Beginning in the late 1970s, a wave of feminist organizing broke on the shores of the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Its impact has transformed the lives of women and men in these communities and far beyond. In Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior, historian Elizabeth Ann Bartlett chronicles the vital history of the groups and individuals who put Duluth and Superior at the forefront of pioneering and innovative feminist organizing.
We asked Beth more about her book and what made the feminist community of the Twin Ports so special.
Join us on Tuesday, October 11, at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis as we celebrate the publication of Making Waves with Elizabeth Bartlett.
Why did you decide to write a book about the history of grassroots feminist organizations in Duluth and Superior?
In the fall of 2002, hundreds of local feminists gathered at the University of Wisconsin–Superior for “Making Women’s History Now: The State of Feminism in the Twin Ports,” a conference that brought together feminists from a variety of organizations and across generations to talk about the pressing issues facing the feminist community. In her keynote address that morning, longtime activist Tina Welsh, director of the Women’s Health Center, chronicled the early days of feminist organizing in Duluth, from the development of the first rape crisis center to the trials of establishing and sustaining an abortion clinic. In her afternoon keynote, Ellen Pence, well known for her work in the battered women’s movement, regaled the crowd with her humorous rendition of the early efforts of the battered women’s movement in Duluth to work with the criminal justice system to set up a coordinated community response to domestic violence. As Ellen began to tell her story, my friend and colleague Susana Pelayo-Woodward and I turned to each other and said, “We need to write these down!” The conference had reminded us of what we had always known—that we lived in an incredibly special and what we felt was quite a unique feminist community.
Duluth seems so remote to be such a hotbed of feminist organizing. What makes this feminist community and the organizations that developed here so special and unique?
The programs and policies developed by feminist organizations in the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, have been groundbreaking, and the sense of connection and community is inspiring. Duluth has been the home of some of the earliest, longest-lasting, and significant grassroots feminist organizations, many of which have grown to become national and international leaders in feminist activism, serving as models of feminist practice.
Perhaps the best-known examples of this are the “Duluth Model” and the “Power and Control Wheel,” a policy for and analysis of domestic abuse used widely throughout the United States and world. The Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) and Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center were among the first rape crisis centers and domestic abuse shelters in the country. Mending the Sacred Hoop was the first and continues to be the largest training and technical assistance provider on domestic assault to tribes throughout Indian Country. The Women’s Health Center is one of the few freestanding abortion clinics remaining in the United States, and is housed in the Building for Women, one of only three such women-owned buildings for women in the United States. New Moon Magazine, the first feminist magazine for girls, has achieved international recognition for its work on behalf of girls.
The Northcountry Women’s Coffeehouse was the longest continuously-running women’s coffeehouse in the country. Women in Construction, which trained and employed women in the building trades, was the first of its kind in the nation. The American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) created one of the first Native-specific shelters in the country, and its urban Indian center, Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, is a model for tribes around the country. This is truly a remarkable and vibrant community.
How did you go about collecting all the information for the history?
A few years after the conference, Susana and I invited our colleagues in Women’s Studies to join us in gathering these histories. Several of us collaborated in formulating the book – deciding on the organizations, interview questions, divvying up the work. We initially set out to interview key people at eighteen different feminist organizations, though this eventually narrowed to fifteen and then ten key organizations for the book. Most of us contributed by conducting interviews, though eventually I ended up doing most of the interviewing and writing the book. Overall, we interviewed about a hundred people, and several more than once. We also used materials from organizations’ archives and old news articles. This has been a fourteen-year odyssey from our decision to gather these histories at the conference that day to the publication of this book. It has been a long, but compelling, inspiring, exciting, and incredibly fun ride.
What’s the meaning of the title? Why Making Waves?
When I was trying to come up with the title for the book, I contacted all the UMD Women’s Studies alums on our Facebook page and asked them for suggestions. They were unanimous that the title had to include something about the lake – Lake Superior. Those of who live here know the immense power of the lake to inspire and renew and to connect us. Its spirit is undoubtedly at work in the feminist organizing here. So Making Waves refers to the wonder of Lake Superior. But Making Waves also connects with the way feminist history is referred to as a series of waves – with First Wave feminism happening in the 1800s, Second Wave in the 1960s-1990s, and Third and Fourth Wave representing the contemporary feminist movement. Finally, Making Waves refers to the movers and shakers in this community who joined together, spoke out, and organized to “make waves” — and created lasting and significant change.
What were some of the highlights of writing this book?
The best part of the journey has been interviewing the scores of women and men who were vital to the formation and ongoing thriving of these organizations. What an incredible privilege and honor it has been. I have been able to meet and often become friends with incredible women. They shared their stories with such grace, generosity, and openness. I could easily have spent hours listening to them. Many of the women I interviewed were friends and acquaintances, and this was a chance to learn more about them and, in many cases, to renew relationships. Even if I had not known the women I interviewed previously, these interviews usually felt like conversations between long-lost friends, and on many occasions I felt that by the end of our time, we had indeed become friends. Often, especially when sharing stories of those golden years of feminist organizing in Duluth, it was like being right back in the energy and excitement of those days. Even with people whom I had never met before, we shared a closeness and bonding in memories of that time.
I was consistently humbled by the openness and trust with which the women, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, shared their stories with me. I will always be grateful for this rare privilege.
Some of the most fun interviews I conducted were interviews I did with two or more people at once. Jody Anderson and Fran Kaliher and, in a separate interview, Deb Anderson and Dianna Hunter often finished each other’s sentences in telling me tales of the early days of the Coffeehouse. There was much laughter and good humor. The same was true when I met Marvella Davis and Babette Sandman as they shared their stories of the Women’s Action Group over coffee at Perkins. The way they lit up as they shared their memories of the Women’s Action Group and their evident love and affection for each other and for all the women in the group is one of my fondest moments. The way Patti Larsen and Janis Greene spoke together about Dabinoo’Igan inspired me with their deep commitment to their work, the women, and each other. I was invited to meet with the group of five feminist therapists who had had such an influence on the feminist community in Duluth, and who had continued to gather in their feminist support group once or twice a year for the past thirty-plus years. Their reflections together were tender and wise.
The most fun interview was my group interview with nine women who had worked for CAP [Community Action Program] weatherization. Many of them had not seen each other in years, and what fun it was to witness their reunion. Their fondness for each other was evident as they shared their stories. They clearly had empowered each other in significant ways during those years with CAP weatherization. They hugged and laughed and bounced their stories back and forth. They all had their stories of life-threatening times on ladders that they now recalled with humor. They had created a feminist solidarity when working together that had carried them through their lives.
It was also fascinating to pore over old documents, memos, letters, newsletters, meeting minutes, and newspaper articles. I am so grateful for those who took the time to collect these over the years. I could easily have spent hundreds more hours digging deeply into the treasures in archived material. It reminded me of my first archival work as a young graduate student thirty-five years earlier. My journey seeking out the histories of feminism has come full circle, from my early adventures combing through nineteenth-century archives of some of the earliest feminist thinkers and activists in the United States to those of the present day.
Doing this work has connected me to this community in a whole new way. I am honored to be their storyteller. I love this community. They have enriched my life in countless ways. It is a great honor, privilege, and joy to share their story with the world.
What is your own place in this story?
I moved to Duluth in 1980 at an amazing time, just when so many of these organizations were beginning and feminist energy here was so high. My first couple of years in Duluth were everything I had dreamed of. I trained to be a consciousness-raising facilitator with NOW and led CR groups with Joyce Benson. I was part of the early years of the creation of the displaced homemaker program, Project SOAR, and the political organizing of the Greater Minnesota Women’s Alliance. All the while, I was working with the group developing the Women’s Studies minor, and taught the first Introduction to Women’s Studies class at UMD. I was marching, organizing, researching, teaching – living and breathing feminism. It was a heady time – full of excitement and energy and enthusiasm. Duluth was coming into its feminist awareness and activism at the same time I was. It was the perfect place to be as a budding feminist. The Northcountry Women’s Coffeehouse, which opened in 1981, provided my deepest connections with women’s culture and community in Duluth. I’ve made some of my best friendships, and met the women with whom I’ve been making music in our group, Wild by Nature, for thirty-five years. The women’s music scene was the lifeblood of the feminist community here, and I was fortunate to be in the heart of it. I have also had the great privilege of teaching Women’s Studies students for over thirty-five years. The feminist community in Duluth has been my heart and home for all of my time in Duluth.