is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.' -- Flo
close to 20 years there's been a little phrase over my desk that I cut
out of a magazine so long ago I've no idea where it came from. I look
at it almost daily and am continually struck at how it's a one sentence
philosophy of life, politics and activism. It's a Flo Kennedy comment,
"Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.''
who died last weekend at age 84, was the embodiment of that phrase.
She was a font of witty and wicked one-liners that cut to the bone.
Her flamboyant clothes -- pink sunglasses and a cowboy hat were her
trademarks -- assured her of attention. But like Bella Abzug, another
loudmouth New Yorker who favored dramatic headgear, her style -- and
her gender -- made her an easy target to criticize and dismiss.
Steinem coined the phrase "verbal karate'' to describe Kennedy's style.
Kennedy had a knack for taking complex issues and reducing them to the
core concept that exposed bigotry or encouraged action or did whatever
the subject required.
the death of her mother -- and a stint at owning a hat shop with her
sisters -- Kennedy moved to New York, where friends urged her to become
a teacher. Instead, Kennedy enrolled in prelaw at Columbia University.
"I find that the higher you aim, the better you shoot,'' she said.
was then refused admission to Columbia Law school -- not because she
was black but because she was a woman. Kennedy responded that "to my
friends at the NAACP, it all sounds the same.''
threatened a lawsuit and was admitted, one of eight women and the only
black in her class. She graduated in 1951 but quickly became disillusioned
by the law and the courts when she represented the estates of jazz legends
Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Though she won the case, Kennedy
said it taught her "more than I was really ready for ... about the hostility
and helplessness of the courts.''
when Kennedy decided political activism was the way to change society.
She set up an organization to combat racism in journalism and advertising.
She discovered picketing ad agencies was a highly effective technique.
"When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets,'' she said
Kennedy was a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus,
she also recognized big groups like that were not the only route to
change. "Unity in a movement situation can be overrated,'' she said.
"If you were the Establishment, which would you rather see coming in
the door: one lion or 500 hundred mice?''
did still practice law and it was always politically motivated. In 1969
she organized a group of feminist lawyers to challenge the constitutionality
of New York state's abortion law. That move pushed the Legislature to
liberalize the law the next year -- three years before Roe vs. Wade
became the law of the land.
went on the lecture circuit with Steinem, who called them "the Thelma
and Louise of the '70s.'' According to Kennedy's obituary in The New
York Times, their lectures frequently drew men to their audience and
all too often one of them stood up and asked, "Are you lesbians?''
would answer, "It depends. Are you my alternative?'' It was the beginning
of 20 years on the lecture circuit.
her autobiography, Kennedy said, "A lot of people think I'm crazy. Maybe
you do too, but I never stopped to wonder why I'm not like other people.
The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me.''
no mystery. It's tough to put your beliefs into action -- to take that
bath every day. And it's impossible to do it when women's stories still
get less ink. Or when women's actions are considered crazy instead of
acknowledging that the situations that spurred Flo Kennedy's activism
are the crazy part. Turn on the water and jump in the tub.
Copyright 2000 The Capital Times