THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Ginny Z. Berson
“I Feel Like My Whole Life Has Been Spent in Pursuit of Justice.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022
GB: My name is Ginny Z. Berson. I was born in 1946 in Hartford, Connecticut.
JW: What was your childhood like? What kinds of things do you think established you to become the person you are?
GB: So many things. I will start by saying my parents were first generation Americans. They were the children of immigrants, Ashkenazi Jews who fled Eastern Europe, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, fleeing antisemitism. They were very impacted by that, and so was I. One of the most important things about my childhood was that I, for some reason, became deeply enamored of baseball as a very young kid and decided that all I wanted to do was play baseball. And I played baseball all the time.
Baseball, not softball. Baseball. From a very young age, and I was very good. We had pickup games on the street, after school. We had games at school. I have two sisters, and if I couldn’t find a game, they would play. We made up our own games. And if they were busy doing something else, I made up my own games, throwing the ball against the side of the house. Why this was important was that I was very good and I couldn’t play Little League because I was a girl. And this seemed extremely unfair to me and was probably my first experience of understanding injustice.
I feel like my whole life has been spent in pursuit of justice. Then there were other things that I wanted to do that I couldn’t do. Our synagogue was a Reform synagogue. There were no bat mitzvahs, only bar mitzvahs. And there was a minute when I thought I wanted to be a Rabbi, but I couldn’t be a Rabbi because I was a girl. Then I had this idea that I could be President, but no, I couldn’t do that either. Girls weren’t President.
So very early I learned that the world was unfair and that this was not okay. I was not going to take it. So that kind of set my course for life. But I do want to say that my parents were the children of immigrants. They were very upwardly mobile. My mother in particular was very upwardly mobile. They started out very working class. Neither of them went to college. By the time of my childhood, they had moved into the middle class, and we had a materially, comfortable existence.
They made a lot of terrible mistakes. They were lacking in many things as parents, but they always let us play. They never said, you can’t play baseball, you’re a girl. They never said, you can’t do this, you’re a girl. They never did that. They let us play the way we wanted to play and they even encouraged us. I’m very grateful for that. I had a childhood. I went to very good schools.
In fact, in my school district in Connecticut, they started teaching half the kids Spanish in third grade. So, I had Spanish from third grade and in third grade you’re learning how to say “elefante”. But I had Spanish all the way through high school and then college. When I left college, I went into the Peace Corps and I went to Panama, and within a couple of weeks of Peace Corps training and Immersive language studies, I was pretty fluent. By the time I got out, I was completely bilingual. So that was a tremendous advantage that I had of going to a really good public school system.
JW: Did you have any realization about the unfairness towards girls in college?
GB: I went to a women’s college. I went to Mount Holyoke College. I have to say yes and no, because by the time I got to college, I felt that there was something very wrong with me, which was that I was attracted to women. For a long time, I didn’t know the word for that. Then I knew the word for it.
Honestly, because I was in basically an all-female environment, some of the professors were men, but all the students were women. I didn’t have the same kind of experience of things that were not fair to women at that point. I had the experience of an internalized unfairness which was directed at myself. “Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I be like the other girls? Why can’t I just want to go out with boys? Why do I have crushes on all these girls?”
JW: When did you become aware of the women’s movement?
GB: I became aware of the women’s movement in 1969, actually. I got out of the Peace Corps in 1969, and I read a piece by Anne Koedt called The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. This was the first thing I actually read about the women’s movement. It was the first I heard about the women’s movement, and I thought, well, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.
I had been very active in the left. I’d been very active in the anti-war movement in college, and then even in the Peace Corps. I had gone to the Peace Corps with the idea of bringing, you might say, in a very arrogant way that I was going to bring Marxism to the people of Panama. That’s what I thought I was doing. I came from this very male left perspective.
When I’m introduced to the women’s movement as it being about where you have your orgasms, and meanwhile, we’re destroying Vietnam, and the civil rights movement is happening in the south and I’m thinking this is the most irrelevant thing I’ve ever heard of in my whole life. However, luckily, I had another opportunity to discover the women’s liberation movement in DC.
In the spring of 1970, I went to a women’s liberation movement meeting, and it blew my mind. I understood for the first time, I actually felt after one meeting liberated in the sense that I understood that I no longer had to center my life around pleasing men and that the feelings that I had, the things that I wanted to do, the ways that I wanted to dress and be, were okay.
I don’t mean to say that I had achieved liberation, but it was a liberation for me to stop being subjected to the male gaze in that way and to stop centering my life on what would please men. It was phenomenal. Shortly after that, I came out. I don’t want to say it was the final step because I’ll spend my whole life and what’s left of it continuing to move on this path. But it was like the final enormous leap. It was a huge leap.
JW: I can imagine. Were you involved in any specific organizations?
GB: It was called the Women’s Liberation Movement and eventually there was a group of us who started a women’s commune in DC, and we started organizations or joined little subgroups. There was Women Against Imperialism, Women Against Racism, Women Against Population Control, Women Against the War, Women Against a lot of things. I’m not aware of us at that point articulating any kind of vision of what we were for. That came later, not too much later, because then I was one of the women who was part of The Furies.
In The Furies, we were very clear about beginning to develop a vision and a whole politic of lesbian feminism. These other little subgroups were much more project oriented. The Furies was its own organization. We were collective. We lived collectively, we worked collectively, and we put out the paper, The Furies, and basically devoted our time, the time that we were together, which was just under a year, to developing this lesbian feminist theory or theory of lesbian feminism and then promulgating it through the newspaper and through any other ways that we could.
JW: Being from DC, what neighborhood were you in? I’m curious about that.
GB: Basically, we were in Capitol Hill. We had three houses. We had a house on Southeast 12th, Southeast 8th and Southeast 11th, and the house on 11th Street is the one that has been made part of the national registry of something. It’s a big deal that there’s been federal recognition for that house. That’s where we actually physically created the newspaper.
JW: What did you have in the newspaper? What kind of articles?
GB: We had a lot of pieces that developed our theory, that talked about what is lesbian feminism. One of the things that we talked about is: feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice. That lesbianism is a political choice. We didn’t really write very much about desire, but we said lesbianism is a political choice that every woman should make. But lesbianism by itself is not enough and that’s why we married them: lesbianism and feminism.
We wrote a lot about class. There were working class women in the collective who had a lot of class consciousness. Really, they taught us, basically. We wrote about class a lot. We wrote about capitalism. We had some pieces about historical women. We had some poetry by people like Judy Grahn. We had photographs and drawings. That’s where JEB’s photographs first appeared, in The Furies. Short stories.
We did a whole self-defense thing. We had two-page spreads on how to poke somebody (somebody meaning a man) in the Adam’s apple. The reason that we put the paper out was to get out our thinking about lesbian feminism. We would do movie reviews and book reviews and criticisms of other writings by lesbian feminists. We saw ourselves as the vanguard of the revolution. We called it a newspaper, but it had no news.
JW: You said you stayed there about a year, and where did you go after that?
GB: After The Furies broke up, along with my lover at the time, Meg Christian, and some other women, we started Olivia Records. I did that for seven years before I left. My progression was The Furies, then figure out what am I going to do now? What do we want to do? Meg and I became lovers. I got involved in music. I saw the ability of music to get into women’s hearts.
The Furies was a very intellectual mental thing. Music was a very heart thing. I could see how Meg’s music was moving women. I thought, okay, this is where I want to go now. She was my lover, so of course, I became her manager. This was 1973. In those days, we didn’t know how to do a record company. I didn’t know how to be a manager. I didn’t know how to run sound. But that didn’t stop us. We just said, we can figure this out and we did.
And I’m not just talking about Olivia. I’m talking about that whole generation. That whole time period was all about saying, don’t tell me I can’t do this. The fact that you’re telling me I can’t do this just makes me want to do it more, and so I will do it and we did. We started a record company. I learned how to be a manager and a booking agent and to run the sound in her concerts and help other women learn how to produce concerts. We just made it up.
JW: But you needed money to get started, I assume. Was that hard to get?
GB: Well, yes and no. I had a job as a school teacher. I was teaching Spanish to kindergartners and first graders at a primarily black private school in DC. I had the summer off, and Meg was touring and playing in clubs and teaching guitar and she basically had the summer off. So, I booked a tour for her across the country for the summer.
We were going to drive across the country. And we were basically looking for people who could help us. We put out a little notice in “Off Our Backs,” which was one of the early feminist newspapers that came out of DC that basically said, we’re starting a women’s record company. If you know anything about anything, could you get in touch with us, please? A little more articulate and specific than that.
We drove across the country. We camped along the way, saw parts of the country. I had never been to California before. It was wonderful. Every now and then we would call into our collective mates who were in DC and there was no email and there were no cell phones, and long distance was very expensive. We didn’t do it very often.
They said that we had gotten a letter from a woman in Vida, Oregon, named Joan Lowe, who said she actually had a little record company. She did children’s music, and she had her own studio, and she was a recording engineer. And she would be happy to meet with us and tell us how to be a record company or tell us what she knew. We decided, okay, it’s out of our way, but we’ll go. We drove up to Vida and what we thought was going to be like a two-hour meeting – we ended up spending like three days with Joan. She was amazing.
She knew everything. She was just so happy to find somebody to share her knowledge with. We just hit it off. We had a wonderful time with her. She said that instead of starting by making an album, we should start by making a 45 record. Now a lot of people are going to see this, and have no idea what a 45 is, but it’s a single, and it has two songs, one on each side. Back in the day, I think they were like 50¢ or a dollar, something like that. Not very much money.
And she said, “Why don’t you start it that way? Then you can get some practice and also then you can use it as a fundraiser.” We liked that idea. We got back to DC. We decided we were going to make a 45 and we put Meg on one side and Cris Williamson on the other side. We had met Cris, that’s another story. Joan flew out from Oregon and I found a studio where they would let her work and we recorded them.
We created a list of every woman that we could think of in the music business, mostly recording artists and every famous feminist. And we drafted a letter and sent out a copy of the 45 with this letter. We didn’t have anybody’s addresses. We had the address of their record company, the address of their publisher, the address of their manager. My guess is that 99% of these never even got to those folks. But the idea was that’s how we were going to raise the money to put out the first album.
But our friends were furious because we weren’t going to sell the record. They were like, “No, you can’t not sell this record. We have to sell this record.” We thought, okay, we’ll sell the record. We decided to sell the record for $1.50. We put ads in all the feminist papers. And wherever Meg would go on tour, we would take the record and sell it. It was $1.50 and the postage was, I believe, 35¢.
We put in a little slip saying, we’re a new record company, we’re trying to raise money. If you want to send a donation, please feel free. I would say 95% of the orders came in with a donation. Some of them might have been rounded up to $2. It was 15¢, but some of them were for $1,000 and some of them were for hundreds of dollars.
The response was just amazing. It was thrilling. We knew a woman who said she was going to give us $10,000 to make Meg’s first record. Between what we sold of the 45’s and this $10,000, that’s how we were able to make our first record. I have to say that from the mailing that we did to all the famous people, we received only two responses. One was from Meg’s uncle and one was from a woman named Harriet Schock, who was a recording artist, and we never heard from anybody else.
Oh, that’s not true. We heard from Yoko Ono and she invited us to meet with her and she offered to cut a single for us. We asked her for money, and she said, “No, I’m not going to give you money, but I will cut a single for you.” But we declined. We thought that what she did was not really what we were doing. I see now so many years later, who she was. She was in so many ways what we were doing. But the music that she was doing, we just didn’t think it was going to create a kind of fuel and inspire the women’s movement.
JW: What year was that?
GB: We met with Yoko Ono in 1974.
JW: Did you get enough money to do your first album?
GB: We got enough money to do the first album. After that, the albums began to pay for themselves. Meg’s album paid for itself and more. Meg was touring. By the time Meg’s album came out, we had moved to Los Angeles, and the collective had come to be five women. Some of the other women who had started with us had dropped out early. They didn’t really want to do a record company. Then three of them decided they didn’t want to move to California. But we really felt like we could not be a record company in DC. It was too hard.
We needed to be in LA, New York or Nashville, which was where the music industry was. We weren’t going to Nashville because we didn’t think that a bunch of lesbians were going to make it in Nashville. I can’t remember why we didn’t want to go to New York. I think it was because several of us were from the East Coast. But anyway, we went to LA. Meg’s album came out. After that, we did Cris Williamson’s first album, The Changer and the Changed, and that was, as far as I know, that still is the biggest selling record in women’s music and continues to inspire and delight and heal.
Meg was touring constantly, and we were living collectively. The five of us were living collectively. We had all quit our jobs except for Meg and whatever she earned from the concerts went into the collective pool. We would take turns trying to collect unemployment. We were able to do Olivia full time, basically. But money throughout our whole existence was an issue. There was never enough to do what we wanted to do.
When we did our third album, which was by a Bay Area band called BeBe K’Roche, we had a promotion budget of $1,000, which we thought was a huge amount of money, and it was more than we had spent to promote either of the other albums. Money was always capitalism. We never had enough money, but we did okay. We did it as okay as we could do.
JW: How long did the company go? What other stuff did you do?
GB: I was there for seven years. But the company, Olivia Records, itself went on for at least probably another ten years. I don’t even know how many years after that. Then it morphed into what is now Olivia Travel, where they do cruises and basically trips for lesbians. It’s a very successful business. But the record company lasted for a number of years after I left, and then the record industry itself started to implode, and there were so many changes.
Judy Dlugacz, who was part of the original collective and is now the president of Olivia Travel, made a smart decision to get out of the record business and get into something else because the music business has just changed a lot and not in good ways.
JW: After you got out of that, did you continue with feminist activities?
GB: After I got out of Olivia, I produced concerts. I had my own concert production company for a while, and I was producing only women artists, but I could not make a living doing that. My next step was I got involved in community radio. I got hired as the director of women’s programming for the Pacifica station in Berkeley, KPFA. I was the first paid Women’s Department Director, and I did that, and I learned radio.
This is another thing where I didn’t know how to do anything with radio except to turn on the radio. But I learned. I had great teachers at KPFA and I got to do some wonderful programs. That was such a great opportunity. Plus, I got to be an advocate for women inside the station and for women’s issues on the air. So that was very exciting. I did that for a number of years, and then I became program director of KPFA in part because the way that programming was structured at KPFA, as at most community stations, was primarily done by white men who had been around for 20 years. It was very difficult to get other voices on the air.
I formed an alliance immediately with the woman who was the director of the Third World Programming Department. Her department had a lot of air-time, but it was mostly in the middle of the night. And we had hardly any airtime. We just started acting together and insisting that things had to change, that having a format that hadn’t been changed in 25 years and calling yourself a community radio station and a radical political community radio station that preached change on the air all the time but never changed inside was not okay. So that was a big thing that we did. Then I left.
JW: Before you go on, what kind of programs did you have? You said you had programs that promoted women. Did you have any favorites?
GB: Here’s some examples of great programs that I got to do. The State Board of Education in California decided that there was a short story written by Alice Walker, which was too problematic for California students, and it was banned and so I called Alice Walker and said, you’ve got to come into the station and read this story on the air and she did. I had to go to her house, and then I got to interview her about the story. I had tremendous access. So that was a great one.
I got to interview Ntozake Shange. Here’s another show that I thought I did that was really interesting. Meg Christian and I had broken up, and she got very involved in Siddha Yoga. I didn’t really understand what Siddha Yoga was or why she was doing it, but we were still friends. She told me that Ericka Huggins was also involved in the ashram. Ericka Huggins was a very important member of the Black Panther Party. Among other things, she had run the free breakfast program for children, which was one of the great programs of the Panthers.
Then I found out about two other women who were also involved in Siddha Yoga, one of whom was Paula Moss, who was the choreographer for the show, Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf. Then there was a fourth woman whose name I don’t remember, but she was a columnist for the Village Voice when the Voice was a really political paper. And they were all involved in Siddha Yoga. I thought, what is going on here?
I invited them to come into the station, and for 2 hours, we talked about what are nice girls like you doing in a place like this? It was a really interesting conversation. It was a great show. That was one of the great things about KPFA was you have an idea, you have a curiosity, you follow it. But I’ll tell you one other thing that I got to do. I got to go to the political conventions and produce our coverage of that. I got to produce the 1993 Lesbian Gay March on Washington. We did a live national broadcast. I produced that.
We did a live broadcast of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s 20th anniversary concert in DC. I got to produce that. I had left KPFA. I was working for Pacifica National programming, but it’s all the same family. One of the most thrilling things that I got to do was when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and went on his world tour and came to Oakland, California. We were chosen as the station to provide the audio feed to all the other stations. We got to sit in the broadcast booth, and I directed Nelson Mandela, and it was amazing. It was amazing to be there.
JW: That’s great. I assume you kept up your interest in women’s issues and pushing women’s programs through your future jobs. Would you like to name a few?
GB: I did, but my focus shifted a little bit. After I left KPFA, and I was there between KPFA and Pacifica and then back to KPFA. I was there for a long time, about 14 years. Then I went to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), which is a membership organization of about 250 member stations around the country. I was not pushing feminist issues so much as I was pushing feminist values.
How we value process, how we do things, is as important as what we do. For example, I would produce a conference. Part of my job at NFCB was to produce the annual community radio conference. I was very clear about the need for representation to make sure that there were lots of women and lots of people of color on all of the panels and among all of the keynote speakers.
I don’t know what else to say. It’s more of an everyday thing. The values of feminism to me are about treating people with respect, about being non-hierarchical, having flat organizations, being honest and transparent. I know some people would say that’s not feminist, but I think it’s part of what feminism is. I claim it for feminism.
That’s just how we operated and how I tried to operate and what I tried to be. I was the Director of Federation Services. My job was to be the person when the stations needed something, they would call me. To really listen to what they were saying and to try to help them always with the idea of, have you spoken directly to the people that are involved in this? Just common-sense kinds of things that were not so common.
Those principles, because of my work in The Furies and in Olivia were so ingrained in me and became so much a part of who I am, that’s just what I did. I still went to marches, but my feminism became more integrated. It was just a part of how I lived and worked every day and how I talk to people.
JW: Are you involved in any particular activities today?
GB: Yes, I am, actually. Now most of my work is around racial equity, which is to me all the same. After Trayvon Martin was killed, and that was right around the time that I don’t know if you’ve got this neighborhood app called Nextdoor. Trayvon Martin was killed and Nextdoor had just started. There were terrible rants on Nextdoor in my neighborhood, things like, “A Black person in a hoodie was walking down the street. I didn’t recognize him so I called the cops.” Or “Two black men just drove by slowly, very suspicious.”
And I thought, this kid has just been murdered for doing nothing and now people are talking about people like they’re aliens, just people who are Black walking around, driving around. This is not okay. But I don’t know how to talk about this in a way that’s different. In the 70’s and 80’s, the way white people talked about race was when somebody did something that we thought was racist was to say, “you stupid racist,” which wasn’t very effective. I didn’t know really how to talk about it. I wanted to respond, but I didn’t know how to say it in a way that was going to be effective. So, we wrote something up and posted it on Nextdoor, basically saying, this racial profiling is terrible. Does anybody want to talk about it?
Four people came to our house. This was in 2013. A group of six people, because it was Jackie [Dennis, my partner] and me as well, have been meeting together ever since. There are twelve of us now. It’s called Neighbors for Racial Justice. And we have been active. We do a weekly Black Lives Matter vigil. We have a presentation that we take out to community groups about racial profiling. We are part of grassroots coalitions in the city of Oakland. We work on all kinds of city issues and city coalitions.
There’s a small group, a small number of the women, but it’s a mixed-race group. We have a Black counsel from whom we get guidance. Some of the women have an ongoing class called Transforming White Privilege on the Road to Liberation, in which they teach white women about white privilege. It’s very successful and it’s just growing and growing.
Through that, I found my next job, which was with this organization called World Trust Educational Services. We do documentary films and trainings and workshops and keynotes on issues of racial equity. It’s wonderful work. For a while it was all women. Now there’s a man, but he’s a very nice man, again, by accident. But it’s women who do this work, basically. It’s wonderful people and it is good work and it’s important and it makes a difference.
JW: Is there anything you’d like to add as a last comment?
GB: I want to mention my book, if I can. I wrote a book in 2020 which was published by Aunt Lute books which is a queer, multicultural feminist press in the Bay Area that’s been around for many years. The book is called Olivia on The Record – A Radical Experiment in Women’s Music. It’s done pretty well given that it came out in the middle of Covid and I couldn’t do a book tour, but it’s interesting and it’s about Olivia.
It’s kind of a memoir, but the focus is on Olivia. There’s a chapter on The Furies. There’s a chapter on my abortive baseball career. But it has reminded me and given me the opportunity to speak to people and to write about it again. The feedback from so many women about the importance of Olivia Records in their lives. What it meant in the 1970’s to be in a room full of women wherever, hearing music that was affirming. It was hugely important to so many women. So that has been great.
JW: Where can one get that book?
GB: You can go to Aunt Lute books or you can Google the title and it’ll take you to the distributor which is Small Press Distribution (SPD) and you can buy it from them.
JW: Where did you get the name Olivia, by the way?
GB: We had quite a number of discussions about what to call this record company. Meg read a book called Olivia, by Olivia, which was a pseudonym for Dorothy Strachey, and we liked it. It was a woman’s name. It sounded kind of mellifluous. Olivia.
JW: Thank you so much, Ginny. It’s been great to talk to you.
GB: Thank you, Judy. Thanks for doing this.