Once More in the Company of Women

Toni & Judith
Three years after my initial foray to Los Angeles in the fall of 1978, I finally found a mentor and the community built around her, which proved to be the first of two anchors that secured me to the city of angels and led to me finally seeing its palm trees and clear blue skies as home. The second anchor was a peer, later my life-partner, Sally, who it so happened, was another protégé of that same mentor.

As an older youth and a young adult, some of my most productive developmental times came when I had a compelling mentor and also a good circle of peers connected with that mentor. I think it is an ideal state for learning, whether the context is in or outside of formal education. To have a mentor at any point is a blessing, but the affect is amplified by having that circle of peers, as it were in academic terms, the “lab” that goes with the “lecture”. The wisdom of sought out authority (the mentor) is best integrated by using it to develop the agency that one can find in a circle of peers. This I see as different than most conventional classroom situations where the teacher administers and the students conform, and do not have the opportunity to become a “circle”, that is a self-governing group exercising power-with (rather than power-over) and choosing to give authority to their common mentor.

During my older youth years I was truly blessed to have three mentors (four actually, as I could count my mom in that category too). There were my two “Feminist Aunts”, Mary Jane and Carol, and then Michael, the director of my Junior Light Opera (JLO) youth theater group. As to my “Aunts”, I did not really have that circle of feminist “peers” to explore their wisdom with. But with Michael, I had all my other theater-group older-youth comrades, and a wonderful enriched environment where we could exercise the group authority and agency (without constant external/adult intervention and control) to develop and mount our many theater productions.

During my year (1980) with my wild mentor girlfriend, though I liked many of her friends and her circles, I did not resonate with them as a community that I shared values with and I wanted to be part of. Still determined to find that sort of community, I thought to go back to some of my Ann Arbor roots. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was heating up and becoming a compelling narrative being covered in the mainstream media. Thirty-five states had already ratified the amendment; three more and it would be carved into the U.S. Constitution that, “Equality under the law should not be abridged or denied on account of sex”.

So I gathered up the nerve to attend a meeting of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women. In retrospect it seems pretty courageous, since I was a male type and I did not have even a friend to accompany me. But in fact, I was comfortable in the world of women, particularly strong women, and way more comfortable than I was in the world of men.

The meeting was held in a non-descript office building in the Mid-Wilshire area of L.A. There were about 30 people attending, including what seemed like an inner circle that knew each other along with a fair amount of newbies like me who were drawn by the growing effort on behalf of the ERA. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a couple other men there. For the most part I was accepted and welcomed, and it was probably attending my second or third such meeting that I was solicited by a very tall, handsome and sexy woman named Jane, probably seven to ten years my elder (ah my pattern!), and agreed to volunteer for her Communications Committee.

My first “action” was very unlike the more mainstream legislative and political activities that NOW officially staged. There was a huge billboard not to far from the NOW office advertising Las Vegas with a huge picture of a busty, scantily clad woman decked up in feathers like a human peacock. Jane, another woman Judith, and I planned and executed a clandestine defacing of that billboard in the middle of the night, writing “Women are not chicks!” in big black spray-painted letters across it. (I thought it ironically humorous that the hardware store where we bought our tools of desecration had all sorts of signs that they did not sell spray-paint to minors.) At maybe two in the morning, watching fitfully for police cars, we managed to scale the sign and carry out our act. Sexy older women and guerrilla political action… it brought out that radical wannabe in me again and I was totally hooked and bonded with these two as perhaps my new West-coast “Feminist Aunts”.

As I continued to attend LA NOW meetings, I was introduced by Judith to her lesbian partner Toni, the fifty-something current President of the LA NOW chapter and, as I soon learned, the once and future “godmother” (read female “godfather” rather than the “fairy” variety) of Los Angeles feminism. Toni fit the part, the charismatic center of any smoke-filled room (literally, because she smoked these thin cigar/cigarettes), hellaciously intelligent and a seeming endless font of worldly wisdom and sarcastic wit. It was a rare venue where everyone else in attendance did not hang on her every word. From the beginning Toni liked me, even having the chutzpah to tell me I had “nice legs”. (Do you sense a new mentor emerging?)

So while I was starting to weave myself into this compelling new circle, my wild girlfriend (and current mentor) I had been living with was basically done with me and I was still realizing it. It became clearer when she stopped sharing a bed with me and moved in a new young boyfriend, relegating me to sleeping on the living room couch. Finally moving out of the apartment, but soon not having enough work to afford to live anywhere else, I was again pondering giving up on Los Angeles and returning to the Midwest, to reboot and build whatever sort of life I could back in my old turf.

With exceedingly fortuitous timing, Toni and her partner Judith (maybe sensing my precarious situation) offered me a job working for Judith and her NOW mail-order business, plus as it turned out, a free room in their upstairs apartment where Toni’s elderly mom lived. In lieu of rent I was up there to help Toni’s mom when she needed it and to take her out to dinner, which she loved to do (and paid for my meal… such a deal!) In accepting this offer, I had traded my precarious situation for the shelter and nurturing of my new “Feminist Aunts”. With no real connections yet to anything else in this big crazy city, I was more than happy to plunge my entire waking existence into the world of feminism, and in particular a “day job” of boxing and shipping all the buttons, pins and bumper stickers that Judith pedaled as one of her contributions to the movement.

I certainly appreciated this fortuitous timing, and that this was the second time that highly unlikely events had managed to keep me among the angels. It began to dawn on me that maybe I actually belonged here, and all those strange-ass palm trees seemed friendlier now.

I have more recently accepted one of the basic premises of “New Age” philosophy that you create your own reality. Your hopes, fears and other exercises in imagining create a powerful thought-wave that vibrates out from you and impacts the world around you, including drawing others towards you and towards fulfillment of those hopes and fears. I did not start attending LA NOW meetings consciously looking for new “Feminist Aunts”, but the thought of finding the kind of community of strong women that had nurtured and mentored me through my teenage years in Ann Arbor was definitely a big part of my hopes at the time. If nothing else, a big motivator to get me to brave that first meeting I attended was thinking how much my Mom, Mary Jane and Carol would be proud of me the next time I had the opportunity to fill them in on what I was doing.

It was during that same time that another new face volunteered at the Los Angeles NOW office. Though we did not initially connect with each other, I was struck by Sally… tall, broad-shoulders, shy tell-all grin and huge mane of curly black hair. She was cerebral, well spoken though not quick to volunteer her thoughts, and a thoughtful observer of everything around her, but with a quiet charisma that drew the other newbie women volunteers to her and caught the attention of Toni and the rest of the inner circle. I took a passing note of her then, though it would still be two years later before she and I would focus real attention on each other.

See “Community Organizer” for the next chapter.

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