Friday, October 17, 2008

The Feminist Cruise: Part One
Sorting Through the Celebrities

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

On Sunday, February 18th, 2007, I boarded a Holland America cruise ship in Tampa, Florida, and embarked on one of the best learning experiences of my life. It was the third (I think) annual Ms. Magazine and National Association of Social Workers (NASW) cruise, a week-long educational endeavor designed to bring out the better feminist and social worker in all of us. For the next six days me and two-hundred others participated in floating conferences on women’s issues, as well as doing on-the-ground research (and shopping) in Key West, Belize, Guatemala, and the southern Caribbean coast of Mexico. At one point I counted a total of six male participants, and at least one of those was married to a presenter.

Our first activity was an evening cheese and booze reception as our cruise ship slid southward along the western edge of Florida. Although I typically feel uncomfortable in social settings like that, especially when attending alone, I made myself go because I did not want to miss any aspect of the trip and the experience.

There was a piano bar area next to the space where our reception was being held, and a group of well dressed drunks were gathered around the piano singing Billy Joel and Elton John songs, and doing it quite well. I gathered up a plate of veggies and cheese, and a drink, and made myself comfortable on a couch that was backed up against the area from which the music was emanating. From that vantage point I was able to sip and nibble in a leisurely manner while watching the interactions that were occurring at the reception.

My comfort proved to be short-lived however as a slender lady with silvering hair pried herself out of the group and made a beeline for the male loner ensconced on the couch. Her hand was out before she reached me, and I was barely able to set my provisions aside in time to stand and receive her greeting. “I’m Ellie Smeal,” she stated, pumping my hand. I told her my name, and suffering in the ensuing silence that indicated that she wanted to know more, I hurriedly coughed up that I was a social worker with the Army. That held her interest for a few minutes, and then Eleanor Smeal, the President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, the organization that publishes Ms. Magazine, wandered back into the crowd to shake more hands.

Somewhere during the reception Ms. Smeal got the crowd's attention and made a welcoming speech. One point I remember was that she brought greetings from uber-feminist Gloria Steinem, and related that Steinem wanted the cruisers to know that if reporters asked them whether they supported Hillary or Obama, the correct answer was "yes"!

I had another celebrity encounter as the reception was ending, but this one I initiated. While I was leaving the bar I looked over to my left and noticed Tyne Daly of Cagney and Lacey and Judging Amy fame standing alone by the wall. I stepped over and shook her hand, being too star-struck to say little more than my name. She asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. She was an extremely nice lady who was very skilled at making me feel at ease.

A third celebrity encounter occurred soon after that as I was leaving the main decks and walking toward my room. I joined in conversation with two of our group members from New Mexico. I did that intentionally because I thought that I might have had a brief history with one of them. After listening to the chat about the cruise or the conference or some other topic that we could all comment on, I inquired of the one, “Excuse me, but are you Mrs. Harris?”

The lady responded, with a certain amount of surprise, that she was indeed LaDonna Harris. I then told her about meeting her over thirty years earlier while her husband, Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, was running for President in the Democratic Primary. (A week or two after our brief encounter in January of 1976 at a Harris event in Miami, OK, Fred’s political career was cut short in the Iowa Presidential Primary by a political outsider named Jimmy Carter.) We exchanged a few remarks about that campaign, and I remember making a mention of all of the turquoise that she had been wearing that wintry night three decades earlier. LaDonna Harris, a full-blood Comanche Indian, is a political force in her own right, once running for Vice President on a third party ticket.

The other lady from New Mexico turned out to be Dr. Martha Burk, the Money Editor for Ms. Magazine. While serving as the chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations in 2002, Dr. Burk turned the golfing world upside down by leading a protest against the Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters Tournament, regarding the club’s refusal to admit women. After she determined that many of America’s male corporate leaders were members of Augusta, she began publishing their names and demanding “gender equity audits” to determine the number of layoffs and new hires by gender of each of their corporations. Eventually Augusta caved, and the country’s best known old boys’ club opened its doors to female members.

I was fortunate to have several more encounters with LaDonna and Martha during the cruise. At one point they told me, rather quietly, that they weren’t supporting Hillary because they were committed to their world-renowned governor, Bill Richardson.

Martha Burk also told the amusing story of her most recent struggle to tilt a windmill. She had attended the previous year’s Wal-Mart stockholders' meeting in northwest Arkansas. Her mother had left her some Wal-Mart stock, and she used that stock as a ticket into the meeting. She had gone through proper channels to get on the agenda to make a brief comment at the meeting, and had used those precious minutes to do some railing against Wal-Mart’s corporate greed and its neglect of workers’ rights. She said that the company had been forced to let her talk, but tried to keep reporters away from her. She added that eventually a reporter from the New York Times fought his way through the barricade of corporate flunkies and managed to take down her story. Martha has vowed to never sell her Wal-Mart stock in order to ensure her ability to keep attending their annual meetings!

I explained to Martha that my little farm was less than twenty-five miles from Bentonville, and invited her to stay at The Roost any time she wanted to raise a ruckus at a Wal-Mart stockholders' meeting. So far she hasn’t taken me up on my invitation, but it’s still there for the taking!

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