Interview with Chris Riddiough2018-12-24T10:31:41+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Chris Riddiough

“Women’s Liberation Will Not Be Achieved Until All People Are Free.”

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board, October 2018.

MC: Good afternoon Chris. So nice to see you.

CR:  Good afternoon. Nice to see you.

MC:  I’m so happy you can do this. And let’s just start to talk about your wonderful life. Would you state your name to begin with?

CR: Christine R. Riddiough.

MC:  And tell us when and where you were born please.

CR: June 28, 1946 in Evanston, Illinois.

MC: And talk about where you grew up and your family background if you would.

CR: I grew up primarily in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. My father was an immigration lawyer for the federal government and traveled around Wisconsin primarily. He had met my mother in Chicago where she grew up and she worked as an immigrant inspector back in the day. After my sister and I were born she was a stay at home mom, which was true of, I think most of the mothers at least in our neighborhood back then.

I grew up in Milwaukee up until 1955 when we moved to Wauwatosa. I went to public schools in Milwaukee and Walla Tulsa and graduated in 1964 from Wauwatosa East High School. Went off to college in Northfield Minnesota – Carleton College and graduated from there in 1968. So what more should I say about any of that?

MC: Is there anything else that you want to tell us about your folks. You had one sister is that correct?

CR: I have one sister, yes. She’s a year younger than me. My parents were older than most of the parents my age. They got married when my mother was 33 and my father was 53 so there was also a big age gap. Now he had grown up out in the west – in Colorado, Utah, places like that and then had to quit school when he was 13 because his father abandoned the family and he went to work on the railroad.

And it turned out – I didn’t find this [out] until long after he died – but he was involved in the Socialist Party back in the teens and ran for county clerk in Ogden, Utah on the Socialist Party ticket; with Eugene V. Debs at the top of the ticket and he was down at the bottom. And then he went off to law school and graduated from GW and became a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice and he took care of his mother until she died in 41. And we never had much to do with his family. He was not very fond of them because I think he felt like he was left holding the bag in terms of supporting their mother. So that’s my father.

Now my mother – her parents – we were quite close to her side of the family. They came over from Sweden around 1900 and came over separately. My grandmother worked as a maid in Rhode Island. And the person she worked for decided after she’d been there for a few years that she should go home to Sweden to visit her family because she was homesick because she was quite young. She was in her early 20s back then.

And she came back to work for him in Chicago and on the boat back met my grandfather. And so he then worked his way across the United States to find her in Chicago and they got married and my mother and her brother were born in Chicago and grew up there. And as I say we were close to them. We visited them and my cousins quite a lot. We had, I think my sister and I had a fairly average childhood growing up, riding our bikes around Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, things like that.

I Was Always Quite Interested in Politics.

One of my first memories of politics is in 1952 we got a TV and I remember watching the conventions on TV. My parents were big Stevenson fans and so I remember Dorothy Vannevar Bush reading the roll call of the states at the Democratic National Convention. And then in 56, I was in fifth grade and I tried to organize my classmates in Wauwatosa to be for Stevenson. We had a mock election in which we had 34 votes in our fifth grade class and two of them were for Stevenson – one of which was mine and the other person never told me who they were – so upset.

But my father because of his past political involvement, I think, was kind of nervous working for the federal government back then, because Joe McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin. And they never said much about it but I certainly got the feeling that there was something happening there.

In 1960 I Got Totally Enamored of JFK.

And my mother took me to a JFK rally in Milwaukee. It was so exciting and I was so thrilled when he won. And all of my little friends – you know at that point I guess we were in ninth grade – were all for Eisenhower. And I finally won one. So that was sort of my introduction to politics and then I guess the other thing in 1963 this friend of mine – Karen – gave me the Feminine Mystique for a birthday present right after it was published.

And I read it and I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread because I was very into being a scientist and had been since I was very little and always got a little pat on the head. Sort of – isn’t that cute – she’ll learn when she grows up, kind of attitude. So the idea from the book that women could be something – do something – was pretty exciting.

I Went Off to College – Got involved in The Young Democrats.

Studied science – got involved in the anti-Vietnam War protests. And all the rest is history as they say.

MC: So feminism affected you very early in your life. Was your mother particularly interested in feminism or did you get any impressions from her about life as a woman?

CR: Well to some extent yes. I don’t know if she would have called herself a feminist per se but she and my father also were very insistent that my sister and I go to college – get an education. They were very supportive of my going into science and I think it’s because – I mean at least part of it is – that she was 17 when the depression hit and she was able to go to two years of college and get an associate’s degree.

But my grandfather decided at that point that he didn’t have enough money to send both her and her brother to college. And so she wound up going to work basically as a secretary during the Depression where her brother went to college and law school and became a big corporate lawyer. And so I don’t ever get the sense that she was resentful, but I think she didn’t want that to be what happened to my sister and me.

And my parents were both quite liberal certainly by Wauwatosa standards, which was a very conservative suburb at that point. And so they both were very in favor of education and equal rights and things like that. So I certainly felt support, which I didn’t get in school. I mean in high school there are a couple things that I really remember as really making me mad. One was we had to go and talk to the guidance counselor about what college we wanted to go to.

The Guidance Counselor at Wauwatosa East Said – You Should Try River Falls State College – It Has a Good Home Economics Program.

And home-ec was one of the classes I got D in because I hated it so much – I was terrible at sewing. I thought this is just ridiculous. And then my senior year they gave  awards, you know, for different things and each year the president of the science club got the science award, except for the year that I was the president of the science club when they didn’t give out the award. And so all along there was this attitude of women don’t go into science and you know women just go to college to get a husband. And all of that was never particularly attractive to me as an outcome. So all of that sort of led into my feminism.

MC:  You were ready for the Women’s Movement to arrive. Without your parents, it sounds like it would have been a hard road to get there, so good for them.

CR: Yes.

MC:  So when did you get involved with what you would describe as the women’s movement?  As you said – 1968 – you’re at the prime time.

CR: Right. Yes. Well in college there were some – I mean there were anti-Vietnam War demonstrations but there were also some demonstrations about the rules for women. It was all on campus housing – things like that. And it was at a point when girls were in one set of dorms on the east side of campus or something and the boys were in the set on the other side of campus. And the boys had pretty much freedom to do whatever they wanted.

The girls, if you were going to be out after something like seven o’clock you had to sign out; you had to be in the dorm by like 10 o’clock except for weekends. You had to have some kind of permission from your parents to go off campus up to the Twin Cities for example. And the other thing I remember was that we had to dress for some of the meals – like wear dresses or skirts and blouses. And so there was a demonstration at the president’s house against these rules and some of them did get changed while I was at Carleton. So this was Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. And then some of them got changed after I was there.

Sometime in the 70s I gather they had mixed dorms – things like that. So that was sort of my first introduction to some kind of women’s activism. I remember hearing about NOW being founded, which would have been in 66 while I was still in college. And I suspect at some point I sent in dues but I have no recollection of exactly when that might have been.

Introduction to the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. 

So then in 68 I moved to Chicago and I was going to graduate school at Northwestern in astrophysics. And at some point – I think in the fall of 68 I was at a demonstration and met a woman named Ellen Dubois who was a history professor – just retired at one of the California universities – I forget which one. And she invited me to a meeting of a women’s group. And so I went. And that later became – it was a consciousness raising group but it became a chapter of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. And so I got involved though that.

The other thing that I should put in here just for memory’s sake is – I did at some point in that fall write some paper about – I remember it had the phrase Capitalist Exploitation – American Imperialism and Patriarchal Oppression. So it was like the beginning also of my seeing issues as being interconnected. And one of the reasons I remember it was because that Christmas we were at my aunt and uncle’s house in Wilmette – a suburb of Chicago.

And my mother liked it and read it to my aunt. And my aunt – I couldn’t believe my mother did this – but my aunt turned to me and said – well Christine if you really believe these things then I want you out of my house. And my mother said – well if Christine goes then I go too.

MC: Amazing.

CR: Nobody was going to take my mother out of the Christmas picture you know – her brother would not let that happen. But I just – I couldn’t believe that she read this to my aunt. You know – it was very stunning. Anyway, so that was 68 and that was sort of the start of my being more formally involved in the women’s movement.

MC: And a little bit in the socialist movement?

CR:  Yes.

MC:  So your major organization at that time was the Chicago Liberation Union. You want to talk about it?

CR: Oh sure. Yes CWLU – Chicago Women’s Liberation Union was actually founded in 1969. So there were a number of different groups that were organized around Chicago that were sort of like consciousness raising groups, but also more political than a lot of the C.R. groups were at that point. And a number of the women had been involved in SDS – Students for Democratic Society – and had all too often simply gotten told to make the coffee and go away. They weren’t interested in talking politics with women.

And so Heather Booth and Sue Monikar, and Evi Goldfarb – I believe – wrote this paper called – something like “Port of women’s liberation movement,” and this was like late 68 or early 69 I think. I have a copy of it somewhere. And it proposed the idea that there needed to be a separate women’s movement. That SDS and the movements of the day were not friendly to women and there are a lot of other fairly awful examples of what went on.

And then following that – a number of women including Naomi Weisstein and Vivian Rothstein and seven or eight others – maybe more – signed a call to a conference to be held in Palatine, Illinois to form a women’s organization. And so that happened October 31st – that weekend -1969. Now I was not there because it was also the weekend of a big march on Washington against the war in Vietnam. And so it’s a question of which do you go to. I wound up going to Washington for the march here – now here – and then got involved in the Women’s Union more actively following that.

The Liberation School for Women 

One of the earliest projects of the Women’s Union was Liberation School for Women, which Vivian Rothstein started. And I joined the work group to set up classes. The way the Women’s Union was set up there were chapters which were sort of political discussion groups – affinity groups – CR groups – sort of a combination of those things, often geographically organized. And then there were work groups, which were groups that were based on projects.

And one of the earliest projects was this Liberation School and the model of the Liberation School was – What We Don’t Know – We Must Learn. What We Do Know – We Must Teach Each Other. And so we had a variety of classes ranging from auto mechanics to a fix-it class – to self-defense classes – to karate classes. And we had classes like political history of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and different trends in the U.S. women’s movement. And Marxism 101 kind of classes – all kinds of political stuff and pretty much everything in between.

And there we ran two to three sessions a year from 1970 until the Women’s Union disbanded in 77. And we had routinely 200 or more women in the classes – each session. And so that was probably the biggest outreach vehicle in terms of reaching out to women around Chicago. We also held them in different parts of the city. Rogers Park,  Lincoln Park, South West Side, Logan Square, South Side, Lakeview – all kinds of neighborhoods.

And then there were a variety of other work groups that were organized over the course of the union’s existence. At one point I remember going back through some lists and counting up something like 90 workgroups and chapters. And so there was the Work work group, which later became Direct Action for Rights and Employment – DARE. And they worked on workplace issues including the janitresses in Chicago, which was a very big case.

The janitresses who worked in city hall – women got paid substantially less than the janitors who were men and did exactly the same work. And so we – this is the Global we so to speak – got a call from one of the janitresses or a letter, saying can you help us?  And so we went down and Leon Despres who was a city council member at the time did a study and a couple other city council members were in on it and eventually got it set up so that the janitresses and the janitors got equal pay. So there was a huge victory.

Then there was Jane, which was not an official group of the Women’s Union, but Jane was the Abortion Counseling Service, which performed abortions on the order of 11,000 abortions before Roe v. Wade was handed down. And once the Women’s Union was formed, people would call up and ask for Jane and then we would put them in touch with the service. And that’s something that unfortunately now looks like we might wind up having to go back to because of the changing nature of the Supreme Court.

So I remember taking some of those calls and all it was – you knew that even tangentially you were doing something that was still illegal and at the same time there wasn’t anything else for most women. So that after Roe v. Wade [they] spun off the health evaluation and referral service or HERS, which did referrals to abortion clinics, which were then legal.

Womankind was the newspaper we published which had a range of articles – sort of like liberation school, but in print. The Action Committee for Decent Child Care, which worked with women in the loop who needed child care in order to be able to work at their jobs.

The Gay Movement Was Just Getting Started

And one of the groups after liberation school that I was involved in was a group that started out as The Gay Group and became The Lesbian Group and then became Blazing Star. And we started out in 1970. There was a citywide meeting that was jointly sponsored by the Women’s Union and by the Women’s Caucus of the Chicago Gay Alliance. Because of course the gay movement was also just getting started and there was some tension between the women’s movement not wanting to be too associated with the gay movement.

And at the same time gay women – which is what was the reference back then – [were] not feeling completely at home in a movement dominated by gay men. And so there was this meeting, which was the first gay meeting that I went to with some trepidation. It was held in a place called Wobbly Hall, which was up on the second floor of a building at Fullerton and Lincoln and Halsted I guess. And it was above the Seminary restaurant because it was near DePaul University Seminary.

I remember walking up the stairs and feeling very nervous about going to this meeting about gay stuff because I was gay but I wasn’t really totally out and very worried about it. And then it was sort of like – once I went to this meeting – then there was no going back, so to speak. And so we formed a gay group to kind of talk about gay rights issues within the context of women’s liberation and to bring together any gay women that were in the Women’s Union. And it was a relatively small group because there were a lot of people who really were very nervous about identifying as gay.

It Was Tough Back Then.

And even I remember a few years later there was an article in the Tribune that Eileen Willenberg who was another member of the group and I were interviewed for and we wanted them to use our first names. So then one of the things that happened was that language was in flux. So for example when the Women’s Union was formed – I don’t know that anybody much used the word feminist or certainly not sexism. And lesbians were called gay women because lesbian was something that was seen at that point as somehow derogatory.

But then as time went on words like sexism became more in vogue and lesbian became more important because people want an identity outside of the gay male culture so to speak. And so the name of the group changed and one of the things we did was we proposed that the political principles of the Women’s Union be modified to include lesbian and gay liberation, which they were. This was in 72 I think.

And then we wrote a position paper on lesbianism and socialist feminism. That was our attempt to put things in that context. And then there were a lot of debates in the Women’s Union about organizing and political principles and stuff. But one of the things that was always true to the people who were sort of at the core of the Women’s Union was that we wanted it to be an organization that actually did things – that it was not just a debating society. And so one of the things the lesbian group did was decided we can’t just talk about this.

So We Started Publishing a Little Newsletter. 

Which we took around to the lesbian bars of Chicago and handed out and talked to people. And at that point there were probably six or seven lesbian bars. And so we would take it around. We even went down to Cal City where The Patch, which was the oldest lesbian bar in the Chicago area, was. And so we went down there and took some of our Blazing Stars and got to see an Elvis impersonator show.

MC: That would be Calumet City, Indiana? [Illinois]

CR: Yes – I guess so. To be honest I don’t drive and so I rode along with somebody and it was down way south – much further south than I’d been – in terms of Chicago.

MC:  I interrupted you.

CR: So they were having a drag show there with Elvis impersonators – women. And so we got to see the show and we talked to people. Most of our work was up on the north side and there were a lot of lesbian bars up there and there was one really mixed bar  – His ‘n Hers that was owned by Marge Summit that was over by Wrigley Field … that I remember. But in any case we’d go to the bars – we’d pass out our newsletter, we’d talk to them.

I remember talking to one bartender at the Lost and Found which was over on California and Irving Park somewhere, the northwest side, and she was asking about you know what does it mean to be a socialist and I was saying well we’re for universal health care and this and that – and she said – well [that] doesn’t sound too bad. And I thought well you know she may never sign on the dotted line but you know she at least was somebody who was willing to talk to us.

MC: Take the labels off and write about the issues.

CR:  And then we particularly hung out at Augie’s, which was a popular bar, and we sort of played for the Augie’s softball team, because softball was very big in Chicago. I was a catcher. I was the third string catcher and I was very bad, but I liked baseball so and you know it was a great way to hang out and meet people. And we got some of the folks from the different bars to write articles for the newspaper.

We Got Involved in Work on the Ordinance to Protect Gay Rights in Chicago.

And the main group that was working on that was the Illinois Gay Taskforce, which eventually became the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I think it went through several different names but it was always the same group that was working on both the City Council and also state legislation, which in the 70s was unlikely to go anywhere.

And so I got a little bit involved in that as did some of the other folks. And then there was this incident in the mid 70s where these two women went down to try and get a marriage license at City Hall. Today that may seem like really all very militant exciting activism but at the time most people were appalled for a variety of reasons. Partly because it was an extremely unwell thought out activity that didn’t have any organizational support and one of the women was already married to a man.

So even now they couldn’t have gotten a marriage license. But it was also seen as something that was detrimental to both the gay rights movement of the day and also the women’s rights movement.

NOW Denounced It.

As did the task force denounce it and it created this big flurry of back and forth because some of the lesbian feminists were upset that these groups who were not lesbian feminists could criticize these so-called lesbian feminists who weren’t really lesbian feminists anyway. So there was this whole mishagotz.

And out of this grew the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago, which was a coalition of a range of different organizations from the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force – to NOW – to the Women’s Union – to different bars like His ‘n Hers that I mentioned and the various religious gay groups.

And we usually met – and this is one thing that shows some of the breadth of the Coalition – at the Baton Lounge – which was the big drag bar. And one of the reasons we met there was it was big and it had a stage where the officers sat to run the meetings. And Jim Flint, who was the owner, let us have it for free and participate in the coalition.

And then one of the other people who were active in the coalition was Chuck Renslow who owned the big leather bars in Chicago. And he used to take us around after the meetings to the Gold Coast and some of the other bars that he owned and it was quite educational from my point of view.

But it was really a very broad based coalition. And one of the things that it then got involved in was – this was around the time when Anita Bryant was coming on the scene and had her big anti-gay crusade in Dade County and then in Kansas City I think, and Eugene and several other places. And so the Coalition got buttons. The buttons said something like – Stop Anita Bryant and it had an orange in it with a circle and a line through it. And then there was a march because she was speaking somewhere in Chicago. And so there was a march to protest her speaking. And so there was a lot of activity around all of that. So that was sort of getting into the late 70s I think.

And then we – trying to think – so those I guess are the main things related to Blazing Star directly. I was co-chair at one point of the Illinois gay and lesbian rights task force. And also co-chair of the gay and lesbian coalition for I think most of its life. And then back to the women’s union – that disbanded in 1977 largely because of the attacks of sectarians.

Every alphabet soup of sectarian groups decided that the women’s union was the place to go and try and recruit members and tell us what the correct line was; so we had the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialists and the Revolution Communist Party and the Communist Party Marxist Leninist and the Communist Worker’s Party. You know everybody and their cousin.

MC:  Which was what the left was going through at that point – [in] parallel.

There Were So Many Groups.

CR: Yes, right. And right after SDS split, there were a whole series of other splits into these smaller and smaller little groups. Some of whom define themselves as Trotskyist, some as Marxist Leninist. None of them, I would say, really having any concept of what any of those things meant except that the Trotskyists were what we would now call Entryists who were coming into the organization – entering the organization – to try and peel off members. And the Marxist Leninists were coming in – in order to tell us how we were wrong and what the correct line was.

And in particular mostly they were quite homophobic. And the last of these groups was the Communist Worker’s Party, which was known initially as Workers Viewpoint, which was another little split off and one of the things that I think was a mistake that we made was we tried to debate with these folks and they were true believers. They were more religious than political in what they were talking about. And so we tried to debate them. 

There Is No Debating True Believers.

But we spent a lot of time and energy doing it. And finally we had this big citywide meeting. Like a hundred members of the Women’s Union [were] there – [there] was a panel of about six or seven people which included a number of groups. While we had divergent opinions [we] still could have worked together and have been working together on a lot of things.

So there was a group called the Brazen Hussey’s and I forget if they were the group that was around at the end, but it was sort of maybe a little more mainstream than some of us who were from the sort of outreach end of things. And there were the service people like working on HERS.

And then there were a few that were a little more left oriented like the Prison Project and so on. So there was a range of opinions. But then there were two women who wrote a paper called Two Lines of the Women’s Movement, which was a line of everybody in the Women’s Union, and their line, which is the correct line.

And then there was the Asian Women’s Group, which was a group that was really a worker’s viewpoint -The Communist worker’s party that had been organized by this Asian guy who was an offshoot of one of these offshoots of offshoots. So we had this citywide meeting we had a vote. The vote was 95 to 5 in favor of one of the more reasonable positions. But everybody was so fried by the whole thing that six months later we voted to disband because there was not enough energy to carry on. 

MC:  Were kind of more mainstream people or progressive mainstream people kind of driven out – exhausted by the fight? 

An Assault on Each of the Women’s Unions.

CR: That’s right. That’s right. Now the other thing I should mention – this is jumping back a little bit – but in 1975 and actually probably starting in 74 there was a group called New American Movement, which was another offshoot of SDS, but it defined itself as socialist feminist. And it was a group that in some respects was fairly close to CWLU in political perspective. And they had a chapter in North Carolina called the Charlotte Perkins Gilman chapter that was particularly feminist oriented and then a group in Dayton that was primarily feminist oriented. And they called for a conference – a national conference – on socialist feminism.

And at that point in addition to the Women’s Union in Chicago there were 8 or 10 other women’s unions sort of based on the Chicago experience – that model. And they decided to participate in this conference. And the conference was held in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The weekend of July 4th 1975 – that’s right. And there was a steering committee with representatives from different groups who planned the conference and expected maybe 200 people to come. And depending on who you talk to somewhere between 1000 and 2000 people turned up in Yellow Springs.

And there were some of the sessions – it was at Antioch College and there weren’t halls at the college big enough to hold sessions. And so they were held outside on lawns. And if you look on the web I have found very little on that conference. All of the papers are Wright State and State in Dayton, Ohio. So it’s something that is worth checking out.

So the reason why that popped into my mind is that one of the things that happened there was that some of these Marxist Leninist did get together there and there was basically an assault on each of the women’s unions so that from the mid 70s with this gigantic conference of socialist feminists to 77- 78 essentially all of those groups disappeared. 

MC: So it was both a great victory to pull that many people together and the seeds of destruction were sown there.

CR: Right.

MC: That’s amazing.

CR: I look back and I’m not sure what we could have done differently except to say that you have to learn to recognize sectarians and realize that there’s no debating with them and just do your work and not let them distract you.

MC: And keep including your own people with similar interests like yourself. You get paralyzed and all the energy goes into them and that dispute.

CR: That’s right. Right. That’s true.

MC: And none into building the organization. So that was disappointing but a very interesting piece of our history. So from there you became involved?

The ERA Campaign in Illinois Was Heating Up.

CR: I became involved in – this is a little bit of backstory here. Blazing Star, when the women’s union disbanded was still involved in publishing our newspaper and actually did publish it for another three or four years after that and wanted to keep together as a group. And we talked about as a group – would we try and join NOW or would we try to join New American Movement? Well it wound up as a group we joined New American Movement and became a lesbian chapter of NAM and then some of us also got involved in NOW – in Chicago NOW – sort of individually, particularly because at that point the ERA campaign was heating up.

And in looking back at some of the old women’s union newsletters and at the Blazing Stars, we had articles about – sign up to go to Springfield, Illinois to try and get legislators on the right path and so on. And so I did some volunteer stuff at various points for NOW which is where I met – my partner and wife who was on the staff of Chicago NOW and where I met Mary Jean and many other people.

And so there were these of two arms that I sort of veered into. And I think other people did too. I suspect that a lot of Women’s Union people did at least join NOW and maybe became somewhat active. Some people joined NAM – became active there. And then on the NAM side we participated in a socialist feminist commission, I think we called it at that point, which was a national commission to try and develop ideas on socialist feminism within NAM and we continued our work on organizing lesbian community.

I Wrote for Gay Life, Which Was One of the Newspapers of the Time.

They had a view from the right, which this gay Republican guy wrote. And a view from the left, which I wrote. Usually we were on the same topic and it was – unlike these days –  fairly collegial. You know we disagreed on almost everything with the possible exception of smoking. I don’t think either of us was big in the smoking book. So I was involved in a lot of that.

And then, as I say, I remember at some point going down there and doing phone banking for something. It might have been for some abortion rights thing, because I remember meeting Judy and she getting me set up to do phone banking – where there’s a certain irony so far as she can’t stand calling people on the phone.

MC: And that was her job.

CR: Yes. So. And then I got to know you in what – 82?

MC:  82.

CR:  You ran for … Vice President of NOW and got elected and offered me a job here in Washington D.C. as the lesbian rights staff person.

MC: That’s correct.

CR: And I waffled back and forth several times, because leaving Chicago was very hard to do.

MC: I know what you mean. 

Chris Riddiough Goes to Washington. 

CR: And at the same time I was actually looking for a job and I had done some interviews to see about getting computer jobs, because I knew computer programming. And the interviews were so boring I didn’t think I could stand to do the job. So I wound up moving to Washington in 83 and worked for NOW for a couple of years working on lesbian rights. And it was interesting. And it was a very in some ways exciting period.

And it was in some ways a very exciting time. Also in some ways a negative time politically, because in 1980 Ronald Reagan had gotten elected president. The United States starting a sort of slippery slope or maybe continuing Nixon’s slippery slope. And also in 82 the ERA failed in Illinois.

MC: And everywhere.

CR:  And everywhere yes. And so I think with NOW, since the ERA had been the primary focus there was a need for some other direction. And so it was very challenging. And so with NOW, Mary Jean, I know [you] had a number of staff working on different issues. And so I was responsible for the work on lesbian rights. And we wound up doing a number of things. Part of it was being in Washington – you get wrapped up in a lot of the coalitions that are here.

And so I represented NOW at some of the coalitions of gay organizations like Human Rights Campaign and what was then the national and Lesbian Task Force and some of the other groups that were working on federal legislation which was the anti-discrimination law, which is I think now recently called NDA. But I’m not sure what the name was at the time. But it was basically that law and we got involved in that.

And we also were going to try and develop a model where we would work with state NOW organizations to develop gay and lesbian rights legislation at the state level and we selected New Jersey as the first state. And Rosemary Dempsey was the staffer that was hired there to set this up. Carol York was the volunteer leader in NOW. And so I went up there a number of times to meet with them and work with them and see what national NOW could provide in the way of support.

Theoretically I Think It Was a Good Strategy.

It was of course not the ideal time to be trying to put forward gay rights legislation because one of the things that was just starting to become known was AIDS. I think sort of the earliest reports were in 83. I think we wound up through the coalition work in Washington being involved in some of the initial work around AIDS. And then in 84 we planned a lesbian rights conference in Milwaukee Wisconsin in January, which everybody loved because Milwaukee is the place to go in January.

But it was fitting to hold it there because Wisconsin was the first state to enact any kind of gay rights legislation. And in fact if you look at the history of gay and lesbian rights efforts, some of the most important victories have been in the Midwest. You have the Wisconsin legislation. You have some of the earliest – actually the earliest openly lesbian elected official was Kathy Kozachenko in Ann Arbor Michigan. And then you have Allan Spear and Karen Clark in Minnesota.

Karen is I think leaving office this year and was the longest serving openly gay legislator I think in the history of the United States. And then Illinois, surprisingly enough, was the first state to repeal its sodomy law, which barred gay sex. So that was in the early 60s actually. So the conference in Milwaukee in particular because Wisconsin was the first state to pass any kind of gay rights legislation was appropriate.

MC: And we could mention David Clarenbach.

CR: Yes – who was the chief sponsor of that legislation in Wisconsin. And so that was an exciting milestone and I think may have been one of the first lesbian conferences – lesbian rights conferences held in the United States. There were some like daughters of Lolita’s Halcón in the 60s and 70s maybe, but this was, I think, the first one that was really politically focused in a way – certainly the first one organized by NOW.

Then in 84,  the other thing that everybody got excited about was for Ferraro’s nomination for vice president – probably the second year of the woman after Shirley Chisholm in 1972; and then later in 1992 after Clarence Thomas was nominated; and we can hope there is one this year, with a nomination and confirmation of Kavanaugh.

In Terms of NOW There Was a Lot of Activity Going on Around Lesbian Rights.

And I think it was sort of a sea change for NOW in a way. Because even though contrary to what some people might have said at the time – there actually were probably a fair number of lesbians in NOW. But it was not something that was necessarily heralded by the leadership of NOW and so this marked a real change in terms of taking ownership of that issue as part of a women’s rights agenda.

So the other thing that I got involved in – well I should talk about the NOW stuff. In 85, Mary Jean left office unfortunately and Judy Goldsmith left office and so I was out looking for work once again. And so one of the things that I had gotten involved with when I was working for NOW was local D.C. lesbian and gay politics.

MC: You may want to mention you were able to persuade Ms. Nedrow to join you in Washington.

CR: Yes. And ironically right before I moved to Washington I got involved with Judy Nedrow. And so we had gone out a few times – gotten together and so then I moved out in February of 83 and Judy came out and visited the first weekend of March. And then we went back and forth between Chicago and D.C. over the course of the next about nine months and in December she moved out here.

Judy actually also got a job at NOW. Eventually went back to her first – I don’t know if I’d call it her first love, but her first vocation, which was editing and worked for 30 years for the American Society for Microbiology as the editor, ultimately the production editor of The Journal of Virology supporting me and my endless look for work in the nonprofit world. Over the course of the next 15 – 16 years I worked at a number of nonprofits, which unfortunately don’t have great records in terms of paying people.

MC:  Or benefits.

CR:  Or benefits. Judy was able to and willing to, luckily for me, pick up the slack. And one of the things that I got involved in that I led Judy to, much to her consternation I think, was the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, because I’d been involved in local stuff in Chicago. And local stuff in D.C. is very different, because of course D.C. is still a colony. I had someone from NOW call me up at some point to ask about the judges in D.C. and who appointed them and I said well President of the United States. And she said no – no I mean the local judge is the president of the United States.

We Have No Control.

So I won’t go into much of a rant about D.C. statehood, but local politics is shaped by the federal government here. And so in 1985 as I was leaving NOW, I became president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, which was a local gay Democrat club and which held a pretty high standing in local politics. And one of the first things I remember doing as president was going to the city council with Jim Graham, who at that point was head of the Whitman Walker Clinic and asking for money for AIDS funding. And this was quite early on and we asked for something on the order of a couple hundred thousand dollars, which seemed like a tremendous sum.

But the city council agreed and added it to the budget. And so a lot of the work that I did at Stein was related to AIDS funding. That was the big issue at that point when I was president. I was president from 85 to about 87 I think. And I think the only other person who has been president for three years was Richard Molsby who was the first president. So I tied his record.

So the other thing – one of the coalition groups that we had worked with when I was at NOW was the National Association of gay and lesbian Democratic clubs, which Tom Fullton ran and Stein was a member of the National Association. And so in 85 as I was leaving NOW, Tom and [I] started talking to various openly gay and lesbian elected officials about having a national conference. 

It Was an Exciting Time

And so in the fall or early winter of 85 we held the first West Hollywood conference of openly gay and lesbian elected appointed officials. And as I was leaving NOW, [I]  worked on their conference as a part time staff working with Tom. And that conference included, among other people, Barney Frank who has just recently come out.

It included Chris Smith, who later became Minister of Culture in the Labor Government in England – one of the first openly gay elected officials in UK. It also included Tammy Baldwin, who at the time was a member of the Dane County Wisconsin board of supervisors and now is the first openly gay member of the United States Senate and is up for election this year and hope she wins.

And so that was very exciting. There have been other conferences since then and actually I think that conference ultimately spun off into a couple of things. One is the Victory Fund which is now something like a PAC – I’m not sure their official status, but they support openly gay and lesbian and at this point trans and bi candidates for office and also Stonewall Democrats sort of came out of some of this ultimately too. There were various formations of gay and lesbian democrats and Stonewall Democrats – I think is the current version.

In some ways that all was very exciting, because it was a point at which the gay movement was still – it’s almost like it was still a movement. And it hadn’t become corporatized in the way that in some senses it is now. And there was this enthusiasm of some stuff that we prepared for that conference [that] showed a little bit of the history of the lesbian and gay rights movement up to that point and who were the elected officials in various places – things like that.

And of course it was also coming off several years after the assassination of Harvey Milk. So there was a lot going on in terms of electoral politics around then. So then for a while I was the national director for the gay and lesbian Democrats of America – another nonpaying movement job.

And Then I Got a Job with a Magazine Called Nuclear Times.

I wrote mainly about nuclear weapons issues. And I was there for maybe a year or so and then I got a job for several years at the Union of Concerned Scientists, trying to organize scientists. They mainly started it as anti nuclear weapons. They developed an area of work around nuclear energy – opposition to nuclear energy. And then I came in when they were developing a program around climate change and worked on some of that and some of the energy related issues connected to that. The other thing that happened was I was leaving Stein.

Stein had been a big supporter of Marion Barry for mayor for many years and we endorsed him when I was president. People now may say – why ever. But back in the day, Marion Barry was one of the first big supporters of lesbian and gay rights in the district. And one of the reasons why Stein was able to get as much done as it did was because he was supportive of this.

And so as the AIDS work developed with Stein – the other thing that was starting to come up at that point was talked about as domestic partner legislation as a sort of a precursor to marriage for gay people. And Marion appointed a commission to look into this that Judy Nedrow was the Chair of. And I was the chair of the coalition that was the organization of groups that was supporting domestic partnership. So when I was president of Stein, we endorsed Marion Barry for mayor of District of Columbia because Marion had been a strong supporter and advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

And one of the things that he did in the 90s was appoint a commission to look into domestic partnership. And Stein had encouraged him to do this, because this was sort of the next item on the agenda. AIDS was still number one, but domestic partner issues were next in line and were seen as a precursor to marriage. And so Judy Nedrow, my partner, now wife, was the chair of the commission, which was supposed to bring back a report with recommendations on domestic partnerships.

After Leaving yhe Stein Presidency, I Became Chair of the Coalition.

There was a coalition of groups supporting this. The commission came back with a report and recommendations and eventually in the 2000s – I forget exactly when it was – a domestic partner law was passed in D.C. That was superseded later on when the Supreme Court overruled the anti marriage on DOMA act. So this was another issue that I worked on in that period of time.

Now the other thing that happened – was the mayor also gets to appoint people to various commissions and committees and one of the commissions that he can appoint people to was the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which was one that [you] got paid for. Not all of them are. And so I got an appointment to the ABC board. It was probably in 89 or 90. I forgot exactly when, but I was on it for three or four years and then things happened with Marion. He got arrested and wasn’t real liked then and so that all changed. 

Needing a Progressive Agenda

And I left UCS and started to work as political director of Democratic Socialists of America. I had mentioned awhile back that I was in the American Movement starting about 1978 and in 1982. NAM merged with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which was Michael Harrington’s group. [That’s] sort of the way it’s identified – there were other members of course. And so I was a charter member of what became DSA – Democratic Socialist America and I was on their national political committee off and on in the 80s and 90s.

And in the mid 90s I became political director working for DSA in Washington D.C. and trying to make connections with some of the other groups that had a progressive agenda. And so one of the groups that we worked with was the Institute for Policy Studies. And Karen Dolan of IPS had put together a Fair Agenda kind of platform that she was working to get a number of groups to sign onto and was also working with a Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And so we worked with the IPS project and with the Progressive Caucus in Congress and we also worked on a number of issues related to International Monetary Fund and World Bank and there are problematic positions in regard to how to fund developing countries. One of the big issues back then and I suspect still is – is the debt that’s racked up by third world countries. And so we worked a lot on that along with climate, which was also an international issue.

So there was an international orientation to some of us, but there was also a lot of concern about the Clinton administration. For example its position on welfare rights and TANF which was a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Coalition in DSA thought that this was going in the wrong direction – that we in fact needed more progressive policies and that moving to the center simply shifted the center to the right.

Not to say I told you so – but I suspect we were correct in that and that the center has moved way to the right on many of these issues. Unfortunately [it] was also a time period in which, while a lot of groups doing a lot of important work, it was also work that wasn’t necessarily real sustainable.

The Next Step

So I wound up in 1998 deciding I needed to get a job that actually paid me a salary and maybe some retirement at some form or I’d be living in a refrigerator box in my old age. That was where things were going. I took some courses on computer programming, because way back when I was in graduate school I was studying astrophysics – I’d gotten a masters degree in astrophysics and I had been admitted as candidacy for my Ph.D. in astrophysics – never finished my thesis, but I learned computer programming.

I spent eight years in the 70s doing computer programming and research on public health and occupational and environmental health issues. A little bit of bio stats and epidemiology sort of thrown in the mix and so I thought there is still computers out there, let me go back and see if I can pick some of this up. I took some courses at Strayer to beef up my programming skills, which were out of date.

And then I got involved in this program at the University of the District of Columbia, which was aimed at trying to provide residents of D.C. with skills to get into the computer tech industry. And supposedly it was going to be set up so that it was over six or eight week period – I forget how long.

The Mornings were Spent Learning Some Aspect of Computer Programming.

And the afternoons were to be spent getting career counseling. Sounds good. The problem [was] they have two tracks in terms of computer programming. One was an Oracle database programming and one was Visual Basic. So I was in the Oracle segment of this. And the people came into it who were all very bright but unlike me didn’t have any experience with computers. I mean literally didn’t know anything about programming.

Even though my skills were way out of date, I knew about computers and I knew what the deal was. I wound up basically running a study section for people to teach them a little bit more than was available in the class. Plus they didn’t get any computer counseling. And so I think most of them never wound up getting jobs. It was a program that actually if it had been set up correctly would have been potentially really good. But it wasn’t.

But because I had those initial skills coming in and because I wound up doing this studies thing – the guy who taught the official Oracle segment of the program said, We have an opening at Montgomery College. Would you like to teach a section there on Oracle? And I said, Sure. So I spent probably a year teaching different Oracle programming courses up in Germantown and then I decided I needed to look around for something that was more full time – that this was great as far as it went.

And so I answered some ads in the paper – I remember four ads – and got responses back from every last one of them to ask me to do an interview. I think I got a call back on each of them to do like a second round and then I got offers on two of them. Now they say you never get anything from newspaper ads. I did. And one of them was at SAS where I’m currently working which is statistical analysis software.

It’s officially the SAS Institute. And it was started in the 70s at North Carolina State by a couple of guys who needed a computer program that could analyze large amounts of agricultural data. And so I didn’t know anything about SAS, but I looked it up and I did a few little online things and had a phone interview and then they asked me in to give a presentation. And they said it doesn’t have to be an SAS – can be whatever you want. So I came in with my oracle PowerPoint and gave them the presentation and they hired me.

And as I say I got two offers – the other one involved management and I decided I’d done some management [and] did not want to do it. And so I took the SAS job and it’s been great. They’re one of the best companies to work for. If all companies operated like this then you know…

MC: Capitalism can survive.

CR: Right. Unfortunately most of them don’t work like that by any means.

In Some Ways I Took a Little Break From Politics.

I consistently vote, but over the last six or seven years I have gotten back involved. Initially Peg Strobel who was on the DSA national political committee asked me to write some stuff for the blog. She’s now living in California, but she was in Illinois. She was professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and women’s studies chair of the women’s studies department there. And so she was coordinating the Socialist Feminist Working Group, which traces its history back to the socialist feminist commission in NAM.

And so she said – would you be interested in writing some stuff? I’ve always liked writing and I write reasonably well. I’ve written for some magazines. I’ve dug out one that I’d totally forgotten about called I Know You Know, which was a lesbian publication in the early 80s that I’d written some stuff for. I started writing some blog posts and got a little bit more involved in the socialist feminist working group and started up the Queer Socialist Working group a couple of years ago.

DSA is set up so that it has these working groups that are national in scope that focus on particular constituencies or issues. And these days it’s much easier to do that, what with zoom and free conference call and things like that, so that you can network with people from all different parts of the country without having to meet somewhere, which is really nice. So I got involved with that. 

Time to Get More Young People Involved

I met Marie Svart, who is the national director of DSA and has been for seven or eight years. And then I got invited to a Youth Section Conference, not because of my usefulness, but because they wanted to do some workshops on sort of intergenerational organizing. And so I got to meet some of the younger people who – this would have been in 2015 maybe or 2016 that were starting to come into DSA, because when I left as political director the peak of membership had been when Michael Lighty was National Director in the early 90s that was about 10,000 members. And at the point at which I left, it probably dipped down to 8,000, going down to maybe 6,000 by the 2000s.

And then the National Committee, which was part of – voted in 2015 to support Bernie [Sanders] for president and decided to that this was a place where DSA could reach out to young people, because the average age of DSH members at that point was something like 68. And it was probably the smartest move that DSA has made during forever. And people started literally streaming into DSA.

It went from about 6,000 in 2015 to probably 15 or 20,000 in 2016. And now it’s 50,000. And the numbers are growing. And so in the process, I also got talked into running once again for the National Political Committee of DSA. And that convention where the election was held was in 2017 in Chicago – at the University of Illinois in Chicago and it was the largest DSA convention ever. Like 800 people. Carlos Rosso spoke as a city council member from my old neighborhood around Logan Square Chicago – Hispanic Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage; openly gay, very dynamic he’s a young man who is clearly going places – but sort of aside from this interview.

But it was a very exciting conference, because in the course of going from 2015 to 2017 the average age in DSA had gone from 68 to about 30 – 35.

There are Now a Tremendous Number of Young People in the Organization.

42 people ran for 16 slots on the national political committee – something which is rare. You know occasionally they’ll be a little bit of a contest. I have been working on that for the last – little over a year. And it’s interesting. There are a lot of young people who have relatively little experience in politics or in organizations. And that can be a challenge. But I also try and think back to what I’ve been talking about here, which is when I was 22, I didn’t know anything about politics or organizations and I just learned.

And so there’s some exciting stuff going on. DSA was involved in the Kavanaugh stuff. I went out – got arrested [at] one of the demonstrations. It’s also involved in some of the Medicare for All stuff. Involved in electoral politics. One of the really exciting things is – well hopefully soon to be election of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in New York and Rashida Tiaib in Detroit they’ll be two DSA members who are part of the House of Representatives.

MC: How [do] you see the socialist feminists in your current work with DSA? Do you see echoes of the socialist feminist work of the past?

CR: Oh absolutely. On one of the things – I just wrote an article for Democratic Left, which is the publication of DSA, which will need to be finalized after the election – but it was about how DSA in this election cycle has endorsed half women. Half of the endorsees at the national level are women and many of the endorsees at the local level are women.

This is an Important Strategy, Because We Need Not Only Women in the House and in the Senate, but We Need Progressive Women.

And so Alexandria and Rashida are two of those very progressive women. And I think that it goes even more strongly at the local level. Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Alexandria and Rashida in the House are not going to change America. But a hundred or thousand of them in the state legislatures and the City Council are. So that’s one thing. Another thing – Medicare for All has been one of the priority issues and I think we’ve tried to do some educational work and activist work to make sure for example that universal health care includes women and includes reproductive rights – reproductive justice.

We had a program last spring on women in healthcare that also talked about women being the primary not only receivers of health care, but givers of health care. If you look at these days even the doctors are 50 percent women and the nurses are 90% women and you know home health care workers and social workers. And so universal health care needs to have that socialist feminist frame. And I think that that’s something that in DSA we need to develop more fully – but I think it’s there.

MC: So you have gone through a lot of history. So I don’t know whether you want to single out anything, but what would you consider your major accomplishments if you want to even do it that way, because there are so many you’ve already talked about. But are there things that you want to pull out, that you want people to know about, or that you know are very important to you?

CR: Well I think one of the things that I would say is important is in my involvement in lesbian and gay activities over the years – that I know those first tentative steps I mentioned up to Wobbly Hall for that meeting in 1970 were followed by increasing activism. And that I think is important.

It’s Important to Have a Sense of History.

Because what seems now pretty commonplace in terms of people being out and open in workplaces and their families, 40-45 years ago was just not done. People didn’t want their names out there in any way shape or form. And so the work that I and others did at the local level in Chicago and in other places around the country is very important. That kind of thing is what made it possible for people to be open now. So that’s one thing I would say.

The other thing – well one of the other things I would say is that this socialist feminist perspective is very important. I think one of the things that is really important to me is to understand the connections between all of these issues. The Women’s Union – the political principles start out saying women’s liberation is a revolutionary struggle.

Women’s Liberation Will Not Be Achieved Until All People Are Free.

Women’s liberation is essential to the liberation of all oppressed people and that sense of interconnection is absolutely vital; that we cannot separate out what’s going on today with the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – and what they’re doing to children -from Brett Kavanaugh getting confirmed to the Supreme Court; from Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Jason King who murdered him was convicted in an extremely surprising decision.

Making an understanding that this is all part and parcel of a system that’s gone horribly wrong is critical. So you know it’s something that keeps me – trying as it might be at times – involved in DSA and working on these issues. And you know marching in the streets, getting arrested, painful as it is, literally as well as figuratively. Those are the things that I would like people to know about.

MJ: Anything else you would like to cover, Chris? That you would like to talk about?

CR:  Golly gee I’m looking at my paper here to see if there’s any information. Oh, I actually worked for All Americans for Democratic Action briefly and was on their board for a while – another bastion of liberalness that isn’t doing quite as well as DSA is these days. But who knows there may be other things that I’m – 

MJ:  Well I think it’s a full life – a full story.

CR: The one thing I should mention for people is – I have written some stuff along with Margaret Schmidt and others, and Estelle Carrol has got this website called CWLUherstory.org. And there’s a lot of material up there that anybody who’s doing research should definitely look at.

MJ: OK wonderful. Those are good suggestions and we’ll take your suggestions for other people to interview as well. And Veteran Feminists of America is very grateful for your participation in our Pioneer History Project. So thank you today and thank you for all of your work.

CR: Well thank you. It’s been great.

MJ: It has.