The Women's Movement and Radical Politics in Seattle, 1964-1980

  • By Dotty DeCoster with Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 4/15/2000
  • Essay 2438

This is an exerpt from an interview with Dotty DeCoster conducted by HistoryLink's Heather MacIntosh in April 2000. DeCoster was an outspoken member of the Women's Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s in Seattle, and participated in a number of feminist publications including From the Ground Up and Lilith. In this account, she recalls her early immersion in radical politics and the women's movement in Seattle in the late 1960s.

Excerpts from the Interview

"I came back to Seattle to live with my lover in 1964 ... We got jobs and found an apartment on Capitol Hill. In the course of trying to meet people here in Seattle -- at this point I was 20, so it wasn't legal for me to go into a bar, people somehow forget that until the mid-60s you weren't legal until you were 21 to do anything. I couldn't sign a contract. I couldn't rent an apartment. I couldn't have medical care without my husband's permission.

"He was a year and a half older than I was, so he was over 21, and you know, I couldn't have had car insurance ... we weren't allowed to cohabit because it was against the law. Actually we didn't get married until we came here. Our landlord demanded that we get married and he wanted to see the marriage certificate so that we could live here.

"I know that people think that some radicals of our age tend to be kind of "ho-hum," but we were living in a different climate, and the restrictions put upon women at that time were very different than they are now. Fortunately people have forgotten them, and I think that's wonderful. But I had to live with them.

Radical Politics in Seattle, 1964: Old Guard Meets New

"We happen to go to a CORE [Congress for Racial Equality] meeting here in the Central Area over on Cherry. At the end of the meeting, another woman came up to me to bum a cigarette. Her name was Louise, and she was interested in the book I was reading and invited us to meet "George." He turned out to be her husband.

"They were George and Louise Crowley who lived here on Capitol Hill for many years. They lived in a big old beat-up house with four kids, any number of cats, and eventually dogs and many people, and they kept an open house for folks who were interested in anarchism or people they liked or people who were in trouble, and needed a place to stay. Like an ongoing floating crash pad. There weren't many amenities but there was food and heat and it was an institution in its own way. It was on 18th and Denny and the house is still there. The senior Crowleys have died.

"So the Crowleys really introduced us to a lot of people here. We continued to be involved in the Central Area CORE group. We also met some of the old Wobblies. There were just a few left. Chief among them was O. N. Peterson who was memorialized in one of Bill Cummings drawings, and we would play cards with them and they would tell us stories about the Seattle Soviets and the early days of planting apple trees upside down. And they had a wonderful library because they kept everything, so we had an opportunity to read all their pamphlets, and so forth. Here we got to read about the agricultural and forestry aspects of the Grand Old Union.

"They were aging rapidly. We left for Chicago a year later.

"I came back in 1968. I had a child and was pregnant with another child, and I stayed with the Crowleys. At that point I became aware of some of the activities that Louise had been involved with that related to women's liberation. I had been working with a group of people at a Chicago publication and could not convince them that we needed a separate group for Women's Issues.

Now it is almost impossible ... to imagine what it was like in the mid- to late 60s if you were a woman. Those of us who were involved in so-called radical politics ... we depended on an occasional good natured guy to answer questions or share literature with us, but if you went to a radical meeting you weren't allowed to talk. I was very fortunate during the time I lived in Chicago to find men who were willing to share material and answer questions.

"The idea of having a separate women's movement was something that I felt uncomfortable about too, because I've never thought that separate was equal and there was no reason to believe it. In this era of civil rights we were looking at schools that were not equal. I was convinced that I needed to be part of a women's caucus or some group where men weren't around, so that we could figure it out.

"Louise was a native Seattleite and had grown up in a little grocery store in the Cascade neighborhood. And had lived in Seattle most of her life. She and George had been very active in the Communist Party in the '30s and maybe part of the '40s but had left and Louise always said she had too much of a sense of humor for the Communist Party, that's why they got thrown out.

"They had developed a perspective on how to proceed. She'd been involved with a lot of other women from other organizations and walks of life in the Free University class. They called it the 'Woman Question,' and began to work with a group of women I hadn't met, and organized something called the Women's Majority Union. This is a group of women who recognized that women were in the majority and yet were second class citizens. ...

"Most were middle-aged or older, most were experienced women. They published a journal called Lilith, which I actually typed I think. That was my involvement. That was going on and swirling around in the households when I came back.

A Period of Adjustment

"During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a tremendous amount of reassessment activity going on in Seattle. It was just amazing. There were study groups for every topic under the sun, and it wasn't just radicals. Republicans were doing it too, church groups, and it wasn't just about the women question, it was about the war, it was about a whole range of changes in paradigms about science and history and what was going on around the world.

"There was just this constant learning activity going on. But it was easier to meet people then. There were lots of folks who came here for a short time, some to go to school, and some to just participate in this activity, and some because they thought they knew better how to do it. All of that was happening at once.

"This offered an opportunity for not being very rigid about your politics, which was nice. So the framework was created quickly in which these women's groups could associate. And there were committees. Large committees working on issues like abortion rights. There was a committee that was working on all those laws I was talking about. A woman's right to have her own car insurance, to rent an apartment, etc. etc. and have health care.

Health Care

"There were a lot of health care [activities]. A lot of women's clinics were started. There was a women's clinic at Country Doctor Community Clinic. There was a women's clinic associated with the open door clinic in the University District, and gay women began to organize to have medical services that made sense to them. There was a lot going on without much structure. In addition, there was an effort being made to allow midwives to practice in Washington state. They were barred from practice here and eventually did get the right to practice as physicians' assistants under the direction of a physician. I think it was the mid-1970s.

Adult Education and Childrearing

"There were a whole bunch of issues around raising children. There were day care projects of many kinds, and in my case in 1969 I was on welfare and was able to go to trade school at Seattle Central Community College. That was fascinating too: Because I was federally funded, I was allowed into the offset printing program. Women were only just beginning to be allowed into that program and there were two or three of us in that class, but I was the only one in the two-year program. They accepted women into the program only because they were required by law to accept us.

"Unfortunately, I had two kinds of headaches, one of which was that I couldn't find daycare. My children were small, not infants, but small, and I had funding for daycare as part of the welfare package, but I couldn't find anybody. Eventually I did find a wonderful daycare program that wasn't licensed by the state, and didn't want to be licensed by the state ... therefore they couldn't be contracted under my welfare contract.

"So I got very interested in daycare. I was going to school with a great many people who had small children, a number of whom were Vietnam vets, they were guys whose wives were working while they were getting retrained, and they had little children and nothing to do with them. I began to work with another student, Christine Pratt Marston, in the early childhood education program.

"We found that there were a great many men and women who were very concerned about the need for childcare who didn't have time to speak up because they didn't have any childcare. Chris had four kids and I had two, between us we had four that needed daycare and we worked with a number of college administrators and ultimately it turned out that the barrier to having daycare at the college was a state barrier. And they took Chris and I to the state board of community college education and didn't tell us until afterwards that we were the first students to address that August Body.

"Eventually they expanded their facility for their early childhood education program when they rebuilt the college. That made available lab opportunities for classes for parents and children, and then [a] daycare center was developed in the church basement across the street. Then I kind of lost track with the daycare center. Chris and I discovered that there were a lot of rules at the state level that prevented daycare to happen.

"We ended up each of us working in the field of daycare. That was a fascinating development of an issue. What was particularly interesting to me was that it wasn't just a women's issue, and that was somewhat of a surprise. So when we worked with the student politicians who were involved in everything from the U.S. intervention in Cambodia and particularly the African American students who were working on their own needs, they were very supportive. They just let us do our thing, and then they helped, it was good. We were always included in student demonstrations.

The Movement and the Law

"Other friends of mine worked very hard on abortion rights. There were a group of attorneys who were just amazing who worked really hard to make it easier for women to just deal with the law. One of the issues in the early '70s was that it was difficult to get a divorce in Washington, and this was true in many other states. In order to get a divorce, you had to prove wrong doing. So if you just couldn't make it, you then had to turn around and accuse each other of some terrible thing.

"It created a situation in which people just wouldn't get a divorce because it was too complicated. It cost money, and all that stuff. But the other thing was, a lot of us had just married young, knew we weren't going to make it, but didn't want to have to blame our spouses of some activity they had not engaged in.

"So the no-fault divorce law which was one of my favorite things that came out of the 1970s was a wonderful piece of legislation that was supported by many people in the Radical Women organization who lobbied for it heavily, many women who were attorneys who were able to guide this piece of legislation so that it was a good piece of legislation. I actually waited until this passed to get a divorce.

"It was hysterically funny because they made packets available in colors so you went and bought your packet to get a divorce at the appropriate court, then they gave you a packet that was color-coded and you were supposed to fill out each piece of paper and turn it in at the appropriate time -- it made me appreciate lawyers. And this was making it simple.

"I think that the no fault divorce laws were often viewed by people as a way that guys got out of paying child support, and all the normal abuses, and I'm sure there are cases where that happened, but the most important thing was that it was possible to simply do it yourself with a little assistance, and for many years it remained possible to do it yourself. Now property is so complicated, people are best advised to use an attorney.

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