Tag Archives: Alice Embree

Sex and Socialism

[The 1976 Rag newspaper cover shown above celebrates International Women’s Day.]

by Alice Embree

August 25, 2017

Is sex better under socialism? Apparently, according to an August 12, 2017 New York Times opinion piece. Did women from the United States find fulfillment in revolutionary Russia? Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia makes that case. As socialism continues to gain traction with millennials, it may be time to consider what that can mean in the bedrooms as well as in the body politic.

“Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” was a theme of the 60s rebellion. After all, the Baby Boomers came of age when birth control pills did. Then women’s liberation added an entirely new spin to sexual liberation.

Women’s consciousness-raising groups began reading the revelatory pamphlet, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Feminists in the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Women’s Health Organization in Austin informed women about their bodies from a woman’s perspective. In 1973, the Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion. The Gay Liberation movement brought same sex relationships out into the open.

Sexual pleasure outside of marriage and procreation has always rankled the religious right. Anita Bryant brought her rant about homosexuality to Austin in 1977, drawing a large counter protest on Auditorium Shores. We still are fending off bathroom bills in 2017 and trying to keep Planned Parenthood from becoming extinct.

At the rate things are going, it may take revolution to gain reproductive justice – decent sex education, family planning, abortion rights, pre-natal care, post-natal care, and child-care. Addressing the structural inequities, particularly for women of color, to reproductive healthcare will demand far more from all of us than defending legalized abortion. Does it require socialism?

Women born slightly before the raucous Baby Boom found themselves in the 60s with less “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” and more diapers, baby rattles, and Dr. Spock (the pediatrician who wrote the Bible on childcare during that era). For those women in 1963, Betty Friedan posed a question in The Feminine Mystique, “Is this all?”

The question has a quaint, middle-class Leave it to Beaver feel in today’s world. Friedan was speaking as a woman of privilege about the isolation of motherhood in suburbia. Her comments resonated among many women who helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW).

But, for those of us who began to knock open employment doors for women in the 70s, we faced an entirely different question when we had children. The question was: “Isn’t this too much?”

The scramble to work full time and negotiate lives around childcare schedules, afterschool programs and summer camps was, in fact, daunting. And what we faced in the 80s seems quaint now. Childcare costs alone have tripled.

In what we called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 70s, we envisioned a world in which women’s work outside the home would benefit everyone. There would be shared responsibilities at home, shorter workweeks, time to relax and even time for sex.

We envisioned a quality childcare system that would be affordable and accessible. In a forgotten footnote to history, the U.S. Congress passed a Comprehensive Child Development Bill, aimed at universal childcare in 1971. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing against a communal approach to child-rearing that would weaken family life.

Our vision ran contrary to the capitalist vision. As women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 70s, employers found a way to use the expanded labor force to flatten wages and work families to the breaking point. Middle class aspirations began to require dual incomes. Single parents frequently worked more than one job to make ends meet.

This is where life under socialism provides an important contrast.

Kristen R. Ghodsee’s piece, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism” appeared in the August 12, 2017 New York Times. She writes:

“Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.”

Ghodsee quotes a 65-year-old Bulgarian woman who worries about her daughter born in the late 70s:

“’All she does is work and work,’ Ms. Durheva told me in 2013, ‘and when she comes home at night she is too tired to be with her husband. But it doesn’t matter, because he is tired, too. They sit together in front of the television like zombies. When I was her age, we had much more fun.’”

The same New York Times article tells the story from the perspective of a German woman in her 30s, responding to her mother’s pressure to have a baby,

“She doesn’t’ understand how much harder it is now – it was so easy for women before the wall fall [referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989], They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract and don’t have time to get pregnant.”

While Ghodsee draws a comparison between East Germany and West Germany, University of Texas professor Julia Mickenberg shines light on the motivations that propelled women from the United States to Russia after the 1917 revolution. Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia describes what Russia had to offer.

Russia had granted suffrage to women in 1917, three years before women in the United States got the right to vote. Furthermore, a new Family Code legalized divorce, allowed women to own property, eliminated the category of illegitimate children, and made family leave available. (Did you hear that last one, Ivanka Trump? One century earlier!) There were publicly funded child-care centers, public laundries, and cafeterias that made working outside the home easier to integrate with family life.

U.S. women seeking adventure found a range of possibilities in revolutionary Russia — working in factories and agricultural collectives, editing newspapers, and contributing to the cultural renaissance in dance and film.

Mickenberg’s writing reveals a story rarely told, a U.S. exile community similar to the one that thrived in Paris. It is not the more familiar story of Ernest Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, but the story of women attracted to the revolutionary frontier of Red Russia.

In 1934, African American actress, Frances E. Williams, visited Russia drawn to opportunities in film and theater. Her impression of childcare and college without debt has a current resonance. Mickenberg writes:

“Because her mother had worked since the age of five as a laundress, Frances E. Williams found Soviet attention to children profoundly moving: ‘Schools were available for your children, even nursery schools or pre-primary things were planned so that they were near, if you worked in a factory or wherever you worked… And you didn’t have to again hoard your money and know all the right people to get your children into college and be in debt all your life.’”

It is now 2017, 100 years after the Russian revolution. Many of us in the United States have been inspired, as some of us were in the 70s, by the vision of democratic socialism.

When 13 men huddled in the U.S. Senate to concoct a healthcare bill that, among other things, would eviscerate Planned Parenthood, opponents didn’t just say, “No!” They began to demand universal health care.   To this demand, we must add many others.

For women, for families, for children, for everyone, we need universal health care that provides for all aspects of reproductive health. And, we should add demands for paid family leave and universal childcare. With the present in dire straits, it is definitely time to re-imagine the future.

The New York Times article skips from a study on orgasms to the societal support systems that made life easier for women in East Germany. Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia gives a more nuanced view of women’s experience in revolutionary Russia – exploring affairs of the heart as well as those of the collective.

Let no one doubt that revolutionary fervor is a powerful aphrodisiac. It can provide the spark, but that spark needs to be nurtured. Societal support systems don’t sound quite so sexy– family leave, universal child care – but they can be quite exciting when they translate into less stress and more time.

The author is an Austin writer and activist.  She contributed to Sisterhood is Powerful, writes for The Rag Blog, and is a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

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Austin Movement History

On November 19, 2013, I wrote about Anne Lewis’ website, Austin Beloved Community.  Read the entire post in The Rag Blog.

Austin Beloved Community brings movement history alive in a digital collage of collective memory — audio, film, photos and maps, and a rich diversity of local recollection.

Anne Lewis came to Austin in 1998 and teaches film at the University of Texas at Austin. She hardly limits herself to teaching. She can often be seen behind a camera at marches or demonstrations or without a camera holding a picket sign.

This website is the history of the struggle for social justice told by participants who know that the struggle isn’t over.

 

Sattva

On October 12, 1970, this notice appeared in Austin’s underground newspaper, The Rag.

A new restaurant in Austin, SATTVA, at San Antonio and 21st, just around the corner from the Drag in the Hillel building, non-profit, run completely by members of the Austin community. Good food, macrobiotic and vegetarian cheap, vegetables and rice 35c, raw milk 10c a glass, good whole wheat bread, healthy, filling food, and good people. Open Monday thru Thursday from 11:00 AM to 8:30 PM closed on Friday. On Saturday, Free lunch from 12:00 to 1:00, dinner, not free from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, open Sunday from 3:00 to 8:30. Come by.

Sattva was a collectively run vegetarian restaurant. It was first established in October 1970 at the Hillel Student Center at 2105 San Antonio, but that arrangement was coming to an end when I got involved. I approached Bob Breihan, who ran the Methodist Student Center, about housing the noon hour restaurant.

Bob was blunt. “The only time I ate there,” he said, “I got terrible diarrhea.”

Despite his own digestive reluctance, he agreed and we moved about three blocks north into the Methodist Student Center kitchen at 2434 Guadalupe in the fall of 1971.

My strongest memory is garlic.  The first thing we did in the morning was mince garlic. We peeled the skin off cloves and chopped until we had a mound — aromatic and translucent.  After that we chopped a lot of onions. The garlic and onions went in the beans, the soups and the casseroles. Beans were essential, and rice.  The combo bowl was a real bargain. We usually had a soup, a tub of salad you could dish out with tongs, and a main entree like squash casserole, eggplant Parmesan or vegetarian enchiladas.

One morning, the health inspector paid a visit. He looked in on this somewhat bedraggled group of long hairs and asked: “Who’s the top banana here?”

Jay McGee, who wore a pony tail down his back and had a mustache like Yosemite Sam, gave the perfect response in his gravely, low voice: “We ate him for lunch.”

The inspector did his job, checking to see if we stored our onions or potatoes off the floor, looking for signs of rodent or roach droppings, seeing what we used as a cleaner. We passed inspection and he went on his way.  Sattva closed in December 1976.

Delta Diner

The Delta Diner was a short-lived spin-off from Sattva. It was located in the Campus Guild housing co-op at 2804 Whitis, a building that was constructed in 1941 by co-op residents and condemned in 1972. We served dinners there. Charlotte Pittman, Lori Hansel, Vernell Pratt, Michael Lutes and I were among the workforce. Vernell wrote the Delta Diner song and we’d serenade our dining guests.

(to the tune of “Nothing Could be Finer Than to Be in Carolina”)

 Nothing could be finer than to eat at Delta Diner in the evening.

Nothing could be greater than to eat a raw potato at the Diner.

And while you’re eating real good food and having a ball

You can meet with all your friends and plan the state’s fall

Nothing could be finer than to eat at Delta Diner in the evening.

We specialized in names for our entrees like “Squash the State Casserole.” The Delta Diner was open during the first shuttle bus strike when the drivers were organizing against stiff owner opposition to be represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). We offered to feed all striking shuttle bus drivers and their families for free, and many took us up on the offer. They won their contract in February 1972. I was in San Francisco in the summer of 1973, after the Delta Diner’s demise, when my mother sent me a clipping from the Austin American Statesman. The co-op building burned down on July 4, 1973.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Souer 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.

vpsq

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

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.”