’d yell at them to go away.  For years after I moved out, they continued to hassle my parents about me, although more sporadically.

Although I consorted with various political groups, my favorite was the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL, or “the League”).  I thought they had the best “revolutionary line” because not only were they affiliated with the CPUSA and therefore multi-national and determinedly anti-racist, but a number of the members were also in the Black Panthers, which gave them considerable cachet to my way of thinking.  Most importantly, besides the serious stuff like classes on Marxism, the League knew how to go out and have fun—plus, they held the best Soul Train-style dance parties!  I still remember how to do the Funky Chicken!!

The local YWLL organizer had a contact in a factory near my parent’s house that made “Hot Pants” for New York’s haute couture fashion industry.  Me and three other YWLLers got a job there.  Most of the workers were undocumented women from Thailand.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up learning some basic Thai.  They were very concerned that I wasn’t married, and were constantly trying to get me to come to their cultural events so that I could meet an “eligible” man. They even taught me some of the traditional arm and hand movements of traditional Thai dance.  Occasionally there wasn’t a lot of work coming in, so the company owner, wanting to save on labor costs, would announce that the INS was going to make a raid, which scared those workers who were undocumented, so they would not come in for a few days.  It would always be a lie!  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU or “the ILG”) was trying to organize the shop, so we were supposedly helping with that.  However, I didn’t like some of the ways the ILG was conducting its campaign.  The female workers had the lowest-paying, menial jobs, while the male workers had the higher-paying jobs as “pressers” and “cutters”.  The Union officials were all men and this disparity didn’t concern them.  It was what they were used to in the industry and they didn’t want to hear my complaints about it.  As the union struggle intensified, the four of us were eventually “outed” and subsequently fired.  I remained in touch with a few of the women for many years, so I was able to practice the Thai phrases that I had learned.

I worked in various other factory jobs after that–assembling disc brake pad kits (until the manger’s sexual harassment got too much to bear, so I quit), at the Papermate factory in Santa Monica doing quality control of Bic pens on the midnight shift, and then, finally, a better-paying union job as an International “O” Operator for Ma Bell (AT&T).  I worked a split shift, which I really liked because I could do political work in between.  But the union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) was not a very progressive organization—at least not in Los Angeles at that time.  The supervisors were all men, and we had to raise our hands and wait to be acknowledged if we needed to take a bathroom break.  It was not the most exciting work, so I would take “Black Beauties” to help me focus.  I’d arrange my switchboard so that the telephone cords were all nicely positioned, precise and straight, which the supervisor would praise me for–clueless that it was only due to the effect of the speed pills!  I took pride in being able to get a call through in an emergency, such as a hurricane—even routing the calls through other countries if necessary.  Because I worked near the city of Gardena, at that time a predominantly Japanese community, I learned rudimentary Japanese in order to place my calls more effectively.  I remember one intriguing co-worker who lived in South Central but was originally from New Orleans.  She had a side business raising rabbits in her backyard, peddling the meat out of her house but would occasionally bring some to work to sell out of an ice chest.  She would cook the rabbit southern-style and share with me at lunch.

At this time I was living near Banning Park–in Wilmas13 territory, so the rent was lower than in other areas—but it was still 50% of my salary.  I would hear occasional gunshots, and to get home I’d have to walk by a bunch of young men hanging out along my back fence, but they pretty much left me alone.  I had an open dirt space in the backyard, where I tried to plant vegetables, although the only thing that grew was corn, but it was delicious and sweet–it could be eaten raw, right off the cob. It also attracted mice; I’d see them sticking their noses up out of the gas rings in my stove top.  The landlord just told me to buy traps, but I wouldn’t.

I was volunteering at what is now the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research but strongly disliked the way that the proprietor treated his spouse, so I decided I wanted a change. Having been awarded $100 because an elderly man rear-ended my car, it was enough to buy a ticket to fly overseas. I didn’t return to Los Angeles for some years.

Organizing, by Patty Margaret

22 Feb

Patty is a retired nurse and mother of three grown children and three grandchildren. She grew up in San Diego, and lives in Pasadena. She likes to hike, bird-watch, travel and read. She is presently completing a healthy house project on her home to eliminate toxic chemicals and mold.

 

What particularly started my opposition to the status quo was my reaction to my father, who was a ferocious racist from Texas and had been in the navy all his life. When I was growing up, he abused my mom, my brother and me. I empathized with the victims of my dad’s wrath. I remember my dad going “Huh!” with disdain in his voice whenever a person of color was mentioned. My grandmother did the same thing. Phrases like “Those damn wetbacks!” were common around our house.

When I was in third grade, we sailed to Hawaii on my dad’s navy cargo ship. It took seven days to get there and seven to return. We stayed in Hawaii three months and went to school there. This was in the late ‘50s. It gave me the experience of being around Asians.

In junior high school my good friend had straight black hair and brown skin. When I brought her home one day, my dad asked, “Who’s that girl?” She was standing right there listening to this. “You can’t bring her into this house ever again,” he said. “She can stay now but that’s it.” Dumbfounded, I asked my mom why he didn’t like her. “Because she’s Mexican,” my mom explained. Eventually the girl moved away but years later while watching the San Francisco Mime Troup in Los Angeles, I met her again. She was working with the Troup and remembered me.

My high school was newly built to ensure that white kids didn’t have to go to a black school. One black kid lived on the “wrong” side of the line and ended up at my school but was told she would have to leave. We students gave her a lot of support, even electing her as student body president. As a result she didn’t get thrown out after all.

In 1965 I finished high school and started college at California Western University, a Methodist college at Point Loma near San Diego. (The college no longer exists.) The Methodist Church had a history of not allowing dancing. I joined a college church dance group. We were rebellious and wanted cultural change, in line with the rest of the movements of the ‘60s. We preformed modern interpretive dance to sacred music that included comments about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers strikes, and the inhumanity of poverty. We toured the state and surprised the Methodists because we preformed right by the altar in the church.

Another influence was my mom, who was supportive of women’s equality. She was sympathetic to feminists (which enraged my dad). My mother had been accepted as a student at Berkeley, but because of the Depression hadn’t been able to attend. She praised my great aunt, who was a math professor there—highly unusual for a woman at the time.Vietnam.Napalm.KimPhuc

At college I became particularly aware of the contradictions in our society when I found myself staying up until 4 a.m. writing and mimeographing leaflets about the Napalm being used by the US Army to burn children in Vietnam. After gazing the night before at the well-known picture of the girl running away from the napalm, I would stagger into my 7 a.m. philosophy class the next morning, where the teacher would knock on the blackboard and ask “Is this real?”

Follow the Drinking GourdWith a group of Methodist students at college I continued my activism. Then I quit school and hung out with Methodist students at San Diego State College. We began working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Having come from a working class family, I was becoming aware of the power of the workers when they united and withheld their labor. I saw the influence workers could wield on government policies on war, poverty, and racism. I loved music and sang protest songs. I remember “Follow the Drinking Gourd” about the Underground Railroad.

Some of us SDS folks formed a nationwide sub-group called Workers for a Democratic Society. There had been some animosity between activist students and workers who didn’t understand that the war was not in their interest. Our outlook broadened from organizing just students to organizing the rest of the working class as well. I got a factory job at Ratner’s in San Diego making men’s suits. Our goal was to meet workers and talk to them about their issues and about the war.

garment workersMy job at Ratner’s was to match a bag of suits and a bag of sleeves so they could be sewn together. It was piece work. Each suit got a ticket which showed how many suits you’d sewn and assembled that day. If the number wasn’t high enough, you’d be reprimanded and made to take long breaks off the clock and then work overtime when supplies came in. For 35 hours they had to pay us minimum wage. There were fibers in the air. One woman got her finger caught in a sewing machine. Once someone opened one of the sewing machines and found a thumb inside.

There were three women in my work area. One spoke only Spanish and the other mainly French. We were all the same age. The Mexican woman lived in Tijuana. I was learning some Spanish from her. We had just turned 21 so we went out to bars, shared our lives, and talked about the war.UAW

When I came to Los Angeles to get more politically involved, my first job was at Harvey Aluminum. It was a large shop, organized by the UAW. They processed aluminum heads for bombs directed for deployment by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I remember that once our multiracial group of women workers refused to process these war products. I was so impressed with them, it confirmed to me that workers felt as we did.

In 1969 I joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that had broken off from the Communist Party USA.

Progressive Labor PartyThe PLP read Chinese Communist as well as Soviet literature. It organized factory workers within SDS for Workers for a Democratic Society, and I became dedicated to that work. When I was laid off by Harvey Aluminum, I found a non-union job in electronics and learned to solder computer boards for airplane radios in South Los Angeles. I took some classes at the local high school in reading diodes, and I met a man there, whom I later married. Some of the other students moved on to a nursing attendant class, so I went too, again getting to know more working people. This is where I discovered that I loved working in the intensive care unit.

We tried to concentrate our organizing in an IBM electronics factory in El Segundo. My job was to wind and solder copper wires onto computer chips. We made friends, helped each other learn about racism, unions, and the anti-war movement. However, the rules made it difficult to do this because no talking was allowed, we worked long hours, and our breaks were strictly supervised. The three of us in the PLP weren’t careful enough and were fired before we finished our six months’ probation, at which time we would have been protected from frivolous discharges. All the charges were different: mine was for “talking too much.”

We were assigned by PLP to work in Long Beach, California. There we sold our newspaper Challenge to navy sailors.

PLP Challenge newspaper

We met and made friends with them, talking about the war, their draft experiences, racism on board the ships, and the need for a communist society. Recently I heard that our work was mentioned in a book by a sailor who wrote about his decision to become active against the war.

About that time my husband and I had a baby, and when she was three weeks old and I was out of town at my brother’s wedding, he unexpectedly packed up and left. He hadn’t agreed with some of my politics so maybe he was overwhelmed by my activities. Or perhaps I was too insistent on his helping with the housework. At any rate, he disappeared completely, and to this day I’ve heard no word from him.

I collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) to support my child and me. Along with other mothers I organized sit-ins at the welfare office when recipients weren’t getting their checks on time or were denied welfare, food stamps or Medi-Cal. We were fighting for our checks and our rights as well as the needs of other welfare recipients. When one person didn’t get her check, then we’d have a sit-in at the welfare office with our babies and diapers until she got her check. We took women with us to demonstrations and meetings, we made friends, and we canvassed the poor housing complexes in order to grow the group. We discussed PLP’s place in the struggle, and communism as an answer to unemployment. We became well known, with many new faces later becoming active in welfare struggles, although they didn’t join the PLP.

A group of us fought to get admitted into the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which would pay for our education. Many of the women were on welfare. When I told them about WIN, they started to cry; they had never thought they would actually be able to go to school. During a day-long sit-in on the floor of the unemployment bureau with our babies, a man told us we had to do “whatever possible” to get enough money to support ourselves. When we asked him if he meant walking the streets, he said, Yes, if necessary. The problem was that only men were considered for education classes to support their families; women weren’t admitted. but we were a multi-racial group and succeeded through our militancy in getting into nursing school and other WIN programs.

I loved nursing and became an LVN. I remember one incident when I was assigned to the communicable disease admitting area. By 11 p.m. we usually closed up the place. A doctor from an upscale hospital was working at White Memorial Hospital to learn about communicable disease. About 3 p.m. a man in jeans and an English sports jacket came in. He’d been bitten by an animal and wanted to know if he had rabies. I was only an LVN so couldn’t give IVs. I asked him what bit him. I didn’t speak Spanish but it sounded like he said a possum. The doctor went to the library to find out if possums ate meat. She came back fuming—it wasn’t in the books. After talking to her, I found out that she was looking up “possum” instead of opossum. By now it was 6 p.m. They do eat meat but we didn’t know what had happened to the animal. The man’s brother had banged it against a tree and thrown it over a fence. His mother wouldn’t put in in the refrigerator.

possom

The doctor called the public health department. A man at a holiday dinner was beeped. He told us to call the pound. It was now 10 p.m. “Well, Ma’am, who is this?…No, our fridge is not for possums, just for cats and dogs.”

The doctor finally convinced him to take our possum. We asked if he could pick it up. NO, we needed to pick it up and bring it in. The doctor called another pound and got the same answer. By this time I was trying hard to suppress my laughter.

At L.A. County General Hospital I joined with other PLP workers. My special problem, though, was that I would try to read the PLP newspaper cover to cover and feel unable to finish articles or read other literature. I would quickly forget what I had read. It turned out that I was allergic to the chemicals in newsprint. The allergy caused a sort of amnesia in me. Because I couldn’t study a lot of the theory of the party, I couldn’t discuss deeper theoretical problems in order to develop party proposals. But I did have influence on issues like welfare, medicine’s role in a profit system, and workers’ problems. We sold the communist newspaper weekly on our outings, and I was often the top seller.

I married a leader of the group. We raised three beautiful children. I later became an RN and organized workers until retirement. I sometimes think back to a talk with my mom when I planned to distribute leaflets about voting in the African-American streets of San Diego; she was so worried. I reminded her that I would soon be 18, and that I would be doing this the rest of my life. I was right.

 

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 1 of 4

31 Dec

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 1 of 4

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, in August of 1948. I would have had a different life if my parents had raised me there rather than in Los Angeles, California, where we moved when I was five. I’m grateful that I was raised in “the Land of Golden Opportunity,” as my father liked to call it, because when I was growing up in L.A. there was a palpable sense that virtually anything was possible. This, in turn, produced an openness to the idea that you could re-invent yourself, which I’ve been wont to do a few times in my life. In addition, an open cultural climate fostered general support for social justice and tolerance for the differences between people.

Despite those advantages, the detailed and true tale I tell here is of a person who struggled to overcome bio-chemical and family-of-origin issues for decades. All of the following events actually happened, and I describe them, to the best of my ability, as I remember them. I am now living a content, fully functional life, but as you will see I almost didn’t make it.

Some Background

From kindergarten on, I had demonstrated artistic ability, which my dad discouraged unless I drew “technical” things like airplanes. “If you try to be an artist, you’ll starve and wind up being a soda jerk.” (Decades later I painted some watercolors and acrylics which were well received. I do plan to start painting again, by the way, for my own pleasure). I was also good at taking things apart and putting them back together, sometimes better than they were to begin with. Starting in Grade 7, I got straight As in all the shop classes the school had. Nevertheless, my dad repeatedly told me that I should plan to go to UCLA to study engineering. “Engineers are getting all the good jobs.” The space race, nuclear power plants, and nuclear bomb delivery systems, along with other cold-war military hardware, were all being heavily budgeted. Clearly he had a point. Besides, he worked for companies such as Litton Industries, and his income had enabled our small family to become solidly middle class. I came to believe that becoming an engineer was my destiny, although I had only a vague idea of what that meant. Dad never told me what exactly he did at work. I suspect that had less to do with national security (Soviet spies were supposed to be everywhere you know) than with vanity, the concern that his son would think less of him if he revealed that he was merely a cog in the military-industrial machine.

By the age of nine, I was aware of civil rights because my father talked about social causes and the liberal agenda of the time. I remember intervening when I saw two white boys calling a black boy (they were all about nine, too) the n-word and threatening to beat him up. I told them that he was a human being just like them and to leave him alone. They looked surprised and left. Thanks to my dad.

My father often spoke about the great historical figures, with whom he was obviously impressed. I acquired my love of history from him, and I’m grateful for that too.

Beginning in Grade 5, I chased high grades. That’s what all perfect sons are supposed to do, right? (I was reminded almost daily that I was expected to be perfect). Perhaps that explains why in the latter part of junior high I elected to take all the “right” college-prep courses and made “Scholarship” in Grade 9.

In the early sixties, mainframe IBM computers began to get media attention (Model 7040, for example). Dad tried repeatedly to instill in me an interest in the emerging digital technology. He seemed to be in awe of what could be done with zeros and ones. The implication was that this “new” digital numbering system was superior to the one I was using at school every day. I totally didn’t get it. To this day, I’m somewhat intimidated by the electronic magic (with all of its 1s and 0s) that goes on inside my laptop.

When comparing me with my dad, people would say that I was “a chip off the old block.” It puzzled me. In actuality, we were so different and never really understood each other. The scary reality, which my father only spoke obliquely about, was that I was more like my Uncle Jack, the troubled sibling of my dad’s generation–the only one of the three brothers who would spend time in prison.

All the talk about getting good grades, going to a big-name college like UCLA, and someday getting a great job meant nothing to me. Whatever I achieved was an attempt to win my parents’ approval by fulfilling their expectations–until I played H.S. football, as explained below.  As the only child of upwardly mobile, materialistic parents, I was showered with toys, most of which I didn’t want and had no use for. I usually felt shame, not joy, when I received these things. I believed I didn’t deserve them because I wasn’t perfect.

By the age of twelve I was aware of the emptiness of the middle-class lifestyle and the sham of the pursuit of the American Dream. I was unhappy with being me, and no amount of potential status in society could change that. I became cynical about what I perceived to be the hypocrisy, especially the seemingly pasted-on religious values, of the adults around me. These people were clearly not living by Jesus’ teachings that I’d been taught as a child in Sunday School. Looking back, I think that the mindless pursuit of materialism in the fifties and its inherent competitiveness by my parents’ generation produced these same sorts of reactions in a significant portion of my peer group, and that this disillusionment necessarily led to much of the radicalism that emerged in the sixties and that still resonates today.

High School: Football Plus Missed Opportunities

My feeling about high school, which I entered in 1963, was that it wasn’t worth a damn. It just seemed to be a social game I could not relate to, a lot of posturing and other “phony baloney.” In contrast, playing high school football was real. Get to the other guy. Push him out of the way so your guy could get over the scrimmage line and make yardage, maybe even score a touchdown. That was tangible, no bullshit involved there. Even the “stunts” we pulled off successfully in games were the result of hard work at practice, not whimsy.

I played both offense and defense, lettering in all three grades. Both of my parents had opposed my playing football. Mother made it clear she didn’t want her “little boy” to get hurt. Dad feared the worst too, but was more concerned that football was another interest, like art, that wouldn’t lead to a good job.

Anyway, about a month after our last game (we had won the Northern League Championship), the assistant coach told me there would be an awards banquet and that I would be awarded the All-League Lineman of the Year trophy. That blindsided me. I said, “Coach, you’re lying.” During the games, I had done just what we’d practiced all week to do. I never had the sense that what I did was special in any way. I didn’t do it for praise (especially from my parents). I did it because it was my job. Being task-oriented in this way would later carry over into my military training and working life, and it seems to this day to be just about the only thing of significance that I got from high school.

At the awards banquet, when called up to the dais to receive the award, I was the only one introduced as “the strong, silent type” and with no humorous anecdotes. Apparently I had spent too much time doing my job and not enough relating to the other players. Nobody knew me, and later in life I would be characterized as being “personality free.” Ouch!

What I failed to understand about social life in the high school microcosm, which I dismissed as superficial and meaningless, was that social intercourse, even the most trivial, is what helps people to pull together to accomplish things that an individual acting alone can’t. Moreover, when people get along and form social bonds, it can be satisfying and add to their quality of life. I was a loner because socializing for long was too stressful and wore me out. It took a change in brain chemistry many decades later for me to understand what I’d been missing. But that’s another chapter in my story, better suited for a different blog.

Women’s Issues

I was quite young when I first became aware of a division of labor. People would say, ironically usually women, “Oh, that’s women’s work.” And I would think, What? That’s a bunch of traditional nonsense. I can do that too. My hands work just as well as women’s hands, and vice versa. Anybody can do these jobs. What’s wrong with equal opportunities for all? We are human beings first. Early on I was adamant about questioning many of the traditions people seemed to follow blindly.

In my early teens I began to formulate definite ideas about women’s rights. It seemed a great waste of human potential that girls often didn’t have an equal opportunity to grow up to be whole people, to have thoughts of their own, to have lives of their own, and to come to occupy positions of power and influence. I saw in my own mother what could go horribly wrong. To me she was an intellectually and emotionally stunted person because she bought into the myth that a woman’s role was to be a fashion plate, to constantly buy clothes, shoes and jewelry, to wear excessive makeup and buy the latest hairdos. Her hero was Marilyn Monroe!

Even as a child, by observing my mother and other women I knew, I sensed that Hollywood glamour was being set up as the desirable model for women everywhere. I was appalled by what I regarded as freakish images of women in various media. I was disgusted by the grotesque, unnatural visages I saw in tabloids, magazines, movies. It was a great relief to me when women, especially the young, began to rebel (to “burn the bra” and reject the polyester) and adopt a more natural appearance. I always wished my mom would “get it,” but she never did.

Politics

Beginning in adolescence, much of my political consciousness came from the Playboy magazines I had access to. There was the part of Playboy that was about sex and skin, obviously. You know by now that I didn’t dig the glamour part but did appreciate the nudity. (Who doesn’t see the intrinsic beauty and sexiness of a naked body?) There was also the “Playboy Advisor,” which was my go-to source for factual information about sexual function, an area of growing interest. Most important, though, was the “Playboy Interview,” where people like Malcolm X could actually tell millions of readers what was on their minds. That’s how my political consciousness was raised! I also read Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report and other publications–anything I could get my hands on.

Suicide Attempt

By Grade 11, I was now in my first serious relationship and receiving flak about that from my parents. The girlfriend apparently didn’t meet their standards–not perfect enough I guess. Truth was, I had the sense that I wasn’t right for her. She had a sunny personality and lots of friends. I was judgmental, morose, and had no friends except for her. Depressed that I would never measure up or amount to anything, I began telling myself (about a year into our relationship) that if I continued to see her I would ruin her life. I allowed my stress to become acute and unbearable. I was used to my parents being unsupportive, so I had no thought of asking for their help. I decided the only way out was to kill myself. That way my girlfriend could go on with her life, free of all my negative energy, and I wouldn’t have to face the consequences of breaking up with her!

I went to the local pharmacy and bought a month’s supply of Sleepeze, which I thought would do the deed. That night before climbing into bed, I took the whole bottle. I left no suicide note, feeling that my parents didn’t deserve one! In the morning I was found in a kind of stupor with vomit all over me, the bed, and the floor. I was alive because I didn’t know that even a whole bottle of Sleepeze wouldn’t kill a healthy person. It would be years before I was to learn about which drugs can actually kill someone, but by then I was self-medicating with street drugs and was no longer suicidal.

Graduation

I pulled myself together emotionally somewhat, stayed in the relationship with my girlfriend (she was so tolerant of my personality deficits and other eccentricities that I later married her), and went on to graduate from high school in June 1966. After she graduated a year later, we broke up for the first time. From then on, seeking something or someone to connect with, I began to drift more and more into the hippie subculture, lured by the sense that it was the breeding ground for new ideas that would save the world, and, perhaps, me as well.

End of Part 1 of 4

Blasting Caps, Musical Challenges, Women’s Rules, and Vietnam. By Kathy Green

22 Nov

davis mesa 2006.with Chuck

Kathy Green was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. After majoring in geology, she became a National Park Ranger for five years. During that time, she met Chuck Kroger [the editor’s brother], whom she married in 1978. They settled in Telluride, Colorado in 1979, where they co-founded Bone (Back of Nowhere Engineering) Construction company. When Chuck died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Kathy and co-workers continued the company’s projects. Kathy enjoys hiking, running rivers, making art (including silk dying), and working for environmental and social justice in her region.

 

I went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. There were only about 2000 students. The students and the faculty were liberal. When I arrived, I found out that Joseph McCarthy is from Appleton and is buried in a cemetery there above the Fox River and near our college campus. It had already been popular for students to go out there and have picnics and dance on his grave. I went to some of those parties and had my own personal vendetta to achieve; Joseph McCarthy had called my grandfather a communist on the U.S Senate floor! Our family considered that an honor. It was ironic to end up at a place where I could dance on his grave.

The administration at Lawrence was afraid of us, that we’d have a riot or something. But we weren’t very active. We did a few protests. Jesse Jackson came to speak to us in 1968 about the election when I was still 17. (I couldn’t vote then; the voting age was still 21. By the time I turned 21, the voting age was 18, and by that time my younger brother and cousin were 18. We all voted together for the first time even though I was older. I thought that was unfair.) We had a lot of black activist speakers come to our college; maybe it was an appeasement by the administration for the fact that Appleton had produced Joseph McCarthy. My education about civil rights continued to develop there, due to the civil rights movement and the war injustices. With Vietnam, the black and Hispanic and poor white kids went in first to the military and war. If you were white and rich, you had options. So in a way Vietnam and the draft were also civil rights issues.

We took over the president’s office once—I forget what our demands were, but we won them. Mostly I think the college administration was trying to protect us from overreacting and doing something horrible, resulting in students getting hurt. We students never got real active because the administration caved in on everything.

We were very concerned about the war. It was coming to a climax, the draft was changing—more rich white kids were needed for the war. The poor kids and kids of color were not enough anymore. I was a senior in college when the lottery occurred. Wisconsin was an “18 state.” (18 to 20-year-old kids were allowed to legally drink 3.2 beer) so our college had a bar in the student union that served 3.2 beer. When the lottery happened, we all jammed into Union Bar to see who got what numbers in the lottery. The lottery numbers were by date of birth. My brother and my cousin got horribly low numbers, but the war ended before they were old enough to be drafted. If you stayed in school you were OK but the minute you got out, depending on your birthday, you were going to war. Either you were number 364 and had nothing to worry about or you were number 19 and in trouble. Therefore many of those demonstrations that were occurring at other campuses were more about the war than about social justice.

Vietnam was the war for the my generation and totally affected everybody. People were planning: friends were trying to gain a lot of weight so they’d be disqualified; others were not eating at all so they’d be too thin; some were plotting to go to Canada; lots of lives were on hold and at risk. A little earlier when I was a sophomore, a guy came back to campus who had been a former student at Lawrence, and he had dropped out, been drafted, and was sent to Vietnam. He was older than most of us by five years. He was in a couple of my art classes. Another woman, Jane, who was also in my art classes, would attack him for going to the war. Why did you go? You shouldn’t have gone. She wasn’t at risk. She was from an extremely wealthy family, and had she been a guy and at risk, her family would have figured out a way for her not to go. This guy wasn’t from that kind of family, and when he dropped out of school and was going to get drafted, his family didn’t find him an alternative. He was left in the lurch and had to go. He didn’t start the war. I thought it was strange that some of my privileged classmates couldn’t sort that out. You needed to be attacking the presidents and the senators and some of your dad’s friends, the CEOs of some major companies. They were the ones making the war happen, not the 18 and 20 and 22 year olds that were forced to go and fight and have their lives messed up forever or lose their lives.

We didn’t understand about PTSD although I knew a little because World War II had affected my dad pretty badly. The opposition to the Vietnam War was more than the draft and the impact of having friends and family go to fight in the war. We, most of the students, felt that Vietnam was a war that the U.S. shouldn’t be in. We, the U.S., were doing the wrong thing.

A lot of changes occurred for women students over the time we were at college. The hours of the girls’ dorm were changed; the 10 o’clock curfew was done away with. Girls no longer had to wear dresses all the time—dresses or skirts had been required even in the winter. (If it was below -20 degrees we had been allowed to wear pants under our dresses.) Now we could wear pants any time without dresses over them. Boys were positively affected as well. They had to wear coats and ties to Sunday meals, and girls had to wear heels. Boys and girls both had to dress up for classes. No jeans. The next year all that went away (fall of 1969). No more dress codes. By the time I graduated in 1972, there were even co-ed dorms. There had been a silly rule that when a boy came to visit, you had to keep your door propped open the size of a trashcan. They had these round metal trash cans that were 16 inches in diameter in every dorm room but everybody was running out and buying trashcans that were six inches wide instead. We were bending all those silly rules.

It was ironic that when I was a senior, the incoming freshmen women didn’t understand that just three years earlier they would have had to put on fancy clothes to go to a meal on Sunday. It was amazing that as young, often silly adults, we already had this sense of history and societal change. The social changes paralleled the political changes that were going on. The women’s movement played a large part in the changes that were made.

So it was my senior year, the last trimester. My girlfriends all told me to take this Early 20th Century Music History class, and that it would be simple and fun with not too much homework. I started the class, and my musical challenge was that I couldn’t tell by listening who we were studying: when played by an orchestra, Beethoven or the Rolling Stones, it was all the same to me. I was like, Oh my God, this will lower my grade average, and what if I want to attend graduate school in a few years? On a long weekend we went on a geology field trip. We were isolated from the rest of the world. When we were in the car, the radio was on and you could hear the news, but much of the time we were cut off. So we were driving home and we heard about Kent State. People had been killed. A huge deal. We were shocked. I arrived back at campus and the next day the administration announced that you could take any class you wanted on a pass-fail basis. The rule had previously been that you had to switch to a pass-fail grade within the first two weeks of a trimester. But I hadn’t realized in time that Bartok, Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones all sounded alike to me and that I shouldn’t be taking this music history class. So despite the horror of Kent State, half-way through the trimester I got to switch to pass-fail. (I was really mad, however, that I hadn’t taken something simple like another math class. But it worked out.)

Flashback to the spring of 1970. I was a sophomore geology major. We took many geology field trips on weekends, especially on long holiday weekends. We’d go someplace and look at rock layers and drive around Lake Ontario, etc. On one field trip we went to an area where they had been blasting, and there were all these blasting caps lying on the ground. The first thing I asked was Are they safe? The tour leader said yes. I think we threw rocks at them just to see, and they didn’t explode.

I thought they were pretty and kind of cool. They were copper things, maybe a half inch or 3/8 inch in diameter, and about three inches long, and they had this piece of colorful braided rope coming out. I recall yellow and red. When there was dynamiting, you’d light the fuse, which is the rope, and it would make the dynamite blow up. Dynamite is dangerous, and we didn’t see any on this trip. but we did see those blasting caps. So I picked up a handful and put them in my pocket. They were intriguing to me on many levels. I thought I might make an art piece out of them.

We returned to school and I kept the blasting caps in my room. I was heading to Germany for a fall school program so I packed my foot locker with things to leave in the basement of the dormitory. I put the blasting caps in there, along with some books and winter clothes, and stored them. I went off to Germany for six months and came home. While I was home in January of 1971, there was a big anarchist explosion in Madison. Since the Lawrence administration was afraid of the students, any time anything would go wrong in Madison and people would get hurt or killed, Lawrence would panic and change things. Just after the Madison explosion, somebody made a threat to our little ROTC program. I heard that the FBI was there looking around Appleton.

I suddenly started to think about those blasting caps in the basement of Ormsby Hall. I went up there in February for an event, telling my parents I needed to go back for a visit because I missed everybody. They bought me a plane ticket. I stayed at Ormsby Hall with my girlfriends who were in school that trimester. I said, Oh, I gotta go down to the luggage room and look in my trunk and retrieve things. So the next morning I went down there early by myself and found the blasting caps, and I put the caps into a paper bag, packed everything back up into the trunk, and went upstairs. I said, I’m going for a walk.

You have to understand that going for a walk in Appleton, Wisconsin in February, it is likely to be cold, although that day I don’t think it was as extreme cold, like -40 degrees, which happened every year. It was probably only -10 or -20: practically mild. I put on my parka and stuffed the bag with the blasting caps into my pocket. I always wore my hiking boots then; it was kind of trendy. I got all bundled up. I went outside and dug around in the snow, found a little rock, and added it to my pocket with the paper bag. My campus is right along the Fox River, which was heavily polluted, so we didn’t hang out by the river much, but the campus is several blocks long, and at each block there’s a bridge across the river. I walked out into the middle of one of the bridges; it was cold and windy and snowing. I got the paper bag out, put the rock in, and crumpled it all up. I decided to use a paper bag instead of plastic because I wanted the caps to erode and go away. I threw it into the river and watched it sink into the water, which for some reason wasn’t frozen. I went back and had some tea with my friends. I told no one.

Years went by and a song came out about Billy Joe throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I had a different interpretation of that song than anyone else had. Every time I heard that song I got a little nervous and looked around to see if anybody was watching me. More recently I’ve heard of blasting caps blowing up spontaneously and causing damage to people or things. I think, Oh my God, what was I doing with them? I really liked them and during college I was enamored with being a revolutionary. I think we all were. There was some magic in that dream. I had really wanted to make a piece of art with them or to use them. I’ll never know if they were truly dangerous.

I got my first real job as a National Park Service ranger. The feds do an investigation into your background, and I never would have gotten the job if I’d been busted with the blasting caps. It wasn’t illegal to have them; they weren’t a controlled thing. Anybody could buy dynamite at that time; there were no regulations. They are definitely bomb-making materials and that step was not for me. I realized that I wanted to read about revolutionaries but not be one.

***

From 1973 to 1977 women’s issues became much more apparent to me. I was a federal employee in the National Park Service (NPS), where you’re not allowed to be an activist about anything and barely allowed to vote (the latter of which I say partly in jest but not really). It was obvious in my short career as a very young adult, that there was a long ways to go to achieving parity for women. Some of the first black female rangers were my roommates during our various training programs. Even today, the NPS is very much a “Good Old Boys” club and male-dominated. Many of the few female rangers of that era were treated badly by some of the men they worked with or for. Many of the women in administrative jobs were really making the parks run well but getting no credit and being paid at a lower wage level than men with the same jobs. One of my male fellow rangers told me that he was giving an incompetent male a good annual review because he had a family to support. Conversely, he was giving a very competent female ranger he supervised a bad review because she was too assertive and really didn’t need a job. She just needed to get married.

The NPS is much more militaristic than I had realized from the outside. The military aspects partially come from the U.S. Cavalry running the parks until the National Park Service was set up 50 years after the first national park. I learned a lot about the military by working for the NPS. One odd thing was that there were all-black Cavalry groups that were major caretakers of some of the parks before the NPS existed. The role and importance of those early black soldier caretakers are only now being recognized and celebrated in the 2000s. Today the NPS has new programs to attract both more diverse visitors and employees. Women of any color are being treated somewhat better today.

When I think back on it, I would say that in my high school and certainly my college years, I was the most conscious of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. After I went to work, I became more conscious of women’s rights and inequities. Flash forward: for 35 years, I have lived in a small remote Colorado mountain resort town and worked in construction. Our town was very lily white when we moved here. Our Hispanic population has increased a lot and we have to face and deal with discrimination and racial issues now. In the resort era of this town, women have played a major role in leadership, especially in government/elected positions. Today, I often wear a dress over my jeans (but by choice). I am used to being a female working in a “male” job—after 40 years.

I really wish I had those blasting caps – I would put them in one of my mixed media groutless mosaic art pieces.  The blasting caps were both very visually interesting and would convey an implied message – like blow up the dams on rivers – which the government is actually doing more and more – it is how you remove dams and restore habitat and bring back fish like salmon.

 

“Reborn” at Berkeley in the ’60s, by B.B.

21 Dec

B.B. lives on the West Side of Los Angeles and is a retired librarian. She studied writing at UCLA and Santa Monica College, and found her style—short, personal essays. She has been an activist since her college years, and is now trying to decide which activities she wishes to pursue in retirement.

 

I come from a liberal Jewish family in Denver, but unlike some kids, I wasn’t a red-diaper baby.In the 1960s I attended UCLA. One of my memories from that time is that women students who wanted abortions had to travel to Mexico. A friend of mine got very sick after an abortion in L.A. When the school board found out why she was sick, she almost lost her teaching job. Earlier that year my roommate, the same woman, came back to the dorm and said, ”There are pills you can take to avoid getting pregnant.” This was an eye-opener and I soon hAbortion Symboleaded to my doctor’s to ask for a prescription. I was nervous that he wouldn’t prescribe them since the idea of women having sex outside of marriage was still not widely accepted. My mother, for example, had said, “There were girls ‘like that’ in my day, too.” However, he wrote the prescription without incident, perhaps resigned by this time to college girls.

I was also involved in feminist consciousness-raising groups and even worried that I’d be too hostile to my boyfriend. After graduating from  UCLA in 1962, I transferred to Berkeley, where I was “reborn.” Berkeley was like the center of the world to me then. Every social movement seemed to be happening there, from women’s issues to sex and drugs, from the student movement to civil rights.

Berkeley Protest
I was arrested at Sproul Hall in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement2 and later spent a couple of weeks in Santa Rita Jail [in Alameda County.]  I could have just paid the fine, as many did, but I wanted to see what jail was like. Bettina Aptheker3 was in there at the same time. The women prisoners slept in  a big dorm and worked at repairing men’s clothes. Jail was interesting. Many of the women were minorities and poor. For us, it was a choice to be in Santa Rita, but not for them.

At the time of my arrest I was a student teacher. Max Rafferty4, superintendent of education in California at the time, denied some of us a credential because we’d been arrested. We took it to court, and through the ACLU and other attorneys we did win our credentials. (I have many of the documents from that court case and was recently asked to donate them to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley, where other Free Speech Movement documents will be housed.) I finished the teacher-training program, but after winning the credential fight, I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher!

L.A. Public Library

I lived in Berkeley almost ten years. I went to graduate school to become a librarian, but there were no jobs. In 1972 my sister urged me to come to Los Angeles. “No way,” I thought, but two weeks later I found myself there. I took my first job at a private, special education school as a librarian. The teachers were all graduate students so I felt as if I was still in Berkeley. (Later I worked at the L.A. Public Library for thirty years—until 2013—and was happy working with a diverse public.)

In 1977 I adopted my newborn son. Medically, it was the right thing for me to do. Although I’d had several serious boyfriends, I was single when I adopted. I loved being a parent. I was friendly with other single women parents and joined single parenting [support] groups.

Notes:

  1.  Red Diaper Baby:  a child whose parents were in the Communist Party U.S.A.

  2. Free Speech Movement: a student protest which took place during the 1964–1965 academic year on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley under the informal leadership of students Mario Savio, Michael Rossman, Brian Turner, Bettina Aptheker, Steve Weissman, Art Goldberg, Jackie Goldberg, and others. In protests unprecedented in scope, students insisted that the university administration lift the ban of on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom.[Source: Wikipedia]

  3. Bettina Aptheker: an American political activist, feminist, professor and author as well as a former member of the Communist Party USA.

  4. Max Rafferty:  Rafferty was an educator who opposed busing, sex education and the New Left. His books condemned progressive education and urged a return to the fundamentals. For example, he wanted schools to focus on phonics, memorization and drill, and to discontinue “life adjustment” approaches from education. Among his controversial actions as school superintendent was his attempt to stop schools and classrooms from using books that he considered obscene, such as Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and Leroi Jones’s Dutchman. He threatened to revoke the teaching certificate of any teacher who used such works. Politically, he was known as a spokesman for the ultra-conservatives. [Source: Wikipedia]

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.