“It was a long time ago, but it was very important”, I said to my partner as I struggled to think what to say about my time at the New England Free Press. “Well, why not say that?” she replied. So there is my first sentence.
One of my early childhood memories is of reading about the Rosenberg trial and execution, at age eight or nine, on my hands and knees with the paper opened up on the living room floor. My family was not political in a progressive sense, but having a Roosevelt-era Democratic father and a Republican mother made for occasional contentiousness. I remember being one of only two votes for Stevenson in my second-grade class, not that I was very aware of who he was and what he stood for. We were the next to last family in my class to buy a television--not for the kids, but so my mother could watch the McCarthy hearings.
So there was definite political influence in my upbringing, which became more defined in my suburban Connecticut high school, when a teacher assigned daily readings of the New York Times, and encouraged us to express and support our opinions. A personal triumph of sorts occurred when I was pulled out of another class to debate one of his classes, where it turned out everyone in the class was Republican and they needed an opposing viewpoint.
Although I chose to major in the visual arts in college, my political interests continued to grow, and I joined and became quite active in SDS in my junior year. Shortly after that, I married a man who was the child of a WWII conscientious objector, and whose closest friend was the son of the founder of Highlander Center, a civil rights and community organizing training center in Tennessee.
So by early adulthood, my political leanings were firmly held, but as an artist I struggled to find a way to join the visual arts to my politics. Moving to Boston, my husband and I shared a house with people who were involved with the New England Free Press, and the more I talked with them, particularly the women, the more I came to feel that working as a printer in a politically aware workers’ cooperative was the answer.
I joined the Free Press in the early 70’s, and it was a perfect fit: I loved designing pamphlets, running and fixing the machines, learning the technical aspects of photography. All of the hands-on aspects of the Free Press were engaging, challenging, and usually fun, with the exception of the time I leaned in too closely to the rollers on the press and had a big chunk of my hair get caught by the sticky ink. Fortunately, someone heard me screaming and came and reversed the rollers to release me. My scalp was sore for days, but fortunately it remained attached to my skull.
Political discussions, especially around which pamphlets could be accepted, often got considerably heated, especially, I remember, around which pamphlets concerning womens’ issues were to be taken on for the Lit List. There was a fierce and feisty group of committed feminists at the Press, riding the wave of a growing women’s consciousness, who occasionally butted heads with the more old school leftist political advocates, who had a more pronounced class focused orientation.
The personal aspects of the job were equally interesting: mostly young people who shared a deep sense of purpose but were equally able to have fun and did not always take ourselves too seriously. I remember enjoyable trips to swimming holes in summer, a weekend in Wellfleet courtesy of Susanna Cobb, and the occasional picnic. Trash bag salad, a shared lunch where everyone brought an ingredient to shake up together in a trash bag (fortunately trash bags were unscented then) has become a staple of my culinary repertoire. When Dan, one of our colleagues, got into graduate school, our mechanic, Walter Delaney, promised him a lunch at the Ritz Carleton. He was a little nonplussed when the rest of us decided to come along to enjoy a setting and a meal that was far from our usual environment.
Although we knew how to have fun, we were intensely aware of the world just outside our door, which regularly entered in the form of jobs to be done: tenants’ rights pamphlets and posters, leaflets for demonstrations against the War in Vietnam, articles on labor history, and an increasing number of requests from the emerging gay rights community. A very substantial amount of our output was the book Our Bodies Our Selves, which flew off the shelves at reduced rates to women’s centers and other interested organizations, and became a hugely important source of information for women around the world as they began to explore issues of health care and sexuality.
We also provided, again at discount, informational material to incarcerated individuals, which were in heavy demand and much appreciated. I spent quite a bit of time reading letters from prisoners, packaging their requests, and responding when appropriate.
As well-educated, politically aware, young white people, we were full of confidence and a bit of a sense of invulnerability, yet the world had a way of reminding us that we too could be called to account. I remember being at the press one day when two men, who I can only describe as the grayest appearing humans I have ever seen, walk in the door. I thought “oh, FBI”, and left attending to them to whoever was at the desk at the time. We also took jobs from groups who were endangered for their political views in their own countries: Haitians during the Duvalier era, Chileans as Pinochet came to power, and Irish struggling against the British occupation of Northern Ireland.
A sizeable chunk of my time at the Press was taken up with our move from Tremont Street to Union Square, Somerville. The building had been sold to developers, who had secured funding on the grounds that they would turn the building into affordable artists’ housing for a certain number of years. We spent many months searching for a suitable new space, and finally settled on a two-floored ground level building in the heart of Union Square, which, interestingly enough, is still a printshop. The building we left in the South End is much changed. For anyone who wants to get a glimpse of the luxury condos, swimming pool, exercise room, and sheltered courtyard that once was 791 Tremont, I offer the following link: https://pianocraftguild.com/
The above gives a sense of the striking contrasts between that time and the present. Although I left the Free Press after three years to enter a masters’ program, and had a satisfying career as a public school art teacher, I have not lost my conviction that as an informed and politically committed citizen I can still help bring positive change into the world. With the current administration wielding power in so many alarming ways, this seems as important today as it did in the 1970’s.