RAT newspaper—and some real rats

Panel from my cartoon for the first women’s issue of RAT

In February 1970, I joined the small band of women who took over RAT Subterranean News, an “underground” paper.1 Meanwhile I continued to write for, typeset, and hawk Come Out!, our Gay Liberation Front newspaper. But before discussing my experiences with RAT, I should tell you what I discovered in the ladies’ room at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) in November 1969, in Philadelphia.2

As usual, back in those days, I’d been burning the candle at both ends, living on coffee, donuts, and meatball heroes, and not getting enough sleep. I ducked out of the conference to wash the grit off my face. Glanced in the mirror—and then stared in horror at the blood oozing from my gums. Cancer? I’d picked up a smoking habit from my first woman lover and now, for sure, it would cost my life.

Immediately upon returning to NYC, I went to the doctor. He took one look and asked, “Do you drink orange juice?”

He didn’t have to say another word. I was completely mortified. All those biology classes in high school and college—and I’d given myself scurvy.

Next day I filled the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables. Then I went to the health food store and bought a hundred pound sack of organic brown rice and hauled it up to my third floor apartment. Looking at that sack slumped in a corner of the kitchen gave me great comfort. It would keep me through the winter.

*          *          *

The RAT collective was a rather motley crowd. Some, like writer Robin Morgan and graphic artist Susan Simensky, had already been involved with feminist organizations. Others came directly from the radical left. Carol Grosberg had been to Cuba and was a big fan of their revolution. Jane Alpert was out on bail, charged with bombing eight government and corporate buildings. Sharon Krebs was one of the founders of the experimental Free University of New York, where professors who’d been dismissed for socialist or antiwar views could teach. I never learned about Miriam Rosen’s previous involvements, but after RAT she went on to produce programming at Pacifica Radio. Wendy, who I think was the youngest, didn’t quite fit in. She was something of a Yippie and wanted to make a revolution for joy.

I don’t remember all the others. And I studiously avoided the two who called themselves Suzie Weatherwoman and Judy Weatherwoman, thinking that if I were arrested and subjected to what they now call enhanced interrogation, I didn’t want to have any information the cops could squeeze out of me.

Our smoke-filled meetings were very intense, our conversations larded with references to Third World revolutions, both past and in progress, and the need for sacrifice. On one occasion Alpert declared that the Vietnamese guerillas subsisted on a bowl of rice a day, yet were still winning the war. In that charged atmosphere I set aside everything I’d learned about nutrition—including my own experience with vitamin deficiency—and believed her, at least for the moment.

We published articles championing those revolutions, including a rose-colored one by Morgan about women in Mao’s China. The Weatherwomen contributed a piece calling for armed struggle against the U.S. government. In various issues we reported on the Vietnam War, the trial of the Panther 21, and the role of women activists in the peace movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I haven’t been able to find archived copies of the paper or any of its articles on line, except for Morgan’s denouncing the sexism of the male left, which has since become a classic, and a cartoon I did for the first women’s issue.

Wendy needed a place to stay and moved into my Lower East Side slum apartment. When we were alone, she summarized all the neo-Marxist dogma by squatting as if constipated. “Struggle, struggle,” she grunted. I had to laugh. But her lack of a hard left ideology brought her under suspicion. One day Alpert called a meeting of the collective. Convinced that Wendy was an FBI agent, she led a purge and drove the youngster from the paper. I protested, to no avail. Alpert criticized me for being a humanist, describing herself proudly as a Stalinist.

In May 1970, a month before being sentenced, Alpert jumped bail and went underground. She and her boyfriend Sam Melville had been betrayed by an agent, George Demmerle.

In December 1970 Sharon Krebs was arrested for attempting to bomb a bank, along with her boyfriend Robin Palmer and some members of Weatherman. They’d been betrayed by an agent named Steve.

Those were violent times, abroad and at home. President Nixon, elected on a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, escalated it instead, mercilessly bombing both Cambodia and Laos. My government was committing genocide. Sometimes I wondered why I wasn’t building bombs. Shouldn’t I be willing to risk my life and freedom to stop it? Was I just a coward?

One day as I was coming home the elderly Ukrainian lady who lived on the second floor stopped me in the hallway. We had spoken on previous occasions about the deaths of her abusive husband, and of her beloved cat. This time she had a warning for me. “The FBI was here asking questions about you. I didn’t tell them nothing.” Not that she had anything to tell them—I’d never discussed my political activities with her. But I understood why a refugee from the Soviet police state would be loath to inform on a neighbor.

Another day a young man asked me up to his apartment to plan an action. He showed me a .22 caliber rifle and then talked about killing people by inserting poison in their cigarettes. The alarm in my brain screamed Agent! Agent! I got out of there as fast as I could.

In March 1971, the paper changed its name to Women’s LibeRATion.

I don’t remember how many months I worked on the paper, but I’m sure I wasn’t part of the collective that published the July 14-23, 1971 issue. It included an article accusing Virginia Ruffalo of being a government agent. I never met Ruffalo. I did meet with a group of women in Boston around that time, and they told me that they had taken the suspect to a safe house in another state and interrogated her for a few days before letting her go.

“Are you crazy?” I said. “Kidnapping someone across state lines is a capital offense. If she really was an agent, you’d all be behind bars and headed for death row.”3 Perhaps by then I’d developed a more realistic perspective.

*          *          *

Looking back on those paranoid days, I can’t help but notice a pattern. Jane Alpert and Sharon Krebs were working with their boyfriends when they bombed or attempted to bomb corporate and government buildings. They were betrayed by male agents—guys they hadn’t suspected. Instead, their suspicion, and that of their comrades on RAT, fell on other women.

The paper folded in 1972, perhaps for lack of funds, perhaps because so many of us had gone in different directions—underground, or to other groups, or to prison. Around that time Nanette Rainone, program director of WBAI-FM, asked me if I’d be interested in doing a lesbian radio show. Would I ever! I’d have to come to the station and be trained on the equipment.

It was, to my knowledge, the first lesbian radio show anywhere…

*          *          *

1More than 1,000 such newspapers were published in the U.S. during the Vietnam War era. Actually they should have been called counterculture rather than underground, because they were freely available, unlike the typewritten samizdat—“self-published”—in the Soviet Union, where possession of a copy could get you a prison term.

2I’ve revised my previous post, “Fighting on all Fronts,” to include a description of the ERCHO conference.

3In 1968 a SCOTUS decision had removed the death penalty from the Federal Kidnapping Act, as long as the victim had not been physically harmed. I wasn’t aware of that at the time.

4 Responses to RAT newspaper—and some real rats

  1. Connie O Byrne October 24, 2020 at 12:53 am #

    Thanks as always for another history lesson. I was busy being a new Mom after November of 1970, having married an Army Captain in the Spring of 1969. Prior to that I taught science for a year at the same school where I had gone to Jr. High. It wasn’t until I saw Alice’s Restaurant that I had even the slightest inkling of the world outside of what I had grown up and married into.
    Life travels in mysterious ways for sure.

  2. Martha Shelley October 24, 2020 at 9:02 am #

    Where did you grow up, Connie?

  3. Alexis Angelini July 21, 2021 at 6:07 pm #

    Wow! I was a college student at the University of Connecticut and a few years ago did a research paper all about the Rat, so glad I found your blog! Any idea where to purchase any old copies of the newspaper? Such an incredible piece of history and I’d love to own a bit of it!

    • Martha Shelley July 21, 2021 at 10:39 pm #

      I don’t have copies and don’t know where to purchase one. Good luck with your search!

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