THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Stephanie L. Marcus
“Liberation Enterprises – We Were Giving A Visual Voice To Women”
Excerpts from an interview by Joshua Clark Davis for his book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, December 16, 2014
Transcript edited by Stephanie
SM: I was born in 1940 in The Bronx, New York City. Around seven, I saw that boys were having a much easier time. They had privileges that I didn’t. It intensified later with adult women and men. In the late 1960s, I found out about the budding women’s movement and it resonated mightily. I got involved.
JD: You said that already at the age of 7 you noticed sexism.
Outrage At An Early Age
SM: Here’s an example. There were a lot of street games in those days and I liked playing with the boys because I enjoyed their active games. Always running around, throwing a ball, or climbing something, and that was more fun than what girls did. They had a little ball team and I played with them. It took insistence, and persistence to get accepted. It was a mostly Irish neighborhood. I was Jewish and a couple of boys were too. When we went to services, an Orthodox synagogue, the boys would sit in the very front, and be welcomed. Girls sat with the women up in the balcony in the back. Why couldn’t I sit with my friends? Here were the kids I played with, getting special treatment. I worked hard for their respect. This was humiliating. My street cred was crushed.
(Other synagogues did not separate the sexes. But they were too far away from our home.)
JD: Did you go to high school in the Bronx?
I Was Fascinated by the Practical Application of Art.
SM: No I went to a special school, The High School of Music and Art, in Manhattan. Admission required a portfolio of work, an interview and drawing projects to test your ability and commitment. It was a wonderful school. You enrolled as either an art or a music student. I wanted to be an artist since kindergarten. I remember as a teen, sitting at the table, looking at my breakfast. The milk carton was so ugly. Why? I turned the carton, every side was ugly. Then, the box of cereal. That was ugly too. I wanted to make things that people use every day look beautiful. My first awareness of graphic design.
JD: What did you do after high school?
SM: I went to Syracuse University in upstate New York, with scholarships. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Advertising. Then I looked for work. In those days, you would get the Sunday New York Times to search the huge employment section, with separated ads. Three quarters were Help Wanted Male and one quarter was Help Wanted Female. The good jobs were under Help Wanted Male. I could be a secretary, a bookkeeper, a nurse, a teacher, or a nanny. I wanted graphic design. So I would call the Help Wanted Male ads and the response was, “Don’t you see, we’ve advertised for a man?” That was an outrage. I got a crummy job for a designer with no talent. But, there was a recession and I needed income. He had a rep that brought in work, a kind woman in her 40s. She watched me and said, “I know a very fine designer. I can recommend you to him.” She did, and I went to a prestigious firm in the classy Seagram building. I learned a lot there. But, I worked on other’s designs and grew restless. Then an older artist suggested that I could freelance and make more money. So I began working in various firms and magazines where I met Rose Fontanella who was also freelancing in the same place.
JD: There was a lot of sexism in the advertising industry, right?
SM: Tremendous. If you’ve seen Madmen, they spell it out. A woman had little chance of advancing. There was discrimination and sexual harassment too.
JD: Tell me how you discovered the women’s movement.
There Were No Women Artists
SM: It was obvious that there were no paintings or art by women in museums, galleries, or even in art history books. It was all male artists. Except for one or two by Georgia O’Keeffe and Käthe Kollwitz, a brilliant artist. But other than that, none. In the late 1960s a sizable group of women artists picketed the Brooklyn Museum because they showed no women’s art. They did this for a week. It was no different from other museums. But the artists sensed that the Brooklyn Museum had a soul and might respond. So they were targeted. The front page of The Sunday Times Arts Section ran a prominent article about the protest, and conducted a survey. They reported in detail about museums across the country and how many women artists they showed – zero. The Brooklyn Museum was mortified with the exposé. And they changed. They started showing women artists, (art they kept in storage) and had a mind-blowing exhibition of women’s art through centuries to the present. They have a floor featuring feminist art now. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, an important work, is in their permanent collection. Reading about that protest, hearing about it, thrilled and encouraged me. They had succeeded.
In 1970 I went to NOW when they were planning the big march down Fifth Avenue on August 26th, the 50th anniversary of women suffrage. A date nobody knows, right? Everyone knows George Washington’s birthday or 4th of July but half the population gained the vote on August 26th, another bit of women’s history that vanishes into the clouds. A big march for equal pay, for childcare, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Publicity was mostly word of mouth. We expected a couple of thousand people, maybe. It was enormous – there must have been 50,000 women from all over. The city gave us two lanes of Fifth Avenue. Soon the whole street was filled, and the sidewalks taken over. Men jeered us all the way. We rallied in Bryant Park behind the great library. The park was totally filled. There were women in the trees. It was electric.
We Both Got Very Involved in the Women’s Movement.
After that and Rose and I went to meetings to get involved. We listened to speeches. What was said was absolutely right, but humorless. The situation is crazy. Ridicule the status quo. Let’s laugh at it too. We thought of satire we could use, and sell. A loft we had for painting became our business space. We had about five thousand dollars, and neither of us knew anything about business or had a family with experience. I read business books from the library. We decided on mail order. As graphic artists we knew how to make a catalog. We created one with folksy appeal.
We designed products and had them made and manufactured. We added a few that others were making but had no way to sell, to our catalog. Mailing lists were vital, so we advertised in MS. Magazine, which had just started, and placed a tiny ad. It got a promising response.
At feminist gatherings, more women signed up for catalogs. Then, a brainstorm. Many of these organizations put out newsletters and mailings. We offered to design logos for them and do some graphic design, in exchange for their mailing lists. Barter worked well for everyone.
JD: What were some of the groups?
SM: The National Organization for Women, of course, and Brooklyn NOW, Majority Report. Rose created a lovely logo for OWL, the Older Women’s League. When the catalog was sent out, the response was phenomenal.
JD: You and Rose felt that the movement lacked humor?
SM: Remember the cartoonist who took down New York’s “Boss” Tweed with ridicule? Thomas Nast. And Herbert Block, “Herblock” mocking Richard Nixon in the newspapers. Humor gets right to the point. People will laugh with you. You can reach more of them. Speeches scare some who aren’t ready yet. But, a good cartoon, or a good slogan goes right to you. Working in advertising we knew how effective it is. This was another tool for the movement.
JD: What were some of the humorous ideas you had?
SM: We would hear a funny remark and say – hey, that’s brilliant. Somebody said, I don’t remember who she was, Sexism is a Social Disease. Hilarious! We put that on a postcard.
There Aren’t Any Statues to Women.
And consider this, statues; especially in New York statues are only of men. The only four female statues that we were aware of – one on the Municipal Building, she’s gold and represents Civic Virtue, and Blind Justice atop the Brooklyn Borough Hall, a blindfolded female holding scales, Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, and of course, the Statue of Liberty. Not one real woman. How about Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony or Margaret Sanger? (There is now a fine Eleanor Roosevelt statue, tucked away in Riverside Park. That’s one.) When Kate Millet’s book, Sexual Politics came out, I drew a poster with the Statue of Liberty reading Sexual Politics, as the book she holds and reads by torchlight. We bought some antique magazines, like Harper’s from 1870 to 1910, when a library was discarding them. There were some great illustrations, like a drawing by Charles Dana Gibson, famous for the Gibson Girls. It looks about 1890 and shows a businessman and his secretary. His head is that of a jackass, but he’s very dapper, leaning back in his chair and pontificating. His female secretary is chained to the desk, typing away blindfolded. He has little glass of sherry. We used it on a note card, and then discovered an engraving of women in the French Revolution marching with pitchforks and brooms, out for blood. A big mob of angry women. Another note card, with our caption, Uppity Women Unite! Rose Fontanella’s drawings were appreciated by our customers. She drew a Christmas card that was popular, the Three Queens, instead of the Three Kings – Love, Peace and Sisterhood. And for another Christmas, feminist angels. Their haloes were women’s symbols. She also designed a superwoman, Junior Ms., for children’s T-shirts.
Liberté, Egalité, Sororité
She had another idea, a woman warrior with a banner, “Liberté, Egalité, Sororité”. Her drawings spoke paragraphs. As I did the layout, I realized that I wasn’t sure how to spell Sororité in French. I phoned the Alliance Francais. A pleasant French woman answered and I said, I have a question. Perhaps you can answer it. How do you spell Sororité? She said, Pardon? I explained, Well, instead of Fraternité how do you spell Sororité? And she started laughing and laughing, and asked, How are you using this? I said, Liberté, Egalité, Sororité. She was still laughing. What is so funny? She replied, You don’t understand! In French we do not have Sororité. What do you mean? She said, Napoleon “modernized” the language by eliminating female words. All we have is fraternité. But how would you say sisterhood? And she pondered; You’d have to say a fraternity of sisters, which is very awkward. I laughed, so, there is no sisterhood in France. Our biggest hit was the Fuck Housework! apron.
JD: Yeah, I want to ask you about that. That one clearly stands out.
SM: That’s me demonstrating it in the catalog.
JD: That’s you? Where did that idea come from?
SM: A woman, somewhere said, “Fuck housework!” We thought, right on! But we had a hard time with it. For one thing, printers didn’t want to print it. They called it obscene. One printer said he would, and the aprons would be ready in two weeks. It took longer than a month. They dragged their feet. We wanted to advertise it and our male accountant said, “You can’t do that. It’s obscene. And send them through the mail? You’re going to be in trouble.” (Men said fuck all the time. It was obscene for women, apparently.)
So I went to the main post office and I told them what we intended, was there problem? The manager asked if everything in the catalog was obscene. I said no, just that. He said – Oh, you can mail it. That apron was very popular, especially amongst Colorado skiers. There was a ski shop that ordered more and more. Did you notice our logo, the birdcage is open and the bird has flown?
JD: Tell me about the idea of Liberation Enterprises – what a great name for a business.
SM: It was about women’s liberation. And enterprises, because we didn’t know where it was going to go. We might hit it big. What ruined us was the Arab oil embargo in 1974. Do you know about the embargo?
JD: That was the shipping costs?
The Arab Oil Embargo
SM: Oh no. Anything made with oil. What’s remembered is the cars in long lines at the gas stations. Anything made with oil tripled in price. Vinyl, styrofoam, printing ink, phonograph records, you name it. Everything plastic is made with oil. We had to triple our prices and most of our customers did not have a lot of money. We had as many orders as before but they were buying less. Azuma was a Japanese chain of stores with all sorts of interesting things. We showed our wares to them and they were excited. They proposed having a corner table in all their stores for our merchandise. They liked our whole line! To do this we had to take on a big loan. We were ready. But the oil embargo hit suddenly and changed everything. We hired a consultant, Mildred Tuffield, a fine, savvy woman. She examined our books and everything. Her advice was, “As things are now, you can’t go into debt for this. And your business will only support one of you, not both. You have to decide whether you want to continue with one person. Or since you’re in the black it may be a good time to end it.” After painful soul searching we quit while we were solvent. It broke our hearts. We went from flying; we’re going to be coast to coast in Azuma! – To going out of business.
JD: I’m thinking about the name Liberation Enterprises. Was there freedom that came with having your own business instead of being an employee?
Women Owned Business and Freedom
SM: I discovered that business was creative. Inventing products and sales methods, getting mailing lists, all this with so little money. What I gained from running a business was confidence. I can look any client, any employer in the eye as an equal. It changed me. We were growing fast and our customers were enthusiastic. They would write us letters; some were very poignant. I remember a young woman in Sparksville, Mississippi. She had seen our ad in Ms. Magazine. She wrote, “I have no one to talk to about these ideas. It is lonely for women in the military here.” We learned who our customers were from their letters. We saw that we were doing a service, giving a visual voice to women. They didn’t have to picket. They could carry one of our Womanpower bags or show a poster.
We Were Fighting the Fight in Our Way.
JD: How did you balance being an entrepreneur and being an activist? Were you still attending meetings and things like that?
SM: Yes. At many conferences or a large meeting we would have a table with merchandise, and enlarge our mailing list. We were well known. At the same time, Rose and I took part in several actions. For instance, National Airlines, (which later went out of business, and deserved to) had a promotion where they named their planes Barbara, Judy, Susan, etc. Each plane had a woman’s name on it and in their advertising campaign a stewardess would say, “I’m Judy, Fly Me” for example.
JD: That was a notorious ad campaign. I’ve seen pictures of that.
SM: Their office was on 42nd street, across from Grand Central Terminal. NOW picketed them and we were in the line, walking around with our signs. Men up on the high floors dropped things down on us like coffee, and soda bottles. Glass shattered on the sidewalk around us. It got dangerous.
They Felt so Threatened by This.
A woman designed a poster, and I’m sorry we never got to sell it, but it was brilliant. It’s a photo looking up at the driver in one of these huge, long haul trucks. The driver has his elbow out the window. He’s a real tough guy, and it says, “I’m Frank, Truck Me.” A masterpiece. The most fascinating action we participated in was about the media. Like the artists who chose one museum to show what they all were doing, NOW zeroed in on television. There were no women announcers on radio or television. Women did not present news or opinions. (Barbara Walters was trying to break in and that’s another story.) Women talked about refrigerators. There was nothing for women except commercials serving meals to her family, washing dishes or doing laundry. Anyway, NOW picked out ABC Television and each member volunteered to watch a half hour of television every day for a week. We counted how many women were shown, what they doing, and what was said about females. There was a list of observations to make in each half hour of broadcasting assigned.
Half the Population Was Not Represented.
We showed that there were no roles for women, except as sex objects. During a commercial selling knives, I monitored a man’s hand holding an axe, a carving knife, and a hunting knife. Then, a woman used a scissors to cut cloth. No knives for her! There was another ad with a woman mopping a floor, while the voiceover, a deep baritone, talks about how the floor shines. (The voice of God?) We got into the psychological nitty gritty where the woman does the wash, but a man’s voiceover talks about how clean the wash looks. No man ever does the wash. No man would ever mop a floor.
JD: What was the final product? Did you publish your findings?
SM: It was presented to ABC by Deborah Beale. They said that female voices were shrill and lacked authority. To this day, as I watch TV, I analyze ads and programs. How many women, men? What are their roles? It is improving, slowly.
JD: Were you involved with the Miss America protest?
SM: No, but Rose and I were accidentally at a Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, NJ. NOW held a large conference in a hotel next to it at the same time. That was a success for Liberation Enterprises. Women were eager for our wares. Afterwards, we all walked on the boardwalk and the people attending the Pageant came out too. They were intimidated by us! Amazing. We looked very ordinary, some in t-shirts with slogans. Of course, it wasn’t accidental. NOW planned this big conference for that time and place. I didn’t realize it then.
JD: I’ve heard stories about some other feminists in business that felt like some feminists didn’t support them. Were there ever women who were not supportive of you?
SM: Oh sure. There’s always somebody who says you shouldn’t profit from doing good – it should be pure. Not tainted by money.
JD: Yes, that’s what I mean. It is very interesting.
SM: That would happen with anything – maybe the church shouldn’t have a collection box. We didn’t have any difficulty. There were various points of view and goals. There was an organization trying to get women on corporate boards, and become CEOs of major corporations. And some of these joined NOW. Then you had someone like Rose whose husband ran off, leaving her with two young kids without child support. Family court was totally unresponsive. She joined too.
Many Inspiring Stories
JD: I heard her perspective. I think she was also a good deal older than a lot of women in the movement.
SM: She was forty-two. Some of the most inspiring women were in their 50s. I listened to Betty Harragan and her friend Jane Field at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. They did the work, for lower pay and no credit. They were always assistants and could never move up, so they sued the EEOC and won. But it didn’t help. They made a TV documentary about it. Older women educated me about things going on around the world that I didn’t know, such as genital mutilation. So horrible. I met a psychologist who was older than I. She had a masters degree, a practicing psychologist and she needed a PhD. She applied to New York University and at her interview they asked, “Are you married?” She said, “Yes.” And they asked, “Do you have children?” “Yes.” “How old are they?” “One is four and one is seven.” ‘Well, how can you possibly get a PhD when you’ve got young kids at home?” Can you imagine asking a man that?
JD: Did you have problems getting credit? That was problematic for a lot of women then.
I Didn’t Want The Man – I Didn’t Want The Name.
SM: That was one of the reasons we used barter so effectively. The bank gave me a hard time. I had been married. When I divorced I took back to my maiden name. It was done with a judge and was part of the divorce settlement. When I opened an account, they insisted that I use my married name. No way. A few years later the president of this bank was arrested for fraud. Vindication!
JD: It probably helped to get some good press early on like the article in Ms.
SM: Sure. The Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page article on the same subject of the book you are writing: small businesses started by activists of various causes. The article included us.
JD: I did see a Wall Street Journal article, it was nice and I have an L.A. Times article too.
SM: We were also on radio and television. On ABC TV News, they told our names, our ages, marital status and children. I wrote an angry letter to them saying, I’ve never heard you report all that about a man. So and so was appointed CEO of Macy’s; you didn’t give his age, marital status, how many children he has – why did you do that to us?
JD: What were some of the difficulties even when the business was going well? What were the challenges?
Share of Challenges
SM: We needed employees. We had an excellent bookkeeper. Her books were magnificent. Our accountant looked at them and said he’d never seen any this perfect. We had her make charts for us because we couldn’t understand the accounting, but we could understand charts – we’re artists. And so we could see which month we did better, or worse, and how the revenue was growing, visually. Her name was Susan Christoffersen. (She wore the Wonder Woman T-shirt in our catalog.) When our business folded, she applied for work at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. They didn’t have women in any upper ranks. The company was so impressed with her accounting that they hired her immediately. She knocked on the right door at the right time. They wanted to show they had a woman who was more than an assistant. She was promoted quickly. That was a success story. You wanted to hear a challenge. We needed people to pack all these orders. We asked friends’ teenagers, want to earn money? Yes! They came after school and packed orders for us. Inevitably, a kid would say, I don’t want to do this anymore, it’s boring. That’s why it’s work… You get paid for work. So much for child labor.
JD: After the business ended, did you stay involved with the movement? What happened then?
SM: A deep recession occurred, unemployment rose fast. The movement shifted. It moved into things like NARAL promoting reproductive freedom laws, Emily’s List getting women into politics, and into the police, the judiciary, and new roles.
It Wasn’t the Same Street Fighting as We Were Doing.
JD: You’re saying that the recession of the mid 70s undercut a lot of the protests going on because people had to look for work.
SM: It splintered. The women working at the New York Times and Newsweek struck because men had all the bylines. They had offices. The newswomen had desks in the hallway so that anybody could stop by and bother them. They were called researchers, and they would give all the information to the male reporters to write up and get the credit and the money. So they rebelled for equal treatment. And it changed. Feminism went into politics, into the courts, into the social fabric. We were consciousness-raising, saying, look around you, at work, at education, at religion, at the courts, look how we are getting a raw deal. Every bit of daily life was under the microscope. What cultural brainwashing, and a total grip men had on society. Woman were saying, “Do you know what I just discovered? Do you know what I saw on television? Do you know what congress did? Do you know what happened in my kid’s class?”
Quite An Achievement
JD: Do you think Liberation Enterprises was consciousness-raising?
SM: Definitely. There were women who bought our merchandise and wanted it in a plain brown wrapper because they didn’t want to upset their husbands at home.
JD: Looking back, what do you think Liberation Enterprises achieved?
SM: It was too brief, unfortunately. We could have achieved even more, but we gave a visual voice to women and added humor. We did what we set out to do. Our merchandise was funny and sly, criticizing society with a wink. It introduced more women to feminist ideas.