Interview with Edith Kokernot Grinnell2019-05-08T17:37:22+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Edith Kokernot Grinnell

“The Women’s Rights movement impacted my life by giving me the courage to accept the challenge of change.” – Edith Kokernot Grinnell

A conversation with Peggy Kokernot Kaplan, Edith Kokernot Grinnell, and Diana Kokernot Britton. Courtesy of the Share Your Stories From ’77 project. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. November 6, 2017

Interviewer:  If you ladies could introduce yourselves for us.

Diana:  Mom, you go first.

Edith:  I didn’t come here to do this. 

Peggy:  Mom, just say your name, that is all you have to say.

Edith:  It is Edith Grinnell.

Peggy:  Once we get tickled we start laughing a lot, so we’ll try not to do that. But I’m her daughter. I’m Peggy Kokernot Kaplan.

Diana:  I’m Diana Kokernot Britton.

Interviewer:  What is your relation to the Women’s Conference?

Diana:  Our relation was that Peggy had gotten a phone call that they needed some runners to run in this relay because some of the women weren’t running in the southern states. She was going to run in a relay, and I thought well that’s pretty cool. It was my big sister and I was so proud she was going to run. Not realizing that eventually the torch would come to Houston and so I went down to watch her run when I found out she’d be in Houston with the torch.  And then our mother —

Edith:  I slipped away at lunch hour.

Peggy:  Yes, and you ran all the way to the entrance of the convention center and then you had to go back to work.

Edith:  Yes, I worked for the Institute of International Education, but they were very conservative.

Diana:  You had to sort of sneak out because it wasn’t your lunch hour. You had to sneak out and put on your tennis shoes and go march down Allen Parkway.

Peggy:  In the last mile.

Edith:  That was ok.

Peggy:  Mom’s good friend Mary Ann McBrayer was the organizer of the torch run in the Houston area. I think she had five children and she was going to University of Houston and she got a call because there was a segment of the torch relay in Alabama where the torch relay had stopped or was going to stop because Phyllis Schlafly was able to get runners to boycott a 16-mile portion of this run. Mary Ann was called to go up and run that, but she was busy with all her children and going to school.

Because she knew Mom – Mom said –  Would you like to go fly to Alabama and run the 16-mile leg of this torch run. And we were all marathoners anyway so 16 miles didn’t seem that bad. Plus, a free trip. I flew up to Alabama and I ran the 16-mile leg of the torch relay there. And then the last mile of the torch relay I was invited to carry the torch into the convention center along with Sylvia Ortiz and Michelle Cearcy and we carried the torch in, and we gave it to the first ladies. That was my extent of involvement. But Mom was also very new to the workforce having been recently divorced and it’s hard to find work. 

Edith:  I had worked for the Institute of International Education.

Peggy:  You were just coming back into the workforce and so it was a difficult time that you did that.

Edith:  I thought it was difficult, it really wasn’t.

Peggy:  That’s not what you told us.

Diana:  She wrote a wonderful story for the 30th anniversary for the 1977 Conference and called it The Last Mile. It encapsulated her life as an adult woman and what she went through. And then to see her daughter and this torch and that would project for the future and what was going to be the next mile – what was going to happen next.

Peggy:  It’s a really good story and it’s called The Last Mile by Edith Babcock Grinnell.

Edith:  I’d almost forgotten that.

Interviewer:  Did you realize the impact – this passing of the torch would mean in today’s society at the time?

Peggy:  I was 25. I was just a marathon runner.  I don’t think it really hit me how important this was until we walked into the convention center and saw thousands of women. And the applause and the enthusiasm as we marched down the aisle. To be very honest no I did not realize the importance of it.

Diana:  I was only 16 and to me it was knowing that our mother’s mother was in her 30s when she had the right to vote.  It didn’t really all come together for me. But when I saw some of those women that were out there and read their stories and knew who they were, it definitely had an impact on my future life. I didn’t realize at the moment what a significant event it was, but it didn’t take long to realize.  And then of course going off to college and being raised by a single mother and seeing what she went through. Credit cards and not having a lot of rights. And being the one divorced mother in the neighborhood and not being invited to do certain things, there is a stigma.

Edith:  I was fine.

Diana:  I know you’re fine but there was a stigma and things have changed and there always needs to be good change. But it was a very significant thing upon reflection.

Edith:  I had a wonderful life. I don’t have any regrets.

Peggy:  It’s still going.

Edith:  I have a wonderful life.

Peggy:  Ninety-two and doing great, almost ninety-two.  I think looking around and seeing Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan and Billy Jean King —

Diana: And Gloria Steinem and Liz Carpenter —

Peggy:  All these women.

Diana:  Betty Ford and also the other thing that was neat, when you handed the torch in that picture to the first lady, and that we’re not all of the same party and we thought, this is women really coming together and that was neat.

Edith:  I just I just loved it, doing all of those things because I never would have done it without you.

Diana:  She said if she hadn’t gotten divorced, she wouldn’t have been the independent woman she was. It was a good thing in the end.

Edith:  And I made friends with your father.

Diana:  Yes, before he passed away.

Peggy:  Yes, and this was just about 1977 when she lived here in the 40s, she had to quit her job when she was four months pregnant. When she started showing they made you quit work.

Edith:  I loved my job.

Peggy:  I know, and she’s made us strong women.

Interviewer:  What has it been like hearing and seeing their stories from your mom and then seeing the difference of the political climate today? Do you think it’s a significant difference? Do you think we’re going backward? What are your opinions on that?

Edith:  It really was the most important thing in my life to work. I had worked before.

Diana:  Today right now,  I just I still feel this shadow. It’s just it’s sad like we’ve taken a lot of steps backwards and maybe that was always around, but we just wanted to see beyond that. So, it’s really a scary time.  I want to have hope and I will have hope. This will give us more hope. This will give us a good energy, knowing all these people working towards – and us too.

Peggy:  They were asking about the political climate today with how things are. It’s a little more difficult now.

Edith:  I remember voting and I think most people were voting Republican and I voted Democrat.

Diana:  That was way back.

Peggy:  And even now. Mom wore her button.

Diana:  It is a scary time right now. I think if things had turned out differently a year ago – – I think we just felt such enthusiasm and now it’s just like this shadow and knowing that there is a huge percentage of our population that’s just–

Peggy:  I went to the women’s march in Washington after the election and the feeling I came away with from that was this wonderful resurgence of people being willing to get out there and drive change.  The feeling I got was that we were just floating along, and things would eventually get better. But of course, everything kind of came to a head. And you know with the three states that we didn’t have enough votes to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Now I’m seeing young women out there and I wonder if the election had been different. If Hillary Clinton had won I wonder if we would have seen the same drive and energy to bring about change. Not that it’s a positive by any means that we have Donald Trump, but I do see this groundswell. You can just feel it even with the whole campaign of #MeToo and you’re just seeing it, but I really hope something comes of it.

Edith:  I think we had an unusual family because we lived overseas in several different countries in Africa and South America.

Peggy:  And we saw a lot of things living in these other countries of poverty and Apartheid, so you do realize.

Diana:  I think it does drive a lot of hope with younger people.  I have a daughter who’s in her 20s and just seeing how she is, and her relationships and they take things for granted in a way, but they are the power of change and when they see what world they’re walking into they want to be more involved. That may have been a positive of the election. It gets people like that really motivated to say – I can’t sit back and expect it to get better, I’ve got to do something.

Peggy:  That’s the same feeling I had when I was in DC. And of course, I was stuck. You could not walk. You could not move. I don’t know how many of you all were up there, but it was absolutely incredible to be surrounded by them. I’ll have to show a picture – my poster was a picture of me on the cover of Time magazine and – close your ears – it had a picture of me on time magazine and it said –  I can’t believe I’m still marching for this shit 40 years later.

Diana:  It was really good.

Edith:  I didn’t know you said that.

Peggy:  Go ahead, spank me. I’m sorry.

Edith:  Don’t quote that.

Diana:  This will be the P.G. version.

Edith:  I’m ashamed.

Peggy:  I know you’re proud of us, you love strong women.

Interviewer:  How would each of you define feminism?

Peggy: To be a feminist, what would that be? How would you describe that?

Edith:  I just never thought about it.

Diana:  I think I used to think of it as being just a woman’s issue, but I think  it’s an issue that – men are feminist. Feminism is an inner core thing –  it’s what you are. You can meet someone, and you have a sense. It’s hard to put it into words.

Peggy:  I think it also crosses more than  just women. It should also include people who are of color who are black or white or people who are gay or people who are transgender. I think we all just get put into  this. It’s so important.

Edith:  I think women needed to go to work and I was inspired by my mother who was a wonderful housewife and mother, but she also was a reporter for a newspaper.

Diana:  I think feminism relates to women, but anybody can be a feminist.  I’m married to a man who – it’s almost was a dirty word  for some people, but I would say he would be a feminist because he is, things are just neutral. It doesn’t matter, you don’t have to put the label are you a man or a woman. To me a feminist is a person who thinks of women’s issues as everybody’s issues.

Interviewer:  Is there anything in particular you’re looking to get out of the conference these next couple days?

Peggy:  You know what I like, is just reconnecting with any women who are wearing this blue ribbon and hearing their stories. I think that’s probably what I would like to do. Is just be able to reconnect.

Edith:  I remember when I had my first real job with the Institute of International Education, and I loved it.

Peggy:  If while you’re at this conference do you like being here for any particular reason?

Edith:  I just like to be here.  If you’ve worked and had a career –

Peggy:  You want to be around other people that worked and had a career.

Diana:  You can feel this energy of people.

Edith:  My own mother used to write for the newspaper.

Peggy:  Yes, and she graduated from college in 1911. She was a strong woman and you are a strong woman.

Edith:  And she was a good mother. I can be proud of all my children. It wasn’t my doing, they did it all on their own.

Diana:  It’s neat to see the generations of people here and we’ve mostly seen women,  just to see here on a college campus that you see women in their 90s and other ladies we met out there that are in their 70s.

Peggy:  Also getting to know, because I was so focused on the torch run and not a participant in the conference but to actually talk to the women, hear their stories and how they were involved. And that’s really good. And I did want to just mention, one of the things before I walked up the aisle with Sylvia and Michelle and Donna DeVarona and Suzy Chaffee and other people to hand the torch, a young woman came up to me right before I walked up, and she introduced herself as Jacqueline Hansen and her friend Leal-Ann Reinhart. I think Leal-Ann was either the World or American record holder in the marathon and they said you’re a runner right?

And I said yes, and she said if you have any opportunity to just mention anything about trying to get the marathon into the Olympics we would really appreciate it. And so that’s what I did mention in the Time Magazine article and it was because of Jacqueline Hansen and Leal-Ann. They went on, I think to sue the International Olympic Committee so we could have a marathon in the Olympics in ’84 and they worked really hard at that and at that time Diana reminded me that we just had an 800 meters because it [was] deemed too difficult for the female sex to run further than that. And so now I think we have the 10k. We have the 5k, 10k and we have the marathon. I was really glad that I could voice that for them.

Edith:  And we all three ran marathons.

Peggy:  We all three ran marathons. Very strong women,  physically and mentally.

Interviewer:  Do you have any last comments?

Edith:  I can comment, I’ve just had a wonderful life. I’ve had so many opportunities and just by chance. I didn’t know I was going to be able to have so many good experiences and four good children.

Peggy:  We really feel like I think a lot of our strength came from watching this woman.

Diana:  She was a very strong independent mother. She was the mother who went scuba diving and hiked the Grand Canyon and was running marathons when a lot of women weren’t doing that.  I thought my mother was great, but my friend’s would say your mom is really cool and that made me happy. She’d swim with me in the lake and do everything with me.

Peggy:  You were the first to run the marathon and we followed and if you hadn’t started —

Edith:  I was not the first one.

Diana/Peggy:  In our family!

Peggy:  Humor gets us through a lot, right Mom?

Edith:  I went through a fairly painful divorce.

Diana:  It was very painful.

Edith:  We were still friends.

Diana:  She was married to a wonderful man who became an alcoholic and she had the courage to say – I’ve  got to get out of this, it’s not healthy. And that made my childhood a much healthier childhood than it would have been otherwise. And in the end we all became friends and things worked out.

Edith:  He was a wonderful man.

Diana:  She never said a bad word.

Peggy:  And he stopped drinking.

Diana:  And he was wonderful.

Peggy:  She never said one bad word about him, right Mom?

Edith:  I don’t think so.

Diana:  No,  you didn’t.

Edith:  And I have a wonderful husband now. I really do. Very patient.

Peggy:  I guess we shouldn’t keep talking.

Diana:  We’re doing a series.

Interviewer:  Thank you ladies.

Peggy:  You are so welcome.