FLO KENNEDY and IRENE DAVALL: Forever Activists

FLO KENNEDY and IRENE DAVALL: Forever Activists

by Merle Hoffman

With Volume V, On the Issues is pleased to welcome two contributing editors: Florence Kennedy and Irene Davall, long time activists in both the civil rights and women’s movements. In 1971, they were instrumental in founding the Feminist Party, a national but informal organization still in existence, that works for women’s equality and choice by instituting legislative action and political action in behalf of candidates. The first candidate to be supported by the party was Shirley Chisholm. Flo Kennedy, an attorney, was also one of the original founders of NOW, but abandoned it soon after when she decided it was geared too much to white, middle-class women. In 1969, she gave up her law practice to ‘kick more ass” by lecturing and writing. Her book, Abortion Rap (regrettably out-of-print) was a comprehensive compilation of information on the abortion issue, including the testimonies of women who were forced to face illegal and unsafe abortions. No one can adequately describe Flo Kennedy on paper -this straight talking, clear thinking dynamo has to be experienced in the flesh for the full flavor of her earthiness and zest to be appreciated.

Irene Davall, Flo’s longtime friend and comrade in arms, has been an activist in the women’s movement since 1962. In the ’70s she wrote a syndicated column, ‘The Liberated Woman” and had two Cable TV shows in New York focusing on women’s issues. A strong pro-choice activist, Irene has worked internationally for women’s right to choose and she and Flo have been working for many years on the decriminalization of prostitution.

In 1972, as members of the Feminist Party, Flo and Irene filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service demanding removal of the tax exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church and affiliated organizations, charging them with illegal political lobbying and campaign activity in connection with abortion legislation. They were never told what happened to the complaint, although they tried on numerous occasions to find out.

What follows is an interview On the Issues conducted with FLO KENNEDY in May.

Issues: You read Merle’s editorial on Women and Power (On The Issues Vol. IV). Do you think women are afraid of power, both in themselves and in other women?

Flo: Women are not afraid of power, they’re afraid of the oppressor.

Cause the oppressor is very ruthless with people in power from oppressed groups. Also, women tend to do things that are safe. And what’s safe does not put you in a position of power. Women are growing all the time, but they’re doing termite-type stuff, which means you chew the porch until it falls down and then they step out on the porch and… But, we’re expanding our interests. Feminists called me to come out against apartheid and we went over and spoke out at the South African Consulate. In other words, women are pushing their way into areas that are not just “women’s issues”… in fact, so much so that Nairobi put out the word through the Heritage Foundation that [at the World Conference of the U.N. Decade For Women] it’s a “no no” to talk about women’s issues other than crotch issues. Women are not going to be encouraged to talk about South Africa, apartheid, Ethiopia, certainly not the Arab/Israeli scene and so there again, women are being silenced. The next move is the dollar power move and that’s got to be the feminists’

Issues: You were one of the pioneers of the women’s movement. Do you think there is anything real happening in the movement today?

Flo: See, what you must understand is there’s a lot happening, but you’ll never know it because as long as we allow media, at our expense, to go their own merry way and ignore our kind of women, we wouldn’t know what was going on no matter how much was happening. One of the reasons we’re ignorant is because we’re treated like mushrooms… kept in the dark, piled over with shit and we grow fine. And we contribute because we continually buy the products that run the media-network -especially with Procter and Gamble, General Foods and all that stuff.

Issues: You think media excludes women from the power structure?

Flo: Why would they include us in the power structure when by leaving us out, they have one less crowd to worry about? Now, if they decide, because Jesse Helms is so anti-women and anti media, to recruit us to join them to fight the right wing, we might get some results… but, right now they treat us like enemies. Although we may soon be the only friends they have, between one group and another, Ted Turner, Jesse Helms and all these other entrepreneurs and merger makers, but it certainly won’t be because we were politically astute enough to press our point at this moment.

Issues: The women’s movement has been criticized for being a white, middle class women’s movement and I think I can speak for all of us, we don’t want it to be so. Somehow, we’ve failed to reach black women. Why haven’t we been able to reach, not just black women, but women of color in general?

Flo: Because you’re white. I think more because you’re white than because the issues don’t interest them. In other words, I think they’re more suspicious of racism in white people than they are of sexism in the e community in general and I think it’s dumb because I think I’m smarter than most white people and I also think that’s because I’m a lawyer and I’m very self assured. No matter how powerful and rich and anything else that black people are, they return to a sense of powerlessness and feeling victimized when they talk to white people. They know that black people (black men especially) can be doing them in, but they don’t have the same sense of mistrust for black people. Why should blacks trust whites? After all, black people went into the labor movement and wound up getting trashed by unions that won’t let ’em come in; and they are very accustomed to helping people when they’re trying 18 to be powerful politically and then being left out and trashed. The women’s movement has been no different -no better- and in fact, worse, because women are very racist from the git go. Socialists that dominated the labor movement were a little smarter and were a little more understanding of racism in a philosophical way. But the women in the feminist community were only politicized as far as sexism went arid not politicized as far as racism or classicism to the same extent. How many people work on your magazine?

Issues: Six.

Flo: How many black women do you have?

Issues: We have a lot of black women at CHOICES, in every area and in all capacities. We aren’t really a magazine publisher. CHOICES is a women’s medical center and we decided to put out On the Issues because we believe in putting a large part of our profits back into the women’s movement. Besides, we believe there is very little right now in the way of a real feminist publication that deals with a wide range of social, medical and political issues from a feminist perspective the way ours does.

Flo: But you see, if you took a black woman working in the center and you put her on the magazine, then that would be evidence that you’re interested in black people. See, in other words, when it gets to the “goodies” they find they are invited, but they are not served.

Issues: I’m not sure they’d consider it a “goodie.”

Flo: Well, but it’s still an honor. They are on a masthead and they could use it sometime to get a job.

Issues: We’ve never thought in terms of “white” or “black” -simply who is best equipped to do the job.

Flo: I think it’s much more a question of your not knowing enough black people. They used to do that when they were hiring secretaries… they’d want Lena Horne at 65 words per minute, and if she left, that was the end of the black people. We tried it and it didn’t work. See? But I think you just don’t know enough black people and so, because you don’t know people, you get white people that you don’t know to that extent either. But you know more white people and there are 10 times more white people than there are black people. But nobody just comes off the street… white or black. And, keep in mind, there are events that black people have that you don’t get to, so that black people don’t know what you’re up to and you don’t know what they’re up to.

Don’t forget you’re going against a very racist and scary and brutal society which teaches blacks faster than you can pay them. People are very much afraid of authority. Most people believe their parents are right. And that’s why if Reagan says something, they think he’s got a certain amount of right on his side and they know he’s got a certain amount of power. Their boss is probably white and everybody they’re scared of and mistrust are white people. The more they see that black people are already on board, the more they are reassured. Another thing -black women think you’re only concerned about your own issues. You’re not saying anything about the New York Eight*, or anything that black women are into. They want to see feminists come in where women are involved in the black community, whether its about a feminist issue or not. See, that’s what they can understand and see getting together with. So, they have as much right to say “why aren’t you with them?” as you have to say “where are the black women?” I’ve been hearing this from white women ever since I started in the ’60s. I still work with white women because I think they’re important and I understand the pathology -but there’s no reason for black women to be with you guys because you’re not relevant to them and you don’t come to them when the issues are simple and simple numbers could make a difference. They’re more sophisticated and you need them worse than they need you. So, they don’t believe you’re interested in them, and you don’t believe they’re interested in you and you’re both right. Never the twain shall meet.

Issues: “Never” is a long time. Just in the things we’ve discussed today we can see where mistakes have been made and where avenues of approachment can be investigated.

Flo: Ahh huh.

*The New York Eight are four black women and four black men with histories as major activists in the Black Liberation movement. In October, 1984, sometime after midnight, police and FBI agents simultaneously raided six houses in Manhattan. Queens and Brooklyn, arresting the Eight and charging them with conspiring to rob armored cars and engineer jailbreaks. They were held three weeks without bail on conspiracy charges although, according to their lawyers, no evidence has been presented to show any crimes were committed.

(This information is based on a report from The National Alliance.)

EDITORS NOTE: Just before our press time, the New York Eight were acquitted of plotting robberies and jailbreaks, but convicted of some lesser charges of possessing weapons and using false identification. The trial lasted over two months.