1976: Vote Yes On #1

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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1976: Getting Unstuck

1976 was the U.S. Bicentennial year, and that’s the year the T-Shirt Chronicles start, with this blue T from that year’s Festival of American Folklife. The festival started in 1967 and has been held annually ever since (except, need I even say, in 2020), but that may have been the only one I ever attended, even though I lived in D.C. 11 years altogether — and wasn’t living there when I went to the festival. I probably went with one or both of my best buddies from my Georgetown University undergrad days, both of whom lived in the D.C. area.

What prompted me to buy the T-shirt? No idea. I don’t have a single clear memory from that festival: what I saw, what impressed me, nada. I had no clue that 44 years later I would be writing about this T as the first in a very long series.

But what better place to start? It wasn’t the Bicentennial celebrations that took me back to D.C. that summer. In mid-1976 I was trying to reconnect with the city I’d thrived in as a student activist, hoping this would reconnect me with the me who had lived there, the dean’s list student who was passionately involved in antiwar organizing and student politics and who was also getting a crash course in sexism thanks to the unapologetic misogyny of Jesuit-run Georgetown University.

When 1976 began, I was stuck. After graduating as a history major from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, I’d spent fifteen months in the UK, the first twelve pursuing but not completing a master’s degree and the last three hitchhiking solo around Britain and Ireland. Just before Thanksgiving 1975 I landed back in my suburban hometown of Weston, Massachusetts, in the unhappy home I’d grown up in. I had no idea what to do next, I had no friends in town, and I’d lost contact with my college friends.

In February, Grandma, my paternal grandmother, had a stroke. She died ten days later. Since she lived only a mile away, she was very much a part of my growing up. We weren’t close in the emotional sense — in my quintessentially WASP family, no one was close in that sense — but she introduced me to the two passions of my preteen and teenage years, horses and the Middle East, and I felt closer to her than to anyone else in the family.

After she died, my uncle Neville, who had lived with her for many years in the house he and my father grew up in, committed himself to a psychiatric hospital. Eventually he got his feet on the ground and walked himself into a happier and less isolated life than the one he’d been leading, but his cracking up presented an immediate dilemma: Who would look after Grandma’s house and take care of Max, her red Lab, till her estate could be settled?

The obvious answer was me. Whether this was a good thing or not — on one hand it gave me the literal space and time to get my feet back on the ground, but on the other being stuck under the same roof with my parents might have kicked my butt into gear sooner. Whether I was clinically depressed I can’t say because I never saw a clinician, but depression, alcoholism, and other forms of stasis are endemic on both sides of my family and I’ve got tendencies in all those directions.

That winter and spring I did a lot of walking with Max. When we weren’t out walking, I read Grandma’s letters from her young womanhood, learned that she’d been reluctant to enter into a marriage that eventually ended in divorce, explored her house (which I already knew pretty well), played a lot of solitaire, and taught myself to bake bread. In England I’d gotten hooked on unsliced bread from neighborhood bakeries; the cellophane-wrapped loaves then available in suburban supermarkets no longer satisfied. Neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers ever baked bread, at least not in my lifetime; none of them were cooks either. My teacher was a mass-market paperback. I’ve been baking all my own bread ever since.

Not long after I moved into Grandma’s house, Linda, my father’s girlfriend (he was still married to and living with my mother, an active alcoholic), recruited me as research assistant on a project she was working on, about what was going on in England at the time of the American Revolution. This involved reading period sources at Harvard’s Widener Library — which got me out of house and hometown and reconnected me with something I enjoyed and was good at. Linda was the only adult around who realized I was not in good shape; her intentions must have been at least partially therapeutic. It helped.

So did going back to D.C. that July. My D.C. years had drifted so far from me that it felt like they’d happened to someone else. Hooking up with friends from my activist student days pulled those days back within reach. I was on the right track, but because I was improvising the track I was trying to follow, it took a while.

Here’s where my memories of 1976 diverge from the facts of the matter. Time was fluid that year, with few dates to use as signposts, and contrary to popular belief you can’t find everything on the internet. Non-famous people who lived and died before news went digital can be elusive: I knew Grandma had died in February but had forgotten the date, and Googling didn’t refresh my memory. My sister, however, has been maintaining the family tree on Ancestry.com and she had it: February 17.

Easier to verify online — and disorienting when I did — was the date of a benefit concert I attended at Boston’s grand old Orpheum Theater for U.S. Senator Fred Harris, Democrat from Oklahoma, who was running in the Democratic presidential primary. Arlo Guthrie was the headliner, and my sister and I were sitting in the first or second balcony way over at house right, looking down at the brightly lit stage with its glittering mics, amps, and guitars.[1]

This is one of my most vivid memories from that year, and I’d already slotted it into my chronology. In an early draft of this post I wrote: “Thanks to the state ERA campaign I paid more attention to electoral politics in 1976 than I ever had, or that I would for the next 40 years.” But it didn’t take long to turn up incontrovertible evidence online that the Harris-Guthrie concert-rally had taken place months before I started volunteering for the ERA campaign, on February 26.[2] Harris’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, always a long shot, was over by the end of April.

Harris was an antiwar, pro-racial-and-economic-justice populist who inspired the kind of enthusiasm that Senator Eugene McCarthy had in the previous decade and Jesse Jackson would in the next. His was exactly the kind of campaign that would have attracted me with my grassroots activist background, which had largely ignored electoral politics.[3] Could it even have been the Harris benefit concert that put the state ERA campaign on my radar?

The state ERA, Question #1 on the ballot, passed on November 2, election day 1976. By then it had brought three T-shirts into the collection I didn’t realize was a collection. More about that in my next post.

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Notes


[1] I could go on and on and on, but seriously, if you weren’t around in the 1960s and 1970s, or don’t remember much about it, look up Fred Harris and his then wife, Comanche Native American rights activist LaDonna Harris. They divorced in 1982. As of this writing, they’re both alive at the age of 89. Fred was elected to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma in 1964, the year of the LBJ landslide and the last year a Democratic presidential candidate carried Oklahoma. He was an active member of the Democratic majority that implemented the Great Society legislation, and he was part of the Kerner Commission, officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commissioned to investigate the causes of the rioting and urban unrest that swept the country in 1967. The report was issued in 1968. Harris is the last surviving member of the commission. Arlo Guthrie did a 30-stop fundraising tour for the Harris campaign. According to a 2001 story, the campaign gave Arlo the wheels to travel in. He paid off the lease when the campaign ended and the Guthrie family spent years on the road in that bus.

[2] I’d also forgotten that Tom Paxton, well on the way to being a folkie legend, was the opening act. Both his set list and Arlo’s can be found online, and a couple dozen attendees seem to have made bootleg tapes of the show.

[3] However, the first — and until January 2017 the only — political party I ever belonged to was the D.C. Statehood Party, which I signed up for when I first registered to vote as a Georgetown University freshman. In those days the only municipal office D.C. residents could vote for was school committee. Electoral politics were only a big deal in presidential election years. Statehood for D.C. Now!