Theresa Corrigan

“I can’t turn my back. I can’t pretend I don’t see what I see. Having the words racism and homophobia spoken out loud gives me hope.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, March 2022

TC:  My name is Theresa Corrigan and I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1949.

JW:  Tell us what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement and as a child. What kinds of things do you think made you who you became?

TC:  Judy, I’ve thought about that a lot because I’m very curious about what makes some people activists and what makes other people apathetic and not care. Both parents grew up very poor, and my dad had a 6th grade education, and my mother was a live-in housekeeper, a maid, while she went to high school in order to go to school, and then she went to nurse’s training and became an RN and then joined the army. My dad was also in the army. He enlisted when he was 17. He lied about his age because he had run away from home when he was 15 because he came from a really abusive background.

So, my parents met in the military and my mother outranked my father, which didn’t sit well with him. He was a very traditional man. And then they got married. They were both 30, so they were older, and they had me when they were 33. My first few years of life were spent on a 40-acre farm that my parents bought and then they converted the house into three different apartments so that they could pay the mortgage. And my dad also rented out the pastures and he also did a truck farm and also in the evenings, he had a TV repair service. That was back in the days when there were tubes, and you could repair a TV.

When I was seven, we moved overseas and the first place we went was Ethiopia. I’ve thought about that a lot because I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about racism and I remember when I stepped off the plane in Ethiopia, I started freaking out because I thought something terrible had happened. All of these people had turned brown. My mother explained to me that there were brown people in the world and that I just hadn’t met any of them. So that was my first experience with racial difference.

We went on to live on the economy, which means we didn’t live on base for a while, and I got to know some of the Ethiopian people that lived around where I was living and developed a really nice relationship with an old man. I used to give him a penny and for a penny he could buy a loaf of bread and something to drink and he would talk to me about all sorts of things. Then my dad had a serious accident and was nearly blinded and had to go through a number of surgeries. The surgeries were in Germany, so they stationed him in Germany, and we moved there, and we lived on base.

My dad was not an officer, so I experienced a real class system in the military between the officers’ families and the enlisted families. I remember the base in Ethiopia. The officers had one section of the base. And if you weren’t an officer’s child, you weren’t permitted to go there unless you were accompanied by an officer’s child. It was very segregated on military bases between officers and enlisted personnel.

And then we moved back. In the meantime, my parents had another child. I have a little sister who is five years younger than I. We moved back from Germany to a small town in northern Illinois, Millstadt Illinois, and there were basically five German families that populated this town. I heard soon after I got there that a black family had attempted to move in and they had burned a cross, literally on their front lawn, and they moved out.

I’ll tell you a funny story. I was in the 6th grade, and our assignment was to build an African village, just a little model of an African village. The kids got together, and they were building a fort out of Popsicle sticks that looked like the typical fort that they would have in the west in the movies. I said, “That’s not what an African village looks like.” And they wouldn’t listen to me. I could be a mouthy kid sometimes, so I stood up and I said, “You all are a bunch of hicks.”

I walked out of there. I tried to explain to them. This was a school that was kindergarten to 8th grade. There was no high school in Millstadt. That was the only school. I went and sat on the back porch and tried to figure out what I was going to do. And my teacher came out and I said, “You know, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they won’t listen, and I don’t want to talk to them anymore.” And he said, “Well, unfortunately, I think you’re going to have to, because you have to go to school.” I said, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to go back.” He said, “Well, you have to.”

I learned that sometimes you just have to swallow it, but sometimes you don’t. All of these things went together to make me stand up for what I saw as underdogs. I had a real sense that life should be fair. And when it wasn’t, I was not happy. When we lived in Pennsylvania, I lived with 35 cats, and they were all barn cats. People didn’t let their cats in the house back then, and people didn’t spay or neuter back then either. I loved animals, so I couldn’t bear to see animals being abused or hurt.

I couldn’t stand to see people that I thought were being taken advantage of. My dad was an overt racist. He used racist language. Although after he died, there are a bunch of people of color at his funeral. At first, I thought I was in the wrong room, literally. And several people came up to me and said that he had done favors for them, or he had befriended them or done something for them.

In the meantime, back in those days, if you were married, you couldn’t stay in the military. So, my mother had to leave. And my dad insisted that she not work outside the home. She used to tell me it was sort of a family joke when I was young that she cried every day for the first year of her marriage. And we all went, that’s funny. She said, “Your father finally wouldn’t put up with it anymore and told me to stop being a baby.” When I got older, I thought, oh, my God, what was happening, that she was crying every day.

JW:  Why did she stay in the marriage?

TC:  Well, she wanted children. And in those days, you had to be married to have children, at least in her mind, right? She told me one time that she had been responsible for herself for 30 years until she met him. And she was able to turn over the responsibility of her life to him. When he died, and he died twelve years before she did, she was a mess. I mean, really, she could not get her life in order.

And at one point we were having difficulty because every time she needed something, she called me and she lived in Stockton, which is almost an hour away from where I live. And she would say, “I can’t walk. I need this.” I finally moved her up here. But during that time, I said, “Ma, you have to learn to take responsibility for certain things in your life. I can’t do everything for you.” And she said, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to take responsibility.” She said, “That was your father’s job.” And I said, “But he’s gone now and you’re going to have to learn.” She goes, “Well, it’s a hell of a time for me to learn now, to take responsibility. I don’t want to.” We had words and we worked stuff out.

JW:  She was of a different generation, obviously.

TC:  When I think about it, it made sense that she would cry. She had studied to be a nurse. She loved it. She was a captain in the army. She was used to being in charge. Suddenly now she has virtually nothing to do. This was before I was even born. She worked hard. It was a farmer’s wife’s life, but it wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t have any power. My dad was not physically abusive at all to her. He was to me at times, but he wasn’t to her, but he was emotionally abusive.

My mother had had some debilitating disease as a child, and they thought it was polio. She was bedridden for a year, and it left her with a limp. He called her Pokey, and he would walk ahead of her and just a bunch of yucky stuff. From that, I learned, and I got this double message. My mother was this passive person, and my dad taught me to stand up for myself, to be strong. As long as I wasn’t standing up to him, he wanted me to be strong.

JW:  Interesting. Well, let’s go to the women’s movement. Is that where you got your strength from? Tell us how you got involved in the women’s movement.

TC:  When I first went to college, I got involved in the anti-war movement – in 1968-69. I was a co-founder of the experimental college on campus. It was called Know Credit, and we organized all these various classes and also organized to try and change the structure of the classroom itself, making classes more relevant and more student centered, et cetera.

JW:  May I ask what University you were at?

TC:  California State University. Sacramento. Although at the time it was known as Sacramento State University, it changed. And then I came out in 1971, I think. I don’t quite remember the year, but I started working with two gay men and did lots of speaking engagements and did a lot of organizing in the gay community. I was one of those women who had a fairly negative attitude toward women at that point. I liked some women, but I thought they were the exceptions. I thought most women were just passive and silly and didn’t have anything of interest to me. If I met a woman who I thought was strong and interesting, then she, too, was an exception, just like me.

I started teaching English in 1972 at Sacramento State. And then there was an incident involving a woman who was teaching a course called Lesbianism and Feminism, and there was all this brouhaha. I won’t go into details of that, but they were going to cancel the class, and she did some things that were not particularly good. Some of the students that I knew who were friends of mine came to me and said, “Will you teach this class?” I said, “No, I don’t really want to have anything to do with women’s studies.” They said, “Please.” And that was my first real encounter with women’s studies.

And I found the particular women that I was dealing with to be pretty damn homophobic. One of the members of the Women’s Studies board come to me and said, “The vice president of the University wants you to sign a document promising that you won’t seduce any of your female students, and we’d like you to do that.” I said, “I’m not going to do that. Tell him that when every man on this campus signs that document, then I’ll think about it.” Anyway, so I fought. The first semester that I taught that course, they wouldn’t allow me to teach it by myself. I had to have somebody else in the room with me to make sure that I didn’t do anything. And this was Women’s Studies; this was not the University.

So, they brought in a student assistant who did no work at all on it. I did the whole course, but she was sat there and watched me. She got paid, the students got credit. I didn’t get a dime. I did it all. I volunteered to keep the course around, changed the course name from Lesbianism and Feminism to Society of Women because a number of the students said they really wanted to take the course, but they couldn’t afford to have that word on their transcript, So I changed it to Society of Women, and I broadened the scope of it because I was interested in more than just lesbian relationships.

We studied mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, frenemies, women that were coming up in the movement and what they were contributing. We built it around the whole notion of women supporting one another in all sorts of capacities. One of the basics of the course was Adrienne Rich’s, I can’t remember the full title, but it’s the lesbian continuum that she created. Then after I proved myself in that course, they allowed me to teach a couple of other courses. But again, I had to co-teach with somebody else because they said, ‘Well, you’re the lesbian. We don’t know if you’re a feminist.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that, and I did that for a while.

Then I proved myself again, I suppose, and I started teaching. I taught from 1974 to 2003 in the Women’s Studies program. I taught damn near everything. I taught Introduction to Women’s Studies, Introduction to the Women’s Movement, Feminist Theory, Women and Work – which was an advanced study course that had a writing component – Violence Against Women, Gender, Race and Class, and Society of Women. Then I taught this one little course for one year called Wonder Woman. I brought in women from the community to have them talk about the work they were doing and organizing and activism and stuff.

I was designated as the community liaison because I was also doing a lot of stuff in the community. I was a very strong believer that the movement and the academic portion of women’s studies had to be tied together like the National Women’s Studies Association put in their preamble in those days. It’s no longer there now. That movement link is not in their mission statement anymore.

Then I substituted. I went into the Education Department and taught Sexual Stereotyping and Education. One of the women that took on the role of coordinator of our program for a couple of years taught in social work, so I taught one of her social work courses, Crimes Without Victims.

JW:  I would like to hear more about your work in the community. Were you involved in other organizations while you were doing all this?

TC:  From 1975 to 1980, I was on the staff of the Rape Crisis Center, and I was the research and education coordinator. I did all the media there. It was all our media stuff and all of our speaking engagements and grant writing, etc. From 1980 to 2000, I owned and operated Lioness Books, which was the feminist bookstore in Sacramento. It was one of the oldest and largest bookstores in the country. I finally closed it down in 2000 because I was just hemorrhaging money. The chain stores. That was before Amazon had really grown, but the chain stores were putting us out of business.

Then I consulted from 1977. You noticed there’s a lot of overlap here. I did many things at one time! I was a consultant to the National Institute of Mental Health in their rape prevention and education program. I had given a speech in San Francisco, and this is another funny story. A woman had contacted me, and she called me at home, and she said, “Hi, my name is Gloria Levin and I work for NIMH, and I was wondering if you would consider doing some work for us.” I said, “What does it entail?” And she said, “Well, three or four times a year we would send you grant proposals. You’d read them, you’d write reports on some of them. Then you’d come to Washington, and you’d sit on a panel and make decisions about who gets funded.” You can tell how sophisticated I was, my response was, “I’d love to do that, but I don’t think I can afford to fly to Washington, DC, that many times.”

She said, “No, we pay you. We fly you.” “In that case, fine, I’ll do it.” What was interesting to me, and this was another one of those life lessons, I was home that day with two of my colleagues from rape crisis, and we were actually writing a proposal. I got off the phone and I told them about the conversation, and they said, “Are you going to do it?” I said, “Yes, I’m going to do it. That’s exciting to me.” And they said, “We wouldn’t do it. What if you fail?” I said, “It’s reading and writing. How can I fail?”

Well, you know what was really interesting. There was a woman anthropologist, Paula Webster and she and I were the two feminists on the panel. We organized and we stopped a couple of really bad proposals from getting funded. There was one proposal that wanted to show rape victims pornography so that they can get them interested in sex again. And we fought hard and fought that one down. There was another one that wanted to do treatment with rapists and bring in real victims to talk to them and explain to them why rape was a bad thing.

I was really proud of the work that we did. Then Reagan was elected, and the whole program was done. In 1988 to 2000, I was president of the Feminist Bookstore Network, which was a coordinated effort among all the feminist bookstores in the US and Canada, and we would get together at least once a year and try to figure out how to keep ourselves alive. At one point when I was working with the group, there were about 105 feminist bookstores in the country. Now maybe there are ten. We’ve just gone the way of small business and corporate capitalism.

In 1990 to 1992, I was the judge for the Lambda Literary Awards, which was a contest for gay and lesbian literature. I was also involved with the Publisher’s Triangle, which was gay and lesbian presses. I was really active in the Women In Print movement because it was vital to me. Education from every level, from teaching in college to running a bookstore, which I saw as an educational matchmaking service. Bring the people together with the books. I love books. My two passions in life besides feminism are cats and books, Hence, the t-shirt.

JW:  How many cats do you have now?

TC:  I have 17. They’re all rescues. They’re all spayed and neutered, and almost all of them were bottle raised from the time they were one or two days old.

JW: It’s not 35, but it’s pretty good!

TC: Yes! Now in 2004 and 2005, I went over to Sacramento City College and filled in for a woman who was on maternity leave, and I taught Introduction to Women’s Studies. Then I also taught a course in Global Feminism, which I hadn’t been able to teach over at Sac State. So that was fun. In 1984, along with a man by the name of Marty Rogers, who was a psychologist, we developed a workshop called The Invisible Employee.

The state had passed regulations, anti-discrimination ruling for the UC system, and they came to us and said, “We don’t know how to do this. How do we do this?” So, we developed this workshop. We called it The Invisible Employee, and we did it in a couple of campuses around the state. Then in 1990, we were approached by a teacher at a local high school, and there had been a young man who was gay bashed. They said, could you come and do training for our faculty? So, we modified our workshop and created The Invisible Student, which was training for the faculty, which was an interesting experience because there were some faculty there that literally turned their backs on us and faced the wall.

You asked me about community service work. I did a lot of work with a lot of organizations. I co-wrote the original grant for a women’s substance abuse program called Women’s Stress Alternatives. Then I went on to be the president of their board for several years. I was on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Training, which was a program to get women into nontraditional jobs. There was a program called West Women’s Employment Services and Training. I did three to four workshops per month for them, and their goal was to take women who had been traditionally unemployed and find employment for them.

I did workshops like Self-Esteem. I did a whole workshop on why the system forced poverty onto women, basically. For 24 years I was a director at a program called Child Action Incorporated, which was a vendor program that paid for childcare providers for income eligible families. That was the last job I had; I retired from that job in 2016. It was both state and federal funded and it was a large program. At one point, we had several million dollars to fund childcare because childcare is a necessity for women to work. The welfare laws that were passed, the TANF laws, required people to work. You had to give them childcare if you’re going to require them to be out of the house. I did hundreds of speaking engagements. I did them as a lesbian. I would go out with a guy, either Charles or Marty, and we called it Everything You Want to Know About Homosexuality, But Didn’t Have Anybody To Ask, so ask away.

JW:  What did people ask? Give me one story you remember.

TC:  “If you like being gay so much, why don’t you do it with sheep?” But most of the questions were pretty legitimate. Why did you come out? Why do you think you’re gay? How did your parents react? All that kind of stuff. But every once in a while, somebody would just throw one in that would just blow my mind. I was doing a speaking engagement alone one time for a psychology professor in one of those big classrooms, the tiered classrooms.

This was when AIDS was very much in the news, and this woman just started in. She said, “Well, you know that AIDS is the wrath of God.” I said, “Well, no, it’s not. If AIDs is the wrath of God, then lesbians are the chosen people.” And she just kept interrupting me and saying, “God’s going to get you,” and so on. I never do this. I am cool, calm, and collected in any kind of setting like that. But I lost it. And I said, “Would you just please shut up?” And she was stunned.

About five minutes later, I came back to her. This is in front of the whole group. And I came back, and I said, I want to apologize. I don’t tell people to shut up. And I don’t believe that people should be forced to shut up. But you have to understand that I’ve lost so many friends. I’ve watched them die painfully and slowly, and it pains my heart. And to think that that’s a punishment in some way for loving someone, I said, I just can’t hear that. Well, she wrote a letter to my department and to the President of the University wanting me fired.

JW:  You certainly have had an interesting story. Are you currently involved in any activism?

TC:  I’m disabled at this point. I have pretty bad arthritis, and it makes mobility difficult for me. I still read all the new feminist literature that’s coming out, especially the stuff that’s more accessible to people. I’m working on a book about teaching women’s studies, and one of the things that I say in the book, I challenge every academic woman who writes a book about a subject that I think should be of interest to all women, that if she’s going to write it for the academic community, to the five people that will understand her academies, that she also should write it in an accessible fashion for the rest of us.

JW:  That’s wonderful. I know exactly what you mean.

TC:  It’s a pet peeve of mine. You want the movement to draw people in. You want people to learn to critically think. This is another story that I will share. I was talking to two of my colleagues. I was considered the radical in my department, and I was also accused of being a Pollyanna and an idealist and not a realist, and I didn’t know how to play the game, et cetera. I had one full time faculty. I was part time, although I often taught a full load. I had a part time faculty member come to me and say, “You need to dress differently, cut your hair, because if you look like the students, they’ll never respect you.” I said, “If the only way I can get them to respect me is to cut my hair and change my clothing, I’ve already lost the battle.” I said, “I want them to respect my ideas, not my persona.”

I had another full-time faculty member say in front of me at a meeting, not to me specifically, but she was arguing that they shouldn’t hire us part-timers back again because it was just like women on welfare. If they kept hiring us, we’d never go out and get a real job. I said, “How dare you? First of all, this is my job. I’m trained.” What I wanted to say is I know more about feminism in my little finger than you know in your whole body. I didn’t say that. But I said, “And how dare you talk about women receiving welfare in that fashion.” I said, “You’re just as bad as the guys who say they’re just welfare queens. They’re sitting around on their tuition driving Cadillacs or whatever. Yeah, right.” I said, “You’re just as bad as they.”

Then two of my colleagues, two part-timers, said to me one day that one of them said that feminism was her religion. She considered herself a prophet and she wanted to convert her students. And the other one said, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean.” Again, I said, “I don’t have a religion. Number one, feminism is a theory and practice to end oppression that women and other people face. I don’t want them to convert. I want them to develop critical thinking skills so that they can spot sexism and racism and heterosexism, classism wherever they see it, not because they’re doing what I tell them to say, but because they can understand it and put it together.”

I still believe it. Well, the term now is intersectionality. In my day, that was before Kimberly Crenshaw, I used to call it multiple layers of oppression. I would explain to them how these things are all interlinked and how if you’re a black woman, you can’t make the choice of which is worse, racism or sexism. I said, they go hand in hand. I had a friend, a poet named Christos, who is Native American, and she said, “You know, it gets really tiresome.” She said, “I have to be the lesbian in the native community. I have to be the Native American in the feminist community.” She said, “I get tired of having to educate everybody.”

Well, the other thing that I used to object to and raise holy hell about it when people would say, well, this movement is just a white middle class movement, right? I would say, “That is absolutely not true. That’s what you see because that’s what the media wants you to see.” Then I would line up all these organizations like the Black Women’s Health Collective and warn women of all red nations and just all these various groups that were doing feminist work. And now after a period of time, and I said, “That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t racism in the women’s movement. There certainly was just like there was homophobia in the women’s movement and classism in the women’s movement.”

I went to the National Women’s Studies Association convention meeting once, and I thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. It was so hierarchical. I’m not saying everybody was that way, but there was a general vibe of thought as product that had value. You didn’t want to just spread it around. You wanted to make sure that you got credit for it, and you got published for it. And the academic approach, and I was an academic. I loved academia, but I don’t like that kind of academia.

JW:  Let’s try to sum up.

TC:  I have to say one more thing. This is my other interest. In 1989 and 1990, I co-edited along with Stephanie Hoppy, a two-volume anthology about women’s relationships with other animals. The first volume was called With a Fly’s Eye, Whale’s Wit, and Woman’s Heart. And the second volume was In a Deer’s Ear, Eagle’s Song, and Bear’s Grace. It was published by Cleis Press. I’ve written other things and been published in other things, but that was our big project that we worked on. I would go to animal rights groups and the sexism, and the racism and the classism are quite apparent. But do education anyway.

JW:  We see evidence that it’s breaking down and that we still have a way to go.

TC:  We do. But I’m very pleased to see that even mainstream politicians now have learned that you have to include women. You have to talk about people. I’m not talking about the right wing nutballs. I’m talking about conscientious politicians, mostly progressive, that understand it’s a multifaceted movement, and there are issues that cross all different lines and have to be addressed. And that’s exciting to me. I never thought when I was younger that I would hear someone in Washington say “lesbian” out loud or that the media would use the word “racism” because it used to be like racial tension. Now, having the words racism and homophobia and all those things spoken out loud gives me hope. It does. And young people give me hope.

JW:  What would you say about what it meant to you to be born when you were?

TC:  I’m very happy when I was born because not only was I born when feminism was possible, but I was able to go to college in the ‘60s, and that was a wonderful time to go to college. We’d have protested every time I turned around. We had demonstrations all the time. I would tell my students about those days, and they would go, “We’re so jealous. We live in a crappy time. We wish we were your age.” I’d say, “It wasn’t the age. We made it. You can make it. You can be demonstrating. You can do it.”

For a couple of years, I organized a group with a stupid name when I think about it now. But it was FemCOP and it was Feminist Community Organizing Project. I got students to volunteer to do not so much volunteer work, like for nonprofits, but to do organizing political actions, demonstrations, and that kind of stuff. We had fun. It was really great.

JW:  What would you like to say in summing up.

TC:  Besides working on the book about teaching women’s studies, I had a very specific way of teaching that involved activity. It was a very activity-based learning process. They were up and doing things and creating things and writing skits and all that because I wanted them to feel what they were learning, not just in their head, but in their body and in their hearts. But I’ve been thinking for the last probably two years and making notes. I don’t know what will come of it, but I’m really curious to figure out how I became anti-racist.

I don’t call myself a racist because it feels like it’s claiming a term. I know I have white privilege, and I know I live in a racist society that benefits me in many ways. I’m not denying racism. I just don’t like using that word. I use anti-racist often or I don’t use anything, but I’m trying to figure out where I learned certain messages and from whom and under what circumstances, because there certainly have been times in my life when I have felt like, boy, did you just make an ass of yourself and say something totally stupid? And then what did I learn from that?

One of the most significant lessons I ever learned, there’s a woman by the name of Margaret Sloan, poet, writer, black woman, lesbian. She came to the Women’s Center when I was working there, to do a project called A Day of Learning about Racism. Our staff was almost all white at that point. This was back in the early or mid-1970s. And Margaret started talking about her experience of being a black woman and a lesbian and a woman and all those things combined.

And there was a white woman who got up and left the room, and she came back in about 15 minutes later. And she said to Margaret, I want to apologize for leaving the room, but it was just so heavy, I couldn’t handle it. And Margaret said, “That is your point of privilege; when you can turn away from somebody else’s pain, you’re exercising your privilege.” I have never forgotten that. And I have always operated on that principle that I can’t turn my back. I can’t pretend I don’t see what I see. I have to do something about it.