THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The need for paid time off is a primary burden on women. But if we win it, it’s good for everyone.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, November 2021
JW: Would you give us your full name and where and when you were born?
PD: My full name is Margaret Nell Powell Dobbins. I was born in Temple, Texas, September 30, 1938.
JW: Welcome to this interview. Thank you for doing it. Would you give us a brief picture of your life before the women’s movement? Where did you live? Siblings, your ethnic background, that sort of thing.
PD: I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. I went to public high school in Corpus Christi. Then I went to Wellesley College. Then I worked in Washington, and I spent a year in Spain. I got pregnant and gave up a child for adoption. That’s probably the biggest difference between me and other women that I was active with in my period. I always spoke about that. Whenever we talked about what was the most difficult thing you ever did as a woman, I always raised it. In fact, I led with it when I started groups, but no one else ever responded and that was sad for me and lonely.
JW: Did you have siblings? What was your early childhood like?
PD: I have a brother and I grew up very jealous of him. When I was in analysis, I remember I used to hit the wall and say, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” I can remember particular things that he was able to do that I wasn’t.
JW: How did you get involved in the women’s movement?
PD: I was in graduate school at Tulane in sociology, and a woman named Cathy Cade showed up during my second or third year in graduate school, and she was there because she had come for Mississippi Freedom Summer and wanted to stay in the south. She remained active in SNCC, and when she came home from the meeting in Waveland, where the paper was circulated on the position of women in the movement, she said, “Peggy, you’re always saying, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
I don’t know where the phrase came from, but it stuck in my mind that I was always considered the department’s dilettante debutant. If I spoke up and was aggressive, I was a castrating bitch. But if I didn’t, if I tried to get the conversation going indirectly, then I was the dilettante debutant. Anyway, she said, “Let’s give a course on sociology of women at the Free University of New Orleans (which existed then). So, we offered the course. That was the spring of 1966. It’s very significant because two things happened that were very influential in what happened in New York Radical Women.
I had not been in the civil rights movement; and there wasn’t anything called women’s liberation at the time. But at that point I became a part of “the movement.” It (the movement) was about me, not just me being a liberal who supported civil rights for Blacks. Most of the other women in the group had been in the civil rights movement and were still active. The first time we met, there were two guys sitting there. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the women said, “Oh, no, we’re following the pattern of the Black Caucus in SNCC. There are things that we want to say to each other that we don’t feel free saying in front of you. So, would you please leave?” And they did.
The other thing was that I had prepared a very elaborate syllabus. I’d gone to the Med school, and in retrospect it might have been good if we had followed it because I had compiled a reading list including studies on what were then called hermaphrodites and everything I could find on the question of biological differences between males and females in the Peabody Cultural Index, which wasn’t too much at the time. Ashbury and Margaret Mead are the names that I remember. Anyway, we began meeting and people began getting off the subject, talking about their personal experiences and comparing experiences with how men had treated them personally.
I said, “We’ve got to get back to the syllabus and quit digressing into personal matters.” Cathy said, “Peggy, the personal is what it’s about.” And that was the beginning of consciousness raising. That was spring of 1966.
Then in the fall of 1967, I had married and was living in New York, and I ran into Kathy Barrett, who had been in the New Orleans group. I invited her and her boyfriend to supper; and she said, “Oh, no, I would love to come, but there is a meeting tonight. But do you want to come with me? It’s a meeting of women in The Movement, and we’re going to discuss, well, we’re not really sure. It’s sort of like the meeting we had in the group that we met with in New Orleans.”
I was happy to do that. And that was the meeting at Pam Allen’s. Kathy and I came in late. Everybody had teeny little apartments and we squeezed into the kitchen, which opened into the room where everybody else was. There sitting on the floor leaning against the refrigerator with his notebook sat Bob Allen and we said, “Oh, Bob, we have to ask you to leave.” The meeting began and the question of being an autonomous (women only) group came up. We said, “Oh, yeah, we’ve already taken care of that, we asked Bob to leave.” And then the question of speaking from personal experiences, which had also been settled in the New Orleans group. Later, other people who wrote about me said, “Oh, she kept trying to get us back to a bibliography,” but I think they were just talking about that bibliography for the New Orleans group which has been long lost.
JW: Is it? Oh, I wanted to see a copy.
PD: I would love to see it, too, but my boxes from that period got rained on, and they’re not really available.
JW: Did you continue your involvement with this group?
PD: Yes. New York Radical Women. It was New York Radical Women that announced ourselves at the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. I had been to see the play “Iphigenia in Aulis.” It’s Clytemnestra confronting Agamemnon, not wanting to send her daughter Iphigenia down to the sea, to the ships, to wave the soldiers off to Troy (which later, in From Kin to Class I interpreted as sacrificing matrilinage for the spoils of war). I was active at that time in Richard Schechner’s performance group. I didn’t think of myself as an actress. I was still a sociologist and an academic. But in New Orleans, I had been in The Happening that he started, and I had been in Kill Viet Cong, which was a N.Y. street performance that he organized.
When I went to see Iphigenia, I was with my new in-laws, and repressed it, but I had this almost uncontrollable urge to stand up and say, “No, no, Clytemnestra, don’t let her go, don’t send her!” So that was on my mind when we started talking about how we were going to present ourselves as women radicals, radical about being women, not just women radicals. I was focused on burying martyred motherhood. In fact, I used to say that that’s what I gave as a eulogy on the steps of the capitol. I referred to it as Eulogy for the Very Martyred Motherhood. But for years after Jeanette Rankin, I didn’t have a copy of it.
Years later, Kathie Sarachild sent me a copy of what I’d read, and it was entitled Burial of Traditional Womanhood. I think that was part of the dialectic between Kathie and me because she, well, anyway, I pushed to do this burial of martyred motherhood, I’d said, “We could make an effigy of martyred motherhood, but I don’t know how to do that.” I had in mind that we could make a giant puppet. And Shulie had been to art school, and she said, “Oh, I know how to do that. I’ll help you do it,” and Shulie helped me.
We made this effigy of what I thought was martyred motherhood, but I guess it was traditional womanhood. Kathie, and some of the women went to Arlington, took the effigy to Arlington, and I stayed on the capitol steps and gave the eulogy there. There were two different statements. Mine is “no more will women wave men off to war.” There’s a copy of it available.
JW: The Radical Women’s group went to Atlantic City for the Miss America protest. Were you part of that?
PD: Yes. Credit where credit is due. My husband made the giant puppet. He made a huge contribution to that. Another man who made a contribution who’s never mentioned is Paul Simonin. He’s still alive. He was Florika’s partner, and he and Florika were the Eyemakers and Florika and was sort of my alter ego. We were sort of active together. I met Florika and Tanya Ross at the Jeannette Rankin Brigade that January the 15th, 1968, while waiting with Kathy Barrett to meet Flo Kennedy for the first time.
The only time I ever met Betty Friedan was on the train coming back from the Jeannette Rankin Brigade. She’d said, “Oh, you all are going to be the storm troopers.” I wasn’t sure I liked that. But that was as it turned out. That’s 1968. Another thing that was going on in my life then is that I was teaching at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1967. I did an experiment with my students and got a call at the beginning of the spring semester saying that they were going to let me go.
I called Flo Kennedy, because shd had been Kathy Barrett’s lawyer. Kathy had participated in the spilling of blood at St. Patrick’s. Rap, whom she knew from SNCC, had referred her to Flo. Meeting Flo and Florika and Tanya at Jeanette Rankin – everything is connected.
Back to Brooklyn, Flo guided me and said, “You send them a telegram saying that until you receive due process, you will continue to meet your classes.” So, I was meeting my classes in what the SDS students at Brooklyn called the “liberated classroom.”
We had quite a few adventures until at one point I was teaching the principle of social pressure, social force. What is a social force? You don’t recognize social forces exist until you go against an established tradition, custom, taboo. When one student challenged the concept, another student said, “Well, you wouldn’t take off your clothes.” He got up and took off his clothes and I was banned. An injunction was issued barring Peggy Dobbins from entering the campus of Brooklyn College on the grounds that I was a danger to the students. That was sort of a rehearsal for the occupation of Columbia the next fall. Paul Goodman was the commencement speaker and in his speech he invited me to come onto the dais with him.
Anyway, back to Atlantic City. I took the puppet and I auctioned off Miss America on the boardwalk and Bev Grant did a video of the event. Then later she had me come down to NewsReel studio and do a better audio of that. That was NewsReel Women’s first production.
Toni Home Permanent was the sponsor of the pageant. We had the idea that you threw into the trash can, the commodity that had oppressed you.
Well, my mother had given me Toni Home Permanents. She would hold my head over the sink and pour this stinky pink stuff down my hair. It dribbled down my face, burned my eyes, smelled terrible. Toni Home Permanent was the thing that I took to throw into the waste can.
Another thing about the Miss America Protest that is seldom mentioned: Bonnie Allen. Bonnie was a friend of mine. She was the mother of the boys that stood outside the grocery store and helped me carry the groceries home. She and I became friends. We were both from Texas. She was a Black woman, I was a white woman. She had four children, worked as a nanny and really did not have time to participate in the Women’s Movement.
We talked about the fact that my mother tortured me to have curly hair, whereas her mother tortured her to have straight hair. Bonnie went to the Miss America pageant also, and she is in the video. The video ends with Bonnie primping around as if a slave to the commoditization of women the contest promotes.
I had taken several little vials of this Toni Home Permanent solution and Bev Grant, and I think it was Miriam Boxer, and I sneaked onto the floor of the pageant. The other women went up on the balcony to drop the banner, but Bev and Miriam and I went on the floor.
So just before they dropped the banner, we were sprinkling this foul-smelling Toni Home Permanent to add another dimension – smell – to our political comment or political agitation. And I got arrested. Bev and Miriam were too slick to get caught. I went down the middle aisle. They went down the edges.
I spent the rest of the pageant in jail with women who were sex workers. I wrote on the wall, Prostitutes of the World We Have Nothing to Lose but our Pimps. More recently, I have a nice relationship with a woman named Bella Robinson, who is the leader of Rhode Island Coyote and I have shared that slogan with her.
JW: Did you have to pay bail to get out? Were you found guilty?
PD: Somebody bailed me out. I don’t know who it was. And coming back, I think I sat by Miriam, because she told me aspects of Jewish practice, but also interpretations of the Torah, which really is the piece in the work that I am most proud of, which is online. It’s at peggydobbins.net, and it’s called “Patriarchy: Whence and What Is To Be Done.” It’s just a webpage now, but it traveled as a tent installed in galleries in Atlanta, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Palestine, Canada and Japan. I called it Genesis. There are 8 panels from ancient myths interpreted as stages in the origin and evolution of patriarchy. The fifth panel is the story of Jacob and Laban, but I think it’s the origin of surplus labor, surplus value.
I’m very much indebted to Miriam for making that happen. Edie Black and I started studying Sumerian in search of the origin of patriarchy that fall. We were heretics learning to decipher cuneiform in the department of Ancient Near Eastern languages at Columbia with guys from both the Jewish and the Union Theological Seminaries. We thought the earliest writing was Sumerian. Most people do still, but some think it’s Egyptian, and I do, too now. When I started teaching in Alabama, I emphasized mythology from Sumerian because I thought it was the oldest. However, scholars had emphasized it as the link between Hebrew and Greek. Many of my students were Baptist, Alabama Baptist, so they were much more familiar with the Torah, the Old Testament, than Sumerian, so I began paying much more attention to that. That’s how that part of Genesis became such an important part.
JW: You were also part of WITCH, is that right?
PD: Yes, WITCH grew out of that. After Miss America, there was conflict in NY Radical Women. I have read about it as conflict, I didn’t experience it as conflict at the time. In retrospect, I think it was a dialectic between women who had come out of some Left experience, who wanted to stand up to men within the Movement. Some of them were red diaper babies. They were very knowledgeable about male chauvinism within the Left and seemed already familiar with Marxism, which I wasn’t.
I became a Marxist and joined the Left for the Women’s Movement. I never called myself a feminist, as a matter of fact, because by the time other NY Radical Women were calling themselves feminists, I was involved with people who referred to feminism as bourgeois feminism. I was trying to introduce women’s questions, getting them to focus on women’s issues as labor issues and as Marxist issues. My goal in life is to be the chair of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party USA, which I was never even invited to attend. I did join the party, but I was never on the Women’s Commission.
JW: What was the split then that you mentioned?
PD: The way I experienced it was this: I had my trial in Atlantic City, and Flo couldn’t go because she wasn’t on the bar in New Jersey, so, she found another attorney to represent me. Bev couldn’t go because Bev was working. And that’s an example of why I think Bev is so important. She was a working-class woman who worked through the early part of the movement, and she had two daughters. She worked throughout the movement. She raised children throughout the movement, and she sustained her art. Anyway, back to going to Atlantic City.
On the way back, I’d been doing a lot of research. I was reading about…I don’t believe in matriarchy as a period in history, but I did read as much as I could find about Matri-centric and Matri-focal, pre-patriarchal societies, many did and some still do, call matriarchal. So, I was reading books about witches and the period of the Middle Ages and the repression of women as witches. I had a whole lot of thoughts about that. I was talking to Florika and Marcia Patrick, who was Marcia Seavey in New York. I think Miriam was the third one.
Mike was driving and I was in the front seat. We didn’t wear seat belts then and I remember I was completely turning around, talking to them about witches. And Marcia said, “Well, if we’re really successful and Women’s Liberation does become a household word, there’ll be witch-hunts. And we’re the witches they’ll hunt.” And I said, “Aha! Let’s do like” (I don’t know if it was Rap or Stokely who transformed the term Black that whites had used to demonize Colored People). “He said, ‘We’re Black and we’re proud.’ Well, let’s affirm it (being called witches)!”
Halloween was coming up. We decided we’d dress up like witches and emerge from the underground at the Wall Street subway station and “hex” Wall Street. And we did. And this is part of how was born the wonderful little ditty: Wall Street, Wall Street, mightiest wall of all Street, trick or treat, corporate elite, up against the Wall Street.”
Florika and Tanya Ross made up that little ditty on the subway on the way downtown to meet the rest of us. We hexed Wall Street.
The split was that Carol Hanisch – I know, because she’s talked about it – Carol wrote an article which is called The Personal is Political, and I’m the person she criticizes for not accepting discipline, which I think was more for bringing the puppet and sprinkling the smelly solution at Miss America, which hadn’t been vetted at a meeting than it was the Wall Street hexing, which was vetted. But it was very painful, that criticism. In fact, I told her (we met in the last ten years some time), I said, “You know, I might never have become a Communist if I hadn’t been trying to prove to you that I could accept discipline and overcome individualism.”
They didn’t want to hex Wall Street and I’m not sure why. You would have to interview them and ask them why. Some of us really wanted the hex on Wall Street. We wanted women to do that and we did. And those that didn’t want to said they would join us in the afternoon and hex porn houses. And that became the prototype of Take Back the Night. In the morning we were witches, women taking our position on capitalism, and in the evening, Taking Back The Night. So that would sort of be seen by people writing about us later as the split.
I wanted to study Marx and I wanted to study ancient languages and find out the origin of patriarchy. I continued to meet with women who wanted to study Marx and economics and the relation of women in economics; and with women who wanted to study mythology and ancient mythology and ancient languages. There were several different groups of women who wanted to study and also do what I called ‘consciousness raising actions,’ later learned were ‘agitprop’ and then “performance art.”
I said, “Whatever we’re doing, we’re going to call it something that makes the acronym W.I.T.C.H.” We were Wellesley Isn’t To Catch Husbands when we disrupted a Wellesley Bridge Club; Women Insist Therapists Can Harm when we disrupted a session of the Psychiatric Assn; Women Independent Taxpayers, Consumers, and Homemakers when we picketed Macy’s in solidarity with the father of one of the WITCHes, Joyce Miller, who was falsely accused of planting a bomb there. Black Panther Robin Morgan joined one of the groups and was very active and very influential in that group. Her husband, Kenneth Prichford gets credit for saying it stood for Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell.
When I began pushing that, the group Robin was in, to literally organize on Wall Street – we’re white working-class women, were concentrated, she led a pushback. Very soon after, my first child was born – not the child I gave up for adoption. Three of the women who were in that group came to see me and the baby and said, “Well, we have formed a working-class caucus of women who are really working class, and we’ve decided that you have too much bourgeois baggage to provide the correct theoretical leadership for a genuine women’s proletarian revolution.” Their precise words are burned in my memory because of course, that was precisely what I wanted to do, so that was extremely traumatic.
I accepted that criticism and was not active in the groups I’d helped start before 1970. Jeb was born Nov. 23, 1969. Actually, my husband and I went on what we called the “babymoon” that spring. Mike got 6 months comp time from the City of New York. When we came back to New York, we moved to the Upper West Side. We had lived in Brooklyn Heights. Most of the women and the groups that I had been in before were on the Lower East Side. But when we came back, we moved to the Upper West Side and I started consciousness raising groups there.
Flo had said, “Well, you are middle class.” She had said she was middle class, middle aged, and mid American. I wasn’t quite middle aged yet. But I did affirm that I was a middle-class woman living on the Upper West Side. I organized women’s consciousness raising there, and my husband organized a man’s consciousness raising group of men who supported us and talked about things they probably needed to talk about even more. He did that when we went back to New Orleans too. There was a women’s center on the Upper West Side that other women had already started when I came back, and we organized a food co-op and a children’s co-op.
That was for about a year or two. I was still pushing my husband to be more left. He worked for Lindsay in the Planning Commission. I did some work for him in response to Lindsay’s conflict with Rockefeller about the state helping with the city’s budget. I made charts showing that the interest rates received by the major New York banks had gone up at precisely the same 8% as the interest rate of the city’s debt – the portion of the budget the city needed help with. We called for cancel the debt instead of lives because Lindsay was threatening to lay off people to push Rockefeller to advance the money to the city. We didn’t realize quite how revolutionary calling for canceling the debt was, canceling city debts and canceling state debts and canceling national debts. That is probably the Revolutionary Act.
JW: When the group split off, did they have a name for the other group?
PD: They did, it was Redstockings, but I wasn’t involved in that. See, I didn’t think that we were splitting. I thought we were just meeting extra, because we continued to go to the New York Radical Women meetings. But we had these extra meetings. But they also had extra meetings. I think I was still going to meetings when we began discussing that we needed to reorganize instead of just getting bigger.
We needed to meet in smaller groups. WITCH was already doing that. That approach was the use of affinity groups and that fit very much with WITCH. As a joke but it fit small group theory which I’d studied in grad school. Once the group gets to have 13 members, we need to spin off and start another group. I was already doing that and thought that that was a good thing to do. Then that evolved. But after I was purged from the WITCH group that I was in and we left, when we came back, I didn’t challenge the women who continued as Red Stockings.
JW: Why were you purged?
PD: I was pushing members of the group to take clerical jobs in corporate headquarters on Wall St. First, we took jobs at Travelers. Penny was already working at Travelers, so Naomi and I and maybe Mary took jobs at Travelers. There was a snow storm and I wore slacks to work. When I was sent home to change, I came back in long underwear and was fired. We set up a spontaneous picket singing “Sacked for wearing slacks. Fired for making fun. Travelers has no sense of humor, Pun, pun, punish Travelers.”
One of the wonderful things about WITCH was being able to improvise. For a while, Lynn Laredo led weekly movement for The Movement exercises. After that, we organized at AT&T. The women who organized at AT&T had been recruited from SDS by Naomi Jaffe. Women who were in the WITCH group that Robin was in were the ones that came and purged me and said that I had too much bourgeois baggage to lead the proletarian women’s movement.
JW: Interesting. Well, I’m going to assume that you continued activist activities anyway.
PD: I continued on the Upper West Side. Then Mike got fired. I had a college friend from New Orleans, and I woke up one morning and said, “Well, what I always say I don’t want to do, is what I really want to do and need to do and that’s to go back and finish my degree at Tulane.” We went back to New Orleans for me to finish. Kathy Moore Vick got Mike a job directing the technical part of the New Orleans Bridge study. That’s how we could live there and I could finish graduate school. I changed dissertation topics, partly to correct what I thought I had been criticized for in NY Radical Women.
Because I was ABD (all but dissertation) when we started NY Radical Women, I think that they were afraid that I was going to rip off the women’s movement and write my dissertation about that. Trying to correct for it in myself, I became very puristic on that. Kate Millett used a lot of my ideas, and when she wanted to give me an acknowledgement, I gave her very heavy criticism: she shouldn’t be writing her dissertation on things she learned from other women. The women’s movement was still evolving collectively and I thought we shouldn’t do anything until we did it as a collective.
When I went back to academia, Women’s Studies was just beginning, but I didn’t want to do that. Ingrid Rice had said a very good thing to me. She went back to medical school, and she had said, “I think you should go back and you should introduce women’s perspective into all scholarly work. We need to have women’s critiques in all fields.”
So of course, when I went back, I was called a feminist, radical feminist, ultra-feminist. We need a feminist bias to correct the age-old male bias. So, I wrote my dissertation on nurses because they invented epidemiology, they invented public health. They invented all kinds of things. They’re essential to patient care and recovery. And, of course, midwives and witches. So that’s what I wrote my dissertation on instead. But I didn’t stay in the area of nurses. I never taught in a nursing school. I wish I had, but I never did.
JW: What did you continue to do?
PD: I got my degree in 1974 and then I went to Alabama and I taught for seven years at Alabama until I got fired there. It was at Alabama that I wrote From Kin to Class. And I would have remained an academic if they hadn’t kicked me out.
But on the eve of Reagan’s election, 1980 is the year that Reagan was running against Carter. Ellen Goodman was a columnist for the Boston Globe. Now you’re asking me to talk about stuff I haven’t talked about before. It’s nice. And her article pointed out that Jimmy Carter was not a man on a white horse. He was not charismatic like Ronald Reagan, but he was a good man. He was a regular good man.
A friend named Scotty Green came into the restaurant where I was having breakfast, handed me her article and said, “What about this? You ought to do something about this article.” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to do something.” I tried to find some people to do a street theater protest with me. But the people I knew who would have done something like that said they’d love to, but they couldn’t because they’d all been arrested for marijuana and they couldn’t risk being arrested again.
I had to do something by myself. I invented a costume. It was Halloween. That night, the Reagan campaign had organized something called Rally for the Family, which was really just to get out the vote for Ronald Reagan. I went to the Rally for the Family in my costume, my Halloween costume. Mike said, “This is Halloween. This is the children’s night.” We had two children by then. “This is for the children. Think about the family.” I said, “No, if I don’t do this, there won’t be any families if we let this man get elected.”
I went to the Reagan Rally for the Family in my costume, and my costume was me in a Ronald Reagan mask, wrapped in a sheet that I had put red stripes and blue stars on. It looked like I was wrapped in the flag. I was Ronald Reagan wrapped in the flag carrying a cross. I went to the rally, and I handed out invitations to an unmasking ball the next day at the Women’s Crisis Center in Birmingham, where they were going to have a press conference to expose the fact that the Rally for the Family was a front for Ronald Reagan’s Get Out The Vote.
I handed out these invitations, which were to the press conference. The next day I had made little cards that I was going to throw into the air that said something that ended with “Arise!” The cards hadn’t been printed. I had gone to the place to pick up my cards before the press conference, in my costume. A police car pulled up and the cop said, “Get in the car.”
I remembered my training from Schechner and the performance group and how to do Street Theater, which was street political performance. We didn’t call it performance then. But anyway, that you’re not to break character. This is not civil disobedience. You don’t want to get arrested; you want to not get arrested. You stay in character and you have to improvise. You have to do whatever you can to keep from getting arrested. I was gesturing and saying, you want me to go on the other side of the street. I was trying to get along with him and have him tell me what I could do without changing.
Finally, he said, “Well, why won’t you get in the car?” And I broke character and said, “Well, I’m afraid to. You won’t tell me what I’m doing wrong. You haven’t charged me with anything.” And as I said, “You haven’t charged me, you haven’t arrested me for anything,” as the words came out, he literally arrested me and threw me into the car. That was my second arrest, and I spent that night in jail.
The next day, I still hadn’t done the unmasking. I called Flo and Flo had a community TV show by then and she said, “Well, come on up. You can do your unmasking on my show on election night.” So I went to New York, and I did my unmasking. The unmasking consists of taking the strips off the flag and it becomes a Ku Klux Klan sheet; taking off the Ronald Reagan mask, and it becomes a Charlie Chaplain’s [face]. And you flick my Bic to the cross, which unfolds into a swastika. And that was the performance.
JW: I imagine your university was not pleased?
PD: The university things had begun during the Ronald Reagan campaign. During that campaign, a fire was set in my office. Eggs were thrown on my car. A bomb warning to evacuate the building was announced before one of my classes every week. So that had begun before the election.
JW: Wow. One thing we didn’t finish discussing. What was the outcome of the trial in Atlantic City?
PD: I was convicted of emitting a noxious odor. I think I paid a fine.
JW: Were you charged with anything the night you were wearing your Ronald Reagan outfit?
PD: Yes, I was charged with assaulting a police officer. I knew about that from Tuscaloosa, thanks to the son of Juanita Peoples, the woman who took care of my youngest son. He went to Montessori school in the morning; then I would pick him up and take him to her house in the afternoon. She had a whole lot of children and William, her oldest son, had been arrested falsely. It was a false arrest, but he had been charged with assaulting a police officer. A wonderful woman lawyer had gotten him off of the charge of assaulting the police officer. Alberta Murphy, she had said, “You don’t realize what a huge victory that is, because they use assaulting a police officer to avoid a false arrest charge.”
So, when I was arrested in Birmingham, I knew I had been falsely arrested when they charged me with assaulting a police officer. I knew what that was about. The first trial was a mistrial. I don’t recall whether they had three trials or two trials, but anyway, I went to trial and I was convicted of assaulting a police officer. So, I stand convicted of assaulting a police officer.
My husband worked for Dr. Arrington at the time. He was the first black mayor of Birmingham. Dr. Arrington sent me a note saying he was sorry it had happened; and the police manual was changed. The manual had said something along the lines of, If you think you are going to be charged with false arrest, you charge the perpetrator with assaulting a policeman. Then the perpetrator has to get off, has to get declared innocent of assaulting you, before they can sue the city. The police manual was changed and that year the crime statistics fell drastically – because they couldn’t charge people with assaulting a police officer.
JW: Let me ask you a sum up question. How would you say your involvement in consciousness raising and other activities in the women’s movement affected your life personally and professionally?
PD: Personally, I’ve had a very good marriage. I’m still married to the same man that I was married to when I started in the women’s movement. I met him after that New Orleans group. I was in the movement when I met him. And we were married during those early years, when I was in my most vigorous struggle and constantly struggling with him, too. I was a big believer in struggling with the man you were married to. I felt like too many women left the man they were with.
I thought that women’s liberation required personal struggle with men. I was more about personal struggle with men than I was about legal struggles, or our employment struggles. So that’s how it affected me personally. Professionally, actually, now that you ask, if I had defended myself in the Alabama suit on the grounds that they had fired me because I was a woman, I would have had more luck. I wish I had. But I wanted to deal with the fact that I was a Marxist. Actually, Carol Hanisch was more critical of me than Kathie Sarachild.
I recently had an exchange with Carol, and we were both criticizing postmodernism. When I was fired, one of the grounds they used for saying that it didn’t have anything to do with my politics was they had this guy come in who was a postmodernist. He said, “I’m a post-modernist, so I use Marx.”
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
PD: I love the women’s movement. That’s still my primary definition. I joined NOW and I was active in the Alabama Women’s Political Caucus and I’ve always supported ERA. Actually, I thought that my issues were childcare and paid time off more than ERA and abortion. I was a big defender of the right to abortion. In fact, at the time of the abortion speakout, the women who had been in New York Radical Women with me organized the Abortion Speakout. That’s when I was traveling. But when I came back, Flo insisted that I go down and do a taping.
There’s a story about my doing that taping in which I say that giving up a child for adoption was much harder than having an abortion – I had abortions also. Still today, child care and paid leave for all are my main issues. In 1968 when I was first mainly known as a women’s liberation activist, I used to carry around a little article from the New York Times. There was a story about a finding at some Sociology Department predicting that within 20 years, Americans would only work six months out of the year or 20 hours a week.
I felt like that was the issue, that was a women’s issue that would prove to men in the labor movement why it was important to support women’s issues – we would prioritize winning it because we were more motivated; we need paid time off more. But if we win it, it’s good for everyone. It’s good for single men. I really never wanted to just go for maternity leave. In fact, I didn’t take any maternity leave. I was back at work almost immediately. But I thought the right to paid time off is primarily a women’s issue, and it’s the issue I really want women to win for the labor movement and for working people all over the world. And for humans surviving robotics and artificial intelligence. We have to reduce the hours of work required to earn a livable standard of living.