THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Marilyn Salzman Webb
“We haven’t changed who we are, we just keep dealing with different issues.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, June 2021
KR: It’s such a pleasure to be interviewing you today. Thank you so much for agreeing to be part of the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Tell me your name and when you were born?
MW: Marilyn Webb, I was born on October 26th, 1942. And I’m still breathing!
KR: Which is good news! Tell us about your growing up, about your ethnic background, about your life before you got involved in the women’s movement?
MW: I was born in Brooklyn. I lived in two different apartments in the same apartment building in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. When I was nine we moved to suburban Long Island into a lower middle class, look-alike housing subdivision in a town called Elmont. It was on the border between the borough of Queens and Nassau County.
We moved there in the middle of fourth grade. I finished fourth grade at one school, Gotham Avenue, but the community was growing so drastically fast because they kept putting subdivision after subdivision on the Long Island potato fields that they kept having to build new schools. I ended up going to Dutch Broadway for the fifth and sixth grades and then I went to junior high school at Belmont Boulevard School. It was so crowded they needed double shifts while they continued to build new schools.
A new junior senior high school, called Elmont Memorial, opened nearby in 1956 and my high school class was the first to go through it, graduating in 1960. The town was filled with Italian and Polish Catholics, who had lived there longer than we had, and those in our newer subdivision, who were mostly transported Jews from Brooklyn. For a long time, I thought that was how the world was divided.
I was a typical suburban kid: I rode my bike around the neighborhood, in high school I was a cheerleader because it was the only sport that women could do at the time, and I was very athletic. It turned out that in the culture wars of high schools, cheerleaders are stereotyped as airheads, but I was also in the honors classes, a separate educational track at the time, and I wrote for the school newspaper. So, I embraced a lot of different subgroups in high school and probably tried to keep them separate so I could fit in each one.
My sister got sick when I was 13 and I didn’t know she was sick as she was. She ended up dying after a three-year illness. I tried to keep that secret from school friends. I guess I didn’t want to seem different. Or maybe I didn’t want to talk about it. When I was at home, my family spent those three years just focused on my sister. In a way, I had a private life that, in retrospect, I don’t think I would have had otherwise. I did a lot of reading and I saw friends outside of the home. I had a separate culture from my family.
Because my friends couldn’t come over since my sister was too sick, I think that saved me from typical suburbia. I did a lot of lone stuff. I read a lot of Nancy Drew books and I wanted to be like her, a girl detective. I read a comic strip about Brenda Starr, a star newspaper reporter who had great adventures, and I wanted to be like her. I was also trying to find role models that were outside my community, looking for what I might find interesting in life. I read a lot of biographies: Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. I was searching and I really had no idea at the time what I was searching for.
In my junior year, the school newspaper editors asked me to write a column—it was called See it with Salzman, my maiden name—and that often got me outside of the town during my last two high school years. I ended up writing a lot about New York City. We were a suburb of New York and I explored city things early on that I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise seen. I wrote about plays such as “A Raisin in the Sun,” learning about racism. I brought issues to the school through the newspaper that weren’t really being discussed. But I led a life of duality: I was the prom queen and the cheerleader, but I also had another more intellectual life. It was always like that largely because my sister was so sick. I was often on my own.
KR: What was your family’s ethnic background?
MW: They were Jewish, but they were not religious. We did celebrate the important Jewish holidays but in my mind they were usually about family and food. We also had a Christmas tree, which my father kept calling a Chanukah bush. There were class divisions in my family, which were reflected in this. My father’s parents were of German-Austrian descent and were Orthodox or Conservative Jews. My mother’s parents were Russian-Jewish and could probably be described as social justice Jews.
I don’t know how much people know about that but there’s a big class division in Jewish culture between those two, and unbeknownst to me until much later, it was my first understanding of social class differences. My father’s family thought that he had “married down” in marrying my mother. In my later opinion, my mother’s family was probably more interesting, they were union organizers and though they celebrated Jewish holidays, they weren’t religious.
My father’s family was very synagogue-religious and upwardly mobile. More conservative socially. An early experience when I was little involved my grandfather on my father’s side taking me to synagogue with him. I was four years old and he told me I had to sit upstairs with the women because I’m a girl. I was scared, I didn’t know any of these women, and he was sitting downstairs with all the men. I started realizing about gender differences right then and I continued through the rest of my life. I never wanted to go back to synagogue and resented have to sit upstairs in the balcony while the men and boys got the good seats downstairs.
Since I was athletic as a child—I spent summers at different camps—I wanted to try out for Little League when I was nine or ten, and they laughed at me when I showed up. The coach told me girls can’t play Little League. That hurt. There were several experiences like this [that] likely formed my early feminist instincts.
At the camp I went to when I was twelve counselors found me kissing a boy behind the tennis courts after tennis one day. Our braces got caught together and we couldn’t get untangled, so we were stuck, fearing our parents would be mad if we broke them. I was grounded when we were found, but nothing happened to dear old Marty, the boy. They told me I had to lie on my bed in our bunk during free time, so I finished reading all the love comics I had at the time—even the boring ones with Veronica and Betty and Archie—and to amuse myself I started singing to myself and gently tapping my feet against the wall at the bottom of my bed.
Well, who knew the wall was so thin; my foot suddenly went right through it. I knew I was in trouble so I hung a towel up over it so nobody would see. But then they found the hole and they kicked me out of camp. It felt like the most unfair thing. Nothing happened to Marty, but I was grounded and then got kicked out of camp. I probably developed a blatant feminist consciousness after that.
KR: I want to hear about how you got involved in the movement. There’s a lot of things that you did, some of it was even before there was a formal women’s movement. And let’s talk about your higher education, because I know there’s a story there that we need to hear.
MW: I went to Brandeis University for college and had a lot of good teachers, but I don’t think I appreciated it at the time. Eleanor Roosevelt was there, and I was in awe of her. Herbert Marcuse was there. The most brilliant person in the class I took with him was Angela Davis. I was awed by her, too. She was really smart. I didn’t have any political consciousness in college, but my father suddenly died in my junior year and I had to get more scholarship money and find a way to make spending-money myself. I became the sandwich girl, which meant I sold sandwiches at night in the girls’ dorms. I was grateful to have that job, but it taught me even more about class divisions. I was rather lowly.
I developed more acute political awareness in graduate school. I was at the University of Chicago and I got involved working with welfare mothers in the Woodlawn Community—it’s a black community near the university—and we started a parent run pre-school prior to Head Start. It was akin to the SNCC Freedom Schools’ model from the Mississippi summer of ’64, although I didn’t realize it that clearly at the time. We just made it up as we went along.
I started thinking about the socialization of women in the white community as opposed to the socialization of women in the black community. I realized that black women had a lot more sense of their own power than white women did, and it really was inspiring to work with these mothers. I was in graduate school in Educational Psychology while I was doing this. I finished my Ph.D. coursework and my prelims and then I went to get my dissertation committee together. I had simultaneously been made director of both this school and a second Woodlawn school, one run under the Saul Alinsky organization, which was far more traditional, with no parent involvement. I wanted to compare the outcomes of these two schools.
I needed three people to form a committee. The first professor I asked to be on my committee was my mentor, the department chair, who said—to my shock—that he’d only be on my committee if he could come over and give me baths at my apartment. I didn’t know if I had heard him that correctly, people don’t go to see people’s apartments and give them baths. So, I declined, I was really upset and confused.
The second person was an expert in the moral development of children. I went in with a lot of research papers that I had done comparing the two different schools. I had my stuff in my arms, he closed the door, sat at one side of his desk, with me on the other side, and he then undid his tie, ran around his desk, and lunged at me. He pinned me against the wall, and he said it was “quid pro quo” and he started kissing me aggressively. My papers fell all over the floor. I have no idea how I got out of that office and I don’t know what I did with those papers. I only knew I was terrified.
I still needed three people for my committee, and I feared I couldn’t get anybody. The third person, the only other professor I could think of, was someone whom friends warned me would result in the same way these others had. In the end, I couldn’t get a committee together so after three years of classes and work, I left in 1967 without my doctorate, only with the compensatory master’s degree.
When I arrived in Chicago in 1964, the SDS National office moved right nearby into the Woodlawn area that same year. I became involved with SDS because the Vietnam War was expanding, and I was very anti-war. I also learned the organization had several community organizers working with poor people in several cities, Chicago being one of them. They were engaged in the kind of work I was doing in Woodlawn.
When I left the University, I moved to Washington, D.C., but prior to that, in December of 1965, I went to an SDS national convention at the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, one in which—as usual—men verbally jousted in debate and women were discouraged from speaking.
This time a kind of informal gathering of women spontaneously arose as women drifted off one by one down to the cafeteria. I was part of that. Somebody had gotten a letter from SNCC women complaining about the position of women, that we were second class citizens in SNCC. It was the letter in which SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael allegedly said “the only position for women is prone,” and it angered them. They told us what they were doing to right such sentiment in SNCC and wanted us to examine what was happening in SDS. So, we did. I remember this conversation as really significant, compared to the strength black women whom I was working with showed. The SNCC women found a similar situation, that black women had more of a sense of self and white women were meeker.
After that, I went back to the University, newly inspired. This was the winter of 1966, well before I had this experience with the graduate school professors. I asked some women friends to come to talk about these issues and we then met in a group, which turned out to be the first Chicago women’s group, formed prior to the famous Chicago Westside Group. It was short lived, though, because soon afterward I had that experience with those professors and moved to Washington. The preschools had moved on, I saw no road ahead for me at the University in Chicago, so I left. I was twenty-five years old. Some in that first group, which also included Heather Booth, moved on to that West Side group.
Even though I ended up having another career, I never gave up the thought of writing a dissertation and getting my doctorate. On my 75th birthday, I wrote to the University president saying it’s time, I need to have my doctorate awarded. It was the era now of the “MeToo” movement, I told him I was harassed sexually in grad school, and I wanted the University to do the right thing and give me the degree I deserved.
Of course, I knew they could not just give it to me, so I suggested that since I had finished my course requirements, passed prelim exams, and then written a book on death and dying that had some acclaim and wide circulation—it was called “The Good Death,” published by Bantam Books—that they use that book as my dissertation research.
Amazingly, the University had just appointed a new dean of the social sciences, Amanda Woodward, the first women dean, and she happily put together a brilliant committee for me. There were now women and African American professors at the University, whereas there were barely any before, so the climate had completely changed. I like to thank the civil rights and women’s movements. I considered them sons and daughters the revolution. I think they did too.
They asked me to write a new theoretical basis for my book and to update it. Usually, it’s the other way around with a Ph.D., you have to do the theoretical work first and then you reshape it into a mass market book. I spent a year doing that and in 2019 they awarded me my Ph.D. I can’t tell you how happy it made me. My whole family and my best friends all traveled to be at that graduation ceremony. I felt a victorious, glorious revenge. The school had finally done the right thing, not just for me but for women in my generation who had faced the same fate. I was thrilled that the university recognized how it had been for many, many of us, for many, many years. Sexual harassment had ruined careers early on.
KR: Tell us about your involvement in the movement. I know you were in a lot of places and involved with a lot of organizations and did a whole lot.
MW: In Washington I also did the same thing I had done in Chicago: I asked a lot of women to come to a meeting at my apartment and from that, the D.C. Women’s Liberation Group began and quickly expanded.
We didn’t have any organizational plan at the start. The group got very large and we ended up having lots of different subdivisions. People were doing abortion counseling, but differently from the way they were doing it in Chicago. We didn’t do abortions ourselves, the way they ultimately did through Jane.
Abortions were illegal then as Roe v. Wade hadn’t been decided on. In D.C., we realized, though, that if a person had a psychiatrist write a letter to say that her pregnancy would be detrimental to her physical health or mental health, she could have a hospital abortion. So, we, too, set up a counseling service, the same kind of thing, but instead of training ourselves to do abortions we created a system in which several psychiatrists agreed to be consultants and several other doctors would do the actual abortions in hospitals. Of course, we and they interviewed the women first; it wasn’t like stamp here and it’s done. We had a regular counseling and referral service.
We also formed women’s liberation outreach groups that organized and spoke at places like church groups, universities, offices, schools. We tried to educate ourselves on women’s history, and after doing a lot of research we held courses, mostly at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). People started organizing nurses, clerical workers in the D.C. government buildings. There were also a lot of different activities, for instance WITCH actions, but soon we got into a period where we didn’t know how to operate as an organization with coordinated leadership.
Since I had started the first women’s group, people looked to me for informal leadership, but we really needed a structure, and we wanted it to be based on some new female style and imagery. We decided to name the organization Magic Quilt, a quilt being the kind of patchwork quilt that women had traditional sewed, and to structure the organization to mimic that. And so, each of those subdivisions in our larger group became a part of this organizational quilt, but the patches, or squares, in the quilt were not static. Nor were the representatives to the central leadership quilt.
There was a rotating membership in the Magic Quilt’s main circle that was staggered, with representatives from each of our activity subdivisions. A third of the members to the larger group would change from those divisions every three months, with the other two thirds providing continuity. The subdivision representatives would also change every three months, so that we hoped to have some form of real working democracy.
Nationally, we also tried to experiment with leadership models, but at the same time, we often ran into trouble. Washington was the center for a lot of anti-war protests, so a lot of people came through and there were also divisions nationally.
In 1968 I organized a semi-national meeting that was held at a school, I think, in suburban Sandy Springs, Maryland. Representatives ended up coming only from Chicago, New York, Gainesville, and Boston, from groups that we had contact with, but we reached out to others afterward to update them. We tried at that meeting to map out where we were in each city and what we were doing, and to draft some shared idea of what kind of politics Women’s Liberation would have. We’re talking about a younger, more radical group of women here, not those who were already involved with NOW or other older organizations.
Very early on in this meeting it was clear there were divisions between people who were more involved in the anti-war movement as opposed to people who were calling themselves women-identified-women. New York’s Red Stockings and some from Gainesville and Boston were more of that latter genre, while Chicago and Washington were more open to working with the antiwar movement. We decided to have a larger meeting and because there were these divisions, the people at the Sandy Springs meeting assigned two people from each political division to help plan that meeting. The working group became me and Charlotte Bunch (who later moved to Cleveland but worked anyway) from Washington, and Helen Kritzler and Leah Firestone, Shulie Firestone’s younger sister, from New York.
We worked full time from a basement office IPS gave us to plan this much larger conference, which was eventually held the following Thanksgiving of 1968 in a YMCA camp in Lake Villa, near Chicago. Several hundred women came from all over and we tried to map out the issues. Again, these same divisions appeared, but we tried to develop a national politic even so. It was a time when we bonded together personally as women and a lot of deep friendships came out of those meetings and lasted till now, over many, many years.
Meanwhile, many anti-war demonstrations occurred in Washington during that time, and D.C. Women’s Liberation was often a host to women who came. We had our own larger meetings around the times of these demonstrations. One of these events has been written about a lot, the Counter-Inaugural demonstration at the presidential inauguration for Richard Nixon on January 20, 1969.
A big rally with speakers under a very large tent was planned for that day. Before that women had a several day-long national meeting to discuss what we might do related to this. The Mobilization Against the War committee that planned the event said that a woman could speak at this demonstration, but at that meeting beforehand, we decided that not just one, but two people should speak to represent these two different views of the women’s liberation movement.
I was chosen to represent the anti-war part and Shulie Firestone was the one from the New York women-identified part. Several odd things preceded those talks that set a negative tone before we even got on stage. Dave Dellinger, the MC of the event, announced to the huge crowd that women had asked men to clear the stage, and it would take time as there was a wounded G.I. who had to be handed down in his wheelchair. The crowd roared negatively, but we had not, in fact, asked anything like that.
I was supposed to speak first and as soon as I started raucous booing began and fist fights started in that crowd. Men started yelling things like, “Take her off the stage and fuck her, take her down a dark alley.” It was really scary.
Meanwhile, back home, there was this growing tension at the time from SDS. We didn’t realize it then, but Weathermen was in the process of forming and we in D.C. Women’s Liberation were absolutely against it, fighting on both fronts, not just against the woman-identified point of view but also against SDS leadership who at this point opposed organizing women.
I personally thought it was important that SDS continue to be a mass student movement, not a guerrilla movement as it seemed Weathermen was moving toward, but there was also a personal tension about this between me—as nominal leader of D.C. Women’s Liberation—and Cathy Wilkerson, who was the nominal leader of Washington SDS. We had had a lot of words about this over some period of time. Cathy thought that organizing women should not occur now because of the need to oppose the war.
After this demonstration and all the booing ended, some women from Washington went back to my apartment licking our wounds. I was essentially a shy person and had never given a speech to a crowd this size. Dave Dellinger never let Shulie finish her speech. This raucously hostile debut left me shaken. Then at home, while everyone was still there, I got a phone call that we thought was Cathy not only because of the tension about women organizing separately but because she has a specific way of talking that was very clear in the caller’s voice.
“If you or anybody else ever gives a speech like this anywhere in the country,” this person told me, “we will beat the shit out of you.” I hung up. We were all appalled, but the result caused a decision that was critical to us and to the feminist movement’s future. We decided then that, yes, we had to separate out as a women’s movement. These people on the left, most of them men, were not our friends. That was the moment at which I started working only with women. We realized the New York women might be right.
Years later, however, I found out that Cathy might not have made that call, that it might have been a part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO or some other government program aimed at dividing and destroying movement organizations, not just in the New Left or the Black Panthers—which was ongoing at the time—but now the women’s movement as well. Let’s talk more about that later, though.
KR: What did you do when you started working specifically with women and women’s issues? How did you get involved there?
MW: The Magic Quilt organization grew. We rented a D.C. office space. We did WITCH activities. We continued to do the education classes and speaking publicly about women’s liberation. I began co-editing special supplements to existing D.C. publications focusing on women’s issues. Local and national publications began writing stories about us. It was a very active time.
In January of 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson held hearings at the U.S. Senate on the safety of the birth control pills. One of the things we did that got the most press was during those hearings. Seven of us went to observe them and as we sat there in the audience, we realized there were no women on the Senate committee, no women testifying from the science community or the medical community, and no women testifying who had taken the pills. Spontaneously, we just became outraged. We stood up and started saying, “Wait, we have taken the pill. There is no testimony here from women, no scientists, nothing.” We were so angry that I guess we impulsively caused a scene. It just went on from there.
I was seven months pregnant at the time and leadership issues had arisen in our organization. I had not organized this event, but I was the most visible leader in Washington, and not just because I was so pregnant! Since I was known in the city by then, a lot of the reporters wanted to talk to me, but because there were tensions about leadership it became very awkward. Afterward, I was asked to leave Magic Quilt because others thought I was taking up too much air space. They wanted other women to be more visible. I was very hurt, but I agreed.
At the time I was a working journalist for The New York Guardian. Other than reporting and writing I didn’t really know what to do, but I had thought for some time that we needed a women’s press. This was two years before Ms. began publishing and as far as we knew no other feminist press existed. Several other people wanted to work with me on this, so we began a news journal and called it Off Our Backs, probably in reference to that derogatory SNCC comment from Stokely Carmichael. Off Our Backs ended up being the longest running feminist publication ever in the US history. The first issue appeared in February 1970, and it lasted with regular publication for another 38 straight years. I’m really proud that it happened, but also that it was first published via our women’s movement’s informal network, that it was self-sustaining in that we had no ads or grants, and that it was supported through paid subscriptions. I actually left after the first year, but the collective kept functioning—even with turnover—for all those years.
KR: I know you were involved in a lot of issues, what were the most important issues to you?
MW: First, women’s medical and health issues. The fact that abortion was legalized, that Roe v. Wade was decided, was really critical. Legalizing abortion changed women’s lives by eliminating the fear of death from a botched procedure. Out of the pill hearings also came a whole national movement focused on improving women’s health. The women on the Our Bodies Ourselves collective, the women who were at the senate hearings, particularly Alice Wolfson, and the author Barbara Seaman, created a women’s health network. An important result of that was that the level of estrogen was eventually reduced in the making of the pill; it is now much safer. Informed consent was also normalized in medical practice.
Second, women’s studies programs and the reclamation of our history began. When I left Off Our Backs, I was offered a job to start a women’s studies program at Goddard College. It turned out to be arguably the first college-based women’s studies program in the country, but when we started it we didn’t even know what women’s studies was. There were few histories or literary collections then. We had to do our own research to find out about women in history, or literature, or art. It wasn’t as it is now where you have a body of knowledge, we actually had to create it. I feel it was crucial to create a sense of women’s culture and history, to create—and then teach—that body of knowledge now being passed down in schools both here and around the world. It has been important to know what women have done in the past and it is important now that the culture has so changed that it is normal for women to be visibly active in every part of both public and private life.
However, there are also critical issues that haven’t been solved. The fact that there’s still no guaranteed child-care is a thorn in all our sides. I don’t know what we would have to do to get that. I thought that was a really crucial issue and it hasn’t been successfully addressed yet.
And then there is the issue, still secret, of active government interference. Let’s go back now to the phone call years ago that was supposedly from Cathy Wilkerson. Years after that phone call, after I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I ran into her and asked her about that call. She denied vehemently that she had ever made it. If not, who did? And who impersonated her unique way of speaking, her voice?
There were many instances in which it was probable there was government infiltration and/or provocateurs, even very aggressive ones. I think that has not been sufficiently examined and it probably determined a lot of our movement history. It created a big impact not only on the directions of the movement—although it was probably good that the women’s movements separated as a result of that alleged Cathy phone call—but it also shattered a massive sense of group trust because you never knew what was true or who was as he or she seemed.
It was a very dire time. Think about Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, for instance. We now know [the] thinking about how he died. The police shot him dead as he slept in his bed. As far as we know, nobody died that way in the women’s movement, but it was likely manipulated in ways we do not yet understand. Journalist Clara Bingham is focusing on that in a new book she’s doing, and I hope she’s successful, because it would be great to know.
Goddard College’s women’s studies’ funding was cut in 1975. It was a poor college, and perhaps it hasn’t realized its great place in history, or they might have publicized it more. Anyway, a lot of the national feminist leadership grew out of that program, especially from its post-funding-cut launch of a related feminist summer think tank called Sagaris. Most of the feminist leaders were there—Alix Shulman, Ti Grace Atkinson, Barbara Seaman—even though it only lasted that one summer of 1975. It was unfortunately destroyed internally by suspicions and threats, real or just imagined—we still don’t know—of multiple undercover activities.
One thing I find fascinating now is that issues that we were dealing with as young feminists have continued throughout our whole lives. Take medical care and childbirth, for instance, taking control of your birthing process, using midwives, having guaranteed childcare are issues that are all now applicable to women regarding medical decision making and care at the end of life. There are still also the same enemies, whether it is doctors who want to stay in control of medical decision-making, or those who want to disallow aid-in-dying or having Medicare cover homecare.
These basic issues of care and control are not just those of young feminists but issues of women throughout our life cycle. Women’s poverty in old age is really not addressed. Medicare doesn’t pay for long term care, women are the ones who are doing most of the caregiving, and then because we live longer, we tend to be widows at the end, with not enough money for adequate caregiving help. Feminism raised these issues early in life and they persist over our lifetimes in the exact same way but in different circumstances.
KR: Is that what your book mostly focuses on, some of those end-of-life issues?
MW: Yes. My book is called, The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life. It was written before COVID, so it addresses long-term illnesses like cancer or heart disease, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, asking if we have died for centuries, why is it so hard now? It was a six-year national investigation and addresses everything from pain management to spiritual care to assisted suicide. Now we have COVID, an infectious disease, which is the way death used to be, but it’s not going to last. COVID reminds us that quick deaths have not gone away, but long-term illness and requisite care is really what the modern dying process is about, and there’s no adequate structure set up to support that. We have acute care, we go to the hospital, but it takes usually two or three years for somebody to suffer during a long-term rollercoaster of cancer or heart conditions and there’s not a lot of support for it.
KR: Your career was mostly in journalism; do you want to talk a little bit about what you did and also your teaching experience?
MW: I made a decision early on that I wanted to focus on women’s life issues and eventually women’s magazines. It was the ’80s and ’90s when mass magazines like Redbook, Women’s Day, McCall’s boasted 20 million readers each. I thought bringing women’s movement issues into those magazines would be important. I wrote for and was a feature editor or a senior editor at several of them, and I also wrote regularly for magazines like New York Magazine. I was a newspaper reporter before that.
Years after my experience in Chicago, I got a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. As a child, though, you remember I had a deep interest in journalism, especially Lincoln Steffens and the muckrakers. I later taught for several years at Columbia about what we call independent journalism, that investigative strain that included the work of people like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, who were responsible for the early 20th century progress era of legislation, child labor laws, food safety, monopolies, corporate and city government corruption, all that.
At the turn of this 21st century, I was asked to start a journalism program at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. I lived in New York, so I thought, why there? It turns out that Sam McClure and his editor friends who started McClure’s, the magazine those muckrakers worked for, had gone to Knox College. When they graduated they moved to New York and hired great writers. The rest is investigative journalism history. Their stories had a powerful impact, which led President Teddy Roosevelt to label them pejoratively as muckrakers. Knox College wanted to revive their concept of journalism, wanted me to create a reporting and writing program based on it, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
I wanted to help students learn how a city operates: Who has power and why? How does a community develop class or race differences? How does government work? And then to write about it. I was still living in New York so at first I commuted, but it was a time when the local newspapers were basically going under. Staffing was slim and good reporting was needed. My students helped fill a gap. They were published. They got experience and bylines. They helped the community out with important stories when otherwise public information might have just been thin.
So, I spent 13 years teaching there. In my opinion, the best project students did was an intensive study that spanned different courses over a three-year period and resulted in an award-winning, 17-part series in the local newspaper, the Galesburg Register-Mail. A Maytag refrigeration plant had been a main employer in that town for decades, with a long-term commitment, a symbiotic relationship between the plant and the city. Generations of people had worked there. Suddenly the plant closed in 2004, moving operations to Mexico and ultimately to China, and leaving the city in chaos as thousands of people lost their jobs. The city’s tax base was upended, and multiple city cultural institutions were affected.
I ended up directing the students to do a major research project on what happens to people and a town after a plant close. They reported and wrote such a great collection of stories that they ended up winning first place in three Illinois Associated Press award categories against professional journalists and other newspapers across the state. I was very proud of them, and McClure would have been too! When I left, I was made Knox College Distinguished Professor Emerita of Journalism—which I still am—but the biggest deal for me was what we called the Maytag Project.
KR: And then what else happened in Galesburg?
MW: Oh, you heard I ran for mayor! At one point I stopped commuting and became a Galesburg resident. As a result of the information students and I learned about the city, I decided to run for Mayor myself. I thought raising certain issues could really help the city, but I never expected to win. Nine people were running but I almost did win. I came in third, much to my husband’s horror. He was not ready to be First Dude, as he called it. There had never been a woman mayor in this town since it was founded in the mid-1800s, and I thought it was time. Photos of past mayors lined city hall, all men. The beards and hairdos changed over the decades, but no woman was there. There still isn’t, but one day there will be.
KR: You mentioned Buddhism, do you want to talk a little bit about that?
MW: I mentioned that in the context of what was happening in relation to provocateurs. In 1968, I went on one of the early SDS trips to Cuba. So did a few others from D.C. Women’s Liberation. We were interested in how the Cuban revolution had affected women there. A couple of years afterward, I learned that the person I grew closest to on our group trip—his alleged name was Tom Mosher—turned out to have been a government agent. We didn’t have a sexual relationship, thank goodness. I was friends with him because he knew more than anybody else about Third World politics and I wanted to learn. It turned out he had been well briefed.
In 1975, Sen. Frank Church, of Idaho, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, organized a Select Senate Committee, now dubbed the Church Committee, to study abuse by government agencies that included the CIA, the NSA, the FBI and the IRS. A friend later directed me to two book volumes that were part of it and available through the Government Printing Office. These included the committee testimony about our trip by agent Tom Mosher.
Not only had he been an informer on this trip (and likely elsewhere) but he nearly entrapped me intentionally into serious international political problems. Thank goodness I didn’t bite. To read this, though, to realize this had been a trusted person, was shocking. I was idealistic, young, and naïve, and a very, very loyal American. Things like this were not the America I either knew or had imagined. It was a violation of basic trust.
Repeated events like this were devastating. You didn’t know who you were talking to or what was the truth. I ended up meeting a Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who taught me meditation, and studying with him got me through that period of “who can you trust and who’s your friend.” I moved to Boulder, Colorado where he had organized a college, now Naropa University, based on Buddhist meditation practice. I also became a reporter at the local paper and worked closely with beat poets who were there at the time–Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman—and ended up editing two books on creative mind before returning to New York. Meditation got me through this period. I still am a Buddhist. It better focused my mind.
KR: We’ve covered a lot. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you want to make sure we cover in your interview?
MW: I think that’s it. One thing that concerns me is that we talk about “Second Wave” as if it’s in the past. But for every woman I know, including myself, the second wave in our lives is still going on. We haven’t changed who we are, we just keep dealing with different issues. The same feminist women are examining the same issues again and again over different life subjects. This isn’t just the past, it’s the current. We are going to be lively and loud until we die. I think it has really changed America in good ways. And we’re still kicking!