THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Linda “Clarkie” Clarke
“I’m happy with the small ripples of effects I’ve had on many things.”
Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, Legacy, August 2021
LC: My name is Linda Clarke. I was born in Melrose, Massachusetts 79 years ago. I did not have a remarkable childhood, although I grew up in a house of all women except for my grandfather. My parents divorced when I was an infant and my mother, older sister and I moved in with my grandparents. I was a happy and well-behaved child. I went to the University of New Hampshire where I majored in English literature. My sole ‘feminist’ awakening was when I realized that the only people who could drink beer in the dormitory were the men, which was disgraceful. To protest, I brought a can of beer to a house meeting and that got me in a great deal of trouble. I was extremely interested in foreign affairs and public events, but feminist issues were a little far away for me then in the early 1960s.
RL: You were in New York City in your early adult life, but you didn’t go directly to graduate school then.
LC: I did not. I left school without graduating on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I went home. Then I went to New York City to take a pause. I lived on the Lower East Side on East 3rd Street at a time when it was very interesting to be there. And coincidentally, the first W.I.T.C.H. meetings were held in my building. I was for some reason invited, although I worked a traditional job downtown on Wall Street at that time, at the American Bureau of Metal Statistics. W.I.T.C.H. meeting was the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. They were an interesting group. And they were ferocious. They would do all kinds of peculiar political actions.
RL: This was before the creation of NOW?
LC: About the same time. They actually thought I was a CIA agent. They started talking about the Kennedy family and how dreadful they were. And how they were sexist kids. I was really appalled because, well, I’m from Massachusetts, and I had been so moved by Ethel Kennedy, striding over the lawn of her estate with her little newborn baby a few months after her husband had been assassinated, that it moved me deeply. So I spoke up and I said, this is a person we should have great sympathy for. That created tremendous energy, and I was almost shouted out of the room. When I discreetly left, I realized that I would probably never be a W.I.T.C.H.
I read all the time, even though I lived in the midst of a kind of chaotic, radical area, with all these different kinds of energy – there were Hell’s Angels across the street, and the women’s homeless shelter a few doors up and then the Bowery bums, of course, right around the corner, and the East Third Street music settlement house up the street. But I was completely oblivious, frankly. I went to work, I came home and I read.
At this time, the writer Artemis March, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, came to stay with me. She was writing the famous document, Women Identified Women, and she would come home from her evenings at Radicalesbians meetings with Rita Mae Brown or other feminists at that time and discuss what she was doing, which I found really interesting. Then I met Barbara Love at a Quaker meeting and we began talking about some books we had read. She invited me to meet some of her friends and that’s how I got involved in a consciousness raising group. We used to call it Super Group Number One. It was the first consciousness raising group of lesbian feminists in the New York area that we knew about, 10 or 11 women. And from there we started 20 other groups. So that was the first real activism that I had been involved in. We sat around in a room and things came to mind. Our complaints, our problems. Why is this happening? What is that for? We realized we had a shared cultural experience of oppression and sexism.
RL: Did you have a theme for each week?
LC: . No, we didn’t. The people in this group were highly articulate, fiercely intelligent people, many of them writers, Barbara Love, Sidney Abbott, Jane O’Wyatt, Phyllis Birkby, Alma Routsong (aka Isabelle Miller) and Kate Millett, who I had met a while before on a gay rights march to Albany. After the meetings we would go to these old-fashioned lesbian bars, dim lighted and full of fear, paranoia and self-hatred. We would come in and take over the place, and it was just so joyous and enthusiastic and talking a mile a minute, interrupting each other because we had so many things say and we knew we were changing the world.
RL: And then you started other consciousness raising groups.
LC: And then, yes, we did. Each member went out at various times, other people knew about us. Friends, etc. “When we have ten people, can you send somebody out to tell us what to do?” We didn’t know what to do. But we went out and said, this is what we do. And it was spontaneous and a very natural thing. And the energy and delight in women talking to other women, whether they were just feminist, or lesbian feminists, it really made no difference. It was so extraordinary and illuminating and it gave us such confidence. It was like the word brio. It was a wonderful thing.
RL: Did long term friendships develop from those days?
LC: Yes, indeed. I still have deep friendships from this period. Kate was a lifelong friend until she died, also Phyllis Birkby and Alma Routsong. I recently wrote the introduction to Barbara Love’s memoir, There At The Dawning. Prominent women not in the CR became lifelong friends, Phyllis Chesler, Eleanor Pam.
RL: Did any of the talk in the consciousness raising groups result in action or activities that changed?
LC: Yes, they did. We marched on Albany. There were many protests downtown, also at the New York Times. Mostly though, I have to say, this group began as a theoretical group. And our main joy was to talk to each other about things that were happening in society, about books that we had read, that explained things, books that we were writing, that were on point. I was only involved at that particular time in this helping other groups form, I had a knack for it and did it well.
RL: And what was the timing of your return to graduate school?
LC: After this little period, I realized that my health was really going downhill. I wasn’t sleeping. I was eating all this meat. There was a lot of drinking and smoking and talking and the whole thing. And I developed a different interest in life. And it was a very spiritual thing which I couldn’t talk about too much with my feminist pals. Because it just seemed to be inappropriate, except with Kate. And that’s how I really got to know Kate quite well and we became very, very close – because we were involved in the same interesting inner thoughts, so to speak.
She had a remarkable moral sense. While at Oxford, she had a tutor Anne Elliot, a lovely Christian , English tutor. And she spent a lot of time with Kate. She was this gentle, lovely woman, highly ethical, and these conversations were very influential to Kate. But Kate shyly introduced her to this kind of furious language, the first beginnings of Sexual Politics. This British older woman loved it! Oh, my God! And even the day she died or before that just a few days before, she said, “Oh, yes, dear Kate.”
There’s a garden in Oxford now named for Anne Elliott, because she was a great tutor to many people. But she took particular interest in this radical American. One thing Kate got from her was this sense of goodwill because Anne Elliot was always talking about goodwill. And Kate talked about that, too. I mentioned it every once in a while in our CR group. We would have breakfast many times, just Kate and myself. And we would talk about this. What does it mean, goodwill? I didn’t feel at all self-conscious or embarrassed or threatened, so to speak, by talking to this person about my spiritual aspirations. And we had wonderful discussions.
RL: How did the idea of the Farm come up in terms of your relationship with Kate?
LC: I determined that I had to leave my New York feminist group. I had the full bloom, so to speak, the marvelous kind of newness had entered into me. It was mine now. And I could go forward to something else that I was really interested in, which was how to quiet my mind and how to find out who I really was. So, I went to spiritual organizations, and I spent nine years in a ashram in Queens and one in Florida. I spent several months alone traveling through India. And then I came back to New York.
I stayed with Phyllis Birkby, who was a good friend. She was a feminist architect, a wonderful woman who designed spaces for women. By then Kate had met Sophie Keir and they told me about the Farm. They said we need a cook, we need someone to come there and help us. So, I was at loose ends at the time and I said, well, I will, sure. At the same time I was going back to school to complete my education with degrees from CUNY, a master’s degree from Bank Street and finally my Ed.D in Philosophy and Education of Philosophy from Columbia University.
RL: Was that just a summer thing then?
LC: It was actually three or four months for us, but mostly people came in the summer. It was a wonderful experience. Nine or ten women would come every summer, different artists of all kinds, some worked out, some wanted to leave. And we were planting Christmas trees. That was Kate’s idea. A cottage industry to plant Christmas trees and then in ten years, we can pay for everything ourselves. A lot of the original money was came from the Doubleday money from Sexual Politics. Many wonderful things happened at the farm.
Simone de Beauvoir came to visit. She wanted to come over to America and she thought Kate could help because she had just won an award. She wanted Kate to see if Doubleday would just cash the check for her. And it actually did happen, and we got a chance to be with her for several days. Simone de Beauvoir was just learning English. She was a little shy, but she could still speak a little bit. We had these long dinners. I cooked this endless food. And of course, at that time there was quite a bit of drinking, because everyone was excited and cheerful, and Simone de Beauvoir loved it.
So, they were drinking martinis at one end of the table and I was clearing the plates. So finally it was time to go to bed and I realized that Kate had just been plying Simone with one little martini after another. I felt that I should go upstairs behind Simone de Beauvoir. I didn’t want her to fall, of course. She made it up upstairs beautifully and her room was right opposite the small hallway to my room. And my door was open, and I sat down just to make sure she was fine, observing to see how she did. She took a huge book from the bed and she put it in her lap, and I realized it was a dictionary. She was trying to look up a word that she couldn’t understand.
It was so moving to me. She actually was quite frail. She had on little blue gabardine pants, a white blouse and a turban around her head most of the time. And then she carried her pocketbook everywhere. Once Sophie and I were walking with Simone down to the pond where people had set up microphones for an interview with Simone and Kate. And she said to us, Kate is one of the great women of the twentieth century, you know that. And then she walked ahead. I cannot tell you the thrill of the whole thing. Kate had a wonderful relationship with her and actually was in Paris when Simone died.
She was at the funeral at the head of the line, walking with a huge parade of people to the grave sites. Kate was right there, an American feminist. We asked Kate when she came home, what was it like? You saw the whole thing! And Kate really didn’t have too much to say. She spent a long time looking at Simone when she was with her by herself. And then she gave Sophie and I each a handkerchief she had gotten from the airport. She felt she had to do something.
RL: Wonderful. How or when did you become aware that the whole field of philosophy, the canon was male?
LC: Well, I did go to Columbia, and I majored in Philosophy, and I realized immediately that all the readings were by men, never women. My dissertation was called “The Bachelor Mind,” because one after the other, from the very first one to the very last one, men not influenced or concerned with women. I made a case that very few of them knew women at all. They had male students. They lived with men. They had male butlers. I mean, everything was men. Imagine if half of them had been women, half men. It’d be a totally different world.
RL: Thinking about that, I know that a little later you got very much involved in the environment.
LC: Oh, yes, I did. I wrote a book called On A Planet Sailing West, A Book of Ravings. It’s on jlblue.com. I have one paragraph I thought maybe I would include. I began writing pieces called Ravings in 1999 and then I published the book in 2005.
It is time that we all take our stand with the ferocious mothers of the world, the bears and wolverines and eagles who rebuke, humble and crush cub-killers and nest-robbers and terrorists of babies. It is time we take our stand with their inexhaustible longing to protect. There is something gone wrong when a mother’s work is looked upon as a feeble sort of existence.
Our own species makes this mistake. The meat-prowlers of humanity mock the softness of mothers and look upon them as incomplete because they are largely unarmed and focused on the mundane. The world ends up being led by a defective, brawling irresponsible pessimistic view of human nature which tolerates putting the tender pure bodies of our own innocents to work unprotected, unnurtured, and untrained in locked factories or prostitution rings or making them slaves in somebody’s ragtag army. Surely, the wolf mother and bear mother and mountain lion mother would be horrified at our lack of grief for such an unnatural thing.
RL: The connection between the environmental damage and neglect and abuse and the male voice that was dominant, was that something that you wrote about or got concerned about?
LC: It was in the background, but the foreground is really the non-human world. And I wrote little stories that came to mind and then happened to me, about this world. Animals. We moved to Florida and I stopped writing Ravings a few years ago because I was so disconsolate about the condition of our planet that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So, I had to regroup, reboot.
RL: What do you consider your most important and impactful involvement when you look back?
LC: I think it was my own consciousness that developed and over time I influenced other people with that consciousness. I became the ‘mother’ of the Farm. I continued my spiritual practice and integrated it with my radical politics. I read and I write and I continue to have robust exchanges with others. With my partner and spouse of 34 years, I’ve followed Kate’s example and hosted hundreds of large dinners and brunches, all replete with brilliant women shouting, laughing, crying, sharing their visions, changing the world.