Is Romance Addictive? Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Seduced by Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind. Movie poster of the film directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Unites States, 1939. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

I might have been 12 when I read Gone with the Wind, the only time I read a book with a flashlight under the covers all through the night. What kept me reading? Not the Civil War. It was the romance. I couldn’t wait till handsome, sexy Rhett Butler made the scene again. 

Mom, a literary person who read books constantly, was not pleased. “It’s not literature,” she said. Later I thought that was code for racist. By that time, in the early 1960s, the novel had gained ill will for its Confederate perspective. Or maybe Mom was simply telling me that romance novels are not great literature. Maybe she had also read it all night under the covers. Maybe she, too, was embarrassed for liking it so much.

I know she liked it. The book I was reading was a first edition, collected by my mother when it came out in 1936. It was the bomb and three years later Mom engaged in a nation-wide contest to see who could guess which actress would be chosen to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie. White America was captivated. Black America protested and worried that racist caricatures would result in violence.

Although I was obsessed with Gone with the Wind and couldn’t stop reading until the end, I didn’t get addicted to romance novels like some women seem to be, perhaps because my literary mother steered me elsewhere.

Obsessed with Bridgerton

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Sixty years later I find myself obsessed with the Shonda Rhimes Netflix series Bridgerton, which takes place during the late Regency era in England. Bridgerton is based on eight romance novels by Julia Quinn, about a wealthy family of the period (the early 1800s). The main characters are beautiful and super rich but, thankfully they are not all white people. Instead, some of the most powerful characters are people of color, including the queen herself. 

Shonda Rhimes, the show’s producer, is right now the most powerful Black woman in TV land. She got famous with Grey’s Anatomy and has gone on to produce a plethora of shows. How do the folks in ShondaLand decide what to show us and how to show it? I’m imagining Shonda exclaiming, “Let’s make a series about rich English people and populate it with people of color! We can turn the 19th century on its head and give work to some Black actors.” (I might add POC writers, directors, producers and show runners. I see that Cheryl Dunye, the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film, is working on this project.)

It does feel like a subtle nose thumbing to the white supremacy rearing its ugly head all around us. But it’s more than just colorblind casting. Rhimes calls it “color conscious casting.” Miscegenation turns out to be an introduced element that maintains interest even when the plot turns to cliché as it sometimes does. Characters have been called “deeply shallow,” and the series “silly.” Like the romance novels the series is based on, the tropes can be overused. Still, like Gone with the WindBridgerton is wildly popular. It’s the most watched English language television series on Netflix.

Is romance addictive?

Photo: Time Inc.

Why am I binging? It’s the romance. I can’t get enough of these beautiful people falling in love. I don’t wish for them to have sex. There was a lot of sex in the first season of the series, and I didn’t care. I read that the actors, too, watching with their parents, were embarrassed and fast forwarded through the sex scenes. Regé-Jean Page, the handsome hunk of the first season, said he wasn’t wild about his family seeing so much of his bum (he does have a lovely bum and I did enjoy looking).

In the second season sex is more apogee. The characters spend time working up to it—the touch of hands, the looking into each others’ eyes. Shonda and the writers know how to orchestrate anticipation. In the early part of the second season, the main characters, obviously madly in love, barely touched and certainly didn’t kiss, though they got very close often. 

The show has my attention not only because of the sexual tension, which lasts through the season. It also has no violence or murder. Rivalries, power plays, deception, class conflict yes. Also palace intrigue, family relationships, friendship between women, queer subtexts, Jane Austen tropes, fabulous costumes and interiors. We know not to expect car crashes, explosions or automatic weapons and for me that’s a relief.

Watching or reading romance is kind of like a drug. The feeling I’m left with is like the day after a night of passionate lovemaking. I keep replaying the scenes in my head with a smile on my face. I can see why it might lead to addiction.

I suppose that’s why romance still sells. A few writers of popular romance novels are making millions, and millions of women (and some men) are reading. Who cares whether we get addicted to romance? Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Except some christian diviners of moral behavior have labeled it addiction and are worried that romance novels will cause women to leave their husbands, who can never match up to those bodice-ripping heroes. It is a disease they say, just as porn has captured the attention of men. But I suspect these christians associate anything that gives women pleasure with sin. 

if it’s sin, I’m all in. I can just add Bridgerton to all the christian sins I commit daily like being happily married to another woman. Now I’m looking forward with great anticipation to season three. Shonda knows what we like.

Tradeswomen Magazine Documents Two Decades of Activism

Before there were facebook groups, there was Tradeswomen Magazine. 

Published quarterly from 1981 until 1999, Tradeswomen Magazine gave voice to a community of women all over the country and the world who were isolated and often harassed at work. We were pioneers, we had stories to tell, and the only people who truly understood our struggles were other women doing the same work. 

Our very first issue 1981

Tradeswomen Magazine documents an important period in our collective history, of a time when we were just starting to break down the barriers to nontraditional jobs, a time when we had to fight to be hired, and a time when every day on the job put us at the cutting edge of the feminist movement. 

We wrote about sexual harassment, racism in construction, affirmative action, trades training programs, health and safety, union apprenticeships, and we interviewed women about what it was like working in their trades.

Unfortunately, tradeswomen still struggle with many of the same issues we wrote about and discussed in the 1980s and 90s. That makes Tradeswomen Magazine not just an historic artifact, but also still relevant to the tradeswomen of the 21st century.

In the 1970s tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area had been communicating through a mimeographed newsletter. In 1979 we founded the nonprofit Tradeswomen Inc. Then in 1980 the organization received a small grant from the U.S. Department of Labor with the help of Madeline Mixer, regional director of the Department’s Women’s Bureau. The grant allowed us to print and mail out two issues of a publication to individual tradeswomen and organizations across the country. After that, we depended on subscriptions along with volunteer labor to sustain the magazine.

We organized as a collective, usually with one of the collective members taking the position of executive editor. We did not operate by consensus–somebody needed to have the last word. The first editor, carpenter Jeanne Tetrault, had edited a newsletter and a book about country women. Jeanne convinced us that the publication should be a magazine and not a newsletter. People throw away newsletters, she said, but they keep magazines. This proved true. Over the years we’ve been contacted by many tradeswomen who saved all the issues and wanted to make sure we had copies of them all for the archives.

Summer, 1984

Eleven women composed our first collective. In the early years we met on a Saturday and typed our stories into columns, then cut them out and pasted them onto mock-up boards. The photographs were sent to a camera shop to be made into halftones for printing. After we picked up the magazine from the (union) printer, we sponsored a mailing party in which volunteers stuck a mailing label on each magazine, then bundled them into zip code bunches for bulk mailing. It was quite a cumbersome task given that we sent out about a thousand magazines quarterly. The mailing parties continued through the very last issue.

Over the two decades, hundreds of women participated in the publication of the magazine. It really was a community-based effort. Tradeswomen Inc.’s staff person took care of memberships, subscriptions and finances. 

From the very first issue, carpenter Sandy Thacker, whose photograph graces its cover, provided photos. We agreed that these images of women on the job were as important, if not more important, than our words. Anne Meredith and others also supplied photos. From the beginning we made an effort to feature photos of women of color.

Executive editor was a burn-out job. After the first year, Jeanne Tetrault bowed out as editor, and cabinetmaker Sandra Marilyn and dock worker Joss Eldredge assumed editorial control. From 1982 to 1987 with the help of volunteers as well as Tradeswomen Inc. directors Bobbie Kierstead and then Sue Doro, Joss and Sandra produced 20 memorable issues.

Then a collective reemerged with carpenter Barb Ryerson as editor. We began exploring digitization. I took on the job of editor in 1988 and was joined by electrician Helen Vozenilek in 1989. Along with a bevy of contributors, Helen and I produced nine issues before we burned out. Then electrician Janet Scoll Johnson assumed the helm to publish 10 beautiful issues as we went to color covers. When Janet burned out, the Tradeswomen Inc. director, Bobbi Tracy picked up the slack, with C.J. Thompson-White producing two issues. 

Spring 1984

During this period Tradeswomen Inc. also had been publishing a local monthly newsletter, Trade Trax, to inform women in the local Bay Area about job openings and more timely events. We decided to roll the magazine and newsletter into one publication coming out six times a year instead of quarterly. I took the role of editor, tacking a calendar of the whole year on my wall to remind me of deadlines. It seemed like every day was a deadline! After producing five issues, I had to admit it was too much work to pile on my 40-hour work week as an electrical inspector. 

We returned to publishing the magazine as a quarterly in 1996. I bought a roll-top desk set up for a computer, assembled it in my bedroom and called it my International Publishing Empire. I edited each issue and laid it out in a computer program called PageMaker, whose workings I understood just enough to get by. Many folks helped in the magazine’s last years, but the most devoted was Bob Jolly, a retired English teacher whose daughter had been a tradeswoman. Finally, in the 1998-99 winter issue, I wrote of my intention to pass on the job to another volunteer editor. No one applied for the job, and that became the final issue.

We saved all the issues of Tradeswomen Magazine with the intention of making them available online. Retired stationary engineer Pat Williams volunteered hundreds of hours of her time to digitize every issue. Thanks to Pat and every one of the volunteers who helped to make this publication a written piece of our history. The magazine can now be found in the California State University at Dominguez Hills Tradeswomen Archives: http://digitalcollections.archives.csudh.edu/digital/collection/tradeswomen. Actual copies of the whole set are available at the Tradeswomen Archives, the San Francisco Labor Archives and Research Center, and the San Francisco Public Library. 

Tradeswomen Magazine was the first and only national publication written, edited and published by and about women in trades. I’m so proud to have been a part of its creation.

What’s Class Got to Do with It?

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part Two

Lawyers made me dumb.

Or maybe it was all in my own head.

Serving on the board of a law firm with a bunch of high-powered lawyers turned me from an articulate leader to a person who doubted my own abilities.

The non-profit law firms, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Employment Law Center (ELC) partnered with my organization Tradeswomen Inc. (TWI) on critical projects during the 1980s. Our goal was equity in employment and specifically integrating the construction trades which had excluded women and people of color from high-paying jobs.

I loved the lawyers at ERA because they thought outside the box. They understood that social movements cannot be all about litigation and they were willing to work with us to try other tactics.

Sometime during the ‘80s, after having worked together on a lawsuit, I was invited to lunch by the director, Nancy Davis and staff attorney Judy Kurtz (it was a cheap Mexican place South of Market near the ERA offices). They sat me down and asked if I would like to join the ERA board of directors. I was delighted. I was surprised. I was flattered. Could they really want a tradeswoman activist to sit on their board with a bunch of big law firm attorneys? Of course I said yes.

I was no stranger to boards of directors. TWI had been a 501(c)3 since 1979 and I served on its board. At that time, I was also on the board of Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP) along with another tradeswoman, carpenter Tere Carranza. But this was different. I would be the lone blue-collar worker among 10 or 15 attorneys. I did understand that my role on the board would be “client representative” and I was happy that ERA sought out such representation. I vowed to be the best client rep ever.

Rooms with a View

ERA board meetings took place in the high-rise offices of big San Francisco law firms where the board members worked, usually in the boardroom, always with an impressive view of the city. I could not stop oooing and ahhing and realized I never would have gotten into these exclusive places otherwise (except that as an electrical inspector I sometimes got to inspect high-rise construction sites). Occasionally they would be held in the crowded, run down ERA offices in the slummy South of Market neighborhood.

Unlike the TWI board meetings, where the board doubled as the staff (we called it a working board), ERA board meetings benefited from staff backup. We got a packet of material with minutes, agenda and background information. We got the benefit of expert consultants’ advice. Meetings were well organized and informative. I rarely had much to say.

My presence was more useful for fundraising. I would come to meetings with foundation program managers dressed in Carhartts, hard hat in hand, a real live example of ERA’s final product—a woman with a high paying trades job. My individual fundraising contacts were few, and I had already maxed out the contacts I had. Friends, I feared, would avoid me on the street so as not to be asked for money to support TWI, which was always in debt.

Still, I could make calls to moneyed folks when a list was handed to me during fundraising campaigns. We usually worked in pairs, and one time I sat at lunch with my comrade and asked a patron for $10,000 (we got it).

These forays into the world of wealthy lawyers sparked a range of mixed feelings and increased my awareness of class. I was constantly comparing the wealth of ERA (actually a rather poor nonprofit) to the poverty of TWI whose continued existence its board of directors was also responsible for. I wished I could take the list of potential donors and ask them to support TWI (I never did, of course). I knew I could make a good case. The truth was that our two organizations collaborated and we were all better for it.

I was already conscious of the class differences between me and the other ERA board members, but the difference in the fortunes of the two organizations strained them further. I was the poor relative, grateful for any crumbs that came my way. The feeling was especially magnified when we met with foundations. I remember a meeting with the representative of the Rockefeller Foundation at a time when Tradeswomen’s fortunes were sagging, one of the several times the organization nearly went under for lack of funding. The Rockefeller woman was young, chatty, dressed in fashionable New York attire (I wore my electrician work clothes). I felt so desperate in her presence that I had to keep myself from prostrating myself at her feet to beg for money. 

Poor Forlorn and Angry

I had taken on the identity of my poor failing organization. I felt poor and forlorn—and angry.

During my years on the ERA board I did speak up occasionally when I thought a working class or lesbian voice needed to be heard. Lawyers, even progressive ones, can be conservative. One time the board president, who was a woman of color, gave me a dressing down right in the meeting. 

“You are not the only person here who has faced discrimination,” she admonished me. Her public criticism stung. I honestly don’t know what I’d said to set her off. But I suddenly became aware of resentment flowing toward me and wondered if others on the board shared her feelings. I had thought myself a powerless person in this group. Suddenly I had power, if only negative power.

The ERA staff did appreciate my perspective and when the board president stepped down I was asked to take the position. But I had lost confidence in myself and I turned it down. What had happened to me? I certainly knew how to run a meeting, a skill I’d perfected as a kid in 4-H. I’d been leading meetings of tradeswomen for years.

Blow Up

I had never been close to the staff, or board of ERA for that matter. Staff attorney Judy Kurtz and I had a good professional relationship; we had worked together on many projects. Then, as happens with so many organizations, the founder’s impending retirement in part led to a blow up. The suggested reorganization didn’t work; the woman chosen for a newly created position was, as they say, a bad fit. I confess when I tried to discuss tradeswomen’s issues with her, she seemed clueless. Some staff resented not being considered for the position. In good faith, the leadership had hired outside the staff, seeking more diversity. But we suddenly realized how fragile relationships within the organization had become. I quickly got to know the staff and talked to them trying to understand what was happening. It was a mess. (Another issue was the plan to hire part time staff, possibly to avoid paying benefits.) Everybody was pissed off and some relationships never recovered. When the board, looking for a scapegoat, took aim at Judy, I resigned.

Tradeswomen Inc.’s relationship with ERA continued after I left the board, but the new board of directors had different ideas about the mission and goals of the law firm. They eschewed any activities not related to policy and litigation. ERA had been the leader in building coalitions within the civil rights community. For a small organization and constituency like tradeswomen, association with a larger civil rights community was necessary to achieve even notice, let alone long-term change. We felt privileged to be part of coalitions working to achieve racial and gender justice.

Also, all of us were aware that the power of organizations like ours was concentrated in the East. We were doing amazing work out here in the West, but few policy makers noticed. 

Noticed by Ford 

Tradeswomen continued to push ERA to help us fight discrimination in the building trades, and we got a chance at new programs when the Ford Foundation took notice in the early 2000s. The program manager was a friend of someone and that’s how we got an interview with her. ELC was also interested in the promised $600K. Tradeswomen participated in meetings, but program ideas seemed vague. We kept trying to get a better sense of them. The ERA rep who was working with us came with us to Denver for a national tradeswomen conference. All was happy. We were sisters in struggle. Only later did we find out that ERA was awarded the money with no stipulations to create programs for tradeswomen. We felt used by ERA. ELC got left out of the loop and this resulted in strained relations between the two law firms. Some staffers cut ties with ERA entirely. All over money. Of course, Tradeswomen had learned this lesson in the past. Funders, and especially the federal government, make all of our organizations compete for a tiny sum of money they allocate to programs. 

Lessons for the Future

What did we learn from our years’-long collaboration with ERA and ELC? 

*Small organizations like Tradeswomen need to find partners. We can’t do it alone.

*Litigation can be crucial to civil rights movements, but cannot be the only tactic.

*Relationships are important, more important than money. 

*In our “classless society” class is still a thing.

We All Needed a Good Lawyer

A History of the Tradeswomen Movement Part One

The envelope delivered to my small flat in San Francisco’s Mission District, shared with three other women, was fat with a far away return address. I knew what it contained even before opening the envelope—a cry for help—and I also knew there would be nothing I could do about it. 

I was already involved in the tradeswomen movement when I relocated to San Francisco from Seattle in 1976.  As a publicly identified tradeswoman activist, I would get letters from women all over the country complaining of horrific harassment and discrimination in nontraditional jobs. I felt powerless. We didn’t even have an organization, let alone a program to help. What these women needed was a good lawyer.

During the 1970s, we activists formed organizations all over the country. In 1979 we started a nonprofit, Tradeswomen Inc., to provide support and advocacy for tradeswomen, but we weren’t able to secure funding. With no staff we were run by volunteers—unemployed tradeswomen.

Enter Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a law firm begun in 1974 by feminist lawyers with a focus on defending women’s employment rights. I remember sitting around on the floor in somebody’s living room in the late ‘70s strategizing about how to open up jobs to women that had traditionally belonged to men. That’s when I met Judy Kurtz, a staff attorney at ERA, and we began to collaborate. Later I served on the ERA board of directors for many years.

Looking at the Big Picture

Ours was an anti-poverty strategy. The feminization of poverty was a popular buzzword (still applicable today). Women, especially female heads of households, were becoming poorer and poorer in relation to men. Well-paid union jobs in the construction trades could lift up our gender if we could open them to women. Apprenticeship programs in the construction trades like electrical, plumbing, carpentry, ironwork, and operating engineer only require a high school diploma or a GED to enter. Then the training is free and the apprentice works and earns a wage while she is in school. There are no college loans to repay. We saw these jobs as a path to financial independence for women.

ERA had been part of a national class action lawsuit against the US Department of Labor which resulted in the creation of federal goals and timetables for women and minorities in the construction trades. New regulations took effect in 1978. The goal was to have 6.9 percent of the construction workforce be women on federally funded jobs. Having federal law on our side buoyed us while Jimmy Carter was president, but as soon as Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal affirmative action laws and guidelines were no longer enforced. We had to be creative. We decided to focus on the state level where there was still some commitment to enforcing affirmative action regulations.

Focus on California

Tradeswomen Inc. was fortunate to work with lawyers who were willing not only to take our individual cases, but also to help us strategize about using class action lawsuits to desegregate the workforce. We wanted to make law, to actually create change. 

The building trades in California include about 35 apprenticable trades and each trade has a union with different rules, and each union has many locals throughout the state. Not a single apprenticeship program out of hundreds in the state was even close to meeting goals for women’s participation. What could we do to get them to comply?

By 1980 we had some history with all the players. Our partner, Women in Apprenticeship Program (WAP), was placing women into trades apprenticeships in California, working with the apprenticeship program directors and compliance officers. 

The unions were a huge barrier to women but we chose not to take legal action against unions. Our goal was to work with unions, be part of the union movement. Besides, there were so many! So we decided to sue the enforcer.

Suing the State

The State Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS) oversees apprenticeship programs and is charged with enforcing affirmative action goals, but they would routinely give a pass to programs that claimed to have made a “good faith effort” to meet the goals. Partnering with Tradeswomen Inc., ERA filed suit against DAS for failure to enforce the goals. The lawsuit resulted in a requirement that the state produce quarterly statistical reports which allowed us to evaluate their progress. We might have had some small impact on the DAS, but we had to take them back to court for contempt five years later. Nothing had really changed.

Then we took on the DAS through the Little Hoover Commission, which investigates state government operations. The public testimony of many tradeswomen got attention, even an article in the New York Times. The investigation ended with DAS getting its funding cut by the Republican administration, which did nothing to help our cause.

Then came a period when DAS made a big turnaround on our issues. It was during the administration of Gray Davis, the Democratic governor elected in 1999. He was only in office for three years when the Republicans mounted a successful recall campaign against him. Davis appointed a friend of tradeswomen to head the DAS, Henry Nunn, a Black man from the painters’ union. Suddenly there was some funding to promote women in trades and we partnered with the state agency to sponsor some great programs, like the dedication of the Rosie the Riveter park in Richmond where we got to commune with the Rosies, and a trades day for Bay Area high school students. We loved working with the DAS staff, a bunch of smart feminists. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger took over as governor, he brought back into state government all the guys from the previous Republican Wilson administration, and Henry Nunn was axed. It did show us that the state could do the right thing with the right leadership. It also reinforced our impression that Democrats are way different from Republicans.

Part of the Civil Rights Movement

From the very beginning we saw ourselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights and we worked in coalition with other civil rights groups to publicize and also to defend affirmative action programs. In 1977 we were active in a coalition that formed around the Bakke case, which upheld affirmative action in college admission policy. We also partnered with ERA and other civil rights organizations to oppose proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1996 (we lost, and a proposition to overturn 209 in 2020 lost). Some of our partners in the West Coast coalition included Bill McNeill of Employment Law Center; Joe Hogan, retired OFCCP; Tse Ming Tam of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and their founder Henry Der; Eva Paterson of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights; and Superlawyer Brad Seligman. These are luminaries in the social justice sphere and we were so lucky to have their support.

Tradeswomen Monitoring Network

We also collaborated on other projects involving coalition partners like trades unions and the Human Rights Commission. We went to lots of meetings of DAS and its community body, the California Apprenticeship Council to make the labor community aware of their responsibilities. Susie Suafai, who had directed WAP, was hired to monitor the Oakland federal building project—one of the few projects to meet federal affirmative action goals.

This willingness of ERA to use staff time to advocate for us as well as litigate was a huge plus. Litigation was important to our movement, creating the original goals and timetables and affirmative action regulations so crucial for women’s entry into these jobs. But we knew well that litigation alone does not make a movement.

As class action lawsuits became harder to win, and courts were filled with Republican-appointed judges, litigation was a less effective strategy for change. Tradeswomen and ERA continued to look for ways to work together. In the early 2000s we applied together for a grant from the Ford Foundation. ERA received the grant, but Tradeswomen saw none of the money, nor did any program result as far as we could tell. We felt used and the relationship foundered. Another casualty of this fight for funding was ERA’s relationship with the Employment Law Center, a partner in the DAS suit and other related discrimination lawsuits. ELC was directed by Joan Graff, another hero in our battle for affirmative action. This is just one example of how the fight for funding pitted organizations with similar goals against each other.

The ‘80s saw the decline of affirmative action. The ‘90s was a period of working to keep in place the laws and regulations we had fought so hard for, even though they weren’t being enforced. President Clinton appointed Shirley Wilshire as head of OFCCP. She came out of National Women’s Law Center, one of our coalition partners. 

We put together a national coalition to pressure the OFCCP to enforce the regulations and increase the percentage of women on federal contracts. We had the support of the White House, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. We planned to file an administrative petition asking for higher goals for women and enforcement of federal regulations, but Wilshire and federal officials argued that we should keep our heads down and hope that Congress didn’t notice and remove the enforcement regulations entirely.

Tradeswomen activists learned about the laws that affected us and we continued to pay attention to the law as it changed through the years. The biggest change for us on a day-to-day level was that sexual harassment was made illegal. This happened not through the passage of a single law, but through a series of court cases with a lot of nudging from the feminist movement. The work of Eleanor Holmes Norton was key.

Today we still rely on ERA and feminist lawyers to push the federal government to meet its affirmative action goals on declared“mega projects” (the only goals still in effect in California). We have entered a period of backlash. While trades have opened up to women technically, we still face discrimination and our ways of fighting back have been restricted.

Beltane and a Black Heroine

My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting

The entrance to Beltane Ranch on Hwy 12

Dear Friends,

Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. 

Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.

The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female  millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859. 

John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society. 

Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work. 

Mrs. Pleasant’s New Orleans style ranch house

In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.

The entrance to Calabazas Creek Open Space

In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.

Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.

“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.

An old olive tree left at the remains of a ranch along Calabazas Creek

Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances. 

In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage. 

After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years. 

Wild lupine

With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.

Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.

Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell. 

Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”

Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.

Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.

Wishing you all a lovely holiday.

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