THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Get out of your own way and understand that your life has a life of its own and will take you on a wonderful, adventurous ride.”
Filmed and interviewed by Martha Wheelock, VFA Board, August 2017
IB: Peg Wilson was my teacher in seventh grade, she taught shorthand and typing and that was what I had decided was the track that I was going to be on. I chose that by myself, my mom and dad didn’t seem to be very interested in what I was doing. In seventh grade I met this wonderful, wonderful woman, Peg Wilson, who became my chosen mom.
We knew each other all through school. When I wanted to go to Pratt Institute, the art school in Brooklyn, I did my test at her window. She rented an upstairs flat in Lynbrook, Malvern. I sat there and I did my test and we were friends until both of my kids were born. I didn’t see much of her after ’68 or ’64. If we want a celebrity, it was Eleanor Roosevelt.
When I was denied for the credit card, I just sat there quietly for a few moments in the bank and then I said, ” I want a credit card” and I just wouldn’t leave. I kept saying, “I’m the one that’s only making a living here, the income is from me. I want a credit card.” I finally got one and I opened a bank account in my own name, I had my own bank card and account and then we had a joint account. I don’t know if he had his separate account, but I did. Always.
MW: What were some of the obstacles you faced?
IB: I’m not sure it’s an obstacle, but it happened. Before I helped create the first chapter of NOW, I was married, raising two daughters and living in Levittown, Long Island. I had a social circle of wonderful women, very intellectual women and my life was going to work and then having a social life. When I joined NOW and started to talk about feminism, which I quickly grasped and it became part of my soul, they thought I was nuts. They tolerated me very nicely, they were wonderful women.
No one in the eight or ten women that was part of this, no one worked outside of the home. They raised their kids, they cooked meals, they went to the beach. I would do the same thing. I’d go to the beach with them because my shift was later in the day at the newspaper. The first couple of years they thought I was crazy. I never stopped flapping my lips, I didn’t care what they thought, I kept talking.
All of a sudden, there’s a happening with the women. Matilda Feldman went to school and got a Social Work license. Doris Caliceman went to school and got her Psychology license. Esther Siegel ran for the school board, won, and she also went out and got a job in New York at a huge furniture place as the community liaison. Hilda Tax became a master bridge player and would go travel to different tournaments. Millie Sole opened a kitchen store: anything that you needed in the kitchen, beautiful store out on the island. Barbara Marks and I opened an art gallery called Beyond the Blue Door. Everybody got out of the house and did what they wanted to do and became wonderful feminists.
Then there was consciousness raising, feminist consciousness raising, which I developed in New York City, and then I brought it out on the Island – the technique. Mine was a political feminist consciousness raising, there’s other consciousness raising, which is usually internal. Talking about who they are and so forth, so on. But this was you start here, and you learn about yourself and how politics and the culture that’s created by politics affects your life.
By the time you get to the end, eight weeks later, there is no way you can turn around and go back to who you were. If you do the eight weeks that I designed, you’re going to be a dedicated feminist.
When I lived out here, I did a consciousness raising for nine months on the Hill in Palos Verdes with different groups. I had three groups, different nights, and then I had four groups during the week and went through dozens of women. A lot of the women did exactly what my social circle friends did: they went to college and became an attorney. They became a doctor. Somebody wanted to act. It was amazing what happened up on the Hill in Palos Verdes, Southern California.
MW: That gave them power.
IB: Yes, a lot of divorces, too. But that wasn’t my intent. But the women found out that they weren’t valued for who they were. They finally understood that they were the gatekeeper, they were the nurturer, the cook, the cleaner. And their dreams weren’t even be being addressed.
I was an art director at Newsday, the daily newspaper, and there was a reporter by the name of Delores Alexander, and we became friends. One day her assignment was to go to New York and interview a bunch of women because they were starting a women’s group. She went reluctantly and she came back, picked up the phone, told me to get into the sitting room and hung up. I go running into the sitting room and she’s typing madly, and she reaches and takes a piece of paper and said, “Sign this.” So, I did, I trusted. I signed it.
Later, I found out I joined the National Organization for Women. It was Betty Friedan and the announcement of the creation of the National Organization for Women. That was the story. You had to have 20 people in order to found a chapter and there were no chapters at that moment. Dolores and I, within a couple of weeks, had 20 women and we founded the first chapter ever anywhere in the United States of NOW. It was in New York City. That’s how I got involved with the women’s movement, because my friend Dolores said, “Sign this”.
MW: What year?
IB: That was ’66 in October, I believe, or the beginning of November. Near the end of the year. My life was never the same. On the steering committee we’d go out and we’d sit and talk until the wee hours of the morning. And then I would drive home to Long Island because I was still married. I’d get home about two or three and get up the next day, go to work.
MW: What were the issues that you saw that you felt you could be involved with and had something to do with the issues of your time?
IB: At the moment that I signed that paper, I honestly didn’t know what I signed, but I trusted Dolores. Initially the issues were equal pay for equal work. The want ads were separated between male and female and female was 99 percent receptionists and secretaries. All the other jobs were on the male side. That was a big issue and so was the pay.
In the very beginning, it was all surface issues that you could see. Within a year, we were starting to go under the surface and look at other issues. Women couldn’t buy birth control; they couldn’t get rid of an unwanted pregnancy even if it was contrary to their life. Women didn’t really own their own bodies. And Ti-Grace Atkinson was a member of my chapter; she became a philosopher by going to school.
She’s the one that came up that women have reproductive rights and to own their own body. She’s the one that introduced that issue in Albany when we went up to testify on women’s access to the right kind of medical care, pregnancies and anything that had to do with a woman’s body. She introduced that day; Women’s Right to Choose and Reproductive Rights for her Body. It was historic. And that was the New York chapter of NOW.
MW: Tell me about the Statue of Liberty take over.
IB: That was a lot of fun and a good message. If you have the kind of mind that’s flexible, you will find wonderful moments that you can take off from. That happened to me around the end of July in 1970. I was at that time president of the New York chapter, and we were at a meeting and then later we went down to our favorite bar in Greenwich Village, New York and I asked, where was Pat and her partner tonight. They’re never missing. I hoped they’re OK. And then we went on to talk about this stuff.
At some point I looked up and I saw Pat and her partner walking into the bar strangely and I said, “Where were you? I was getting really worried about you.” She said, “We’re going to blow up a statue that we pass every night in Queens when we’re driving home. It’s a bigger than life Greek God looking male with a loincloth and rippling muscles and long hair blowing in the wind and he’s looking off into the night and he has a spear and it’s around the head of a serpent and it’s the head of a woman. It’s called Civic Virtue. And we’re going to blow it up.”
I knew they would go to jail and I can’t afford to lose them, they’re great workers. I said, “That’s small stuff. If you want to make a statement, let’s make a big one. We’ll take over the Statue of Liberty.” They said, “OK,” and they sat down. We didn’t discuss it at that moment, and we continued with the meal. The next day, I’m sitting in my office, my phone rings fairly early and it’s Pat. She said, “When’s the meeting to take over the Statue of Liberty?” Oh, God, she remembered. I thought, at least we’ll have a meeting and she can talk about the other statue and get it out of her system.
I called a meeting and women showed up. Now it seems to be taking on a life of its own. I called another meeting there’s more women and then they started making committees. Once you make committees, it’s going! There were a number of weeks, and on August 10th, 1970, a group of women including myself and Pat who did the research: how wide was the pedestal, how do you get there? We went over on two ferries. We didn’t all go on the same ship.
When we got over there, there was a group of women that sauntered up to the pedestal. At one of the meetings that I attended, they had this big piece of oil cloth laid out 40 feet by four feet wide. They said we’re cutting it in pieces and then putting it around a woman’s body and then we’re going to put a maternity blouse on her. That was the information I got. I was involved with a lot of other stuff: leading the chapter.
The women did the work and I was just there to keep the herd together. I had a bullhorn and we went down, got on the boats, went over there and the day started. The women that were walking towards the pedestal, they went on and then this group that was left had brought guitars and we had written new lyrics to songs and whistling and there was some rolled up poster board they had written about women’s rights.
We’re walking and we’re singing and then at some point I happened to look out across the water back towards Battery Park and I see three police boats heading over to the island. Then I see something to the left of them and a little back. Two fireboats are also coming. I thought, we’re going to go to the federal pen. I didn’t even think that it’s federal land, you’re not supposed to do this. We go on singing and marching and in the meantime, the women that went to the pedestal have connected this banner and they throw it over the rail, and it says Women of the World Unite.
It was a very thrilling moment to see that on the Statue of Liberty. Finally, the police arrived and the one in the middle is the captain of the boat, and he’s got a bullhorn. I’ve got a bullhorn. I’m expecting them to get off and put handcuffs on us, at least those of us that are in leadership. He gets off the boat and steps on the dock but doesn’t come up the stairs to the grass part where we are.
He’s got the bullhorn and he goes, “What are you women doing up there?” We’re just marching and singing and marching and singing. He goes, “How much longer you going to be?” I said, maybe a half hour. He says, “OK, I’ll be here.” And I said, “OK, and I’ll be here.” We went on singing and as we’re getting ready to wrap up and all of a sudden the police boats put on their sirens. And the fire boats, they’re shooting off two water cannons. And it was like a party: they’re celebrating, we’re celebrating.
Finally, we got off and went home. 16 days later was the first feminist march down Fifth Avenue where more than 50,000 people showed up: women, men, baby carriages, strollers, dogs. Out of the office buildings came some women and a couple of guys who joined us. But a lot of the men were yelling, taunting us.
Anyway, that was the Statue of Liberty.
I was struggling with my sexuality, because I had my whole life been in love or infatuated with females. Early on, I didn’t understand that I was a lesbian. I didn’t know that. But over the years when I was married, it was becoming more and more difficult ignoring who I really was. In 1969 in NOW at a monthly meeting I put together a panel called “Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue” and there were 14 people on that panel. I was a moderator so that made 15.
Barbara Love and Sidney Abbott, who were a couple, were the only lesbians on that panel and the only lesbians that I knew were there. I didn’t know if anybody else was. I hadn’t come out, but I knew that’s where I was going. The fact that I advertised the name of the meeting program where normally I would get 20/30 people for a program evening – the place was packed. We met at a very large church on W. 83rd Street with a huge room for social events, really big. It was packed. Women from all over came to the meeting and I thought, I think I’ve hit a nerve.
It was a very good panel, a lot of good discussion. And a couple of days after I heard from one of the women in my chapter that Betty Friedan and the board were very, very upset that I used the word lesbianism publicly. To my knowledge, that word hadn’t been used in the feminist movement yet. That became a very disturbing, naughty word that was now available for conversation in the women’s movement. That was in ’69.
In ’70, I was running again to be the president. At an election, normally there’s maybe 50 members who show up, but what happened at that election that night was shocking. We were also preparing to do some different things. Before that meeting, I had gotten a call from Barbara Love and Sydney Abbott about a month before that program, because I had announced the program already, and they told me they were gunning for me, making horrible phone calls, saying awful things about me.
I asked for some of the things and they were really awful. They’re trying to get lots of people to show up at the election to get rid of me. She told me she got 30 lesbians ready to join that night to have my back. And I said, no, that’s not right, they’re not interested in the organization. They’re just there for one purpose and that’s not right. And besides, I trust the membership.
That was the most stupid thing I have ever said in my entire life. It was packed that night and the election went on. All of my steering committee people resigned so that the only vote that we would be voting on would be me, you could bullet vote. They did it to make sure I got all the votes and that didn’t work because there were too many people, I don’t even know if they were members.
At the end of the election, I lost by either four or seven votes. I’m not sure, it was one of those. I lost to a woman who I had never heard her name, I had never seen her, most of the people there I had never seen. The woman who became the president, her name was Vivian and that’s all I remember. I vaguely remember what she looked like: kind of short with black hair, tiny, tiny. And I lost the election.
And to this day, they will not acknowledge that they packed that room with paper members, and they said, no, you just lost an election. That’s bullshit. After that purge, the same things were happening in other chapters. The lesbians that were out were not being treated well, losing elections. The capper was I was elected to the board that night and I went to the first board meeting and told them off, it went really great.
And that was the end. I never went to another NOW meeting anywhere. Well, that’s not true, different chapters invited me to bring my one woman show and also to come and speak. But I never went to a meeting where anything was being discussed. I decided that month that I would move to California and so my then partner, Helen and I and my two kids and her daughter, took a trip across the country by car and I moved to California.
The day that I arrived in California, it just seemed so fortuitous that the national organization was holding their annual conference involving the whole country and chapters. When I arrived, there was resolution put on the floor to support lesbian struggles and rights. I walked in like two minutes after the whole conference voted yes, that they would support lesbian rights. I didn’t know what was going on and we walked in and everybody went “Ivy’s here!”
They’re standing there clapping, they’re yelling. And I said, What? What’s going on? And they told me. I thought that was providence. You lose something over here, for every action, there’s a reaction- kaboom! And to put some icing on the cake of what happened in New York and then coming here, a couple of years ago California state NOW and Hollywood NOW gave me an apology for what had happened to me regarding the lesbian issue.
Here’s the proclamation they gave me – it’s an apology for how I was treated, because I mentioned the word lesbian. It became part of the women’s movement, lesbian support, a month later, after I was edged out, pushed out, this is what they were apologizing for. It’s great. I love it.
I have my 91st birthday coming in two days, and I’m losing my eyesight, my sense of vision is gone, so I live by peripheral. I don’t get around as much as I used to, I can no longer drive. I’ve done a lot of remembering and going over some of the things that occurred in my life because something will show me that I can’t do that, but I could do that. Things will go through my mind.
Hillary Clinton: I don’t care whether you like her, you don’t like her, but the fact that she was running for the president of the United States and really should have been the president of the United States, but the fact that she could and the other women that are in legislature now. Yes, Dianne Feinstein was there for years, yes Barbara Boxer was there for years. But all the new women that have come in to both Democrat and Republican. Nikki Haley, a Republican is in the United Nations speaking and proposing.
When I was growing up, there was no such thing as women running for anything. It was a man’s world and to a big degree, it still is. But, man, we’re moving. We are moving.
I guess, as we wrap up this interview, when I think of the future, I think women will become more and more powerful, be in more culturally changing positions that they can have influence where it is not always connected to the power of the penis, which it still is as much as we have moved forward. We moved forward in a side direction. I believe women will be doing that because look at the mess we’re in. The country is such a mess, it’s so macho and stuff. It’s I’m powerful. I’m powerful.
What I’m afraid of and what I wish would happen is that the world would get a handle on how dangerous social media is and how we will be subservient to robots in another 50 years. I’m convinced of that. They will be leading, and we will be their subjects. We need a woman over here that can see the danger of social media and robots and everything is controlled.
It’s very frightening to me and I worry about my grandson. He’s thirty-one. What is this world going to be? Yes. You can walk around with your phone and there’s no wires. What have you given up? You’ve given up A, privacy, B, connection with other human beings because now people will sit in a restaurant both on their phones, not even present where they are with a friend. I want to see a woman emerge like Al Gore to fight what I see is going to kill the human race. That’s what I feel.
MW: I’ve got one more question. What is some of the work that you’ve done out here in California, in West Hollywood? I’m going to finish the little gap in your life when you got here. How have you continued your activism and your involvement?
IB: I look upon being forced out of NOW as a gift because what I discovered when I got here, I lived a whole new life. I accepted that I was lesbian, and I accepted that my community was lesbians and gays and whatever women’s rights could I put in that movement, which is what I worked on. It was only L.G. There was no B and no T, it was lesbians and gays.
I ended up alerting Southern California that we were going to face the Briggs Initiative. I knew it was coming two years before it hit. I worked on that, we won that. Lyndon LaRouche wanted to put gay men in camps because there was this thing that suddenly appeared – a plague – HIV and AIDS. I ran the grassroots part of that campaign, as I did with Prop six. And then AIDS actually hit: men were dying.
I wouldn’t let up, I was the person that made the first phone call to the CDC because a friend of mine had all these black and blue marks and they didn’t want to talk to me, I could tell. With Steve Schulte I helped create the police commission, which fought back against how we were being treated by two or three of the captains in that period of time.
Then domestic violence is in the lesbian and gay community, except we didn’t understand that it referred to us, if we called it domestic violence. That was out there. I called it partner abuse and made bumper stickers and that worked. They could understand that. And then the abuse led me to decide to try and create a place for lesbians and gays to live where they can afford the rent. I got that going and we called it Triangle Square, lesbian and gay housing. That exists.
The latest thing that I’m very happy about is I got tired of watching Cosby and all the women that were coming forward and nobody was believing them. And the statute of limitations said that they couldn’t bring any charges except one woman, whose trial is still going on for Cosby. I decided that in California, because it’s state to state, we had to get rid of the statute of limitations. Women should have the right to come to grips with the raping and the abuse that they had suffered, it doesn’t matter when.
When they can accept that they can make it public, that’s when they should be able to have the person arrested or charges or whatever. I put a group together and I can’t do as much work any more, so I picked the perfect woman. Her name is Caroline Helman, and I picked her to be my co-chair. She was amazing. Anyway, the whole thing worked out that we went to the legislature in Sacramento and within a year and a half we had a senator who did a bill and it passed. And there is no statute of limitations anymore in California, and I feel so good about that because now women will be able to get justice. And that’s wonderful.
Now I’m continuing my painting, which I have done my whole life, I have a closet full of paintings. And I’m enjoying my cats. I’m watching the insanity of Washington right now with what’s going on there politically. I go and come when I can get a ride. And that’s my life.