Stepping back a bit in time here: This is from the Washington Hospital Center nurses’ strike in May–June 1978. I’ve got several shirts from events, causes, and groups that I was at most peripherally involved in, and this is one of them. The strike went on for 31 days, so I might have joined the picket line once or twice, though this seems unlikely: I didn’t have a car and I did have a 9-to-5 job. I might have known someone who worked there, or I might just have wanted to support the strikers by wearing the shirt. In the women’s community we showed up for each other’s rallies, events, picket lines, meetings — if it involved women fighting for justice, we helped pass the word and mobilize support.
A Washington Post story from May 27, 1978, led with this: “The Washington Hospital Center has more than quadrupled its security force in the face of a threatened strike by registered nurses called for this morning.” It quoted the president of the nurses’ union expressing outrage that “the Washington Hospital Center has seen fit to hire 93 additional guards. The Hospital Center’s vicious attempt to intimidate and divide us should be protested by all responsible citizens.”
Sound familiar? Keep in mind that this was two and a half years before the union-busting Reagan administration took office. When I revisit press clips from the late 1970s, it often feels that the ensuing four decades somehow wound up on the cutting-room floor. This is especially striking (sorry!) when it comes to the environmental movement. We knew all this stuff by 1979 but the economic and political powers that be did precious little about it. (See my blog post on the subject: “1979: Three Mile Island, etc.“)
This Flickr site includes a photo of picketing nurses on the first day of the strike, and a good account of the issues involved, starting with this:
The strike by about 300 of the 425 registered nurses by the District of Columbia Nurses Association (DCNA) at the area’s largest private hospital was mainly over schedules and performance evaluations, but also involving benefits and wages.
Prior to the strike, the hospital administration attempted to decertify the union, filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board challenging its representation of the nurses.
The independent nurses union was only a little over a year old at the time having been certified in December 1976 and obtaining a first contract in May 1977.
When striking nurses attempted to go into the pool at other hospitals, they found that the Hospital Center administration had sought to blackball them. While initially getting hours at Howard Hospital, that administration banned them during the strike.
The strike ended on June 26, when the nurses accepted WHC’s final offer. The results were mixed. The Flickr article notes, “Perhaps the biggest gain of the strike was the nurses preserved their union.”
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Note: My previous T-shirt posts have tended long, so I’ve been aiming to post just once a week, on Mondays. Not all my Ts are part of a long(ish) story, however — or, like this one, they’re the precursors of a story that will be elaborated on later. So, starting now, I’m going to occasionally post shorter tales mid-week, on Fridays. We’ll see how it goes!
Considering what an important role women’s fantasy & science fiction (f/sf) came to play in my life, I’m a little surprised that I can’t pinpoint what got me started in earnest. It almost certainly happened in the late 1970s, after I moved back to D.C., immersed myself in the grassroots women’s community, and came out as a lesbian.
On the other hand, only a handful of my new communitarians were avid f/sf readers. Most of the rest considered it a guy thing. They had good reason. Much later I heard the once-witty (maybe) cliché that “the Golden Age of science fiction is 14.” It didn’t have to be said that it was also male.
I’d been an avid reader from an early age, but I leaned toward nonfiction. My fiction reading through high school was mostly mysteries and political thrillers: Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and A Shade of Difference; Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May, Night of Camp David, and The ZinZin Road; and anything about nuclear apocalypse, such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.
Yes, indeed: it’s not hard to see how the latter two titles might be considered f/sf, or at least proto. As a schoolkid I was very, very big into superhero comic books: Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Justice League of America. I did like Wonder Woman, though her costumes were embarrassing: did any of the male superheroes run around in such scanty clothing? In college I got lost in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read Frank Herbert’s Dune and was especially impressed by his use of Arabic and derived-from-Arabic names.
But f/sf didn’t become a passion till, in the late ’70s, I realized that much of the best new women’s writing around was fantasy and/or science fiction. I don’t even remember where I started, maybe Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or Joanna Russ’s Female Man (1975)?
I found Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines (1978) at Moonstone Bookcellars, the one on Pennsylvania Ave. NW near Washington Circle (and George Washington University — there was another one in far Northwest, Friendship Heights or somewhere, but I don’t think I ever went to that one), and almost certainly read it before its predecessor, Walk to the End of the World (1974). Wow! A world of all women — and horses too!
Joan Nestle, of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, was a huge science fiction fan, and the LHA already had an impressive collection of feminist f/sf zines and books. She pointed me in promising directions toward treasures like Amanda Bankier’s zine The Witch and the Chameleon (1974–76), and the furious controversy that had followed the publication of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover Landfall in 1972. From her I learned that MZB had written several lesbian pulp novels under various pseudonyms and that she had played a key role in collecting the bibliographical information that went into Barbara Grier’s path-breaking bibliography The Lesbian in Literature.
Moonstone, whence this T-shirt comes, was a compact shop below sidewalk level, crammed with floor-to-ceiling shelves of fantasy and science fiction, nearly all of which came in mass-market paperback. Anything with a woman’s name on the spine I’d take off the shelf, peruse, and often buy.
Moonstone did not carry Sally Gearhart’s pioneering The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (Persephone Press, 1978), which quickly became a lesbian and feminist classic. The primary problem was the format, not the content. Like virtually all feminist-press books it was published in trade paperback — and trade paperbacks didn’t fit on mass-market shelves.
Using the name of the D.C. Hags, which had brought Mary Daly to D.C. in March 1979, I took the lead in producing a reading and talk by Sally in November of that year. My interview with her appeared in the January 1980 off our backs.
I’ll have plenty to say about women’s f/sf later (will I ever!), but I’m pretty sure my obsession started here, in the late 1970s, and that the Moonstone Bookcellar near Washington Circle did plenty to encourage it.
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Here’s how I remembered it: The D.C. stop on Cris Williamson’s Flying Colors tour, at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, was my first women’s music concert. The year was 1978. I’d attended with a friend from my Georgetown University days, and our seats were way, way back in the orchestra. The stage seemed miles away. Though I loved Cris’s first album, The Changer and the Changed, I was underwhelmed by her live performance.
Nope. Strange Paradise, the album the Flying Colors tour was celebrating, may indeed have come out in 1978, but the tour itself didn’t happen till 1980: this Washington Post article from May 2, 1980, proves it. The location was indeed Constitution Hall, and images of both the hall itself and a seating chart confirm my memory that the orchestra section is flat and very long: if you’re back in the double-letter rows, the stage would indeed seem very distant. The date must have been Saturday, May 3, 1980.
Get a grip, Memory: No way could this have been my first women’s music concert. When the Varied Voices of Black Women tour stopped at D.C.’s Ontario Theater in 1978, I was most definitely in the audience — and the Pacifica Radio Archives backs me up on the date with a catalogue entry for a recording from the last stop on that tour (at Medusa’s Revenge in New York City) on November 7, 1978. I remember being especially riveted by blueswoman Gwen Avery, with her big voice and white suit. Ironically, she’s the only one of the headliners I don’t have on vinyl (except on the Lesbian Concentrate album, singing “Sugar Mama”) or, in the case of poet-activist Pat Parker, in print. (The other featured musicians were singer-composer Vicki Randle, pianist-composer Mary Watkins, and singer-percussionist-ensemble leader Linda “Tui” Tillery.)
I’m not a musician, but from the mid-1960s onward my life has had an amazing soundtrack. The music helped bind my various communities together. You know you’re part of the same community when you know the lyrics to the same songs and see each other at the same concerts. At the end of Women’s Center dances, we’d form a circle (often with the cashbox in the middle for safekeeping) and sing Cris’s “Song of the Soul.” We all knew all the words.
Since I was moving in at least two worlds at once, quite a few people protested: “Aren’t you limiting yourself, listening only to women?”
I pushed back: “Well, OK, but not so long ago my musical diet was mostly folk, mostly by men, with some classical, mostly Western European. Listening mostly to women expanded my musical world to include blues, jazz, and Balkan women’s singing, among other things. I learned about women who were conducting orchestras and other ensembles, not just playing in them; leading bands, not just fronting them. If women were doing it, I wanted to hear it.”
In truth, focusing on any particular genre, or tradition, or artist, or instrument, or time period, limits a person even while that person becomes adept in his or her particular specialty. If you go so deep into your specialty that everything else vanishes vanishes off the radar, you also limit the number of people who understand what you’re talking about.
Focusing on women in music — or women in anything — meant shifting the angle, changing the lens through which I viewed familiar terrain. Once I put women in the foreground, the male-dominated landscape didn’t disappear, but it did recede into the background.
For those accustomed to being in the foreground, I learned, this could be infuriating. Organize for women’s rights and you’re accused of hating men. If you call out white supremacy, you must be anti-white — even if you are white, in which case you’re a traitor to your race. And of course anyone who claims rights for the marginalized is guilty of “reverse discrimination.”
I’ve known for decades that, contrary to the claims of the over-optimistic, we don’t all benefit from the struggle for justice and equal rights, at least not immediately. In the long run we’ll probably all be better off, but in the shorter run the privileged often think they’re under attack and losing out. They fight back. I’ve lived almost my whole life in an era of backlash against the struggle for justice and equal rights for people of color and for women. Women’s music helped create and expand a space where we didn’t have to be on the defensive all the time. It also introduced me to musical styles I either hadn’t known much about or had dismissed as being just for and about guys.
There will be plenty more about women’s music before this blog has run its course. Right this minute, though, something strange is happening. In recent years, thanks especially to Facebook, I’ve been reconnecting with women from my D.C. days, women who remember many of the same songs, musicians, places, and events that I do. This is especially important because for the last 35+ years I’ve been living among people the vast majority of whom have no recollection of any of it, and of course as the years go by more and more of it gets lost. Sometimes I feel like the sole survivor of Atlantis, unable to convince anyone that my homeland ever existed.
Then, in October 2020, Aunt Lute Books published Ginny Z Berson’s Olivia on the Record, the story of Olivia Records, women’s music pioneer and the label for Cris Williamson’s Changer and the Changed and several subsequent albums. I learned about it early enough to attend the book-launch party — my first Zoom book party! — at which Ginny and others spoke and Mary Watkins played.
Olivia had been founded in D.C. while I was a student in Philadelphia. By the time I moved back to town, in 1977, it had relocated to the West Coast. Before she co-founded Olivia, Ginny Berson was a member of the legendary lesbian-feminist Furies collective, which flourished in D.C. when I was a Georgetown University student majoring in Arabic and minoring in antiwar activism (or vice versa). It was at that book-launch party that I learned about Once a Fury, a brand-new documentary about the Furies (which I’ve since had a chance to see).
In the early 1970s I was mostly oblivious to the lesbian-feminist ferment happening elsewhere in the city, but once I moved back, the Furies, like Olivia Records, was part of my new community’s recent history. Before long, I had crossed paths with several former Furies (not, however, the collective’s most famous alumna, Rita Mae Brown) and held in my own hands copies of their newspaper at the Washington Area Women’s Center.
Clearly I’m not the sole survivor of Atlantis. Atlantis hasn’t sunk beneath the waves. My T-shirts are leading me back to what’s gone on in my absence, and what’s happening now. I just bought Cris Williamson’s latest CD, Motherland.The Furies newspaper has been digitized and is available online through the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at Duke University.
I’m currently reading Jamie Anderson’s An Army of Lovers: Women’s Music of the ’70s and ’80s, published by Bella Books in 2019. It’s more than a glorious reference work of who was making music then and where are they now, encompassing not just the musicians onstage but the sound techs, concert and festival producers, distributors, booksellers, the women behind our record labels and publications, and others who were behind the scenes making it happen. It also discusses the myriad challenges that all of us tried to address, with decidedly mixed results: racism, classism, anti-Semitism, and the often wildly unrealistic expectations we had of others and often of ourselves.
After living more than two decades with a considerable collection of LPs and nothing to play them on, this winter I bought a handsome machine that not only plays LPs, cassettes, and CDs, it can also record LPs and cassettes onto CDs. Much of the music released by major labels made it onto CD and/or MP3; plenty of it can even be found on YouTube. The same goes for some of the best-known musicians who recorded for feminist and other indie labels, such as Cris Williamson and Holly Near.
But others have disappeared leaving few if any traces. The first albums I recorded onto CD were three by Willie Tyson: Full Count, Debutante, and the self-titled Willie Tyson.
I didn’t expect my personal past to be sending such vivid shoots into my present world, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.
 At least that’s what Cris Williamson’s website says. The chronology in the back of Olivia on the Record says 1980, as do Wikipedia and the MP3 I downloaded from iTunes. No wonder my memory is so screwed up.
 Note the parenthetical in the Washington Post story: “(What’s notable about this roadshow is that it’s coordinated by a nonprofit group organized expressly to put women on tour.)” That “nonprofit group” was almost certainly Roadwork, co-founded by Amy Horowitz and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Stick with this blog and you’ll hear more about them too.
 Please don’t tell me she was wearing some other color.
The July 9, 1978, march to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was the “largest march for women’s rights in the nation’s history” up to that time. Organizers, led by NOW (the National Organization for Women), were overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large turnout, and the march stepped off an hour and a half late. On short notice, owing to the huge crowd, the police had to close off all of Constitution Avenue, instead of just the anticipated half.
Of course I went. Everyone I knew went. For those of us in the D.C. area, rallies and demonstrations were easy to get to, and get to them we did. We’d often have out-of-towners crashing on our couches and floors. It wasn’t till the Second National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, 1987, two years after I’d moved to Martha’s Vineyard, that I actually had to travel to a demo. (Yes, I have the T-shirt, and don’t worry, we’ll get to it eventually.) Massive demonstrations were old hat to me. I had to be reminded how life-changing they could be for first-timers — as indeed the November 1969 March on Washington to End the War had been for me.
The colors of the women’s suffrage movement, gold, white, and violet (the initial letters of which, I’ve been told, signified “Give Women the Vote”), were much in evidence, on signs and banners as well as the T-shirt. Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party and a key organizer in the early 20th century suffrage movement, had died exactly one year before, on July 9, 1977. By bringing the militant tactics of the British suffrage movement to the U.S. she had helped revitalize and expand a flagging movement.
The British movement’s colo(u)rs were, by the way, purple, white, and green. For more about the suffragist colors, see this article. It doesn’t mention the “Give Women the Vote” connection, which may have well have been invented post facto by someone who preferred violet to purple.
After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Alice Paul’s focus turned to securing legal equality for women through the ERA, which she drafted with Crystal Eastman (who was, among other things, a co-founder both of the Congressional Union, forerunner of the National Woman’s Party, and of the ACLU) and first introduced in Congress in 1923. It was widely known then as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, after the pioneering abolitionist and suffragist leader. The original ERA was rewritten in 1943 and has since been widely known as the Alice Paul Amendment. The text: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
It’s so unassuming, so self-evident and logical, that it’s hard to credit how revolutionary it remains. Forty-two years after that march, the ERA still hasn’t passed. For a brief history of the ERA, and where it stands now, here’s some background and some FAQs.
I didn’t get this T-shirt at the march, however. It was given to me by my boss at the time, Betty O., director of the Office of Personnel Training and Development (OPTD, aka “the training office”) at Red Cross national headquarters. That’s part of the story too.
As a job-hunting fledgling clerical, I’d been terrified by my glimpse of the typing pool at a big Boston insurance company. Oddly enough, my first permanent assignment at the Red Cross was in the Insurance Office. Here nine employees were crammed into a drab office, most of whose floor space was devoted to file cabinets. At one end the clerks spent most of the day following up on and filing insurance claims of all sorts: worker’s comp, unemployment, motor vehicle, medical, and so on. The other end was occupied by the three professional staff and the two secretaries, the junior of whom was me. I worked for the assistant director, a nice guy who wasn’t all that bright, and the insurance specialist, a woman who was very bright and not nice at all, quite possibly because her two superiors were nowhere near as competent as she was.
The big challenge of this job was boredom. I generally finished my typing and filing in barely half the time allotted, which gave me plenty of time to do Women’s Center work. Like most bright kids, in school I’d developed a facility for what wasn’t yet called multi-tasking: I could do math homework in English class and still have the right answer when the English teacher called on me unexpectedly. Gradually this skill carried over into my non-work life, and not in a good way, like I’d be drafting a book review in my head while in a Women’s Center collective meeting and devoting full attention to neither one.
Gossip among Red Cross clericals had it that the Office of Personnel Training and Development was a good place to work, so when an opening for staff assistant (a clerical position one step up from secretary) appeared on the internal help wanted list, I applied and was hired. I had only a vague idea of what they did there, but this was a good move. Elizabeth Olson, known to all as Betty O., the training director, was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. Born in 1914, she’d joined the Red Cross in 1943 and risen through the ranks, a woman who remained committed to her work and her career even as the postwar tide was herding women of her class and color into the home.
The training office developed and implemented internal training courses for a nationwide organization with four regional offices and myriad chapters, some large and others very small. These ranged from time management to effective supervision to training staffers to teach the various courses. It turned out to be interesting stuff. I had a long-running argument with one of the two assistant directors about the term “human resources,” which was replacing “personnel” in the business world at that time. He embraced it; I hated it, maintaining that it reduced people to the status of widgets.
We were a small staff: director, two assistant directors, two staff assistants, and one secretary. At this time, many educated women were concealing their ability to type in the belief, often well founded, that if they let superiors and colleagues know they could type, they would wind up doing nothing else. Betty O. could type, but she didn’t conceal that fact because she realized that if she did some of her own clerical work, the clerical staff would be free to take on more non-clerical tasks and contribute to the mission of the office. And we did.
Thom Higgins quickly became my best Red Cross buddy. He was the senior staff assistant, a Vietnam vet a few years older than I. We quickly established that he was gay and I was a lesbian. Personal experience was already teaching me that gay men and lesbians were not natural allies: many of the gay men I ran into were unwilling to consider the possibility that they were sexist as hell, which they were. Thom wasn’t, something he attributed to the fact that he had six sisters and no brothers.
We became the core of a free-floating group that met at the rooftop lounge of the Hotel Washington most Fridays after work to “process the week.” The group included Bruce Bant, an ex of Thom’s with whom he was still close friends, and Charles H., Thom’s current, who was an aide of some sort to some Republican congressman and who could have stepped out of an ad in GQ. Bruce, like Thom, was a Vietnam vet — they’d met in Vietnam, if I remember correctly — but unlike Thom he was career military. He’d recently retired as a sergeant major, having edited Soldiers, the enlisted service members’ magazine, and was now involved in the beginnings of what became USA Today.
I was the radical lesbian anti-militarist feminist in the group. We razzed each other endlessly about politics and the military but were always friendly about it. Although we were in Washington, the belly of the political beast, politics seemed a long way off. One Friday afternoon Bruce produced a Soldiers T-shirt and said he’d give it to me only if I promised to wear it. I promised, and I did, more than once.
Ever since starting the T-Shirt Chronicles, my favorite procrastination research technique has been looking up people, places, and events that my story touches on in some way. Thom died of AIDS in 1988 — I’ve got a story about that, and he comes up again before I learn of his passing — but I had no idea whether Bruce was still on the planet or not. A quick Google search found a LinkedIn entry that had to be him. He was living in Florida. Should I contact him? He probably had no recollection of me, but he might be able to place me if I mentioned the Soldiers T-shirt, the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Washington, and Thom.
Just now I went looking again. His LinkedIn page is still up, as is a Facebook timeline with an entry from February 2020, but near the top of the Google hits was the news that Bruce died in Fort Lauderdale on September 27, 2020. Also among the top hits was a guest column from the March 21, 2010, South Florida Gay News, entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Has Been a Complete Failure.” The byline is Bruce Bant, Retired Army Sergeant Major. It’s him for absolute sure. I’m sorry I missed you, Bruce.
 The term itself dated back at least to the early 20th century, but it does seem that it was a hot topic in the 1970s. My tenure in the training office was 1978–79, so it seems plausible that it was a contested term at ARC NHQ at that time.
 Now, as far as I can tell, the W Washington, on 15th Street N.W. near Pennsylvania Ave.
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