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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Responses to this shirt, and to the slogan on it, range from “Yes!” to puzzled to “What a terrible thing to say!”
True, without context, it does sound right out of the Pat Robertson quote book. He’s the white televangelist who very famously said that “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
To which my stock response has long been “I never had a husband to leave, ‘kill your children’ is total BS, and the last three are fine with me.”
Need I say that many feminists don’t practice witchcraft, oppose capitalism, or become lesbians, but over the decades the feminist movement has encouraged women to explore and develop religious traditions that don’t put men first; pay closer attention to how current economic systems support patriarchy and white supremacy (and vice versa); and come out and/or become more visible as lesbians.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class-and-up leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other mainstream feminist organizations didn’t want to hear it. Opponents were accusing them of being man-haters, socialists, atheists, and dykes, among other things.[i] Straight feminists, led by Betty Friedan, in their efforts to persuade the general public otherwise, threw lesbians under the bus and called us the “lavender menace.” To them we were, at best, a fifth column within the women’s movement. At times it seemed they had a hard time acknowledging that lesbians were women.
Radical feminists and lesbians from NOW, the Gay Liberation Front, and other groups rose to the occasion. Calling themselves the Lavender Menace,[ii] in May 1970 they disrupted the NOW-sponsored Second Congress to Unite Women, which despite its name had excluded all lesbian-related items from the agenda, by appearing in matching LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts and passing out copies of “The Woman-Identified Woman.” This manifesto/essay is now widely acknowledged to be a key document in U.S. feminist and lesbian history.
So in 1977 I came out into a community that was well aware of that history, many of whose members had played major and minor roles in making it. Before long I was learning and embracing it, partly by osmosis and partly by reading. My copy of Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young (1972),[iii] has my name and “August ’77” written on the title page. It includes “The Woman-Identified Woman” and also Radicalesbians’ 1970 essay “Leaving the Gay Men Behind,” which over the next few years I came to agree with 100%. The latter, by the way, includes the line, in all caps, “WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS A LESBIAN PLOT.”
To me in the late 1970s — and, come to think of it, in 2021 — this made good sense: who has more to gain from women’s economic, legal, and political equality than women who are less likely to benefit from the cultural assumption that heads of household (etc.) are, and should continue to be, male? When I said that women’s liberation is a lesbian plot, it was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, because “plot” suggests something sneaky and clandestine. From the Lavender Menace action onward, we were not.
The T-shirt, however, says “Feminism is a lesbian plot” because “Women’s liberation” was too long to fit without a weird line break. The two aren’t quite synonymous, but for they’re close enough. The shirt — which is unique, and the only tie-dye in my collection — was made for me by a D.C. housemate, the endlessly creative Beverly.
Beverly was pursuing her master’s in African studies at Howard and working for a Catholic women’s organization. She played the mandolin, favored long colorful skirts when most of us dressed urban dyke casual when we weren’t at work, and was handy with tools. She rescued a small table from a Mount Pleasant alley, installed dowels between its legs to stabilize it, and gave it to me. It’s the perfect height for kneading bread on, I’ve still got it, and that’s what I use it for.[iv] Beverly also created the “I’d rather be reading Adrienne Rich” sticker that’s on one of my old file cabinets.
She managed to procure one of the “Someone in Your Life Is Gay” posters that were then appearing on D.C. buses. She stuck it up on a wall in our second-floor hallway, and we surrounded it with news photos depicting male public figures embracing, holding hands, or kissing each other. (The Gay Activists Alliance had to go to court to get WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, to accept advertising featuring the poster.)
We were feeling our way toward what it meant to be a woman in a world where “woman” was defined entirely in terms of, and in relation to, “man.” Hence the importance of language: the recognition that “mankind” really did not include us, masculine pronouns were not inclusive, and lesbians really had to be not only included but recognized and acknowledged in the National Organization for Women. We were discovering and inventing all the “ways a woman can be,” as singer-songwriter Teresa Trull sang it. This took, and still takes, plenty of practice, and the practice has to happen in the midst of unrelenting hostility and suspicion and confusion.
Individual lesbians are far more visible in “the mainstream” (some sections of it anyway), and often more readily identifiable in our local communities, than they/we were four decades ago, but lesbian culture and politics are harder to find. In large part I attribute this to the dearth of women-only and lesbian-friendly spaces, including bookstores, music festivals, and publications. Not coincidentally, in the popular mind “lesbian” seems to have become an either/or proposition: either you are or you aren’t, and it’s almost entirely about sex.
So it’s invigorating to go back to the writings that shaped my worldview in the 1970s and 1980s, like “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Now as then its first answer to the question “What is a lesbian?” — “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” — strikes me as, well, hyperbolic. What follows, however, is golden: “She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society — perhaps then but certainly later — cares to allow her.”
The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it’s the question
of male domination that makes everybody
The great lesbian singer-songwriter-activist Alix Dobkin died earlier this month, on May 19, three weeks after being stricken with a ruptured brain aneurysm and stroke. In those three weeks, a mostly lesbian, virtually all-women vigil sprang into existence on the CaringBridge website. Across decades and generations, we shared our memories of Alix and how her music had saved and challenged and changed us. I’ve never stopped playing Alix’s music, but during those three weeks I played it almost nonstop.
So I’m closing this post with something she wrote in the liner notes for her 1992 retrospective CD, Love & Politics: A 30-Year Saga, about a line in her song “View from Gay Head” (yeah, it was written in that Gay Head, now Aquinnah). When she sang “Any woman can be a lesbian,” some took it to mean that every woman should be a lesbian. To which she wrote: “All I really meant was that every woman has some capacity for deep self-love and primary love for women, which is what being a Lesbian meant to me then and means to me now.”
What she said. Blessed be, Alix.
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[i] In the popular mind these are still commonly conflated, and a few decades ago the conflation was epidemic. I could go on about how erroneous this is, but instead I’ll offer a counter-suggestion: that what angers, terrifies, and/or confuses many men, women, and patriarchal society in general isn’t that lesbians hate men but that we manage to do pretty well without their approval and support.
[ii] The Lavender Menace action is covered in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a crucial documentary about the early “second wave” of U.S. feminism, 1966 to 1971. It’s available for home viewing on DVD (check your library), and at the moment you can find it on YouTube.
[iii] New York University Press published a 20th anniversary edition of Out of the Closets in 1992, with a new introduction by the editors and a foreword by historian John D’Emilio. Still in print, it remains a wonderful intro to the lesbian and gay ferment going on in the late 1960s and very early ’70s — and a reminder that many of these issues are still with us.
[iv] Beverly also gave me the big beige-and-brown McCoy bowl that I’m still using to mix and raise dough in. Another housemate gave me Beard on Bread, which I’ve used so often that it’s now held together with strapping tape. Over the years, housemates, neighbors, and friends have come up with many ways to encourage my bread-baking habit.
If my T-shirts have anything to say about it, 1979 was the year of the nukes and, not surprisingly, the anti-nukes. The environmental movement wasn’t a priority with me; in fact, in the 1970s and into the following decade, I was more than a little suspicious of it. From Earth Day 1970 forward, it looked like a movement of mostly white middle-class people who got queasy if you talked too much about sex, race, or class. I’m glad to say that it’s become a lot more intersectional since then.
There was a strong environmental current within feminism, however, evidenced by works like Susan Griffin’s landmark Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her and Andrée Collard’s The Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth. The identification, even equation, of women with nature, nature with women, was and continues to be problematic: patriarchal thinking has long associated women with nature, and not in ways that acknowledged their power. Men were rational; women and nature were not. Women, like nature, so the thinking went, were there for men’s benefit.
To embrace the connection was to risk being deemed an “essentialist” — believing that women had some essential, innate nature that distinguished us from men. However, one needn’t be an essentialist to wonder if men with fame, glory, and/or profits on their minds are capable of imagining the possible consequences of their actions. Their shortcomings in this regard are nowhere more evident than in their treatment of the environment.
I recently learned from Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout that in 1969 — almost a full decade before Three Mile Island — the Austral Oil Company partnered with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to use a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb to gain access to vast natural gas deposits under Rulison, Colorado. This bomb was “nearly three times the power of the bomb that incinerated the interior of Hiroshima and killed nearly half of its 300,000 residents.” The bomb did the trick, but fortunately the technology did not prove cost-effective for commercial fracking. It also made the natural gas “mildly radioactive,” according to officials.
It’s also worth noting that in 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one realized how devastating, long-lasting, and lethal radiation poisoning would be. In 1969 this was very well known.
So almost 10 years after Austral and the AEC tried to frack with nukes in Colorado, at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a cooling malfunction caused part of the core of reactor #2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to melt down. It destroyed the reactor and released some radioactive gases into the atmosphere. At the time no one knew how much damage had been done either to the environment or to the people who worked in or lived close to the plant. Worst-case scenarios were on everyone’s mind.
The political, social, and psychological damage was huge. An immediate consequence was a massive march on Washington on May 6. That’s where I got the NO MORE HARRISBURGS! T-shirt. I don’t know how I came by the staff shirt, because I wasn’t a peacekeeper or otherwise officially involved with that particular action, which drew, according to this May 7, 1979, Washington Post story, “a vast crowd of at least 65,000 protesters reminiscent of antiwar throngs of a decade ago.” I think the ordinary march shirt was blue, with a similar design. The same WaPo story suggests that solar and wind power were on many people’s minds. It reports that in her speech physician and anti-nuke activist Dr. Helen Caldicott said: “I call on President Carter to pass a law requiring every new house to be built with solar energy.”
My younger sister, Ellen, who was living in D.C. at the time, was seriously involved in the anti-nuke movement. She and other members of her affinity group, the Spiderworts, were arrested for demonstrating at the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear power plant on June 3, 1979. As Ellen wrote in a letter from jail dated July 22 and published in the August/September issue of off our backs:
“At our July 17 trial, 109 of us were found guilty and given 30 days and $100 fine, of which the jail time and $50 were suspended on a one year probation. Ten of us immediately placed ourselves in jail, because of our moral opposition to paying fines.”
Why “Spiderworts”? According to a April 25, 1979, story in the New York Times, “a common, roadside wildflower” known to be sensitive to pesticides, auto exhaust, and sulfur dioxide, “could also be an ultra‐sensitive monitor of ionizing radiation.” A Japanese scientist had found that “in certain artificially raised or cloned species of the plant, cells of hairs on the pollen‐bearing stamens mutate from blue to pink when exposed to as little as 150 millirems of radiation. Radioactive isotopes sometimes emitted by nuclear activities give off radiation at about that level.” When it comes to radiation, then, spiderworts can be likened to canaries in coal mines.
My group house sent at least one care package to our cohorts in jail. Beverly, one of my housemates and a chronic instigator, was almost certainly the one who organized the effort.
So that’s how I came by this Spiderworts tank top. I have very few tanks in my wardrobe, and apart from this one they’re all recent. Being big-boobed and physically active, I was never tempted to go braless in public, and with tank tops bra straps were forever slipping into view. Many, many years later bras started coming in colors, with straps that didn’t look so much like underwear. My happy medium back in the day was “muscle shirts,” which left your arms bare but concealed your bra straps. These were big in the 1980s and I have a bunch, but I don’t see them around much these days.
Coincidentally, my sister and I were both arrested at the age of 19 for political protests — eight years apart. On May 5, 1971, toward the end of the Mayday demonstrations against the Vietnam War, I got busted for sitting on the Capitol steps along with 1,200 others, even though we were sitting on the steps at the invitation of four members of Congress: Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, Parren Mitchell, and Charles Rangel. I spent barely 48 hours in detention — and most of those hours were spent not in a jail but in the D.C. Coliseum along with hundreds of my fellow arrestees. I was one of the plaintiffs in Dellums v Powell, so almost 10 years later, thanks to the four representatives and the persistence of the ACLU, I received a $2,000 settlement for violation of my civil liberties.
Singer-songwriter-activist Holly Near was “On Tour for a Nuclear-Free Future” in the fall of that year, 1979, but this T-shirt is from the Boston performance. I definitely wasn’t there, but I was back and forth between DC and Boston two or three times a year and might have picked up the shirt at New Words Bookstore in Cambridge. D.C.-based Roadwork produced the tour, so I’m guessing the tour stopped in Washington. If it did, I would have been there.
It would not have been the first time I heard Holly live: that, I’m pretty sure, was at D.C.’s Gay Pride Day when it was still a block party on 20th Street NW between R and S, near where Lambda Rising bookstore was then located — maybe in 1978 or ’79? She toured with Weavers alumna Ronnie Gilbert in 1984; I saw them at George Washington U., and the Lifeline album that resulted has never been far from my active playlist, first on LP and eventually on CD.
During the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, I got to hear Holly live on Martha’s Vineyard, at the Old Whaling Church. It was one of the rare times where my past and present crossed paths, and it’s no surprise that Holly was at the intersection. She has long been as well known in liberal and progressive circles as she is among feminists. I’m still quoting, or paraphrasing, something she said at that concert: that she didn’t expect perfection in any candidate for elective office, so she voted for the one she thought she could “struggle with.”
Totally unrelated to nukes and anti-nukes, the first national march for lesbian and gay rights took place on October 14, 1979. You bet my friends and I were among the estimated 100,000 marchers, but if there was a march T-shirt, I missed it. I do have one from the second march, in 1987; we’ll get there eventually. My strongest memory from that day is passing by the high wrought-iron fence at the south end of the White House grounds chanting “Two, four, six, eight, how do you know that Amy’s straight?” Amy Carter, the first daughter, was 12 years old at the time.
 Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth (Crown, 2019), chapter 2, “The Genie”
 With four decades’ worth of hindsight, it seems that the quantifiable damage done outside the plant was minimal.
 Note that the ERA march that took place less than a year before drew more than 100,000. One can’t help wondering if the Post reporter noticed, but maybe it’s just that the majority-female throng in July 1978 looked less like the antiwar marches of yesteryear.
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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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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.”
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.
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. 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).
 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.
 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 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.
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. 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. 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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 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.
 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.
 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!