THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Yes, the struggle is worth it.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, May 2022
BW: My name is Barbara Winslow. I was born in 1945, and the first 16 years of my life I lived in an affluent suburb called Scarsdale. My mother was a liberal Republican; those dinosaurs are now extinct. My father was a New Deal Democrat, but they both believed fervently in civic activism. My mother was on every town, county, and state committee possible, League of Women Voters, and at one point was the acting Mayor of the town. My father was the head of the Board of Education. And this is why I always badly joked that that’s why nobody ever wanted to date me, because of my parents.
But they were believers. They like to say they were believers in arms control and birth control. They helped set up the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Scarsdale, and both my parents organized with other liberal community members in Scarsdale to prevent book burning in the town. In the 1950’s, conservatives wanted to get rid of certain books. You may know the name of Ann Snitow, but her parents, who are very left of center and my parents who were very centrist, worked very closely as allies in saving the library.
JW: How did you get involved in the movement?
BW: I’m not exactly sure. I describe myself as a rebellious and inquiring daughter of affluent white parents in an affluent community. In the 10th grade, I used to sneak out of school and go picket Woolworth’s in Harlem because at that point in the south, Woolworth’s would not allow African Americans to sit at lunch counters. I did so terribly in Scarsdale High School and just fought with my parents to no end, that they finally sent me to a progressive private school in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
I joined the Student Peace Union. I protested the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. And then I went on to Antioch College. I wrote in a memoir in terms of how I got involved in the women’s liberation movement. It was in 1967, and I already saw myself as an anti-war activist and a civil rights activist. But two things happened to me that changed my life. One is I had just gotten married. I got married as a young girl, and I’m in Seattle, Washington, and my husband and I discover I have a lump on my breast.
Friends of my family got me a good doctor. He proceeded to tell me, this is what we do. You’re going to go into the hospital, you’re going to have a biopsy. In those days you had two nights in the hospital. He said that if the biopsy is benign, you’re out in a day and a half. If it’s malignant, we more or less just rip out your whole right side. I remember I asked the doctor why, and he said, “Well, you know, we just want to make sure we get everything.”
And then he gave the papers to be signed to my husband. And we asked why. And the doctor said, and this is a quote I’ll take with me to the day I die, he said, “Because women are too emotionally and irrationally attached to their breasts, so the husband or father has to sign it.” When I tell my radiologist and my gynecologist that story, they can’t believe it happened. And when I would tell the story to my women’s studies class, I would always joke, “and guess what organ men are irrationally and emotionally attached to?”
The second thing that had a profound effect on me is, my husband was a graduate student and had what was called a National Defense Education Association grant. At one point in our lifetimes, the federal government actually paid for graduate education and was extraordinarily generous. My husband’s grant was for four years. It was tuition, books, plus a lot of money, at least for the 1960’s.
I was first or second in my class. I applied and I went into the graduate office and said, I want to apply for an NDEA. And they said they’re not giving it to any girl. They probably used the term girls, but women. When I asked, “Why not?,” they said, “Well, because of the draft, we want to make sure that men don’t get drafted.” So here I was with this dilemma. On the one hand, I didn’t want men to be drafted. I was against the war, but I was being denied an extraordinarily prestigious and well-paying scholarship because of my gender.
I think I wrote in the memoir, looking back, why didn’t I tear up the graduate office, attack the doctor? But there was no women’s movement. Ironically, at the very same time, this Trotskyist organization called the Freedom Socialist Party had a meeting called by SDS on the woman question. I went and a woman named Clara Fraser gave a talk, and it was like “sign me up.” And there was a meeting called and I went to it.
There were about 20 of us at that meeting in October of 1967. That’s how early we were. We founded one of the first women’s liberation groups called Seattle Radical Women, and it was founded by unabashed lefties. And that’s pretty remarkable because there had been terrible anti-communism and McCarthyism in Washington state. One of the things that is very important to understand is that there were a lot of us. I wasn’t in an organization then, but a lot of us who saw ourselves as left of center, socialist, anarchist, Trotskyist, Maoist, you name it, we were them, and we founded these groups.
JW: What did the group do?
BW: For the first six months, because the founders were older, more experienced, and Trotskyist, all they wanted to do was to debate Trotsky’s transitional program, something that we younger activists couldn’t understand its importance.
But during a week of antiwar protests, the Men’s Commission, which was an official organization at the University of Washington controlled by the fraternities, announced that there was going to be a series of events, and one of them was that a playmate, in fact, she had been the 1966 playmate of the year in Playboy magazine, was going to come and speak, and she was going to speak to all the women in one venue, which seated about 400 people and another in the larger ballroom. And I say that pun very intended.
We students at the University of Washington decided we were going to protest this. At that moment in my life, I was not an activist. I was very married. People teased me. They called me Mrs. Vietnam Committee because my husband was the chair of the University of Washington Vietnam Committee. So, I go to the meeting and the women decide on a protest, and I thought it was stupid. They were going to put paper bags over their heads, and they were going to storm the stage and read from the Book of Common Prayer.
I didn’t understand why or what have you, but I said, I’ll sit in the audience, and I’ll support them. So, the playmate comes and speaks. The women storm the stage. They get beaten up and dragged off. And something inside of me got me up, and I went on the stage, and I started talking about what the women were trying to do. I had never spoken publicly before. I had no idea what I was talking about, except I was taking a course on 20th century England, and we were reading George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England. Half the book was about the Pankhursts and the Suffragette Movement, and I had fallen in love with them.
Then I got taken off the stage and dragged out, and we were later corralled, and in those days, they had Dean of Women and Dean of Men. We were dragged in front of the Dean of Women, and I was introduced to the Dean of Women as Mrs. Cal Winslow. I remember I stomped my foot and I said, I’m not Mrs. anybody.
The front page of the University of Washington Daily had a picture of me and the playmate and I couldn’t have asked for a better headline. It said, Playmate Meets Women, Radical Women. That put us on the front page of the papers and so forth. In this book I’m writing, I actually argued that if this demonstration had been at Columbia or at Harvard, that would have been the documented beginning of the women’s liberation movement and not the Miss America protest. But because it was the University of Washington and nobody knew anything about us, it was the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in Seattle, Washington.
I’ll tell you a funny story about this. When I was writing my book, I googled the playmate and we got into email conversation and it turned out that with the exception of Hugh Hefner and Playboy, we agreed on most things. She was a left of center Democrat. She was very proud of her work as a playmate and when I sent her what I wrote, and she became furious.
She wrote on her Facebook page that there was this horrible woman who was writing a book. She went on and on about how awful I was. I started thinking about what we had done and doing a lot more research. I realized that even though we did not want to objectify women, we really did personalize her. In our attempt to not objectify women, we objectified a woman. I think later events got women thinking more about beauty in terms of the media, the food industry, the clothing industry, as opposed to looking at individual models as the ones responsible.
One thing we women who became feminists did. It used to be called criticism and self-criticism. Remember those good words? Now we use self-reflection, I think more than any other group of activists, we self-reflected on everything we possibly did. Yet on the same thing, I would say that both the Miss America and the playmate pushed us onto the front page of the newspapers. I can tell you NOW’s action didn’t. Protesting want-ads, like that was a big yawn. So sometimes it takes an outrageous action to get on the front page and then start thinking about better ways of dealing with issues like that.
JW: You must have continued in other activities after those events?
BW: We continued. In 1968, we began to organize for daycare. The University of Washington was both the second largest employer in the State of Washington and the second largest employer in Seattle. So those of us who were student activists, we looked at the University of Washington, not as an ivory tower, but as a factory, as an employment site.
Our first campaign and this is important to state, was for childcare because so many of our detractors and attackers claimed we hated children, we didn’t care about mothers. What to me is interesting is the majority of us in the early years did not have children, not all of us, but most of us didn’t, and yet we understood the role of the family and the role that the woman was the major caregiver of children and its extended possibilities. The first thing we did was to fight for childcare, and we won a few modest reforms which people are still struggling for.
But the greatest achievement of the women’s liberation movement was the successful referendum on abortion rights. Washington state is the only state in the United States where a popular referendum liberalized abortion laws. It was the Radical Women’s liberation movement. I’m not just being modest about it, but that basically forced the issue. There had been a campaign to liberalize abortion laws. It was organized by not totally, but by overwhelmingly white middle class professionals, doctors, the head of the Planned Parenthood, the head of the Urban League and so forth.
Their hope was to introduce legislation quietly so that they would get abortion reform without anybody knowing it. Well, the head of Seattle Radical Women, Clara Fraser, worked for the Seattle Opportunities Industrial Commission, which was a federal anti-poverty organization. She saw that the bill was being introduced. She goes to her boss and says, this is a very important bill because without the right to control your body, the women can’t stay in school, she was talking about high school as well as college, and they can’t hold down jobs.
Her employer, not understanding what a brilliant organizer Clara was, consented to Clara organizing lobbyists. Now, what Clara thought lobbying was, is very different from, shall we say, what other “mainstream” people did. She brought five buses of overwhelmingly African American women and the two major women’s liberation groups brought people there. There were about 1,500 of us in Olympia.
I am sure most people know that their state capital, with very few exceptions, is dominated by rural, overwhelmingly white men – even in New York State, where I’m from. Boy, you get to the Albany state legislature and you’re not in Brooklyn. It was basically all white men. All of a sudden, for the first time in their lives, these white men are being confronted by working class women of color, overwhelmingly African American, outrageous women’s liberation activists.
Our idea of lobbying was sitting in, demonstrating, doing all the wonderful things that people are doing in front of Kavanaugh and Roberts and Alito’s homes right now. But we were even a little bit more confrontational. It got abortion on the front page of the papers and from that moment on, we began to organize. The women’s liberation group I was in was called Women’s Liberation Seattle.
We began to argue for a popular referendum because we had done our research and we found out that in 1965, one out of every four women in Washington state had terminated a pregnancy, had had an abortion. This is a statistic not unique. The state was not dominated by Catholic interests, although east of the mountains was very conservative. We won over the moderates, and we organized a grassroots campaign. I think we rang every doorbell in Seattle, in Tacoma, in Olympia. We went east of the mountains.
A group of us, not me, but a group of our members were so gutsy, they leafleted the University of Washington football games. Talk about an interesting audience. We were invited to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. We went to the American Legion. We weren’t scared of anything. I had been invited to speak to the Women’s Auxiliary of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the women all kept saying to me, I want my son to marry somebody like you.
We went everywhere and we leafleted, we picketed, we demonstrated. Two other things we did and I’m writing an article about it because I think today, we have to look back at the radical, confrontational, unladylike, lawbreaking activities we did. In the midst of this campaign, a doctor by the name of Frans Koome announced he was performing from 11 to 22 illegal abortions a day and he dared the State of Washington to arrest him.
They couldn’t find a single woman to bring a charge against him. He had tremendous support. Today I say we have to convince people in the medical profession that they’re going to say to the Texas, Mississippi, all of these things, FU, we’re going to help women. Because I think the first sentence of the Hippocratic Oath is, “do no harm.” That was another factor which helped us.
Then the amusing part is the Catholic Church organized the voice of the unborn and they did not have the savvy media skills that unfortunately, the anti-abortionists have now. First, they created billboards and they put them all over the city. It was of a hand with an eight-week-old fetus in it and the line said, “let him live.” There was a little penis on the fetus. They were told they had to take it down because, of course, even a penis that size is too upsetting.
One night, two members of another women’s group from the Anna Louise Strong Brigade got up, crossed out the “him”, wrote in bright red letters “her” and then wrote underneath it, Happy Mother’s Day. We challenged their stupid, very bad graffiti, which is something else we have to do. Then the final thing, and before I talk about the final thing, I’ll just say two other things that happened.
Our women’s liberation group was able to bring Fannie Lou Hamer to come and speak. The iconic civil rights activist. I explained who she is, just in case there are a few people much younger than me who don’t know who she was, but she was an extraordinary woman. They asked me to speak along with her. On one of my self-reflections, I said, “I should have had the common sense to say, ‘Just a minute, Mrs. Hamer, you have the entire floor.'” But they insisted I speak about our abortion campaign.
So, Mrs. Hamer, that’s how I referred to her out of respect, spoke about the civil rights movement. It was mesmerizing. Then I spoke about our abortion work. When it was over, she looked at me and she said, “You know, that’s very interesting. I never thought about this.” Then she told the story of how one time she was taken to jail, beaten senseless, went to the hospital and came out of the hospital, and she found out she had been sterilized against her will.
The entire audience gasped. When I gave this talk and wrote this, a group of women said, “Barbara, it’s a really good thing you spoke with her, because the fact that you spoke about abortion and that she pointed out what had happened to her meant that my generation learned that this procedure was so common, it was called the Mississippi Appendectomy.”
Then our group began to take up coercive sterilization. It also turned out that one of the women in our group, she was white, but she already had one child, a multi-racial child, and she got pregnant again. This was after abortion had been legalized. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy, and the doctors at Harborview Hospital said, “Well, you can’t control your life, you got pregnant again. We’ll only give you the abortion if you agree to be sterilized.” It was very common.
She came to our women’s group, and we really took up the issue of coercive sterilization. This was before the 1973 news story about the Relf sisters, the two young, African American women from Alabama, who had been sterilized against their will and against their knowledge. We began to take up issues of race sterilization far more seriously.
But I will say, before I talk about the win, is we were not as successful in creating a truly multi-racial coalition and alliance. The majority of us were white, although not all white. Members of Women’s Liberation Seattle and Seattle Radical Women, had Black and Latinx women in our group.
But the very strong Black nationalist argument about contraception and abortion being genocide rang through in the African American community. Even though we had a teach-in on African Americans and abortion, we tried to answer some of the charges. We didn’t do a good enough job, and maybe it was due to inexperience, racial cluelessness, the fact that we all were too white. But when the final vote was tallied in both the Seattle and Tacoma areas, we got the least number of votes from African Americans. Today’s reproductive justice activists have learned from our inabilities. Women of color are leading them as opposed to white women trying to reach out.
I’m convinced what made us win, it was on October 31st, the anti-abortionists called for a march. It was called Kill the Bill. Of course, it was Halloween, which is the favorite holiday of women’s liberation activists. We convened a huge coalition of feminists to counteract these anti-abortionists. Their picket signs all said, “Kill the Bill,” but the word “kill” was the largest word. When they marched down the hill, Seattle is a hilly city, all you saw were huge signs that went “kill, kill, kill, kill.”
Then they were confronted by these exuberant women, dressed as witches, we had drums, we had all sorts of things. I’ll never forget this, they started singing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” you know that song? And we would chant back, “That’s the problem.” It was just so much fun. I remember Clara and I got chased into an alley by a bunch of these young, it was overwhelmingly men, all white.
Finally, one of them, they started hitting us over the head with their picket signs, and one of them asked us if we believed in God and we both said we were atheists. They literally ran away from us in terror. The idea that here were these two atheists; they thought maybe it was catching. But again, we were on the front page of both newspapers. We were the lead story about how we confronted them. And the referendum won four to one. It was overwhelmingly passed.
Now it was 1970, the liberal Republicans supported the bill, so did the Democratic Party. It was a different period, but I do believe that the fact that we radical feminists were out there, not just demonstrating and confronting, but also going door to door, ringing doorbells, talking to people, raising it in our classes, raising it in the schools, helped contribute to getting people out and voting for it.
As a result of the passage of Referendum 20, there was an expansion of feminist health care in Seattle, a wide range of feminist health care clinics in working-class communities and in women of color communities and even women of color reproductive clinics. It came about because of the activism that was generated through the passage of Referendum 20.
JW: That wasn’t the last thing you were involved in.
BW: No. I helped found Women’s Studies at the University of Washington and also at Seattle Central Community College. I moved to Cleveland, because at some point, you have to get a job. You can’t be a student forever. I taught Black History, Women’s History, and Labor History first at Cleveland Cuyahoga Community College. I really loved teaching there because I was mainly teaching working-class students, overwhelmingly Black students.
I was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. In Cleveland there was the Cleveland Council of Union Women, which turned into the Coalition of Labor Union Women. I was an officer in the Cleveland chapter. For me, one of the most exciting things was I used my cachet as a professor of Women’s Studies, although I really was just a lecturer, but who cares? I didn’t have a PhD then.
As an officer in CLUW, I spoke about women’s liberation in Lordstown, Ohio at that famous UAW factory that was built with all these young, long-haired, marijuana-smoking male workers. It was fabulous. I worked with women steel workers in Youngstown, Ohio. I went to Harlan County and worked with Harlan County women’s clubs and some of the coal miners, because in 1974, women went into the mines for the first time in the history of the country, with women postal workers in Cincinnati.
I got involved in the feminist labor movement, which was very exciting. Then at the same time, the home of the anti-abortion Right to Life was in Ohio. We founded a group called the Cleveland Pro-Choice Action Committee in 1981 because one of the abortion clinics was blown up and there was a lot of terrorism against abortion clinics and against abortion providers. We had a big demonstration countering the National Right to Life, which I call the National Anti-Abortion Organization in Cincinnati in 1979.
I remember that vividly because my first daughter was three weeks old, and she was on her first demonstration. I was very active in the reproductive rights movement in Ohio. One of our great moments was Phyllis Schlafly came to speak to the City Club, which was a bastion of free speech. We decided rather than picket, we were going to do something a little different. I don’t know if you remember an organization called Ladies Against Women.
When Reagan got elected, a group of very brilliant and clever theatrical people founded the Plutonium Players. They actually marched in the counter Pasadena Rose Bowl parade, which was called the Doo Dah Parade. Part of their shtick was there was a group called Ladies Against Women, and we had heard about it. We said, “This is the way to deal with Phyllis Schlafly, because if you just picket, she calls us Typhoid Marys.”
Fortunately for us, we had friends who were members of the City Club. They said, “If you promise not to disrupt and heckle, we’ll get you in.” First, we show up and we decided we’re not going to mock working-class women by showing up in schmattas and our hair in curlers. But you had to wear a hat and white gloves.
JW: What year was this again?
BW: It had to be 1980 because it was between the birth of my two kids, because I could fit into a dress. What we did is we made this really clever flyer, I have it somewhere, and we invited the press. When the press came, if there were any women reporters, we said, “Why are you working? Why aren’t you at home? Do you have permission of your husband to be here?” We did the shtick the whole time.
We had signs that said, “I’d rather be ironing.” “54 cents is too much. Real ladies do it for free.” “My home is his castle.” “Suffering, not suffrage.” Then there were some that were slightly risqué. One of them was “Outlaw masturbation. Billions of future draftees are lost every year through this practice.” I mean, we were just having the time of our lives. It was so much fun. I was the spokesperson, so I found this Jackie Kennedy pink hat. Two of the women in our group showed up with phony pregnancies and they were barefoot.
Then we were invited in, and we had agreed in advance that we didn’t think a lot of us would be called on so we all agreed that we would all be asking the same question, depending on who was asked. The title of her speech was, “Do We Want a Gender Free Society?” Every time she said something outrageous, we waved our handkerchiefs and we tittered, and we went, “Oh, you’re right. We don’t want to work for the same amount of money as them, thank you.”
She started getting rattled. She’s a nasty piece of work. I had dinner with her once, many, many years ago. We knew we were going to be called on because the MC, when he greeted everybody, he said, “Welcome, gentlemen, ladies, and women.” We knew that we did it right. Finally at the end, he called on one of us. Deborah Van Kleef got up and she said, “We’re so glad that you,” something about a gender free society. She said, “We don’t think gender should be given out for free. The market should determine them.”
Schlafly totally lost it. She didn’t know how to answer it. She kept saying, “I’m for free speech, I’m for choice.” Then they called on me and I said, “Oh, Mrs. Schlafly, we are so disappointed. We thought you oppose people’s right to speak. We thought you oppose people’s right of choice” (meaning getting abortions). It was just an amazing event.
The other funny thing is we also sat at different tables so we could explain to everybody there what we were doing. At my table, I was sitting next to this young woman in high school, and of course, she was over the moon that one of these crazy radicals was sitting with her. We talked, and she was at a Catholic high school, and she later invited me to come and speak at her Catholic high school.
JW: They let you come?
BW: Yes, they did, and they were so nice. She introduced me as, “I was sitting next to this crazy feminist who turned out to be so smart, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But to me, the lesson to be learned is we have so many tactics we have to use. I’ve always felt that the best way to deal with those awful Laura Ingraham, Fox News blondes is humor. Just find that way to get into them. Because Billie Jean King said this, and I’ve never forgotten it.
It was one of the reasons she did what she did with the Bobby Riggs thing. She always said, “African-Americans get put down violently. White women with humor, they’re made fun of, and we have to turn humor to our advantage.” That was one of the reasons she was lifted in the litter. She made fun of the whole thing, and it took away from the Riggses and the male chauvinists of disempowering her.
I was in Cleveland, and then my marriage ends, and a lot of things happened, and I moved to New York where I became active in a New York City pro-choice group and active in the union, and I finally got a full-time job and tenured and, as I like to say, promoted to become a full-of-it professor. I founded the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, and it’s at Brooklyn College.
I did that, 1) because Chisholm is one of our most distinguished alums and 2) she had been largely forgotten. I set it up just when Shola Lynch’s movie Chisholm 72: Unbought and Unbossed came out. I was on sabbatical; I was actually able to raise a lot of money for the project. When Chisholm died, she died like three weeks before she was going to come to Brooklyn College to inaugurate the project. We had a huge crowd to come and see her, but she was too fail and couldn’t make it.
Now, fortunately, there’s a woman who heads it who I like to say looks a lot more like Shirley than I do. But every November 24th, which was Chisholm’s birthday, we would have a big event. We would bring people, like Anita Hill came and spoke. Gloria Steinem was our first major speaker, she came in 2008, and she’s told us it is the only speech where she ever wrote out in advance. It’s on our website. She was incredibly generous, and when I gave her an honorarium, she said, “Barbara, I didn’t expect an honorarium.” I said, “But you’re the one who told us we shouldn’t work for free.” She told me I paid more than Huffington Post.
JW: That’s great.
BW: She’s been a real friend and very kind to the project. We had Karen Lewis, who was the President of the Chicago Teachers Union, c0me and speak. Loretta Ross, the founder of SisterSong, who worked with Shirley Chisholm. Donna Brazile came and spoke. Believe it or not, Chisholm’s youth organizer when she ran for president was Al Sharpton, as a teenager.
Whatever you think of Sharpton, when he speaks of Shirley Chisholm, it brings tears to your eyes. I give a good talk on Shirley Chisholm. Shola Lynch is brilliant on Shirley Chisholm, and we both agreed that Al Sharpton beats us out every single time. He came and spoke.
We’ve had a number of people, Robin D. G. Kelley, we’ve had Sonia Sanchez, the great poet, come and speak for Shirley Chisholm Day. And it’s not just for our students. We invite the entire community. We get political activists to come and speak. When somebody like Anita Hill comes, I assure you, every elected politician in Brooklyn and club leader is there to get their picture taken with her. Now I’m retired and I’ve written a book on Shirley Chisholm, and I’m now writing a book on the women’s liberation movement. I have to say my two daughters are both activists themselves.
JW: Wonderful. Tell me about the book that you’re writing.
BW: It’s about radical feminism, or I call it Revolutionary Feminism in Seattle, Washington. It’s going to be out next June. It’s going to be published by Duke University Press. There are many reasons why I decided to write it, but no one knows about Seattle. But also, I felt that too much of the history of the women’s movement is from 30,000 feet.
That is, generalizations are made about the radical women’s liberation movement, and we don’t know much about it because we don’t know what went on in rural areas. We don’t know what went on in smaller towns and cities. My former mother-in-law lived in Tacoma, and she organized a women’s liberation group in Tacoma.
I looked at the records in Tacoma and read what went on. The more I did research in Seattle, the more things that surprised me and made me very proud. The role of women of color in leading the movement. Seattle in 1965 was 94% white. It was a white town. The University of Washington had 35,000 students, 150 were African American. Until 1968, no Latinx students came.
There was no ethnic or racial self-identification. We have no idea how many Chinese American, Japanese American, Filipino American, Indigenous were there. But it was minuscule. To see the role that women of color have always played – but we don’t know about it unless you really go into the libraries and the archives.
I have six boxes of all original documents. When the book comes out, they’re going to the University of Washington archives. It includes original leaflets. It includes some of the speeches I made, the minutes I took of SDS meetings. It disproves so much of the misogynist four-letter word we get. Finally, I wanted to write it because I believe no other social protest movement has gotten as much drawback attack from both the left and the right as the women’s liberation movement.
Even many of the women who were involved almost disavowed their movement, especially white women. They just say, “Well, we were so racist, we were so this, we were so that.” I have yet to read a single book, article or go to a conference where somebody talks about the all-white SDS. I was in SDS, and it was whiter than Women’s Liberation Seattle. The anti-war movement is not referred to as the white anti-war movement. The environmental movement until very recently was not referred to as the white environmental movement.
I think it shows a real ambivalence about gender and I don’t want to get into all the stuff about ’08 and ’16, but I think the fact that Hillary Clinton came under such savage attack and I’m clearly not as centrist as Clinton was and extremely critical of her foreign policy positions, but she was more to the left on most things than Biden, and yet Biden never got any of the furious hatred. I think it is very gender related.
Gloria Steinem, part of the attack she gets and one of the myths about Gloria, she didn’t support Shirley Chisholm. We have her delegate card in our archives to prove that she was. I’m trying not to name drop, but we’ve talked about it. I said, “You’re just sort of the poster girl for gender ambivalence. You’re just going to have to keep on doing what you do.” Because I think history is going to be very good to Gloria. I don’t agree with her on everything either. But I think she’s been a generous fighter for women’s liberation. I think she’s been able to popularize a lot of ideas of feminism for women who may have been very resistant to come to it.
I had a screaming fight with Gloria in 1972. She invited a bunch of us from our women’s group to her apartment to talk because we had said, why aren’t you more supportive of Shirley Chisholm? We had a screaming fight. When she came to Brooklyn and I introduced her and I mentioned the fight, she just looked and laughed and she said, “Oh, Barbara, we did this because everything was so important, and it still is.” I just found she has a sense of humor and very generous.
JW: Would you say that because you were born when you were and you were able to get into the women’s movement when it was rising and growing, that it really formed your whole life?
BW: Absolutely. I think if I hadn’t discovered feminism, I’d be in a straitjacket or mainlining Chardonnay or something like that. I would have gone nuts. I don’t know why, and I have no interest in going into deep psychotherapy or anything, but I remember in 1956 I was for Stevenson in my town. I mean, there was only one other girl. Ironically, her last name was Marks, not M-A-R-X, but M-A-R-K-S. There were only two of us in our class.
The next year, I debated people on capital punishment, and I read from Clarence Darrow in the Leopold and Loeb case. I was booed. I don’t know why I was always rebellious, but I always was. Thank goodness for the feminist movement. I was also more fortunate than most in that my husband at the time was very supportive. In the early years of the women’s movement, and I wrote about this in a memoir.
He was the shield for me being married. I mean, I could be called a lesbian. And it didn’t bother me, because I was married. It’s like when you have the privilege, you can pretend it’s not important. When people would say, “Are you a lesbian?” I’d go something like, “Of course, isn’t everyone?” I once took my students to The Daily Show, part of our social studies thing, and The Daily Show had a warmup comedian.
He’s warming up the audience, and he saw me, and he said to me, “Who are you? What do you do?” I said, “I’m the Head of the Women and Gender Studies program at Brooklyn College.” And he immediately goes, “Are you a lesbian?” I took a deep breath, and I said, there’s only one way to answer it. I said, “Isn’t everybody?” Everybody in the audience cheered. That’s another lesson. If somebody says, if you’re this, just say, who isn’t? Unless they say, “Are you a Republican?” Then I would answer it different.
JW: That’s a little harder.
BW: But yes. Of course, I consider myself very fortunate that I was active in a time where you could win victories and I could see it in the civil rights movement, however, how African Americans who had never spoken to a white person on a level of equality, or how white men and women who had never been in a meeting where African Americans held, chaired, and ran it and so forth, how their attitudes change. You could actually see things changing.
When I was a student at the University of Washington, within a year and a half, the student body’s attitude toward the war in Vietnam dramatically changed. You knew you were a part of history. For that I’m very lucky. I don’t want to say I feel sorry for, but I think of my kids, who were born in the 70’s. All they’ve known is defeat, defeat, defeat.
They go on demonstrations and they’re active. My younger daughter once remembered in the ’84 election, the kids were asked to write down what they knew about the election. My daughter Samantha went, “Ronald Reagan, you’re no good. Send him back to Hollywood.” Now she got that from her mother. But hopefully, they’ll pass it on to their kids.
JW: Do you have any other final thoughts you’d like to say?
BW: Yes, the struggle is worth it. But we have to pace ourselves.