Autobiography

Chapter 11

Another Monday at the Women’s Center

The first Women’s Center in Los Angeles was a small house with 3 rooms and a living-room, no kitchen. You could not see it well from the street because it was hidden behind a huge ice machine.

When I first came to staff there on Mondays (Moon Day), I thought I would just learn on the job, which is how everybody had started. Life was a regular teacher for me now.

I walked in, all fresh and filled with optimism. There, I found awoman sitting on the couch. She was looking sternly at the worn beige rug. I respected that, I thought the woman was lost in her thoughts. The phones were both ringing. I picked up one, and put the other on hold. “Hello this is the Women’s Center… may I help you?” The phone exploded with the noises of children on the other end. I had to plug up my other ear to hear the woman speak.

“I wanted to know if you can help me. I am being evicted from my home, and I have five children here. I am on welfare, and our plumbing just busted. The whole house is flooded right now, and I can’t get a man to come out to fix it. If it doesn’t get fixed we'll all be evicted. Please help me.”

Nobody had briefed me that if you're a staffer you'd better have a referral list of plumbers handy. I didn’t want to discourage her, but I was new, and clueless. I decided to try.

“Give me your phone number lady, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll ask around and call you right back.”

She hung up relieved. My first practical feminist action was now to find her a plumber. I called Community Services. They recommended two names. I called both; one was home.

“No, I cannot come out, and I would charge a lot of money anyway, if the situation is as bad as it sounds,” he snapped.

“But she is on welfare,” I argued. “She has five children with her.”

“Well, I have to eat too,“ the plumber replied, but he knew a plumber who was involved with Community Services, and he gave me that number.

“Yes, I can do it,” the second plumber said. I gave him the woman’s number. He said he could go out in the afternoon. I thanked him profusely, and then rang the woman back.

“I think we are in luck! I have just located a plumber, and he’ll come out this afternoon. Here is his number; he already has yours.”

Yes! I had nailed my first big assignment! So proud.

I wish I could have gotten a woman plumber, but they came on the scene much later. This was early, 1970. Sisterhood is powerful, if you can forge it.

Meanwhile, the Mexican woman walked up and down in the office. Now it was just her and me. I introduced myself to her; her name was Ynez. She needed stamps.

“Yes, I can give you some,” I responded, searching for stamps on the desk. “Where does your letter go?”

“To Rome,” she said. “Oh, you are Italian?” I queried. “No, it's a letter to the Pope,” she explained. “To the Pope in the Vatican?” I was incredulous. “Yes. He needs to know about some things, like what is really going on. He has no idea.”

Careful Z, I thought, but I could feel her distress, and urgency about speaking with the Pope. I'd better leave it alone. I gave her two, eleven-cent stamps, and let go of the issue.

The phone was ringing again. I picked it up,

“Women’s Center, may I help you?” A young man’s voice was on the line.

“Hello, I'm calling because I believe in your cause, and I would like to do something to help.”

“How old are you?” I asked, to gain some time.

“I am 16,” he replied. “Hmm. Here is the thing young brother, women do all the tasks here. We must learn how to run our own movement ourselves,” was my explanation. What we really need you to do is to start a Men’s Liberation group where you live.”

“Men’s liberation? I don’t want to be with men,” he countered. So I offered, “I can give you some names of brothers, you can get information about them.”

“I want to work with women,” he persisted.

“Of course you do.” I started getting the idea of a young man who was looking for some excuse to meet women. How do you get rid of a well-meaning young man, without hurting his feelings? Finally I remembered. “Why don’t you go over to the campaign headquarter of Shirley Chisholm. There you will find many women working for her, and men too, of course.” He felt well served with this information.

Ms. Chisholm was running for President at the time. The winds of change were encouraging her to do this audacious thing. First black woman to run, and the first woman since Victoria Woodhull, from the first wave of feminism.

Next, I picked up the mail... a huge pile, mostly handwritten. I opened them at random. They all asked “What are you doing? What is Women’s Liberation? “ I decided to deal with this later, and stuff some leaflets into envelopes instead. Meanwhile, the Self Help Clinic arrived: Loraine and Carol. They'd set up shop in the back of the Center, where the legal room used to be. (Where was the legal room now? I must ask somebody which was the legal phone, and was I supposed to answer that too?) Carol and Loraine had just returned from a national tour. These two women were campaigning for the right to abortions. Carol was a mother of five already. She had learned about the need for abortions when she'd had one illegally. She felt very strongly about controlling our own bodies. She'd gone to special schools to learn how to do abortions, and now, under big hush-hush conditions, she was organizing to perform abortions at the Women’s Center. We worked side by side.

In all my isolated housewife days, I used to think of office workers as a great family of workers: making money, having a desk, performing duties, dealing with the world. Now, I had my own desk, and suddenly carried a lot of responsibilities, which were way beyond what I was used to. Sometimes, I picked up the phone and just heard an angry male yelling at me, “Dyke!” then hanging up. But the calls were all different. “I want to know if you have any referrals to good divorce lawyers?” a woman would ask. I could just walk over to the list on the wall, and give her a few names to call. “Call me back” I'd say, “I have more names if these don’t work out for you.” Oh the power!!

Suddenly I heard a mind-slicing scream. It was coming from the front door. We all ran to see what had happened. I saw Ynez sitting on the sidewalk, screaming her head off. I ran to her, “Ynez what’s wrong?

Are you in pain?” She looked at me calmly, “I am hungry,” she said.

“OK, so here is a dollar Ynez, get something to eat.” Ynez walked off in the direction of Von’s Supermarket. I walked back, a little shaken.

“Who is Ynez?” Loraine asked. “I don’t really know. When I came in she had a note from the Welfare Department saying to please give her food and shelter. She has been crashing here,” I replied. “The Welfare Department is sending us women? But that is their job, not ours!” Loraine said, indignantly. I wished I'd had another staffer with me.

Things were getting pretty heavy in the office. Wondering who else was supposed to staff on Mondays, I checked the schedule on the wall. Lorie was supposed to come, but she wouldn't be in until later.

And more ring and ring and ringing continued. “May I help you?” I asked. The voice on the other end questioned, “Could you please explain to me what you are all about?” I took a deep breath. This was my first speech to a sister who was clueless, like I had been just a few months ago. I began, ”Women’s Liberation is not an organization; we have no dues or fees, no leaders. We are a grassroots movement: women getting together to discuss what it's like being a woman, recognizing our common oppression, and creating solutions to end it.” I thought that sort of summed it up. Not as cleverly as Simone de Beauvoir had, but it was heartfelt. “But, do you hate men?” she asked timidly. “I really like my boyfriend. I don’t want to give him up.”

“You don’t have to give up anything,” I assured her. “ Women’s liberation is just the opposite of that. It's giving ourselves power, and legal status, for our bodies.”

“What are your demands?” she asked further.

“Let's see,” I began. “There are some major demands: World Peace, war is bad for the children. Quality Childcare for working mothers, funded by corporation profits. Legal rights to our bodies, and abortions on demand. Equal pay for equal work. Female workers make only half of what men get for the same job. This should include paying house-wives for their work at home.”

“What?? Housewives get paid? That’s insane!” she protested.

“A hundred years ago, giving women the vote was seen as insane,” I answered. “Corporations pay only for the man, but the wives maintain the man, and corporations get her for free.”

“But what about the labor of love?” she demanded. “Isn’t anything sacred anymore?”

“The only labor of love is gestating and giving birth to our children. All the rest is drudgery, and should be paid for. After all, women create the tax-paying citizens, and consumers. We create the entire economy.” I don’t know if I got through to her. Was I coming on too strong? She said she had just gotten a book called Sisterhood Is Powerful, by Robin Morgan, that would give her the feminist paradigm.

What happens to all the women I talk to on the phone? Do they change? Do they sink back into their earlier hopelessness?

I see them in their kitchens, cooking the meals of the world. Between that and the kids' demands, what makes them pick up the phone, track down our number, and make the call?

Ynez was back. Now that she had eaten she was happier. She talked about her husband. “My husband left me,” she cried. “Its not right. I vowed 'until death do us part,' not until a bimbo do us part.”

“Ynez, don’t worry. You should think about what you want to do with your life,” I encouraged.

“I don’t know…” she drifted off again.

She looked at me, with her sad brown eyes. Her face was drawn long, and I noticed a scar on her left cheek.

“Ynez, what has happened to you? Did somebody beat you?” I asked.

She made a sharp movement with her hand to cover up her scar.

“You are a nice lady,” she said. “I like your hair, you look good today.”

Ynez was a master at evading questions.

She had a brown paper bag with her; and now, I saw that the paper bag had moved.

“Ynez, what’s that?” I asked.

She smiled and peeled out a small reddish-haired kitten. The kitten was too cute to complain about.

“Ynez’s kitty cat,” she said. “I bought her a little food. Please, can I keep her?”

“What about a cat box?” I protested. “You need to have a place where she can go to pee.” She hadn’t quite thought this through. For now, she was holding the kitten in her lap.

Lorrie came in. She was handling the Speakers Bureau, one of the major incomes for keeping the Women’s Center open. She had only been doing this for two months. She was so good at it, nobody wanted to take this assignment from her. Lorrie was about 25 years old, married, feminist, with very good politics. Lorrie was fast talking, articulate, diplomatic, and very energetic.

Adele came in too, she was handling the information room: leaflets and books, magazines and posters. The two of them, so different.

Adele was the kind of talker who chaired staff meetings with the speed of a late summer afternoon, where baked-apple scent filled the air, and the sun was slowly setting. It was a pleasure to be in meetings with her. Adele also worked at the Intercrop Council. It was made up of delegates from the different consciousness-raising groups in the L.A. area. This served to inform the many small groups of the Movement’s progress, and to share experiences with each other.

I had never experienced an all-female political movement before.

These women were so diverse, and so talented: devoted, called each other sister all the time. They reminded me a little of my childhood friends, and the nuns, during those years in the convent.

Lorrie was talking on the phone, but she put her hand on the speaker and continued a conversation with me as well.

“Guess what?” she said. “I've finally contacted all the speakers. I scheduled a meeting for next week, for general information. I got to know these women a little, and will send them out to speak to groups.”

Then, back on the phone with somebody else, “There will be five hundred students. Both sexes, an assembly, well advertised. Honorarium $25 dollars, that’s fine. I will look around to find somebody for you. Yes.”

Don’t look at me Lorrie. I am not your speaker, I thought.

But it was now fun working side by side with these women, who became my sisters. It was very helpful for me to have my head filled with other people’s problems, and not my own. My problems were minuscule compared to those of most of the women who called.

When I had a moment, I read the log book. This was where the different staffers communicated with each other. There was an entry by Dixie: Ynez was caught by the police, breaking in. She'd escaped from the mental institution in Nevada. She is mentally ill. She walked around with a knife in her hands for days. Sherry had to coax it out of her hands. Sharon and Doris were called, but when they saw her, they refused to file charges against her. So, she's been crashing here for a week now.

I got curious; where do destitute women go? I got the name of two places where women could go. One was Sunshine Mission, downtown. They only had 19 beds. They said they got hundreds of calls, they turned away hundreds of women every night.

There was another place in Santa Barbara, Sunlight Mission, but they only took women with at least two or three kids. With only a single child, they would turn women away.

I called the YWCA. They did not take any children. And they took no women without money. It cost to stay at this Christian charity.

“So, what kind of woman do you turn away most often?” I inquired.

“We have to turn away old women,” they answered. “They have no money, and they are too old or sick to work. They sleep in depots. It's very hard to get rid of them; nobody wants them. They just spend the night in the parks, or wherever they can find a bench.”

Just to make a comparison, I called around to learn where destitute men could go. Men could go to several places, with anywhere from two hundred to five hundred beds. They had to be men alone, no women along for this male privilege. And men never had kids with them, though male children would be allowed, but not girls.

Working the lines, and researching situations, revealed to me a big hatred of woman. Why are women hated so much? What have we done to deserve this discrimination against us and our children?

I was astonished, depressed, and deeply touched.

I had a huge awakening.

How could this be described best? I looked at men very differently from then on. I saw them as a caste as well, the upper caste. Men had created a world for themselves where even the drunks, and mentally ill men, fared better than the women in the same condition. It was unforgivable. And the men didn’t care. They laughed at the Woman’s Libbers. Men, as a gender, didn’t care. They didn’t have a gender consciousness. They didn’t own responsibility for their own sex.

“Man” meant to them all humanity, but in reality, it was just them.

Men looked after each other, even when the chips were down, better than they did their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.

I thought about all the sweet men I liked, men who would help if they knew how... but they made sure they didn’t know. Propagating ignorance is a way for the status quo to stay on top...

The burden of education, should never be solely on the oppressed.