I was deeply disturbed by what I had learned from women who worked with and for the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center as part of the Feminist Economic Network (FEN). Shortly after interviewing them—this was in the early spring of 1977—I took the train to Detroit, where FEN was based, to make inquiries there. The responses I got from the women involved were overwhelmingly, though not completely, negative.
The Detroit Credit Union
The Detroit Feminist Federal Credit Union, my informants told me, was started by Joanne Parrent and Valerie Angers in 1973. Credit unions, of course, are similar to banks, except that they are nonprofit and designed to be governed by their members. In 1974, Joanne and Valerie traveled to Oakland and met with Laura Brown and Barbara Hoke at the Health Center. Out of that meeting the four of them came up with the idea of FEN. In November 1975 FEN was formed by a coalition of the Credit Union, the Health Center, Diana Press, and a few other women. Among the bylaws were: 1) FEN will accept financial leadership for the women’s movement. (I’m not sure who was supposed to have offered it to them.) 2) Decision-making power will be confined to the Board of Directors who shall be founders of, and working for three years in, a self-supporting feminist enterprise.
Apparently the working board consisted of three couples: Laura and Barbara of the Health Center, Joanne and Valerie of the Credit Union, and Casey Czarnik and Coletta Reid of Diana Press. They established a holding company, the FEN Association, to own and control all subsidiaries and, as their articles of incorporation put it, “to buy assets and property of every kind.” They attempted to set up branches of the Credit Union in 13 Midwestern states, but weren’t able to get a charter. If they had succeeded, they would have been able to draw on the assets of those branches via computer, without any real control by the members, who probably would not have the resources or time to travel to meetings in Detroit.
What they did instead was to draw assets where they could. The Credit Union borrowed $200,000 from the Michigan Credit Union League. It then loaned eight women $32,000 each, for a total of $256,000. None of these women were eligible for such large sums—one, in fact, was living on welfare. The women then turned the money over to FEN. In this way the FEN Corporation circumvented the law prohibiting credit unions from lending to corporations. FEN then used the money to buy a six-story building that had been the Detroit Women’s City Club and to refurbish it with new furniture, chandeliers, and other decor.
Having given the money to FEN, of course the eight women weren’t able to pay back the loans, so the Credit Union was required to reimburse the Michigan Credit Union League. Reimbursing the defaulted loans tied up all the savings of Credit Union members. No one could access her own money or obtain a loan, large or small.
The FEN directors hired a crew of women to prepare the building for the grand opening. They worked the crew long hours and fired workers who couldn’t meet the demands. FEN then tried to rook them out of their wages entirely, but one of the women called the state Employment Department, which forced FEN to write checks. Even so, some of the workers did not get paid for hours worked.
The building was supposed to house various businesses, hotel rooms, and a new Feminist Women’s Health Center. Such a center already existed in Detroit, but the director—a white woman—had fallen out of favor. Laura set up a rival center. She trained three Black women over a long weekend. These three women were among those who had signed for the $32,000 loans that FEN used to buy the building. One of the women told me that they had been promised autonomy in running the center but that, in actuality, business decisions were made by the FEN directors.
At that point, I was told, FEN began to fall apart. Laura Brown, of the Health Center, started a secret affair with Joanne Parrent, of the Credit Union. Joanne’s partner Valerie, an interior decorator, was asked to prepare the best suite in the building in anticipation of a visit from a high-ranking official. Once she had put in a 14-hour day painting and decorating the rooms, though, Laura and Joanne moved into the suite and it became their love-nest. Laura’s partner Barbara didn’t seem to mind, but Valerie was beside herself with fury. She tipped off the National Credit Union Administration about the illegal financial transactions. The others isolated her from anyone else on staff and castigated her for putting her personal feelings above the goals of the revolution.
When members came to demand that the building be returned to the Credit Union—and sold, I guess, in order to pay back the loans—the FEN board called on their security guards. A fight broke out and some women were punched and kicked, but none badly hurt. The FEN women called the police, who evicted the protestors. This incident was reported in the local press.
FEN collapsed economically. Laura filed a petition with the court to dissolve the corporation, listing $37,600 in total assets and $118,000 in debts). I do not know whether debts included the $15,000 in taxes owed to the IRS. Kay, who owned a boutique in the building, said she bought some of the furniture for $11,500. The FEN directors took the rest of the furniture, whatever they could cram into U-Haul trucks, and fled to Oakland.
That was when Laura and her associates approached Judy and Wendy. As I understand it, the plan was to reconstitute FEN, now with the inclusion of the WPC. Other targets for acquisition were Olivia Records, Chrysalis Magazine, and the Los Angeles Women’s Building.
What I Did With the Research
Based on my interviews, I wrote a 22-page article that included an impassioned (and admittedly overwrought) three-page analysis. I mailed it around the country, and it was published in the Denver feminist newspaper Big Mama Rag.
Because of my anger, I didn’t tell Judy and Wendy about my findings before publishing, but just sprung it on them. The therapist I had been seeing (to deal with the anguish around my mother’s sudden death) clued me in that that was a mistake. She was right. Those relationships were severely damaged, and we didn’t speak to each other for decades. Fortunately the three of us have now lived long enough to become good friends again, though we will never agree on the issues that divided us back then. Had I presented the information to them at the time, before publication, it likely wouldn’t have changed their minds about a merger with FEN but it would have caused less pain.
Our press collective, the WPC, split apart, with one side not talking to the other. Judy accused me of interviewing for my article only the anti-FEN people in Detroit, and not Laura. In fact, I had spoken to Laura, but I didn’t find her account of events to be at all plausible.
I stayed around WPC just long enough to finish production of Alice Molloy’s new book, In Other Words. The WPC ceased to exist and Judy and Wendy joined Diana Press under the FEN umbrella. Judy reports in her memoir that this worked until the fall of 1977, despite attacks by unknown perpetrators that included sabotaging the phones and slashing tires. Someone broke in and destroyed the printing equipment. They must have known what they were doing, because the damage was quite thorough. Was it the FBI? Feminist or Marxist dissidents? Right-wingers? No one ever identified the attackers.
What was left of Diana Press lasted for another year, and then it folded.
Laura blamed the debacle in Detroit and the criticism of the Health Center on racism and classism from white middle class women who were “downwardly mobile.” In her opinion, FEN was antiracist and working class. The women of color that I interviewed disagreed—all of them described the FEN operations as either structurally racist, where all the decisions were made by white women at the top or, at the very least, culturally insensitive.
* * * * *
Perhaps we all believe what fits into our worldview and our needs at a given time. I am a kind of socialist and have even described myself as an anarcho-communist—someone who would never have been hired at the Health Center. In her memoir, Judy said my paper implied that she and Wendy were Laura’s puppets. That certainly wasn’t my intention. My perception was that Judy and Wendy were exhausted and tired of being poor and living on donations while doing important work, and that, though I believed they were mistaken, FEN seemed to offer them a way to be properly recompensed for their contributions to feminism.
Judy writes that FEN, as an economic powerhouse, would have been of benefit to all women. I’m dubious. My late friend and political mentor Marion Youers said that the question is whether you believe that the ends justify the means, or that the means shape the ends. I think the latter.
Judy’s interpretation of these events is in her memoir, and is radically different from what I have written here. I know that her perceptions and judgment about what happened are sincere. As for me, my belief in my research and conclusions is firm. Judy and I will never see eye to eye on what happened and who was responsible. However, my fervent hope is that we can agree to disagree and continue our friendship, which is enormously valuable to me, especially as we grow older and have limited time.
At the time, I was devastated by the loss of the comradeship that the WPC had offered me, and of the friendships that had meant so much to me. In retrospect, it was one of the worst periods of my life.
Max and I continued to see each other, and she was supportive during this period. Soon after I left the WPC, she suggested another road trip.
To be continued