Time is getting short for Second Wave feminists. Some of those who became famous wrote memoirs; others have been written up in the histories of the period. But the women’s movement was not just a few famous names. Millions contributed, each according to her abilities. One of these was my friend Jan. I want to celebrate her while she is still with us. I recently wrote a blog post about how we met, and how she encouraged me on a great adventure. Now I’ll tell you some of what I know about her early life, and then bring the story up to the present.
Jan was born in 1947, the youngest of three. Her parents had been members of the Communist Party and were blacklisted during the McCarthy years. Her father had been a union organizer—one of the main targets of the witch hunters—but now he couldn’t find work except as a laborer. The family struggled economically, living at first in a small trailer in Southern California, and later moving to a cottage where they could keep chickens in the back yard.
Jan’s father was sometimes abusive, but her mother protected her. Although legally blind and deaf, Mom could walk long distances. She would take Jan on a seven mile hike down into the valley to the nearest library. From there she’d get a friend to drive them home.
Both Dad and Jan’s older brother sexually abused her. Jan left home when she began high school, moving into the homes of school friends. Altogether she lived with six different families. Why did they take her in? I can only think it was because she was bright, good natured, energetic, and generous—just as she is now. She did her best to get along, adjusting to the customs of each household. One friend’s mother taught her bookkeeping, a skill she would use for the rest of her working life.
Her mother’s long walks to the library also paid off for Jan: She got a full scholarship to U.C. Berkeley. There she met Judy Chicago, who later invited her to collaborate on The Dinner Party. In Berkeley Jan also met weavers who taught her French tapestry. She became active in the women’s movement, particularly in circles of feminist artists. After we became friends, she said I needed better clothes, took me to a trendy store in Berkeley, and made me buy a brightly pattered silk blouse.
Two years after that summer when Jan’s intervention resulted in my trip to Indonesia, she decided to have a child. She knew she’d be taking on the responsibilities of a single mother, since her lover at the time had raised children to adulthood and wasn’t interested in starting over again. Jan brought her newborn son, Julian, home to her Berkeley apartment.
One day Jan left her son in day care and went for a swim at the Berkeley YMCA. Apparently someone had put too much chlorine in the pool. What Jan didn’t know was that she had a genetic enzyme deficiency that made her extremely sensitive to toxins like chlorine, and she became seriously ill. The symptoms persisted for months. In addition to medical expenses, she had to buy hypoallergenic clothing and other household goods, running up credit card bills in the tens of thousands.
She sued the Y. Eventually the case settled for about the same amount that Jan owed. A friend gave her some advice: “Working-class kids like you almost never get anywhere. This is your one chance. Use the money to buy a little house. Register it as your homestead, so your creditors can’t take it away, and then declare bankruptcy.” Jan bought a small Victorian in the Berkeley flats with a Quonset hut in back, moved into the hut, and rented out the front house. Now she and Julian had a modicum of security.
When Julian was around five, Jan and her lover broke up. Needing to put some distance between them, Jan sold her home and moved to Santa Fe. Again she went through hard times: trying to get bookkeeping clients, make new friends, and raise a child by herself. We spoke on the phone frequently—I gave what support could. And eventually she succeeded. She began to earn a decent income. She built herself an art studio and a couple of rental units on her new property. Her son grew up, found an excellent job, and married a woman that Jan adores.
During the last few years Jan began losing her short-term memory. Long-term is still there—to this day she can recite Emily Dickinson poems that she learned in college. Her body begins to fail, as does mine. But what remains, what burns even more brightly against the oncoming darkness, is her loving and generous spirit, still the same as when we met four decades ago.
Jan’s strategy might not work today. A law passed in 2005 made it much, much harder to declare personal bankruptcy. The key architect of that law was Senator Joe Biden. In return for his services, he received $1,726,750 in campaign contributions from the credit card, banking, and finance industries. On the other hand, the laws are very lenient with regard to business bankruptcy. Trump filed Chapter 11 on his hotels and casinos six times between 1991 and 2009.