This version is unusual for its blue edging at sleeves and neckline. I have no other Ts of this style.

In late spring or early summer of 1976 I started volunteering for the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment. I’ve got three T-shirts from it. The one with the white background didn’t circulate widely; it was an early draft, and the limited stock probably got handed out free to volunteers. The other two are the final version, with the text of the amendment on the front and “Vote Yes on #1” on the back. The text, now part of the state constitution, part 1, article 1: “Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.”

Bus and trolley drivers often leaned in to read the text.

The green and the black ones got worn a lot. The paint splatters on the black one came from helping paint a friend’s guest bedroom in West Tisbury more than 10 years later. The only downside was that the large number of words in relatively small type gave bus and trolley drivers an excuse to stare at your boobs and pretend to be reading the text.

Although I’d encountered blatant sexism as a Georgetown University undergrad, I was still shocked by how controversial the ERA was, and how blatant the fear-mongering against it. A New York Times story from November 1, 1976, noted “rumors and feelings, vociferously denied by the supporters of the measure but nevertheless in wide currency, that the amendment will result in things like unisex public toilets, homosexual marriages and female draftees.”

Massachusetts did lead the country in legalizing same-sex marriage, but that wasn’t till 2004, a full generation after the ERA was added to the state constitution.

Then, as now, the news media routinely fell back on phrases like “vociferously denied by supporters of the measure,” but rarely refuted the antis’ claims with expert legal or historical opinion.

Massachusetts ERA campaign headquarters was on the walk-up second floor of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union on Boylston Street, not far from the Public Garden and Boston Common. It was at least 75% workspace and at most 25% office: a desk for the campaign president and one for the one-woman clerical staff.

In memory, the workspace was dominated by a huge table (it might have been a humongous piece of plywood resting on several sawhorses), on which were spread out the raw materials for statewide mailings. These days massive mailing lists are saved out of sight on computers. Sorting by zip code -‑ necessary to qualify for the bulk-mail rate if you’re using the U.S. Postal Service — can be done in seconds. Not so in 1976. In 1976 the mailing list had to be typed on letter-size paper and formatted so it could be photocopied onto mailing labels. Each sheet of paper contained addresses from the same zip code, and the most common zip codes each had their own folder.

Think about it. New names coming in — and they were coming in all the time, especially after an event was held or an ad appeared in the paper — couldn’t be seamlessly added to the existing list. The only way to recognize duplicates, or obvious errors, was by eyeball.

By election day I knew most of the zip codes in Massachusetts by heart. If a label said “Boston, MA 01108” I knew at once that something was wrong. (01108 is in Springfield. 02108 is in Boston — Beacon Hill, to be precise.) Most often it was the zip.

I did most of my volunteering in the office, but I also ran occasional errands, like driving to New Hampshire to pick up a print job. Because my family had a summer place on Martha’s Vineyard, I helped out at an ERA fundraiser at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury; somewhere lost in my boxes of stuff may still be a photo I took of singer-songwriter James Taylor sitting on the stone step at the back of the gallery. On Election Day 1976 I was passing out “Vote Yes on Question #1” literature at a polling place in the Back Bay, where I got to meet both Elaine Noble, who was running for re-election as the first out lesbian or gay member of any state legislature in the country, and Barney Frank, who then represented a neighboring district in the state House of Representatives -‑ and was not yet out.[1]


That fall I started working part-time as a proofreader for the Town Crier Company: my first paid gig in the editorial field. The company, which published my hometown newspaper, the Town Crier, also did contract work. I was hired to work on a weekly newspaper they were publishing for Massachusetts law professionals.[2] This was an evening job. When I arrived for my shift, the newsroom and the offices in general were dark and deserted. It was just me; the typesetter, Jessie from Maynard; and Dave the production manager, who was occupied elsewhere in the building unless the hardware needed attention.

It’s the hardware that fascinates me most these days. (If you’re similarly intrigued, check out this site when you’ve got an hour or two to kill.) The technical side of publishing has evolved a lot in my lifetime, and I’ve had plenty of hands-on experience, especially with the shoestring-budget side of it. I’m old enough to have wrestled with mimeograph machines, been splattered with ink by a run-amok Gestetner, and laid out flyers with Formaline and presstype. So here’s what I remember of how I did my job in 1976–77.

Jessie the typesetter sat in the far corner of the large, utilitarian production room. I think the copy she relayed to me for proofreading was printed on plain paper. I fed the sheets into a phototypesetting computer. It had some OCR (optical character recognition — a term I learned later) capability, but it wasn’t hyper-precise so part of my job was to clean up the mess. My workstation had a video display screen, a QWERTY keyboard, and the characteristic IBM Selectric “golf ball” but one that produced what looked like an extended barcode under the letters. After I’d made my corrections, I hit a key, which produced a long tape with many holes punched in it. Each pattern represented a specific letter, punctuation mark, or other typographical instruction. Like this:

I then took the tape and threaded it through the CompuGraphic photocompositor, which was massive and gray and dominated its corner of the room. It produced film in a sealed container. This I took over to the developer, which looked like a big white washboard or sloping easel. What eventually came over the top of the easel/washboard was, voilà! a galley proof.

At this stage I sometimes spotted errors that had escaped my not-yet-eagle eye. I was learning, on the fly and without a supervisor, how to read like a proofreader: letter for letter, not word for word. As you might guess, the procedure just described was way too complicated and time-consuming to be repeated just to correct transposed words or letters, which is what nearly all of these errors were. So I’d go to the light table and with straight edge, X-acto knife, and Scotch tape correct the goof manually. I was pretty good at this, and the ability stood me in good stead through the coming years of laying out flyers with Formaline and presstype.

Correcting typos got much easier when I got my first PC in 1985, but CTRL-X,C,V and all the rest of it did not make my manual dexterity entirely obsolete. It wasn’t till the mid to late 1990s that desktop publishing technology made Formaline, presstype, and proportional scales largely obsolete (but as you can see, I’ve still got mine).

Notes

[1] Both were re-elected that year. In 1978, the house was shrunk from 240 members to 160, and the resulting redistricting threw them into the same district. Noble decided not to run again. She had taken a lot of heat not only as an out lesbian but as a staunch supporter of school desegregation, a very hot issue in Boston during the 1970s. By the way, the resizing of the Massachusetts House of Representatives cost both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket their seats in the legislature. This prompted a “Secede Now” movement, and I have a T-shirt to prove it. I’m wearing it in my profile pic. More about it by and by.

[2] This might have been the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which still exists but which was founded in 1972. My recollection is that this was a startup modeled on something similar being published in New York. The Weston Town Crier, along with its siblings in Wayland and Sudbury, still exists in some form, but it seems to be published in Framingham and owned by Gannett.


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