Watching the new HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words left usnostalgic for the early days of Ms. and eager to hear about even more of the women who launched the contemporary feminist movement–especially the memorable Flo Kennedy. Just a few moments of footage of Kennedy (who died in 2000 at age 84) at the 1972 Democratic National Convention made it abundantly clear that she was a force to be reckoned with. So we went to the Ms. archives and unearthed a feature from the March 1973 issue in which Gloria Steinem pays homage to the “infinitely quotable Flo.” Here is the original piece:
Like many people all over the country, I knew a little about the Flo Kennedy legend long before I met her in the flesh. In fact, the name “Flo” alone was enough to evoke images of outrageous and creative troublemaking in almost any area, from minority hiring to ban-the-bomb. Just as there was only one Eleanor or Winston, one Stokely or Marilyn or Mao, there was only one Flo.
Of course, her fame was more limited. But for those who had been in the Black Movement when it was still known as Civil Rights, or in the Consumer Movement that predated Ralph Nader, or in the Women’s Movement when it was still supposed to be a few malcontents in sneakers, or in the Peace Movement when there was more worry about nuclear fallout than Vietnam, Flo was a political touchstone–a catalyst in the lives of people who knew her, and a source of curiosity for those who did not.
For one thing, she was a lawyer–one of the few women and even fewer black people to get into and out of Columbia Law School in the fifties–though she had not even finished working her way through college until she was over 30 years old. (Ironically, Columbia first turned her down because she was a woman; then relented because she threatened to denounce the Law School as racist. “But it was clearly prejudiced against women,” Flo remembers. “My white girlfriend from Barnard had better grades than I did, and she got nowhere.”) For another thing, she was always taking the unpopular cases and feeding or housing a variety of social strays–long before such unconventional behavior was common at all, especially among lawyers.
At 42, she married a Welsh writer 10 years her junior, whom she recalls fondly, though accurately, as someone who was very kind and talented when he was sober, which wasn’t often. Eventually, his drinking caused their separation and, a few months later, his death. Though she had very little money and generous habits that made it impossible to keep even the small fees she earned, Flo turned all her husband’s money and future royalty rights over to his mother. Whether it’s a bowl of her homemade chili, a bed for the night, bail money, or free legal and life-fixing advice, the real instances of Flo’s generosity probably exceed their own legend.
By the time I met her in 1969, she had become well known as a founder of the National Organization for Women–though, characteristically, she had left to form other feminist groups when NOW’s rough early days were over and the going got too tame. Because we both wanted to emphasize racism and sexism as parallel problems of caste, we ended up speaking together in what Flo referred to as our “Topsy and Little Eva” team. Several times each month, we would go off to campuses and communities in Texas or Michigan or Oregon, with Flo describing herself as “tired and middle-aged” as I tried to keep up with her energetic, nonstop, and generous-hearted pace.
Since then, she has written two books–Abortion Rap, with Diane Schulder, published by McGraw-Hill; and The Pathology of Oppression, which she is polishing for publication soon by Viking. She has also founded the Feminist Party, whose chapters spring up wherever Flo pauses to give out a pamphlet or two; disrupted several major political events in a very issue-oriented and mind-expanding way; launched a suit to deprive the Catholic Church of its tax-exempt status on the grounds that it spends illegal amounts of its money to influence legislation, particularly on abortion.
And since then, I have found that–like so many others–I can’t talk for more than an hour or so without quoting the infinitely quotable Flo. By combining a high-style street rap and political insight, Flo has become one of the few feminists who make humor work for change, not against it. —Gloria Steinem
“They call us militants, but General Westmoreland, General Abrams, General Motors and General Dynamics–they’re the real militants. We don’t even have a helicopter.”
“We ought to give the Pentagon budget to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and the HEW budget to the Pentagon. Then we’d have enough money to cure cancer and sickle-cell anemia and muscular dystrophy, and we’d only have telethons for Pentagonorrhea.”
“The draft is very new in this country, and a lot of people want to eliminate it. But as soon as women start talking about their rights, somebody says they should get drafted. It’s as if men are saying, “If you don’t let me hold the door open for you, I’ll slam it on your hand.”
“Angela Davis is accused–only accused–of buying a gun for somebody, and what happens? She spends months in solitary confinement and hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal defense before she can go free. Lieutenant Calley is convicted of slaughtering kids and women in Vietnam and what happens? He gets confined to very comfortable quarters, not even sent to jail–and Nixon defends him in public. It makes you wonder: does femicide pay?”
“If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle, you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get the truck off.”
“Being a mother is a noble status, right? So why does it change when you put ‘unwed’ or ‘welfare’ in front of it?”
“Oppression has at least four dimensions: The personal or psychological–like when you yourself believe that you’re a big zero because society keeps telling you so. The private–like when some employer tries to make out with you when you ask for a job. The public–like when the government takes the money you need for child-care centers, and uses it to kill people in Indochina. And the cultural–like when the history books attribute everything we did and invented to some guy we worked for.”
“Niggerization is the result of oppression–and it doesn’t just apply to black people. Old people, poor people, and students can also get niggerized. Sure, there are differences in degree, but we’ve got to stop comparing wounds and go out after the system that does the wounding.”
“If you’ve been hit a lot, you tend to stay sore for a while. Trying to help an oppressed person is like trying to put your arm around somebody with a sunburn.”
“As the struggle intensifies, the oppressor tends to pick more attractive agents–frequently from among the oppressed.”
“There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”
“People always ask if a woman can be a wife and mother and have a career at the same time. Why don’t they ask if she can be a hostess, chauffeur, cook, gardener, nurse, seamstress, social secretary, purchasing agent, baby machine, and courtesan–and a wife and a mother too?”
“Some people say they won’t work ‘inside the system’–they’re ‘waiting for the revolution.’ Well, when the ramparts are open, honey, I’ll be there. But until then, I’m going to go right on zapping the business and government delinquents, the jockocrats, the fetus fetishists, and all the other niggerizers any way I can. The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.”
“You can’t dump one cup of sugar into the ocean and expect to get syrup. If everybody sweetened her own cup of water, then things would begin to change.”
“Unity in a Movement situation can be overrated. If you were the Establishment, which would you rather see coming in the door: one lion or five hundred mice?”
“Loserism is when oppressed people sit around and think up reasons why they can’t do something. Well just do it. Thinking up reasons why you can’t is the Establishment’s job.”
“You don’t cure malaria by getting in bed with the malaria patient, and you don’t cure poverty by going to live in the ghetto. You go to Wall Street and Washington and put pressure on the people who’ve got the cure.”
“If the ass is protecting the system, ass-kicking should be undertaken regardless of the sex, ethnicity, or charm of the ass involved.”
“If you’ve had a broken leg, you don’t get up and win the Olympics. The first step is to get out of bed.”
“The innocence of good people is inexcusable. Naivete is a luxury only the pigocrats can afford.”
“When you spit on someone at a cocktail party, you don’t want to drown him. You just want to let him know you don’t like him.”
“We’ve got to stop sucking and begin to bite.”
“Don’t agonize. Organize”
“Going in and out of a closet, your mind is on what you really want in there. But the minute the door locks, all you want is out.”
“Women have at least three kinds of power: Dollar Power, to boycott with; Vote Power, to take over structures with, and maybe even get somebody elected; and Body Power, to get out and support our friends and make a damned nuisance of ourselves with everybody else.”
“We don’t say a word when Madison Avenue makes millions off us, but we get all resentful and suspicious when somebody in the Movement gets attention or makes a dime.That’s Nigger Nobility. If you have to lose to prove you’re a good person, we won’t get anywhere.”
“Powerlessness is a dirty word.”
“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
ON BEING A LAWYER
“Most lawyers are like whores. They serve the client who puts the highest fee on the table. The biggest law firms serve the richest johns.”
“I don’t practice law much anymore. Even if you’re honest, the law is still a one-ass-at-a-time proposition–and what we have to do is stop the wringer.
WOMEN WHO LIKE THINGS THE WAY THEY ARE
“Women who say they’re contented just having a nice husband and two beautiful children–fine; I’m glad. Of course, I always wonder what happens if one of the children isn’t beautiful…and if the housework is so rewarding, why don’t men do it, too? But this Movement isn’t about getting some woman to leave her husband. It’s about social justice.”
“Just because you’re not feeling sick doesn’t mean you should close the hospitals.”
“Divide and conquer–that’s what they try to do to any group trying to make social change. I call it D&C. Black people are supposed to turn against Puerto Ricans. Women are supposed to turn against their mothers and mothers-in-law. We’re all supposed to compete with each other for the favors of the ruling class.”
“We criticize each other instead of the oppressor because it’s less dangerous. The oppressor fights back.”
“In the name of elitism, we do a crabs-in-a-barrel number, and pull down any of our number who get public attention or a small success. As long as we’re into piranha-ism and horizontal hostility, honey, we ain’t going to get nowhere.”
“Okay, roses are beautiful, fragrant, and desirable. But how much shit should you have to walk over to get one rose?”
“In a jockocratic society, you can turn on the TV and find out the score of some basketball game in Alaska–but you can’t find out how many states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. You can turn on the radio, and hear every score in the country repeated all day long–but you don’t hear how many women died from illegal abortions.”
“Take a look at your local Weird Herald. On the Woman’s Page, are they telling you how to make aprons out of artichokes and artichokes out of aprons? Well, protest! Picket! And if that doesn’t work, try boycotting their biggest advertiser. That should turn the trick.”
“My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.”
“When we first moved to Kansas City, some Ku
Klux Klansmen gave us ten minutes to get out of the neighborhood. My father went out with a shotgun and said. ‘I’ll shoot the first man who steps on this porch. After that, you can get me.’ And you know, those Klansmen never came back?”
“At my age and in my condition, I’m going to do what I want–I haven’t got time for anything else.”
“I may seem radical, but I’m not. I’m just a worm, turning.”
“I know we’re termites. But if all the termites got together, the house would fall down.”
“You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun.”
Flo speaking to NOW, 1991
Irene Davall and Susan Margolis–writers and Feminist Party organizers from New York and California respectively–helped with the collection of the Flo Kennedy quotes. All words and phrases not to be found in any dictionary were coined by Flo herself.
Copyright Ms. magazine, 1973. All rights reserved.