Kathy Webb

“I Jumped into the Women’s Movement and Gay Rights Movement with Both Feet.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, December 2020

KW:  My name is Kathy Webb. I was born in Blytheville, Arkansas, which is a small Delta town just off the Mississippi River. My dad was a United Methodist pastor. My mom was a stay at home mom, and I had two older siblings. We grew up in Little Rock and I bounced around from school to school. But we were lucky, for a clergy family, that most of my dad’s assignments were within the city. My childhood was all Little Rock with a couple of short stints elsewhere.

MJC:  You gave us a little picture of your family. You were a preacher’s daughter, a preacher’s kid. Tell us about going to Randolph Macon.

KW:  I went to Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. It was quite an interesting time to be on the East Coast. A lot of things were different there than they were in Arkansas; it was during the Vietnam War protests. There were also a lot of civil rights issues that were occurring both in Lynchburg, Virginia where Randolph Macon was located, but also on the campus. If you pulled up my transcript, it would not be something that my parents would take delight in. Each semester when the grades came I would tell them I was very busy doing other things that were very important.

MJC:  Would you have considered your family growing up a political family? Did you learn politics at home and then at Randolph Macon?

KW:  Yes, I think it was a very political family. We didn’t have anybody who ran for office or anything like that, but my parents were both very progressive. My older brother and sister were very progressive. I grew up in a conservative state, Arkansas, but within a very progressive family. We got a lot of our progressive beliefs from church with one exception. The Methodist Church has, in the last few decades, been considered one of the progressive mainstream churches. And of course, that one exception is something I’ve taken great issue with.

We grew up having very strong opinions about things. I was John Kennedy’s campaign manager when I was in the sixth grade. I saw at a very early age that women were discriminated against. John Kennedy came to Little Rock a month before he was killed in Texas and my mom took me out of school that day. And we went to the Arkansas State Fairgrounds where I got to see John Kennedy. I was in the Junior high school.

As we grew up, we were very engaged in politics. When it came to who was running, we always had our favorite candidates and fortunately in my family, that’s continued to this day where we all agree. The only disagreement we’ve ever had was in one Democratic primary, because we are all like-minded, and that sure makes holidays a lot easier.

MJC:  When would you say that you became aware of the women’s movement?

KW:  As I’ve looked back on my early awareness, I had this awareness and then I had this gap where I was involved in other social justice issues as opposed to being involved in the women’s movement. There’s a reason for that that we could touch on. But when I was in the sixth grade, I wanted to be a safety patrol monitor. I was at a new school – you could sign up for jobs and I wanted to do that because you got a sash, you got a badge. Who wants to dust library erasers when you can be a safety patrol monitor? And then that they told me that girls couldn’t do that, and I didn’t think that made any sense.

I did protest with my teacher; we went to the principal’s office and we had a discussion about it. The principal gave us a compromise that I could be a fire marshal, so I still got a badge. But I learned at that age that if you don’t speak up, then you don’t make change. You don’t always get exactly what you want, but sometimes change is incremental. So, as I looked back on my life, I think that was really an important moment of awareness for me for lots of reasons.

As a kid, I always read the paper and back in the day all the jobs advertised in the paper were divided into “Help Wanted: Male” and “Help Wanted: Female”. I remember going to my mother one day, I was probably 12 or 13, around the same time I was in the sixth grade, and I asked her why all the jobs that I thought looked interesting were in the “help wanted male” and they were jobs that I couldn’t have? That was also something that stuck in my mind at an early age.

Then the war came along and my awareness about the civil rights movement living in Little Rock, we have a very, very bad history in terms of the civil rights movement. We had had the integration of Little Rock Central High School, with President Eisenhower federalizing the National Guard, when I was a kid; in college I became really involved in those social justice movements – sort of put the women’s movement on the back burner for a while.

Post college, I went back to school in Arkansas. I went to school in Arkansas because I wanted to get my teaching credentials. One of the textbooks said something about “when you get married, the man will probably want to be involved in civic clubs and political groups, and the wife will probably want to be involved in homemaker groups and circles” and things like this. I remember raising that in class one day and people looked at me like I was from some other planet because I was objecting to that paragraph in the textbook. It was a few years after that I really got involved, but [it’s] something that I always was aware of growing up.

MJC:  When did it happen that you actually met the women’s movement and became involved?

KW:  I lived briefly in Shreveport, and I think the reason I put it to the side is because we’re talking the ’70s. There was no Ellen on TV, there was no Tammy Baldwin. There was no governor of Colorado who was openly gay. Especially being in Arkansas, it was just something that I was wrestling with, coming to terms with my own sexuality. And I wasn’t quite ready to face it yet and to accept it. So being out of the women’s movement was a way to avoid it.

But as I started to gain a little bit of acceptance, I met some women when I was briefly in Shreveport and they were members of NOW and they had just started a NOW consciousness raising group. They invited me to come one Sunday afternoon and I went to this meeting and it was like this weight was lifted off my shoulders and I felt like I was home – not only within the women’s movement, but as a lesbian.

MJC:  You were in Shreveport briefly and then did you come back to Little Rock?

KW:  I came back to Little Rock and I was ready to change the world and go all in for women’s rights, go all in on lesbian gay rights. There were a handful of people who were NOW members in Arkansas, but there were no NOW chapters. Somebody sent out a letter to several of the folks and said, hey, let’s get together, let’s organize. I jumped all over that. We organized a small state conference, we elected state officers. I remember choosing not to run because at the time we didn’t think that somebody who was a lesbian should be the president. But we organized Pulaski County NOW chapter, that’s the county that Little Rock is in. And I became the president of Pulaski County NOW.

About the same time I started meeting some gay men and we organized a group called Arkansas Gay Rights, which was the first Arkansas gay organization. I remember clearly that that first year a guy had to be the president, that was the way it was then, and I could be the vice president, but he had to be the president. The next year we could flip, and I could be the president and he could be the vice president. We used fake names when we went on the radio and things like that. We had a gay pride march. We had paper bags that we had eye holes cut out so we could see and there were a couple of reasons for that. One, because people were afraid to participate because they would get fired. And two, it also drove the point home that we could get fired, in Arkansas, we still could.

I jumped into the women’s movement and gay rights movement with both feet and got very involved. A bunch of us from Little Rock went to Memphis for a regional NOW conference and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to run for the NOW national board. I had been a member long enough to qualify. We ran for the board and I won, so I went from being a relatively new member to being on the NOW national board in two years.

MJC:  Do you remember the year that was?

KW:  That was 1980.

MJC:  Right. Now you’re on the national NOW board, so how does that change your perspective? And do you keep being active in Arkansas as well?

KW:  I was very active in Arkansas. As most everybody knows, Arkansas was one of the states that did not ratify the ERA. We took a lot of trips to Oklahoma; we went to Florida. Those last couple of years, we really focused on sending people to other states and working. We did have a special session in the Arkansas legislature, where we tried to get the governor to put it on the call for the session. We had some folks come down from national NOW and stay for a couple of months, one of them stayed at my house where we worked on that.

We were not successful, but we kept working. And ironically, on June 30th, 1992, I was in charge of organizing the last rally for the ERA on the steps of the Arkansas capitol. That will have significance in my history a little bit later on. For some reason that year it seemed like a good idea to throw my hat in the ring to run for national office in NOW and looking back, that was kind of crazy. But I was fortunate to have a best friend who is a very skilled political campaign manager who actually turned down a congressional campaign to help me with a NOW campaign.

I spent the time from the end of June until the NOW conference in October, traveling all over the United States, campaigning for national secretary. We based that campaign on what we had done in Arkansas of going into small towns and organizing NOW chapters, mobilizing people, going to places where there had never been anything like that before, and bringing people together and starting these NOW chapters. Chapter development was one of the primary planks of my platform.

MJC:  Then Indianapolis, talk about that experience going to a NOW national conference. There were slates of various candidates. So why don’t you talk about that and how that turned out?

KW:  Had I known more, I probably would have realized what a crazy idea this was to run, because there was a very powerful slate of folks running who had a lot of strong endorsements. Obviously, I was not part of that slate. I’m grateful that some of those folks later became some of my best friends, but I think I just didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to win.

We had all these people from Arkansas and Tennessee who had never been to a NOW national conference and Debbie whipped us all into shape. My parents decided they wanted to come. My mother made something like 40 dozen homemade cookies and my dad, the Methodist minister, tended the bathtub full of beer that we had in our hospitality suite. There were quite a few people who voted for me because they were so impressed with my parents and the organization that we had. We didn’t have a full slate, but we did support a couple of candidates for some of the other positions. As you well remember, you and I did not support each other that first time, but I’m grateful that we won the election and suddenly a month later, I’m packing up and moving to Washington, D.C.

MJC:  NOW’s method of election rewarded people like you who are outstanding, excellent organizers, along with Debbie Willhite, your campaign manager. That’s how it made it possible for people to do what you did. So off to Washington, D.C. – talk about that experience.

KW:  It was a real awakening going to Washington. When you’re out in the field I had an idealized picture of how things worked in Washington, in the nonprofit sector. The convention in Indianapolis was the first time I realized how internal politics could be just as challenging and rough and tumble as external politics. The reality is, when I got to NOW Washington office, the initial reception that we got was a little bit chilly. My team, which was not very large, Debbie went with me, we’re pretty easy to get along with. And I think we went with a good attitude. You and Judy in particular were very open minded about working together. So as opposed to some of the situations we see today, we quickly set aside our differences. We did become a relatively cohesive team.

MJC:  You took on the task of the secretary, talk about your tasks as one of the officers and what you actually did as a secretary.

KW:  The secretary had a lot of different duties in her portfolio from being a member of the executive committee and having fiduciary responsibility to being the publisher of the newspaper, the keeper of the membership list and one of the most important things, the chapter development portfolio. We brought two folks in from the field. I brought somebody in from Kentucky at the time and somebody from Wisconsin.

The three of us spent a lot of our time visiting NOW chapters and state organizations around the country, helping them organize. Each month we would write a “how to,” how to organize a meeting, how to run for the school board, or how to take a position on a particular issue, how to get attention. Just different things that I look back on. They seem kind of basic but at the time they were materials that we really didn’t have. A lot of weeks when Friday afternoon would come and my job in the office would be over, that was the time we would fan out across the country and we would go to conferences and work with those women and men in helping them organize into stronger units, to encourage them to learn how to make changes at the local level.

We were working on multiple issues. Reproductive rights was an incredibly important issue during this time and the clinic bombings. I had worked on clinic access in Little Rock with the chapter here – that was really important. And our civil rights issues – NOW has received a lot of criticism for not focusing as much on some issues that are critically important and intersectionality. I think a lot of that criticism is valid. Those were some of the things we did, and it was also right at the beginning of the era AIDS awareness and that growing fear of AIDS. It was also at the time when NOW is really flexing its political muscles as we endorsed a Democratic candidate in the primary for the first time as part of our effort to see a woman chosen for vice president.

MJC:  Right, so we endorsed Mondale.

KW:  Yes.

MJC:  And then he selected Geraldine.

KW:  Which is a day that I will never forget, and I can conjure that up as if it were yesterday. Our office was on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and [I] took the Metro to work, and I remember walking down Pennsylvania Avenue that morning. We had been called the night before, and I remember just floating down Pennsylvania Avenue really and truly believing, for the first time in my life, that I could be anything I wanted to be. A couple months later going to San Francisco to the convention and being in the arena when Ferraro made her acceptance speech and playing what she said over in my head over and over and over again today, as if I were sitting in that arena right now listening to her say, “My name is Geraldine Ferraro, and I proudly accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.” I can get as emotional right now as I was then.

MJC:  The Mondale endorsement and the reproductive rights, any other issues that you remember from that period particularly?

KW:  We had a wonderful vice president for action, that was you, and because of the portfolio the secretary had, I did spend a lot of my time teaching people how to organize and helping them organize and working on issues following your lead, Judy Goldsmith’s lead and others. I think those were the main issues. We continued to work on economic issues, even though we were not active then with the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, we continued to focus on the economic fact that women made less than men and women of color made less than white women. We didn’t focus on those as much as we should have, but those were among the other issues that we spent a lot of time on.

MJC:  Did you spend any time on Capitol Hill with lobbying?

KW:  Yes, because Arkansas is a small state and my brother had worked for one of our previous senators, we know the senators. It’s not as unusual as in large states for us to know the senators. I would spend some time on Capitol Hill, but typically it was with the members of the Arkansas delegation.

MJC:  Then you went on to serve two terms, I believe, a second term.

KW:  I did, I served a second term. There was a lot of discord within the organization over the election. The candidates I supported, for the most part, were not reelected, but I was. I served a second term and don’t really feel like I accomplished as much in my second term as my first, because there was a difference in priorities over whether or not we wanted to focus on the national level or the grassroots level. I was the person who focused on the grassroots and chapter development and other leadership within the organization had a different philosophy about that.

MJC:  When you left Washington, you decided to do what?

KW:  I had thought about running for another office in NOW but that second term really was stressful in a negative way. I chose not to run for anything else but I wanted to do something radically different. I looked at some nonprofit jobs and then ended up going into the restaurant business and sort of threw myself into that for a number of years. I stayed in Washington for six or seven more years until shortly after an Arkansan was elected president of the United States. I was glad to be there for a little while of that.

Then I moved to Chicago in the restaurant business to take a position with the national chain in Chicago as vice president and moved and spent about six so years in Chicago in the restaurant business. I had a period of about 12 or so years where I was far removed from the day to day immersion in politics. It didn’t mean I didn’t pay attention. The Democratic National Convention happened to be in Chicago during the time I lived there. I had friends who were very involved, it was for Clinton’s re-nomination. We kept people at my house who were working on the convention, attended a lot of the activities and got to see a lot of old friends from NOW and from political circles. It was always my true love. I was just a little bit on the periphery there being pretty involved in the restaurant business.

MJC:  You also did some work with the Susan G. Komen Foundation at that time, didn’t you?

KW:  Well, I did and that started with you, when you were diagnosed with breast cancer in Washington. I promised you when I moved to Chicago that I would participate in the Race for the Cure and you’ve got to keep your promises. So I called when I arrived and found out they didn’t have one. I made a few other calls to different people in Komen and found out they were looking for somebody who might be able to organize a chapter. I told them I’ve got a little experience in organizing, that’s something that I can do, I can organize chapters. I was privileged to work with some of my neighbors and some other folks and became the founding president of the affiliate in Chicago. Fast forward however many more years until I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

MJC:  That was good work, too, in addition to your being in the in the restaurant business. So then you decided to head back to Arkansas?

KW:  I did. And I never thought I’d come back: I’d been gone 20 years, decided to come back and opened a restaurant and was very disappointed to learn that not a whole lot had changed in terms of progress, particularly in the LGBTQ movement. In 2004 I got with some of my friends and we decided to have a fundraiser for John Kerry. We had it at my restaurant one day when it was closed and I had a lot of people who contributed, people who were part of the community, people who were friends of the community: my dad, my sister, other family members.

I went down to the Democratic Party headquarters with a big handful of checks and said, this is from the LGBTQ community and friends and we want to be more involved, we want a place at the table. It was not the best reception. Shortly after that, we tried to form a Stonewall Caucus and the party didn’t recognize the caucus, so we formed the Stonewall Democrats Club. I thought this is really kind of crazy because here it is 20 plus years later and I am the president of the Stonewall Democrats thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this all over again. One of the goals we had was to get more engaged in electoral politics and Arkansas, work on campaigns, do things like that, and then eventually have somebody run for office because Arkansas had no open LGBTQ officeholders and in fact, there had never been any one openly LGBTQ who had run for office.

MJC:  So you’re running a restaurant and you’re getting your toe into the political arena once again. What’s the next stage of that?

KW:  The next stage is I am on vacation in Atlanta and I pick up the gay newspaper and I see that the Victory Fund is having a one-day mini training in Atlanta.. I had heard of the Victory Fund from a friend of mine who lived in D.C. Of course, on your vacation in Atlanta, you want to go to a political training. I called the number in the newspaper and I went to the Victory Fund political training. I made some friends that day, people I keep in close touch with actually, one of the organizers of that is a filmmaker [who] made a film called Breaking Through about LGBTQ Office Holders. And I was one of the people featured in the film.

I get back to Little Rock and it turns out that the House Seat where I live is open. Why not run for it? I don’t think I knew any better, so I threw my hat in the ring. There was a Victory Fund training in Colorado and my campaign manager and I went to Colorado to the Victory Fund training and came back. There were a lot of people who were skeptical, there were another one or two of the candidates who didn’t realize that I had grown up here, that my dad was a minister, that my brother and sister had both taught school here forever, that I really did know a lot of people and had a successful restaurant.

I won a four-way race in a Democratic primary with fifty six percent of the vote. Fifty-six and a half, to be precise. In May 2006 I raised more money at the time than anybody who had run for the Arkansas House and became the first open LGBTQ office holder in Arkansas. I did not have a Republican opponent and in January 2007 I became a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives.

One of the first things that happened was that somebody introduced the ERA. The emotion of that was pretty intense because it’s this issue that you worked on so hard in 1982 – I might have this opportunity to vote on this! I remember that it went to a committee. At the time there were more Democrats in the Arkansas House, where the Democrats were in the majority. But the committee that it went to, one of the deciding votes against it was cast by a Democratic woman using a lot of the same arguments that we had heard decades before from Phyllis Schlafly.

My activist side came out. I was so upset and angry. I wanted to yell at everybody who had voted the wrong way, in my opinion. But I was calm about it and remembered that I’m cosponsoring bills with some of these folks on other issues, so maybe the best thing to do would be to avoid folks for a couple of days, compartmentalize, and get back to work on these other issues. There were some anti-gay things that came up which were a little difficult to deal with. I’m grateful to my colleagues for helping kill them, and I don’t think that would happen today, but it did in 2007/2009.

I was reelected in 2009 without an opponent. I became the first woman in Arkansas history to be vice chair of Joint Budget, the first woman to chair a couple of other committees, and then in my third term, I became the first woman in Arkansas history to co-chair Joint Budget.

MJC:  Did you enjoy it?

KW:  I loved – not every second of it. One of my colleagues told me I was going to hell and was/is very anti-gay, but for the most part, I loved every minute of it. A lot of wins and a lot of defeats. I had a lot of climate change bills, most of which were crushed like a little bug on a windshield, but I think I was right and I’m glad that we introduced them. I’m glad that we raised the issues. A couple of votes I wish I’d done differently, but I loved the experience and I think at the end of the day, I made a lot of good friends and I keep up with a lot of those folks from both sides of the aisle.

There were many people at the end of my tenure who came up and said we had a certain preconception about you, and we were wrong and just want to thank you for being a good colleague. It was a wonderful experience and I learned about those folks because as an activist, you can be just around people that you are alike all the time. So, my horizons were broadened by being really in close relationships with people who thought differently. I’ve been out of the legislature eight years going on nine and I still keep up with a lot of my former colleagues, many from the other side of the aisle.

MJC: So, you were term limited out? Otherwise, who knows what it would be? Did you entertain the thought of running statewide or did you immediately think about going to the local level?

KW:  There are not a whole lot of districts in Arkansas where I would win, and that’s just a simple reality. In fact, one of the years when I was in the legislature, the Republican Party chair went around to different events and told people that if they voted for Democrats, there was this possibility that this lesbian could become the chair of the Joint Budget Committee and the havoc that that would cause. Of course, it wouldn’t cause havoc, but that was the “threat.” Ironically, his last name is the same as mine.

When this became public, newspapers all over the state wrote about what a terrible thing that he was doing. But interestingly, one of the first times we met, not too long after this happened, he said, “I should have called you that liberal instead of that lesbian.” I think being that liberal in Arkansas would be just as bad or worse.

I was sorry that our term limits were so restrictive, but I had by then sold my portion of the restaurant and was working for a nonprofit. The timing was fortuitous because it was that year that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year the Little Rock City Council seat opened up and I thought that would be another excellent opportunity for service. I ran for the Little Rock City Board of Directors to represent Ward 3.

MJC:  And are you still doing that?

KW:  Yes. I was elected that first time with eighty two percent of the vote. I was reelected two years to go to a second four-year term and I did not have an opponent this last time. I’m two years into my second term.

MJC:  And I believe your paid work is in an area of service as well. You want to talk a little about that?

KW:  I’m the executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the statewide umbrella organization for hunger relief. We attack hunger through many areas: we work with the Charitable Food Network, the food banks, the food pantries. But we also do the advocacy work because I love public policy and we do SNAP outreach, the No Kid Hungry campaign, federal nutrition programs are incredibly important in hunger relief. I spent a lot of time lobbying our congressional delegation and our state delegation. This has been quite a year and quite a challenge to be working in that arena. Heartbreaking, as we watch the number of hungry people soar in Arkansas as well as in the rest of the country.

MJC:  Right during the pandemic. So, it’s a long and beautiful life and one that contributes a great deal to the good of the country and the good of Arkansas. Can you just talk about how did the involvement in the women’s movement get reflected in the rest of your achievements?

KW:  It had a huge impact, personally and professionally. Personally, some of my best friends in my whole life were made in the women’s movement from Mary Jean Collins and Judy Goldsmith, our wonderful friend Sandra Farha, just so many people from all over the country and whenever something significant happens, I find that those are the women that I think about and feel a kinship with. First and foremost, when Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris, the people I wanted to talk to were those women that we had worked with in the trenches in the women’s movement.

Because the women’s movement was very rough and tumble, I was prepared for any kind of political situation that came along. Even when I was working in the corporate restaurant business, and some things would happen that would get some of the other women discouraged, I would think this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through, this is a piece of cake. I believe I was a good role model and mentor for women even when I was in those corporate settings. I was able to hire more women to speak up for women, speak up for policy changes.

It gives me a unique perspective. Not just unique to me. This unique perspective where you’re an activist and a lawmaker and they are different, and there were days that I would work in the legislature all day or on the city board, and then I would go home, and I would try to organize some of the groups that were not very organized. The groups that I used to like be involved in and I could see where we needed more organization. I’m glad I had that perspective. I’m glad I learned all the skills that I could translate into other activities of my life, but it obviously changed my life, changed my life for the better.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be inspired by women in small towns all over this country who were doing hard work in places where there was a lot of opposition. I’ve lived in some really blue places and I live in a very red state and I have a lot of admiration for people who do this work, regardless of where they live. But day in and day out to have met people in small towns and very red states, speaking up on equal rights for women and civil rights and LGBTQ rights is very inspiring. And it keeps me inspired and motivated.

MJC:  I remember when I first met you one of the things that was outstanding was you insisted on representing the south and having the southern point of view actually heard. It was so valuable for the reasons you’re talking about, that we need to reach people in every part of the country to be successful. Things that we haven’t talked about that we need to talk about? Anything that we haven’t talked about that you think would be part of your story and important for people to know?

KW:  I think that it’s important for people to try to make a difference. There were a lot of things I introduced in the legislature that failed. But it was Bill Clinton talking about some things that he could have done differently as governor or things that to somebody outside, it looked like it was a failure, but it was the right thing to do, and so he had to do the right thing, even though the bill didn’t pass. It was funny because I had two bills that I was sitting on because I knew they were going to fail. I went back after hearing him that day and got them ready to go to the calendar, to the committees, knowing that they were going to fail, but that they were needed.

One was an ethics bill and one was a climate change bill. And knowing that those bills needed to be heard. I can remember two or three votes that I have cast that I would change but I encourage people to try, to be able to put their heads on the pillow at night and know that they tried and that they were true to themselves. Being on the city council is very challenging at this time. There are a lot of difficult votes. I’m going to cast a vote next week that’s not going to be popular, but I’ll be able to put my head on the pillow because it’s the right thing to do.

Even in a red state, it’s so important to run for local office. Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes bill. We don’t have any protections for LGBTQ people, but Little Rock has a nondiscrimination ordinance and a hate crimes ordinance. And I was the sponsor of both of those. And the hate crimes ordinance passed unanimously this summer. And I applaud my colleagues for that. We’ve got to have different voices at the table, so I’m just lucky. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to have these opportunities.