Life at the Women’s Center
This was the most painful time since I had left New York. Everything I'd learned about the social reality of women, broke my heart, again and again. The faces of incoming casualties from the so-called gender wars, showed up at our humble Women’s Center daily: Ynezes, Marthas, Ceciles-- their faces all banged up, eyes blackened, and personalities broken. To survive without a man was painful, often lethal. Becoming a conscious feminist had its instant punishment from society. This identification with my own gender was overwhelming. Whatever happens to one of us, they said, does happen to us all. Unconsciously, we will soak up more defeat, more humiliation, and our imagination will be stunted by the lack of hope. There was a huge psychic price to be paid for not identifying with men anymore.
A female-identified female, is mentally healthier than a male-identified female. A male-identified woman is actually delusional. This society-preferred woman was the one who had naively assumed that she was included in the word ”man.” A male-identified woman didn’t like to call herself “woman,” she was “human” instead. Or an “individual.” Special, by all means. She was not going to own this beaten-down identity, this victim-smelling word. Even if, when she walked down the street alone, the men saw her as a female alone, not “there goes a human” or ”look at that individual.”
The potential, for women waking up to their own identity, was astronomical. Within, was the seed for Sisterhood. We may all be different, but we are all female, and there is the same female destiny meted out to us all. We all bleed, and create babies (if we want to), and look after everybody. What do we get out of it? Not a whole lot. Society, that we have peopled, thinks of women as marginal. Rape-culture holds that our needs are not essential, because, we are going to stay women no matter what. Rebellion... how? We will continue to work for less money, or no money. And we will never overpower the male gender, so there is no reason for them to fear women striking back. Women will not attack their own children. And all men are children of one of us ladies. There is the threat held over us that we'll lose our homes and sustenance, if we don’t behave. Who is coming to women’s aid? Not the men. Certainly not the men so far. I am still hoping that young people will wake up and renounce the rape-culture. If men marched for women’s equality and respect, the whole world would become a happier place.
Everything that we have, starting with the right to vote, cames to us from other women, who also woke up, and then applied themselves. They made a plan, and delivered the vote to future generations. It took the suffragists 75 years to accomplish that kindness. Now, we needed to use it on our own behalf. Too many, still voted as their husbands did. Only a new consciousness could bring this gift into our good use.
Gender loyalty among women started to develop, sweeping us along. The first time I met Joan Robins, (the author whose book I'd borrowed and read, The Handbook of Women’s Liberation) was at the Center. She was making bumper stickers saying “Sisters Give Rides to Sisters.” This was to help women hitchhike safer. If feminist women were to vote as a block (like the Republicans did) we could outlaw wars, overcome bullying in schools, and punish rape and murder. We would reward learning, volunteering, creating a female-friendly culture. The price of a single bomber ($38 million) could be used to establish coast-to-coast childcare centers of high quality. The price of another bomber could feed all the children and the poor. A third one, not built, could pay for dental expenses, school supplies, and new schools. All this, if we can forge a strong Sisterhood. But men will always prefer the bombers. Oh... the elusive Sisterhood.
When we got together, staffers at the Center were about twenty-five strong. Among us, there were some planted, FBI women, sent to spy on us. We didn’t know who, but these were women with FBI jobs, and we welcomed them, secretly. We had read about this in the L.A. Times. Instead of being freaked out about the spying, we noticed that some sisters showed up at 9am, and left by five. Nobody else did this-- we staffed on our days off, came and went at all hours. So, we figured out who were the spies. It was one of the results of Women’s Liberation that the FBI had women at all. We let them do jobs where they would have access to information (keep filing Olga), and since there was nothing we had to hide (we didn’t have any terrorist inclinations), we made them do menial administrative work: cleaning out rooms, organizing files, making phone calls. Knock yourself out!
Every day, in front of the new building where Marcy and I had moved, an unmarked car with two guys in it, started to park. Each time we took out the garbage, they took pictures of us. This was a lot of surveillance just to see feminists take their garbage out. What did they want? One day, I walked up to them and asked them “Are you from the police? The FBI?” They just started their car and drove away. But they did return. Next, I approached them with my camera, and took their picture. They took off in a panic. After that they never came back.
I had moved in more and more of my friends, as apartments were vacated by the old tenants. This was a green apartment house, with so-called bachelor flats: one room, bath, and kitchen. But we had a wide view over Hollywood, which extended the little rooms. We saw trees outside, and oranges ripening in the winter. Our building had been the servant’s quarters, back in the early days of glamorous Hollywood. Movie stars lived in the beautiful big mansions on Whitley Ave. We lived among very wealthy people here. Now, Joan lived here, and Janet, Nancy from the lesbian group, and Dixie and Sherry, a cabdriver and a union activist. Slowly I took over the green house with all my friends. The rent was under a hundred dollars, utilities included, a good deal. Dale (our Vietnam vet friend), and I found this place by accident when driving around the neighborhood. Marcy and I saw our old place on TV one night. Sure enough, the manager had gotten busted. There were even gunshots. Good we got out when we did.
At the Center, Dixie was chairing a meeting. She wore her jeans with the woman sign on her crotch, and she made jokes. Dixie was always creative with her language, making up words which then we picked up and used. But meetings had to be kept short. “Announcements sisters..!” We settled down on the rug. “A new sister has joined us, from Ohio. Her name is Pat, but I see Z has changed that already, to SuperPat.”
[I have to tell you why. We had this chore of putting out a newsletter every month, listing our events at the Center. Our Calendar. But it had to be hand mimeographed. In these old old times, mimeograph was widely used as a cheep way of printing. We were all up to our elbows in black ink. Took at least two weeks to publish it, the last lap being the addressing and bundling of the newsletters by zip code. This was the worst part, because if we made a mistake the post office would refuse to send them out. Pat arrived, in her truck. The place was open, she came in and looked around. She found our newsletters waiting for this last bit of finishing-the-task. Pat knew how to do it. She was bored, so she finished this work on her own by the time the staff came in to do it. I looked at her long red hair, open Irish face, beaming with confidence. She emanated great energy.
“SuperPat!” I cried. Of course this name stuck to her for a long time. Later, it was affectionately shortened to Sups, which she hated. Eventually, she moved up north and changed her name to Sequoia. But that was years from now.]
We roundly applauded SuperPat's accomplishment. Lorie sat across from me: taut, slim, like an alert cat, graceful. She wanted to discuss the topic of crashers.
“Yes, well it's like this. We have become the first-aid center to women who society has thrown out. There are no places in society for women like Ynez, who has been crashing here for a month now. She will not go to any institution, she is not as crazy as you think she is. She evades capture. Dixie wanted to take her to the Welfare office, but when she came to pick her up, Ynez was gone.” I explained.
“She is an excellent con woman, and she is ripping us off,” Lorie put forth. “Look at this phone bill! Ynez has called Rome-- the Pope! I have a bill here for two hundred dollars! We need to decide what we are going to do.
“Where does she go when she isn’t here? “ asked Joan.
Nobody knew. Joyce, our bookkeeper offered, “I think she hustles. Last time she went out, she came back all beaten up, stitches sticking out from her skin.”
“We can't throw her out,” Joan said.
“We can try!” offered Dixie.
“She will just come back. Now, she has a kitten.” Lorie was still upset.
We had the choice of calling the police on the woman. That was not what a feminist would do. We decided to take it on the chin, and Dixie tabled the issue. We would lock up the phone when we left.
“We are broke by the way. We barely made rent this month. What are we doing for money? Joyce thought we should consider money more seriously.
“Interesting,” said Dixie, “I have a letter here from the Ford Foundation. They are looking for new organizations to fund.”
“Well that’s us! Hurrah! Let them!” I cried.
“Not so fast.” The group was looking at me. “What are you thinking! They just want to co-opt us.”
“What are their terms?” Joan inquired.
“They send a woman here. She helps us become a nonprofit organization, and we can get some funding for the Center,” answered Dixie.
“Did you ask exactly what that meant?” Joan wanted more info.
“Yes, we have to get a board of directors, elect a president, have board meetings, budget expenses, submit it to them. Then, they come and investigate if what we said is possible, then they approve us, and at the end we might get some money,” explained Dixie.
It was Sherry, our resident communist, who was most outraged.
“When you get your first paid job, is when you get your first infiltrators! I vote no on Ford!” Apparently Sherry didn’t know about our resident FBI workers.
Joyce was not giving up. “I'd really like to see some money come into this center. These are just formalities, and we have them already. We already have a board of directors and president, so we could just carry it over. Imagine how much more we could achieve if we had some money.”
“Look at what the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation did in South America! They practically own South America,” Sherry cried. “It's really hard for me to see our new movement blinded by their offer. I mean... they're pigs!”
Sherry got as red as the Mao book in her back pocket. We took a vote, and voted the pigs down.
Will we be safer in our poverty? I wondered. There was no redeeming quality to poverty. It wasn’t ennobling. Poor people got angry, and hurt themselves and others. I wanted to ask these questions, but I was new and I was learning the ropes.
After the meeting, I saw Ynez sneaking back in. I found her on the couch, now her home. I wanted to know what she had said to the Pope.
“Ynez, what did you say, on the phone, to the Pope?”
“I was on hold a long time. The Pope never answered the phone.” I tried again, “OK, but had he answered the phone, what would you have said to him? Please tell me.” Ynez got animated. “I was going to tell him, he is all wrong. He had no children, he doesn’t know what it's like to have too many. He should tell the women to use birth control, and the men to control themselves, and be nice to the women. The problem is not the women, but the violent men. The pope should preach to the men instead.”
At this point, Ynez was very sane. Dixie was right, she was not crazy.
Copyright © 2018 by Zsuzsanna Budapest