THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I would hope that the next generation continue the fight – there is so much left to be done.”
– Carol King from the documentary Passing the Touch – The Second Wave Feminists in Michigan
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA, May 2019
KR: Do you want to just start by telling us your name?
CK: Sure. Carol Louise King. Not the singer but the one who can’t sing.
KR: The second wave feminist and that’s why we’re here. When and where were you born?
CK: I was born in Detroit Michigan in December 1948. I was a Christmas baby. It was December 10th and I was supposed to have another name but when I was born so close to Christmas my mom changed it to Carol. I’m Christmas Carol.
KR: What is your ethnic background or what was your family background like growing up?
CK: In terms of class we were upper lower class, lower middle class. My father was a World War II veteran and moved to Detroit for the auto industry and he came from Arkansas. His background is Irish, English, and Scottish. My mother was a Syrian. They met in Detroit and got married and my dad worked. He had a number of different jobs. He was not well educated, and he got involved in union organizing. This was prior to the National Labor Relations Act so he got fired from a lot of jobs once they found out he was organizing a union. He wasn’t the steadiest breadwinner.
My mother worked as a secretary until she retired. My father died when I was 17 years old. I had just graduated from high school. I went to college on the G.I. bill. At that time the dependents of veterans got an office [and] were able to go to college. I don’t think they do that anymore. I’m the oldest of four children and my mother was widowed very young. My father was 44, she was 48 and I’m the oldest of four so [it] was a young family and she struggled as a woman, as a secretary, not a terrific wage to keep us going and it was challenging at times. And I watched her struggle. My mother was very smart, very organized, very capable and I watched her struggle to support us. I think that’s where the seeds of feminism were planted at a very early age.
KR: Where did you go to college?
CK: I went to Western Michigan University. I went to Western Michigan for a very specific reason. It was far enough from home that I could get home if I needed to, but it was far enough away that I wasn’t expected to come home every weekend. I also found out in doing research that they had the lowest tuition of any state university. That’s the reason I chose Western because we could afford it even though there were veterans benefits we still had to pay for a lot of stuff. I got a nice education there – I enjoyed it. I got active in the peace movement – the anti-war movement and in some civil rights stuff that was going on at the time and I was paying attention to the women’s movement in its earliest stages as a college student.
KR: What year approximately?
CK: I graduated from college in 1971. I was there in the 60s and I was involved, and it upset my mother greatly especially with Kent State when Kent State happened. She was quite upset because I had been protesting and doing things. She was worried, but that was the beginning of my activism, my awareness actually, my beginning of awareness. I got out of college and I started interviewing for jobs and I was looking for management. I majored in English. I loved reading. I loved the literature. I loved all of that. I could have been a teacher, but at the time I got out of school teacher’s jobs were not that plentiful. I had minored in communications, speech and philosophy. Not very practical.
I started looking for jobs in management, like a management trainee in the Detroit area. And everywhere I went I was offered jobs as, “Well, I don’t know about management, but you’ve worked in offices before, we could use a receptionist, or we could use a clerical worker.” I worked my way through college working in an office like my mother – the secretarial stuff came to me naturally. I was good at spelling and writing and I wasn’t a particularly fast typist, but I could do. I wasn’t interested in those jobs but that’s what I kept getting offered. I realized that although I identified as a feminist at that time the world didn’t se that or didn’t give me credit for that. That’s when I decided I needed to get involved in a more formal way other than just beating up my friends when they called me girl and I want to be called woman or you know for other things that I thought were sexist. So that’s when I joined NOW.
KR: What kind of things did you do in NOW? What was your involvement?
CK: I got involved primarily because of employment discrimination. When I was in college I had gotten pregnant and it was quite traumatic. It was before Roe and I made my first visit to a gynecologist when I was pregnant. He was very judgmental, and he said – get dressed and come into my office and we’ll talk And he pulled his glove off and I was like Oh – OK. And I’m in shock right. You know I sort of thought I was pregnant, but I was hoping against hope. And I went into his office and all I wanted to do is get out of there and I said, “You know what? It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s going to be fine. I’m going to get married. We’re going get married – it’ll be fine. There’s no need for us to have this…”
And he was relieved. So, he dismissed me and I and went back to the dorm and I actually had a miscarriage, fortunately. I never forgot that fear and terror and I had started bleeding and my friends in the dorm called the nurse or whatever. I don’t know who they called, and they said well she’s probably going to lose it but have her rest and just stay calm and she should just rest. So, I got out of bed and I ran up and down the stairs and I can remember standing between two beds in my suite mates room holding on to the bedstead and asking them to please punch me in the stomach or kick me or do something. And nobody wanted to do it of course. Anyway, I did have a miscarriage in the dorm. And the women were so supportive and helpful and caring. That was my first real encounter with women caring for each other. And I never forgot that.
KR: Did you ever tell your mother?
CK: No. Never. She would have been – I was a first in my family to go to college. She was upset with me for being involved in anti-war activity, so coming and telling her I was pregnant. And she was a devout Catholic. I went to a Catholic school for 12 years. I never discussed it with her and even to her dying day. I think she had suspicions. Anyway, I joined NOW, and I joined the Macomb County NOW Chapter in Michigan because I’d gone to a Detroit NOW meeting and the women there were so accomplished and smart and confident. They stood up and gave reports and they held a meeting and there was Robert’s Rules of Order and I was in shock. I was in awe. And I thought – OK well they don’t need me here.
I had moved to the suburb after I had moved out of my mother’s house and I was living in Macomb County. I joined Macomb County NOW and they weren’t rubes by any stretch, but it wasn’t as large. It wasn’t as organized in the same way, so I really felt like I could fit in there a little better there. I joined there and the president at the time, we were talking about issues we were going to work on. And I said – What about abortion? I’ll never forget what she said – Oh well I’m beyond that so I don’t really care. I said – Well I’m not quite beyond it, and I do care, so maybe I can take that on.
I became the Abortion Task Force Chair and I had no idea what that meant. I did a lot of research then about abortion and about birth control and I just got immersed in it and I gave a report to the chapter – it was like a term paper. That was the beginning of my involvement in NOW and specifically in the area of abortion rights. I became really passionate about that. That was what I worked on through most of my years of activism. In fact, I went on to run the Michigan Abortion Rights Action League which was the affiliate of NARAL at the time.
I got involved in that very early and then I became chapter vice president and president. We had a group of metropolitan Detroit area chapters – I think six chapters – and we decided to join forces. Everybody was putting out a newsletter. We decided to combine and put out one metro newsletter. I became the newsletter editor. I was pulling in everybody and that was before computers. You would get graph paper and cut out type pieces and you lay it out and so I learned a lot from that. We then had metropolitan Detroit chapter presidents meetings. We were very well organized and very active. We would take on our local issues.
In Macomb County, the Macomb Daily was the newspaper and they had a report about some guy talking about someone who had killed her husband, I think her name was Joanne Little. We got involved in some local issues. And there was an editorial about how men can’t even feel safe in their beds anymore because their wives are going to kill them while they sleep. We thought – come on. We wrote letters to the editor as you did, and the guy doubled down on it and wrote another column making fun of us. We asked for and got a meeting with the editor and a couple of people at the newspaper and it was in the middle of winter and you’re from Chicago you know what winters are like.
It was snowing, it was horrible, and we had threatened to picket them if they didn’t do something about this. They agreed to a meeting. We had a pre-meeting to figure out how we were going to conduct ourselves and one of the women who was the Chapter Vice President, she had worked for the federal government. Doris Little was her name. She was amazing. She was so organized, and she said – OK we’re going to plan this meeting. We’re going to have one person speak and they’re going to try and get us to break ranks. We’re not going to do that. Carol you’re the president – you’re going to speak. And if they ask any questions of the rest of us we turn to Carol and say – you can ask Carol. And she said we’re going to sit ourselves around the table – we’re not going to sit together. We’re going to make sure that we’re around the table, and Carol you’re going to sit at the head of the table.
I’d never been involved in an event like this. We went into this meeting and we stationed ourselves where we were supposed to. The men came in, and it was all men and they looked around the table and sort of tentatively – so we’d already thrown them off their game. And they sat around, and I started and one of the men interrupted me, and as he interrupted me I stopped and stared at him until he stopped, and I said – May I continue? We had rehearsed all this. It was amazing, we role played this. And these guys did what we thought they were going to do. We had joked among ourselves – that if you weren’t in here meeting with us we would have millions marching outside. We called them the Mythical Marching Millions. We told them the only reason you don’t have a picket line around this building is because we told people we’re going to have this meeting and see if we could come to an agreement.
They agreed. We wanted them to publish a column, I don’t remember specifically what it was, but we talked about what we wanted out of this and we wanted people to understand what the real issues were, so we wanted an editorial about it. They agreed to all of this and we walked out feeling very powerful. It was amazing what you could do when you took a stand and stood up for yourself. We weren’t angry. We were just very calm and presented our case. That was one of my earliest memories of that kind of success.
So that’s what we did. And every chapter was doing things in the same way. Every chapter was taking on a local issue, whether it was the want ads, the classified ads being male and female. So, everybody was picking these things up and we were working to make change at that level. It was fascinating, so awe inspiring. We also had consciousness raising groups which was really memorable – the things that we’d talk about.
KR: What years were most of this activism taking place?
CK: In the 70s. I think I joined in 74 or around 73, right around Roe. That’s when I got really involved. And then I was chapter president then state president and then I ran for the national board and then I was regional director, and this was all during the ERA that I was on the national board. I was steeped in sort of the local grassroots stuff and then moved in to the National. We had a national convention in Detroit and a NOW convention in 77. And we put all the chapters together to work on that and I was part of an organizing committee.
KR: Did you have a paid job during those years?
CK: Yes, this was all volunteer. I had started as a sales representative. I’d finally gotten a job I wanted. I was a sales representative for a company, American Can. I was calling on grocery stores selling toilet paper and paper towels – Northern Gala products. I did that for a few years and then they wanted me to move to Ohio or somewhere. I didn’t want to go because I was active in my local chapter, so I quit. I went to Michigan Bell and was a sales and account executive there for a while and then I left there and went to work for Congressman John Conyers in his Detroit office.
I left there to go work with a group of women doing affirmative action employment counseling and placement. A group of NOW members had formed an organization a company called New Actions Personnel and were working to put women and minorities as we call them, into non-traditional employment. So, I did that for a while. I left there and went to work for a Detroit city councilwoman who is a great feminist, Maryann Mahaffey. She is a social worker and a feminist. I worked on her congressional campaign. She lost and then I went to work in her office and ran her campaigns. I left there to go work at the Michigan Abortion Rights Action League and then I ran for office and lost.
KR: What did you run for?
CK: For State Representative in Michigan. I lost the primary and then my husband who grew up in California basically said what do you think about moving to California? This was 1996 and I said OK. He had been so supportive of everything I had done so that I felt it was his turn. I’d always loved California. I thought I’ve done everything I can do politically basically. So why not try something new. So that was that.
KR: It sounds like you were able to really marry your activism with your career in a lot of points.
CK: It didn’t work out as well as I would have liked. You know there was always tension. The best place I ever worked was at New Actions Personnel because we were all NOW members. We’d leave in the middle of the day to go do a protest somewhere. We once marched through the Detroit Athletic Club which didn’t have women members. So, we did things like that. Financially it was not the best move for me. Probably had I stayed in in sales or management I would have made a lot more money. I could have donated more money – but not as much time as I did. That was always sort of the tradeoff.
KR: Are you still involved as an activist in any way?
CK: I have gone to the women’s marches, the peace marches, the anti-gun violence marches, any demonstration protest picket. I’ve worked on campaigns here but not to the same extent. I don’t have the time. My husband and I run our business.
KR: What kind of businesses?
CK: Film production. We’ve done documentaries and we run an archive footage and stills – our archives that are licensed. And he’s writing a book right now and I’m helping with research. So, we’re very busy. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. I do try to help whenever I can. We did a video for training volunteers to go out door to door canvassing in the last election, we did a training video for that. So, we try to help out whenever we can.
KR: What about the documentary you created about the Michigan Women?
CK: I had moved to California by this time. All my NOW friends had been meeting – the Veteran Feminists of Michigan. They were getting together and meeting and trying to figure out what to do. And they came up with the idea of a documentary. I had been thinking the same kind of thing myself, because a friend of mine was doing an oral history project and I participated in that and I thought we should really capture this on film. We talked and Joan Israel, Gerry Barrons, Jackie Washington and a whole group of Michigan feminists had been meeting. We decided that we would create a documentary.
We raised a little bit of money and Michael my husband and I went back to Michigan and did a series of interviews with people. We traveled around and gathered up other footage that we could find, and we put together a documentary called Passing The Torch that was distributed to PBS stations throughout Michigan. We interviewed the governor at that time, who was a woman, Jennifer Granholm. We interviewed Senator Debbie Stabenow and my former boss Maryann Mahaffey and another city councilwoman Erma Henderson. We did this documentary because we thought it was important to preserve the work of second wave feminists particularly those of us who weren’t on the coasts. They get a lot of attention. Everybody knows about the New York feminists and the California feminists and not a lot of people know how much we did.
The rest of us were working away. The flyover country. We thought we could really help tell that story. I really would have loved to have had a lot more money and done it as a series. We concentrated on the work primarily of the National Organization for Women, but we had a really active women’s anti-rape network, domestic violence centers and the work they were doing. We had homemakers rights. We were doing homemakers rights stuff way back when we never get credit for it. I really would have liked to have covered a broader range of the work we did. But we were sort of limited. Time constraints, money constraints. I think it’s a pretty good record of a lot of the work that went on. I also didn’t have a chance to interview people who were involved in the labor movement. Women in the labor movement were incredibly important. But I did find some archival interviews that we used.
KR: Dorothy Haener?
CK: Dorothy Haener, yes. And Millie Jeffrey. So we did we did some of it. It’s more important that they were captured on film and that history and those stories preserved. I’m very proud of that.
KR: Anything else that we haven’t covered?
CK: Oh, so much. I can never overstate how important that time in my life was. We were involved in so much and we gained so much knowledge and confidence. We just took it on. The other day I was talking to somebody about it. We had a conference, the Catholic bishops were meeting in Detroit and a group of us, former Catholics all got together and said we have to do something. We put together a program. Because this was when abortion was a big topic – as it is now. We former Catholics got together, and we wrote a prayer for the bishops and we called a press conference. This was before 100 cable channels. All the networks showed up; all the religious writers showed up.
We started this prayer. Before it, we asked everyone to stand and said – we’re going to offer this prayer and make the sign of the Cross. Everybody made the sign of cross. We did a prayer asking the Holy Virgin Mary to please intercede with our brothers who have treated women as second-class citizens. And we went on using religious language. And we said pray for them and in one line. And we had a huge discussion about this. It was – Oh Holy Mary one whose own family was limited. And when we said that line – the press – there was a gasp. But we got a lot of attention. It was very smart.
I had just been in NOW a couple years and the Walter Cronkite show had sent a stringer. They had sent Betty Ann Bowser to cover this. So, she came up to the woman who was doing our PR. She was a member of course, who knew PR and said – We’d like to do an interview for the Cronkite Show. The spokesperson for our group said – No, I’m not doing that. And Mary Jo turned to me and said – OK Carol – it looks like you’re the one. And I just said – OK. You want me to do an interview for the Walter Cronkite Show? OK. I had no idea what to do. I mean I’d never – I’d taken communications courses fortunately. I had the old video cameras I used to video screen while we’re giving speeches, but it’s going to be on television. And it happened so quickly that it just came up. I’m sitting down for this interview with Betty Ann Bowser. I went back and I actually found a copy of that interview in at Vanderbilt University and I found it and I look at it and I looked like I’m terrified.
KR: Which you were.
CK: Which I was yes. That was my first ever time on television.
KR: Start at the top.
CK: Exactly. That’s the kind of thing that happened to us then. You know, we just it. This is a great story – the Detroit Athletic Club was this very high-end club – male only. Women had to enter through the side doors. They had once invited my former boss, Maryann Mahaffey to come and speak and they want her to go through this side door. She would not go through the side door. She insisted on going through the front. They wouldn’t let her in, so she didn’t speak. Within a week we had organized this protest against the DAC and walk through the place and went in. And Gerry Barrons who was our songstress – Gerry led us in song with the anthem I Am Woman Hear Me Roar. We used to sing that all the time. Well we just broke into song.
A few years later the DAC was getting ready to vote on whether or not they should admit women. It was behind closed doors, a secret ballot, etc. and they voted not to. So, in the middle of the night or early in the morning we had gotten everybody to donate shoes – high heels shoes, whatever. And we went in front of the DAC before dawn with a truck and dumped all these women’s shoes and we said Don’t Tread on Me. And we came up with a poem or a press release. We put high heels all around the poster and made all these puns about how they don’t want dainty feet walking the halls – in the hallowed halls of the male whatever And we had this really witty. I mean it was really very funny. And it got a lot of play.
The DAC now admits women – it took a long time and we fought that for a long time. We tried to have fun. That was the thing: we tried to keep our sense of humor. And I really believe that ridicule is a powerful tool. If you can ridicule someone, it really makes them look foolish. You know we’re angry, we’re mad, we’re fed up but we’re also going to enjoy this. We are the happy warriors. I think that’s really important. I can’t be angry all the time. I have to have fun. So, you have to create that. You have to build that in.
KR: You did a good job doing that.
CK: I hope so. It was fun. I had a great time. I accomplished a lot.