THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Chude Pam Allen
“A movement is not a bunch of individuals doing individual work. A movement is people working together and not only supporting each other, but building together.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2021
CPA: I’m Chude Pamela Allen, and I am in San Francisco.
JW: Great. When and where you were born?
CPA: I was born in Abington, Pennsylvania in 1943.
JW: Please tell us a little about your childhood, your ethnic background, siblings, what the community was like, that sort of thing.
CPA: I was raised to think of myself as a WASP, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Culturally, that’s what I am. Since my sister has done the genealogy, we know we’re more a mix of peoples from the British Isles, rather than solely Anglo-Saxon. But in terms of the United States, it’s WASP. I lived in basically a homogeneous community. From age seven on, I lived in a small village called Solebury, four miles from the Delaware river. There was only one black family in our community that I knew of.
I did not know that there was a black community across the river. We didn’t go to the same schools because I was in Pennsylvania, and that was New Jersey. I basically grew up in a white community. But as with most white folks, if you have one black family, you don’t think of yourself as segregated. We did not think of ourselves as segregated, or certainly not in any overt, exclusive way. I had an older sister, a year and a half ahead of me and two brothers, one three years younger and one 13 years younger.
JW: What was it in your childhood that led you to what you became?
CPA: Well, my parents were both very devout Christians, Episcopalians. My father’s father was an Episcopal Minister. I was raised with those values and my parents were what I would call Eisenhower Republicans. It’s important to say that because people today have a whole different view of what a Republican is. In terms of my family, in 1960 my mother wouldn’t say who she voted for. Around 1980 I asked her, and of course it was for John Kennedy. That was a rebellion. Every time anybody asked her, she just said, “voting is private.” But that was her first change in terms of the shift in politics.
I can’t answer in any other way why I became who I am, except that I was always encouraged to speak my mind, to think, and I was very devout. I went to Carleton College in the Midwest, partly because I’d gone my last three years to a private school in my hometown. I was a day student, but there were a lot of New Yorkers there, and there was a lot of cynical sophistication. I decided I wanted to go to the positive Midwest. Of course, getting there, the people who were most interesting were the New Yorkers and the radicals. That’s where I became radicalized.
JW: Was it through women’s issues or different issues?
CPA: Interesting, because my first issue was dorm hours for women, when the men had no hours, no restrictions. We were supposed to be in during the week at 10 o’clock at night and I think on the weekends it was 11 or midnight. This really offended me. I mean, I grew up in the country, so I grew up where I did not have any limitation about going outside. In the summertime I would go out and go for walks with my dogs at night.
The idea of all of a sudden, I can’t be out and especially I can’t be out because somehow, I might have sex, when, of course, it was perfectly possible to have sex at 4:00 in the afternoon, 10:00 in the morning. You didn’t have to, especially when we had nice woods near the college, and certainly in warm weather, and even in cold weather, there were things you could do. It was very offensive to me.
In my sophomore year, I was elected to go to the National Student Association (NSA) conference that summer. That would have been 1963. That was happening during the same period as the March on Washington. My issue there, with a group of people, was to do a whole questionnaire about hours for women, dorm hours.
The irony of all this is that it totally changes within a year or two of my graduating and they even become coed dorms, which by the way, I would not want to live in. I just wanted the freedom to be an adult. One of the things that really upset me was that there were women that wanted hours because that was the way they could get away from the boyfriends without having to actually take a stand on their own. That offended me.
JW: Did that activity lead you to other women’s issues and organizations when you graduated college?
CPA: Yes. But first I got involved in the Southern Freedom Movement. In 1963 I worked the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college in a black church in north Philadelphia. The Church of the Advocate. I was one of four white women students who lived with the minister and his family who were African American. There were a number of white males who lived with the curate. That was my first experience living in a black community and I loved it. I just loved it.
I was an active Christian and here we had a day camp, and every morning Father Washington did a service. It was just wonderful. At Carleton there had been this dichotomy that the radicals were atheists for the most part. Much later I would find out, and I would really understand that my favorite professor, who was also an Episcopal Minister, was a progressive. But for the most part, the active Christians were conservative, and the atheists were the radicals. It was a dichotomy. All of a sudden there was this coming together.
I went back to Carleton .They had a program with Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia for an exchange program, where one of their students would come up and one of us would go down. I had not known the previous exchange students because they weren’t in my dorm and we weren’t in classes together. But I did apply, and two of us went in the spring of ’64. That pulled me into the Southern Freedom Movement, first in the student movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Then I was recruited to be a freedom school teacher in Mississippi in the summer of ’64.
Then I went back to Carleton and what’s important is that there were seven people from Carleton who went in the summer of ’64, which is a lot of people, percentage wise, for a small school of 1,300. Of the seven, four had graduated, and three came back. We were all female. Now, I know if one of the men had come back, that’s who would have spoken at the convocation, because men did the speaking, not women. But because it was three women, we were asked for one of us to speak at a convocation where three different students were going to speak about their experiences that summer.
I was not a writer at that point. I was the speaker. That was quite an experience. Afterwards a friend told me that I sounded really weird. One of the things that I learned in the early women’s movement is that microphones, especially back then, were modulated to male voices. I have no idea if that’s true, but that’s what I got told in the women’s movement and that made me feel much better.
I also spoke at a nurse’s convention in Minnesota. I spoke to the Lion’s Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. I still have a letter that says, that except for the boxer Joe Lewis, more people came to that, more of the men came to that talk than any other time. I spoke both to women’s groups and to this men’s group. I did this public speaking.
Then I graduated in 1965, I got married, moved to New York, and for two years I was not active in anything because I had been involved in the civil rights movement, and we were now moving into the separatist period. I had married Robert Allen, an African-American. Then in the fall of 1967 he went to a peace conference in Czechoslovakia and then to North Vietnam as a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, the radical newspaper in New York. I asked him to please ask about the Vietnamese women, because the South Vietnamese negotiator in peace talks was Madame Binh. I was interested that they had a woman in such a high leadership position. He did, and he came back and wrote two articles about Vietnamese women for the Guardian, which connects me with one part of my story.
The other part is that when he went off to the peace conference in Czechoslovakia and then to North Vietnam, I went to Chicago to visit my roommate from college, and also to visit Staughton and Alice Lynd. Staughton Lynd had been a Professor at Spelman. I had taken a class from him there on nonviolence in America, and he’d been the director of the freedom schools in Mississippi that summer. I visited them for lunch.
Staughton then said to me, “I promised that I would go help move the local movement center. You want to come?” I said, “Sure.” We go to this church where they’re moving their stuff to someplace else and a woman named Sue Moniker runs up to him and says, “We had our first women’s liberation meeting last night!” That’s how I discovered there were other women thinking about women’s liberation.
It turned out where I was staying was close to where Shulie Firestone was living. Later she liked her full name, Shulamith, but we knew her as Shulie. She was about to move to New York. We met and when she came to New York, we talked about organizing women’s liberation.
There was an SDS conference at Princeton at Thanksgiving of 1967. Shulie couldn’t go but I went down, because there was to be a women’s caucus at the break, at lunch. I went and people were talking about the problems of being women, of course. I raised my hand and I said, “I want an independent women’s movement.” The rest of that meeting was spent telling me I was wrong. But six or seven women came up afterwards and said, “That’s why we’re here.” One was from Philadelphia, so we couldn’t help her, but the others were from New York.
Shulie and I had already set up the date for our first meeting at my apartment. They came, and Peggy Dobbins, one of the first people to come – she remembers, which I don’t, that she had to ask my husband to leave. She said he did willingly. These are small apartments. But I should add that he was part of a group called Afro-Americans For Survival. He had refused the draft and so these were African Americans who had either gone AWOL or had refused the draft. They used to meet in our apartment when we lived in the Bronx, and I sat in on those meetings. Later, of course, I realized that it was because I was merely a woman and a wife, it didn’t matter that I was white. But at the time I thought, oh, they have a lot of respect for me, isn’t that nice?
But I learned a lot. I mean, that’s the point, you learn. Anyway, that’s how we started. Let me just add, at the very first meeting, one woman came, these are all white women, to tell us that we should not be meeting. The entire meeting was spent arguing this question. Now, it’s impossible to understand how radical that was. But back then, in the fall of ’67, to say you wanted to meet independently as women and independently of any movement group, to be independent, females who were being independent, that was radical. She left, and she never came back and we started meeting. Then Carol Hanisch, Kathy Sarachild somehow got in contact with us, and Carol Hanisch had access to the SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund office so we began meeting over there.
JW: Do you recall what some of your first issues were that you discussed?
CPA: It’s hard to say all of them. Certainly, the one I remember most distinctly that was a place of real unity was somehow one day we got talking about, most of us were heterosexual at that point, or at least the open people were heterosexual, and many partnered. We got talking about fights, about arguments and at some point, a woman said, “He would say, You are always so emotional. You are so sensitive.” The thing that was hilarious is that every person in the room said that that’s exactly what he says to me.
That was one of the roles of consciousness raising at its best, was that all of a sudden you discovered what you thought was very personal in some way had this cultural political aspect to it. Because if they’re all saying the same thing, that’s not just a personal question. The other thing I would say, because it’s important for me, and I will probably repeat it, but is that I was very opposed to the Negro/woman analogy, which people would also use: in the same way black people are treated, women are treated that way.
I was opposed to it because I could not understand where black women fit in the analogy when white women used it. We didn’t have the term intersectionality yet. It comes much later. But my position was that, and that in particular, our focus should not be the black movement and getting any respect from a basically male supremacist movement, our focus should be on poor black women. In that sense, we get back to my husband who had written these articles about North Vietnamese women. That connected him and the Guardian with Patricia Robinson, and these women in Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, these poor black women, and they wrote and thanked him.
That got a connection that eventually connected me with Pat Robinson. These are the women that wrote that early birth control statement, the poor black women’s that’s in amongst other places, the Sisterhood is Powerful anthology. It’s one of the very first and they are taking a stand against the nationalist movement, which was telling black women they should not use birth control and have babies for the revolution, essentially. The women were saying, it’s our business, our choice. (Statement on Birth Control, Black Women’s Liberation Group, Mount Vernon, NY)
In terms of the history of my experiences in the women’s movement, there’s this whole dichotomy that gets made where black women or women of color, weren’t interested in sexism and we weren’t interested in racism. I can tell you that’s not true. Never was true.
JW: Did you get involved in other women’s groups or other women’s actions at this time, or later?
CPA: Well, in New York, I was in that early group that eventually became New York Radical Women. But a group of us left, Peggy Dobbins being one of the others that was in this other group that became WITCH. Then I was with that group while I was still in New York. That group, a small group, did an action during the antiwar march in the spring of ’68 where we made costumes. Bev Grant sewed the costumes, and we bought hats in Chinatown, and we went as Vietnamese peasant women to the march. We were putting our solidarity with the Vietnamese and with the Vietnamese women.
For some odd reason that I don’t understand, we were allowed to walk single file. It’s this huge march with all these people. And then there’s this little group of us walking single file dressed as Vietnamese women. We were taking a stand against the war and in solidarity with the Vietnamese. Some of the women in early women’s liberation took the position that within women’s liberation, we should only focus on the issue of sexism.
One of our other members, Florika Remetier and her male partner used to make these leaflets where they would take an advertisement like Revlon, and you’d have this fancy white woman with the makeup. Then they would impose on this, for example, a wounded little Vietnamese girl. They were doing this juxtaposition between the war and the way women were projected in this culture. We passed those out at the march, along with Guardians, because at that point I was working at the Guardian newspaper. We were trying to branch out a bit along with trying to figure out and pay very close attention to what does it mean to be a woman, what is patriarchy? Of course, sexism was a word that we didn’t have yet. Interesting to think back, isn’t it? It’s hard for people to imagine we didn’t have this word.
JW: Did you go to the Atlantic City event?
CPA: No, I’d already moved to San Francisco. I had gone to the Jeannette Rankin brigade peace march in January of 1968. But by the time of the Atlantic City event, I had moved to San Francisco.
JW: What groups or actions did you join in San Francisco?
CPA: When I first came here, the one contact I had was a woman named Mimi Feingold who was working at that point with the Resistance, an anti-war group. She had been a freedom rider and in the Southern Freedom Movement in Louisiana. She was now married to somebody that was involved in the resistance against the war. I contacted her and told her all about women’s liberation and suggested that she get the women together that she knew. I wouldn’t come to the first meeting because we were very anti leadership. I mean, somehow this was all supposed to be coming, always genuinely, from yourself.
I didn’t go to the first meeting because I wanted to make sure they wanted to do it independent of my opinions and then I joined it. But I had a very strong desire to have small groups because what I had seen happen in New York in the first group was, it kept getting bigger and bigger. That you would have the problem that you’d discuss some things and be ready to take the next step but at the next meeting, you’d have maybe five new people who needed to walk through the early steps. This was so early that we hadn’t yet figured out different ways to integrate new women.
Out here in San Francisco, in contrast to the East Bay, which had its own organizing dynamic. we were independent and we organized small groups. Glide Church, which was a very progressive church, gave us space where we would meet every Friday night. New people coming in would be put into a group with other new people. It had its pros and its cons, of course. On the East coast as I understand it, they eventually started having groups for new women to learn about the thinking of the movement. But here, we put people on their own. Then we would meet monthly.
We had monthly get-togethers and we had other ways of doing things. Our group named ourselves Sudsofloppen. Somebody in our group, we’d all written statements and one of them came up with this idea that we should take a nonsensical name like Rinky-Dink or Sudsofloppen. We thought, oh, that’s a great idea. Not take ourselves too seriously. Well, of course, again, those things don’t work. We had this crazy name that still meant we were Sudsofloppen and we were one of the leading groups in the city, because we’re one of the oldest.
I wrote Free Space: A Perspective in the Small Group in Women’s Liberation, on our thinking about how to have a small group. That exists (Times Change Press) and that was our way of thinking. We met for a number of years. It was probably, three or four years before that group ended.
It would have helped me to know that groups don’t have to go on forever. A number of us had that experience back then of trying to keep something going when it was time for it to reorganize itself. But I also was involved with a group of women that started a women’s school called Breakaway. A couple of the women were older, they were academics and had come from somewhere else. One of them was no longer married, but she had kids. She had a real house and so we would meet there and have what we called salons, again, where people (women) would come and talk ideas.
Then we did educationals. We expanded it out and so it ended up being Breakaway, a women’s school. San Francisco is very different from New York in a number of ways, but this is one of them. The way we had our first session of classes, was to invite anyone who wanted to come to dinner. We made a dinner, and then we invited them and then we told them what the different classes were. I did the workshop on racism, on teaching women about racism.
It’s always been my theme that you cannot build a multiracial women’s movement without white women studying and coming to learn about what white supremacy is and what racism is. That was what I was teaching and then other people picked it up and taught it. Because for some reason in that period, I also had this feeling that you should offer things to people, and then you should move on. I did the workshops with the YWCA groups in San Francisco, Marin and Santa Cruz. That was one of the key things.
But Breakaway went on for a number of years and it was basically a free women’s school for people. Everybody was volunteer. There was a focus on the family and alternative family structures. There was an introductory group, there were different groups. As it shifted, it shifted more, as it moved to the East Bay, to things like car mechanics and practical things to help women develop skils.
JW: What years were they?
CPA: 1970 is when we started Breakaway. I know it went for a few years, three or four years it was still functioning. But as I say, I had moved on to working with the YWCA women for a while and then I was working with my first husband, Robert Allen, on a study of racism and social reform movements in the United States. I did the whole chapter on the woman suffrage movement. We were writing this 50 years ago and there was very little at that point, very few books on woman suffrage.
I had to do a lot of primary research and I was not a scholar. I was not a researcher, but I learned a lot. The book, by the way, has just been republished. It’s called Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States. And it’s OR Books. It’s quite amazing to us that it’s been republished, and unfortunately, as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. That’s too bad.
But what I did then is that I started doing educational talks around, using the woman suffrage movement as a way to look at the political questions of how to build a movement and dealing with the issue of white supremacy and racism with a little perspective. It’s not right in your face. You can look at it from, it happened, whatever it was, 150 years ago. That was very helpful and useful and the only real relevant thing here is that, again, in much of the early literature, white women will say that the abolitionists betrayed the women after the Civil War because they didn’t support woman suffrage.
But if you study it, it’s very clear that woman suffrage was not an issue. I mean, there was no way in a million years woman suffrage was going to be passed and become the law of the land right after the Civil War. The question was about black male suffrage, that you have this dilemma that male is going to get put into the Constitution for the first time, but that the black men and women and children needed the black male vote for survival issues.
It’s one that we can look at over and over again of what happens when something you believe in so strongly has to take a second seat to something else, to an issue that is not just somebody else’s issue. That’s one of the mistakes, because, of course, black women were going to benefit from black male suffrage, because it was better than no suffrage. But it’s a very difficult period because it’s a period where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony team up with an overt racist to try to kill that amendment.
But it was a hard time and so it becomes a very important one. One of the things that happened out of that study for me is I became very influenced by Sojourner Truth. One of the things was that she called for woman suffrage too and she said, you call for everything, and then you take what you can get. You did not say no to black male suffrage. I think that’s an important political principle. You don’t back down on what you believe in, but you don’t attack and try to destroy something that is important and may be the only thing that can be won.
JW: Do you continue to be in activism one way or another?
CPA: Yes, after the women’s liberation I moved into the broader women’s movement. I started working with Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality, Union WAGE. This was organized in 1970 by trade union women who had gone to a NOW conference where there wasn’t anything about working women. Supposedly in the ladies’ room at one of the breaks, they said, We need a working women’s organization! Jean Maddox and Ann Draper. Again, you come up with a date, and you stand up and you announce we’re going to start this organization, and this is going to be the first meeting.
The trade union women got together, and that’s why it’s Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality. At first you had to be a union member to be in it and then they realized that that was a contradiction, because most women workers weren’t unionized at that point. They opened it up. I got involved because of Joan Jordan, whom I’d known in women’s liberation. She was a bit older, half a generation up. She was the first person who really brought into my consciousness the whole question of economics and women. She wrote a pamphlet that the New England Free Press published. (The Place of American Women: Economic Exploitation of Women.)
Joan invites me for lunch one day, and she says, “How come you haven’t joined Union WAGE?” It was $3.50 for membership. I said, “Well, you have to be a union member, and I’m not a union member.” She said, “Oh no, no. We changed that.” I gave my money, thinking that was it. But at that point, I was taking a study group with Joyce Maupin, one of their members doing a working women’s workshop for one of the new left groups. I can’t remember now which name, but it was at Modern Times Bookstore.
I go to the next meeting, and Joyce turns to the woman next to her and says, because I was Pam then, Pam’s our newest member. I knew then that this was not just signing a piece of paper and giving them $3.50. Of course, I got called and would I come and help on the newspaper. I got involved. The thing about Union WAGE, it was, again primarily white women, is that it was intergenerational and this had not been true in early women’s liberation. We were the younger women. We were in our 20’s and 30’s, but these women were 50’s and 60’s and probably 70’s even. We were learning from them, and they were learning from us.
Jean Maddox, who was the founding president of Union WAGE, she’d been very changed by women’s liberation. It had caused her to start thinking about things in a different way. She was working at that point as a clerical worker with Lucky Stores. Lucky Stores was unionized. Well, the women were the clerical workers and at some point, because of the consciousness that had changed, they realized that their contract was not as good as what the men got, the butchers and the others. The men had a better contract, so they went out on strike, and they asked women’s liberation for support. We were picketing in support of them. Jean used to think, and this may be true, that that’s the first alliance between the working-class women, the working women and women’s liberation.
The key thing in terms of issues is that Union WAGE, and many of these women workers, they were opposed to the equal rights amendment, unless it was going to save protective legislation and extend the protective legislation to men. Now, I didn’t come into Union WAGE until after that was a moot point. We lost most of the protective laws. Equal rights did not mean helping the people at the bottom. Equal rights meant, getting rid of the ways in which they’d use those protective laws to keep women from moving into management. Before my consciousness was expanded, I had been on a demonstration against protective laws where I can remember Judy Syfers carrying one of her kids on her back with a sign saying, “this is more than 50 pounds”. Because they would prevent you from going into management because you had to be able to lift 50 pounds, although no manager ever did.
But the Union WAGE women were saying, wait a minute, nobody should be picking up 50 pounds. You have machines for that. Also important was minimum wage protections. Also, women used to be able to, if they worked nights, the employer had to give them a cab to go home. They had to give them rides home. They lost that. There were couches in the ladies’ rooms so that if at your break, if you weren’t feeling well, you could lie down. Both of those are things that men deserve to have too, but they were taken away in the name of equality. That was a really important thing; it just expanded my consciousness. Oh, those are some of the issues that I didn’t know about.
I worked with Union WAGE from 1974 until 1979. I was on the executive board. Again it was like, “Hi, Pam, we need somebody to run for the board. Will you run?” I did and I got elected. I started learning all these things. I wasn’t just in the local chapter. I was also on the board.
There were some key things, but one of them was that the city workers, San Francisco city clerical workers, went out on strike. One of our board members was a member. The leader decided to align with a national union that the Union WAGE people did not feel was right. This one board member, who was in the union, was opposing their alliance and the leader threatened to tell people that she was transgender. She came to us. This is like 1974 or 1975. She has to tell us that she used to be a man. I’m sitting with all these older women, I’m the youngest one in the room, and they’re all going, that’s fine. They just embraced her. Denise, she just died recently. Denise D’Anne, was very active for years.
That was something and then the other thing was that the leadership of Union WAGE wanted to organize a conference on women’s unionizing into different unions. I had a six-month-old baby at that point, so I was more or less at home. I said I would organize and I became the key organizer. I can remember that when he started to crawl how that changed. But in the beginning, he wasn’t crawling yet. This is all by phone. Remember, we don’t have cell phones, we don’t have e-mail, the phone is plugged into the wall.
They had given me the direction to find every group I could find so I did, including certain employer groups, which then caused the uproar with some of the more bona fide union people who said that employer groups don’t count. But anyway, we were having this two-day conference in San Francisco. Five hundred women signed up for it. We had it in Mission High School’s auditorium. We rented it. Now it was going to cost us more money if we had heat, and it was happening in early November. So, we decided to chance it that it wouldn’t be cold. Wrong, wrong. But, you do the best you can.
And some of the young women who were learning how to be technicians at KPFA, we asked them to handle the sound system. So, they go over to check it out, and they walk into this room and they look up and they say, “Oh yeah, there’s speakers.” And they leave. Well, the speakers hadn’t worked for fifty years. All of a sudden, we’re having a conference with five hundred women in a cold room with no speakers.
So, this just tells you we were learning. We were still learning things, especially technology. I say that especially about us younger women, but even the older women I was working with were still learning. That was 1975. However, the older union women already had practiced Robert’s Rules of Order and won things at the statewide level of the AFL-CIO. They were pros at being organizers and they were teaching us.
The conference was quite moving and quite meaningful. And Jean Maddox was dying of cancer. It was the last thing that she did. Her union had been put in trusteeship because it was so radical. So that’s a whole other question of what happens when the international union takes away your power. I was learning all these things, and we were publishing pamphlets.
We did a pamphlet on how to organize, called Organize!, so that when women would contact us, we could send that to them. Joyce Maupin wrote a wonderful little pamphlet, Labor Heroines, she called it. Just little vignettes about all these different women organizers. I wrote one, Jean Maddox, after Jean passed away, which included her article, Trusteeship, Roadblock to Union Democracy.
Although Union WAGE’s main focus was helping women to organize and to take leadership in their unions, it had a very broad set of principles. It was against racism. It was against any anti-gay discrimination. It was very, very broad. One of the things we also did is we published a pamphlet called Woman Controlled Conception. We put an article in the paper too. The two women, who had turkey baster babies, were afraid that the state might try to take their children so they wanted to do it anonymously. Again, that shows you how progressive this organization was. Today that doesn’t seem so extreme, but this was early, the late Seventies. (Added note: The lesbian feminist photographer Cathy Cade was one of the authors. She took the photograph of me that VFA is using with this interview.)
I worked with Union WAGE until 1979 and then in a struggle the so-called side I was on was not the winning side. It seemed like time to leave and by then I was a single mother, and I was working part-time for WAGE doing accounting and newspaper practical stuff. And I was doing volunteer work, especially around a group called Women’s Words, where we would do readings of different women’s writings about being women, both in the workplace and at home. We took the position that a working woman does not just live at work. She has a full life. About 1979, I stopped working with Union WAGE.
I still did some work with the Women’s Building. I had been involved early, before we got a women’s building here. I did a few other things and then I needed a break. I really needed a break. You don’t realize how much political work takes out of you until you step back, because it is nonstop. It’s not as simple as you go to work and you do your job and you go home. It’s not like that. That was important. Then I started writing. My first writing group I joined, was in 1988, was with Judy Grahn, lesbian poet, a very wonderful poet and writer. For me, a very wonderful workshop leader.
What was good is that although she couldn’t help me on my writing memoir, she ended up putting me with the poets rather than whatever the other group was, fiction I think, because I was different. I’ve always been different. She was very helpful because I was trying to write about having been involved in the Southern Freedom Movement and my experience as a white woman. As a white working-class woman, she had gone to Howard University so she could say, yes. It makes such a difference to have somebody when you’re working through stuff and you feel so isolated and alone, who can say, oh, yes, my experience was similar. Very important. It is, of course, what the early consciousness raising was about in many ways, This is what’s happening to me. Oh, yes, I know that experience too. That was very helpful.
In 1984, someone had contacted me that he was writing a book on the 1964 summer project in Mississippi. I was interviewed, and out of that I met a number of the other people, Robbie Osman being one. That book came out Freedom Summer, and it’s written by sociologist Doug McAdam and I am partly featured in that. In 1989, having now started to write about it myself, I contacted Robbie and I said, “Are you interested at all in doing something about the 25th anniversary?” because it was 1989. He said, “Well, as a matter of fact, a couple of young women have contacted me and yes, we already want to do it.” So, I got involved in organizing a reunion here.
Now, again, the Bay Area is very different from the East coast. They had a reunion, and they had it in some university, I think, on Long Island, but it’s like formal. We had it up in Tilden Park, in the redwoods. It’s a different dynamic. It was a one-day thing and we invited Bob Moses to come and be our main speaker. It was a very interesting day. There’s not time to go into it all. But the next day, he had told me on the phone, it would be good to have another meeting. That it’s going to bring up a lot of feelings for the veterans.
This first one on Saturday was for people and their families or significant others. The next day we had a brunch at my house for just the veterans to talk some and that was the beginning of starting to organize around having been in the Southern Freedom Movement. Later a group of us became the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. We have a website, CRMvet.org. My memoir and poetry are up on that. I began speaking a lot in terms of my experiences there and I coordinate the speaking for people in the Bay Area.
Of course, it’s a little different now with COVID, but we did go into the classrooms beforehand, and we have done a certain amount of things on Zoom. Then we’ve also, for a number of years, a number of times, organized public programs and discussion groups. We just did a group of zoom discussion groups for the SNCC 60th anniversary celebration that happened in October 2021. We did the day before the actual conference started. It was open for veterans to be part of small groups to discuss what their experiences were. In the group that I was in, it included another women’s liberation early leader, Heather Booth.
Another participant was Zoharah Simmons, whom I had known at Spelman. She had gone to Mississippi and was active for many years in the South, and then in other things, and is part of the SNCC Legacy Project. There was also Daphne Muse, who is an African American woman, who is at the moment an elder at UC Berkeley, and a couple other people, there were six of us. We had a number of groups, because we found that allowing people to talk about their concrete experiences, or to talk about how they feel about them in small groups brings up a whole lot of really valuable stuff.
I’ve often wished we could do that in women’s liberation as well, to just keep it small but have a group discussion. It’s a lot of work. It’s a tremendous amount of work and of course, it costs something, because you have to transcribe everything. This is what you’re doing with individual interviews, which is another aspect of the same kind of thing. We have many, many interviews on our website of people involved in the Southern Freedom Movement.
JW: I did want to ask you, you referred to yourself as Pam, and I’ve heard other people call you Pam, but that’s not what you call yourself now, right?
CPA: At some point I took the name Chude and Chude comes from going back now to, I had the privilege of knowing Patricia Robinson, of meeting her in New York because of my husband’s articles on North Vietnamese women. That’s how we connected. She became a mentor. She stayed in contact with me after I came out here. She stayed in contact with me until she died. And she’s been a very important person in my life.
At some point, Robert was leaving me, and he was raising the question of us being black and white. And she sent me a book on the life of Eduardo Mondlane, who had been the leader of FRELIMO in Mozambique against Portuguese colonialism. He had been educated in the United States, and he’d married a white woman. And at one point in the struggle, a nationalist leader had challenged him and said, you can’t be for black liberation if you have a white wife. And he had said, It’s a class struggle. Not a race struggle.
Now, interestingly enough, that nationalist leader defected to the Portuguese, exposed a whole lot of people who were killed. And later Eduardo Mondlane was assassinated. Well, he had a mother whose name was Chude. I have no idea how it’s pronounced there. And she’d been a fighter against the Portuguese. And he, in fact, has a daughter by the name of Chude, who once contacted me and said, “How come you have my name?”
So I told her, I wrote, “I read this book and I needed a name because my mentor wanted me to write somebody, and she wanted me to not use my Pam Allen name because I was known in the left. She wanted to make sure that this person I would be writing wouldn’t gossip, who told me that that was a legitimate concern. So I had to come up with a name and I came up with the name Chude.” And over time I decided that, yes, I wanted to take the name because for me, it means that the divisions by race are not irreconcilable. We are all one. And that’s why I took it. Originally, I rather disliked the name. I was like, “I chewed my food.” Because I didn’t know how it was pronounced there. But then one woman once said to me, she said, you know, it really fits because you’re the kind of person that goes home and chews things over!
JW: Well, that’s a lovely story. I would like to finish up by asking, can you have some summary thoughts? What the women’s movement meant to your life?
CPA: I would not be who I am without having been in the women’s movement. At our best we worked together and we did collective work. At our worst, we tore at each other and criticized each other and tore each other down. We exhibited the strengths and the weaknesses of the culture we come out of. That is just real. It’s important for people to understand that we didn’t know half of what people know now about how to relate to each other in terms of the emotional skills. We didn’t have them. We would never have gone to therapy in 1972, because they were your enemy. They were going to teach you how to accept your role.
Radical therapy evolved as we evolved. So that’s part of it, is that we didn’t know. Looking back, a lot of the debates we had, I would say intellectually we were following male roles, male role models. What else did we have? I think there was that, but at the best, at the best we did phenomenally good collective work. I think at the best some individuals did some marvelous individual work too. But a movement is not a bunch of individuals doing individual work. A movement is people working together and not only supporting each other, but building together.
And I guess what I would end with is that I was never a feminist. I have no problem using it now in terms of misogyny, but I was not a feminist. Feminist, as Pat Robinson taught me, means equality within the status quo, which means upper middle class white women fighting to be equal to upper middle class white men. I was for women’s liberation. I didn’t make up the name women’s liberation, but I always supported the idea that we are talking about all women.
I do not think that women’s equality and women’s liberation is connected to breaking the glass ceiling. I’m not thrilled for women, in terms of women’s equality throughout the world, that we now have a female Vice President, even a female Vice President of color. In and of itself, that’s not enough. But I think people don’t know that. I think that’s one of the things we lost: women’s liberation. The name women’s liberation required us to think about all women, which is why I always said it can’t just be white women, even if that’s all that’s walking in the door at the moment and that’s how we’re starting.
We can’t keep our focus on especially college educated, middle class white women. It has to be broader. I looked up the statistic once. When we organized women’s liberation only a small, small percent of white women, or any women in the United States, were college graduates in 1970. Very small. Were we talking only to each other and then to the women of color who were able to go to college and graduate school because of the good programs in that period? Or are we now talking about all women? That’s what I would say.