Jan Marie Du Bois: Feminist, Artist, Friend – Part I

Jan’s Hypatia tapestry

Jan Du Bois and I first met early in 1977. She was living in Berkeley, working as a bookkeeper but most passionate about her art, which was French tapestry.

In October 1974 I joined the Oakland Women’s Press Collective (WPC). In those days we laboriously typeset copy, printed the books on dinky little offset presses, collated by hand, and stapled the books together. Since the WPC didn’t take side jobs to support its main work, it was always in need of cash. In early 1977 a couple of the other WPC members, exhausted from years of poverty, decided to merge with a new umbrella organization called the Feminist Economic Network (FEN). Instead of a collective, the WPC would become a corporation, with certain people becoming the bosses and others the workers. I was dubious about the proposed merger and discussed it with friends. One of them sent me to talk to Jan.

Jan had been the bookkeeper for the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center, whose directors were spearheading the WPC/FEN merger. She said she had quit working for them because their business methods were unethical (I have written about this elsewhere) and she didn’t want her reputation tarnished by association with them. The WPC broke up over the merger issue, and the women’s movement was rocked by controversy over FEN. Some of us didn’t talk to each other for years.

But Jan and I were fast friends from that day on. I would visit and watch her while she wove her tapestries. We talked about art and politics. She was passionate about Emily Dickinson and could recite favorite poems by heart. She still can, decades later.

During those years, Jan wove one of the place setting runners for Judy Chicago’s art installation, The Dinner Party. [link to https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home ] Jan’s place setting represented Hypatia, a pagan mathematician and astronomer in Alexandria. In 415 AD radical Christian monks murdered her. They tore her limbs off, mutilated her body, and burned it. Some years later, her writings were burned, along with thousands of others in the great library of Alexandria. Jan has sold tapestries to private individuals (wish I could afford one!), but Hypatia is where she received the public recognition that mattered so much to her—as it does to any artist. You can see her work at the Brooklyn Museum, along with the rest of The Dinner Party.

Early in 1979 I became lovers with Ruth, an Israeli woman, and co-parent to her three small children. Jan supported that relationship. She opined that too many young feminists she knew were Peter Pans—they never wanted to grow up—and that raising children would mature me. Ruth broke up with me in 1982 and took the children to Israel. I was heartbroken, even more over the loss of the children than of their mother, as our relationship had been going downhill for some time. “You can always come visit them,” Ruth said, as though she was just moving to the next county. I spent four days in bed sobbing. Then I started saving the air fare. By the following spring I was ready to go. School would be out soon and I’d have the summer off. Then, however, I learned that Ruth was already involved with someone else. I visited Jan.

“What am I going to do?” I wept. “I don’t think I can stand to see Ruth with another woman.”

“Martha, it would be the most masochistic thing in the world for you to go to Israel now. The children can wait. You’ve got the money, you’ve got the time off. Isn’t there anyplace else the world you’d like to see?” Jan was an experienced traveler. A stream of mental music ran through my head. Aloha Oe…Bali Hai…a tropical island…Hawaii? Fiji? Bali? Where the heck is Bali anyway? Research ensued. Next came obtaining a passport, vaccinations, malaria pills, guidebooks, and a slim phrasebook of Indonesian for tourists. And then Jan drove me to the airport.

“Don’t leave me here, Jan! I’m scared!”

“You’ll be just fine,” she replied, making a little shoving motion toward the gate.

I had the adventure of my life.

To be continued…

One Response to Jan Marie Du Bois: Feminist, Artist, Friend – Part I

  1. Dennis Siple December 9, 2019 at 10:54 am #

    I can’t wait for the continuation of this story, Martha.

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