Interview with Spanish Magazine La Felguera Editores
Question 1. Tell us about the 1960s in the USA in those moments of profound changes, as a young woman who lived through this era of political and social revolts. When and how do you get in touch with militancy and the Yippies? What was your role within the organization?
I got in touch with being a militant well before the 1960s. I rebelled against my parents who were both Communists and alcoholics. They raised me with a double whammy: to value equality, social justice, anti-fascism and communitarianism they combined with a rigid authoritarian hypocrisy that was the opposite of the progressive ideals they espoused. As a teenager I rebelled by painting my eyes with makeup to look like a raccoon so I could pretend I was a Beatnik. I ran away from home when I was 10; at age 20 I married the wrong man; only to find him in bed with another woman when I was 23. Growing up a child of communists meant I must work hard. Take things seriously. Be a force for good. Then I became a Yippie. That meant take nothing seriously. Live freely. Be a force for good. Since I became a Yippie I have tried to see the absurd and discover the authentic in everything I do.
I got in touch with the Yippies through my late husband, Stew Albert. When I first met him, Stew had two best friends; one was Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, the other was Yippie founder Jerry Rubin. At the time Stew, Jerry and Abbie Hoffman were what we called "non-leaders" of the Yippies but we women, Jerry's girlfriend Nancy Kurshan, Abbie's wife Anita Hoffman and I made equally if not more important contributions as organizers.
Yippie wasn't an organization, it was a moniker anyone who wanted could use for our diverse, anarchistic collection of individuals who were trying to stop that vicious war in Vietnam by using provocative and humorous guerilla theater. Yippie was never a party in the traditional meaning of the word party, it was a party in the "lets have a party" kind of party.
My first role in the Yippies was to support men I admired at the time; by so doing I came to understand the politics of theater. Before I became my own person, I watched and learned from Stew, Abbie and Jerry how to act with resolve, independently and theatrically. After the demonstrations of Chicago 1968, I had absorbed enough of the Yippie way of thinking so that, for the rest of my life as a women's and anti-war activist, I live in ways that are as theatrical, satiric and humorous as I can make them.
2. Within the movement, women begin to feel the sexism/machismo on the part of your own companions. How did that affect the whole revolutionary movement? What was the reaction of the women within the party and yours? How did relationships, power and struggle change?
The entire revolutionary movement consisted of women, men and LGBTQI folks, although that acronym only came along later. Which means that sexism and machismo affected every one of us, but differently depending on our gender and sexual preference. For women like me, the activists and radicals, we first identified then combatted sexism in our personal and political lives. It was a transformative — never easy -- but profoundly liberating experience. That's why we called it women's liberation.
Here is one example of how the machismo/sexism dynamic played out for me personally: During Berkeley's People's Park--a plot of land that protestors "liberated" from the University of California--I wrote a piece about women's liberation that was published in the Berkeley Barb. Max Scherr, the editor, an older patriarchal man, titled my piece "Why the Women Are Revolting." For him it was a double entendre, a joke with two meanings of the word revolting — something revolting is disgusting; revolting also means to revolt, to make a revolution. I found this man's headline insulting, I marched into his office to confront him; he dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I was incensed and at the same time felt gratified that mine was one of the few articles he published in the People's Park issue of the Barb that was not about People's Park.
In the Yippies, and in the radical movement in general, male sexism and machismo caused many women to end their relationships with men. For the Yippies, specifically Nancy Kurshan and I, our rebellion against men came both from the growing women's movement that surrounded us, but also from visiting the former North Vietnam, where we met women fighters who we looked on as heroes. They inspired us to act. If these women could continue their struggle for freedom under the most horrible of conditions--bombings, napalm, rape, imprisonment in tiger cages and the violence of invasion--so we could adopt their strengths against the oppression we felt by men in our lives. Nancy left Jerry almost immediately on our return from Vietnam; I broke up with Stew six months later. After Abbie was arrested in 1973 for cocaine possession, Anita left him and took their baby America with her. In the early 1970s, almost every relationship I knew between women and men dissolved. Only three that I know of, Stew and I among them, got back together.
3. As a result, groups such as W.I.T.C.H., a unique phenomenon within the Movement for the Liberation of Women. Who formed them and why? Why do you decide to use the powerful image of the witch and the spells? How did the men of the movement react to your demands, struggles and spells?
W.I.T.C.H. was originally founded by the feminist Robin Morgan and New York Radical Women. Robin, a former Yippie, had left the Yippies early to organize the famous Miss America Pageant demonstrations at which bras were supposedly burned. This is a false and sexist allegation; bras along with other instruments of female torture were thrown into a "Freedom Trash Can" but never burned.
Robin says the following about W.I.T.C.H. "We were women who identified politically with the confrontational tactics of the male Left and stylistically with the clownish proto-anarchism of the Yippies. We were newly aroused and angry about our own oppression as women." (Robin Morgan, Goodbye to All That, P. 72)
The letters W.I.T.C.H. stand for Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Any woman could identify as a W.I.T.C.H. put on witchy robes and do an action of her preference. At some point in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial of 1969-1970 when I was not present, Anita and Nancy put on witch's robes and put a curse on the evil trial judge, Julius Hoffman. I identified most as a W.I.T.C.H. after I found an F.B.I. homing device on my car in 1975. When I was subpoenaed to a grand jury in Manhattan, I put on witches robes and tried to put a hex on the Justice Department and the FBI; they certainly deserved it; I do not know if I succeeded.
W.I.T.C.H. was formed without any one of us having much knowledge of the history of witches beyond what we grew up with about innocent women being burned at the stake in Salem during Puritan times. But many women, myself included, saw W.I.T.C.H. as a way to express women's powerful free spirit and exert control over our world by mystical means. According to Robin, men in the movement liked W.I.T.C.H. because it garnered media publicity; in the Yippies, Jerry tolerated it, Stew was amused by it and I don't know about Abbie.
4. In 1970 you travel to Vietnam with other women. What were the reasons for the trip? Tell us about your experience and your return to the country in 2013.
I went to Vietnam in 1970, with Nancy Kurshan, a Yippie founder, and Genie Plamondon of the White Panther Party. We toured that beautiful but devastated country, met diplomats and nursery school children, crossed a bridge so bombed it looked like a spider's web, went inside a munitions factory hidden inside a mountain on top of which was written in huge letters for the American B52 bomber pilots to see the phrase: Determined to Win. When I returned, I travelled around the USA organizing demonstrations against the war and for the liberation of women.
Ho Chi Minh famously said "nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." When I returned to a unified Vietnam in 2013, I toured factories that had once made army uniforms that were now making clothing to be sold to companies like Ralph Lauren and J.C. Penny, but at the same time these factory workers received benefits that included equitable wages, day care, dental care and job security. A Vietnamese diplomat told us this was an example of what he called a "socialist oriented market economy" that liberated Vietnam was trying to establish. I saw our job as activists to fight against and help end the Vietnam War; now it is up to the Vietnamese people to determine their destiny for themselves.
In Vietnam in 2013 I also met Mme. Binh, the only woman negotiator at the Paris Peace Accords and at one time my personal hero. She thanked us, the Americans, and told us how grateful she was for our protests that helped halt that terrible war. Mme. Binh was not speaking only to our small group; as often as I can today I pass on Mme. Binh's gratitude to every anti-war activist and pacifist, to every protester who marched, burned a draft card, wrote an article, sat-in, got arrested and even to those few who destroyed property but with no loss of life, to everyone who fought in any way for peace in Vietnam.
5. With the arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA the country and the rest of the world are deeply astonished and terrified. Although many others do not... What is the situation right now in the USA? What is the answer and the reaction of the left? Do you think that a new revolutionary movement can be born in the country in response to the arrival of that kind of person to the presidency of the United States? We are very interested in knowing your personal position regarding this topic and your opinions.
The present situation in the USA is terribly dangerous. It is also an opportunity. I do know this: the more we protest, both in the USA and internationally, the more we demonstrate peacefully, the more we fight back with a multi-faceted movement that shows our strength and opposition, the more we refuse to accept what Trump and his minions decree, the less likely it will be for him to succeed.
I am gratified to observe a huge up-swelling of both organized and spontaneous rebellion from a plethora of groups and individuals. Our new movement must be ecumenical and work with any group — from members of Congress to the Pope to the Black Bloc to the homeless, anyone who opposes Donald Trump. We must continue to build pressure, to resist, we must never submit. We must fight back. Now is the time for every humanistic individual to act - to stop the rise of what could easily become a modern American fascism.
All Power to the Imagination!
What do you do now? As a writer, activist and teacher, what are you currently involved in?
After the 1960s ended I became a professional fundraiser for Planned Parenthood and raised millions of dollars to give women access to contraceptive and early abortion care. I have now become a minor historical figure and am completing my memoir Yippie Girl: The Joy of Protest. At the end of January I am being interviewed by the BBC for a documentary series; in February, a cover photo of me on the 1970 Berkeley Tribe will be featured at the Hippie Modernism exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. I am also speaking that month at a remembrance of Tom Hayden, the late founder of Students for a Democratic Society and in March at a panel about 1960s women for the California Historical Society.
If you look back to the past, would you change anything? Is there anything specific that you would change if you had the opportunity?
If I could, I would have made the war in Vietnam end sooner, so those three million plus Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans who died would still be with us. As for something specific, I was one of very few people who was not among the 14,000 arrested at Mayday 1971 in Washington D.C, the largest mass anti-war arrest in US history. The reason was simple: Under my direction, I and my affinity group smoked too much weed the night before and I, the group leader, was so stoned I was unable to get up in time. By the time I arrived at our designated protest spot, I had missed the demonstration! With that, I learned a very valuable lesson: weed is medicinal and for relaxation. Never smoke strong weed before a major protest.
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