My World Overturned – Part I

19th Century Surgery without Anesthesia

In the spring of 1977, after hitchhiking home from that disastrous trip with Pamela, I took to bed with a fever from some virus I had picked up. I was looking forward to resuming work at the Women’s Press Collective (WPC) and exploring my new relationship with Max. But my world was about to be overturned.

Judy Grahn came to visit during my recuperation, bringing some roast chicken—rather a surprise, as this was unusual behavior for her. Then she told me about the new plan to keep the WPC running and even make it profitable. We would join a new consortium, the Feminist Economic Network (FEN), which required restructuring our operation.

A little background: Like all other publishing endeavors, we were subsidized. Mainstream newspapers were supported by advertising revenue, research journals by universities or membership in professional societies, and publishers such as Diana Press by taking in commercial print jobs. Like many other radical and/or feminist groups, the WPC was opposed to doing commercial work, so we relied on donations and free labor. In fact, I had returned from my trip with new pledges of $9,000 for the WPC from well-to-do women.

FEN had originally been organized 1975 in Detroit—I’ll give more background on it in a moment—and by 1977 FEN was composed of Diana Press and the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center (for brevity, the Health Center). Our planned merger meant that the WPC would have access to Diana’s better equipment and job training.

During her visit, Judy explained that the WPC’s new structure would be based on the Health Center’s, meaning that two individuals would be the directors—in our case, Judy and her lover Wendy Cadden—and the rest of us would be employees. I was hurt and angry. We were supposedly a collective, even if some members did tend to assume more power than others. If I had wanted to be an employee, I would have gotten a straight job, with better pay.

At that time I knew very little about FEN or about the Health Center. In November, before leaving on that trip with Pamela, I had signed a leaflet deploring attacks on those entities, without really knowing anything about those attacks or the circumstances. After I returned to the Bay Area and had recovered from my illness, I started asking questions in the feminist community. I interviewed many women who had experience with the Health Center, including Laura Brown, one of the directors, and some of the male doctors as well.

The Health Center

The Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center was a nonprofit, set up in 1972 by Laura Brown and Debra Law, who were the directors. Later Barbara Hoke became Laura’s lover and a director. Below the directors were employees and contract workers. Newly hired employees had to give a year’s commitment, not be in therapy, not be in school, and not be a socialist. The work week was 60 hours, 6 days a week. Base pay was $88 a week for trainees and $110 for staff. Sometimes, however, the workers got only 50%-70% of that, depending on the finances of the Center, and sometimes they didn’t get paid at all. (Compare that with the median wage for health care workers in the 1970s: $120-$205 per 40-hour week.) Staff members had to attend meetings, during which those not in favor were publicly shamed and often reduced to tears. Turnover was very high.

Women who had tried to do the accounting for the Health Center said that the books were a mess. One showed me a financial statement listing over $30,000 for overhead, but neither rent nor phone was included. She couldn’t figure out where the money had gone. She said that patients were encouraged to pay in cash, and the cash box was in the care of a staff member with a heroin habit, so some of the money may have been diverted that way. The Health Center also paid Laura and Barbara to travel around the country giving speeches and doing self-help demonstrations.

Most reports were that the Health Center’s care was good for general GYN, birth control clinics, pap smears, and self-help classes. Abortions were reasonably priced for the time at $185. The staff members I interviewed thought that the abortion care was done according to medical standards. However, counseling was done in groups rather than individually. Patients were not allowed to bring anyone in for support, including their partners. They weren’t allowed to talk directly with the doctors (all male), who were treated as technicians, presumably to put power in the hands of the women running the clinic. If a patient asked a question, one of the counselors would reply. Of most concern, however, women were denied pain medication during abortions—even late-term abortions.

Why? Apparently the directors gave the clinic staff different reasons at different times. One staff member was informed that women who used painkillers lay on the table longer and were in aftercare longer, and time is money. Another was advised that Valium (which was supplied only if a woman was nervous) cost too much, at 60¢ per pill. I checked this out myself at a local pharmacy and found that Valium actually cost 8.5¢ a pill. The patients themselves were told that it was a sign of weakness to take painkillers during an abortion, that it was more “feminist” to bear the pain. A supporter of the center was told that the policy was to make abortions difficult, because they didn’t want to be patching up the messes left by men. They wanted to give women incentives to not come back. Supposedly this was a radical idea. I couldn’t, and still can’t, see how it is feminist or radical to punish women for having sex. And some of the pregnancies must have been the result of rape.

Deeply disturbed by what I had learned from women involved in the Health Center, I decided to travel to Detroit and make inquiries there about FEN.

To be continued…

7 Responses to My World Overturned – Part I

  1. Esther Newton August 9, 2021 at 12:36 pm #

    I vaguely remember this dust up, though I spent the second half of the 70s mostly in Paris. So I’m interested to read what was going on. In general the disappearing of lesbian feminism from mainstream history is so shameful and angry making. For one thing the movement was fascinating, for another, the issues it tried to deal with were so important: ecology, hierarchy, racism, intentional communities,etc.

    • Martha Shelley August 9, 2021 at 3:37 pm #

      Maybe some of us need to write that history–not just personal memoirs, but a real history, interviewing those who are still around to tell the tale.

      • Chelsea Dreher August 19, 2021 at 1:41 pm #

        That’s a fine idea, Martha. Only, many of us on the East Coast had little contact with the lesbian feminist groups across the country. I was on several collectives in Manhattan. Majority Report and the Women’s Coffee House. Not only did we never think of getting paid for our work, but women who used our services were reluctant to pay for them. A “real history” would have to take attitudes towards other women into account. Do we take women, ourselves included, seriously. More questions than answers.

  2. Connie O Byrne August 9, 2021 at 2:03 pm #

    Not being a part of the Women’s Movement in the ’70s, I didn’t have a clue… obviously. Reading this just now raised all sorts of hairs on my neck. What you’ve shared goes against everything I’ve ever believed the women’s movement stands for. It also changes my opinion of Judy Grahn, whose writings I’ve valued for years, disappointing for sure. As the saying goes, I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.

    • Martha Shelley August 9, 2021 at 3:36 pm #

      I still value Judy’s writings–and her friendship. Big surprise: she isn’t perfect and neither are the rest of us. Wait until you read the rest of the story before drawing conclusions.

      As for the women’s movement, some people will use it (or any popular movement) to gain money and power for themselves, and will exploit the people who follow or work for them. I’d put Laura Brown in that category, but not Judy Grahn.

  3. Connie O Byrne August 9, 2021 at 6:49 pm #

    Thanks for reminding me not to jump to conclusions. And I’ll gladly follow the rest of your story…thanks

  4. Deb Taylor August 13, 2021 at 12:40 am #

    I was active in Denver in the seventies and on the BMR collective.
    Great political feminist activism and great memories of energy and idealism.
    Thanks for writing this.

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