THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“There are really forces out there that want us to go back to where we were, and we’re not going to go back.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, November 2021
BG: My name is Beverly K. Grant. I was born on March 22, 1942, and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I am the third of six children. I was born in Michigan where my mom grew up, because my dad was incarcerated in the State of Washington during her pregnancy and for the first six months of my childhood. He was convicted of selling tires on the black market during the war, which was illegal due to rationing laws.
I stayed in Portland through high school. I had a scholarship to Portland State College, but I dropped out during the first year. I was working 4-1/2 hours a day, maintaining my own apartment, going to after-hours joints during the week where my boyfriend, who was a jazz musician, was playing; and I had no time to study.
It was a time of drug experimentation and also the beginning of dependable birth control. It was 1960, and birth control meant sexual freedom, which I took advantage of.
JW: In your childhood, was there anything that led you to be thinking about the need for freedom?
BG: I was a tomboy. I had a couple of girlfriends who were athletic like me and who I would hang out with. I wasn’t really interested in the games the other girls played. I played paper dolls and things like that once in a while, but I was really more interested in playing softball. That was my game. I also played football until 6th grade, when the teachers told me I couldn’t do that anymore because I was a girl.
I guess that’s when I met my first gender specific obstacle. That was a small glimmer of what was in store for me down the road. My boyfriend and I eventually got married. Around town, we were called beatniks. In 1961 we were driving around on a Vespa scooter. My hair was teased in a beehive, and I wore white lipstick and heavy eyeliner.
I was sexually free, but I was not free in any other sense. My boyfriend, later husband, was not an oppressive guy. I misunderstood him in some ways because I didn’t understand my own initiative and power. I felt like I needed a strong man to curb my independence. I had no strong female role models.
My mother was a housewife. She endured a lot. She raised six kids. We were poor, not dirt poor, but it was not easy for her. I was conscious of our background and how that affected my place in society. I was raised Reform Jewish in Portland, Oregon. My dad was Jewish. My mother was Swedish Methodist. So, there was that. I couldn’t go inside the kids’ house on the corner because they were Catholic, and I was a Jew, a “Christ killer.” There were all these different messages making me feel “other”. We were the poor family at the synagogue. We got scholarships to go to Sunday School, and to attend the high holy day services.
My dad was a gambler. He had an older sister who owned and lived in the duplex that we lived in. She basically supported us. I felt some shame about that. I felt like we were the black sheep of the family.
She paid for college for her sister’s kids but did not do that for me and my siblings. I grew up not wanting to be a burden on my family. I started working a part time job when I was 14, and before that I babysat. I learned clerical skills in high school. I could take shorthand. I could type 90 words a minute, and that’s what got me through life financially. I had marketable skills back. Most of the people I knew my age were in college. I grew up with some sense of inadequacy about the fact that I didn’t have a degree, but I read a lot and studied independently over the years.
I found the women’s movement after I moved to New York with my husband, It was the Big Apple, and that’s where you go when you’re a jazz musician. After a couple of years, I left him and got involved with an African American drummer who became quite successful during the time that I was living with him. He was also extremely male chauvinist and physically abusive.
I remember telling him about a book I was reading, The Second Sex, by Simon De Beauvoir. He grabbed it from me and threw it out. This was around 1964. I left him when he said he didn’t love me anymore. I learned the hard way, from living through the experiences I’ve had. But I don’t have regrets because it made me more aware of what it is like to be Black in America, continually faced with racism while trying to maintain a sense of dignity. He also brought me back a camera from Japan, when he was on tour, and that played a significant role in my life later on.
When I left him, I moved to the Lower East Side, to my own apartment, and I met a young man who was my next-door neighbor. He was younger than me and was from the country of Columbia. We ended up becoming lovers. He was progressive politically. We started going to anti-war demonstrations, and we went to an SDS (Students for Democratic Society) conference at Princeton University in November of 1967.
There was a caucus on Women’s Liberation that some of the women at the conference had called. Pam Allen who now goes by the name of Chude Allen and Kathy Barrett had both been civil rights workers earlier in the 60’s. A lot of the white women who came back from working in the south became founders of the radical women’s movement. They were organizers and brought their skills to the movement.
The caucus met at lunchtime. My boyfriend encouraged me to go. It was a life changing experience for me. I began to understand that my life was an example of a social problem shared by women, something we were capable of changing. Pam called a consciousness raising group meeting, on the Lower East Side in her apartment, a week later.
I went eagerly, and I met Robin Morgan, and Peggy Dobbins and Shulamith Firestone, Anna Kurdt, Kathie Sarachild, Kate Millet, and many more women who would later make up New York Radical Women. We practiced consciousness raising, which was an eye opener. Pam had been a civil rights worker and had a very strong consciousness about race. She was also married to a Black man, which I appreciated, having just come out of my own relationship. I felt an affinity for her because she spoke openly and forcefully about the subject of racial injustice, and our responsibility as white women to deal with it.
New York Radical Women came together when Carol Hanisch suggested that we protest the Miss America beauty pageant. That was something that resonated with everybody. We all grew up watching the Miss America beauty pageant. We began meeting at the SCEF (Southern Conference Education Fund) office, a Civil Rights support group for which Carol was the office manager.
My role in that protest was to write the songs that we sang, parodies like, “Ain’t She Sweet? Making profit off her meat. Beauty sells she’s told, so she’s out plugging it. Ain’t she sweet?” I had played music as a child with my two older sisters. We had a trio and performed around Portland. I played guitar, and the other two also played instruments. I stopped playing when I started a serious relationship with my jazz musician boyfriend/later husband. I felt that what I was doing didn’t measure up, and I couldn’t compete with it.
When I moved to the Lower East Side and had my own place I started playing guitar again. I also joined a filmmaking group called NY Newsreel, a radical documentary filmmaking group made up of a lot of skilled filmmakers, mostly middle class, and college educated. At first I didn’t know how to speak in a meeting. I was afraid I would sound stupid. I listened and I took photos and ultimately started making films.
The first film I made was a film about the Miss American Beauty Pageant protest called “Up Against the Wall Miss America.” Karen Mitnick (Liptak) and I were able to borrow a camera from Newsreel and the group ultimately accepted our resulting film as worthy of distribution.
New York Radical Women was not a structured organization. It was more of a collaboration. There was no one leader. The demonstration in Atlantic City was no one individual’s thing. Different people assumed different tasks based on what their skills were. Small groups planned various actions. Someone brought a sheep draped in a Miss America banner. Peggy Dobbins brought a giant puppet to auction off which she and her husband constructed. I wrote parodies to sing on the bus and on the picket line.
Robin Morgan handled the press. Maybe because of that she was mistakenly labeled as the leader, (which I’ve never heard her contradict) but we had no leader. Other instances of misinformation that live on today: the myth that bras were burned (not true) and that there were 500 people there (also, not true). We had a “Freedom Trash Can” for disposal of symbols of oppression and about 100 participants in the demonstration.
Why is this so clear in my mind? Because I brought my camera and took over a hundred photos of the event, many of which are available on line.
There were women from a group called Radio Free People who the equivalent of today’s podcasts. Back in the day, they used reel-to-reel tape recorders. They produced tapes that were sent to the various radio stations that were broadcasting progressive content.
Carol Ann Jones from Radio Free People brought her Nagra, which was a professional recording device. We had borrowed a 16-millimeter camera from Newsreel. So, we photographed, we filmed, we demonstrated. That’s been my life as an activist, doing media and/or doing music. I’ve been part of what I’ve been reporting on or photographing or filming. I brought back lots of photos, and we brought back footage and the songs that we sang. We also got inside because we were able to secure press passes and Kathie Sarachild and Carol Hanisch brought a Women’s Liberation banner up to the balcony.
They displayed that banner at the appointed time. Peggy Dobbins, who was very active and outspoken supplied us with little atomizer bottles full of Toni Home Permanent Solution, which we called stink bombs, because Toni was the sponsor of the Miss America Beauty Pageant. So, Karen, Meriam Boxer, who was working as a photographer for Liberation News Service, which was sort of a radical Associated Press that serviced the radical press around the country, and me sat in the press section.
We had our little atomizers. Miriam was a very nervous person, and she unscrewed the top and accidentally sprayed me, so we left quickly. Peggy, on the other hand, was sitting in the back on the first floor, and when she took hers out, she got busted. She got charged with spraying a noxious odor.
A couple of weeks later, Peggy went down to Atlantic City for an arraignment. She went down with Meriam and a woman named Marcia Seavy. On the way down, Marcia compared us to the witches of old, who were persecuted and labeled as such because they were independent women. They were the midwives and the soothsayers, the healers. Peggy, with her totally active brain and her background in guerrilla theater, said, yes, let’s start a group called WITCH.
The charges were dropped, but she came back fired up and called some of her close friends. I was one of them and Florika Remetier, and Judy Weston Hoskins.
One thing I want to mention is that there was some regret after the protest. Carol Hanisch, who had suggested it, felt like we did a disservice to the contestants by putting too much emphasis on the contestants, who were mostly in it for the college scholarships, and not enough on the institution. I think we all agreed with that. But I also think it was important because it was the first nationally reported Radical Women action.
JW: Were you also involved in Redstockings?
BG: No. Both WITCH and Redstockings came out of New York Radical Women. Members of WITCH were considered as women radicals. This was how it was characterized. Redstockings were considered radical women. And Redstockings did focus much more on just women’s issues. They still exist as an entity. Kathie Sarachild maintains an archive online of Redstockings. I’ve done several panels with her and with Peggy Dobbins, over the years. Kathie has been resolute in keeping Redstockings going, and there are younger women now who are part of Redstockings.
JW: Tell me more about WITCH.
BG: Our first action was to hex Wall Street. We hexed Wall Street as a symbol of patriarchy and corporate control by the ruling class. We had incantations, “Wall Street, Wall Street, Mightiest Wall of all Street” at the Stock Exchange.. We were dressed as witches, or our conception of what a witch dresses like, and we held the hex on Halloween, 1968.
Across the street from the stock exchange is the federal building, which is like one of those old Greek or Roman looking buildings with big columns and steps going up. It made a good staging area. The Stock Exchange did not. We directed it our hex towards the Stock Exchange. The photos I took show all of these Wall Street guys looking up at us in a kind of bewilderment. We went to Chase Manhattan Bank, afterwards, and we paraded through there and passed out leaflets trying to talk to the tellers and to the female customers until we got kicked out.
Later, other WITCH groups organized. We called them covens. They started to pop up all over the country.
WITCH that was non-hierarchical. It was whoever you want to be, you can be a witch. There were no rules. People picketed bridal showers. They went to TV Studios. By that time, I was on my way out of the organized women’s movement and getting more involved in Newsreel. We had a woman’s caucus in Newsreel, and actually some of the men left because we started making demands about inclusion.
I was growing as a feminist, and as a revolutionary. I didn’t call myself a feminist back then because I associated it with separatism, and I did not want to be a separatist. Now I call myself a feminist. But I did believe that women need their own space to raise their consciousness. Just as other identity groups need their own space to find out who they are without anyone else trying to tell them.
We organized as women in Newsreel and lost some membership. Then we organized around class. That was really interesting because we demanded that film crews have a skilled filmmaker, a semi-skilled and a beginner on each film crew. We demanded that the “haves” share their skills with the “have nots”. We had no other way to learn unless that was done. It was a big struggle and we lost more members.
Ultimately, we started to get more people of color in the group, and they began making their own demands. Today it’s called Third World Newsreel, because back in the early 70’s, the white people were kicked out of Newsreel, basically. I had left already because I had started writing songs and got more involved with music. I spent a total of four years as a member before leaving.
I formed a band called The Human Condition around 1971. I was de facto leader. But I would not say that then. I’ve always had this thing about wanting to be collective. But what I found out over a 20-year span of having this band is that whoever does the work, whoever takes the responsibility is who gets the leadership. The bass player and I actually did the most in that sense. We schlepped the equipment, we got the gigs, we made the arrangements.
I wrote a lot of good songs, as did other members in the band. We started out as a folk-rock band. I wrote a song called I’m Tired of Bastards Fucking Over Me about street harassment. It became very widespread around the country without people knowing I’d written it. People often substituted “fuckers” for bastards when they sang it.
I wrote a song about Inez Garcia, who was a Chicana woman who was raped in California back in the 70’s. She killed one of the men who raped her It was a big issue in the women’s movement. Around the same time a Black woman, Joanne Little, killed a jailer who was trying to rape her in her cell. The songs were about the right to fight back. My bandmates sang this stuff with me. I won’t say they were the most liberated guys in the world, but they were supportive, and they taught me a lot. I taught them as well. We’re still at it, those of us who are still alive and get together occasionally for reunions. I’m going to be 80 next March. I don’t try to hide my age. This is what 80 can be.
JW: After the band you continued to be involved in music and obviously promote women, I assume?
BG: Definitely. I got this wonderful gig with a union women’s summer school. It’s like a Leadership Institute that happens every summer, and it’s made up of women in unions and women in labor education who get together and continue the summer schools that started way back in the early 1900’s at Smith College, where educated women would invite women factory workers to come and live on the campus for a month or so to enrich their lives and be enriched by the workers’ lives as well.
But the newer summer schools started, I think sometime in the 80’s, and I got hired to be their cultural director in 1991. I had a freedom I had never had as a cultural worker before. I had the freedom to design how to use culture in this five-day setting, how to integrate it in the learning experience. I organized a chorus, had a fun night and put on a show about women’s labor history.
I continue to add characters to the show, depending on where I perform it, and travel around with it. I’ve been performing it for over 20 years for different unions, and women’s conferences. I’ve done it for NOW (National Organization of Women) a couple of times, and I have the show in video form on my YouTube channel. I wrote a title song called “We Were There.” It’s available online as well, both the song and the show.
In 1997, I started a women’s chorus called The Brooklyn Women’s Chorus. We are a chorus of about 25 to 30 women. I don’t audition anybody and believe that anybody can sing. It’s been quite an experience to see that actually happen, to see the power of song and how just the act of singing, how it energizes, how it lifts up women. It’s a safe space. It’s a space where women have come in without being able to sing on key and can sing a solo now. It’s made radical changes in women’s lives that have joined the chorus.
The act of singing and finding your voice is quite an emotional thing for somebody who’s been told all their life they can’t sing or to “mouth the words.” I was not trained to do this, but I figured it out. I’m grateful for the experience. It’s been 25 years of meeting every Tuesday night and singing together and playing demonstrations and concerts. But the biggest joy for me is how it empowers women.
JW: Final question, which you’ve kind of answered, but I’m going to ask it anyway, which is, how would you say your involvement in the women’s movement affected your whole life?
BG: The Women’s Liberation Movement influenced my life tremendously. It revealed my power. I feel really good about myself. I live alone. I’m happy. I like being with myself. I’m creative and energetic. I’m getting older, it’s true, and having to deal with some stuff. But so far, I’ve lived on the top floor of a walk-up for the last 40 some years, and I’m still getting up those stairs okay. I feel grateful for having experienced what I experienced. I feel tremendous gratitude for having come up at the time I came up. I feel content.
I think people my age and maybe ten years younger had such an exciting time to live in, a hopeful time. I thought we were making a revolution for real. I thought we were really changing and did change a lot of stuff. I remember the classified ads being segregated from male and female, and I remember having to wear a skirt to work until I once asked my boss, “how would you feel if you had to wear a skirt to work on a day like this?” I also broke all the coffee cups and went and said, “I just broke all the coffee cups.” We’re going to have to get coffee from the cart that comes around every day. They said, “Okay, fine.”
It’s also learning that we have to take charge of ourselves. Nobody’s going to give us our freedom, give us these things that we want. We have to open doors. I think that that’s what I’ve learned. I do worry about women taking stuff for granted. You look at the reproductive health pushback going on, the anti-abortion stuff. We went through that already. How could that happen? They’re out to get us. There are really forces out there that want us to go back to where we were, and we’re not going to go back. We need to ally ourselves with everyone who is fighting against injustice and stand up for all of our rights.
I have a book, just published, called: Bev Grant Photography: 1968-1972 that contains a lot of my photos from those years, including the women’s movement activity. It will soon be available online and in bookstores, but can also be purchased from the publisher online.