Al Crosby didn’t gain fame until we had all left Washington State University and the little town of Pullman, out in the middle of the wheat fields. All our changes were there.
Al was the rare professor who bridged the generation gap and communed with us students. He even lived with us for a time in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective, a 40-something among us 20-something student radicals. I’m not sure I ever adequately apologized for that inedible garbanzo loaf. If any of you Rosa communards are reading this, I’d like to do so now. In my defense, I was stoned on acid.
Those were turbulent times. We vigorously protested the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia, the genocidal impulses of our rogue government. But our big student strike in the spring of 1970 was about racism. The university administration met our demand for a Black Studies program and Al, the white guy with the Boston accent, was tapped to teach Black History. That changed his life, and he changed our lives.
Thirty-five years later I was reading Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and I kept seeing Alfred Crosby referred to in footnotes. Could it be OUR Al? Of course, by then I could google him. I learned that Al’s 1972 book The Columbian Exchange had revolutionized the way historians view history! Al invented the concept of environmental history. He wrote a few other books as well, including Ecological Imperialism and a little history of explosions, Throwing Fire. He had become an expert on the flu epidemic of 1918 and I just saw him interviewed on PBS American Experience.
Some of us old communards got in touch and began a correspondence. Al had retired and was living with his wife Fran Karttunen on Nantucket Island. That’s where he died, of Parkinson’s disease, at Our Island Home where he had lived for two years.
Fran wrote to me: Al drew his last breath on March 14. There had been a tremendous wind and snow storm. Al waited out the storm and when it had passed and the sun was shining on fresh snow, Al followed Stephen Hawking into some other dimension where I would like to think of the two of them sharing a good laugh at the universe.
So many friends–young and old–have died in the last couple of years, I feel like the obituary has become my primary genre. Writing about my friends has helped me to remember their lives, to cope with grief and to tell their stories to the world. I’m delighted that the New York Times included my tribute to Chuck Cannon in its online Magazine section The Lives They Loved. Chuck was a lovely person and I was so glad to know him, even late in his life.
When I read the actress Salma Hayek’s op-ed in the New York Times about her stressful relationship with Harvey Weinstein, I had an immediate flash of recognition. When he ordered her to film a sex scene, she had a physical breakdown. She called it a nervous breakdown.
“My body began to shake uncontrollably, my breath was short and I began to cry and cry, unable to stop, as if I were throwing up tears. My mind understood that I had to do it, but my body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing.” Then she started throwing up. Her reaction wasn’t just about doing a sex scene. It was the result of many years of physical and (mostly) psychological harassment from this powerful man.
Harassment and bullying can cause stress that manifests in physical health problems that affect our work and lives. Women in male-dominated fields like construction understand this connection between stress and physical illness because it happens to us.
In 1981 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction site in San Francisco. Two other women also worked on that site and we sought each other out at lunch breaks. Cece, a black woman, was one of the very first of us to make it into the elevator constructor trade. She was a “helper.” She told me stories about her relationship with her violent white supremacist journeyman that made me fear for her life. Juanita, a carpenter, was Mexican-American. I saw comments about her written in the porta potties. “The little woman carpenter takes it in the ass.” Then others had crossed out ass and written in other orifices. It was a game with the men and it appeared they all participated.
As the weeks went on, both these women began having health problems. Cece disappeared from the job and I learned she had fallen ill with some undiagnosable stomach ailment and landed in the hospital (she had to leave her trade as a result). Then Juanita, who seldom was able to eat much at lunch, didn’t come to work one day.
My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—had my back. But one day he decided to drag up—to quit the job—and I was left on my own. Without my protector, I too became ill and had to leave the job.
All three of us women had worked hard to get into our trades and we were proud of our status as the first females. We were determined to succeed. But even though our minds told us we had to go to work, our bodies rebelled. We were forced to leave in spite of our commitment to stay.
The same thing happened to Shannon Faulkner, the first woman to be admitted to the Citadel military academy in 1995. She was well prepared physically, but it was the stress and its physical manifestations that did her in. She dropped out after four days of pledge week citing emotional and psychological abuse and physical exhaustion. She was derided by men as a wimp and by women because she made us look bad. Few believed that the stress of a hostile environment caused her failure.
Funerals and memorials can be good places to reconnect with old friends and colleagues. The last time I saw tradeswoman foremother Mary Garvin was more than a decade ago at a memorial for our dear friend and advocate Cindy Morano (of Wider Opportunities for Women) in Oakland. Now I’ve learned that Mary Garvin has died.
Mary was a very early tradeswoman activist. She worked as an electrician’s apprentice and as a carpenter in San Francisco before moving to New York where she organized the Women in Apprenticeship Project, which later became Nontraditional Employment for Women. Mary was involved in the U.S. Department of Labor lawsuit that established goals and timetables for women in construction in 1978.
I worked with Mary in an early attempt to form a national tradeswomen organization in the 1970s along with Susie Suafai, Cris McCullough and others. She had the energy of ten of us and seemed to never sleep. I remember Cris admonishing her not to call after 9 at night. “Tradeswomen have to get up early!”
From her obituary in the Tallahassee Democrat I learned that at 16 Mary moved from her home in Illinois to the infamous Wheeler Ranch in Sonoma County where she built her own house and lived for several years. Googling the Wheeler Ranch got me to fascinating stories about the commune and its hippie denizens.
Throughout her life Mary was committed to progressive causes. She had moved to Florida to work at protecting Florida’s caves. She is remembered by friends as “versatile, accomplished, self-reliant, generous, persistent and courageous.” I remember her as a hell of a lot of fun to work with, a committed sister in our struggle to integrate the construction trades.
I think of the catholic church as a dangerous cult and that perspective was only reinforced when I watched the movie The Novitiate, about a cloistered order of nuns and its response to the directives of Vatican II in the early 1960s. From the movie, directed by Maggie Betts, I learned that 90,000 nuns left the church after Vatican II, which devalued nuns and left them without support of the church.
The protagonist is a 17-year-old novice played by Margaret Qualley, but the star of the show is the angry, strict mother superior played with force by Mellissa Leo (remembered fondly as the lawyer in Treme). She represents the old habits and choses to ignore the new catholic rules until the cigarette-smoking, newspaper-reading archbishop visits and “suggests” she begin implementing the protocols if she wants to keep her job. We learn that she has never set foot outside the convent in 40 years and we sympathize with her bitterness and frustration.
Some of the old disciplines that must be abandoned include the medieval practice of self-flagellation. In this order the novice must ask the reverend mother for the “discipline,” a stranded leather whip with knotted ends and she must tell mother the fault or lapse that deserves punishment. Another curious practice is an activity in which each novice kneels in the middle of a circle of kneeling novices and confesses her faults to the reverend mother. In an odd way it resembles the encounter groups that were just taking off in that era.
All who lived in the cloistered convent observed hours of silence and they developed a sign language to communicate. The novices spent time on their knees or crawling on hands and knees or prostrate on the floor in penance for sins against god. Touching other human beings was strictly forbidden. But the protagonist, sister Cathleen, seeks comfort in the infirmary after having starved herself in penance for a sexy dream. She hugs and kisses another novice, who it seems has been transferred here because of lesbian exploits in another order. And so the constant undercurrent of sexual attraction finds expression and then contrition. Guilt abounds.
For me, the catholic church represents a historically misogynist institution bent on maintaining control over women, our bodies, our reproductive lives, even our intimate relationships. It damages not just catholics, but all women and the cultures we live in all over the world. Hate is not too strong a word for my feelings, especially since the church continues its anti-woman postures and politics.
I believe no one truly recovers from catholic propaganda, especially when immersed as a child. The dictionary’s alternate meaning of propaganda: “A committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.”
My latest favorite T-shirt shows two punks of indeterminate gender kissing. Its message is in Cyrillic script. I asked my friend Shelby, who had lived in Russia for a year, to translate, but she wasn’t able to make sense of it. Then recently I was wearing it when I encountered a Russian woman at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. She gladly translated its message.
Shut up! Shut up! Punk out!
Now that I know its message is from the Pussy Riot era, I love the T-shirt even more. Wearing it on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution conjures thoughts of tangled Russian history.
I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot as I’ve been grieving the death of my friend Shelby Morgan. Shelby was a Russophile who loved Russian culture and the Russian people. She was deeply influenced by the poet Anna Ahkmatova.
I interviewed Shelby as she was dying of ovarian cancer. The story of her life is fascinating and I learned so much that I had not known. I was especially interested in how she became radicalized and why she joined the Communist Party.
Shelby Morgan was born in 1949. Her birth day, May 19, was the same birth day as Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Augusto Sandino. When she walked into Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco and saw a poster with the date and pictures of all of them, she knew she was destined to be a revolutionary.
Shelby was born and raised in Corning, a little Arkansas town on the Mississippi Delta. It was flat farming country, hot and muggy. Her father was a traveling fertilizer salesman.
Growing up a white girl in the South during the Civil Rights Movement colored Shelby’s political development. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957 when she was eight years old stunned her.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘why would people act this way just because of skin color?’ Mom said, ‘It makes no sense.’ That was a very big deal to me.”
Because the Arkansas education system was so terrible, her parents sent her to a boarding school for white young ladies in Memphis, Tennessee in 11th grade (1966-67). Most of the students were from Mississippi and Alabama where schools had just been integrated, so their parents sent them there to get them out of the integrated public schools.
Shelby landed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Her first job was at the Exploratorium where she worked with its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
“He would play the flute while I played piano. We had a sweet little friendship going on. He was an old man at that point, an old commie. His atonement for his brother Robert’s involvement with the atom bomb was to start the Exploratorium.”
She joined the Communist Party in 1978.
“I was totally anti-capitalist at this point and even with the disaster that the Left was in at that time, there was an international movement and it was just thrilling to me. I just felt this was where the good work was being done. And it was fun. Man, did I have fun. The people were just great.”
By that time, most of the older generation of commies had left the Party after learning of Stalin’s purges.
“The old commies, people who’d left the Party, said ‘what about Czechoslovakia?’ We knew about all the atrocities. And I, because of my gender training, said I’d leave the theoretical issues up to the leadership who were primarily male. I said I’m about doing the work on the ground. And I just turned my back to it. It was only years later I started thinking I have to hold myself accountable for this too.”
Communists and others around the world were encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of reforms after he was elected to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985. When the era of perestroika and glasnost arrived, “we were hot for Gorbachev. I didn’t officially drop out of the Party till we moved to Russia in 1990.”
Shelby’s husband at the time, Dan, was accepted to do research in Russia. They took their four-year-old daughter, Sarah, with them to Russia in 1990. They came back one week before Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991.
“It was a very Interesting and difficult year. We were in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg, the cultural capital and the second largest city in Russia). This is hard to talk about because it was so difficult. Russians were really suffering at that point. For the first four months I was living the life of a Soviet woman, so while Dan was in the archives at the University of Leningrad, I would wait in line. There was no food to be had. You would go into a store and the shelves would be literally empty. I would stand in line for a soup bone and cabbage for two hours. We lived off cabbage soup. Fortunately Sarah got fed three days a week at school. After four months we got diplomatic coupons so we could shop. Even then I had to ride a bus across town for an hour to shop. Buses were so crowded. To get on you would have to push people. Sarah was sick all the time with earaches. The clinics and hospitals were filthy. They had no equipment, not even syringes. There was no hot water. I had to boil water to bathe and to wash clothes.
In 1991 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic crisis. The government was collapsing.
“We lived a block from Red Square in Leningrad. People were burning effigies of Gorbachev in the square. I remember standing in Red Square just sobbing. My dreams were dashed. Then Dan went to another city for a while to do research and left Sarah and me in Leningrad after we’d only been there a couple of months. My Russian was very poor. The Iraq war broke out. The American embassy called us together and told us we had to be really careful, lay low, watch your back. Sure enough one night someone threw a rock through Sarah’s bedroom window. I was just terrified.”
“I had a job teaching psychology (Transactional Analysis) at U of Leningrad. The Russians were hungry for input from the West. Psychology was dismal there. I also taught at a collective called Harmonia and did a Radical Therapy (RT) group.”
Her husband was researching a biography of the physiologist Ian Pavlov.
“When the summer came around, we moved out to the country to Pavlov’s daughter’s house in Komarovo on the Finnish-Soviet border. Stalin had built a village there for artists and intellectuals. It was where Pushkin had lived along with other famous artists and writers. I was really happy there. It was a sweet village with pine and birch trees and a beautiful lake. We used to pick berries. There were no cars. Most people caught a train between Leningrad and Komarovo. Everyone rode bikes there. On the way to the lake there was an old graveyard with old crosses and tombstones where the great female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was buried. My father died then just as the government was changing and I couldn’t get a plane back. This was just weeks before Gorbachev was overthrown. Everything was shut down. So I hung out at Akhmatovas’s grave to mourn my dad.”
As her marriage dissolved and she mourned her father’s death, Shelby watched as anti-Gorbachev forces grew. In Leningrad she heard tanks rumbling by on the cobblestone street outside their window.
“We were supposed to come back in September but I started thinking about getting Sarah in kindergarten so we came back early or else we would have been there (on August 19, 1991) when Gorbachev was actually overthrown.”
“We knew it was going to happen just the way it did because there was no civil society to butt up against the government and the mafia. Because it was so heavily state run.”
In the States Shelby worked as a youth counselor, a union organizer, in electoral politics, in the anti-apartheid movement, in the non-profit world, sometimes the only white person on staff. Shelby’s anti-capitalist outlook influenced her work in the Radical Therapy Movement.
“The theory was you should work only with people in groups, not individuals because unhappiness in life was not based on mental illness. It was a result of alienation from meaningful work, from community, from your body, from meaningful relationships. It was a way to anti-pathologize people’s unhappiness, a total anti-medical model of psychology.
“The reason people have trouble doing that: we grow up under capitalism, which is based on the idea that some people have to win, some have to lose. It’s based on competition and we carry that into our relationships. So RT developed this set of skills to teach people to have cooperative rather than competitive relationships. Radical Therapy was really key to building a mediation movement.”
Finding a time to interview Shelby was not easy. Even as she was dying, she was organizing, working for single payer health care, marching in demonstrations against Trump and for equality and justice. She was a lifelong activist and she is dearly missed by a large community of friends and comrades.
Shelby Morgan died August 28, 2017
From Wikipedia I learned that the poet Anna Akhmatova remained in Russia during the revolution and until her death in 1966. For long periods she was in official disfavor, and many of her relatives and friends fell victim to Soviet political repression.
In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Ahkmatova’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain. She wrote of her own temptation to leave:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
— When in suicidal anguish, trans. Jane Kenyon
Russia on My Mind
On the revolution’s centenary I’ve been thinking about Russia as I read articles by the prolific journalist Masha Gessen and The Unwomanly Face of War by Pulitzer Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich who chronicles stories of Soviet women soldiers in World War II. Then I picked up the Smithsonian magazine to read a compelling piece by Ian Frazier, Whatever Happened to the Russian Revolution. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-ever-happened-to-russian-revolution-180964768/. He condenses the history for us in between reminiscences of his travels to Russia in the last 24 years.
There are many lessons here. I hope we Americans can learn them soon enough to avoid contemporary political catastrophes.
In the wake of harassment allegations against sexual predators including movie moguls and our president, tradeswomen applaud women who are telling their stories and rising up against this outrage.
Women in male-dominated occupations have been fighting this fight for as long as we can remember. We’ve been on the front lines of the feminist movement for decades defending our sisters, supporting legislation to protect women against sexual harassment and helping employers and unions see their responsibility on this issue. We and our fight have been invisible except to each other. Every female construction worker has experienced harassment and all of us can say #Metoo.
In 1980 I worked as the only female electrician on a big construction job in San Francisco. That’s how it was for us then, and that’s how it still is. Women make up less than three percent of the construction workforce. We are often alone in a crowd of hundreds of men.
I would do my job, dressed in boots, hard hat and work clothes just like the men, looking over my shoulder anticipating violence and hostility. In the porta potties amidst the ubiquitous dicks drawn on the walls would be my name underneath the sentiment “I WANT TO FUCK YOU.” I was called “the cunt.”
I spent my working life in what we now call a hostile work environment. We had no word for it then. There was no recourse. You could complain to your foreman or your union rep but they would tell you that the harassment was your own fault and if you couldn’t take it you should leave the job. You loved the work and you loved the paycheck and so you kept your mouth shut and your head down. And you depended on male allies. My tool buddy on that job—the only guy who would work with me—was a Hispanic/native man whose family had been in California since it was still part of Mexico. He had my back.
Some things have changed since then and the changes are the direct result of feminist organizing. In the 1970s tradeswomen who had been the target of harassment began to bring lawsuits against employers. They lost. When the civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton, as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Jimmy Carter, released regulations declaring sexual harassment to be discrimination under federal law, women finally had legal backing.
In the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case, the Supreme Court distinguished between and prohibited two kinds of sexual harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurred when women were made offers such as a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor. Equally important, however, was the hostile environment harassment where men could make the everyday workplace into a place of threats, hostility, offensive images, abusive language. This is the kind of harassment tradeswomen most frequently endure.
The movie North Country dramatized conditions that led to the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1988 by Lois Jensen and female miners at the Eveleth Taconite Company in Minnesota. After these women won a $3.5 million settlement, employers began to take notice. Our working conditions began to improve.
We were helped by a few dedicated lawyers. In San Francisco we were lucky to work with attorneys at Equal Rights Advocates and Employment Law Center. Other legal groups included the National Women’s Law Center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum).
That sexual harassment is now against the law is the one big change tradeswomen have noticed over the years that has improved our working lives in a male-dominated workplace. In many other ways our workplace environment hasn’t changed that much. We are still underemployed, last hired and first fired, often poorly trained and generally undervalued. Yet some tradeswomen have had successful careers and are retiring with good pensions. Some have become apprenticeship directors, union business agents, and chairs of state building trades councils. We have built organizations and networks across the country to improve our lot. I just returned from our national conference, this year in Chicago, Women Build Nations. It started as Women Building California, sponsored by the California Building Trades Council and Tradeswomen Inc. in 2001 and has now become international, this year sponsored by the National Building Trades Unions and Chicago Women in Trades. A record 1600 women and male allies attended. Workshops on sexual harassment were featured, as always. But the construction industry now has policies in place to train workers and to prevent harassment.
Tradeswomen are glad sexual harassment is now a mainstream issue, but for us it’s nothing new. We’ve been resisting for decades and still we persist.