Saturday, September 19, 2015

Getting to Know San Francisco’s Activists and Radicals, Past and Present

It’s fitting, perhaps, during these few days in San Francisco that I’m staying with my husband’s cousin, Marian Doub, her partner Bob Thawley, and her Dad, Bill Doub.  

Poster on Marian & Bob's kitchen wall
I say this because they embody the sort of non-violent activism that the suffragists employed in their fight for women’s political rights. All of them have been arrested, countless times, mostly for protesting nuclear weapons and power plants, but they also raise their voices against racism, gentrification, and reckless development that puts profits ahead of neighborhoods. But I don’t want to suggest that they simply oppose the things or systems they don’t like; over the years they’ve also worked to create or support recycling programs, cooperative childcare, and affordable housing, to name a few. Bob has worked with people diagnosed with AIDS/HIV, and is currently helping to develop harm reduction strategies for youth who are homeless and struggling with addiction. Their walls are adorned with posters from the Occupy movement, notices of upcoming non-violent protests, and anti-gentrification actions. I've included a few of my favorites.

Poster on Marian & Bob's bulletin board
Marian, who majored in Women’s Studies undergrad, has been helpful in thinking about the questions I want to ask people about how women’s lives have changed, and how they haven’t, in the 100 years since the envoys did this trip. There are lots of different lenses through which this could or should be considered; issues of class, race, sexual orientation, and gender are some examples. The impact of incarceration, both of women themselves and on women when their fathers, sons, brothers, or partners are imprisoned, is another. While I know it makes this topic impossibly broad, my current plan is to stay open to all of these and talk to a wide range of women along the way, and see which themes rise to the top. Maybe I'll narrow it down as I go along.

Yesterday I had a fascinating visit with another activist, graphic artist and author Robert “Bob” Cooney, who put together a stunning book called Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Bob spent years researching suffrage history and rescued a lot of images and artifacts from obscurity, featuring their images in his book along with insightful narrative. He’s also recently released Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr. Inez literally worked herself to death for suffrage, and her sacrifice was used as a springboard to rally women to fight harder for their political rights.  Remembering Inez is about the campaign she was working on leading up to her collapse.

Bob and I had a great chat on his beautiful deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, nibbling on cookies his wife had provided and enjoying the rare chance to geek out around suffrage history. Both of our spouses have been patient and supportive, but their eyes glaze over after a certain point… We traded stories and information about sources, and Bob was a wealth of information and wise advice about how to approach this trip. I’m grateful to him for his generous support of my project, and for his determination to further explore and share this amazing chapter of American and women’s history.
This afternoon I met with Sue Englander of Bolerium Books, in San Francisco’s Mission District. The bookstore has played an integral part in San Francisco’s radical politics over the last several decades, and its collections are helpfully arranged by social movement. The bookstore is on the 3rd floor and you have to get buzzed in, which was a first for me and made me feel right away like I was a member of some select radical club.

Sue is a lecturer at San Francisco State University and at the City College of San Francisco. She’s also the author of, among other things, Class Conflict and Class Coalition in the California Woman Suffrage Movement, 1907-1912: The San Francisco Wage Earners' Suffrage League. We talked about Sue’s book, some of San Francisco’s notable women of 100 years ago (such as Maud Younger and Mrs. William McHenry Keith), radical politics, and her concerns about gentrification and evictions that are displacing long time city residents. Sue is a blast to talk to and I could easily have spent hours with her, but she had to get back to work and I needed to move on with my day. I spent some time perusing the bookstores Here’s the selfie we took with a poster in the background that reads “Sisterhood is Blooming.”

I wandered back toward Marian and Bob’s clutching Sue’s book and some other Bolerium purchases I couldn’t resist, including a US Dept. of Labor pamphlet on Married Women in Industry that was written in 1924 by Mary Winslow (a former Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party organizer); The President’s Address from the 9th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality (1918); a book called Leave the Dishes in the Sink: Adventures of an Activist in Conservative Utah by Alison Comish Thorne (2002); and another book of essays entitled Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison. Whew! Why these? I don’t know, why the hell not? They seemed interesting and will be useful background reading.

As I made my way home Mission St. was booming with lots of people out and about, a rap concert, an amazing graffiti art-making event in an alley, street vendors, and lots of trendy new bars and restaurants catering to the city’s more affluent residents, while their less fortunate peers stagger past, checking garbage cans for food and hugging the walls for support. Quite an eyeful.

My husband Rick flies in from Maine tomorrow and we leave on our trip Monday morning. I’ll be sad to leave San Francisco when there's so much to see and explore, but I’m also eager to launch this trip that I've been thinking about for a long time and actively planning over the last year.

Love this poster from Marian and Bob's collection


  1. Great stuff. Love the links. As my dad always said: "drive careful".

  2. Really enjoyed this post! When Sara and her lover C.E.S. Wood ("Erskine") finally settled down together, a few years after her cross-country trip, they moved into a house at 1020 Broadway on San Francisco's bohemian Russian Hill. Last year on a visit to San Francisco, my husband and I were given a tour of the neighborhood by our friend Michael Hellquist, who's just published a biography I'm reading now about the Portland, Oregon firebrand physician, Marie Equi. Equi was imprisoned for sedition and Erskine defended her--unfortunately, he lost and she ended up doing time for her radical views. When she got out, she lived with one of the leaders of the successful California suffrage campaign, Anita Whitney, on Russian Hill. I don't know if it was an illusion or not, but the vibrant spirit of those radical bohemian days seemed to linger on. You didn't say if your friends live on Russian Hill or not--probably not, right?--but your post really captures that spirit and shows how alive it still is.