The Year of Awakening

— Barbara Winslow

Against the Current: Which events of 1968 were you involved in? How did that event/those events affect you personally and politically at the time?

Barbara Winslow: I was a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

ATC: How did you see yourself as a woman who was a political activist before, during and afterwards? How did you relate (or not) to the rise of the women’s liberation movement?

BW: I was involved in the formation of one of the first women’s liberation groups, Seattle Radical Women, which was founded in October 1967. However, until April 1968 I was very happily in the shadow of my husband, who was a prominent campus radical. Much of this history is in my chapter Primary and Secondary Contradictions in Seattle, in the Feminist Memoir Project (eds. DuPlessis and Snitow, Rutgers University Press, 2007).

Our first public protest took place in April 1968, during a week on activities protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam. All of us who were involved politically were thrilled about events of 1968, beginning first with the Tet offensive of the National Liberation Front. We were ecstatic about the student revolt at Columbia University and inspired when we read that Columbia women demanded equal political roles during the sit-ins.

During our week of antiwar activities, we learned that the University of Washington Men’s Association was going to bring a Playboy bunny to speak to University of Washington students. Immediately our group went into action, convinced this was another fraternity plot to dissipate attention from antiwar activities.

The bunny Reagan Wilson’s first appearance was speaking to 400 or so women(!) students. Radical Women decided that we would put paper bags on our heads and chant satirical lines from the Book of Common Prayer. Part of the chant went, “Reagan Wilson, you are an empty vessel.” I thought the plan was terrible. So I did not rush the stage, but sat in the auditorium.

But when the protesters got punched, kicked and thrown off the stage, I knew I had to act. That is why, although I had never spoken in public, suddenly there I was on this stage with a Playboy bunny. I explained that this was a women’s liberation demonstration, we were tired of being treated like sex objects, and we wanted to be treated like human beings.

No one comprehended the politics of what I was saying. People were screaming at me “get lost,” “get laid,” “get a husband” (which I already had); others pointed out that if I was so tired of being a sex object why was I wearing a miniskirt shorter than the bunny’s?

At this point Reagan Wilson explained that she was protesting the war by sending photos to soldiers. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was dragged off the stage. Only then did I realize what I had done. I rushed into the nearest women’s bathroom and threw up.

When I was finally reunited with my sisters, student government officials told us we were going to face disciplinary action. We were astounded. We hadn’t hurt anyone, but we had been kicked, bitten, scratched and dragged off a stage. Susan Stern, who was also married to a campus radical, and I were brought in front of the Dean of Students and introduced as Mrs. Susan Stern and Mrs. Cal Winslow.

At that moment, I had had it. Indignantly I stomped my foot in front of the dean and said, “I am not Mrs. Anybody. I am Barbara Winslow.”

The next day our protest made the front page of Seattle’s major newspapers. The University of Washington Daily headline stated “Playmate meets women — Radical Ones,” with a picture of me confronting the bunny and my skirt shorter than hers. The Seattle Post Intelligencer headlined “Guys Gulp, Coeds Sulk at 42-24-36.”

I wish I could say that from that moment on I became a truly independent woman, but it was the first time I had ever spoken up on my own, and for the first time I felt as if I had something to say that I could say better than my husband.

Our demonstration exhilarated us. We felt confident and strong. We met with Flo Kennedy, the radical Black feminist lawyer who encouraged our activities. We staged our second public demonstration over Memorial Day, supporting the women of Vietnam — not as victims but as fighters against U.S. imperialism.

Seattle Radical Women split in the summer of 1968, and a number of us organized Women’s Liberation – Seattle, which at that moment in time (and space does not allow me to go into all the detail of the political differences and complexities) was a committee of the Students for a Democratic Society and of the Peace and Freedom Party. We were very active in transforming the gender relations of both groups, although we never challenged the male chauvinism of the PFP’s presidential candidate Eldridge Cleaver, who was the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information.

One of our major activities was protesting all the major presidential candidates. Our most eventful protest was against Hubert Humphrey for his position supporting the war in Vietnam. Borrowing a red, white and blue maternity dress, I disguised myself as a pregnant woman, and inside my “womb” was a loudspeaker. Our heckling was so disruptive that we enraged the audience, who demanded we be thrown out.

When Humphrey walked on the stage, I stood up to lead the chanting “Dump the Hump.” The police came in and the first person they threw out was William Apple of the New York Times. Then they threw me on top of him. According to the article appearing in the next day’s New York Times, when he asked if I had been hurt I replied, “Of course not. I’m a liberated woman.” That was how my parents heard about women’s liberation.

1968 was the first year of my feminist activism. The intensity of that transformational feminist experience has stayed with me and continues to give me a tiny light ray of hope in these very grim times.

ATC: Were you involved in a movement or socialist organization at the time, or chose to join one subsequently?

BW: I was active in SDS and the Peace and Freedom Party. As the politics of the Weatherman faction grew in influence, I grew more alienated from SDS. National SDS leaders Tom Hayden, Bernadine Dohrn, Mike James, Mike Klonsky, Bill Ayers were hostile to women’s liberation and behaved in the most repugnant way to SDS women.

In spring 1969 the women’s liberation committee of SDS was involved in supporting a strike of women photo finishers, getting arrested for aggressive picketing.

When we got out of jail, we immediately went to an SDS meeting, where the SDS campus leaders (mainly men) explained to us why we should not support the strike. They told us that SDS was committed to fighting racism and imperialism and this strike had nothing to do with either. I thought it was outrageous that this small group of middle-class white men were snottily critiquing the actions of older (they were probably in their thirties) working-class women, who earned only minimum wage, who had been ignored by their union leadership, and who were on strike and fighting back for the first time in their lives.

We were told that unless these women “gave up their white skin privilege” (!) SDS would not support the strike. Later that summer Anne Draper, a member of the Independent Socialist Clubs and a veteran trade unionist, spoke with me about socialism, union and labor organizing and women’s liberation.

While a student in England I joined the International Socialists (the group now called the Socialist Workers Party). In retrospect (and perhaps it is just self-justification) I still believe that of all the sectarian groups, the International Socialists in the United States was the least sectarian and had the greatest understanding and support for women’s liberation.

For me, living in Ohio, my activism in the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) and supporting the Harlan County Brookside Women’s Club during the 1973 coal miners’ strike connected the hyphen of socialist-feminism.

ATC: What are the lessons you’d like to pass along to today’s activists?

BW: I welcome their activism. I encourage activists, especially younger ones, to work on building grassroots organizations and not to trust politicians. Also, you don’t need to take our, meaning older activists’, advice, but it does help to listen sometimes. I wished I had.

ATC 133, March–April 2008