THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Hold the History of Progress, of Learning, of How to Break Down Barriers and Unequal Rights.”
Interviewed by Amanda Abraham, 2017
MW: My name is Martha Wheelock. I’ve been an English women’s studies and ethics teacher for forty-seven, eight years and I’m now retired, and I have been making documentary films for, oh, since 1978, before most of you were born. And so that’s part of the way I fill my life and the other part of the way I fill my life is being as involved as I can in what’s going on in the world today, growing and learning and occasionally gardening and taking long walks and hikes.
And I have lots of wonderful friends. And so that’s more than 24 hours a day. I was a feminist long before I heard the word feminist, even though it’s a very old term, I was aware of the term, I believe probably around 1970 when I marched in the very first women’s march down Fifth Avenue with Betty Friedan, and it was in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of women’s right to vote. And they had a terrible time getting street permits.
And when they couldn’t get street permits, they just said, we’ve got to take over a little bit more. “We are feminists,” [they] said. And then there was, of course, the feminist The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. But that was not a word that was used either. But I think I remember the first time I really read the word was in the Ms. Magazine, with Wonder Woman on the cover and “why I want a wife” and I had been married and I wanted a wife very badly because I was overworked as a wife.
So that started consciousness raising groups that time in the early ’70s. And the word feminist came up then. I think I just used it used my concept of it as being equal, wanting to be different from men, but the same as men, so different in the way [of] what I brought to the world as a woman, because there are differences, but also the same in rights and opportunity. Yes, feminism to me means the opportunities and rights ascribed to all people should include women and minorities, as well as the fact that we recognize the strengths and the attributes that each gender brings to the world.
And so, feminism includes in intersectionality for me, of class and race and talents and opportunities. I wasn’t allowed to play in the Little League when I was eight and I was better than all the boys and I had to carry their darn bats and their stinky socks. So, I knew I was really angry. So, I started off very angry, as a young girl. I rode horseback bareback better than anybody. I was a really ardent tomboy and I didn’t want to wear a dress.
And I just knew that people were going to talk about me and really think I was really weird. But so, I was in that ilk early and I got a kick out of being different. I really wanted to be really, really weird and queer and unusual, you know? So, I think I got that in my vein. Then I was told I couldn’t be a scientist when I went to college because I only got B pluses in college science and math.
So, I wouldn’t get a job. And I really wanted to be a scientist. So, I became an English teacher instead. And then my parents thought I should get married because they thought I should have children. And that was a disaster because I married a man who didn’t want to be married either. And so, all of that stuff contributed to my awareness that as in the early ’60s to the ’70s, where I was feeling pulled apart from society, that those were the threads that were pulling my quilt of being a little bit aware.
And I spoke up a lot, but I didn’t have quite the voice yet. It really came when I was working at NYU on my PhD in English. And I wanted to do the writer May Sarton and May Sarton was a wonderful writer, but she was a lesbian. And so, they didn’t think that was appropriate. But she was very well known and very loved. And they said, well, no, I think you should do Ernest Hemingway.
And I said, I have no interest in Ernest Hemingway. You know, he’s been done to bits. So, May Sarton was still alive, and I defended and got my thesis done, and finally I said to them, “I don’t care whether you like my approach to this person, this writer, it’s appreciative. It’s not critical. It’s the fact that we have to judge women who find their writer’s voice a little differently from the way, you know, [we judge] the standard archive of male writers.”
And I said, “You can take your thesis and I’m going out and I’m going to make a film about her,” because I knew her. She was a very dear friend of mine by that time. And so that was my first, “You can take your Ernest Hemingway and shove him. I’m going to go ahead and create a format for bringing women writers and women artists and women’s history to light, because they have been overshadowed and unsung and eclipsed.”
And that was at NYU and that was my brazen moment. And I can remember myself like Nora in the Doll’s House, walking out and slamming the door. I let my thesis be there. And I walked out the door and I slammed the door. And you know what happened after I finished my film on May Sarton? NYU bought four copies of it. And so more people saw the film than ever would have read my thesis.
My thesis is still down in the box and someday I’ll publish it. But it was an exciting way to start my real activism and by that time I had already been marching and leaving my husband and being a consciousness raised girl, a woman. Sometimes there is a moment when the straw breaks the camel’s back. And I was aware that I was a very polite young woman. I had gone to Miss Hall’s School for fine young ladies for my undergraduate, my prep school training, and I wasn’t supposed to talk back.
And I believe that when I got angrier and angrier the way I was when I was eight years old, I allowed myself to speak up and speak out and even slam the door. So that the moment is that when we’ve had enough, when we’ve gotten to the bottom, we can’t stand it anymore and recognize that it’s a progress and it’s a procedure of making that anger, making that voice even louder within, that then particularly women of my generation had the courage to speak up.
I think today’s young women speak up very well and very easily. And they know they don’t have to be polite ladies, you know, but for me and most of the women I knew in my generation, we put up with an awful lot. If I had to pick up another pair of socks that he dropped on the floor, I was going to gag him. You know, it was that type of thing.
And certainly, books like The Feminine Mystique, certainly talking to other women who were in the same kind of constraint mode as I was, helped a lot. And we would practice and see our groups, we would practice: “pick up your own socks!” We would do things like that, you know, we practiced, we had to practice. So, it wasn’t for me at least, it wasn’t a natural inclination to be outrageous. But once I was outrageous, and once I could do it, there was no turning back.
So, from that point on, I found speaking up a little easier. I still have my problems, you know, or my restraints. I consider myself an activist because activist means to be an existential participant with agency in one’s own life, and in the good and benefit of those you love and those you know, and those you don’t know beyond your circle of comfort. So, activism to me means to be, to put my private incidences in life into a political arena.
And we feminists have always said the personal is the political to take what we know. I needed to have an abortion before abortions were legal. So, I had to be an activist around that forever and ever. I had domestic abuse in my marriage. I had to take that personal experience and extend it to others. And those personal things that happened to me, become tools of my own activism.
And my beloved writer, May Sarton, says the deeper you go into the personal, the more universal you become, the way you align yourself with issues, the way you align yourself with people. You know you find that core. And that’s what activism is to me, that I can identify, try to identify, with almost as much as I can, empathetically with the causes of others. Sharing feminism with other women. And with men, and with my students, all my students. It just makes me stronger all the time, too, you know, because I don’t preach it.
I try to attract it and not promote it, you know, like the 12 step programs. You know, you want to be an example of it. But it constantly makes me think about why I believe as I do or why I act as I do. And I want to listen. I want to know why somebody voted for Donald Trump. I want to know why they think that abortion should not be pro-choice, whether they want to have it or not.
I need to understand that. So that’s part of the discussion and the open mindedness. And I think probably everybody in a way should be a feminist because they should know what another person feels or thinks and make sure that we’re all same but different.
AA: What changes for American women in the last 50 years are you most proud of? If you could pick maybe one or two?
MW: Oh gosh. That’s like asking what’s your favorite child? One thing is when I first got out of college, the employment ads were “help wanted – male” and “help wanted – female”. And I didn’t want to be a secretary. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be in a law office. I wanted to do something that was in their category. So that was one thing that changed the opening up of all possibilities for males and females no matter what.
I am also so proud of the younger generation, that they see what we wanted to be able to do and have pushed without knowing the history. And that’s why I’m involved with women’s history, because when they formed marches on January 21st, they didn’t know that history. And I love when I can bring films to that history so they can know that they’re standing on the shoulders of Inez Milholland and Alice Paul and have no qualms about expressing themselves and taking whatever opportunity they can find.
So, the second thing is that we have allowed the work of women in the second wave movement and in the first wave movement, obviously, what we can be proud of is that we have opened up the possibility for more far reaching opportunities and expressions for young women, and I believe young men. You know, stay at home dads! Far out, you know. And the fact that they now put baby changing stations in the men’s room! Far out, you know.
AA: So, tell me about the Veteran Feminists of America.
MW: Well, I became involved in the Veteran Feminists of America because the inclusion in Veteran Feminists of America is that you have been active in the work of the second wave of feminism, which started I’m not quite sure when, I would say probably in the early ’60s. So, I felt that I was a good veteran feminist because I marched in 1970 down 5th Avenue. I was one of the first members of the New York City NOW under Betty Friedan and Ivy Bottini. And yet I wasn’t. I didn’t. And I was a teacher. And so, I had Susan B. Anthony Day and I learned with my students about what it was to be an early feminist. And so, the Veteran feminist is carrying forward the history of what it was like to read a newspaper with help wanted ads, male and female, of being told I couldn’t be a scientist and opening up that field of legal abortion, of the right to get a restraining order on a battering husband.
I mean, all these things that we were taught and that we had to discover. I remember the days when we were taught how to look up our ourselves with a speculum to know whether we were pregnant and how to do that type of thing. We trained each other. So that becomes the feminist that I knew in New York City. Now New York City was a very active place, much more so than maybe the middle of America.
And of course, there was the Boston Women’s Health Collective. They taught us how to, well I better not say it on camera, but they taught us all sorts of things, you know, about our bodies, our bodies ourselves. Those are the veteran feminists who taught by leading, who just did it, you know? And I think it’s a very, very important thing to maintain this history, to talk to women who have made the road a little easier for the women today, and it’s very important.
When I screened my films on women’s suffrage, a woman came up to me during my film on “California Women Win The Vote.” And she was in tears and she said, “Oh, I just feel terrible. I haven’t voted so many times and I didn’t realize what those women did to get me the vote.” And I think that when young women look back and say, I didn’t realize that women couldn’t go to law school or that women never could go to veterinarian school, they never were allowed to do that.
The Veteran Feminists of America is important because we hold the history of progress, of learning, of how to break down barriers and unequal rights. And people, especially younger people, should know the progress because then they can be proud as they move forward. And the Veteran Feminists are getting very much older. I mean, I’m one of them. And we try to lead by containing that history and spreading those words for the third wave of feminism or whatever we want to call this kind of artificial demarcation to keep moving forward.
It is so much more empowering to know the history, to know what has happened beforehand and what were the tools and the tactics. The early suffrage movement taught the women how to get the vote. And now if we just take some of that, we can run our candidates better. We can do so many more things because it’s all been passed out. And I think the younger generation get a kick out of knowing, you know, what I couldn’t do and what they can do now, you know.
And what did I do? How did I walk out of my PhD thesis defense? And I had the courage to do that. Women just had the courage to do things. That’s very empowering for the first wave feminism to be fairly defined from 1848 to 1920, which was the major reason for that movement, was the right to vote. The right to vote included so much more. It included paying taxes, getting work, labor laws.
All of those things contributed to the campaigns for the right to vote. So that started women opening up their fields of things. In 1921, however, we found that women didn’t do an awful lot of difference because they had the vote. The next wave started, I believe, and through the ’30s, it was a matter of survival into the war, early war years. But by our entry into World War II in 1941, women had to take on the work of men.
And so, we opened up another sphere of employment possibilities, Rosie the Riveter, those kinds of actions. But then they sent us back into the house in the 1950s, back to the home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. And so, we have one step forward, another step back. And that’s when the discontent in the 1950s, the discontent set in. We have Betty Friedan writing The Feminine Mystique, I think it was 1963, was published.
And I remember reading that in college and saying, oh, this will never be me. And of course, the minute I got married in 1967, it was exactly me. So, we can start not that that book alone….Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics woke us up to how literature is sexist, how media is sexist, all of these kinds of things, except for some of those really strong 1930s movies with Joan Crawford and whatnot. But so, from that early ’60s, I would say began the second wave and some of the second wave is still moving.
We still do the same things. We still march. We still defend abortion clinics. We still have a lot that we are doing over and over and over again. But I think that the new group of young women and some of us want to stay in that group. I still want to be doing the good fight with my younger sisters and brothers, seems to be about more inclusivity, more intersection of the movements and hopefully a greater international work, a connection which I’m beginning to see as well.
Whereas when second wave was American, you just deal with what you have in this country. But we are so global now that I think that we’re moving toward global feminism. On technology. Oh, absolutely, yes, and technology and social media and all of that allows us to be more connected and to know other points of view. My joyous moments have been being able to make films about women’s history. Women writers and artists that have their own feminist point of view and their collective, and I never make any money making them.
Doesn’t matter. I learn from making them. I spread the history and these films, and these women spread the history and my latest film and Inez Milholland has them crying in the aisles, and hugging the filmmaker, which I’m just a representative, Inez Milholland who died, the only suffrage martyr we have…
I had a case the other day when a Trump voter was working on my house up in Northern California and I gave him a copy of my film and the next day when he came to fix some more windows with me, he said, “That was a really powerful story. Oh, my gosh. It’s somebody who believes so deeply in their rights that they’re willing to give their life. Oh, that makes me so rich,” he said. And, you know, history is not partisan, it is what it is, and the stories of women’s work have got to be told. So that’s what Veteran Feminists of America, we tell the stories. It’s really “herstory”.
It’s really the story of humanity. And of a growing America and I’m proud of my country for growing with us. Or with me growing with my country. My sadness in the advancement of feminism and of the women’s movements of all kinds and civil rights movements of all kinds is that we go back, is that we’re still fighting for pro-choice. We’re still fighting for simple things like voting rights. And I’ve been on the edges of all of those movements. And to see the progress and then the fall back is very disheartening and it’s also strengthening.
I was devastated by the loss of Hillary Clinton. I worked on the Geraldine Ferraro campaign. I saw how they handled this brilliant woman, you know, telling her to go back to the kitchen and make blueberry muffins. I mean, those are the things that disappoint me, that there’s not more enlightenment. But, you know, progress is slow. You know, it’s very slow. And I’ve just got to be a patient waiter. No, a patient activist.
AA: What do you think of the state of feminism today?
MW: Oh, I’m so heartened by it, to see people who have never come out to a march to see people writing their editors. You know, it’s much more common now. Activism is much more common. And I’m glad to see people of all sorts being involved with it. A great story. But it was that I couldn’t be in the marches in January 21st. I was on my way to India. I arrived in India at 2:00 in the morning, which was about the time when the Washington march was starting.
And my hotel was near the diplomat housing, the embassies and in front of the American embassy, there were people standing at 4:00 in the morning saying, we support American women. You know, I’m not sure that’s the answer to what your question was. But it just was a story that hit me very, very strongly, that its global. It’s you know, it keeps going.
And the bonding that happens over activism, you stand frustrated in a march, not moving. And it’s cold and it’s raining. And you meet Amanda or Jett or Aubrey and we’re friends forever, you know? And we tell each other our stories, so those form a forum for discussion and learning and making really good signs, now too, with our computers and, you know, our neon lights and stuff. The VFA is not known as it should be. And that’s partially because women in the VFA are rather modest. They are grass roots; they are not necessarily the Gloria Steinem’s and the Bella Abzug’s.
Of course, they were veteran feminists, but most of these are grass roots little women. You know, I don’t mean little in a way that’s diminutive, but, you know, the ones that rarely made the headlines. But they did the work. And I think it’s important for people to know what the grassroots women have done, we all have done, because it means that anybody can be a part of a movement, can be part of change.
You don’t have to be, you know, a Geraldine Ferraro or the senator from your town. You can work with the mayor. You can work with the battered women’s shelters. There’s so much room for people to be involved in a mild form of activism, which is just volunteering to help at serving the homeless. You know, that’s all part of being a feminist and being an activist. Antifeminist? I was told by the head of my school that we didn’t need to have a Women’s History Month anymore because we were in a post-feminist time.
And I said, may there never be a post-feminist time. May we always be feminists. May we all acknowledge that it’s as strong a word and as vital a word and as vital a concept as democracy. And are we in a post democracy? If we’re in a post democracy, I’m leaving, you know? No, I’m not. I’m going to stay here and fight. But, you know, we’re in a post-feminist. It’s like being in a post-civil rights, a post racist.
That’s always going to be there. We always have to deal with it somehow.
AA: Can you tell me about this picture?
MW: Amanda is showing me a picture of a sign I carried a long, long time ago. This is “Mother Nature Is A Lesbian”. This sign was done many, many years ago. Gosh, I can’t remember, like one of the first or second of the of the Christopher Street marches in New York City. And at that time, there was an island off the coast near Catalina Island and it was covered with seagulls.
But there were no [male seagulls] on the island, and so they found out that the female seagulls were doing parthenogenesis, which is they were producing chicks without male assistance. I don’t know how. This probably was some made up Santa Barbara students thesis, but it made the press and so I said, wow, Mother Nature is a lesbian. And I mean, she likes men, too, but you know, we need many more women than we do men, basically, to keep us going.
And I’ve also been a follower for a long time of the Amazons and Wonder Woman and all of that type of thing. So, and I never knew it was going to lead to so much. That [photo] appeared in Time Magazine. And my parents who lived in New England at the time, got Time Magazine. I was shown it by a colleague of mine at school.
But it was the first day of school. I didn’t know it was in there. And so, I said, “Oh my God, my parents don’t know that I’m a lesbian.” So, I raced home that weekend to confront them, to tell them, because I knew they probably saw the picture. Of course, there it was, a Time Magazine on the coffee table on Friday and nobody brought it up. So, Sunday before I left, I said, “By the way, did you see my picture in Time Magazine?”
And, uh, so I said, “Let me get it. Let me show you. This is I and this is my friend Karen. And, uh, and I want to tell you that I am a lesbian.” I had left my husband about three years before that. My mother said, “Well, if you’d only married the right man, that wouldn’t have happened. I told you I thought he was a bit gay anyway. He was probably not the right person for you.” And I said, “Well, maybe that’s true, I think probably you’re right, it was the wrong man, you know, I might have been OK.”
But my father said, “Oh, Martha, it’s just like Socrates and Alcibiades. Now Socrates was the great Greek philosopher. And his abiding love was for his young student, Alcibiades. And they probably had a homoerotic relationship.” And when we talk about platonic love, it is not between a man and a woman; it’s between two men. Because women, of course, were very low in Greek society at that time. But it was how he could understand it, you know. He could understand me because it was like some world of his ancient world that he knew. And I just love that response. It was priceless. So, we’re all like Socrates and Alcibiades, and right?!