THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, March 2019
MJC: Thank you for doing this interview for the Veteran Feminists of America.
MD: I’m doing it to vindicate myself because I’ve had materials off and on for years and I haven’t done it.
MJC: This is the time. Let’s start by telling us your name.
MD: My name is Merry Demarest.
MJC: And can you tell me a little bit about your background, growing up and where you were born etc.?
MD: I was born in Wyoming. One of our least populous states. We get one member of Congress. I lived a lot of places when I was growing up. My father is an immigrant. To no fault of his own he was not on the scene when I was growing up.
MJC: How many siblings did you have?
MD: I had one that I grew up with, but I have five more brothers and sisters from my father’s second marriage. All told there’s seven us, and I think we’re all college educated at this point. I think my dad was very successful. Deanna is not, but she was the most successful in business so what the heck.
MJC: Tell me what your life was like before you got involved in the women’s movement which is the major subject to this interview. But give us an idea of what your life was like and then we’ll talk about how the women’s movement changed it.
MD: I joined the women’s movement when I was pretty young. I was about 22. There wasn’t a lot of life before that. I went to college and I had various experiences but the issues that were the women’s movement issues in the 60s were my issues. The fact that women weren’t equal was not a secret.
MJC: How did you experience that in your life. Where were you going to college?
MD: I was going to Reed college in Portland. And that was fine, but I had aspirations of going to medical school which organic chemistry took care of. But in the meantime, I could tell that I was being indulged particularly by people in the church for my aspirations that weren’t taken seriously.
MJC: What church was that?
MD: The Mormon church. And I think that the prophet has ordained that we should call it not the Mormon Church anymore. We should call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I guess I still take orders, but I don’t go. When you know you’re not being taken seriously, you’d like it to be something besides – you’re a girl. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
MJC: What did you end up studying at Reed? What did you major in?
MD: I didn’t finish at Reed. I’m one of two thirds who did not. I started studying psychology which is what I finished when I went on later.
MJC: So then after you left Reed then tell us a little bit more.
MD: I went to be a suburban housewife in New Jersey.
MJC: When did you get married?
MD: Spring break of my sophomore year. That was fifty-one years ago this week.
MJC: Right. And your husband is?
MD: Harry Demarest and he’s still the only one. We are very old fashioned and very successful.
MJC: Tell me about your actual involvement. What were your activities when you got beyond being aware that women were not equal? When did you actually begin to do something about it by becoming active?
MD: I think by the time my daughter was a year old.
MJC: And where are you again?
MD: I’m in New Jersey which is where Harry grew up and I was a suburban housewife. Again, with some people literally not taking me seriously. And I think I joined NOW that year.
MJC: What year do you think that would be?
MD: That would be ‘71 and then we moved to Los Angeles and continued in NOW and was active there.
MJC: What took you to L.A.?
MD: Harry’s graduate school. We were itinerant academics for a long time. In Los Angeles I did things with the NOW chapter like participated on committees and things like that. One of the committees I was involved in had to do with media and that was kind of interesting. And all those movies like – Killing Us Softly. I got to see them very early and evaluate them. And the evaluation was in fact a very general one. They described my experience of the world.
MJC: Interesting, talk about that a little bit.
MD: I’m trying to think what leads me to say that. And I think it was a reiteration of the fact that in lots of ways particularly in the media we have not been taken seriously. My involvement in NOW was sort of seen by some of Harry’s peers for example as sort of like – oh isn’t that cute, she’s at macramé – sort of attitude. And the reality was, I was a hard-working mom because Joan was only a year-old woman moved to L.A. and I hate to say it, but my daughter was a lot of hard work.
MJC: Children are lovely and hard work. What happened after L.A.? How long did you stay there? What happened next?
MD: We stayed in L.A. four years and then moved to Chicago. There was ERA stuff happening in Chicago and I was a graduate student and I literally did not participate. I just had to work. Between Joan and the academics, I had a lot on my plate. I went to school 12 hours a day two days a week.
MJC: Where did you go to school?
MD: I went to Roosevelt University which was I guess founded just after the war. And it’s a downtown inner-city school.
MJC: You were aware of the ERA activities and you supported them, but you didn’t get active in Chicago?
MD: I didn’t.
MJC: What happened next?
MD: What happened next was we moved again. Harry finish the post doc and we moved to Oregon. My daughter made a card for him that said – Harold H. Demarest Jr. Employed.
MJC: That’s funny. She had a sense of humor early.
MD: Oh yeah and could define and use sarcasm at age 5. You had to be quick with her or you had it.
MJC: So now you’re in Oregon. Where are you?
MD: In Corvallis, about 100 miles south of Portland. And there I immediately started working with the NOW chapter.
MJC: So now she’s in school full time and you have a little time.
MD: Yes, and she spent a lot of time with her dad. She’s always had two parents who drag around everything. She was doing stuff, certainly before she was eight.
MJC: She got a good political education from her parents.
MD: And in collating.
MJC: Talk about the activities in the Corvallis chapter.
MD: Oregon is a twice ratified state so that was very comforting, and we didn’t have to worry about it.
MJC: Talk about the ERA and the ratification process here.
MD: The ratification process in Oregon had happened twice before I arrived here. Once very early in the campaign and then there was an attempt to rescind and someone amended it so that it was a second ratification. I think that was about ’78 just before I moved here. And the interesting thing is that we started a Women’s Rights Coalition for lobbying a few years before that and the women’s rights lobbyist really carried the weight here and that was very good. And then various activities in the Corvallis chapter. We launched a lot of people into the national campaign from here. And I worked in Oklahoma on the ERA for the last six months of that campaign.
MJC: National NOW was sending people around and you volunteered to go to Oklahoma. What was that like?
MD: I got tired of living out of a suitcase. I think it was both stressful and very educational. There was always on the part of the local people, a certain paranoia that we were keeping all the good jobs for ourselves. I sort of wish that were the case. Running phone banks is not terribly glamorous. Running twelve phone banks a night is kind of challenging.
MJC: My goodness.
MD: Yeah. We had people come in every day and take their boxes and then go to their locations at night and then they brought the boxes back afterwards and I processed them and gave them to the folks the next day.
MJC: Really grassroots work.
MD: Very much so, and I’ve been agonizing since we scheduled this interview. I couldn’t remember the woman’s name who was the office manager in Tulsa. But anyway, she was somebody from the community who put in hours and hours of work and was just you know a mainstay for us.
MJC: So that the local people and the national people really worked together?
MD: Oh, very much so.
MJC: So, they still were in charge of the campaign, but you were very helpful to bring in new activities and people.
MD: It was very helpful to have some of us who were from out of state who could give full time to what we were doing. And I think the campaign in Oklahoma – I went in December of 81 and it continued for about six months. Very intense. And that was the last six months right before the countdown campaign. And then actually for the countdown campaign the Oregon Board of NOW had their board meeting in Oklahoma, in Tulsa. And we’d take advantage of being together where sometimes we were five hundred miles apart.
MJC: That’s well that’s interesting too.
MD: Yeah well it was.
MJC: It’s what you’re describing is I don’t think is well known. The level of grassroots activity for the ERA in those last three years was quite intense.
MD: Extremely. I also participated in a project in Utah called the ERA Missionary Program. It was taking the truth about the Equal Rights Amendment to the people of Utah and asking them to ask the prophet to butt out.
MJC: So, it was a Mormon educational project.
MD: The older women in particular were extremely responsive to the message. There was a downside because that was all when we did door to door you became aware of a lot of battered women. Women with one child in arms and another holding to their skirts but sometimes visibly battered.
MJC: How did the Mormon church respond to your activity if at all?
MD: Sometimes individuals would become nasty to us. But again, like we get to go talk to the older woman and have a good time. There was one older lady that I canvassed at some point. Listen well I’ll sign your letter. This is to the prophet of Mormon Church to ask that they stop raising money in ratified states to send to unrefined states.
MJC: Is that what they were doing?
MD: They were raising money particularly in California, which has a lot of people and a lot of Mormon money. But they were raising money around the nation and then sending it into specific unratified states to make sure that they remain so. Virginia and Florida were particularly effective in tracking those funds. And they are unratified to this day.
MJC: They are indeed.
MD: And Judge Carswell in Idaho was a Mormon judge. It was interesting times.
MJC: Did they publicly debate the ERA campaign, or did they just try to ignore?
MD: There was one woman, Sonia Johnson who was excommunicated in response to her activity in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. And there were several of us subsequent to that who asked for excommunication because of that.
MJC: So, you as a Mormon ask for excommunication?
MD: That’s right. I was not active, but I could get off the rolls and not be counted anymore. And that meant something to me.
MJC: Tell us a little bit about that process because I think most people wouldn’t know that.
MD: The first thing that happens when you ask to be excommunicated is they lose your records. I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that they’ve ever lost anybody’s records. You’re on the records until you’re at least 15 years dead. So that was the first thing is convincing them they really had to find them. And then we were tried by a court of a High Council which is 12 leaders within your large general area. Like instead of a stake or one congregation will be maybe 10 or 12 stakes. I think we were told that of course this would mean that we could still attend any public meeting of the Church, but we couldn’t tithe – it broke my heart. And my husband and I were excommunicated together. It was a private service, but we made sure it was covered by the media.
MJC: That’s an interesting story. So how long were you in Utah?
MD: I think I went for three weeks. And I had gone for maybe two or three weeks maybe a year before they had that project going.
MJC: So then after the ERA campaign in Utah, was that kind of the end of where you were coming to the end of 1982.
MD: No, that was in 1981. In 1982 the campaign ended in June and I was in Oklahoma from December until March.
MJC: So then then you continued you’re NOW service at the national level I believe. I think we met when you were on the national board is that right?
MD: Yes. I can’t remember the year. That’s terrible.
MJC: Well 1982 is when I was elected vice president and I think that’s when I met you, you were on that board.
MD: I think that the term for the board started after yours, so it was probably 1983. I met you there, and several other people that have become important friends over the years. And some who were decidedly not my personal friends. I spent my time on the board as one of the leaders of the loyal opposition.
MJC: So, what else do you remember from your board service issues, campaigns you remember that. Or what was going on in Oregon at the same time were you still active here too.
MD: Yes, I was still on the on Women’s Rights Coalition. Which led me to interview and hire our current governor Kate Brown as the Women’s Rights Coalition lobbyist one year. There always been lasting associations from the campaign. Harry and Joan met Kate at the same time, roughly the same time frame because they were doing escort service at a clinic in Portland that Kate was the legal representative from right after she got out of law school.
MJC: She went to the legislature first. Is that it.
MD: Well she first was our lobbyist. She won her place in the legislature by seven votes. It helps us remember that every vote counts. And now Kate has at one point was looking at maybe running for Congress because Earl Blumenauer was reputed to be not going to run so she went to Emily’s List to the conference and was quite a favorite there. She’s still getting active support from them for her campaign.
MJC: Excellent right. Well she’s made a quiet contribution to be a part of that too. What do you think are your major accomplishments in the women’s movement or in other related activity?
MD: Well I have I have many accomplishments.. A large accomplishment during the time I was on the NOW board was leading the opposition. We had an attempt by Ellie Smeal to rebuild her support from the past and she did things like lecture the board – you’re going to stay here and get it right and stay here all night. We didn’t particularly care to be handled that way. So that was one of the big accomplishments which I suppose is in the negative column. And in Oregon, right now we have one of the most progressive reproductive rights clauses. And it’s a direct result of the lobbying that’s been done every session for I think for over 20 years now. And it’s kind of nice.
MJC: So how did how do you think involvement in the movement affected your life personally and professionally.
MD: I think personally it’s is more relevant because I technically while I’m professionally trained I have not practiced my profession. And sort of the most important thing that’s happened personally is because of our involvement in the equal rights campaign, I’ve traveled out of state considerably both for the NOW board service and the ERA Missionary Project in Utah and for just service in Oklahoma. And also, that’s affected my daughter very much. She was 12 at the end of the ERA campaign and she had already been an ERA clown with big floppy green shoes and been to rallies in Portland Seattle and other places. And when I was arrested at Bellevue for closing the temple during its dedication we chained the place shut, they couldn’t go in. She had – that was the last grilled temper tantrum she had, because she was not allowed to miss school in order to take part in civil disobedience. We thought we’d make a better impression on the court otherwise.
MJC: Talk about that a little bit.
MD: It goes back to the more in churches funding of campaigns against the ERA and non-ratified states. They were going to be dedicating a temple in Bellevue which is a Seattle suburb. And some of us decided that they were unfortunately not going to be able to attend. So, twenty-one of us chained it shut and were hauled away in paddy wagons by a guy whose wife was visible in our support. Well he ended up being a remarkable fellow.
MJC: Interesting. So, your involvement in the women’s movement. How did that affect your other activist activities and other contributions that you’ve made on the activist scene?
MD: Well I think it’s out of the array activities that my political involvement has grown and I think that that’s evidenced by managing a campaign or two and by volunteering a lot. And while I can remember when three of us in our naivete said we will do all of the canvassing, telephoning and yard signs for our congressional campaign we just plain didn’t know how big it was. But it worked.
MJC: You’ve been active in Emily’s List and other organizations.
MD: Emily’s this from its founding. I’m active with the Democratic Party and I’m also active on the ACLU Board of Oregon. It seemed to be when it got so I couldn’t personally carry as many organizations, the ACLU I found had all of our interests at heart and it was a place I was sort of doing – one stop shopping, and I’ve been doing that on and off since about probably about twenty-five years. You go on for three two terms and then you go off for a year or two and then go back on.
MJC: Are there other areas or thoughts that you have that we haven’t covered in the questioning that you want to make sure that people know about your activity?
MD: I think we’ve touched on a lot of different areas.
MJC: Well that’s good. Well I thank you again for participating in this project. It’s an honor to be here.
MD: And I thank you for making an honest woman out of me because I intended to do a documentation for the Veteran Feminists of America for some time and I haven’t been able to and you’ve made it easy so thank you.
I’ve just been reminded that I would like to go back to that period of time I lived in Los Angeles. While I did have a NOW membership and I participated on some committees at that time I also belonged to the Radical Feminist Therapy Collective which was certainly feminist. Aligned with that I also belonged to a Fat Feminist organization that challenged the medical establishment’s doctrinaire policies around fat women and in their lives and it basically argued with much of the popular wisdom of the time and I think if it is still going on, it’s probably in Los Angeles. It’s probably challenging things also. I mean you know things like bariatric surgery. I mean people die from that. And I mean it was like 10 percent were not dying but 10 percent were having very serious medical complications. And I think the important part of that is that my husband provided the child care for us.