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Two Redstockings interviewed

This interview with Kathie Sarachild and Amy Coenen of the Redstockings was conducted by Doug Henwood and broadcast on WBAI, New York, on January 24, 2002. The transcription was by Nicole Hardin for Redstockings; it's been slightly edited for the web.

Amy Coenen and Kathie Sarachild are with the Redstockings, a feminist organization that was founded over 30 years ago - one of the few organizations from the uprisings of the 1960's that survives to today. Amy Coenen and Kathie Sarachild are 2 of the 3 authors along with Jenny Brown, of Women's Liberation and National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America, a Redstockings organizing packet. Welcome to WBAI, Kathie and Amy, are you with us?

Amy Coenen: Yes, thanks a lot Doug.

Kathie Sarachild: It's great to be here.

DH: Thanks for joining us. I apologize for the slight delay but there a series of transportation mishaps retarded my progress a little bit.

AC: No problem.

DH: Let's get right to it. Redstockings first. Some people may have dim memories, and other folks may have dimmer memories of the late 1960s and early 70s, but some may be surprised to know that you are still around. Can you give us the quick history of who you are and how you managed to survive for 30 years?

AC: OK, well this is Amy and I'll try to tell you and encapsulate what Redstockings is and a little bit of our history. As you mentioned, Redstockings is one of the radical women's liberation groups of the 1960s that produced so many of the slogans and actions that have become household words to people in America. For example, "sisterhood is powerful," "consciousness-raising," "the personal is political."

The name actually combines "red" for revolution with "bluestockings" which is the derogatory label pinned on 19th century feminists. Right now Redstockings is a grassroots feminist think tank. And what we mean by that is that we want to investigate and figure out how we can advance the liberation of women. The grassroots part means that, first of all, we are funded by the dollars of individual working women instead of rich corporations and foundations, which is the case with most think tanks. And secondly, we are mainly made up of experienced feminist organizers, which obviously is pretty different from most other think tanks, too. And, of course, the newest work to come out of the think tank is the new book, Women's Liberation and National Health Care.

DH: And you are a younger member of Redstockings. You're not just made up of veterans from 30 years ago, right?

AC: Right. I actually was born around the time Redstockings was first founded. I'm 33, was born in 1968. And I think what really attracted me to Redstockings was the track record of all those early ideas, and some of the newer ones, too, for that matter. I learned about consciousness-raising about 10 years ago as a young college organizer in Gainesville, Florida. And using that as a method for involving new women in feminism, figuring out positions and actions, and seeing how great it works, made me really want to be part of the organization that helped to develop that idea.

KS: I guess I could try to talk a little bit about this question of why we survived.

DH: Kathie Sarachild, go ahead.

KS: I think the women who have been drawn to the Redstockings tradition in the last couple of decades have a consciousness, or, we gained a consciousness, about how important it is to persist.

In the beginning of the movement we would talk about "women of the world unite," women have to unite. But we thought of that as kind of an instant revolution. We didn't realize that persisting, the power of persisting, was actually part of the power of unity.

Later I realized one of the kinds of stereotypes about women, one of the things that has been said in the past about what has prevented us from gaining equality, is not only that we have trouble uniting, supposedly, but that even the times that we have been able to unite, we have not been able to persist. So I think that persistence began to seem extremely important in terms of women's liberation strategy. And I think that the success we seem to have with many of the ideas, actually, also has made us want to stay with it.

DH: I believe you are the person credited with coining the phrase "sisterhood is powerful?"

KS: Well, I came up with it in 1968 as part of a leaflet, really; and then Carol Hanisch helped make it into a slogan; and Redstockings made it into a button in 1969; and then it became-yes, anyway, one thing led to another.

DH: Well you can take credit for it, it's just entered the language now as one of the phrases that define feminism. Alright, well, we are a little compressed for time here so let's move on to say you've now got a campaign going about a national health care program and produced this booklet and we can tell people how to get a hold of it a little later.

What is the connection between feminism and a national health care program? You know I don't think you really have to make the case for a national health care program to this audience. Let's just talk about what the connection of feminism is to this program, which is kind of gender neutral at first appearance.

KS: Well let's see, this is Kathie, I'm going to leap into this because, actually, in my case I'm beginning to realize the ways that national health care would be of great benefit for me personally, including for me as a woman and a feminist woman who has been trying all my life to have the kind of independence and work interests that men can have, is what began to open me up to learning the things I needed to learn to get behind national health insurance for myself.

You talk about the WBAI audience already being for national health insurance or universal health care, well I actually fell into this category of people, this was back in the 1980s. I thought, well, I was for it morally. Sure I believed in universal health care. But I didn't really. I wasn't sure, I think I was like a lot of mid-level income people who say they are for public education, and are for public education, but they aren't sure they want their kids to go there. I wasn't sure that national health care meant good health care and I wasn't sure I wanted it for myself.

And it was really in the mid 80s, when I began to reach the age at which I really had to decide to have a child. Plus the costs of health insurance were skyrocketing, and I worked as a freelance film editor, so the work had an irregular nature to it. Not to mention the experience of male unreliability, whether you were married or unmarried, in terms of being there with childcare, helping with housework.

It seemed like a huge plunge to take, a big risk to take, to go ahead and have a child. And I thought of all these things that stood in the way and with the cost of health insurance somehow looming in a new way. Oh, by the way, another thing too, I had been very familiar with a lot of the data. It turns out in retrospect that I had been reading the data about how the United States has a lower life expectancy than 17 other countries. Actually, I realized I had been reading that data for a long time. But as long as I thought that and got all this other stuff from the media, much more from the media than an occasional article with data like that, I couldn't absorb it.

It was only at this kind of crisis period in my life, when I had to decide whether to have a child-and go ahead and take that huge risk-that I began to (and the costs again, as I mentioned, were rising) I began to suddenly notice that data about how United States health care isn't really any good. And not only that, but it has gotten more expensive than every other country. And, it was at that point that I realized this myth about the United States, that is was a myth. And that we had to have national health insurance, and that it would be one thing to help with the childcare. It was one thing, I thought it was something we could win. And it definitely had a childcare component.

It would have, perhaps, put me over the edge in deciding [to have a child]. I felt that it would, actually, that it was sort of a last straw-if only we had that. When I realized that we didn't even have national health insurance and that I was totally at the mercy of irregular jobs, unreliable men-I guess I kind of decided that I would basically have to not have a kid, and I almost saw it as a sense of being on strike, on strike for better conditions. If we had had better conditions, I would have had a child because I wanted one. I wanted one but not at the terrible cost. So that is sort of how I came to it, I saw it as a childcare issue.

DH: The subtitle of this book "Women's Liberation and National Health Care" is "Confronting the Myth of America." You alluded to a myth there, what exactly are you talking about? What myths are you-?

KS: Well, actually it is a range of myths, that America is really best in everything, is what it amounts to. We even have this idea that American women are the most liberated women in the world, as well as American health care is the best health care in the world. Even with the right to vote, we were way behind on the right to vote; many countries got women the right to vote before we did. And what we show in the book is that women in other countries are way ahead of us, especially in other industrialized countries.

AC: Especially in the areas of childcare, health care, parental leave. And we talk about it in the book, in many ways American women don't know what they are missing because there seems to be a media blackout on just how far ahead other countries are in these areas.

DH: Could you give a few examples of what you mean?

AC: For example, a friend of mine-I just had a baby four months ago, I took the plunge-

DH: Without national health insurance eh?

AC: Well my husband is in the military so we have a form of national health insurance, don't we? Anyway, a friend of mine in Sweden has also had a baby; she had her baby in December. She gets, and her husband both, both parents, get a year of paid parental leave to be with their new baby. I, on the other hand, had to turn down an offer of work because they were not going to give me maternity leave, and my husband got no parental leave offered through the Army. So I think that's a very good example. Here I sit, a radical Redstockings feminist, a stay at home mom-not really by choice, I'm job hunting right now-in part because of the lack of these types of social programs whereas my friend is enjoying her maternity leave, knowing when she goes back, there will be a job there for her. And also knowing that her husband can take time off as well and share in raising their child.

DH: You as Redstockings were involved in a campaign in Florida referendum on national health care. Could you describe what that was about and the campaign itself?

KS: By the way, I just want to say you can read about, you get the story of this campaign, as well as all this other stuff. We have a website and an email address, our email address is [this] and our website [here].

DH: And of course if you just enter Redstockings into Google it will pop up first []

KS: But anyway there were some Redstockings women's liberation organizers from Gainesville Women's Liberation and NOW people joined with the Labor Party in Alachua County, Florida in the 2000 election. And using many of our Redstockings ideas pulled off--including using consciousness-raising and living room organizing and mass meetings--held a referendum campaign in the 2000 election calling for a show of 'yes' or 'no' are you in favor of a universal publicly funded health insurance to replace private insurance. And 65% of the voters voted yes, they were, which was a larger vote than any presidential candidate got for anything in that county.

DH: You and Pat Buchanan in Florida right?

KS: Right, right.

DH: Now Yankees of course don't think of Florida as a hotbed of social activism or enlightened thinking so a lot of listeners might be surprised to hear that a county in Florida voted 2/3 in favor of a national health care program.

KS: Even the Republican district had a majority-it was not 65% but it was a majority in a Republican district.

DH: So in other words, this is, even though this topic has pretty much disappeared from the national conversation after Bill Clinton's disastrous health care plan in '94, there is quite a bit of support for this even though it's not publicly talked about.

AC: Well there may not be a lot of conversation in the popular media but believe me there is a lot of conversation in people's living rooms and in the lines at the grocery stores and doctor's offices and such. This is very much on people's minds, very much so. It is not being reported on, but people are really mad about what insurance companies have done to the health care system.

KS: And it is not just the uninsured who are suffering. We really stress that. This has to be a movement not just of the uninsured or only in the name of the uninsured. The insured people are having a terrible time. You never know if you are really covered. All these awful surprises about not being covered or something not being paid for. And just the paperwork. One longtime supporter of Redstockings was saying insurance paperwork is so much worse than house work at this point. It eats up your time.

There are a million angles that people are angry about with health insurance. We hope that people can unite around this as a kind of breakthrough issue, a springboard for women's liberation, in the sense that it will be one thing, will bring some more bargaining power to women, both in their relationships with men and on their jobs. It's not total freedom; it's just one more good chunk of bargaining power to fight for more things combined with feminist organizing and consciousness-raising. Anyway, we think this can win, and can be a breakthrough for all the other social wage issues that women and the American people need.

DH: And we are just about out of time. Can you describe what is in this booklet you put together and I'll give the ordering and contact info after this.

KS: Oh you will. Thanks.

AC: Well we have, in addition to talking about national health care as an issue in its own right, and also looking at national health care from the feminist angle, we also talk about how the long working hours in the United States are connected to our lack of a national health program in this country and how, actually, long working hours also impact women and stand in the way of women's liberation. We also talk about replacing the family wage where the guy is the breadwinner with something different called the social wage which Kathie mentioned earlier. Do you want to say something about that Kathie?

KS: Well, the social wage is a concept that has been used in the European labor movement a lot and they have won on a lot of issues. It is kind of a social fringe benefit, it covers all those areas. It is legislated nationally in a country and it is kind of like, as the labor movement fights for higher individual wages, there are certain things that are best done in the way of a social wage or a social fringe benefit, like public education which is one thing we already have. National health care, which most of these European countries also have is another part of fighting for higher social wages along with regular higher individual wages.

AC: And we think that winning the social wage like that is going to be a huge step towards shifting so much of the unpaid burden-the unpaid burden of taking care of children and family that is on women right now. Now I just want to add, I know we are running out of time, I just want to add in no way does this mean that we are going to stop calling men on sexism. In no way does this mean that we think we should give up the struggle to get men to share the responsibility for family and children equally. That has to keep going and that has to be stepped up too. We need both things.

DH: Alright I think we will have to end on that note. Thank you both for joining us.

KS & AC: Thanks Doug.

DH: Thanks for all the work you have done over the years. I have been speaking with Amy Coenen and Kathie Sarachild who are the authors, along with Jenny Brown, of a booklet put together by Redstockings, a feminist organization from way back when, Women's Liberation and National Health Care. If you would like copies of it, you can find out to order by visiting their website.



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