My time at the NEFP was short, maybe one and a half to two years, around 1969–1970. I am bad at dates. When I left the Free Press I worked nights in a factory making frozen food cartons, using some of the printing press skills and the confidence around machinery that I learned at the Free Press.
At the Free Press I felt optimistic: Work hard, change will come. Lots of folks are working on it out there.
We were young, we were teaching ourselves skills, learning from each other. There was no internet to look up how to do stuff.
When I was growing up, printing, typesetting and book design were important topics at the supper table, as my parents had friends in the trade. So at the NEFP I was an enthusiastic learner. I think that Don McKelvey and Tim Morriarty taught me about running the presses. That the whole printing project depends on the fact that ink doesn’t mix with water appealed to me. Bob Millar showed me the darkroom and plate burning. Fascinating.
Inside the team and with the groups outside where we sat down to talk politics and raise consciousness, we turned our thoughts inside out. This kind of exchange led us to see that through cooperation we could get things done. Before I started at the Free Press I didn’t know about the extent and scope of issues confronting society. Some issues we talked over weren’t new to me, but many were eye-opening.
In my childhood the family had tangled with the rights of black kids to go to the same schools as white kids (I went to first grade in a recently integrated school in Princeton, New Jersey; my teacher was African American. But after moving to Virginia for second through fourth grade I saw the black kids walking to school in the opposite direction.)
The McCarthy hearings were topics at the dinner table. My grandfather supported peaceful coexistence between the Soviet Union and the USA. As a high school student at early peace marches against atomic weapons, I was thrilled to meet my grandfather there. The college students my brother Fox introduced me to showed me how to organize and motivate others by speaking to youth groups. Some of my college professors abandoned their lectures to march at Selma.
I learned here and there, gathering experience: from a summer vacation in Maryland teaching kids to read – plunging in without any skills; from the time McNamara supporters whacked me over the head with my own sign; and from organizing against the Vietnam War with my then-husband, Jim Wessner, as he confronted the draft system, refused induction and went to prison.
Then I met the Peacemakers in Cincinnati and helped put out their newsletter for pacifists seeking to rally others to the ideals of nonviolence, civil rights and tax resistance. I moved from being concerned about civil rights and war to thinking about upending the social order that was handicapping and repressing so many.
At the Free Press I found work that enabled many others to publicize their protests, strikes and marches. We published their ideas and ours, working to convince others and to get and keep the conversation going.
We kept the prices down to cost or below, and sometimes we printed for free.
We didn’t want to exploit others, but often forgot that we were exploiting ourselves. This worked as long as no one wanted to raise a family or needed time off, maybe have a vacation. With those hours and that pay, these things were a near impossibility – unless you had a partner with income or private wealth. That taught me a bit about reality, about the world out there that we were working to change. The Press lived from our idealism and commitment, but the world can’t.
The intense political discussions at the Free Press were new territory for me. Here I met debate, analysis and thought-provoking engagement with political theory. The preparation for literature committee meetings introduced me to labor history, workers’ strikes and unions, black liberation, economic analyses (especially Marxist and Maoist), political movements in other countries, countless streams of the developing women’s movement and much more. I could test my childhood dinner table conversations against theory and others’ experiences of direct action and organizing. I began to learn new methods of protesting and obtaining power.
I remember the earnestness and the concern of the folks bringing in their pamphlets and posters. I didn’t have to agree with each group or person we printed for, but found I respected the commotion their work was provoking.
The workers’ cooperative at the Free Press gave me a chance to try out in practice the ideas and ideals I was thinking about. Responsibility to one another, teamwork, sharing knowledge, whom do you trust, how do you staff and pay – these skills have been valuable resources in my later movement and organizing work.
At the NEFP I never felt marginalized as a woman. At the time I took what we were doing for granted; looking back I realize how exceptional it was.
At the same time, I was visiting my husband Jim in federal prison, meeting other draft resisters and their supporters, and learning about how the US prison system destroyed and repressed – and I had joined some of the many women’s groups active in the Boston area.
Friends and acquaintances, women I met at meetings and demonstrations and some in different consciousness-raising groups began to see the need for organization, direction and outreach.
The opportunity that the Free Press fostered to publicly discuss and exchange experiences, research and theories was crucial to our ability to address concerns and develop structures to build power for democratic and radical change. Women used this platform to discuss and disseminate a plethora of exciting steps and demands. New organizations grew.
In 1969 and ’70, women began to meet in larger groupings, and those with specific interests and issues began to form study and action groups. Twice these meetings took place at my parents’ house at 5 Berkeley Place, Cambridge, in the large first-floor rooms that opened into one another, enabling us to meet as a plenum or in small groups.
In chairing some of these meetings I gained early lessons in listening and ensuring that divergent viewpoints were heard. I learned how to structure the work so that groups with different issues could effectively develop strategies or do research. (Good folks, Betty and Lyman Butterfield, who in their quiet way supported the burgeoning political movements of those times.)
The Boston Women’s Health Collective and the women’s organization Bread and Roses emerged out of these meetings. The working groups had roots in Women’s Liberation, the antinuclear and antiwar movements, Marxist and Maoist groups and union work. Black Liberation was unfortunately underrepresented. Although some of us had begun our work for social change in the civil rights movement, we were predominantly white and had begun to focus on our own “issues.”
Bread and Roses planned a march for International Women’s Day on March 8th, 1970. (With Marilyn Slotkin and others, I crocheted dozens of red berets – an early predecessor of the pussy hats of 2017). Our march honored both the earlier fights for women’s rights and the union organizers whose slogan, “Give us bread but give us roses, too,” so clearly articulated working women’s demands.
Many of us had first heard about these older and ongoing struggles through the NEFP literature. Learning the roots, the demands, and what victories had been won, strengthened our resolve and helped us sort through issues to decide what to work on.
The most famous Free Press publication, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was planned partly at 5 Berkeley Place as the collective, one of several work groups sitting on my mother’s pastel-colored oriental rug. The first edition of that revolutionary book was 193 pages newsprint titled Women and Their Bodies: A Course.
We really wanted it to circulate widely and be used where literature was scarce and by organizations and people whose funds might not cover the usual costs of a book. On page 2, a blurb read:
THIS PAPER HAS BEEN LAID OUT SO THAT IT MAY BE USED AS IT IS – IN 4 BOUND BOOKLETS OR AS SEPARATE SHEETS IN A RING BINDER: FOR A NOTEBOOK PUNCH HOLES IN THE WIDE MARGINS AND SLIT THE BINDING THREAD AND THE BACK OF EACH BOOKLET WITH A RAZOR BLADE
(I remember that razor blades were an important tool for all kinds of things at the NEFP. But I am not anymore sure what all the uses were.)
Marilyn Slotkin and I developed the original cover and layout, working through the night, copying and pasting, using pictures that we had collected from demonstrations, conferences, literature we had read. We thought out captions and wrote them by hand: For an illustration of “The 4 most commonly used IUD’s,” we may even have made the graphics ourselves, and I hand-wrote the titles and explanations. We found a photo of women of different generations with the sign “Women Unite” and decided to put that on the cover, although we no longer knew when the picture had been taken. We lined it up by eye because we had no light table. We had no layout experience, no computer. We used rubber cement to place photos and I wrote the cover, the table of contents and page numbers by hand.
The page count (193) was more layout than we had planned for and in the middle of the night we ran out out of rubber cement. We went to a drug store, open late, to renew our supplies. It was after midnight and the clerk at the counter acted confused and embarrassed when we asked for rubber cement.
“What?” he asked.
“Rubber cement,” we said.
“Lady,” he said, “when they break, you can’t fix them.”
Long after the pamphlet became a big glossy book and the original was developed into new versions for different generations and topics, I met women everywhere who loved the book. In Cleveland a friend’s daughter told me that it was great to have a mother who gave her a copy; she was proud and would give it to her own daughter. And since living in Germany I have met women of many ages who first found it in their doctors’ offices or used it when counseling in cases of domestic violence. To think it was the product of the cooperation and hard work of many.
What nerve they all had to have, to seek answers to questions arising out of their own lives. At the beginning their resources were themselves. Talk about grassroots! A truly revolutionary book that arose out of a deep need and out of community, out of the kind of community women have always known how to build. I am sorry there will be no new printings.
Hester Butterfield, September 2018
For more about the organization Bread and Roses visit http://www.wbur.org/news/2017/01/20/boston-womens-march-history