An Interview with Ginny Foat: “We Can Never Stop Being Activists”admin2018-06-22T11:09:28-04:00
THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Can Never Stop Being Activists”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, Executive VP, VFA,May 2018
KR: So Ginny, tell me when you were active in the women’s movement.
GF: Well it started in the middle to late 70s. And I joined NOW. I was part of a consciousness-raising group as many of us [were] at that time and realized that I was discriminated against. I grew up in a very Catholic Italian family. And the main focus for my family was – and for me as the oldest daughter – was to marry and have children. And so that was kind of my focus growing up.
Finding There was Another Life Other than Getting Married and Having Children
And so finding out that there was another life other than getting married and having children and other choices that women could make was an eye opener for me.
So I got involved in the late 70s and I think my first big project was chairing the conference organizer for the NOW convention – National NOW Convention. I was the conference organizer in 1979.
KR: Where were you active?
GF: In the Los Angeles conference and I really got really involved – a couple – right before that the ERA movement and that I went – I believe it was 1979 or 80 – I went to Illinois and lived for – I think it was four or five months in Normal Illinois. Because there was a state legislator there that we were trying to get to change his vote of course – it wasn’t very successful but we put a great effort into it. It was myself and several other people that lived in the city for that time.
KR: And Illinois was one of the great disappointments of the ERA. But did you know the Illinois Senate just passed the ERA a couple weeks ago?
GF: No I didn’t know that. Finally. 30 – 40 years later – it takes time. They had to work through the process I guess. So what does that mean?
KR: Well, it’s unclear what it means. The House would still have to pass it, the Illinois House and then it’s unclear whether the 1982 deadline can get sort of undone. But there’s a pretty active ERA movement going on nationwide – so maybe.
GF: Maybe – I hadn’t heard it here in California. And anyway, so we were very active at that point.
We Trained to be Mormon Missionaries
We had training on how to be a Mormon missionary and go door to door to get people to change their opinion; also to counteract what the Mormon Church was then preaching. And so we got a lot of very innovative things that we did during that period of time. Finding out that this legislator that we were trying to change his mind, we knew where his wife would get her hair done. We would go to that beauty shop and try and talk to her.
We knew that he had some very strange situation but he had an interest in a company that made Canes – covered Canes from Bulls testicle skin. I mean really, these are real important things you get to know – we had all this you know really interesting knowledge. Unfortunately we were not successful. But I was involved in the planning and executing of two marches on Washington for choice and specifically mostly in California.
I was the California President of the National Organization for Women
And I also ran for an office in the National Organization for Women and lost that by a couple of votes because of a campaign against me which ended up being a large part of a big – horrible part of my life.
KR: Is that relevant to talk about or not?
GF: I don’t know if it’s not really relevant, but there’s a whole book written about it so I don’t I don’t know if it’s relevant to this. But it was relevant in the fact that the women’s community other than these few people from the National Organization for Women – but the women’s community rallied around me and helped me raise almost $300,000, which was a lot of money in the early 80s for my defense fund.
And of course I was acquitted because it was you know just a ridiculous – it wasn’t ridiculous – it was just – never should have been brought in the first place. But I was acquitted and it was kind of a notoriety for a long time because of that and because of that I think I dropped out of NOW and then went on to do other things in the women’s movement, but not through the National Organization of Women.
KR: Do you feel like through your involvement in the women’s movement you’ve gained skills or knowledge that helped you in your later life at all?
What An Interesting Time
GF: Absolutely. I was a Kennedy (Ted) – I was at the convention – the Democratic convention. I was a Kennedy delegate. I learned the skills for that. I drove Bella Abzug all around Los Angeles as she was here with Midge Costanza and Bella and I – going from fundraiser to fundraiser to try and get Kennedy elected. And we were – it was a very interesting time because it was a time of mimeographs and we would run down to the floor – and you know – I was just a Hillary delegate in the last election and it’s so different.
The security has changed so much. But we were able to exchange badges at the door and we knew things were coming up and so we ran back over to the hotel and we had a mimeograph machines there. We would print up stuff on Choice because we were afraid that Carter was going to do something bad regarding Choice. And so we printed up flyers and ran them back to exchange our badges again [and] get them on the floor. It was a really very interesting time – a very exciting time. But I learned a lot of skills that have stayed with me through many years through the women’s movement.
KR: One of the things probably younger women today don’t understand is how we operated without computers.
So Many Donated to the Cause
KR: Yes. I always think about how many corporations dedicated their photocopying machines at night, with having no idea how they were donating to the cause.
GF: Right. Yes we go into various locations [where] we have people working during the day and they would let us in in the dead of the night to copy off all sorts of things but also at that particular convention that particular time we had all of our own equipment. And our equipment, of course girls today wouldn’t even recognize the equipment. It was the mimeograph machines and it was the typewriters and things of that sort.
Being An Activist Now is Easy
GF: All of that. Actually it was much more fun time than it is now. Being an activist now is so easy – put something out on Facebook everybody comes in, you know, and you have your rally; then you were putting up flyers, your posters all over. You were delivering things – you were speaking in front of groups and you would try to get people to come to the rally. And now it’s, you know, put it on Facebook and everybody comes.
KR: It’s pretty different.
GF: Yeah it is.
The ERA and Choice – Two Big Issues
KR: So would you say ERA and Choice were the two biggest issues you were involved?
GF: I think so, yeah. The ERA was really important to me. And I used a lot of time for the ERA. And then Choice was also an important issue but it was… always so hard. Like here in California we had – this is when I was president of NOW in California. I worked very closely with Maxine Waters who is still to this day a dear friend of mine. And we – we had a legislature up in Sacramento [where] Willie Brown was the speaker. But even the Democrats were so difficult on that issue.
And so we would go to – she would get me into all sorts of dinners and things that Willie would do and I would – you know try and talk to the legislators that were there. But it was a very very difficult time. And it turned out later on in years – probably about five or six years ago one of the worst legislators on Choice got convicted of something and sent to jail. I was so pleased, because I remember all that wasted time.
KR: It’s still a tough issue.
GF: Yeah but it’s not so tough in our legislature in California, because we have an overwhelmingly left leaning Democratic legislature.
There Is Still So Much To Do
KR: Are you still involved as an activist?
GF: I’m not now as active in the women’s community as I am in the LGBT community. I am a member – I’m a member of the Steering Committee of the local Stonewall Democrats and helped. I also helped organize a couple of marches on Washington for LGBT rights. And mostly for the past 14 years I was a council member for the city of Palm Springs – elected city council member. And so besides my job here as the Executive Director of the Mizell Senior Center. So I held two almost full time jobs. And so there wasn’t a lot of time for activism on that level but it certainly was activism on the council level.
KR: Oh, I didn’t realize you were a council member while you were Executive Director.
GF: Yeah, I’ve been here for seven years and I was on the council for 14 years.
KR: OK. And did your women’s movement experience prove to be helpful on the City Council?
How To Recognize Discrimination
GF: It was extremely helpful because it taught us how to organize – how to recognize discrimination. You know that may sound foolish but sometimes you know you don’t recognize discrimination unless you’ve really been made aware of what discrimination is. And so it really did help, because I helped organize the first buses in 1963 – giving away my age – to the March on Washington. Which was then called the March for Jobs and Freedom. I had my bus passes – all of the things from [what] we exhibited at the library during Black History Month.
But the thing that the women’s movement taught me was that there are varying degrees of discrimination against women. And it really depends on your color. It depends on your social status. It depends on your educational level. And so just saying that you know – we’re working to stop discrimination against women, is an easy thing to do, but it’s really hard when you start looking at all the levels. So ending discrimination against women who are struggling to exist on SNAP, which is the California food stamp program, is different than getting equal rights for women who work for the President of the bank.
KR: Right. Sure.
KR: So you were involved in the civil rights movement prior to your involvement in the women’s movement?
KR: And I’m guessing that that’s not something that would have been a natural outcome of your upbringing.
GF: Oh it was horrible. I mean it was horrible I had to hide it from my parents. And they were – they were – I hate to say this because I had a wonderful mother and father, but they were racist. Growing up in that period of time. It was the colored man who used to pick up the garbage. He was a very nice “colored man” is what they would say. The thought of me being involved –
KR: Were you in New York?
GF: Yes, I was in New York. And I worked for The Wiltwyck School For Boys, which is where Floyd Patterson was sent and it was for inner city boys with what they called at the time juvenile delinquents. And so I worked for them. But my whole staff – I knew Bayard Rustin. I knew because we were all part of the organizing committee in New York. And so it was a wonderful experience actually. And the women’s movement was a wonderful experience too.
I think that I became a city council member because I knew that there was a way to change things. And sometimes you don’t recognize that you can do that. You feel like how can one person change the world. But through the women’s movement you really understood that you could change. I mean with all of the major defeats that we had we had a lot of positive successes.
KR: We Changed the World
GF: We changed the world. We did. And you looked at it like yourself. You know – I changed that – I helped change that. And so that became exciting.
And so I think when I decided finally to run for office I never wanted to be in office. I always wanted to be behind the scenes and I worked in many many campaigns. But when I ran for office it was – I said, “OK I can change things here.” And this town, Palm Springs, was very conservative when I first came here in 99. First started coming here.
Years before that I actually bought a house here in probably in 1990 and then moved here full time in ’99 after I worked in New York with the YWCA. I was the Regional Director for the YWCA. And so I recognized when I came here that things had to change. I couldn’t live in this small conservative Republican city. And now we have now changed tremendously. I feel a lot of pride in the things that I helped change here.
The Future is Strong
KR: Can you bring a little of that to Palm Desert?
GF: Yeah, you need it in Palm Desert. But right now we have you know a city council that’s LBGTQ.
KR: Right exactly. It’s 100% right?
GF: It’s 100%. And so the two women are strong feminists that are on. One of them is on the board of Planned Parenthood. So the two strong feminists that are also council members now. And so it’s you know it’s been a great experience and through the women’s movement gave me those skills that I didn’t have before.
KR: Anything else that’s particularly memorable from your experience in the women’s movement that you want to share?
I Loved The Bra Burning Part
GF: I don’t know if – the only thing that I can share is that – what it instilled in me was a leadership role. And I think that from all the people around me that it instilled in them a leadership role. And so later on after the women’s movement and after – I don’t consider the National Organization for Women the women’s movement. It was an organization within the women’s movement. And unfortunately it ended up being an organization that became afraid – became mainstream and it became afraid to do anything out of the ordinary, being mainstream.
And you see that in so many movements and that was you know – I think the sad part of NOW was it became corporate. And usually it was you know – it went from the days of bra burning to corporate. And I didn’t like the corporate part of it. I loved the bra burning part of it.
KR: So after you left NOW, were you involved with any other organizations?
Volunteering is Key
GF: When I left NOW, I became involved with HIV AIDS. And I had lost so many friends during that period of time that I wanted to volunteer to do something and volunteer for a children’s organization. It was just we were just starting to see the transmission between women and children. And so I then became the executive director for nine years of an organization in Los Angeles, which was the premier children’s organization, which was called Caring for Babies With AIDS. They then changed the name to Caring For Children and Families with AIDS, as kids got older.
But in that, it was again going back to women – discrimination against women. There was no testing on women. There was no testing drugs on women. And so the only thing that was available to women was AZT. And so the transmission was just getting worse and worse and worse. So I became part of the First National Health Conference on Women and HIV and AIDS. And I was on their board and we fought. And then I became the Chair of the Los Angeles commission on HIV and AIDS. The Los Angeles county commission on HIV and AIDS. And worked specifically for women. I helped found Women Alive, which was an advocacy organization for women because it was – it was Men Alive. And so I helped organize Women Alive. And did that for 10 years. And then went to the YWCA and spent two years with them working as a regional director and working on racism in the various forms.
KR: Well you have really done a lot. I’m really glad we’re doing this interview. You mentioned Midge Costanza as somebody that we want to include in this project.
So Many Incredible Women
GF: Yeah, we do need to include her. And there are a number of lesbian feminists that – you know my best friend was Jean O’Leary. Jean O’Leary is deceased and she was a lesbian feminist and started – who did so much in the Democratic Party and also did so much just in working for women. She’s deceased but there’s of all this stuff about her because she was well known. She started Coming Out Day and started like the National Coming Out Day. And I think I think she definitely should be included.
And Jan Holden who’s also deceased. But she you know she was more behind the scenes. She worked for years with – she worked with – oh God, her name just escaped me. The actress who is – she’s a feminist she’s actually a good friend of Gloria’s. She’s the one who believes in the afterlife. I can’t think of her name. OK. Her brother is also an actor.
KR: Shirley MacLaine.
GF: Shirley McLaine. And so Shirley was very involved in the political part of Kennedy’s campaign. Kennedy’s campaign had a strong feminist component to it with Gloria with Midge. Not with Midge, Midge was in Carter’s campaign. But it was Gloria and Bella and just you know a whole lot of really strong women. And then to go to – and be at Hillary’s be a – I was a delegate for Hillary in both of the conventions. The 2008 and the 2016 – what a disappointment that was. And what an insane world we’re living in now. It really is. I can’t think of anything else. That’s why I say it was a worker. I was not –
KS: No, you’ve done a ton of stuff.
GF: I’ve worked in homeless centers, I’ve worked with all sorts of various areas. I mean it’s all in here.
Because of the Women’s Movement
KS: So you’ve always have been sort of a champion for the people who needed championing.
GF: You know, but I attribute that all to the women’s movement. Even though I was active in the civil rights time, and did a little activism in the peace movement, the women’s movement really taught me how to be an activist.
KR: And give you leadership opportunities.
GF: The leadership… to gain the leadership opportunities and taught me how – how different life could be for women at a time when – when I believe… when I really believed that women were supposed to be this. And then find out that women could be this and then to find out they could be – WOW. You know it’s the women’s movement that did that. It’s the women’s movement that has done everything to this day.
You know it’s brought – brought women – you know, you got the title nine for California. But nationally the things that are in place nationally now would never be in place it weren’t for the women’s movement. And we are at such a critical juncture right now that if we stop being activists now we’re going to lose all of that. And that’s really scary to me.
KR: I agree. Well Ginny Foat, thank you so much for your time.