Veteran Feminists of America


June 24, 2012

Eleanor Pam

Eleanor Pam, young feminists and (holding candles)
Shelby Knox and Kate Millett

...feminists of all generations should hold onto their torches and never give them up, but share and increase the light.

Gloria Steinem

The idea to have a Kate Millett Festival was born in Florida during a 4 hour car with Sheila Tobias. She and I had just attended a stimulating VFA conference at Rollins College near Orlando and we were now headed South in my Prius. Kate Millett, a very old and close friend of mine, was on both our minds during that trip: I had just been given the first, newly established VFA Kate Millett Award for my work in feminism; and Sheila, who had long admired Kate, was interested in knowing more about her from my perspective.

"You know what I'd love to do," Sheila said, breaking one of the rare silences in the car. We had been chattering away for a few hours by then. "Let's do a Kate Millett Festschift!" The exotic word-and the thought--were delicious. "It should be simple enough," she went on enthusiastically. "I've got an assistant who can help with the research. We'll cobble together book reviews, essays, critiques of her work, maybe have an academic panel. It's pretty straightforward, easy actually."

A Festschrift? Mentally, I chewed on the word, knowing I was in dangerous territory. Imaginative language sometimes makes my mouth water and is the ultimate seduction.

But I fought back. "It's doubtful that I'll have the time," I said weakly.

I don't remember how it happened, but here I was, six months later, standing on a stage as MC-on my birthday no less--looking out at an overflow crowd of more than 200 feminists from all over the world gathered at Judson Church in Manhattan. They were all there to pay homage to Kate Millett's life and work. This was also an historic event, a joyous reunion of friends and

Eleanor Pam: This is not a Festival, I thought. It's a love-fest! (photo Joan Roth)

comrades-most of them, iconic pioneers of Second Wave Feminism. It was bittersweet, perhaps the last time that all of us would be in the same room at the same time. And we all knew it, sensed it, and appreciated the moment. This event had morphed into something that went well beyond Sheila's original idea of a sweet little scholarly project about Kate's work. The room was alive with history.

Although I designed the program and knew the shape of the schedule, all this womanpower felt unreal-an out-of-body experience. I introduced and called to the stage one incredible speaker after the other. Each delivered eloquent tributes to Kate: Gloria Steinem, Alix Kates Shulman, Phyllis Chesler, Susan Brownmiller, Barbara Love and Terry O'Neill, President of NOW. Other speakers, close personal friends of Kate, followed in quick succession. Although these had less name recognition they were women Kate had known for many decades and were substantial activists and/ or scholars and artists in their own right: Among them were Linda Clarke, Ann Keating, Madelaine Gins.

Some who were unable to attend because they were out of town sent greetings and congratulations to their old friend, Kate. Yoko Ono delivered hers personally via video that was projected onto the huge back wall of the stage. Robin Morgan chose Gloria Steinem as her conduit, writing a warm and funny letter that Gloria introduced as "fanf***ng fantastic!" and which Gloria then read to the group with great brio.

The audience was amazing too, radiating good will and feminist energy, and comprised of many distinguished activists, including Charlotte Bunch, Noreen Connell, Judge Emily Goodman, Lilly Rivlin and Florence Howe. Although I couldn't see faces from the brightly lit stage, I could feel the vibrancy and love in the room, could hear the audience cheering, clapping and laughing throughout the multimedia program of music, videos, ceremony and speeches. This is not a Festival, I thought. It's a love-fest!

Sandy Rapp and NOW president Terry O'Neill (photo by Joan Roth)

And then there was Kate Millett herself-shy, pleased, excited, engaged, happy. I kept looking over at her and every time I did, there was this wide smile on her face. It made me feel great that she was enjoying it so much, every damn minute of it! I especially loved the standing ovations she twice received-once in the early part of the program and once at the end. But Kate--maybe not so much. Both times it was obvious that the collective wave of affection and appreciation coming at her from the audience only increased her shyness. But although she accepted these tributes awkwardly, I knew her well enough to know she was taking it all in, heard the message beamed at her implicitly and explicitly all afternoon: I love you Kate. Unsynchronized, most of the speakers said it too, looking directly at her as they ended their remarks. I love you Kate.

Kate was especially radiant while the musicians, all personal friends - Alix Dobkin, Sandy Rapp, and Joan Casamo sang her favorite songs, some of which were written for or about her. At one point, Terry O'Neill joined Sandy Rapp on stage as the back up-singer to "Remember Rose."

Kate participated in two ceremonies at the event: She presented the Kate Millett Award to Jacqui Ceballos, President of VFA, engaging in an animated and warm hearted interchange with a clearly delighted Jacqui about some of their early adventures together.


Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem,
Kate Millett

She also offered a light from her torch to a candle held by Shelby Knox, a 25 year old surrounded by a cohort of young feminists representing the younger generations. Before Shelby spoke, Gloria Steinem explained the new ritual, which she said had just been invented for this occasion. It was not a "passing of the torch" service, Gloria said, and it shouldn't be. Instead, she counseled feminists of all generations to hold onto their torches and never give them up, but share and increase the light. Both Kate and Shelby obeyed, holding onto their lit candles with broad smiles on their faces.

Sophie Keir, Kate's close companion and colleague, introduced all the videos and gave an update on Kate's current and future activities. Most notably, prior to screening a clip from her film, GOING TO IRAN, Sophie described the terrifying events in Iran which led up to the time when she and Kate were arrested by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Veteran Feminists of America was honored too, along with Kate, on this special day. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer sent along a proclamation which Muriel Fox, Chair of the VFA Board accepted on behalf of the organization and Kate Millett.

Eleanor Pam, Jan Cleary and Sheila Tobias

But there were other honors too, other worthy recipients, other surprises. In a very moving moment, and to her great and obvious shock, the VFA Medal of Honor was awarded to Jan Cleary by the entire leadership of VFA: Muriel Fox, Sheila Tobias, and Jacqui Ceballos. This was being given to Jan for her outstanding contributions as webmaster of the VFA website and for being our communications guru-the Wizard behind the curtain. Sheila Tobias, who co-chaired the event with me, was especially appreciative of Jan Cleary's work with her on the Festival CD which impressively represented Sheila's original vision of the Festschrift in digital form.

There was much hoopla at the event, a carnival atmosphere in the back of the room to complement the production values at the front. There were videos, a silent auction, graphic arts and book sales of Kate Millett's work, photographic displays, tables piled with t shirts, cds, posters, memorabilia, miscellaneous items for sale, and an elegant luncheon.

All in all, it was a special and memorable day, a fitting celebration to honor one of the most important figures in Second Wave feminism-my friend, Kate Millett. I'm so grateful to have been a part of it.

Contact/Comments Eleanor Pam

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