THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We will always be working to improve things even in these more difficult times.
Interviewed by Mar Jean Collins, VFA Historian, September 2019
BH: I’m Barbara Helmick. I grew up on a farm in Iowa and I’ve lived here in Washington D.C. since 1978. I was born in 1950; we were a pretty classic middle-class Iowa farm family. My parents were both college educated.
MJC: That wasn’t the usual way.
BH: It was definitely significant, particularly for my father’s side. His father and grandfather attended college and were into understanding the science of farming [which] was unusual. My mom was a schoolteacher and [she wanted us to know] she did not take the first marriage proposal she got; she was going to have a little life under her belt before she settled down. They were both very civic and active in the PTA. I remember going with them to vote. My mom substitute taught after we were born. There were five of us – it was a great upbringing.
MJC: Anything significant before you found feminism? Were [there] things [you were] conscious of? Or ways you thought of yourself as a woman?
BH: There were things that I didn’t know how to articulate. My parents were fabulous, [I had a] really great upbringing but in the frame of the family farm, my father was the fourth generation to farm it. I have an older sister, then there’s me and when my brother was born it was like “Oh there’s your farmer,” that was the time. I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to be a farmer but [I grew] up watching Father Knows Best [with] all the gender stuff.
I remember an episode where they were upset that Princess, the oldest daughter, was more interested in her science class than the prom; father had to step in. We [would] watch the news, I remember watching Walter Cronkite all the time. [I watched] the civil rights movement on the news, [I heard] the deaths in Vietnam reported every night, and [I saw] Oswald assassinated on TV. The Kennedy funeral, the King, the protests, Malcolm X, I didn’t have a way to understand it. Is this what becoming an adult is? [It was] so foreign to what my little world was. It took going to college and getting an education [to be able to] open my eyes and process that.
MJC: Where did you go to college?
BH: Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. It was only a couple hours’ drive, but it was a world away. At the time they had a big recruitment of students from the East Coast. On a whim I went on a weekend tour of Monmouth. There was a big Monmouth booster who lived nearby, and he would take high school students to spend the weekend on campus. I talked my best friend into going with me, she had no intention of going there but she agreed to come with me. I met these young women in the dorm from New York with New York accents, which was different than the Boston accent. I was like this is a whole other world. That was attractive to me and that was the number one reason I picked Monmouth, that exposure to the student body which at the time was a lot of East Coast folks.
MJC: What did you decide to study?
HB: Sociology. There was some introductory class that I took where we read Tally’s Corner, which happens to have a sociologist move into a neighborhood here in D.C. and study the low-income black neighborhood, radical at the time, which blows my mind. It had a really big impact on me – it’s the only book I can remember I read in college. So, I decided I wanted to be a social worker. I entered college in 1968 and by my junior year I felt like I needed to get more of an understanding of the world.
Monmouth was part of what’s called the associated colleges of the Midwest, the ACM. They had an urban studies program where students, many like me, middle-class kids in these small private colleges from throughout the Midwest come to live in Chicago for a semester. My father very sadly died right before my senior year of high school, [he] had a heart attack suddenly and it threw our family income into a little bit of turmoil, enough for me to qualify for a lot of aid. I left college with only a $3,000-dollar debt.
The Urban Studies program was transformative. A brilliant program [with] brilliant people in charge of it taking people who would be exposed to social injustice after social injustice. And then organizing. We met Fred Hampton’s brother, the brilliant, charismatic leader of the Black Panthers who was murdered by the police. We went to Operation PUSH: Reverend Jesse Jackson’s program lifting up the community. The Woodlawn Organization – we met the Berrigan brothers. We were given a list of things to get involved with in the city, we were to be part of the fabric of the city.
MJC: Where did you stay?
BH: We were in apartments in mostly low-income communities. There were two apartments in this one building there [and] about six of us at the corner of State Street and Superior. Right now it’s gentrified beyond belief, but back then, State Street was a hard border. [If you] go east to the lake, beautiful neighborhood, hot restaurants. [Once you] cross over State Street, [it’s] low income – the landlords shut the heat off in the winter. One of our roommates knit hats for us to sleep in because the heat would be shut off. First night there we cut through Cabrini Green; we were too naive to even think about it. And it was fine!
One of the things on the list to do was to go to something called a women’s consciousness raising meeting. I had an idea of what that might be, so I just went off on my own to it. I’m just sitting there [and] they’re talking about feminism, which I’m pretty sure I know what that means. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word before but I’m seeing the context here and I think that’s what I am. [I was able to] put words to that thing I felt when [they said] “Oh you got your farmer now” based entirely on his gender. Or the sports opportunities that boys had. Iowa was pretty good, we had competitive girls basketball and were very proud of it, but still didn’t have as much money put into it and in my school that was the only sport. Basketball was huge in my development; I was a shy person, with my little cohort of girlfriends I was a character, but to be there with people looking at me on the floor!
So yeah my consciousness was raised.
Again, as part of the Urban Studies program we were to get involved in some organization in the city. One of the things that you could do was work with an organization that would take calls from women who needed an abortion and they helped them get to New York. This is ’71 and wasn’t legal anywhere in the Midwest, certainly not Illinois. I’d been raised Catholic and I don’t even know how did I know what an abortion was, but I did.
Ironically I would go sit in a cathedral, right at State and Superior [it’s a] beautiful church [almost] designed to meditate and have big thoughts. It’s quiet and cool and I had to think about this. What do I think about abortion, particularly upon learning of all the issues that come with abortion? I decided I would take that as one of my assignments [at] the Urban Studies Program.
It impacted me in so many ways. One of them was just reinforcing what education can do, what building perspective can do. It was a fantastic experience and really set me on my path of activism.
And just to give you an idea of where I was and was now going: I’d been active in my sorority at Monmouth, we didn’t live in separate houses, we all lived in the dorms. The men with their fraternities had their own houses.
As a shy gal it (sorority) really helped me integrate into a broader community. So, I came back and I was supposed to be president of my sorority. I said I would do it, but I thought we should be coed now since I’d suddenly become feminist. And the sorority is like, well that’s kind of a big deal, why don’t we just have the vice president. I said that’s great, that was fine.
Also, part of this was the sexual revolution that was happening and the realization that you could enjoy sex if you wanted to. Consent was important of course. A lot of my friends were indeed sleeping with their boyfriends, but we didn’t really talk about it, we’re still a little bit in that is it a sin or not?
I announced I was organizing a trip to the Planned Parenthood over in Burlington Iowa and anybody who wanted to come along, could. We brought it out in the open. There were things to do on campus as well as some anti-war protests still going on. Women had to live in dorms and there was this really cool dorm that was like a Holiday Inn in that there weren’t hallways and you had balconies. It was the men’s dorm. We organized protests that it should be coed, and we did win that one.
I went back to Monmouth, graduated and I did get a social work job working with the Job Corps Center in Davenport Iowa. We were to teach our young women, most of whom were truants, [or] shoplifted. The Job Corps program helped give low income kids, in our case girls, skills to get on a good life path. We were to have a civic education, so I taught organizing. When it came down that Congress was going to cut the funds for the Job Corps, there were already fewer [funding] nationally for young women than men, and they were going to cut more women’s, so we organized a protest and went and spoke at some forums. We were not successful in keeping ours going – I was laid off.
I had some friends from the Urban Studies Program who had gotten an apartment in Chicago and decided I would look for work there and move back to Chicago. There was an ad in the paper for “Activists”. This was [around the time when] the Tribune stopped dividing jobs by gender. I was just starting with the A’s. What’s in the paper? Which is how you looked for jobs back then. So, there’s this job for activist and I think that’s what I am. I know I’m a feminist now so I guess I could be an activist. It was for a group called Citizens for a Better Environment. I’m like what can I say I’ve done for the environment? We only just learned we have an environment and that we were messing it up!
It was a canvassing job to go door to door and raise money. The office was set up by the guy who invented the idea, Marc Anderson, an unsung hero. He’d come up with this idea that you could hire people, train them on an issue and get them to go out into the suburbs which in 1973 was still like “enemy” territory. Go out and get complete strangers to give something they love, their money, to you. This was really radical. When he came up with the idea and met with activists of the day, [it] was hard for them to process. People just didn’t get it. But fortunately, Marc Anderson had one of the most important organizing and canvassing skills: do not take rejection personally.
He persevered and Citizens for a Better Environment said let’s try this crazy idea, we don’t know if it will work either, but what the heck? When I was hired in the fall of ’73 they’d been canvassing for two years and had worked out training manuals and CBE had continued to grow and be successful in their environmental work. It was the only office of its kind. The thinking when I first started was that this is a good thing to do for a while. Maybe you’re going to get your social work job or there are some people who hoped to become actors or whatever; there was a guy who just came back from Vietnam, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. And it was a hoot, I thought this is fun, are you kidding me, to go talk to people about an important issue? Sure!
MJC: The shy kid is out of her shell.
BH: Then enters Heather Booth also organizing in Chicago. She heard about CBE and she was busily organizing a community citizen consumer network of organizations that had been working on building people power at the community level and many of them were ready to take on statewide issues and bigger campaigns. They needed way more visibility and they needed way more money. She heard about this canvassing thing. So, she would come and do briefings to the canvassers.
A classic thing that you do is get pumped up before you go out, have a motivating, inspirational person come talk to you. That would be Heather Booth! I would be there like who is this person? Oh my gosh, this is so amazing I can’t even absorb it. So, she asked Marc [if he thought] you could go door to door on utility rates because they were skyrocketing in the mid ’70s. And he said, “Yeah I think so.” I’m in this meeting because he was very much about developing people. So I’m sitting in this meeting with Heather Booth (while I didn’t realize at the time what a rock star she was, you could clearly see she was something!)
I’m like I’ve never paid a utility bill. I don’t know if I could get people in the same way. We were canvassing on setting up recycling centers. We’d bring up the “Did you hear about that river in Ohio that caught on fire? This is why we need to do something as simple as recycling.”
I definitely picked up that this is about really building power now. Some of that I learned in the Urban Studies program – that you organize people to lift up their voices so that they have power. It turned out you indeed could go door to door, and help build up what became the Citizen Action network of organizations. That led to another pivotal moment in my career, my development and my feminism.
[There was a] social worker job that I thought I had a good shot at getting because I literally had a half a dozen interviews with them and it came down to me or this other gal. They couldn’t decide which one and they flipped a coin. I like to say I won the flip. Because they picked her. Had the flip gone my way I would’ve taken that social work job and had a very different life. But as it was I was like okay I’m going to stick with this canvassing thing for now, it’s starting to get interesting. The opportunity to open offices was now on the horizon. We were opening two new offices, we were going to go from our one to three (offices), and Marc Anderson said, “I’d like you to be the Canvass Director of one of them.”
I thought, wow, this takes this to another level. This is a real commitment. Do I want to do this? [I weighed] all the pros and cons. And was like, I have to. Because if I don’t, I know who’s next in line. I already know who’s going to get one of them, is a wonderful man and I know who’s behind me if I don’t take it, it’s going to be another wonderful man. And there are going to be three male canvass directors in this brand new profession that is showing everything that it is going to become a career path. I had to. I was happy to do it but that was what tipped me to say absolutely I’m going to become a canvas director and help build this profession of canvassing. That’s what I devoted my career life to ever since.
MJC: You did some work on the ERA in Illinois. Do you want to talk about that?
BH: Yes! I’d been involved with the canvassing, setting up offices around the country, helping build this community-citizens movement. In ‘78 a very good friend of mine asked, “If you could do canvassing for any issue what would it be?” I said, “I don’t know – the E.R.A.,” and we laughed. But my friend Betsy Reid went to Heather [Booth] and said we think we’d like to do this for real. We don’t know people in the women’s movement. We don’t even know if this will work but we think we’d like to try it. Some of our colleagues in the community movement initially were like “Oh no way, it won’t work. It’s way too narrow of an issue.” So, then we’re like we are so doing this. We will do whatever it takes to make this work now.
But again, canvassing was new. It was still this radical thing. You had to hire accountants and many of these organizations were scruffy, grassroots. It had a huge impact on the movement. We knew you could canvass on the environment and you could canvass on some utility issues, but could you canvass on the Equal Rights Amendment? It was unknown. It was not an illegitimate question; it was illegitimate to dismiss it out of hand. We thought we could do it. Heather introduced us to the National Women’s Political Caucus. It had new leadership – the president was Millie Jeffrey, [an] amazing labor leader. [She was] one of these power gals: tiny, full of energy, [a] crackerjack, feminist and [incredible] for a woman of her age to be a labor leader [with] nothing but a positive attitude.
Jane Pierson [McMichael] had been hired as the executive director also [a] feminist through and through, gifted leader. They both were like Yeah! We’re brand new in taking over the leadership of this organization, we love this idea. Heather remained a consultant for us on how to get the whole thing set up. The National Women’s Political Caucus set up what they called the E.R.A. fund and that’s the umbrella we canvassed under. Our strategic thinking was we would go to ratified states and raise money with an idea of we all lose if we don’t get three more. Betsy and I recruited a couple of our pals from the canvassing world and we decided we would set up the offices primarily in the East Coast because the states were closer together and one of our friends lived in northern New Jersey. That was Jean Otersen who went on to a brilliant career organizing nurses in New Jersey.
We opened our first office in Fort Lee, New Jersey and it was amazing. Our experience hiring people to canvass for the lower utility rates or the environment, it was a pretty good job in the ’70s to have. Back then, it was more than the minimum wage, which was livable. It’s a pretty good job but you had to work, and it isn’t easy fundraising, for everybody. We broke down the skills, [there were] a lot of people who thought they’d never succeed [and] did because we were able to train them. But you worked hard to find people who could respond to the skills and be successful. So, we open up this office in Hackensack and it was a whole different labor market that responded: young women.
One of our first people was a 17-year- old who had gone to an amazing high school, she lived in Kenya for her junior year, and she came and canvassed after she got out of school her senior year. On her graduation night she took a crew out to turf, went to graduation, and then went and picked her crew back up. I mean just real commitment. We had people from New York City who were willing to commute to Fort Lee New Jersey to do the job. We’d never seen folks like this, young women in particular, lots and lots of them were like we would not have answered that activist ad for other [causes]. We are bringing a whole new generation of canvassers who are largely female.
Then we opened up an office in Manhattan; we knew we had a big labor market there. At that time, you could put your clipboard in a New York Times fold of the newspaper and at 5:00 o’clock just follow people going home and canvass inside the apartment buildings. We also went out to Long Island and Westchester County. We went all over the place. Then we opened up an office here in D.C. and I came down here thinking I would be here just long enough until we opened up our next office in Philadelphia. But it turned out by then we had developed enough leaders that we could staff Philadelphia with one of our indigenous, ground-up persons. I didn’t need to move there so I ended up living here, [that’s] how I became a D.C. person.
The E.R.A. canvass had many levels of a big impact. One is we raised three million dollars for the fight [which] as we know was not enough. If I did it today we would have canvassed in the unratified states, but we didn’t know how to do that. Nonetheless we raised a lot of money and it did help. It also had a huge impact on the profession of canvassing. As we headed into the deadline of the E.R.A. we had these four offices all with canvass directors.
When 70-80 percent of the people who answer your ad and succeed are women, most of your managers are women and most of your directors are women because that’s where the pool is. We were very intentional about developing political activists. We didn’t use the word intentional back then. We regularly had briefings on other issues of the day and how they’re all connected. Clean Water Action, founded by the wonderful, late, great David Zwick, was also just starting their canvassing program and we would do trainings together.
David was multi- issue: it’s organizing, it’s building people power, pick your issue, we’re a team. We would do what we called cross training, where if you were going to become a manager you needed to go work in one of the Clean Water offices for a month. It really helped your canvassing skills because it separated you from “I’m good at canvassing because I love of the E.R.A. and that’s my personality, or that’s just my issue.” And then you go work on a completely different issue and all of the skills really pop out where you see how they apply. And you learn we’re on the same side of the fence here with the same kind of issues.
MJC: Early intersectionalism.
BH: Yes again, didn’t call it that, but that is exactly what it was. Some of our directors went to the Midwest Academy trainings, we went to some of their Midwest Academy retreats where people got exposure to the big picture.
Time was running out in the E.R.A. and we would have loved to have continued working on women’s issues. But the National Women’s Political Caucus had a change in leadership, and they wanted to take the organization in a different direction after the E.R.A. Heather arranged for us to have a meeting with Ellie Smeal. Her view, not unreasonable, was: I’m able to recruit tons of members and raise a lot of money through direct mail and this canvassing thing can be messy.
It is; you’re hiring and all kinds of people, all kinds of things can happen in a big grassroots operation like that. You do need to be devoted to it. She didn’t feel that NOW was in a position at the time to take it on. Meanwhile, we connected with you [Mary Jean Collins] and you all were interested in doing a project, so we assembled a team of our E.R.A. canvassers and sent them to Chicago to do a canvassing project there. So we did that project.
We had all these leaders and Heather came to us and said she was organizing a new national effort to get these community groups I had been working with in the ’70s, setting up their canvasses, to form a national coalition and to be in coalition with Labor. Radical idea.
She was struggling to get everybody on board; that this was a good direction to go. She said if you could canvass on a national issue, I think that would help everybody be more comfortable that we indeed could do this. We’re going to take on big oil, we’ve gotta up our game on who we’re going after. And by now Reagan’s been elected, we’ve got to have bigger coalitions. So, we said okay, we’ve got this team, we train them on all our issues, we are all in the same camp. We did have to work on some of our feminist leaders who were a little like these labor guys?
MJC: A culture clash.
BH: But yeah we helped get the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition off the ground with these feminists, primarily female, leaders. It was the early ’80s, how many women were running, organizing, progressing anything? Being part of the canvass was a wild thing already. And then to have this whole branch of mostly women, why? If you look at our history, which is like two years old, we were doing the E.R.A., of course it’s mostly women. It’s not a stretch to say we have a gift for you. In the same way that I made the decision of I’m going to stick with the canvass so that right off the bat we have a female feminist, a woman role model, I said you’re going to start this new Citizen Labor Energy Coalition, you need someone here along with the amazing Heather Booth, and there were other amazing women. Here is a big piece, led by women. So, we helped get canvassing programs around the country for the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition (CLEC).
MJC: Did you stay with the Coalition?
BH: Yes. We evolved into the Progressive Action Network where we had our own organization that provided canvassing services to a number of organizations. There was a point in the campaigns where CLEC kind of became Citizen Action [and] decided to work in coalition with Clean Water and other environmental groups on the Superfund, one of the most significant pieces of legislation that the grassroots movement helped pass. Canvassers for Clean Water, canvassers for the Iowa Citizen Action Network and others like that around the country were all canvassing on the Superfund. It was one of the last times you could have a petition have an impact on Congress. We had a big flatbed truck travel around the country picking up all the petitions that canvassers had collected.
MJC: So, they asked for money, but they also got signatures.
BH: Yeah, sign down, sign down, pass the Superfund. Then we taped them together and unfolded them down the steps of the Capitol building. [It was] a place where canvassing was a key part of the campaign.
In building canvassing programs, we ended up doing one for Minnesota NARAL. This was in the mid ’90s, by then we could go door to door for the National Abortion Rights Action League and raise money and find good enough supporters to make it a good campaign. [I] continued doing that work up until 2009. It was great.
MJC: So that’s 10 years ago. What’s transpired in the last 10 years for you?
BH: I did a couple of different things. I worked with USAction on their Pentagon Peace Campaign. There was a vision [that] every progressive issue has an interest in having a more reasonable Pentagon budget. There’s so much waste in the budget, we spend way too much money on the military. I worked for a while on that, [it] was great and interesting, unfortunately [we] did not quite get it to where we needed it to be. For a while I worked with the U.S. PIRG: the Public Interest Research Group that’s now known as The Public Interest Network TPIN. They had also done a lot of canvassing over the years and still do. It was particularly interesting to me as I was at the Big Bang of canvassing so that was stimulating work with them and their canvass program.
Most recently I have been working to make DC become a state. I started in 2015 where I went to DC Vote, the one big paid operation here in town that worked on autonomy issues for those of us here in DC. For any viewers [and readers] who are unaware: 702,000 people now live here, have taxation without representation and Congress can change any law that our local district council passes. For example, today Congress will not let us use our own tax money to pay for Medicaid abortions. We’ve had to set up a private non-profit as a place for women locally who can’t afford an abortion on their own to go to. They don’t turn anyone away. And now people are coming from all over the country. We we’ve put a patch through, it’d be way easier if we could just do it through Medicare, but that’s the kind of thing that Congress won’t let us do.
I felt that our statehood movement, we needed an organizing strategy. [I thought] I’m going to start with D.C. Vote and the first step you need to do is canvass, you need to build up your base. You need to fire up your base. You’ve got to get people in touch with this is messed up, this is un-American, it’s discrimination. So, we got the canvassing going and then in 2016 our mayor, a woman leader, introduced the plan that the District of Columbia could become a state the same way that every other territory did. There are three steps to that: You declare your boundaries; you write a state constitution and you petition Congress and the president signs it. All thirty-seven states as territories became states that way.
We’ve been referred to here in the district as a territory, so that’s what we’re doing. We had a referendum in 2016 passed by 86 percent, the highest voter turnout we ever had. We’ve got legislation in front of Congress, which again for our listeners, important to know, there will still be a federal capital. It’s the part that everybody thinks of as the capital with the three branches of our democracy. That will still be our capital and all the commercial and residential areas around it is what will become a state.
I do feel that one of my accomplishments has been to bring the statehood movement to the point where we are today: coalescing behind a strategy. Changing how we frame the issue: taxation without representation is wrong and anyone who thinks our democracy is a good idea, which it is, has a dog in this fight. It is wrong, it should be fixed. We talk about it as voter suppression, because it is! [It has allowed] other organizations fighting voter suppression in other parts of the country [to see] it’s the same fight.
We are going to have a vote in the House early next year – we already have enough supporters to pass in the house and our plan is to be ready after the 2020 elections. Many think we’ll have a friendlier Senate and president [so we’ll be] at the door with all our ducks in order including that our legislation would be passed with a simple majority in the Senate like every other territory. It’s one of my accomplishments.
MJC: What other issues have been on your radar?
BH: Well certainly LGBTQIA. Along with those early days in the broader citizen movement, not only was having a canvass program that was primarily female, we had a lot of lesbians, too. In the ’70s and ’80s canvassing was a home for people who didn’t fit the office jobs or factory work. That was the economy, those were where the jobs were. I was part of, and a lot of the allies were game: “You are gay and you look it and that’s fine. Come on in.” Word would go out in the communities [to] go work with Illinois Citizen Action, it’s ok to be queer there. It was a good place to be and we kind of had a corner on a labor market.
By ’92 when Clinton got elected, the economy had turned into more of the retail and service industry. Now the coffee shops were getting in on that labor market. It was a big success that as that sector of the economy grew we promoted women, it’s OK to be gay, we’re down with that. Canvassing was a part of what made that happen. By ’92 for the profession of canvassing, those places could pay more than we could for canvassing. It was a tough time for the industry of canvassing to survive. Plus a lot of the organizations that we were working for liked Bill Clinton or we don’t totally like him but we [didn’t have a clear enemy we were fighting which] helps recruitment. So, it got to be a little bit of a tough time there with the canvassing. But where was I?
MJC: I think we were going to talk about the LGBT stuff.
BH: Yes, I remember an early Midwest Academy retreat, the first time Labor was there, it was one of the first times that beyond the canvassing ranks that some of us gay people [said] let’s announce a meeting [for] anybody here who’s gay. Initially the Academy staff was like, let’s just not do that, being this is the first time Labor is here. But one of the staffers reminded them they trained these people. These are Midwest Academy trained people. What do you think they’re going to do if we say you can’t have your meeting? It was radical. They survived, and we had our meeting. It was all fine.
I was active locally with the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. One of the ideas that the woman president came up with at the time, Karen Armagost, was that we needed to get more involved in the fabric of the District government and encourage gay people to think about running for their Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission is an elected position that when Congress finally allowed us to have a kind of self-government, they included that we would have a council, a mayor, and these elected neighborhood positions. It came out of a particular Congress person from Minnesota.
Before we had our District Council you had to get Congress to approve anything that needed to be done, including the park across the street from where I live now. It was a pile of dirt. When I first moved here a developer was looking at it to put another big high rise. The neighborhood organized, they documented how little green space there was in this part of the District and they had to lobby all of Congress to approve this postage stamp size but beautiful, wonderful green space that we love so much there.
One of the Congress people was so impressed by that, he wanted to see it be incorporated in, now that we have some self-government. We have these positions called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, you represent 2,000 people, based on the population of each of our eight wards there’s something like six to eight of these commissions. The Gertrude Stein club said we should get some gay people to run for those. It’s an easy and important way to be visible. There were lots of issues on gay bars that local and advisory neighborhood commissioners were tackling. We need a voice at that table. We still had sodomy laws on the book as creepy as it is to even think about that.
I was like alright I’m game. I’ll run for my advisory neighborhood commission. I’d never been to a meeting; I’d never heard of them before this thing, but I know what to do: canvass my two thousand future constituents. I ran in ’88 and won and ran again in 1990. I was very visible as an out lesbian.
With the canvassing job, running the Progressive Action Network, we would hold an annual summer canvasser conference [where] we invited other networks of canvassing programs. We’d have like five hundred people. The brilliance of canvassing is finding people who number one need a job and also others who want to do something political. A lot of people needed a job for the summer, and this is an outdoor job, right? You have this community of people who are devoted to training and developing you – it’s a hoot. We’d have people who had not yet had all of their consciousnesses raised but that’s the game. Come on in.
MJC: It becomes political education for the generation.
BH: We would have what you would think of as these young fraternity boys. Nothing wrong with that. People who didn’t have a lot of exposure and they were canvassing on the environment or utility rates and then here comes this crowd that they’re doing that too but it’s mostly women leading it and a lot of lesbians. We would hold a caucus at these canvasser conferences and there would be people down the hall waiting to see who was going in. So again, just another contribution we could make.
One of the things we did one year when the Harvey Milk documentary had been made. It happened that his nephew was a canvasser in our office here in D.C. He was kind of coming to terms, he was just out of college when he was canvassing with us, coming into understanding the world and beginning to have an appreciation along with all the rest of the country of the amazing individual that Harvey Milk was. We happened to have him on our canvassing staff, and he showed leadership, we’re developing him.
We went to the other canvass networks who were going to be at that summer’s canvasser conference and said we want to show the Harvey Milk documentary. Number one, it is a film about organizing. It’s about coalition building, how he worked with Labor to get elected. There are canvassing scenes in the documentary, in fact a canvasser I developed is in that movie. So, this was perfect. And it raises consciousness on the gay rights movement.
The other organizers initially said no but we stood our ground and we showed that film. We were at Oberlin in the chapel and it was packed to the gills and had these wonderful huge windows. It was the evening program, so the early evening light is streaming in as we start the film and it’s introduced by Stewart Milk, Harvey’s nephew. You could feel it as the sun was going down, the consciousness was rising. The other organizers at the conference immediately came up to me afterwards and were just like Thank you. You were so right. Thank you thank you thank you. So, there are things in my role I was able to do, and I have to give a shout out to the team that I worked with.
People like Liz Blackburn who was one of the first wave of canvassers we hired with the E.R.A who became a canvass director and stuck with us in the transition to the CLEC years and is now hanging in there at the Environmental Protection Agency. Kate Peyton was 19 when she came to help us get our E.R.A. canvasses going and was 19 when she opened the New York City E.R.A. office, critical in building up our work. There were a number of strong feminist women and men that I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if it wasn’t for.
MJC: So, you took advantage of some of the changes in the gay rights world?
BH: Yes. First there was the domestic partnership stuff. The District Council passed legislation to expand the definition of family for the purpose of health insurance. They said any District employee could declare their gay spouse or if you’re a grandparent raising a grandchild that you can put that child on your health insurance. Very progressive, taking a critical step in making health care as universal as the District government could. Congress wouldn’t let the district implement it, so it was on the books for like 10 years just sitting there unable to be implemented.
But then as the fight went on for marriage equality, my home state of Iowa was the fourth state and first through the courts. The Iowa Supreme Court said fair’s fair it’s in the state constitution, anybody can marry anybody they want. My proposal to my lovely now-spouse was, “Honey we have to get married, but we have to go to Iowa and have a wedding.” Her response was, “No we don’t.” I convinced her saying, “We’ll be the first in my home county to go down in history as the first same gender couple.” So she’s like, “All right.”
I’m from that feminist generation. Marriage was not always the best deal for women, back then. But this was an organizing opportunity. I have friends and family that I’ve stayed in touch with back home that I would like to give an opportunity to go to a gay wedding and find out that it’s [just] a wedding. It’s another visibility opportunity. So, we told our friends here [D.C.] this is not a destination wedding, as much as many people do think Iowa weddings are. Fortunately a bunch of them said we don’t care that you have not invited us. We are coming.
Thank goodness they did, because it was a Do It Yourself wedding to a large degree. There was a conservation site that had benefited from the Obama reinvestment campaign of 2008, they were shovel ready and they had some funds to doll up this site devoted to conservation. It literally was surrounded by cornfields, just a lovely spot. [It] was promoted to us when we went to the county courthouse which is in Wapello, Iowa that to pull a marriage license a couple needs to bring an individual that will vouch for their sanity. One of our very good friends came along with us and it was a new county clerk and I didn’t know anybody who knew her – I didn’t have any intel.
I said to Tiana it’s already been in the news and all the county clerks have to do this. I think we should be prepared for “Iowa-nice”. They will be efficient; they will give us what we need to get and might not be friendly. So not really trepidation, but we walk in, three women, here to apply for a marriage license. There was this moment of silence and then, excitedly, “We’ve been waiting! Everyone’s been asking us, has anybody come in? This is so great. Oh, where are the forms?!” and they’re fluttering about. They started making suggestions on where the wedding should be and one of them was at this conservation site. I need to rent a tent in case it rains. Do I tell the tent people what’s going on? But I was like fair is fair as was ruled by the Supreme Court of Iowa. I got my credit card ready to reserve the tent and they said they didn’t need it. Now I know this is Iowa where I am to trust you and you are to trust me that I will pay but a little bit of me is worried that when you find out it’s a gay wedding that you’re going to bail. But nobody did – it was wonderful.
MJC: What year was that?
BH: This was 2009. September 19, 2009. Our ten year anniversary is coming up.
MJC: Have we missed anything? Things you want to highlight that you’re proud of or things that distress you?
BH: Of course, we’re all distressed by this state of affairs in our nation right now. We need to keep our organizing skills sharp and do everything that we possibly can. Progress is constant so setbacks are constant. We will always be working to improve things even in these more difficult times. Having friendships and networks of support, a big shout out and thank you to my family. They certainly rode through that early period of what is this “feminist thing”? What happened to Barbara? They came through that and then this “lesbian thing”, they came through that and then almost as bad “vegetarian”. I have a fabulous family; the support is great. All of them don’t agree with all the issues but we’re a team and we stick together.