Monthly Archives: April 2016

Women’s Health Organization

The Women’s Health Organization (W.H.O.) in Austin was formed in 1974 with three main objectives: education for women, improving existing health care, and the establishment of new services for all women. W.H.O. targeted two areas of education: self-knowledge and improved relationships with gynecologists. They distributed a questionnaire to area gynecologists, set up an evaluation and doctor referral service based on feedback, and actively sought to bring a “progressive woman gynecologist” to Austin to include among referrals. They produced informational pamphlets and reading lists. W.H.O. also established a Self-Help Clinic and trained women in self-cervical and self-breast examinations. Similar to the groundbreaking work of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, publishers of “Our Bodies; Ourselves,” this local women’s group empowered women with information about their bodies, challenged patronizing gynecologists, and opened space for new services such as birthing centers and midwife-assisted home-births. The model of peer support survives today with lactation coaches and breast cancer support groups.

Nancy Simons illustrated the W.H.O. pamphlets. She shares these memories:

I remember us having a table at a Health Fair and encouraging women to write in a book about their personal experiences with local gynecologists (sort of an early version of Yelp!). I remember our provocative (for that feminist era) poster with a naked woman and the words “HELP YOURSELF.” I will never forget how small and sweet our mysterious cervixes seemed. I remember doing a cartoon of Wonder Woman with a speculum in hand saying “AT YOUR CERVIX.” The whole thing was very liberating for women whose bodies had previously been mostly defined by male doctors.


The Women’s Cranky

The Women’s Cranky came to Austin courtesy of the Women’s Street Theater from the Bay Area in 1970. The instructions and graphics were published and distributed by People’s Press in San Francisco, California.   The Women’s Street Theater described the cranky this way:

A cranky is a paper movie or cartoon sequence inside a simple wooden frame. The moving paper roll unwinds (is cranked) onto a take-up reel, enabling you to tell a story with a minimum number of words and maximum number of strong images. THIS cranky is a brief history of women’s oppression and struggles. About how the myth of women’s inferiority began and has been perpetuated to oppress us, and about how women are refusing to submit to that HIS-STORY any longer. We, the Women’s Street Theater, wanted to share the script and directions… with all our sisters. …It’s been great at rallies, small meetings, in parks, on the back of flat bed trucks, and on the marble steps of the Pacific Stock Exchange. People love it. They laugh, get involved, and have always been eager to discuss it afterwards.

Here is how the Cranky starts:

In the beginning          [Cymbal clash followed by tambourine shake about 5 seconds]

Women were ALWAYS pregnant

The cranky was low-tech media. It took more time to draw the images onto a scroll of butcher paper than it takes to shoot and post a You Tube video. But it was a great device for introducing women’s liberation to a crowd. It was performed in the Student Union at the University of Texas at Austin, at the Oleo Strut GI coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas and many other places. With its compelling graphics and easy script, it made for lively street theater. It only took a handful of women – two to crank the story along, one to read, and the others to produce sound effects with tambourines, pots and pans, and kazoos. It should be remembered for its no-software, no-electricity-required, means of production. It never failed to draw a crowd and get them laughing along with a radical message about women’s liberation.



Soeur Queens

The Soeur Queens were described by Vernell Pratt in the June 1975 Soeur Queens Songbook as follows:

the soeur queens are an all-girl-honky-tonk-barroom band that has (have) done music together off and on since 1971.

for at least as long as we’ve been playing & singing, we’ve been talking about a songbook. here, hot in your hands, it finally appears, through the hard work, beer, sweat and tears of:

fly-by-night print collective and the souer queens, and especially our sisters behind bars, marcelle and mary, who did the center spread, alice, gail, krissy, nancy, frances, all the others who’ve ever sung along with us, the socialist feminist conference for the impetus to finally get it together, and especially the people whose songs are included, helping us to make it a people’s songbook.


In July 1971 the Soeur Queens played at the founding conference of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the Rice Hotel in Houston. They also played at the Austin’s One Knite on Lavaca and at the University of Houston for the Gay Student Association. They performed at the Ritz in Austin in 1973 to benefit Bach Mai Hospital (a Vietnamese hospital targeted by a 1972 U.S. bombing raid). One of the final performances of the Soeur Queens was at Liberty Lunch in the fall of 1976 to raise funds to send Vernell Pratt on a slow boat to China for a cultural exchange. The Songbook’s cover illustration shows these women (from left to right): Nancy Crothers (stand up base), Vernell Pratt (guitar), Frances Barton (piano), Lori Hansel (guitar) and Gail Caldwell (flute).


Red River Women’s Press

Fly-By-Night Printing Collective, the predecessor of Red River Women’s Press, began operations in May 1974. Fly By Night’s press had been donated and overhauled in a press repair class at Austin Community College. After the class, the press was moved upstairs to 901 West 24th Street. The Soeur Queens Songbook was printed by Fly By Night in June 1975. In the Fall of 1975, Cynthia Roberts and Melita Abrego, Fly-By-Night press operators, completed a large print run of Cyclar, a 1976 Women’s Community Calendar. Rita Starpattern and Robin Birdfeather collaborated on the design.

On November 4, 1975, Fly-By-Night’s Multilith 1250 was lowered downstairs and rolled down 24th and San Gabriel to Bread and Roses Community Center, 2204 San Gabriel Street. A member of the collective was offered employment while still serving a prison sentence for destroying draft records in 1969.  She came to Austin from Alderson Prison in the fall of 1976.

Red River Women’s Press (RRWP) began as a feminist print shop in January 1977. A successful musical benefit February 2nd at Soap Creek Saloon laid the foundation for a move to a storefront in June 1977 at 908-C West 12th Street in the Enfield Shopping Center. The press was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union shop. The IWW union bug was proudly placed on countless print orders – stationery, envelopes, leaflets, pamphlets and posters (both offset and silk-screened). The shop employed two full time staff and received Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) funds to train several women as printers. The movement provided a steady set of customers – law collectives, the Brown Berets, the Austin Committee for Human Rights in Chile, Womenspace – as well as walk-in orders.

On West 12th Street, Red River Women’s Press occupied a storefront that backed up to a quiet Shoal Creek. Two presses, a Multilith 1250 and a Multilith 1850, paper supplies, typesetter and light tables were at street level. A copy camera, darkroom and silk-screen shop were in the basement. Shoal Creek flooded on May 25, 1981 (Austin’s Memorial Day Flood). Floodwaters inundated the basement, submerging the copy camera and rising about 10 inches on the presses upstairs. The press dug out of the mud, but closed later that year. The initial Red River Women’s Press collective included the following women: Alice Embree, Rita Starpattern, JoAnn Mulert, Linda Evans, Gail Lewis, Lori Hansel, Marce Lacouture, Barbara Krasne and Kandy Littrell. Maria Flores and Angelina Mendez were two of the CETA trainees.


Rita Starpattern is the “red haired woman” in the award-winning 2016 documentary Tower by Keith Maitland.  I worked with Rita at Red River Women’s Press in Austin in the 70s.  Rita’s act of courage during the tower shooting rampage at the University of Texas was something she didn’t share widely.  It was after her death that I heard what she had done that terrible day.

On August 1, 1966 Charles Whitman, a trained marksman, went to the top of the University of Texas tower in Austin and unleashed 96 minutes of horror.  The first shot he fired from the observation deck was at Claire Wilson, killing the eight-month-old child she was carrying.  Her injuries left her unable to move, lying on the searing concrete of the main mall beside her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, who was killed by Whitman’s second shot.  Rita went to Claire and lay down beside her, talking with her and comforting her through the ordeal.

I sat beside Claire Wilson James at the Paramount showing of the Tower on March 17, 2016.  Claire said it would mean a great deal to the young actress who had played Rita to know more about her.  That has prompted this blog.  Rita Starpattern was born on Christmas day in 1946 and died April 21, 1996.  I wrote the following remembrance for Rita’s memorial at Laguna Gloria on Lake Austin.

Rita created space for women. It was the current running through her work — space for women to counsel each other, to learn the printing trade, to create art. It was my fortune to work with Rita in one of those spaces — Red River’s Women’s Press

Rita dug into her first project when the press was still called Fly By Night Printing , producing a 1976 Women’s Community Calendar. Photographs captured the emerging community and Rita’s research annotated the days. Rita’s neighbor and friend, Cynthia, and Melita printed a first run of 2,000. Ads went out and orders came in from around the country. Rita was at the center of the transformation to Red River Women’s Press, a feminist print shop.

Red River was a place where women learned the non-traditional skills of typesetting, graphic arts, layout, camerawork, stripping negatives, burning plates, offset printing and silk screening. We were also a union shop, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as the Wobblies), a printshop for social causes, from Women’s Space and Bookwoman, to food coops, to the Brown Berets and the Committee for Human Rights in Chile. If you wanted our union label you got it. It had a line from the song Bread and Roses: “The rising of the women is the rising of us all.”

 Rita graced us in many ways. We were diverse and intense, lesbian, straight, feminists and activists in many causes. Trying to serve a community of social activists and also survive as a business. Rita had a great talent for reminding of us of our common ground, where we converged. Her energy was quiet and sustaining.   Sometimes she’d realign us (like a good chiropractor) with her clever words and bubbling chuckle. Sometimes she simply raised an eyebrow or let out a deep sigh that spoke volumes.   She was a trooper. She labored over artwork, but also over grant reports, wage reports, tax reports — the tedious stuff that kept us in business.

Last evening I sat with two members of the press looking over photographs and leaflets. I had to laugh when I saw our price sheet: Offset Reality. That was very Rita. The clever wit and twist of words.

Red River’s Women’s Press was never on Red River. It was on Twelfth Street, backed up to a trickle of a stream called Shoal Creek. In May, 1981, that trickle became a river submerging the copy camera in the basement and rising fifteen inches on the presses on the second floor. Red River dug out from under the mud and organized a benefit, but never really survived the blow that nature had dealt.

Rita took skills she had perfected at the press — organizational skills, grant writing skills, networking skills, and put them to use building creative space for women in the arts. There she flourished and blossomed and made a lasting impact in the art world.

Rita remained a trooper throughout her long battle. Even in that last week, she was making her lists for us. She told Joann that we had to write down the her-story of Red River Women’s Press. We were graced by Rita’s wit and very formidable will. And we will write that story because it was on Rita’s list. We will do it for Rita and because Rita would like the world to remember what was on our union label: The Rising of the Women is the Rising of us All.

The featured photo was taken in 1977.  Rita Starpattern and I are accepting a donor’s generous contribution to Red River Women’s Press.

Rita Starpattern founded Women & Their Work, a visual and performing art gallery at 1710 Lavaca in Austin.  On the gallery’s thirtieth anniversary in November 2007, Rita’s friends and colleagues honored her accomplishments with a gallery event.  Her friends, Sherry Smith, Kay F. Turner and Mary Sanger announced the occasion with this e-mail:  “She was born a Murphey, became a Jones by marriage and a Starpattern by design. Rita Starpattern, founder and first director of Women & Their Work died of cancer in April 1996 at the age of 49.  Rita Starpattern was an activist, a feminist and an artist whose inner wanderings were quirky, imaginative, funny and very intelligent.  Rita produced work in painting, drawing, sculpture and film.  A visionary who came of age in the 1960s and became committed to second wave feminism in the 1970s, she blended all her skills and desires with an entrepreneurial spirit when she undertook the creation of a cultural institution centered on women: Women & Their Work.”