Margy Gast

“The Women’s Movement Helped Me to Develop My Consciousness.”

Interviewed by Carol King, March 2019

CK:  Where and when were you born Margy?

MG:  I was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1947.

CK:  And what’s your family background?

MG:  I am Caucasian – as you can see and European descent on both sides of my family.

CK:  How many siblings do you have?

MG:  I’m the oldest of five girls.

CK:  And where did you grow up?

MG:  St. Joseph, Michigan which is a small town in northern Berrien County in Michigan, the southwestern side.

CK:  What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement? 

MG:   I had moved with my husband and one child and had a couple more after we moved back to St. Joseph, which was not something I never intended to do. It’s a small conservative community. We lived other places and I really didn’t want to move back to St. Joe. I was there and not very happy and was involved in starting a pre-school with another friend and my husband. We recruited somebody for the board of this nursery school that we had started, and I found a fellow traveler.  The fellow traveler and I decided that there had to be some other outlet other than some of the offerings in St. Joe – typical women’s groups etc. and we gotten involved in NOW.

CK:  Was there a chapter in the area?

MG:  There was a small chapter in the area, which we found, and we got involved with a small chapter. We did some consciousness-raising, which was a big deal at the time. It’s very interesting, there were more diverse people that I knew in the area so that was rather a nice surprise. And then we very quickly got involved at the regional and state level.

CK:  What year was that?

MG:  1977.

CK:  Where and when were you active in the women’s movement? 

MG:  We started with the NOW chapter in St. Joseph, Michigan. I ended up getting divorced and moved to Minnesota in 1979. I was active in NOW until I moved to Minnesota. When I got to Minnesota, I was there for about a year, I got involved in NOW in Minnesota and eventually became the State Legislative Coordinator for about two years. 

CK:  And what did that entail?

MG:  It entailed tracking legislation at the State Capitol, trying to have some influence. It was very interesting, after coming from Michigan where NOW had so much influence at the State Legislature during that period of time from the late 70s through my understanding was the early 80s. When I got to Minnesota there was a Democratic Women’s Caucus, which was huge, and it had way more influence than NOW.  In my opinion it allowed the women who would have been involved and NOW had gotten involved with this Democratic Women’s Caucus. We were sort of tag-alongs and they had quite a bit of influence at the state level and so as a it was a real different experience.

CK:  What issues did you care about, were you involved with? 

MG:  When I was in Michigan I was recruited to be the first coordinator for a domestic violence program at the YWCA. I was recruited by a woman who was a board member at the YWCA and had written grants to get the program started and together with her, we wrote some grants – she primarily wrote them, and I assisted her in that effort. We were able to raise enough money and get enough grants to actually get a house. And it was certainly the first place in southwestern Michigan. So, it was for me it was a real eye opener.

When I look back at what we were doing with helping women in those early 70s – going out and picking women up at houses who were in pretty desperate situations was something we really didn’t think about, but was actually fairly dangerous. And obviously as the domestic violence programs developed and there was more money available, we began talking amongst ourselves. We began establishing policies at the state level to figure out other ways to assist women – we decided [on] going out and picking them up and being chased on occasion. So, it was a very positive very exciting time and I’m going back flipping back to Michigan again to be involved with a domestic violence network.

The bill that helped fund some of the shelters was passed while I was on staff with the shelter. And I took that experience when I moved to Minnesota and I didn’t end up being involved directly with the domestic violence program, but I was involved through NOW with [a] number of initiatives in the state of Minnesota. I then ended up going to law school and while I was in law school I became involved with some organizations that were also helping women.

I was an intern with one of the professors at the law school I attended when she was in law school a few years earlier – with Andrea Dworkin. And Kitty [Catharine] MacKinnon who was at that time a visiting law professor at the University of Minnesota. That’s where the first Pornography Ordinance was drafted. The law professor I worked for was very active in drafting the Pornography Ordinance, which did not pass. At that point, there was an attempt to pass Pornography Ordinances in a couple of other places, so I actually got to draft some memos for Kitty MacKinnon. When I didn’t get any negative feedback, in fact I got some very positive feedback that was sort of the highlight of my law school career.

CK:  That was my next question. What were your most memorable and important experiences?

MG: That was definitely a highlight for me. Starting at the shelter in Michigan was certainly a highlight as well.

CK:  Where was that shelter in Michigan?

MG:  Benton Harbor, Michigan. 

CK:  How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?

MG:  I think personally it helped me focus on how I wanted to raise my children. I had one daughter and two sons. Raising sons during that period of time was a challenge. But I had very good conversations with all of my children. My eldest son actually ended up being one of two men who applied for and were accepted as volunteers for the rape crisis program at the University of Minnesota. And he came to me with his application, which required him to answer some questions.

When I read the answers to those questions I was very pleasantly surprised that apparently he had been listening to me.  It was an amazing experience for him too. He had listened to me for a number of years but his experiences working – he was not working directly on a hotline. They did set up programs to attempt to educate males on the campus, that was one of the things that he did.

With my daughter, she did not attend rallies with me. I attended a number of rallies. She wasn’t much interested in that, but she obviously was also listening, and I was asked to talk to more than one of her classes about feminism and my activism. Sometimes with more specific questions than that. That is the direction that I went. So, it may not be as politically active, but my focus was more on specific issues and getting involved actually working with women. I worked as a volunteer with women who were involved in prostitution.

In the Twin Cities we had a couple of very good programs. It took a number of years, but the St. Paul Police Department in particular developed an understanding because of these programs and their leaders in working with them and focusing more on “johns” than pulling women in for charges related to prostitution. Later, I was working for an agency, after I graduated law school and I did spend a few years actually practicing law. But with the agency I worked with, we had an outpatient chemical health program.

We had programs at the workhouse and the jail for Minneapolis in Hennepin County. Hennepin County is the largest county in Minnesota. I was the person in charge of supervising the staff for a period of time at the workhouse. They had a separate building for the women. We had a program for the women, and it was very interesting for me to get involved with looking at the curriculum and then, because so many of the women who were in jail. I need to make that clear – this was not prison; this was the workhouse.

There is a difference in terms of the level of their offense. But almost all of them had been involved in prostitution. A lot of Native American women were involved both with drugs and prostitution. We had a string one year of a number of Native women who were in the program, seemed to be doing quite well. But unfortunately, when they leave there is no place for them to go so they ended up back on the street and we had a number of women who were killed during that period of time.

CK:  Are you currently involved as an activist?

MG:  In terms of my activism I am not involved in NOW but when I moved back to St. Joe – Benton Harbor area I ended up being asked to fill a position on the Benton Harbor School Board in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. Twin Cities, one city is very white and wealthy, and the other city is very poor and primarily African-American and the school was under the supervision of the state. It was quite a challenge and quite an experience for me to see from the inside just how the inequities in school districts still play out in this day and age. And it was tragic.

CK:  Did your experience within the women’s movement inform some of your activism [as] a school board member?

MG:  Absolutely. One of the things that I think for those of us who who’ve gone through 35 – 40 years of the women’s movement and [been] involved in looking at all of the changes that have occurred during that period of time – both positive and negative – [is] realizing that for me the number one issue for women is poverty. So yes, through my experiences within NOW and other organizations it definitely informed where I went in my thinking and in my experience about the issues that we need to be involved in.

I also might add that through these years, I also was the director of a housing agency in Minnesota for a few years before I went to law school. Putting women and children in poverty and housing together and even looking at women and prostitution, the women’s movement definitely helped me to develop my consciousness about the issues that are affecting poor women and women of color, which I think is probably where at least I am now in terms of my focus – on those issues.