Hysterical Housewives (And Other Courageous Women)

Hysterical Housewives (And Other Courageous Women)

by Karen Jan Stults

Women committed to a cause, especially one being fought at the grassroots level, are often labeled “hysterical”. When Cora Tucker, a Black woman who’s been organizing in the South for years, was called a hysterical housewife at the Virginia General Assembly, she said, “…You’re exactly right. I’m hysterical. And when it comes to matters of life and death, especially mine, I get hysterical.” Women activists are proud of the energy and emotions which some people call “hysteria”. They know these emotions express their passion and strength, and enable them to confront “city hall” – to stand up in a general assembly meeting and fight for their right to clean water, no matter how Black, how white, how poor, or how rich they are.

Although toxic wastes
don’t discriminate on
the basis of race,
religion, income or
education, people do

Cora Tucker is just one of thousands of women working at the local level to protect her environment from the hazards of toxic waste. Although toxic wastes don’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, income or education, people do. And because of this, the majority of people being dumped on are poor, uneducated minorities who are seen as weak and expendable. Or, they are white, working-class communities where people have strong religious convictions about respecting authority. It is happening through the United States, in places like Emelle, AL – home of the world’s largest toxic wastes dump – and a community which is 69 percent Black. In Riverside, C A, teenagers live with the chronic debilitating illnesses they contracted as children 10 years ago when the Stringfellow Acid Pits overflowed into the school playground. In Bloomington, IN, young Black kids rummage through junk piles outside a Westinghouse plant for transformers. They take the transformers home, tie them up in a tree and let the oily stuff drain out onto the ground. They pull them apart to sell for scrap, not realizing that the oil is full of PCBs – a chemical that destroys the liver, reproductive organs and central nervous system.

The pattern is the same throughout the world, with the United States being particularly at fault. In the U.S., while our right hand is dumping wastes in the small, forgotten towns of America, our left is guiding barges full of toxic ash and PCB-laden soil to third world countries, searching for a community desperate enough or unknowing enough to take toxics in exchange for a few American dollars.

CCHW, the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, is a national organization working to develop local leadership to end these injustices. Together, these leaders form a grassroots movement against toxics. The movement is made up of more than 4,600 community groups, led almost unanimously by women, throughout the US, Puerto Rico and Canada. By providing information, assistance and training, CCHW helps these women and men fight against unsafe chemical plants, toxic waste incinerators and leaking landfills. The work of CCHW is doing more than just protecting our fragile earth. It is building strong, selfsufficient leaders who can take control locally and win their own battles on their own turf with their own resources. It is empowering women who would never call themselves activists to take charge and to make a difference.

Although CCHW is a dynamic, national organization, it comes from humble beginnings with an angry young woman in a quiet, dying town – Lois Gibbs, Executive Director of the Clearinghouse and founding mother of the toxics movement.

Lois Gibbs was a young mother of two when she first discovered contamination at her son’s school in Love Canal, NY. She had moved to Love Canal in 1974 with her husband, Harry, and their one-year-old son, Michael. Shortly thereafter, Michael developed asthma, epilepsy, blood disorders, immunesystem deficiencies and urinary tract infections. By the age of five, he had already undergone two operations to try to alleviate the problems. Lois’ daughter, Melissa, conceived and born at Love Canal, was born with a rare blood disease that often left her black and blue.

In the spring of 1978, a local newspaper reported that the 99th Street School which Michael attended had been built next to a toxic waste dump and the 20,000 tons of chemicals buried beneath the school playground were beginning to rust holes in their containers and rise to the surface.

Lois immediately linked her son’s illnesses to the leaking chemicals at the school. She went to the local school board with two doctors’ statements to get him transferred, but the school board refused to recognize the letters and the concerns of “one over-emotional mother”. Lois sought help from local, state and federal officials and from national environmental groups. Repeatedly she was told to “just move, if she was so concerned”. But that wasn’t an option for her family of four living on an annual income of $10,000 and paying a mortgage. She decided that the only place left to look for help was in her own community. Lois didn’t consider herself a leader or an organizer so going door-to-door and talking to her neighbors about a sensitive subject wasn’t easy for her. But it was a better option than watching her son’s health deteriorate and wondering what would happen to her daughter.

She learned that she was not alone in her fears. Household after household contained another sick child. One woman’s attempts at childbearing had yielded only miscarriages. These concerned people came to form the Love Canal Homeowner’s Association, with Lois as their president. The more they looked into the contamination, the more real the danger became and they decided they WANTED OUT.

State agencies tried to compromise with some minimal clean-up efforts. They put up a green fence around the site and sent workers in to dig up a foot or two of the toxic soil for removal. Love Canal residents, mostly mothers with strollers, protested this gross, inadequate and dangerous step by blocking the entrance to the site and restating their demands for evacuation.

In the summer of 1978, the first string of evacuations were granted. Pregnant women and children under two who lived in the first ring of homes around the school were allowed to leave their homes and stay in a local hotel. Lois lived in the third ring of homes and Melissa, her youngest, was already three. They couldn’t leave and they were warned not to grow vegetables, go into their basements, or let their children play in their yards. “But,” officials told them, “there is no cause for alarm.”

The Love Canal Homeowner’s Association decided to hold the incumbent New York State Governor, Hugh Carey, personally accountable. They and their allies followed him around the state, showing up at his election rallies and fundraisers, asking him why he was allowing continued risk to the children and families at Love Canal. Concessions began to trickle down from the state, proving the effectiveness of political pressure. Learning from this, they went next to the President of the United States. Lois began contacting Jimmy Carter and, with the Homeowners, used the media and direct action to gain national support for their fight. The breaking point finally came in May of 1980 when two representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to announce the results of a chromosome study of Love Canal residents. On Tuesday, May 19, the EPA officials stated that they had discovered chromosome breakage in Love Canal residents, but, again, that there was “no cause for alarm”. This infuriated the people of Love Canal almost beyond control. For five hours, the two officials were virtually held hostage by the homeowners. During this time, they called President Carter with an ultimatum to evacuate them by Wednesday, May 20 at noon, or “what they had seen here today would be a Sesame Street picnic in comparison to what they would do next.” On Wednesday, at exactly 12:00 noon, Lois received a call from the White House announcing the terms of their evacuation.

They won. President Carter flew to Love Canal to stand with Lois and personally deliver the emergency declaration that gave Love Canal residents their ticket out. The leadership of Lois Gibbs and several other Love Canal women saved a generation of lives and launched a new movement of women leaders fighting to protect life.

Today there are thousands of women like Lois Gibbs across the country. These women are involved for a variety of reasons and they bring to the issue a variety of emotions: passion, fear, anger, hope, humor. The faces and places vary, as do the types of facilities and contamination the women are fighting and the degrees of damage already incurred. But the patterns of government obstacle and the subsequent growth of community activism are the same.

In the initial stage of discovering the problem, for example, most of these women have blind faith in the government. They are motivated not by suspicion or mistrust, but by concerns for their health and the well being of their children and they believe that if they only tell the right person the right facts, the problem will be solved. In their search for the “right person”, they are frustrated at the lack of response from state and local officials, and as their search continues, outraged at the cover-ups and compromises they find. They keep searching and educating themselves and before long, they are more knowledgeable about the issue than their “authorities”. For every woman who becomes a community leader, there comes a point when she learns to rely on herself for answers and action, instead of her public servants. It is at this point – when she realizes that no one else is going to solve this for her – that she is ready to fight, to take the risks of speaking out in the community, of disrupting the pattern of her life and the security of her home in order to protect her community or her children. As these women make the transition from “housewife” to activist, they become part of the history of women standing up for their rights. As each woman talks about her personal experience, she tells a story of growth, empowerment and change.

The process of organizing a community, learning new skills, and fighting for a child’s life is stressful on many levels. As one woman described it: “You become obsessed. You just don’t know where to stop. You’re driving down the street and noticing the leaves are already green and thinking ‘Wow, it’s spring!’ You’ve missed a whole season.” Ruth Colvin of Louisa, KY keeps a diary in which she once wrote: “I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I haven’t been up this early in years. Aunt Patty is at the door and I wonder if I’ve got my eyebrows on straight. I can’t even see, I’m half asleep and we’re in Frankfort [the state capitol] by 8 o’clock.”

It requires tough decisions: “I’ve got to get these copies made,” another woman said, “but I don’t have the money for it. We’re down before payday. Winning this fight is more important to me than buying milk but, my God, my kids need milk.”

It creates guilt: “You have so many responsibilities,” one leader/mom/wife told me. “You’re bound to not fulfill something. And whatever you don’t fulfill, there’s bound to be someone to tell you that you didn’t fulfill it.” “Everyone knows how to run your life,” says Cora Tucker. “They try to make you feel guilty for not being there. And we’re the ones who are vulnerable to that because we care. Some people could say, ‘oh well. I wasn’t there’ and that’s it – and walk away, but we feel guilty.”

It requires us to deal with death in ourselves and others: Talking about her experience as a leader, one woman said, “We are the strong ones. We have no one to break down with. We cannot show remorse, cry or be sad with our groups whenever we feel like it. When it is time to cry, we are the ones helping others to express their grief, enabling the process, rather than participating in it for ourselves.” One mother said, “The death of children at a site is the most devastating. When we counsel about the loss of a child, we are reminded of our own children’s vulnerability. We own the problem twice.”

Importantly for us as women, the grassroots movement against toxics unites us through persistance, through trust and through sisterhood. As Cora Tucker says, “When women set out to do something, if hell freezes over, we still do it. And I think it’s something special for us. We do it and we know we can do it.” “And with a group of women,” Reverend Linda Powell reminded me, “we’re already accepted before we begin.” This unity is our lifeline, but it is also fragile. Anger, stress and misunderstanding can threaten the bonds we, as women, have with each other. Sofia Martinez expressed it this way: “We internalized a lot of society’s hatred of us as women and as Chicanos and as Black people. As leaders, we’re not only the focus of all the hope, but also all the anger, and that’s what we’re finding. [But] when people can’t break us down, they’ll realize we mean business and we’re not going away.”

Despite the stresses of loss and of change, the work of community organizing is satisfying and empowering for these women. It challenges people like Jessie Deer-In-Water who told me, “I love a challenge! I’m half Irish-American and half Native-American and those are two races that have been struggling against great odds for hundreds and hundreds of years. I was born not knowing anything else but a racial memory of struggling.” It inspires people like Theresa Freeman who shares her skill and enthusiasm throughout her state of Vermont. “I gain satisfaction from seeing others standing up for their rights,” she says. “Helping them stand up for what they believe, figure out what they want and go after it, that’s what I do.”

It brings recognition to people like Linda Burkhart of the Wyoming Pollution Posse. The fact that she could run for office for the State Senate in Wyoming and get 8,000 votes was, she declared, “overwhelming, unbelievable.” She says, “When our problem began over two-and-a-half years ago, I was the ‘hysterical housewife’. Literally no more than three people really understood the problem. Now, two-anda-half years later, I run for office and 8,000 people vote for me. That says an awful lot.”

And, like Diana Steck, the 90-pound woman fighting a billion dollar corporation, it changes us. Diana says of her work, “It changed my personality from being a person who thought that she always had to go along with the system, into a person who had learned to speak up and really take control. I believe whole-heartedly that one person can make a hell of a difference. Anything that you set your mind to, you can achieve. And I never ever thought that way in my life.”

It is because of the Lois Gibbses, the Cora Tuckers, the Diana Stecks and countless others that this movement exists today. They are to be thanked for the hard work they are doing, for the risks they are taking with their health and their lives, and for the role models they are providing to women everywhere. Thousands of women in all areas of the United States and millions throughout the world are fighting toxics because they have to. These women should be joined by those of us who still have a choice, to preserve their victories and to win new ones for ourselves.

Karen Jan Stults writes for the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes (CCHW) in Arlington, VA(703276-7070), where she is documenting the achievements of women activists in the grassroots movement against toxics by recording their oral histories. She also coordinates the McToxics Campaign against styrofoam.