THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Laura Rand Orthwein, Jr., aka Laura X
“I taught women never to take no for an answer, and I taught men to always take no for an answer.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, March 2021
KR: Why don’t you tell me your name and the history of your name.
LX: I have three sets of names. I was born Laura Rand Orthwein Jr. Believe it or not the “jr” was on the souvenirs from my christening. Six months later on May 15th my mom passed. They used to call me Laura Jr. all the time because Mom gave me her full name, but I didn’t know it was official until she passed. I now use it more than I used to. I use it in her honor on my website.
In 1962 I changed my name legally to reflect my devotion to George Bernard Shaw, I became Laura Shaw Murra. I became a socialist at 15 thanks to GBS (George Bernard Shaw) and that didn’t go over so well in my upbringing. I came out to my father in the middle of an argument about the dumping of wheat in the ocean in order to fiddle with the prices of wheat. It didn’t seem right with people starving, we were always supposed to clean our plate and eat everything that was put upon it because there were people starving in India, at that time, later it became Africa. That’s when I told him that I had become a socialist in boarding school reading George Bernard Shaw. And George Bernard Shaw died on my birthday, I think I was 10 at the time.
KR: Tell me when you were born, what’s your birth date?
LX: I was born on November 2, 1940. I was a pre-war baby, not what some people think is a boomer, a boomer is after the war by definition.
KR: What was the next iteration of your name?
LX: The last name that I took at that point was given to me by my great significant other for 45 years whose name was John Victor Murra. He made up his last name as well. When he was born he was Isak Lipschitz, and when I knew him he was the world’s greatest Inca scholar and was my professor at Vassar. We ran off together to Brooklyn. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, he was 23 years older than I and he had a court case that went to the Supreme Court to get his passport.
He was well known in the interesting circles that I moved in in New York. He took me to picket the Chase Manhattan bank to protest their investments in South Africa, this is 20 years before the students took it over as a major national campaign, and I was happy to do that. It was colder than hell on Wall Street because of the water there – it was very cold, it was in January.
KR: I want to know about the next iteration of your name.
LX: That takes many more years, that doesn’t come till ’69. The other thing I did was I become a picket captain for CORE while I was in New York. We picketed Avenger’s Bakery, which was a bakery that was so German it would not hire Jews or Blacks or Catholics; it was really horrific. The only thing good about them was their cinnamon buns. We had a great old time because CORE was on purpose white and black together. That was the concept. That was a lot of fun and very educational for me. I had already been interested in the civil rights movement at Vassar and there’s an article about me going to Harlem on my wiki from back in the day before I left Vassar, which was the end of my junior year.
I also went, thanks to John Murra, to a summer school in Xalapa which is the capital of the state of Veracruz in Mexico. That summer of ’61 one of my classmates in this university where we were doing this total immersion was none other than one of the Rosenberg children [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg]. It was Michael Meeropol. That just came back to me when I watched the Billie Holiday documentary because she took all of that terrorism by the FBI because the father of Michael Meeropol had written the song “Strange Fruit” for her. It was because he was a communist that they said she could not sing that song, they being the FBI.
I can’t get enough of that film, I’m so grateful that it’s out. And, that the actress won the Golden Globe for it, because that’ll give it more play. I’m wearing this collar today because of declaring myself a socialist. I’m a socialist feminist from way back and I’m a feminist from way back, too, because my mom raised me deliberately on biographies of great women. She started out when I was little with Jane Addams, Little Lame Girl was the name of the book. I certainly was appreciative of that, and there was Clara Barton and all kinds of great people. So I had a jump start on what I did 20 years later to start the Women’s History Library about women in history who don’t get enough credit.
Jane Addams means a great deal to me because she founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In the little bit earlier version of that, she is [one] who tried very hard with her organization to get the Treaty of Versailles not to be so punitive to Germany. A phrase that she said was not to be so punitive lest we create the conditions from which a despot will arise. She was absolutely prescient on that one and in fact she got the Nobel Peace Prize the same year that Hitler came to power, ’33. Jane Addams was incredible in terms of all the work she did. She had spent 10 years as a social work person learning about the social work methods in Germany, so she was very clear.
How did I become a peacenik? I was in Women’s Strike for Peace and what they did in Congress with all the nursing mothers because of Strontium-90. At Vassar I started a chapter of Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. I had become a member of that group because of a teacher at Washington University, Greg Stone. I went two summers to take 12 credits at Washington University in St. Louis, where I’m from. I was working with John Murra at the American Committee on Africa also. We picketed not just the Chase Manhattan, but other places. We were there for the reception for all the new countries that had become independent, almost 25.
You have on your list to tell you about James Baldwin. People should know about his wonderful writings and his important life. I read Another Country, one of his books. I was a teacher in Harlem as a Head Start teacher in the Bronx in the morning and Harlem in the afternoon. I loved the book and I somehow got this bee in my bonnet that I wanted to ask him about it. I got this because I visited my good friend Natalie at Sarah Lawrence. There was this young man pontificating about this book I had just read, coincidentally. He was from Harvard or someplace.
At that point, Sarah Lawrence was a women’s college and here was this guy telling everybody what they should think. It was basically a Marxist analysis of it which I didn’t mind because I was a socialist, but it was the tone that was so irritating. I said, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I think the core of the book is about love. He just laughed at me, so I decided to go over to James Baldwin’s apartment in the Chelsea district of New York. I had heard him speak at one of the churches, probably the one in the village or at the United Hebrew Men’s Organization in the Upper East Side. It was where he said he wasn’t a “Negro” writer, he was a writer. At the end of that decade he said, I’m a black writer. But in the beginning, he said you don’t put two nouns together unless you mean to give a special qualification to the second noun, and he didn’t want to diminish the power of the word writer.
I went to his house and there was his literary agent. He said, I’m sure he would love to talk with you, but he has gone to Puerto Rico. I said, that’s pretty funny because I’m about to go to Puerto Rico myself. He said he’s with his family for the birthday and he gave me the address and I got down there and it was the building next door. I somehow managed to get up the nerve with my girlfriend, Judy Pottle and we went and knocked on the door and said, “Happy birthday, your agent said I could come and say hello and ask you my burning question.”
He said, “Sure come right in, make yourself at home.” Everybody was dancing. I asked him my burning question, which was, “Is your book about love or is it mostly about economics?” He said, “Yes, it’s about love – you’re absolutely right!” I told him my story. I was happier than a clam and we spent the rest of the night with everybody dancing, including me.
In New York I was part of the scene that you can see in Finding Llewyn Davis with Oscar Isaac. I went all the time to Gerde’s Folk City, and I was there when Bob Dylan came for the first time at a hootenanny to perform. I was there when Jim and Jean were, and also Phil Ochs. That was an incredibly important part of my life. I was also at NYU and Bank Street College of Education during that time. But really Gerde’s Folk City was where I got my education.
And also, with Fred Neil, Fred Neil and I were lovers and he wrote the “Midnight Cowboy” theme song. He also wrote a couple of songs for me: one was about my bedroom in Brooklyn having a blue ceiling and all of the walls were blue, so he wrote a song called “Blues on the Ceiling”. He also wrote “Wild Child in a World of Trouble” for me and about me. I really, really loved him. When I went to see him at the Gate of Horn, he was the opening act for Lenny Bruce. That’s how I met Lenny and invited him to come and speak a couple of years later for the free speech movement, which he did. But they wouldn’t let him be on the campus, we had to do it in a firehouse.
The free speech movement was huge in my life and very much where my friends currently are still from. What drove it was the people who had been in Freedom Summer, including Mario Savio, and coming back and not being able to recruit for civil rights activity on campus. “Berkeley in the ’60s” has half an hour on the free speech movement near the beginning, and it’s still perfect. It’s probably 30 years old by now, that movie.
Then I had a disastrous relationship, I’m sorry to say, with a fellow who would have been the poet laureate of his country, Puerto Rico. It became violent and I actually had to move out. He did a few days of jail time and then he skipped the country. That was an enormous heartbreak for me, terrible, terrible. Because he was an alcoholic and we also cared a great deal about each other, it took me some time to get over that, to put it mildly.
One of the wild things I did was go to the Soviet Union in ’67 and it was perfectly normal and calm because they were watching out for me: Intourist. It’s the tourist agency that’s national and it takes care of you and takes you to the train to go to your next city or the airplane or bus, whatever you’re doing. Anyway, it really helped me to get out of this area where so many people had known us together and every time I went to the grocery store, I would just burst into tears when I ran into someone.
When I came back, which was ’68, the world was changing about women. I had gone to the Soviet Union to study women and children and the child rearing practices and the child care and also the children’s folklore. I studied Russian in order to be able to go there and be able to communicate. When I came back, I discovered that in the civil rights movement and other movements, women were complaining about the male chauvinism from the leadership and their equals there.
I started collecting that material as a way of mending my sense of self, which had been battered, which is what happens with a battered woman. I was invited to a party of people with sociology professors. I was brought there because a friend of mine was aware of the material I was collecting. She wanted me to meet Pauline Bart, who was one of the professors on campus, a terrific person. I remember her great line about “we’re getting screwed while we’re getting screwed.” Pauline had also recruited me into Red W.I.T.C.H: Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. You probably read that article about me and others of us that was in “Broadly,” which was part of VICE back in the day.
I’m being introduced to Pauline by Karen Nelson and this other person overhears and spins 180 degrees and says, “Pauline, don’t bother teaching a course on women, there is not enough to fill a quarter course.” We were on the quarter system at that time instead of semesters. I was so outraged I went home and called everybody I knew and put a list together of a thousand people in world history. I called it the Her Story Synopsis, and I nailed it to his door about three days later in an homage to Luther.
That story got out in the media when we did the International Women’s Day revival on March 8th, 1969. It was Berkeley Women’s Liberation; I took the list to a meeting and they loved it and decided we would have a parade and demonstration. We were the first since 1947 to do any kind of street demo. At least that’s what a reporter told us from the Oakland Tribune. We had a great time in the parade. That’s the spring. I was listening to, all these years starting in New York, to a program on Pacifica Radio, called “Soviet Press and Periodicals.”
On September 17th of that year I was listening to the program and Bill Mandele was reading from a Soviet article that talked about the Armenian women finally after 52 years from their revolution, as a routine they were keeping their birth names instead of changing to their husband’s name. Other ethnic groups had done that before, most of them had anyway, starting at the beginning. Then I got on a call-in show and I said, “Why didn’t the Bolshevik women think of something else besides just having their fathers name, wouldn’t there have been something more creative with the amount of energy and smarts that those fabulous women had?”
He said in all of his years of reading the Soviet press and all those years of going there, he had not heard of them doing that. I said, “I’ll just be Laura X until I can figure out something and it fits. I have this women’s history library going and our history was stolen from us – therefore it’s anonymous. We have to carry our slave owners names and that is a direct quote from Malcolm.” I was planning on coming up with something creative, but nobody let me. My name gave people such courage to do their own and to break away from whatever they wanted to break away from, so they kept saying, no, no, no.
Here I am today with that wonderful, symbolic, political name. I had started the Women’s History Library being about women in history who were not given enough credit even if there were books about [them]. A bunch of things became obvious as soon as we went public on March 8th and the press picked it up. One thing was people kept coming to my house needing refuge from being raped by strangers, from being beaten and raped in their personal relationships, so we had as far as we know the first refuge in the country – though it was informal!
We hadn’t really started the battered women’s movement aspect of the women’s movement or the anti-rape movement with the crisis centers. But we did put an interview with someone who had been raped and very badly treated by her boyfriend when she managed to limp home after she came here. We have a very lengthy interview of her in the first women’s liberation newspaper, which was called “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” I also helped name the next one, which was “Off Our Backs, Out of DC” and it lasted a great deal longer than ours did.
Unfortunately, ours didn’t even make it ’til August, but it was still important and there were people in New York who used that testimony to have a rape speakout. That became really famous because it was in New York and so much media is there. We were always dealing with violence against women from the very beginning and in ’69, the year of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in 1970 it started, in January.
In 1969, I had a newsletter which always included things about violence against women, probably the only one from April to December of that year and we called it a “SPASM” as a kind of a joke because it came out spasmodically, but it stood for Sophia Perovskaya and Andrei Zhelyabov, Memorial Society for People’s Freedom Through Women’s Liberation. And that is absolutely my motto, that people will be free when women are liberated. Andrei and Sophia were interesting in themselves.
She was the daughter of the governor of St. Petersburg and they were part of the plot to assassinate the czar. I was not for that. That was in 1880 something. And I was not for that, but I was amused that she was 16 and ran away from the governor of St. Petersburg, I could identify with that. It became clear, the second thing, which is that the records of the women’s movement weren’t being collected, the current ones. So, I thought, I don’t want our movement to disappear the way the previous ones have so I better offer a central archive. I did starting in ’69 and we did collect records from 40 countries. There was almost a million documents.
I was a wreck from the responsibility, people said, “You have to get away.” And I said, “I can’t; something could happen to these incredible documents.” This is in ’71 or something. I was taken by someone who was working with me to Hawaii to get rest and rethink my life and what I would do. We came up with a brilliant plan of publishing the records on microfilm. We went to Bell and Howell and they said, “Absolutely,” and they said, “You know that in your lifetime you will never sell more than twenty-five, but be good with that, be happy with that. That would be really good, and we will sell them for you as well as film them.”
Several years later, we got trained in doing our own filming and cataloging and by the time it was ’64 and ’65, we got everything on microfilm and were actually selling them ourselves and doing all the promotion. That was quite something. The only funny thing about that is my staff here in my living room were laughing all the time because I had this gift of mimicry, but I was unconscious of it. So, whenever I was talking to people in the South, I would speak in the way that they spoke.
My staff was cracking up at my mimicking, but nobody thought it was rude. I told them that my whole mom’s side of the family is from Mississippi and Alabama. And it’s all your fault that I got a Southern Women’s Award, Kathy Rand, I got a Southern Feminist Award because of you allowing my work in the South and my genes from the south. What year was that? In North Carolina.
KR: Yeah, I think it was 2017.
LX: That long?
KR: Yeah, it was four years ago this time of the year.
LX: Yes, it was this time of the year. It was March. And because of you saying I could come and be honored and everything, somebody introduced herself to me and she said, “I am Leandra and I’m a professor at the University of Houston, and I believe we should take your collection.” Now it has a home and I’m probably going to cry. Kathy, I owe you so much.
KR: Leandra’s fantastic, she’s been to some of our events and she wrote her book about Bella Abzug.
LX: That’s how the collection got to Houston, it’s all your beloved fault.
KR: It’s all my fault, that’s good news.
LX: Guess how many we have sold of the microfilm?
KR: I bet it’s more than twenty-five.
LX: Yes! It’s over 500 and it’s in 14 or 15 countries. When we went under in ’89 we gave them to my daughter project, I love to call it, the National Women’s History Project. And now they call themselves the National Women’s History Alliance, you’ll probably work with them on various projects. Molly McGregor is a great hero of that group. The marital and date rape stories’ origin is Christmas Day, 1978. That was important because I was visiting Bill Mandele, part of whose family I became, and Tanya.
We had gone out in the evening the night before for Christmas Eve. Even though they were Jewish, they’d love to go to cafes and sing carols because they loved to sing, and we’re raised with the stuff in New York schools. We were reading the paper and there was this article about this trial of a woman in Oregon who was able to get a prosecutor to pay attention to the fact that her husband had raped her even though they were still living together. That was only one of maybe four or five at the most, states where that was even an option. There was a few other states where your husband could be prosecuted if you were legally separated, but living together, no way, except for that few four or five states.
So, I called on Christmas Day and said, “Hi, what can I do to help?” We worked together at that rape crisis center and I did a pamphlet about Gretta with her permission and interviewed her. She was acquitted and what made me so angry is the prosecutor said he would be on the other side if he hadn’t beaten her. Irrespective of what the law said, clearly he was on the side of the rapist – it was unbelievable. The good news is that he got arrested and busted and everything on corruption a few years later.
I was incensed, let’s put it that way. People didn’t understand, they didn’t get it. The summer after we were pretty much winning and maybe even when we did win, which was September 22nd in California of that year, ’79, I remember a picnic. There was a lovely man, head of the NAACP, who said to a group of six people, “I thought I got married so I didn’t have to ask anymore.” His wife was mortified. He is such a sweetheart, I’m very fond of him to this day. He’s an architect, African-American, head of the NAACP, great guy. But at that moment in history, that’s where even many of the best people were, is my point.
But asking is a big deal, asking permission and women’s right to be listened to when such a thing is happening and our right to what’s called in the New Jersey statute, affirmative consent. We have to be able to say yes to any sexual encounter and it has to be an unimpaired yes. In other words, not when we are affected by any form of alcohol or other drugs. Then my brilliant, beloved, former law intern who did our Women in Law microfilm, now an attorney, said to me, “By the way Laura, it’s not a crime in California.” I said, “Can’t you just go up and blue pencil it?” I hadn’t really got the drill down about how one gets laws through.
Then she said to me, “Laura, I’ve made up a list of what you’re going to do that’ll take the rest of your life. There’s another 45 states plus D.C. where there’s an exemption from prosecution for people who rape their date or their wife or their cohabitant.” I said, “Joanne, you have got to be joking. I’m already exhausted.” And she said, “No, you’ve got to do it.” So, I did. It took till ’93 and then we did some other countries after that. I seem to remember trying to collapse at that time after. It really was fantastic.
There was a beautiful woman who went to law school in 1944 at the University of Alabama and in her 50s, she decided to run for office. Bea Holt was her name, in North Carolina. I had been to North Carolina 12 times, trying to get our bill through – I think more in that state than any other. When she took it on, she went and terrorized people. It was hysterical, but in a very funny way. She went over to the Senate, she was a rep, and she said, “We’ll take the law in our own hands, snip snip,” when she went over to present to the Senate.
She was one of those strong, Southern women. They got the message and they passed the bill. She was talking about Lorena Bobbitt, who should not be left out and whom I did support. Obviously, I’m not going to support any kind of violence. I’m just not. But it was certainly understandable how enraged she was. I was on one of those TV shows I was on, the Today Show, up against her husband’s attorney. I was in South Carolina and it was some obscene hour, 6:00 in the morning and I looked like I do now with the baggy eyes and everything…
KR: Before we wrap up, I want you to talk about the Jazz Station.
LX: Oh, yes, now that was a respite if there ever was one! That was between the dispersal of our first library records, so they went to Princeton’s Peace and Justice Collection, they went to the state Historical Society of Wisconsin, they went to Northwestern the Serial’s collection went there, and the subject area files went to the University of Wyoming. That all happened in ’75 when we were done microfilming our collection, which only goes to June 30th of ’74. When we got the originals dispersed, we continued distributing the microfilms.
Things were a little quieter around here, which was good, but then [it was] before the marital rape. In ’76 I read an article in that same newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, and I was at Valentino’s house and my jazz and blues station was going to be put off the air. Primarily it featured women who are the great jazz and blues singers, after all. I absolutely could not bear it. Tonya and Bill, who were a generation older than I and raised on that music, said, “Why do you like all that old music?” I said, “What would you say if somebody said, why do you bother with Beethoven?”
I was off and running on that campaign, but that was such fun because we had musical benefits. Musicians did benefits for the station – they loved it, too. The station covered the late 20s ’til 1952. It was called KMPX, and you can still see the website today that was put up by John Janssen, who was first one of the deejay’s and then one of the managers. It was his collection that I was thrilled by all day long every day. The singers were black, and the singers were white and who knows whatever else they might have been, that in between in color, otherwise known as mixed race or even the in between color, which was Jewish.
That marvelous film “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” the white Southerners didn’t know what to do with the Jewish professors who had fled Hitler and the northern places wouldn’t hire the professors. It’s a great documentary. And the southern people didn’t know what “color” Jewish people were. All they knew was that they let those black people in their house for dinner. The professors let the black students in their house for dinner. It’s a great film.
And I live for movies and we published also the first women’s songbook, we published the first book about women in film, the first book about female artists, the first bibliography on women and religion, and whatever else it says on the wiki that I’ve managed to forget, but I loved doing all of that. That was great stuff. The songbook was ’71. The film book was ’72, the female artists was ’73 and ’75. This is from memory by the way. Between the two female artist editions was women in religion and some women’s studies course stuff. Maybe that was a little earlier, actually.
KR: I think we’re just about wrapping up – we’re at a good time to do that. I think that you are amazing and your stories incredible. I’m glad we persevered between us to get you to tell your story so you can be an important part of the VFA Pioneer Histories Project.
LX: Oh, goodness can I tell you one more story?
LX: This dress is not just red for socialism. It’s a very important dress that I was wearing in a funny moment. Sometime in probably the early ’90s, Gregory Peck came to do his Conversations with Gregory Peck thing at our enormous University of California Berkeley. I was parking my car in the student parking lot underneath the student union building and the people who brought him for his event and his wife, Veronique, parked a couple of cars down and we were alone together in the parking lot. I smiled in my awestruck way, like anybody else would have.
He smiled at me and I held back so as not to go out in front of them. He in his very gallant way motioned for me to go in front. So, I went in front and then I spun around and said, “Oh, by the way, I thought you might need to know that I married you when I was eight.” And I’m laughing, he’s laughing, tragically Veronique is not. His host was a woman and she was sort of neutral. I said, “I’m a granddaughter of an attorney and I distinctly remember that I had a proxy for you and there was a minister, which is another of my girlfriends.”
So, he laughed, and I went on and sat in my little reserved seat there. He gave this wonderful compilation of clips of his films and then we were allowed to ask questions. So, I raised my hand and he asked various people and then he got to me and he said, “the lady in red.” When I was looking in my closet today I thought, I’m going to tell Kathy this story. It’s a great song and John Murra and I used to dance to it. It was a lot of fun.
KR: And also, International Women’s Day. We all wear red.
LX: Yes, we do. I said to him, “What’s missing is a movie that completely changed my life. I started my campaign at eight after I saw you in A Gentlemen’s Agreement. I started my little campaign against anti-Semitism at 8 because of that film.” I said, “There wasn’t a clip in your compilation, what happened?” He said we wanted it so much, but we couldn’t get the rights. There was some issue with the rights. He thanked me for bringing that up, and for my little childhood and campaign.
I didn’t tell him – Orthwein is a name that could be both Jewish or German and we got the prejudice against both groups in St. Louis. So that was fun…not! In any case, there’s more stories about me and antisemitism, from my childhood, which are kind of funny. But the most important thing to know is that everybody should watch Sister Rose’s Passion because her life campaigning against anti-Semitism and taking it all the way to the pope and winning started when she was 11 as a farm girl outside of Racine. What was so poignant was about five people later after me, someone said, “Would you please ask them in Hollywood to redo the story and have the person pretend to be deaf so that people will get more understanding of what it’s like to be deaf?” He said, “What a great idea, I will pass it along.” Well, it hasn’t happened yet.
KR: This has been delightful, thank you so much for your time.
LX: If you look on my second website, there are 22 social movements that I’ve been involved in, maybe we’ll talk about them in the future.