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.”