Rosalie Davies (1939-2009), Interviewed May 28, 1993
by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2017. All rights reserved.
I interviewed Rosalie Davies at her home in Narberth, Pennsylvania, in May 1993. I knew about her because of her early involvement in LGBT parenting rights cases and specifically because of her role as the founder of Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers (CALM) in 1975. At our interview, she supplied me with a copy of her resume, which indicated that she earned a B.A. cum laude in English and Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and a law degree from Temple University in 1979. Her professional affiliations included the National Lawyers Guild, the Montgomery County Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the National Community Relations Committee of the American Friends Service Committee (1978-1988), and the Eromin Center Board of Directors (1976-79).
In August 1993, Davies provided comments and corrections on a draft of the interview transcript that I had supplied to her. We exchanged brief letters in 1994 and 1995; I informed her about progress on my book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves in 1998 and 2000; and I let her know about the publication of a paperback edition in 1994. For a useful profile of Davies, see Jacqueline Doyle, “An Unsung Hero: Rosalie Davies Keeps Lesbian Mothers CALM,” Au Courant, 13 March 1989, 1, 7, 12.
According to a Philadelphia Gay News obituary by Jen Colletta, published on 23 July 2009, Davies died on 14 July 2009 after suffering a massive stroke. Her partner Minna Weinstein had died in 2008. Davies was survived by her son Adrian Buck, her daughters Caroline Hodson and Althea Weinstein, and four grandchildren.
Date of Birth: 22 January 1939
Place of Birth: London, England
Place of Mother's Birth: London, England
Mother's Occupation: Stationery and Tobacco Store Owner
Place of Father's Birth: London, England
Father's Occupation: Secretary, National Water Board
Religious Background: Pagan
Class Background: Lower Middle Class
1939-56: London, England
1956-64: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
1964-65: New York, New York
1965-69: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
1969-77: West Philadelphia
1964-65: Rater and Underwriting Trainee, Travelers Insurance Company (New York)
1965-67: Assistant Underwriter, Travelers Insurance Company (Philadelphia)
1967-69: Assistant Supervisory, Life Insurance Company of North America (Philadelphia)
1974-75: Coordinator, Free Law School, National Lawyers Guild (Philadelphia)
1975-93: Founder and Coordinator, Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers (Philadelphia)
1979-88: Lawyer (Philadelphia)
Marc Stein interview with Rosalie Davies, May 28, 1993. Transcribed by Tracy Nathan and Marc Stein.
MS: This is Marc Stein. I'm interviewing Rosalie Davies in Narberth on May 28th, 1993, and we were just talking about the two trajectories that we want to trace here today. Why don't you explain what you meant by that?
RD: Yes. I think the two things are interwoven: the fact of how my political development occurred and then how my lesbian development occurred. I was raised in England by my father being a socialist and very early gave us a political sense, so that I grew up on Gandhi and Bertrand Russell. And in fact the first political events that I ever went to were Bertram Russell's Committee of 100, their peace movement. And that was before I ever left England. I got married when I was seventeen and my husband was an Irishman and he had to avoid the British draft, so we landed in Montreal. And then I was not really political again until I came to the U.S., which was eight years later.
MS: And so, growing up in England, did you have any encounters with lesbianism when you were growing up?
RD: Well, that's the other path. I went to an all-girls' private Catholic school, where there was a fair amount of lesbian activity, and it was unwittingly encouraged by the fact that we were not allowed to be seen speaking to boys. Part of it was a boarding school. We had school dances. There were girls dancing with girls because no boys were allowed on the property. So if you had any inclinations that way, it was just wonderful. So I had my first lesbian relationships in high school and actually married extremely young because being at that time Catholic and engaged in lesbian activities, when I graduated from high school I realized there was something that didn't match well with my lifestyle. And at that time I chose the more traditional route because that felt safer because I was so very young. And so I married young to prove my heterosexuality. We moved to Montreal and I had two children.
MS: And when were your children born? [Pause.] Rosalie warned me that she's not great on dates.
RD: Well I have a son who's thirty-three and a daughter who's thirty. So we can work back the dates on that.
MS: So that would be about 1960 and 1963.
RD: Yeah. Something like that, O.K. Then, although I stayed married to my husband for a number of years after that, I started to become increasingly unfaithful to him, always with women.
MS: Was that still in Montreal?
RD: Yes, it started in Montreal. I was involved in the lesbian community in Montreal, at least a bar community. There was a group of young women I worked with in a large insurance company who were lesbians and we used to go to the bars together. And I was involved in at least two relationships at that time. And then when we moved to the United States, we lived a year in New York and then we came to Philadelphia. And then I again worked for an insurance company and again there were lesbians. A lot of women there were lesbians. I again became involved with women.
MS: And he didn't know about the relationships.
RD: Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn't. More often than not he did.
MS: And what was his reaction?
RD: Men don't take lesbian relationships very seriously. And when I finally left him, I'm not sure of the date of that, but I would guess it would have been somewhere like '68. I left him because I had a relationship with a woman that had ended very badly for her. And I had by that time realized that this was not only not good for me but not good for the person I was involved with because the relationship could never go anywhere. And I decided to leave him when I was not involved in a relationship so it wouldn't be muddied. The water wouldn't be muddied.
MS: I see. You described meeting lesbians at work and I'm wondering: is that the chief place that you met lesbians or were you in the bar scene as well in Philadelphia?
RD: No. In Montreal, I was in the bar scene. In Philadelphia, initially no, I was not. I was having private extramarital affairs. Now just before I left my husband, the woman who I was involved with that the relationship ended badly, her name was Kathy, introduced me to a young woman named Jean who was a very good friend of hers. And Jean used to come over to my house with bottles of wine and try and coax me out of the house to lesbian events. And she finally accomplished that and I went to a HAL meeting. And there I met Byrna Aronson--I'm sure her name has come up in HAL--Marilyn Sauers, Barbara Gittings, and Carole Friedman. I'm sure all of their names have come up. And got a sense of gay identity.
MS: Can I just ask before we talk a little bit more about HAL, just a few other questions about the years earlier than that in Philadelphia? How did you meet lesbians at work? Am I right? Is that the chief place you were meeting lesbians?
MS: How did you identify one another? Can you recall any of the ways that that happened?
RD: Well I think women have more personal discussions than men. So it's commonplace for women to talk a lot about their personal lives with each other and to bond. So groups of women would bond and then they would tell each other their personal lives. And as you start to learn some of their personal lives, if there was any kind of meshing in there in the relaying of what your thoughts, desires, etcetera, are all about, it was fairly easy then to come upon women who were interested in lesbian relationships.
MS: Were most of the other women married as well, as you recall?
RD: Some were and some weren't. Some were engaged, some weren't. I don't think it was particularly one thing or another. At no time did we define ourselves as a cultural group, consider a lesbian relationship where you cohabited together in a kind of permanency a real option. It was more like a sexual proclivity that you indulged.
MS: And would you meet at one another's homes?
RD: I'm not saying there wasn't love in there. There was. But I mean if you put it in its social context, it was going to be a sexual relationship but not a lifestyle.
MS: And would you meet out to go out?
RD: Yes. Yes. Yes, women came over to my home when my husband wasn't there. We just took every opportunity we could. I'd take the kids to the shore on a weekend. And the other thing is that within most marriages or engagements or whatever, female-female bonding is acceptable. So just because you and your girlfriend go to the shore with kids for a day, no one is particularly going to think that there's something else going on. Or if your girlfriend comes over for the day, that's just a commonplace so nobody thinks there's anything going on. It's very easy for women, I think much more for women, to get away with those quote secret affairs than it is for men. Because men seen hanging together too closely too much, people immediately start to ask questions about the nature of the friendship.
MS: Would you say any of these were cross-class or cross-race relationships or was it pretty much people of the same background.
RD: At that time, it certainly wasn't across race. Oh no, it was. I'm sorry, it was. Probably wasn't cross-class because of the setting that we met, which was in a working environment. Well anyway, let me go back to the political line of all of this because during that time, when I was not a self-conscious lesbian, let's put it that way, a political lesbian, that I was in the United States, I became involved in the poor people's campaign, that is, the civil rights movement, and I became very involved in the anti-war movement. So my political life was going on, but it was not yet connected up with me. It was sort of like doing good for the oppressed but I wasn't one of them.
MS: Can you remember some of the major events or major groups that you were associated with during those years?
RD: The poor people's campaign I got involved in through a group of friends of mine who were involved in a Baptist church in Wayne. And they had all this stuff and they would invite me and I would go. The anti-war movement, again, it was almost ad hoc. The demonstrations were so huge and everybody knew about them. It wasn't like today where usually if you are involved in a major women's group, you'll know about major women's events but otherwise you might not know about it. They’re not exactly in the paper. And also I think a lot of the anti-war work was also with this group through the Baptist church in Wayne and also through a Unitarian Church that I belonged to in Wayne. They were sort of through church stuff. Not that I ever had any. My children went to Unitarian Church because I was an atheist and felt they needed something and Unitarians don't require that you believe in God.
MS: Did you encounter any homophobia that you recall in the movement?
RD: Well no, because at that time I was heterosexual and I did this stuff with my husband. But all I'm saying is the political awareness was always there. I don't think it comes out of the blue, a political awareness. It was just a transferring of what I already knew. And then shortly after, I would say within perhaps a year of getting involved in HAL, which dramatically changed my life and gave me the courage to leave my husband and gave me a sense that there was a gay community out there and there was a lifestyle, that I actually could become a lesbian as a lifestyle, the women's movement began. And I at the time had gone back to school. In fact, the reason we had moved to West Philadelphia was because I was going to the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, there's an interesting anecdote in there. I wasn't interested in going back to school and my husband had to do some kind of a course for his work that had to do with engineering. And so to be a good wife, a quote good wife, I said I'd take the engineering course with him and we took an evening course at the state university. And I got an A in engineering and he got a C in engineering. And that was one of the beginnings of the cracks, major cracks, in our marriage. The guy who gave the course in engineering said to me, “You are so wasted doing this stuff. You have a really wonderful mind and I think you should be at the University of Pennsylvania. Why don't you apply?” And coming from England, where the majority of people didn't go to university and that's not what you expect out of your life, this sort of amazed me. But I did truck on down there anyway. And since I had a very good matriculation from a very good school in London, they thought I was interesting and I started back to school. So that by the time all of this had happened, I was at the University of Pennsylvania. And through the women's studies program, well first of all there was a huge rape demonstration at the University of Pennsylvania and I was involved in that.
MS: And you participated in the occupation of administration buildings.
RD: Yes, yes, yes. And at that same time, there was really a wonderful beginning of the women's movement and women's studies. I helped create the women's studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. And a fair number of the faculty were involved, including Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. And in particular, there was Judith Fetterley in the English Department and there was Cynthia Secor in the English Department at that time. And they were a part of what they called I think the Saturday Night Massacre of the University of Pennsylvania, when the English Department got rid of all the troublemakers in one go, none of them having yet had tenure. I think they've always regretted letting Judy Fetterley go because she's now a superstar at SUNY-Albany, but at the time being female was enough to let her go, let alone the fact that she was an out lesbian and a radical feminist. Anyway, so from HAL, which was sort of like electoral politics, liberal, middle-of-the-road stuff, I moved over to the women's movement, which at that time was becoming extremely radical, extremely sophisticated in its analysis. It was the beginning of women's studies, seeing itself in terms of a world theory, historical theory, not like civil rights, very far removed from civil rights. And the most radical end of that was the lesbian movement, so that radical lesbian was a term. That was a very important term. And women divided themselves between radical lesbians, who wanted to destroy patriarchy--I love this stuff--and cultural lesbians, who weren't apolitical, but they more like the HAL thing for lesbians.
MS: Can I go back then for a few minutes to HAL? What do remember about that group? How did the gay men and the lesbians interact? What did HAL do aside from its meetings?
RD: I'm not real good on all of this. I remember Jerry Curtis as being one of the lead men in HAL and somebody named George. I can't remember his last name. The lesbians, Marilyn in particular and Byrna, were and are extremely strong women. Have you met either of them yet?
MS: I've talked to Byrna.
RD: O.K. They were extremely strong women. So I mean ironically no, there weren't going to be the problems I think in HAL that traditionally happened where the lesbians left the organization because they weren't fair to women, because no one was unfair to these women. And Jerry and George didn't have a prayer with them. Not that Jerry and George weren't strong men. I'm not saying they weren't. They were. But even though they were strong men--Jerry was a perfect example of someone who'd engage in what I call cock fighting with some other group--he couldn't have run it over Marilyn or Byrna. So there really wasn't that kind of a problem. There was a problem of lack of consciousness, perhaps on both sides. Certainly from Marilyn and Byrna's perspective of their sense of what it was to be a woman, because in that sense, they weren't particularly womanly. That is, because they were so strong, they hadn't experienced a lot of the things and weren't willing to acknowledge the oppressed position of women. Now they would today, but at that time, they would not have.
MS: And from the gay men's side?
RD: And Barbara Gittings still wouldn't today, I don't think.
MS: And from the gay men's side? You were saying that from neither side were they conscious.
RD: No, right. I mean certainly the gay men tried to be in charge and weren't conscious. And it was called Homophile Action League. I mean very quickly, after Homophile Action League, the gay organizations named themselves lesbian and gay task force and always put the lesbian first. We were very conscious of the oppression of women and having to make some kind of reparations for that. And HAL didn't even have that on its agenda. It wasn't even raised. It was entirely about gay civil rights.
MS: Were you involved at all with the Gay Liberation Front here or the Gay Activists Alliance?
RD: No. No. By that time I had gone over to the women's movement heavy duty.
MS: Were you involved at all with the Radicalesbians group here?
MS: Can you tell me something about that?
RD: Well, see I got involved with all that through the University of Pennsylvania. And it was so wonderful. It was the probably the most exciting time of my life. It was certainly the time that I developed my own political identity. That is, for the first time, my politics and my personhood matched and I started fighting for my rights instead of everybody else's rights. And because it was through the university, it was a very sophisticated analysis. We formed into consciousness-raising groups, which were not existing in the gay movement at all. And we did enormous amount of work on ourselves and enormous amount of analysis and the academic women started publishing wonderful work. And so we were discussing our fear of men, our fear of anger, our relationships with men, relationships with men, man-hating. And then, going away from men, we were talking about when patriarchy first took over and we were talking about how women could self-actualize even though they saw everything through the patriarchal screen that the world had. And at that time, Judy Fetterley's class, I was in one of her classes and we also became lovers after her class. Judy Fetterley's women's studies class started a consciousness-raising group after the class. And of course we had all been reading these wonderful things. And a lot of people in that group are still in touch with each other from her class. But from that, she started to write herself as a feminist writer. And then became a superstar and is still doing some of the lead work in feminist scholarship, primarily around nineteenth century writers, but she did a whole analysis of the male American writers from a feminist perspective. She was the first one that did that, which is very different. The way American men and American women dealt with each other and oppressed each other or whatever you want to say is very different from, say, the way they did it in Europe. And she brought that out in the literature and it was wonderful. In the course of that, half of that group, including me, got involved with the group Radicalesbians. And Radicalesbians had adopted a great deal of this. Their perspective was the personal was political and therefore we were teaching each other to be political. And Radicalesbians formed themselves into living collectives. So did HAL.
MS: And where were those?
RD: West Philadelphia.
MS: And where were the HAL collectives?
RD: The HAL collective was in West Philadelphia, too. The HAL collective I lived in for a very short period and I can't even remember why, probably because I was homeless. I mean it wasn't like I got together with them and we figured out some political reason to live together. I mean homeless as in between places I was living in. “Oh yes, wouldn't it be nice to live there.” The HAL collective was a political collective in the sense that everybody was doing the same work, but it wasn't a political collective in the sense of the collective itself was working on itself politically. The lesbian collectives that I moved in that had to do with Radicalesbians, the collective itself was trying to create a new lifestyle. We were trying to work through issues of religion and issues of money. I don't mean that we were religious. I mean that there were Jews in the house and Christians in the house and we all brought our baggage from that and issues of money and class and race and all of those things. And lesbian relationships and what lesbian relationships as dyads meant and what non-monogamy meant. And in fact could you have total non-monogamy and sex become something separate from the intimacy.
MS: Was the HAL collective mixed, male-female?
RD: Mmhmm [assent].
MS: Do you remember some of the people who lived there?
RD: Jerry, John.
MS: John? Do you remember a last name?
RD: No. It's Jerry Curtis and his lover was John and I can't remember his last name.
MS: O.K. Do you remember where that house was? This is the first I've heard of this.
RD: No. Byrna could tell you.
MS: And what about the lesbian collectives? Do you remember where? In West Philly?
RD: They were all in West Philadelphia. See the lesbian collectives formed within University City because a lot of this stuff had come out of what was going on at the university. I mean the group that started the rape thing and women's studies was a very large group, which picked up other women from the city but it was essentially that group. It wasn't a small group to begin with. It was undergraduate students, it was graduate students, it was faculty and their lovers.
MS: And when you say that Radicalesbians, the group, had broadened out, do you mean that it included lots of non-Penn people?
RD: Community women, yes. It included a lot of community women, but not West Philadelphia community. Lesbian community women, yes. That organization really branched out. We were very self-righteous. If they became political enough, they certainly could join the communities. But what we wouldn't do in the houses is have people that had no politics.
MS: How many people would you say were involved.
RD: Because they really were political houses. I mean I don't know; I’m always self-righteous in some ways about it, but we also were serious political units at that time, so it wasn't an unreasonable standard.
MS: Did Radicalesbians meet in weekly c-r groups? Was it that kind of thing?
RD: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
MS: How many people would you say participated all in all in Philadelphia, if you had to guess? On the order of a couple hundred?
RD: Oh much more than that.
MS: More than that.
RD: Oh yeah. And they ran a lot of social stuff, dances and stuff like that. And a whole lot of organizations were spawned out of there. The lesbian hotline was spawned out of there.
MS: The Women's Center on Chester Avenue?
RD: Yes, that was formed out of there. And then of course, as I said, most of the women's groups sprang up at that time in the city and all of them were spearheaded by lesbians and most of those lesbians came out of Radicalesbians.
MS: Could you name some people and groups?
RD: Women in Transition, Women Against Rape, the abuse shelters. Look at the real women's organizations and you'll find that the founder was a woman and then you'll find she was connected with Radicalesbians, because that's where the intellectual thing was going on.
MS: What about NOW?
RD: No, NOW at that time was extremely homophobic.
MS: Do remember anything about the election of Jan Welch as an openly lesbian president of NOW?
RD: Yes, yes. But they were still homophobic at that time.
MS: Well maybe I should ask you to move on to your own custody case.
RD: Well Radicalesbians wouldn't have gone to NOW.
RD: Yeah. Interestingly, they would have seen HAL and NOW as very similar. I mean NOW does wonderful work. I mean HAL of course wasn't homophobic. But I mean NOW does wonderful work at a certain civil rights level, but doesn't think beyond that. And so they're primarily trying to get a piece of the pie for women and HAL was trying to get a piece of the pie for lesbians and gay men. It didn't go beyond that, whereas Radicalesbians had a complete analysis, political analysis.
MS: Were there any gay male counterparts to Radicalesbians, who really wanted to change everything?
RD: No. Why would the men want to change anything?
MS: Well some of the men who were in Gay Liberation Front say that locally, people like Kyoshi….
RD: Oh yeah, but they were such a tiny little movement compared to us. Well yeah, I mean they were one extreme end.
MS: Did you go to the Black Panthers Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?
RD: No. No.
MS: O.K. That probably was before you were active in Radicalesbians. Well should we move on then to your own custody case?
RD: Oh yeah, so in the midst of all this wonderful stuff that was going on, terribly exciting times, political times, I had left Mr. Buck. And I was during this period of time involved with a variety of women, none of them serious. I mean self-consciously I was not looking for any kind of permanent relationship. I felt like I'd been married all my life. And also, the lesbian movement at that time was very open to non-monogamy, so it didn't matter. So it's more like collective living and a variety of lovers and a lot of intimacy with women, whether we shared sex or not. And one of our sort of theories was that the intimacy between the women was more important than the sex and the sex was sort of like an afterthought, but it was fine, O.K. And I can't say I wasn't involved in electoral politics as well. I was, because I was testifying for the gay rights bill the first time it failed and stuff like that. And somewhere in the midst of all this, my husband decided to remarry and take off to Nova Scotia and told me this. And we had been sharing custody of the children. And he didn't tell me he was going to Nova Scotia. I found out about that from the children. And so I had to go to the Canadian embassy and stop him leaving, because we didn't have any protections for me. And I sought custody in Montgomery County of my children. And that's when I found out that I was the first open lesbian mother to do that. And I had no choice about being open. I had no choice about being open because I was an openly gay lesbian. And actually, through HAL and also Radicalesbians, I had done a lot of t.v. work, a lot of radio work, and it would be impossible for me to claim I was not a lesbian. So I had to go to court saying I was a lesbian. And the judge made it; he's now on the superior court.
MS: What's his name?
RD: I'm blanking.
MS: We can look up your case, that's all right.
RD: No, the case didn't get reported. I'll tell you his name; it will come to me.
MS: What level court was this now?
RD: Well I only went to Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. It's always amused me that the judge got promoted way up after that. He wouldn't give houseroom to the notion that I would have custody of my children when I was a lesbian. And so we settled because we knew from when my lawyer went into chambers that from the judge we knew we weren't going to get anything. So we settled, but what the judge gave me was outrageous, because he gave me one phone call a week with my children in Nova Scotia, one day a month visitation in Nova Scotia, which meant I would have to fly out, and two weeks in the summer in my parents' home in Montreal. They were still living in Montreal at the time.
MS: How old were your children at this time? Do you recall?
RD: Well I've just figured out it was '73 when I lost the children.
MS: So they would have been thirteen and ten.
RD: Something like that, in that range, yes, thirteen and ten. And the children were very torn apart by this custody case. They weren't nearly as torn apart by the divorce as they were by the custody case. I have to say I've never really forgiven Mr. Buck for doing the custody case, because it does really do damage to children to fight over them that way. And I always tell that to my clients when I'm doing custody cases.
MS: Were the children in court with you at all?
RD: They were in court, yes.
MS: So they heard.
RD: So the children being as old as they were have to deny one parent or the other. And of course my children said they wanted to be with their father, which devastated me. And I later learned that they had been told by their father's lawyer that if they didn't say they wanted to be with their father, there was a very good chance they would be put in foster care as an alternative to me. So they thought they had the choice between their father and foster care.
MS: Was that accurate, do you think? Would they not have allowed you to have the kids?
RD: It's accurate that they wouldn't have given me the kids. It's not accurate that foster care would have been the alternative, because they would have been given to their father. But I do think that if they had said they wanted to be with me, it would have dramatically changed my access. Anyway, maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe it wouldn't have changed the access anyway. But I thought it was a terrible thing to tell the children because that was not in the works anyway and gave them a great fear that they didn't need to have and a great anxiety they didn't need to have. Anyway, so the whole family moved up to Nova Scotia. And the one time a week that I was allowed to call, they frequently weren't made available to me and I was very helpless. And everything now was international law. And I couldn't go up there one day a month because it was exorbitantly expensive to do that. And furthermore, it was hostile territory. Why would I want to go up there for the one day and not have them available that day? I think the first time we had visitation in Montreal they told me they were very unhappy. They couldn't tell me on the phone because he was always standing there. They told me they were very unhappy, particularly with their new stepmother, who made it very clear that she didn't want them. And the second visitation, they came and stayed and came back with me.
MS: Is that right?
RD: Now by this time, I had gotten involved in a very serious relationship, the one I'm in now that's been going on for twenty years. In fact, she was my lover and came to court with me at the time that I lost my children. And knowing that the children were coming back, no excuse me, prior to that, as a result of my custody case, I decided that this was outrageous that there was no case law and that I was going to do something about that. And I started the organization Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers, which at that time was to collect as much information as we could and to get lawyers to do pro bono cases, because there was a constitutional issue of a mother's right to keep her children, which is a fundamental right, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And we got a group of lawyers to offer pro bono services to represent lesbian women.
MS: Can you name some of those lawyers?
RD: Brian Nealon, David Rasner, Carrie Nicholas. Those are just coming to mind right now.
MS: All three men or the third?
RD: No. The third's a woman. I mean actually we got the lawyers in oftentimes by where they had shown their interests to be. We didn't do it on the basis of gender. If you're going to get pro bono work, you want an experienced lawyer who knows what they're doing and has an interest.
RD: So we didn't worry about gender. Actually, there's some pluses to a lesbian mother going in with a male lawyer into court, as long as he's sympathetic to the issue. And then we got foundation funding and then as time went on, I decided that I could do a much better job than these lawyers, having very little understanding of the law myself at the time, but being very arrogant. And so I decided I'd go to law school and become the CALM lawyer, which I did do, but along the way I learned they were actually doing a rather good job, which I had not thought they were doing. And I now respect them very much.
MS: Now can you go back and just tell me about the kids coming back to you. Was that at court?
RD: O.K. I'm in law school now, O.K. I'm in law school to fight for lesbian mothers. And that's when the children decided to come back to me. And so there's two aspects to that. There's the legal aspect to that. Their father of course could challenge it, because it was a contempt of court, but now the children were going to be clearly saying that they wanted to live with me. How much more clearly can you do that? And they were teenagers. And so judges are very loathe to go against the will of teenagers, unless there's something really horrendous going on, like I've known teenagers, now having done a lot of years of practice, who’ve had babies from their fathers and wanted to go live with their fathers. O.K. They're not going to countenance that. It doesn't matter how old you are. But by and large, if a teenager strongly states a preference for a parent, how can a judge argue with it? They'd already left their father once and come home with me. They would do it again. So you really don't mess too much with teenagers. And my husband never challenged it after that. And in fact, in the classic male way, because they had been quote disloyal unquote to him, he didn't see them or speak to them for over ten years, which to me is inconceivable because when they were quote disloyal unquote to me, I did everything I could to keep contact with them.
MS: So they were two years with their father, about that?
RD: Eighteen months to two years, yes. So anyway, now I'm in law school. I don't have any money. I'm earning a small stipend from working for CALM and lo and behold these two teenagers arriving on my doorstep.
MS: And you were still in a collective house at that point?
RD: No, I was living on my own, completely on my own. So that's when we moved to Narberth. And my lover and I bought this house. I first took an apartment for a year and then my lover and I moved into this house and made a home for the kids. And my son ultimately went into the service and my daughter stayed, lived with me. And since then they have alternately lived with me and my son is still living here now. He's thirty-three. He travels a lot. I'm not saying he's home clinging to mom. He travels a lot and so it's not worth him having an apartment. But I always say for two children who were awarded away from me, I really have a very hard time getting rid of them. In any event, it's not an uncommon experience for lesbian mothers, not the mothers of very small children, that the father at the time of the custody case, you have to question the motive of the father. Now some fathers have the best motives and are wonderful fathers, but a lot of fathers, the motive has more to do with upsetting the mother and winning and having power and control over the wife and the children, than it has to with wanting the children. And then there's the factor of the woman he then gets involved with. Invariably when fathers take custody of children, either their mother's going to really take care of them or their new wife or girlfriend or whatever's going to take care of the children. They're not about to go from non-parenting to real parenting.
MS: So was that the case with your husband.
RD: Oh no actually he was a parenting parent. He was. But yes, to some extent it was true because he worked and she didn't. And she was a very strong personality. My husband was a very weak man who married women who really were bitches, including me, who were very domineering like his mother. And he loved every minute of it. That's another reason why I married him. I mean although I'm very domineering, I like to have someone who's equally domineering to live with, which my lover is, so we nearly kill each other, but at least we have equality.
MS: Can you describe to me something about the court machinery at the time that your case first came up? Who would hear custody cases like this. You said it was the Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County?
MS: So there's not a separate court that would decide these matters?
RD: Oh no, no. Custody is peculiarly within the right of the state. And in fact, it's going to go stay in state courts, even in its appeal process, unless you pull out a constitutional issue that will pop it up into the federal courts and into the Supreme Court. It's peculiarly within the right of the state to determine the custody of the children of the state. And in fact, the state court is considered sort of in loco parentis to all of the children of the state. And they are benign about that as long as the children aren't brought before them. If they're brought before them for any reason by a state agency or by parents or grandparents, they then have the absolute right to decide in the best interests of the children where they should be.
MS: I see, O.K. And then you said that when you first started CALM, you were gathering information about other people's experiences of this kind. And I'm wondering, since I'm interested in tracing questions about parenting back before the 1970s, if you could speak to what you learned.
RD: Well I didn't know any of the people. I only knew that there were just no cases on record, but there were a couple of cases that obliquely referred to paramours, which I then had to presume may have been lesbian mother cases. They didn't say that and the rest of them must have been decided in chambers, because there's no way men weren't coming into court saying, “My wife's left me for a woman.” So you have to do it by a process of elimination. And I was the first that I knew of, no I think maybe there was one before mine, so if I wasn't the first I was the second, in Pennsylvania, who used the word lesbian in the process of asking for the children. Since then there have been very many.
MS: I know in this bibliography that you gave me there are two Pennsylvania cases, Commonwealth v. Bradley and Commonwealth v. Cortez. Do you know anything about those two?
RD: Did they precede mine? They may have been the ones I'm talking about.
MS: I think I've actually looked those up but I can't recall.
RD: Yes. See that's where I come in. I come in between Cortez and Scarlett. And Scarlett v. Scarlett was a CALM case. In re Breich wasn't. Constance A. v. Paul A. was. Pascarello wasn't, but there's many more Pennsylvania cases than that, including a line coming from Constance A. now, which if you get interested I will give to you. Those probably are the ones that talk about paramours.
MS: O.K. And when you say that these things would be decided in the judge's chambers, could you tell me something about what you know about that?
RD: Well like mine was, in a sense. In essence, mine was decided in chambers. That goes on every day of every week with custody cases. You both file. You file your petition. The opposing counsel files the answer. You get to court. And as soon as you get to court, trial day, the judge says, “Counsel, I want to see you in chambers.” And you go in chambers and basically the judge tells you what he's going to do before he's ever tried the case, before he's ever listened to a word of testimony. O.K.? And so you come out and you've got the choice of going on the record with your case, knowing that the judge is going to rule against you anyway, unless you've got some huge surprise he doesn't know anything about, or capitulating and saying to your client, “O.K., he's not going to give you your kids. Let's settle it.”
MS: Now because of the role you've had in the last twenty years, I'm interested in hearing from you both in terms of your own case, but also in terms of all the cases that you know about. So can you tell me anything about specific cases before the 1970s that you've learned about through CALM, some anecdotes of what some lesbian mothers have experienced in the courts or in fights with their husbands for custody?
RD: The overwhelming majority of women did what I did. At the time that I separated from my husband, although we did share custody, he said, “I'm taking the children. And if you don't let me have the children, I am going to get them from you legally.” So I said, “O.K., you can have the children.” And it was only because he was going to Nova Scotia, and now he wasn't going to just have the children, but I was going to have no access whatsoever, that I went to court. And that's what the overwhelming number of women did and that has been told to me anecdotally by women that preceded that. Some women still do it today.
MS: How about any anecdotes of women who did go to court and have it come out in the open?
RD: I don't know if I can go back. You're going to have to look through that bibliography and read up on cases because I can't name cases by times. See this was one of the next big cases that made the news. That was two years later. In other words, I was on the cutting edge in a sense. At about the same time I did it and started CALM. Again, Radicalesbians wasn't in isolation in Philadelphia. The women's movement was at its inception and all over the country women were in consciousness-raising groups and lesbians were declaring themselves radical lesbians. And there was something called the political lesbian. She's a woman who had never really thought about sex with women, but felt so alienated from men via the women's movement that she couldn't conceive of a relationship with a man anymore, the enemy, so she just had relationships with women. I mean one could argue that she must have had a propensity to desire sex with women anyway because there's an alternative to sex with women and that is just to have some kind of friendship with women. But anyway, that was going on. It was going on everywhere. So it's not surprising that all the lesbian mother custody cases sprang up at the same time. So Risher was a very, very big one in Texas at that time. That was a couple of years after mine. And you would have to look through here to see. You're not going to find too many that predate mine, O.K. But here's one, 1970, which I don't know anything about.
MS: Another question is about what you were just talking about, the radical lesbian influence on this cause. It seems to me in following and tracing lesbian and gay history in the '50s and '60s, rarely were any groups or any individuals taking up issues about the family or about the home. The few political activists that there were focused on sodomy law, police harassment, those sorts of things. What was it about the women's movement that made these radical lesbians turn to family issues and start conceiving of family issues as being worthy of their attention?
RD: First of all, I think Boys in the Band was not that inaccurate a movie. I think that the gay men and the gay women at that time basically had a lot of self-hate. And although they were willing to go for their rights, to stop being beaten up, for example, like Stonewall, to fight being beaten up or totally destroyed, they weren't capable of saying, “I have the same rights as heterosexuals.” They sort of really did quote live in the shadows, you know the Radclyffe Hall stuff and all that, and were quite terrified of the society. They weren't out on the job and people have come out on the job since then. And of course some of it's still true today. I mean there are a lot of closeted gay people today. We're all aware of that.
MS: But even the activists in the earlier '60s, it seems to me, never focused on the family.
RD: No. No, I'm going answer that question. There were a lot of different women's movements going on simultaneously at that time. For example, in Britain, being British I have a lot of lesbian friends in Britain. In Britain, they started by organizing the charladies, the cleaning ladies, O.K. Because Britain is a socialist country, the primary movement that the lesbians came out of or the women came out of, the women's movement, was a socialist perspective. So they were going to do something for the oppressed. Our country's the opposite of that. So NOW was working for the middle-class woman to get a piece of the pie as she climbed the corporate ladder. That's sort of like as you compare women's movements, O.K. I think right from the beginning, the women's movement in the United States was about reproductive rights. I think one of their core issues was reproductive rights. So that's why you had W-O-A-R, you had Women in Transition, you had all the abortion clinics, also founded by lesbians by the way. You had all of those things that had to do with family and reproductive rights. And then, if you go back further, it seems to me very clear that that has always been women's issues, that until the late twentieth century, women's world had to be the home and reproductive rights. For example, when Judy Fetterley's doing her work now on nineteenth century women, a lot of their work has gone out of publication, but mostly what they wrote about was the home because they weren't allowed out of the home to write about anything else. And even when I was first working, it was not considered normal or right for a woman to have a career path. When my son first started school, I recall them calling me in and telling me because I worked full-time that this was not good for my son and I should be home with him. And this was like right here in America. I think that the women's movement changed, Betty Friedan changed all of that. And Betty Friedan herself talked about how it advanced capitalism for women to be home and be buying kitchen curtains rather than out in the workplace, not giving a squat what was. We bought less products when we were out working. So I think it all sort of goes together that therefore we still had that with us, that one of the primary focuses of the movement would be reproductive rights. And so that spilled over to lesbians. And again, talking about the separation and the difference between gay men and gay women and women having all the women's issues they had to deal with as well as the gay issues as well as the male issues, I mean I don't think to this day men have particularly dealt with the reproductive rights issues. I don't think gay men have considered that to be anything to do with the gay agenda, unless you call sodomy that. They haven't.
MS: Would you say at the time of your case and when you started CALM, it's accurate to say that the legal system treated lesbians and gay men differently?
RD: I think it's a complicated question, because I mean ironically, as somebody who is tremendously conscious of the oppression of women and the status of men in general in our society, I would have to acknowledge that when it came to custody cases, that is gay custody cases, men are worse off than women. And that when it comes to say gay bashing, men are worse off than women. That there are areas where gay men, because they act like women, are treated much worse by the legal system than women are treated who are acting like women, because they are so threatening to the judges. “How dare you behave like these terribly inferior women.” And it brings out true deep hate. I'm not saying there isn’t class hate against women, but it brings out personal hate against men. And I think there's a big difference in class hate and personal hate. I'm not so sure. So in that sense, I would say they're treated differently by the law. On the other hand, they also confused in the law. I was telling you earlier that custody judges, having lesbians in front of them, will talk about the risk of placing the child in the home of AIDS. Lesbians have such a small proportion of AIDS it's ridiculous. They're way behind heterosexuals, let alone gay men, but they confuse the two very easily. And you have to really make an effort in the courtroom to get judges to understand that there's a difference between lesbians and gay men. I'm just looking now at this study, “Lesbian Mothers and Their Children.” Maybe it’s not the one. There were a bunch of these studies. There was one study that was done of the length of relationships. There's a whole big thing about gay relationships aren't very stable. Actually they've now come out with we are a little statistically ahead of heterosexual relationships today, so what are we talking about stable. But they've found that lesbian mothers are very stable. And I think you can even pull out another class, which is lesbian mothers versus lesbians and talk about entirely different lifestyles. After all, lesbian mothers, first of all, are much poorer than both lesbians and gay men, because they are not only earning sixty cents on the dollar as a woman, but they have children to raise on that. And child support in this country, even after Ronald Reagan put through, thank god the only good thing he ever did, the law which allows you to attach a man's paycheck for child support. A whole lot of men don't pay child support or the child support that they have to pay by the courts is set by other men, so it's ridiculously low, so they're poor and they don't have time either. They don't have time for screwing around. They don't have time for non-monogamous relationships and staring into their navels and wondering who they'll sleep with next week and are they really in love or not in love. They're too busy washing faces and little butts and bringing in enough money to put food on the table. So if you're talking about cultural mores, they fit into a whole different category from lesbians, let alone from gay men. And as you know, the first gay men that were tracked because of AIDS had an incredibly promiscuous lifestyle, which is not the primary lifestyle of gay men but is inconceivable in the lesbian community. It simply doesn't exist. That level of promiscuity doesn't exist. And I would argue one of the reasons that there are fewer women's bars than men's bars, is (a) the women don't have the money. All lesbians don't have the money to spend in bars, because gay men have the highest disposable income in the country, but also a lot of what gay male bars are about are about tricking, are about supporting a promiscuous sex life. I'm not putting a value judgment on that; I'm just making a cultural difference statement. And if you look at it in a bigger perspective, you're going to say gay men are raised as men, O.K. Men are taught to screw as many women as they can in order to really be men. And the size of their penis is very important, O.K. Gay women are raised as women. Women are supposed to look not for looks but for somebody who can take care of you and somebody who's loving and kind, O.K. And they act that out. So gay men screw everything in sight and lesbian women, it's appalling. They fall in love the first time you sleep with them and they move in. Fuck her and she'll be here for breakfast and she's there two years later. You know what I'm saying? And that's just following the traditional mores of the society.
MS: But it sounds like you were saying before in the early 70s lesbians were more experimental.
RD: Yes. But that was so dramatic and different. I mean, here we were creating a revolution being promiscuous. You know what I mean? This was revolutionary for women. For gay men, they've been doing that forever. Yes, that's a perfect example of how we were on entirely different tracks politically. So at that time, there was no real possibility except in the most minimal level, I think, of gay men and lesbian women doing a major thrust for changing the society together. And lesbian women had a whole lot more other things that they had to do. And still do as women, but I think now there's more places where we can overlap.
MS: So your sense in the early '70s is that things were quite separate in the movement? Lesbians and gay men were quite separate.
RD: Except in the quote gay organizations, there were some male-identified women, if you know what male-identified women are. There were women that had no feminist consciousness whatsoever. And that's who they had working with them. They weren't women they could oppress, but I wouldn't call that a joining of the women and the men.
MS: I see.
RD: I would call it a joining of the men and the men. And anyone who had any sense of herself as a woman wasn't doing that. But then you have to look at it from the broader societal perspective, too, because after the anti-war movement, for women, the quote political women of this country en masse, moved out of the male left wing. So we all went just in different directions and it wasn't very different. And so we had a lot of them, too.
MS: I have one final question, which might seem a funny one, but do you remember what you were doing at the time of the bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia? Did you participate in any of the protests?
RD: This year? When?
MS: Bicentennial. 1976. There was a big celebration of the 200th anniversary and there were big protests and a bunch of lesbian actions, a group called Dyketactics.
RD: Oh yes. No, no, no, I was involved in Dyketactics.
MS: You were.
RD: Well at the time I was involved with Sherry Cohen, who is Councilman Cohen's daughter.
RD: Much to his distress.
MS: Do you know what some of those actions were that you took part in.
RD: And she was very involved in Dyketactics with Kathy Power and Barbara Ruth.
MS: Sharon Owens, I've talked to. She says she was involved as well.
RD: Sharon Owens, yes. And the day we were testifying before City Council on the gay rights bill was the day that all hell broke loose and Kathy Power got up. Katherine, not Power, Kathy, what was her last name. She changed her name. She took a woman name. I can't remember it. But anyway, she got up on Billy Penn and got arrested and a bunch of them got arrested. And then I was involved in the Dyketactics trial. Holly McGuigan did the Dyketactics trial. It was a wonderful trial. And that was around the same time, not too far distant from when Susan Saxe got arrested here, and she was involved with Byrna Aronson. What year was that, do you know? Is that past your date?
MS: I think it was '75 or '76.
RD: Oh was it?
MS: Yeah, it was before my date, yeah. Did you know Susan Saxe?
RD: It's before where you cut off?
RD: Oh well now let me give you some background on this one because you’re going to want to talk to Byrna about this one because that was a very powerful event. Dyketactics was important in a way because this was the most radical extreme we finally went to. And the trial was wonderful because Holly understood that it was very important, even though you're going to clearly lose it. I mean I've done cases like that since, O.K. Greenham Common, for example, I was involved in. It's very important that, even though you're going lose the case, what you're doing is making a political statement. So you're making a political statement by even calling the word dyke and bringing it into the courtroom. When the cops got on the stand and talked about girls, she would say, “I don't see any children. Are there children in the courtroom?” You know it was wonderful. She did all that kind of stuff. You know it was wonderful. And some of that went on with Susan Saxe and Susan Saxe preceded Dyketactics, I think, because that's part of how we got the connection with Holly. Well at the time that Susan Saxe was arrested, Byrna and I were best friends and Byrna and I lived in the same apartment building.
MS: Where was that, in West Philly?
RD: Mmhmm [assent]. So did Marilyn Sauers, but we all had our own apartments. That was just before my children came back. Byrna worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, which was downtown, and I worked for the National Lawyers Guild, which is also a civil rights organization downtown. And in fact, through the National Lawyers Guild, that's where CALM started. I was in the National Lawyers Guild office. And Byrna was involved with Susan and Byrna got arrested. And we did the most wonderful thing. I mean all of us. Byrna came that night and she came to my door at three in the morning. But I have to tell you.
MS: You said Byrna got arrested?
RD: Yes. With Susan.
MS: You didn't mean Susan.
RD: She and Susan were together.
MS: The two of them were arrested. Yes.
RD: Mind you, why Susan picked Byrna is beyond me. I mean at the time, she was calling herself Val Woolf, V. Woolf, Virginia Woolf. She used a lot of women's names in her tour around the countryside, I understand, O.K. But Byrna certainly did not know that she was Susan Saxe.
MS: Is that right?
RD: Yes. Nor did I.
MS: Even at the time of the arrest?
RD: Yes, right. And so Byrna was walking. Why she picked Byrna, I can't imagine, because Byrna looks like everybody's notion of a stereotypical dyke. She walks around with t-shirts, a pack of cigarettes in the side of her sleeve turned up. She's a big woman. She's a tall woman and a big woman. She wears jeans and she wears big keys hanging from her jeans. She always wears men's boots. I adore Byrna, I have to tell you. And she wears a leather jacket, vest, O.K. And she had her hair half an inch long all over her head. Byrna looked like a lesbian. She looked like everybody's notion of a lesbian. She was also, through ACLU, very well-known to the police department in Philadelphia. I mean they knew Byrna because she dealt constantly with them via the ACLU, so that when she walked down the street, the cops would go, “Hi.” They all knew Byrna. Just to add this little anecdote about Byrna: my mother adored Byrna. She just thought she was one of the most wonderful women. And my father could not stand Byrna. And my father was rarely threatened. He was not threatened by gay men. He was proud of his daughter the lesbian. I had wonderful parents, but he could not handle Byrna. Well there were many mythological stories about Byrna. Really, you should try interviewing Byrna if you can. There were mythological stories about Byrna tossing men over the bar when they annoyed the women in the bars and tossing men out of parties when they were annoying women at parties and all kinds of stuff like that. This is gay men. And Byrna used to be able to stand on Chestnut Street and whistle like this so loud you could hear from one end of Chestnut Street to the other when she wanted a cab. That was Byrna. Whistle like Byrna the dyke. Oh she's still like it. She hasn't changed. She's totally wonderful. Well anyway, if you were in hiding, I've always thought, hardly the person one would choose to walk down the street with, because not only did you stand out and people on the street would look at you. It's sort of like walking down the street with a drag queen. You know what I mean? But also, the police all knew her. But anyway, they were walking down the street and got arrested. Well all I knew about it was three o’clock in the morning my doorbell rang, but I have to say that was not a bit unusual for Byrna to be up at three o’clock in the morning. She had terrible, terrible sleep habits. And her boss would frequently call me at noon and say, “Rosalie, do you know where Byrna is?” This is Spencer Coxe.
MS: Spencer Coxe?
RD: Yes, he's a lovely man. “Do you know where Byrna is? I haven't heard from her at all and we're worried about her.”
MS: Ada Bello gave me a phone number in Boston that I called once, but I didn't follow up.
RD: For Byrna? Well I can give you her phone number.
MS: I thought you said you didn't know where she was.
RD: Byrna, I know where she is. Yes. Oh I know where Marilyn is, too.
MS: Who is it that you said you didn't know where she was?
RD: I don't know.
MS: Did you mean Spencer Coxe? No? I thought you said that.
RD: No. I know where Byrna is. I see her regularly. Every chance I get to see her I see her. But anyway, so Spencer used to phone me and say, “Rosalie, we can't find Byrna and we're worried.” And she didn't have a phone and I would have to go up there from my job to the apartment and knock on the door. And you would knock and you would knock and you would knock and Byrna had finally crashed and was sleeping for the whole day. But Spencer was worried that something bad had happened to her. He never got mad at her. She would come in like at eleven, noon to her office and she would work until midnight. And that was okay with Spencer, but other people in the office used to resent it. And the other thing about Byrna is she could type like 250 words a minute. I mean when she started work, it was the work of five people getting done. And Spencer was wonderful enough to understand that about Byrna and know what he was getting. But you had to be really easy-going to have Byrna working for you. By the way, she was the first woman detective in Massachusetts, which is perfect for Byrna, absolutely perfect. Anyway, so Byrna came knocking at my door at three o’clock in the morning, but that was not an uncommon occurrence. I remember one time she knocked on my door because one of the gay men in the building had brought home a trick and the trick was attacking him. And she wanted to call the police. She thought nothing of knocking on my door. I've always had very regular sleep hours, so I just used to sigh with Byrna at my door. She probably threw him out of the building, too. And so this night she came knocking on my door and then we contacted Marilyn, who was also in the building. And we had this little powwow in my apartment. Very low-key because she said the building was already surrounded by the FBI, which I'm sure was true, and they have very good listening devices. And we got the word out. We were sophisticated and political enough to get the word out that this had happened. And in the communities preceding ours, what they had done, the FBI, was they had found out very early on by threatening the women, and especially gay women who are particularly paranoid. Not paranoid: they have reason to have the fears that they have. They had found out very early who had harbored her or Cathy Power and everything that had gone on. And anyone who objected to that had ended up in prison. I'm trying to remember what that statute is. It has something to do with immunity statutes. I'm not quite sure on which they hold them under.
MS: Was Cathy Power local also? Was she also from Philadelphia?
RD: I have no idea.
RD: I don't know, O.K., but we knew about this. And we knew you did not have to answer the feds. You didn't have to talk to them at all. And we knew we weren't going to end up with women from our community in jail for refusing to talk, O.K. And the communities were very divided and very damaged, the lesbian communities, some women said by the arrival of Cathy Power and/or Susan Saxe in their community and other people said by the FBI. Of course, it was by the FBI. So within forty-eight hours, Byrna and I had a hotline going in my office for everyone to call into who had any contact from the FBI. We had leaflets everywhere telling people their rights vis a vis the FBI. We had leaflets everywhere telling people not to talk to the FBI under any circumstances about anything about Susan Saxe.
MS: This was all after the arrest.
RD: This was all after the arrest, yes.
MS: You must have been shocked, though, at first to learn that she was Susan Saxe.
MS: Did you feel any sense of betrayal that she hadn’t told you or did you understand why she didn't.
RD: Oh no. Oh no, I didn`t feel a sense of betrayal.
MS: You understood why she had didn’t.
RD: A lot of things made sense afterwards that hadn't made sense along the way, but I didn't feel any sense of betrayal.
MS: Can I ask you, just to cut in for a second? I'm filing a Freedom of Information Act search for FBI surveillance of other groups in Philadelphia. And I can't file for individuals unless I have authorization of the individuals. Was there any group that you would recommend that I file the Freedom of Information Act request for that might tell me something about how deep the FBI infiltration in the lesbian community was?
RD: No. See I'm not aware of FBI infiltration in the lesbian community. You know they were very handicapped at that point because they didn't have many women agents. You're not going to get in with men. For example, when I worked for the National Lawyers Guild, I know that was FBI-infiltrated.
MS: I see.
RD: But I'm not sure that the lesbian community was.
MS: I see, O.K. Some people have suggested to me that it was.
RD: It may have been, but I wasn't aware of it and nor was Byrna and we were pretty sharp on that stuff.
RD: Anyway, I mean we just pulled off this incredible coup because they never got anywhere. They never found a single piece of information about Susan Saxe in Philadelphia. And what we gained from it was we did not become a terribly divided community and we did not have women lingering in jail because they wouldn't talk. Because once they get into the inner ring, which would have been Byrna and me and some people who had had a lot of contact with Susan, obviously we being political anyway, wouldn't have talked. I mean she did know how to gravitate to political types who aren't going to talk and then we would have ended up in jail.
MS: Did the FBI try to talk to you?
RD: Oh yes.
MS: And you refused.
RD: Oh yes. And not only that: I did a television interview. This was great fun. I remember it was right walking past the tourist bureau on 15th Street. I did a television interview about my hotline. And I accused the FBI of harassing the community and picking on it. They would do things like call your grandmother and tell her she was a lesbian if you wouldn't talk to them. They did outrageous things like that. And the next night, the head of the FBI in Philadelphia came on to answer me. And I thought that was so neat, that I pulled him out and he was having to justify himself. So I mean we did a wonderful job. I think it was probably our finest hour, the political lesbian community, that we were so well organized that we could pull that off.
MS: Were there a lot of hotline calls?
RD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
MS: On the order of how many women do you think would have called?
RD: Well they went into the hundreds. They went into the hundreds in terms of women they contacted to try and find out. They did a lot to try and find out. After all, they thought at that time that we were harboring Cathy Power as well. And they also believed that we knew she was Susan Saxe. Especially as we all stuck by her like crazy. I mean quote the inner circle. You know we were there at her arraignment and we got her her lawyers and when she went to Boston to be tried there, Byrna followed her to Boston and immediately formed a defense fund for her up there. And we had a big defense fund going. And I remember at that time now, that's when Holly was wonderful. Susan was calling herself a lesbian feminist and an Amazon. And the FBI thought that was code. And they were trying to find what code we were getting out to Cathy Power with this lesbian feminist and Amazon.
MS: So the FBI was after all of you because first they thought Cathy Power might be here and second they thought that you had been harboring Susan Saxe.
RD: At this time. It was at least the fourth lesbian community that they had believed had harbored either Susan Saxe or Cathy Power or both. Or we knew where Cathy Power was if we weren't harboring her. And they had been very successful in the other communities in getting into that inner circle, who was the inner circle and then having them in jail because they wouldn't talk. And they didn't talk, but that's not the point.
MS: Do you know where Susan Saxe is now?
RD: Yeah, in Philadelphia.
MS: That's what I've been told. Do you think she would talk to me?
RD: Yes. I think she would. I think she would talk to you, but you have to remember. You're going to get this with Byrna, too. Susan Saxe will not talk about what life was like underground, because that puts at risk a whole bunch of people who harbored her, some who possibly knew. I don't know, maybe she was in safe houses. I don't know. I mean I can't ask her that question, O.K. Byrna can't ask her that question. Susan will not talk about any of that. You might very easily be able to talk about her case or her arrest or the things that I'm talking to you about. I mean you won't even get out of me what I knew about Susan before the day she was arrested. I mean I'm telling you I didn't know she was Susan Saxe, but I'm not going to tell you about Val Woolf either, because that was the very information we were keeping from the police and we have a tremendous commitment to Susan not to give out any of that information. Because how do I know what any one of those pieces of information might not do to betray somebody else. Remember, Cathy Power has never been found. So I think you could probably get them to talk about what I'm talking about, the political aspects of it and the organization of it and the trials and stuff like that.
MS: Now when I read the issue of Wicce that deals with the Susan Saxe case, it sounds like that they did feel that this case was dividing the Philadelphia lesbian community.
RD: Oh yes. Yes. It divided the community in terms of radical versus liberal, O.K. You found out who your friends were by how they felt about Susan Saxe. And there were women who felt that she had, and I'll never forget this, caused trouble in the community and therefore wasn't worth the time. And isn't it terrible she robbed banks? Which clearly she robbed banks. I mean she robbed a bank down on City Line Avenue. I can't remember the name of it, but if you go down Montgomery Avenue to City Line Avenue, that was one of the banks. I'm assuming she robbed the banks. That's what she was tried for. But I mean you're not going to be likely to ask Susan, “Was it fun robbing the bank,” because she's not going to admit that either.
MS: So there was that division?
RD: I remember Byrna and I were at her arraignment and they listed all the banks she had allegedly robbed. We were looking at each other like, “Oh my god.” And part of us were going, “That's real neat.” I mean especially because it was banks. It's not like she was robbing people. And then there was a part of us that were like sort of appalled. So it was like a mixed feeling but a certain admiration for her guts, pure guts of what they did.
MS: Were there any public confrontations between the liberal lesbians and the radical lesbians that you're talking about here.
RD: Yes, there were some, but I in particular remember, this will show you how wide the gap was that we didn't know was there. All right? I mean as I said, Byrna and I did this incredible thing. We organized this thing. It wasn't just Byrna and I. Obviously a lot of people got involved in this along the way. But from the moment she came through my door, within forty-eight hours we were a closed shop. And that was an incredible accomplishment, O.K. But meanwhile, we're walking down the street one afternoon and we run into Jody Pinto. And Jody Pinto is a lesbian woman in the community, a wonderful, wonderful artist and a founder of W-O-A-R. So you think, “Here is a sister.” Today you'd call her an ally, O.K. And Jody stopped Byrna, I'll never forget this, in the street, and she said, “Oh Byrna, I'm so sorry. All those things they're saying about Susan aren't true, are they?” And Byrna just looked at her. And for Jody Pinto, “Isn't it terrible the FBI is accusing Susan Saxe of robbing banks. But of course, no feminist woman would ever do that. So she couldn't have done it.” And how do you start to say, “Well no actually she did.” Because then I'm sure she would have said virtually, “I'll never speak to any of you again.” You know what I mean? I mean, “I don't want to know people who know people who rob banks.” And Jody Pinto is a feminist. You know what I mean? But she's a cultural feminist, O.K. That was the difference between radical and cultural feminists and that's what we learned. So she was sort of an extreme end of a cultural feminist and then there were the women in between who just didn't need the aggravation that went on and blamed Val for coming into our community and giving us that aggravation. And on the other end was us, who it was like an instant, you know what I mean? In one instant we knew not only that we had to protect us, but that we were going to be by her side through it all. And I visited her in every jail she was in.
MS: Is that right?
MS: I realize you haven't said for my tape why it is that you so supported Susan Saxe. Why was it so important to support for you?
RD: Because I was a socialist before I was a feminist. Because I understood what it was they were trying to do. I mean, after all, they were foolish, they were wrong, they were kids. And you had this incredible thing going on at Brandeis. There were these incredibly idealistic young people involved in the anti-war movement. And of course I'd been involved in the anti-war movement. And then you had these ex-cons that they brought in there to study. And the two met. They were male. And the ex-cons taught the idealists how to carry through their ideals, at least theoretically did, and as soon as the events happened, the ex-cons immediately got picked up. Because if they were smart ex-cons, they wouldn't have been cons in the first place, you know what I mean? And they went out and they bragged in the bars and got drunk about everything that's going on. And they got immediately arrested. And then she belonged to the SDS. They had to go underground because of that and then finally some of them surfaced or got caught. And so like that was a bizarre thing that happened at Brandeis. And you know to this day, Brandeis does not list Susan as an alum, which is hilarious. And a friend of mine's daughter went to Brandeis and came back totally fascinated to find out and meet Susan Saxe, because even though she's not listed as an alum, she's still whispered about a great deal. So I guess because I was a socialist and at least from a socialist perspective, if you're going to rob, robbing banks is probably appropriate. And because, being an anti-war person and this was like a wing of the anti-war movement. Their goals certainly were laudable. And because she was a lesbian feminist woman. It's not like she just robbed a bank. She hadn't just robbed a bank. It's sort of like aligning yourself with the Panthers if you were black. You know what I mean? They did things that society can disapprove of. I mean she wasn't just robbing banks. She was robbing banks to get money for the movement. So it's sort of like a Robin Hood affair. It never crossed my mind not to support her.
MS: Your kids were living with you at the time?
MS: Your kids came back afterwards.
RD: Yes. Yes. My lover developed high blood pressure that first week that it happened. But that was because she and I were not living together either and she was convinced I was going to end up in jail with this FBI investigation. And I guess it was too much stress, but she always recalls it as the time when she got high blood pressure.
MS: Well is there anything else we should finish up on on this? Actually, I just thought of something. Was there any gay male support in Philadelphia for Susan Saxe?
RD: Didn't ask for it. And it wasn't needed and it wasn't an issue. You mean had Susan been involved in the lesbian/gay community? No.
MS: I guess I mean more raising money for her legal defense. Did the left support her, did the gay left support her?
RD: Yes. Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes. Because you see, the office where I was working, and the National Lawyers Guild, which was also the law offices of David Kairys and Holly McGuigan and I can't remember the other lawyer. He's quite a famous lawyer. They did all the lefty trials always. And the National Lawyer's Guild was a lefty organization. So sort of like one aspect of the left was housed right there. And her lawyers had been particularly selected because they were lefty lawyers. So yes, of course, there was support from the left. And there was support from the left anyway because it was SDS.
MS: Right. Do you remember any gay left support?
RD: No. I don't know of it.
MS: Well, is there anything else we should finish up on that you think it's important to include that I haven't asked about?
RD: Let me see, looking back on all of that stuff and all of the changes, no. I mean I guess I have a question to ask and that is, since you're covering '45 to '76, it seems to me that '45 to about '68 is really very quiet and '68 to '76 is like a bomb went off. You know? And I'm curious how you're going to divide that stuff up.
MS: Well why don't I stop this from going, unless you want this on?
RD: Sure, no, no.
MS: Thanks very much for this, by the way.