THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Were Female Liberation.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, May 2022
JW: Please introduce yourself, giving us your name and when and where you were born.
DD: My name is Dana Densmore. I was born in Washington, DC in March of 1945. I was a war baby. When I was born, my father was flying in the Pacific and my mother was working for the Army doing code breaking.
JW: What was your childhood like?
DD: In my first year, when my father returned from the war, my parents moved to Chicago to go to grad school, and we were there for five years. Then we went to upstate New York and I was there until I was twelve. My father was Education Director for the Paper Makers and Pulp Workers Union. Then we went back to DC, where he was Education Director for the Industrial Union Department at the AFL-CIO.
My mother worked when we were in New York. She taught at Cornell and then when we were back in DC, she worked doing various things. She had a degree in economics and she was on the Board of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and was the co-founder of Women Strike for Peace. She was very active with that. But during my childhood, it was mainly peace and civil rights, and peace included in the early years, nuclear policy.
JW: Were you an only child?
DD: No, I had three siblings.
JW: That was amazing that she did that with four children. Very unusual for the time. No question. I have already heard a lot of how you’re going to answer this, but my question is, what in your early years made you become what you became?
DD: I was always very active in the social justice stuff, active with the peace and civil rights. But as far as feminism, I was always active with that. I remember getting into long conversations, arguments with people about women and why they should not be disrespected in the various ways that they are and blamed for this and that.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, my younger sister and I both stood in front of the White House with our signs “Peace At Last, The Quick And Easy Way” and a picture of a mushroom cloud. We had the overnight part of it and were just the two teenage girls and the neo-Nazis were counter picketing us. There were a lot of those exciting things. Also, in my first year of college, which was St. John’s College in Annapolis, I went with CORE to do a sit-in and was arrested.
My case went to the Supreme Court. Why did it go to the Supreme Court? It was all set up by CORE, but I had gone into a restaurant with a black man. There was a whole lot to do with that and it was actually a dangerous situation and scary. I was not served. Neither of us was served, of course, and then I was arrested for wanton trespass. But the thing is that the constitutional connection was free association. I did not have free association because I was associated with a black man, I was not served. We’re talking about 1961, 1962, before the women’s movement, as you have been talking about it.
The other thing that I did after college was, of course, we had the Vietnam war, and we had the draft resistance, and I worked with that and also draft counseling. That part went from like 1966 to 1968, somewhere in there. In January 1968, my mother called me and said, “It’s now time for us.” At that time, I had been very involved in all these social justice things and so had a lot of other women, as you know.
This was about the time at the end of 1967 and 1968, that the women who had been really involved in the civil rights and peace and all the things where the women would do all the work and the men would get all the credit. At that time, these women were getting fed up with the way things went in those organizations.
And my mother had been at a meeting, and it was for some big peace march or something, but she was talking to the other women there and said, “Okay, that’s it. We are not going to do that anymore.” That really was the time that all opened up. Then Roxanne Dunbar came to town, and I’m not sure why she picked Boston, but we got together and we said, “We’re going to fix things. We’re going to do it now.” And we did.
JW: What did you do?
DD: First, we gathered people that were feeling the same way. What could we do that would really change things? We didn’t want to just say, be nicer to us. We wanted to find out what is it that’s going to make things different, where we will be committed to make things change, whatever it cost. And that’s what we’re feeling, whatever it cost.
We didn’t know, but what we started to see at that time – the beginning of saying what we were not going to agree to and what we wanted – men became so angry and so vicious, saying things like, oh, men are the enemy. You want to kill men, that kind of stuff. Because what they said to us was, they would rather die than give up their control. That’s how it seemed at the time.
I can tell you what changed, why it didn’t turn out. We thought we would have to be on the barricades. We thought our lives were going to be on the line. It turned out to be a little different, and I can’t say why, but at that time, we were ready for whatever it was going to take, and that was the group.
Then we got together with some other people. Most important was Abby Rockefeller and Jayne West. We made a group, but we didn’t want to make a name about our group. We wanted to say that this was going to be the movement of female liberation. So why did we say female instead of women? At that time, the way we were thinking through “women” was just too charged. It was just so loaded with prescriptions to be a woman at that time. Being a woman meant all kinds of requirements and expectations. So, we wanted to say “female liberation.” That was going to be the movement. The movement was just starting.
I went to a number of conferences. The first big one was in Chicago, and that was still 1968. Now we were getting a lot of media stuff, writing about us, interviewing us, and they insisted on calling us, they had to have a pigeonhole, so they made it female liberation. We were female liberation. So finally, we decided we had to have a name because otherwise that was not available for the movement. We came up with Cell 16 as far as getting a name.
Now I have to back up a little bit. One of the first things we did, this was even before Abby and Jayne were involved, Roxanne had the idea of putting out a journal. She managed to get a typesetting machine. She was borrowing it. She had some story about how we were interested in buying one. We just worked all weekend that we had this, and put together the first journal. It soon became No More Fun and Games. And then there were five more issues. It was just a theoretical journal. We looked at it from all angles. Then we went out and sold it on the street. So that was one of the first ones.
We had another conference that Roxanne and I went to. This was also still 1968 in Maryland. Then there was another conference. I gave a keynote address, one that was in DC. I can’t remember that date, must have been 1969. Meanwhile, Abby and Jayne and I started training in martial arts. And that was a political position. The way Abby put it, “How can a woman feel a sense of dignity and privacy if she cannot feel that she could walk down a street without being vulnerable to being attacked and not be able to do anything?”
We started training, and actually that was partly started by an attack, an attempted kidnapping, of Jayne on a nice Cambridge street. This was all in Boston, by the way. But we started seeing that this was going to be an essential part of feminism, of female aggression. We had to have that. It was going to be difficult to feel powerful if we felt physically vulnerable. We spent several years developing this.
It was taekwondo that we started with. Then, Jayne and I began a women’s martial arts school. And just the theoretical development of this thinking, about what self-defense and martial arts could mean. So that was one important aspect. So, we continued with the journals. I took it over. I started doing it. Sometime in 1969, Roxanne left, but I continued with another five issues of the journal. And again, it was just that different people would have different aspects, different angles on it, because really, what is the theoretical foundation of this? We had to look at all the different angles of it and we were trying to do that.
JW: What was your angle or other people’s that you remember?
DD: Some people had some Marxist stuff, and we had poems, but mostly it was the theoretical stuff. Mine was like dating. What is dating? What is language? By using certain language, what does that do? What is the effect of those things? The one that everybody just loves is my article, “On Celibacy.” And when I say they love to do it, they love to be shocked. That thing has been reprinted and reprinted, and I’m talking about not just magazines and things, but scholarly things, and in The New York Times.
What I was saying there, and it was very explicit, there’s no excuse for distorting it. But it was after that conference in Maryland in 1968 in the fall that people were saying, we have to find a way to struggle and live with men, no matter how badly they treat us, because we need sex. Because otherwise we dry up. That’s what they were putting out, psychologists and so on. Roxanne and I were pretty shocked by that. But we decided to come back and we needed to do something about this.
So, I wrote this article, which was, you do not need sex. It is better not to be in any kind of relationship that tears you down and uses up all your energy. I said, this is not a call for celibacy. I was married. All of us, Roxanne, Abby, Jayne, were in relationships on and off, but that was not the point. The point is if you have a good relationship and you’re liking it and it’s enriching your life, fine. But if it’s not enriching your life, and if it is taking your energy and making things bad, you don’t need it. So that was the celibacy article.
JW: It’s so interesting that it would have been so shocking for people to hear at the time.
DD: It is still shocking. A few months ago, there was a New York Times article and it was trying to be cute maybe, or trying to be a mixture of shocking and funny. The article was about celibacy. And maybe those women from second wave women or whatever they called it, maybe they’re onto something. That gets you in to read it. Now, I don’t know how this happened, but the author of this article said that Cell 16 was a radical separatist organization. Why? Because celibacy is radical and shocking, so therefore it must be separatist.
But the thing was that after that New York Times article, I just got people from everywhere. My husband was getting told, Dana certainly really is a radical and he wasn’t getting into talking about it. Besides that, I’m a scholar and I’m connected to Academia.edu, and I get the notices of citations of any of my articles, anything that uses me. I started getting one after another after another, articles about exciting celibacy and quoting this thing about radical separatist.
JW: Which is not what you meant.
DD: It’s not what I meant, but also, it is not academic. It is very, very disreputable. But I guess they figure if The New York Times says it, then it must be true.
JW: Tell me, what did Cell 16 mean?
DD: Well, we had to have a name and we wanted to have a name that didn’t try to be anything. It was just a group. Our idea was that the Female Liberation Movement was like an organism and we are a cell of it. Of course, there were not very many cells at that time, but it was going to grow. We figured it was going to grow. Cell 16 was because Abby’s house, where we were meeting, was at 16 Lexington Avenue. It’s Cell 16, and then people could wonder, oh, 16, there must be 15 others. That was the thinking.
But this was really a joke, that we were going to call it something about defense and analysis, because those were the two things, the analysis, we were trying to figure things out. And that was the journal. But also, we were working on the theoretical stuff. How does this work? How can we put this such that we can be telling a truth that sounds true and somebody is going to hear.
We would go out and meet with women that were not part of the thing. I forget how we connected with these people, but we would make connections. Here are these women that are in Boston suburbs and they have a nice house and they have a husband, but they’re not too happy about it. But it doesn’t feel like how could they not be in this thing, even though it’s kind of choking them?
How can we say what we have to say in a way that they feel the truth of that, that it makes sense. Then from there, they can go on to whatever makes sense to them, but you can’t just say some kind of political thing that doesn’t fit their lives. They’ve got to have something that they can say, wow, that is right. From then on, they’ve got to figure it out. But first it has to feel true. It has to feel so true they would be willing, if that’s what it takes to change their life, to make [demands] of their husband that he’s not going to want to make. Now I’ll get to the part about why we didn’t have to get on the barricades.
When that happens, some men would right away say, this is what I have to do. If I want to keep this woman who is my wife and the mother of my children and I respect her and I want her respect, then they have to start behaving a little differently. They have to start creating a kind of relationship that is going to be more egalitarian. Now, some did that and some didn’t. The ones that didn’t, a lot of those women left, and that is what made the difference.
And it was a surprise. I didn’t know that was going to happen. It’s a great relief that it did. But when they were left, a lot of them, that’s what it took. But over time, they saw what they had to do. And if you look around now, that’s what it is. A lot of them, what do they feel deep down? No, they don’t really get it. They don’t totally trust women, but they do better. They do well enough. They’re okay. They’re okay for some people. Others have to do better. That could not have happened if there were not people, not the women, but it had to be the man too.
They knew that if they were going to be accepted and respected by the women that they respected and cared about and needed, they needed that. So, things improved. Now we look around, okay, this is pretty horrible. All the femicide. Not to mention all this stuff with the reproductive health, it’s not that good, but it’s better than it was in those days.
A big part of it had to do with the fact that women were willing to walk away if the men could not behave in a decent way. So anyway, we didn’t have to. Now, of course, we have to keep after it, and we have.
So other things that we did, we did a film, The Queens, a documentary about men who were dressing up, and it was like a drag beauty contest. This documentary showed the men looking like men and the whole process of how they went through to fix themselves up with the clothes and the makeup and the hair.
And what was really interesting about it was that you saw you could see they were fully men, and then by the end, they just looked like women. And what that showed was that the total thing of being a woman is something you make up, you create it. It’s all drag. We rented the theater and had the thing and that was good.
JW: That was in Cambridge also?
DD: It was in Cambridge or Boston. I can’t remember where the theater was. The other thing we did, we picketed the Playboy Club, and that was really scary because first of all, where the Playboy Club was, was not a nice part of town. And we were there at night, and there was a lot of hostility, along with the Cuban Missile Crisis. That sit-in was also pretty scary. We did those things and a few other things like that.
JW: All this time you did have a professional career going on, right?
DD: Yes. I was working at MIT. I was programming the onboard guidance computer for Apollo.
JW: That was significant.
DD: Yes, it was.
JW: Were you one of the few women there?
DD: No. This was before men took over programming. You couldn’t take a course in programming or get a degree in programming. I started at MIT in 1966. What they did was get people who were just smart and could think. Well, I could think because of St. John’s. That was good.
JW: You had to think.
DD: Yes. Here’s Aristotle, here’s Khan, here’s Newton, here’s Einstein. You just do all this stuff. Figure it all out and I could do that. The thing was they couldn’t just hire programmers. They had to hire people that could figure out how to do it. Besides, at that time, all those things we had to do to get this computer. This lab I was working at, designed, invented this computer, which is like a small bread box size, while the other computers that existed were room size. It wouldn’t send that to the moon so there was that, and then just how to program these, how to do it. Nobody knew how to do these things. You had to figure out something that had never been done before. So that’s what that was like.
JW: Are you saying it was mostly women they hired for this?
DD: It was a lot of women. The head of the software was a woman. Margaret Hamilton is her name, and she was the head of the group. There were a lot of women. There were some men, too.
JW: You followed in your mother’s footsteps to some degree, would you say?
DD: What, like the code breaking?
DD: Yes, I think that’s right.
JW: She was a pioneer and so were you. That’s amazing. Really incredible. What other work did you do after that?
DD: I stayed with Apollo through the end of that. I started to work on the shuttle, first coming up with a new computer for the space shuttle. But then the Congress didn’t want to give any more money to NASA or not very much. In Apollo, we were just making things up from scratch. And that’s how we started out doing the shuttle. But after they started doing quick and dirty, get something off the shelf, don’t spend too much time testing it. I don’t like the sound of this.
I left that because indeed, we got Challenger and whatnot. It was not good. It wasn’t right. I got out of that and got into other computer things. I worked for a computer manufacturer, new technology like the voice recognition and some other things. But I did start a school of self-empowerment. There was the martial arts and the self-defense, but also other things like the philosophy of self-empowerment. What does it mean to experience yourself as powerful in the world? And what do you have to do? How do you need to think about that?
I started another magazine, Black Belt Woman. I think we may have had six of them. Then I had another series of things that were about the self-empowerment. Artemis Institute was the name of the school. Things like, what is powerful? Strength, flexibility and graciousness. Those three categories. Strength. You have got to need to be powerful. Flexibility. You can’t get stuck on some way of being. You have to always be ready to move and shift. And graciousness is you have so much in you that you have something else for others.
All these things, there’s a lot to these things. And there are parts. So, it would have different aspects of it. We did other things. We did rock climbing, and we did some stuff out in the wilderness.
JW: You had discussion groups. Is that what you’re saying, too?
DD: Yes, exactly. There was a discussion group definitely in the old days. Well, I think at one point you put quotation marks around “second wave,” which I liked because that wasn’t what we called it. We called it women’s liberation movement. And so there got to be this academic thing where there got to be something that turned into Women’s Studies. Women’s studies, at least it says women. But it’s not saying liberation. So that was important to us.
We knew what liberation was, especially those of us that had been in this new left movement. Movement is really powerful. That is what we were doing. It was a movement. But then when it started with this academic stuff, they threw out liberation. They threw out movement. Pretty soon “women” was too feminist or something. Then it had to get to be sexuality and gender, or gender. Never mind about women.
It’s worse to say that what you want is gender studies or gender and sexuality. It’s about everybody. That’s fine. But what about women? Women are hated. Not everybody. It’s specifically women that are hated. So why can’t we talk about the defense of women? Why can’t we talk about looking out for women. We can’t even talk about how often women are murdered. I mean, we can talk about it, but people don’t. It’s just like if somebody is mentally ill. All these men that murder their wives or girlfriends or somebody they wish was their girlfriend. I think we’ve got to have women. We’ve got to talk about women.
JW: What would you say the women’s movement meant in your life. Did it shape your life? Did you shape the women’s movement?
DD: I shaped the women’s movement. I was there all my life and my mother was there all her life. Wherever I was, when I was doing the onboard guidance computer, the Apollo thing, in that building, in the instrumentation lab, Aisle 7, what I was doing was talking about women and putting things up and talking to people. That’s what I was known for. Wherever I go, that’s where I am.
JW: Yes, they knew you. That’s just who you are.