By Barbara Winslow
If not planned well, guerilla theater–frequently an accompaniment to protests or sometimes the protest itself–can fall flat, can confuses more than enlighten, and can insult the very people it’s trying to reach. At its best, however, guerilla theater can be both entertaining and consciousness-raising.
Every movement has its traitors, be they called scabs (labor movement), antis (women’s suffrage), Uncle Toms (Black movement), running dogs of imperialism (Chinese Revolution). These traitors often have a lot of power and can be hard to deal with. Phyllis Schlafly, a right wing lawyer and conservative Republican Party operative, frequently led the charge against the feminist movement (among other progressive social change initiatives) in the last half of the 1900s. Here is an example of one group creatively and successfully taking on our nemesis in 1982.
Who says radical feminists don’t have a sense of humor? We have been known to make people laugh when we go after misogyny’s jugular!
Take 1982, for instance, when the Cleveland City Club, which liked to host “controversial speakers,” announced that Phyllis Schlafly, the leading right wing anti-feminist, architect of the successful campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, had been invited to speak at its February meeting. The Cleveland Pro-Choice Action Committee, an organization of left feminists, decided to protest Schlafly, but we knew it had to be a carefully planned action. Schlafly was an expert at putting down feminists, relished calling protestors “Typhoid Marys.” A picket line alone would be boring, thus deadly.
At one of those meetings which goes on late into the night, perhaps even early into the morning, we were talking, arguing, frustrated as we tried idea after idea, plan after plan. We were getting a bit punchy, thinking up outrageous forms of protest, when we remembered Ladies Against Women (LAW). Of course! LAW was a part of the Reagan for Shah coalition, which was founded by a guerilla theater troupe called the Plutonium Players following the 1980 Reagan landslide. Various groups affiliated with the Reagan for Shah Committee had marched in the 1981 Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena, California.
I contacted Ladies Against Women, they sent us materials, and we created the Cleveland Chapter of LAW. The flyers we sent out, with a picture of Schlafly, announced how thrilled we were that “our dear leader” was coming to Cleveland and asked that everyone please come out and greet her. The leaflet was signed by faux groups whose names played on the various progressive groups in Cleveland. For example, “WELCOME,” an organization that promoted school desegregation, became “unWELCOME”; “Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice” became “Ladies Whisper for War and Injustice.” Schlafly’s organization, the Eagle Forum became the Vulture Forum…and so on.
A male friend, a prominent attorney and a member of the Cleveland City Club, said he would get us all tickets for the lunch if we promised not to shout her down. In those days, the $7 cost of a ticket was prohibitive, so we promised.
The day Schlafly showed up there were about 100 of us on picket lines. We did not want to mock conventional images of working class women with hair rollers and schmattas, but everyone had to wear a hat, gloves and an apron. We carried picket signs which said:
“My home is his castle”
“Save the males”
“59 cents is too much. Real ladies do it for free”
“I’d rather be ironing”
“Outlaw Masturbation: Billions of future draftees are murdered by this practice”
“Sperm Are People, Too”
“Tasting it is wasting it”
“Keep America Strong; Invade a Broad”
We chanted “Keep America on the Track; One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” and “Hit Us Again, Hit Us Again, Harder, Harder.” You get the picture. Two of our members showed up barefoot and pregnant with pillows on their stomachs.
When women from the press came up to ask us what we were doing, we stayed in character, asking them why they were working and why they weren’t at home taking care of their children. Did they have their husband’s or pastor’s permission to be at the rally? We showed them our LAW pink membership cards that were signed by either our husband or pastor. As we stayed in character, were we presaging Stephen Colbert? The press women were confused, amazed and supportive.
About 20 of us got into the City Club for lunch. We fanned out so that one of us sat at each table. Each table also had a leaflet on it explaining who we really were and that the issues of women’s rights were very serious.
The title of Schlafly’s talk was “Do We Want a Gender-Free Society?” Again, we had wanted tactics that did not alienate us from the crowd so we went for more humor. Whenever Schafly said something outrageous, which was often, instead of hissing, we waved our handkerchiefs, tittled and clapped ever so softly. We knew we were going to have some cover when the emcee, a man of course, opened the meeting with “Welcome gentlemen, ladies and women.”
If we “behaved” we would get to ask a question, so all of us were prepared to ask the same question. Because Schlafly was using the language of a “gender-free society,” we had decided to use that very same language against her. Finally one of our members got up and said how happy we were that she was speaking, that she represented everything LAW stands for: women’s racial, sexual and economic oppression, war and racism. She added that Cleveland LAW also believed that gender should not be free, but rather that the market should decide its cost. Most of the crowd got our point and was very supportive. Schlafly got so rattled (something that rarely happened) that she started going on about how she believed that people should make their own choices.
When the emcee called on me, I stood up to express my disappointment in Mrs. Schafly’s saying people should make their own choices. After all, LAW supported Mrs. Schlafly’s opposition to choice in regard to both a woman’s right to abortion and free speech. What was she saying? As a rabid McCarthyite and red-baiter, how could she suddenly be supporting “choice”?
Again the crowd was supportive. And it didn’t end there.
I was at a table with a high school student sitting with her parents–all Catholic and Republican. This teenager was so thrilled that someone from this disruptive group was sitting at her table that she ended up inviting me to speak at her private Catholic school. We kept in touch for many years afterwards.
The Ladies Against Women action made the front pages of both Cleveland news dailies and was the lead story on all three local TV news stations–and the coverage was totally on our side.
Our action sparked further protest. The next month a prominent anti-evolution cleric spoke at the City Club. One of LAW’s allies dressed in a gorilla suit and attended the meeting.
Barbara Winslow was a founding member of both Seattle Radical Women and Women’s Liberation Seattle. Her activism has included Union W.A.G.E (Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality), CLUW (Coalition of Labor Union Women) and Reproductive Rights National Network. She is a Professor in the Secondary Education Department (SEED) at Brooklyn College of CUNY and founder and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, 1945 to the Present.