THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman
“I Have a Reputation for Stirring Things Up.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, July 30, 2020
KR: Kathy, thank you so much for being willing to be interviewed for the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Tell us your full name, when and where you were born, and your family background.
KMK: My name is Kathy Marie McMahon Klosterman, I was born in March 1948 in Providence, Rhode Island. I lived in a triple decker house where my grandparents lived upstairs as did my maiden aunts. My grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. I have one sister and I have one first cousin, and he also lived with us on and off periodically.
KR: And what was your life as a child like: your family, your growing up experiences?
KMK: My parents were teachers. My father was a high school mathematics teacher and later was the State Superintendent of mathematics for Rhode Island. My mother was a home economics high school teacher, but when I was young, she was the dietitian for the Rhode Island School of Practical Nursing, so I saw a working mother. She also taught adult evening sewing classes – my sister could sew really well and my mother was an extraordinary seamstress.
My father ran a summer camp for boys back in the 1950’s called Legion Town for underprivileged boys in the summer sponsored by the American Legion. I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through my master’s. I went to an all girls Catholic high school, (St. Patrick’s High School) which was very small, and I went to an all women’s Catholic college (Salve Regina College in Newport, Rhode Island).
I did my master’s degree at Boston College and my Doctorate at the University of Cincinnati and that was the first time I had been in a non-Catholic school. I was so well conditioned that when the bell rang, I blessed myself and I was in a doctoral seminar for probably two months before I realized I was doing it. Then I was mortified. I was completely embarrassed that I probably had been doing that every time I heard a bell.
KR: Then after you finished school, what did you do next?
KMK: I taught in Salem, Massachusetts, and then in Newport, Rhode Island, as a public school teacher in special education. But I precede that with a little story from when I was in an all women’s college. That was at the time of Vatican II, Vietnam and the women’s movement. And Dolores Huerta came – she was doing an East Coast tour at that time in the ’60s, largely at Catholic colleges. And I remember I didn’t know until about a year ago that it was Dolores Huerta.
My memory was there was a woman who came from California and she talked about Cesar Chavez a lot and the grape boycott. One of the things that I remember this woman saying is that there were no toilets in the fields so when women had their periods, they had nowhere to go to clean themselves or take care of themselves. How embarrassing and difficult that was, that’s what stood out for me. She then told us what we could do.
I was a college kid. What we could do was boycott anywhere that sold nonunion grapes; we could write to our elected officials and we could picket stores that sold non-union grapes. Several of us went up to our local grocery store that sold nonunion grapes and picketed for weeks. They would have the bag boys come out with grapes and eat them in front of us or throw the grapes just to taunt us for picketing them. That had some influence on me.
When I was a junior in college, it was about February of 1968. I was planning to apply for law school, and the only place in Rhode Island they gave the LSAT was at Brown University, which was all male at the time. It was early Saturday morning: you had your card, no photos. I was in line with probably two hundred kids waiting to get in and there might have been maybe eight females, of which I was one. I still was naieve and oblivious, I think, to what was going on, being at an all women’s school.
A group of four young men came up to us and said, “If you go to law school and you take my seat, then I’m going to Vietnam, and if I go to Vietnam and I’m killed, my blood is on your hands. You need to understand what you’re doing if you decide to go to law school. And take my seat.” What’s surprising to me, to this day, is I went in and took the test anyway. I took the test and got accepted at a couple of schools. This is what leads to activism, this kind of stuff.
I got into Boston College for law school but at that time, the dean of the law school had a one on one interview with each student admitted into the law school. So I got a ride up to Boston – I didn’t have a car. The dean was a very, very pleasant fellow. He said to me, “you did very well on your law boards for a girl.”
At the time I understood that was supposed to be a compliment, but I didn’t like it, it made me feel irritated and I didn’t know why. I didn’t have the language for it and I ended up not going to law school. I went on and got my doctorate in education instead. Years later I went back and took law boards again, thinking I still might want to go to law school. I’ve wondered if maybe that day at Brown University may have had an influence, maybe that’s why I didn’t go to law school and I went into another graduate program instead – I don’t know.
KR: Why did you think you didn’t go to law school?
KMK: At the time, I had a very nice fellowship for study in special education because they needed special education teachers. So I would have said I had a fellowship that I didn’t want to give up, but who knows.
KR: What did you end up getting your doctorate in?
KMK: Special education and psychology.
KR: After that, did you go to work?
KMK: I did. I taught in Salem, Massachusetts. I had all boys, in my class, children with severe emotional disorders. The public school did not want these troubled boys in the public school. I was actually housed in the basement of a church that was diagonally across from the judge’s house for the Salem witch trials. I always thought that was ironic because the boys in my class would have been burned as warlocks – these kids had some real challenges.
Then I moved back to Newport, Rhode Island, and taught special education classes with children with severe mental retardation (the language of the day) and lived with two other Salve Regina friends. One was a wheelchair user and back in the day it was no easy task to find housing that we could get a wheelchair into and a wheelchair turned around in a bathroom. It was not easy in 1971, but we did find that and I taught there for two years and then came to Ohio to get my doctorate and thought I’d be here briefly and head back to New England, and that was 47 years ago.
KR: But you kept the accent.
KMK: Oh, did I? I thought I modified it, although probably talking about the old days I come back to it.
KR: How did you get involved in the women’s movement?
KMK: When I was starting work on my doctorate, I saw a newspaper piece for a women’s consciousness raising group and I joined it. It was sponsored by the Butler County chapter of the National Organization for Women. You know, when I moved to Ohio shortly thereafter, I got married and I wanted to keep my own name. I went to get an Ohio driver’s license and they told me I couldn’t do a hyphenated name because the computer couldn’t take that many letters. It was 1973, the computer couldn’t take that many letters and it couldn’t read hyphens.
They wanted to put Kathy Klosterman. And I said, no, you can’t. That’s not my legal name. I went roundabout with the woman at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and she said finally in exasperation, “Well, dear, maybe they do that back east, but we don’t do that kind of thing here in Ohio.” I don’t remember the outcome. So I went to the consciousness raising group and then I joined NOW.
We did a lot of things here in Butler County. The Houston Woods state lodge had ads in the paper by gender. We complained, wrote letters and we petitioned and they stopped it. Eventually I was teaching at Miami University and we realized that the students at that time were not allowed to have cars on campus.
So Joanne McQueen and I started the Miami Oxford chapter of the National Organization for Women and in 1978 we organized and held the first Women Take Back the Night march in Oxford. Two hundred people showed up. And Therese Edell – who was at that time just a beginning headline singer at the Michigan Women’s Music Festivals – lived in Cincinnati and she wrote a song for that night and came and led the march for us. She has since passed away.
KR: Tell me more about what issues you got involved with in NOW or outside of NOW. What were the most important issues to you? Where did you focus most of your energy?
KMK: At the first chapter in Butler County, we did the consciousness raising groups out of the YWCA, but then one of the women in it had been badly abused. We talked about how you can only appeal to friends so many times when you’ve been abused and you go back to the abuser and then you leave again and friends get tired of hearing it. She decided to make her home into a shelter for battered women which was the first shelter for battered women in the state of Ohio. Lois Hake was her name. She eventually changed her name to Lois Hake Woman.
She had a lot of resistance, frankly. Eventually we got grants for it. We had a board of trustees of which I was one, and it was hard times. We had a man who found out where her house was and he drove his car into the house. With grants, it became the Dove House, which exists to this day; the YWCA eventually took it over. We also worked really hard to change the Ohio laws around rape. Back then a woman’s past sexual history could be admitted in open court and Reba Deal (from our chapter) succeeded in getting that stopped.
Mary Beasley was the director of the Family Services Counseling Center in Hamilton, Ohio and she trained twelve of us as the first rape crisis counselors in the state of Ohio. So we did rape crisis counseling. We met with judges. We always went out in twos. We met the victim either at the hospital or the police station or her home, wherever she wanted. We agreed we would support the victim in whatever she chose if she wanted to prosecute or not. If she did, we followed her all the way through the court system.
But as a consequence of learning all of that we decided we needed to train emergency room personnel on how to use rape kits. So we went to every single solitary emergency room in Butler County and we trained the staff on how to use rape kits to collect evidence should the woman decide to prosecute. Now, that took us a lot of work and what was problematic about that we found, is that emergency room staff has a high turnover rate. So we would train folks and then there’d be new staff or they would be a different shift and they hadn’t participated in the training.
We later on went to the police and trained the police so that they knew how to do it and knew how to collect that. And now it’s the police who do it. I have some concerns about that. I still think it ought to be in the emergency rooms. It is on the radar of emergency rooms, but I’m guessing that there are a lot of emergency room personnel, nurses, who don’t know how to collect properly to this day.
So that’s part of what we did. We would put notices in the newspaper that made it look like there were 500 of us but there were maybe like six of us. We’d have birthday parties for Susan B. Anthony on her birthday. We’d have a potluck dinner at a local church basement and we’d put up a paper to come with your potluck and join the celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday party. And we’d have cake and balloons. We made it look and sound like there were lots and lots of us, but there really weren’t.
KR: It sounds like your whole life has been an outgrowth of all of that activity. Talk about what you’ve done in terms of some of the areas that you’ve been working in over the last 30, 40 years.
KMK: After being married almost ten years, we decided to have children. I began reading Suzanne Arms’ Immaculate Deception. It’s a wonderful book – it’s really the history of birthing. Looking at the system, it’s really controlled by white men largely, and even just the position that they have women birth in is in opposition to gravity, on your back with your legs up in the air. That’s not a good way to birth. Historically, that actually was pushed by Henry the Eighth who kind of got his rocks off watching birth. He wanted to be able to see better.
I spent two years reading about birthing and options, and I’d never known anyone who had a home birth, but it seemed to me that women could be in control that way with midwives. So I put an ad in the newspaper asking if anyone would like to learn about birthing alternatives or share information about home births, please come. It was at the Women’s Center at Miami University and 15 women showed up and most of them had had home births.
I got to meet this wonderful group of women and we then started what eventually became the Oxford Birth and Family Network, which had a newsletter and T-shirts and everything else, eventually. We then worked with local doctors to see if they would be willing to give medical back- up if a woman had a home birth with midwives. Most said no. We found one doctor who would.
My daughter is pregnant and about to give birth at the end of August, our first grandchild, so I’ve been going through old files and I found four of us did a very extensive survey that we sent to every hospital in Butler County asking about the childbirth practices. Who was allowed in, whether they gave vitamin K immediately, if they didn’t cut the cord until a pulsating stopped, which my daughter tells me is now common practice. You don’t even ask for that anymore.
We got all this information compiled and then wrote about it so that women had information about choices, what each hospital in this county did and what their system was so that a woman wouldn’t have to just click into the medical system, but rather she could make choices. I did, and had midwives and took my placenta and buried it in the backyard and put rose bushes over them with all those lovely nutrients. My daughter now tells me that women keep their placentas and they send them off to be made into capsules which they ingest for the nutrients.
KR: So you did a home birth I’m assuming.
KMK: Yes, I had planned a home birth with my two midwives. It was 1982 and the state of Ohio was in a high political conflict about home births. I felt at the time it was about money, OB’s didn’t want that drain of funds. There was a legal case in the state of Ohio against a family who had had a home birth and the baby died of SIDS. They were being prosecuted as a family with the state claim that the first act of neglect was a home birth that they suggested ended in SIDS. My secondary midwife was very involved politically at the state level. I believe it’s because she was determined to demonstrate to conservative doctors that they (midwives) wouldn’t do a home birth come hell or high water but rather they would be very cautious, conservative and responsible.
I was laboring at home, I was in transition, and as often happens, just as the water is about to break, the baby’s heartbeat went down. It comes right back up usually but I think it’s because she was so intent politically. She said, “Get up, we’re going to the hospital,” which was a block away. But the doctor I had been working with who didn’t want to do back up originally, and I had spent a lot of time working with, was wonderful. I got into the bed at the hospital and he never touched me. He said to my midwives, “here’s a tray of materials if you need anything and tell me if you want me to do anything.”
He never examined me, never touched me. I laid on my left side, my midwife caught the baby and then we went home. When it came to my son, my next birth, my daughter was still nursing. I knew I needed to concentrate intensely for labor. So I said, “I’ll go to the hospital. But here’s a whole long birthing plan. And I want one of the women from the Birth and Family Network to be present with me.” She actually held my leg when I gave birth to my son. So I did it all myself the way I wanted to with this big, long birthing plan. I birthed him in the hospital bed and then we went home, which was really easy because I didn’t have to disrupt my (almost) two year old daughter. I think we got some positive things changed in this county around women controlling their own birth process.
KR: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of impact in a lot of areas in your county, which is terrific.
KMK: It’s a collective effort always.
KR: Which is what movements are about. I saw you were involved in the League of Women Voters.
KMK: Yes, I’m right now the membership director for the local League of Women Voters. I can share some of the things we planned for the 100th anniversary, which have all been canceled. We were having a march from uptown to our community arts center. And we were having our senior members who founded the chapter here in the ’50s, carried by convertibles. We bought two hundred sashes in purple, gold and white that say VOTES FOR WOMEN that we were going to hand out to everyone.
We had planned a backdrop at the center of town from the Cincinnati Children’s Theatre that has portraits of famous figures, beginning with Adams to current figures around women’s vote. We were having a person who was an Elizabeth Cady Stanton stand in and Ida B. Wells. We had a young man who was going to portray Frederick Douglass. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s father-in-law was the president of this university at one time, so we have a Stanton hall on campus and in this progression of women we had somebody who was going to then portray Alice Paul.
And we were ending with a professional actress from Pennsylvania who was going to do a one woman show as Eleanor Roosevelt. But all of that’s been canceled. We do have this beautiful quilt that a group of women have made. We have contracted with a man here in town to do a mural on the side of a historic building in this community that would be seen from the uptown square that will portray the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the founding of the League of Women Voters. We have little medallion pieces that will circle this figure, that will show the historic figures involved in women getting the vote. That painting hasn’t started yet because we had some controversy around which building it was going to go on, but eventually we’ll have an unveiling of this big mural, public art, on the side of the building.
KR: I also understand that you were named one of the citizens of the year in Oxford. Want to talk about that for a minute?
KMK: I started something called Jubilee Time. I realized that I want to hear stories. That’s how the Birth and Family Network started. I wanted to hear all the stories I could hear about women’s experience of birthing. Later, I had some friends who were in their 80s at the time that I was in my late 40s, and I wanted to understand how they perceived themselves – they were feminists – as aging and how they felt about aging. So I was wanting to hear more stories. I decided when I turned 50, I was going to try and get women together. It took me a couple of years, but I finally just chose a date. And every time I saw anyone at Kroger’s I gave everyone a date and time.
Thirty-four women showed up in my living room that night and I began for sixteen years, having a once a month potluck at my house where we talked about women and everything. What are the thresholds that you want to go through and that you don’t want to go through? What holds you back from change? How do you perceive change in your life? I never put an RSVP, so I never knew if 8 women or 28 women were showing up. But we did it once a month for all those years.
I put out the topic and most of the time we got to the topic, sometimes we didn’t, it didn’t matter. Jubilee Time has become a really great resource for women. There are now about 135 women on my listserv. Some have moved out of Oxford, but they want to stay on the list, because they want to know what’s going on. About two years ago now, I decided I’m done.
A lot of women said, “No, no, no, no.” So I said, “Well, if people are willing to rotate hosting around, then we’ll keep going.” And that’s what’s happened the last two years until the covid19. Different women volunteer and host at their house. There was a lot of angst about the fact that I never had an RSVP so they didn’t know how many women to plan for, but it always somehow worked. It continues as a resource. Fortunately for all of us, I think for this group of women, we can ask questions. We can get information from each other.
My area as a faculty member has been in Special Education, but also Women’s Studies. And then I started the Disability Studies program at Miami University, which is different from Special Ed, totally different. Disability Studies is civil rights. And I’ve done lots of action projects on campus: shutting off non-accessible entrances to classroom buildings and inviting people to locate and use only the accessible entrance to the building for the day. Most people haven’t a clue where that is and that’s able-bodied privilege that they don’t know where that is. I have a reputation for stirring things up a bit. I would like to say in the spirit of John Lewis that I am engaged in good trouble.
KR: You’re a true organizer, in your soul. When you don’t know what to do about something, you reach out and you get people together to do it, which is fantastic.
KMK: I always figure our collective wisdom is better than my individual wisdom.
KR: Speaking of collective, do you want to talk a little bit about the collection that you’ve got?
KMK: That is thanks to Joanne McQueen, who is my collaborator. We started the Miami Oxford chapter of the National Organization For Women. We’ve done a lot together over the years and she is really a saver and an archivist. For example, we had a local NPR radio station called WMUB. Joanne went and said, I’d like to interview women and put that on the air. And they were like, “OK.” So she did it and we have some tapes of some of those.
She interviewed the first woman mayor in Oxford, for example. She interviewed women she thought were interesting. So following Joanne’s lead, I had facilitated a lot of women’s consciousness raising groups (CR). I would be somewhere in town and somebody (particularly men) would say, oh you do those women’s groups. You probably male bash and stuff. My standard response always was, “No, actually you seldom come up. We have much more interesting things to talk about” – which was never what they wanted to hear, because I understand that to be the center of attention was more important than whether it being talked about was negative or positive.
I would talk about CR with other women and they’d say such things as, “I would never want to go to one of those meetings. I don’t know what you do at those meetings. I’m not a feminist – I would be afraid to go to that.” Sometimes in the middle of a CR group, it would occur to me that I wish some of those women could eavesdrop on this session. I think they wouldn’t be so afraid and they could learn from it. And some of the men, if they could eavesdrop, would have some insights that we don’t do male bashing, it’s not about them.
So I don’t know what possessed me to do this, but I went to the local manager of the radio station, and said, “I’d like to do CR groups on the air.” He didn’t even know what they were, so we talked it through. And he said, “OK, but we’ve never done a live show and call in.” So they sent the engineer Mr. Boullio to Cincinnati to find out how to do a four second delay so I could cut a person off if they were inappropriate. It was a one hour live call in show called Women About Women. I wrote to Holly Near and asked her if I could use her song “There’s something about the women in my life” as my intro and exit. And she gave me permission.
A one hour live radio program is a very long time. If you have 30 seconds of dead air time, it’s a long time. I had Joanne, Gail Brandt, myself, and then an undergraduate Miami University student. Occasionally, the four of us did it and if the student wasn’t here, I had some older women who sat in as the fourth person. I followed the NOW C.R. guidelines and we talked about the topics and then people would call in. I thought all of those tapes had been lost but a few years ago, we found a whole bundle of the old cassette tapes. Well, you know, audio. Along with Joanne’s program and some of the C.R. from the local NPR station!
Students in the Women’s Studies capstone class three years ago learned how to transfer those into digital form. And then we did a history of the women’s movement with them as the capstone class. We got all of our old T-shirts out and photographed all our old buttons, our old NOW chapter newsletters, newspaper clippings that Joanne had archived.
Joanne started a mail order business called the Fantastic Feminist. She sold underwear that had the women’s symbol with equal signs in the middle, and she had a woman who made clothes for Barbie dolls: she had a judge’s outfit, doctors, in a race car, and an astronaut for the dolls. And she wrote to Janet Guthrie and asked for a picture of herself in a race car outfit. And then Joanne had a seamstress make a Barbie doll race car driver outfit. She had this set of clothes, which were at one time featured in Ms. Magazine, Christmas Edition.
When my daughter was maybe eight or nine, she said no one wanted to play Barbies with her because the clothes she had were not frilly and beautiful and pretty. I had a short radio program, seven minutes maybe once a month after the C.R. group came off the air. It was called Between the Wires, and that was just information that didn’t get on the AP wires or UPI wires that I thought would be of interest to women.
KR: I am blown away by you. You are incredible. And I’m so flattered to have been able to spend this time learning about your life. Anything else? Any final words?
KMK: We all have to vote. We’re in a difficult place given our government and the possible loss of our democracy. Maybe it had to get this bad for people to see how bad the patriarchy actually is. That we had to have someone like 45 that makes it undeniable and disgusting and gross enough that everyone sees what happens under the patriarchy. And this is the last throes of the patriarchy and it being overturned is my hope. And I can help that along by getting everyone out to vote.
KR: My pleasure to have spent this time with you.
KMK: Well, Kathy, thank you again for all the work you’re doing in preserving all of the array of stories. As I said, I love to hear the stories and I want to hear as many stories as I can so I can learn from them. And you’re doing that. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you.