Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Forty years ago: The Big Mama Rag newspaper collective

Forty years ago this fall I moved to Denver. In love with the natural beauty of the West and hoping to continue my fledgling feminist work in a newspaper collective, I joined the staff of Big Mama Rag in the fall of '76, just weeks after I moved here from Chicago. Ah, what a time it was! First of all, I was 29--gift enough, isn't it? And I wanted to live away from the Midwest where I had grown up, to start a new life in this high altitude city with its thin air, impossibly blue skies and open spaces.

I was still smoking then, often hand-rolled cigarettes. Here's what I looked like, circa 1980. Note my unlined face, blond hair (natural color!) and aviator sunglasses. Still fond of that style.

Within weeks of getting my first apartment, a studio at 16th and Marion, I was sitting in the basement of a large brick house on Gaylord Street, committing myself to working with women like me, those who saw second-wave feminism as the movement we wanted to join and grow. Big Mama Rag was a monthly newspaper, covering a wide range of feminist issues. We talked and wrote about so many things: the growing challenge and inclusion of women in many fields--law, literature, religion, politics; sexuality, violence against women and what should be done about it, racism, reproductive rights, a blossoming culture of art and music....So many others. We saw that patriarchy had controlled every aspect of women's lives for centuries, and we were determined to explore every aspect and to change it.

There were other feminist newspapers across the country, and we had exchange subscriptions with them, along with our sub to Liberation News Service, a wire service covering a range of progressive issues. We were part of a network, we felt, part of a growing movement that could make a difference. I have pictures and notes from that era, not yet organized, so let me share with you a photo retrospective of Big Mama Rag (BMR) by Julie Enszer, one that conveys the flavor of those change-driven days.

Here's what the paper looked like. An array of them, on display at a reunion of second-wave feminists in Denver this weekend:

Though we published just once a month, we met regularly, planning and writing stories. We kept prices low; we were all volunteers and we sold ads (usually from other movement groups and businesses) to cover costs. We were also a collective, which meant that we were committed to sharing power equally, although we all had different jobs, such as ads, the books, or distribution. It was the pre-Internet era, so once as month, we had a long production evening and night, cutting and pasting and huddling over the strip printer, a little machine that made headlines. The following morning, off it went to the printer.

Here's one photo from a late-70s production night; Vickie Piotter (looking quite alert despite the hour) with Deb Taylor in the background.

What made all of this possible was our youthful energy and the fact that one could live fairly cheaply in Denver then on a part-time or temporary job. (For a few years I did typing and reception for C. Gerald Starbuck, a lawyer. It was a laid-back office, and I remember having time to write stories for the paper between job tasks.) I stayed on the collective for about 18 months, then left, remaining a contributor.

I had friends on the collective, and by the early 1980s when the paper closed after 10 years of publishing, I had become disillusioned with BMR. Too much quarreling in the collective, I thought, and an increasing ideological rigidity that drove newcomers away. In retrospect, I didn't acknowledge the larger context: the Reagan years had begun, we were getting older and looking for new ways--more stable and responsible ways--of earning our living and making change; the well-known difficulties of attracting and keeping volunteers.

This weekend I had a chance to think about all of this again when Jackie StJoan, one of the first collective members , hosted a reunion of women who had worked on BMR or been friends in Denver during the late 70s. It was wonderful to see them again! I didn't know everyone well, as our time on BMR or other projects didn't always overlap, but there was such a shock of recognition. We had shared a common time and lived through decades of change. We were all older and wiser, quicker to praise than condemn.

Near the end of the evening, the poet Chocolate Waters, who had been part of the founding collective, cornered several of us to talk about our feelings about our movement work, then and now. She's thinking of doing a documentary, and this discussion was a kind of warm-up for that possibility. We had different memories and feelings about that time, of course, but a common thread it seemed to me was a kind of awe and pleasure that we had been active during this amazing time. For me, my criticisms of our mistakes or excesses took a back seat to our hopes and accomplishments.

Here are some photos from the reunion. Enjoying the company and potluck feast we created, from left:  Chocolate Waters, a long-time resident of New York City, continues to write and perform poetry; her best-known work from back in the day was a poetry collection called To The Man Reporter from The Denver Post. Next to her is Tea Schook, who did BMR finances in the late 70s and has been active in Democratic Party politics for many years. Third from left is Janet Yench, poet and initiator of Womanthology (1977), an anthology of Colorado women poets that she and I co-edited. At right is Gayle Novak, who lived with me in 1976-77 and patiently accepted the many hours I spent away from home and in the BMR office.

In this photo are two women active in promoting women's music and art in the late 70s/early 80s: Ronnie Storey (left) and Lyn Davis. Ronnie is a librarian in Colorado. Lynn was visiting from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where she lives and teaches.

Here's our Big Mama Rag conversation group: from left, Jackie StJoan, a lawyer and retired judge living in Denver, Linda Fowler, visiting from North Carolina, Deb Taylor, a retired social worker living in Denver, Libby Comeaux of Denver, and Chocolate Waters.

Other women attended too, women who continue to do work that's important and close to their hearts. It was so good to spend Sunday afternoon with them, and as I write this on Tuesday evening, I'm still basking in the glow.


  1. Awww. Good memories. I'm glad you all were able to meet. I've actually had people write to me commenting on stuff I posted in BMR all those years ago. Lasting impact for a little paper by a bunch of idealistic women operating out of a basement apartment. If I'm remembering correctly, there was also a court case that made some legal precedents - having to do with criticism of a public figure, and freedom of the press.

    Anyway, good times. Kim Womantree

  2. Hi Kathy- I am delighted to have stumbled upon your memory of our passionate, and yes, at times, self righteous work, at Big Mama Rag. I had recent occasion to dust off, after some 35 years, old issues in storage. I was quite impressed that time has not diminished the earnestness of our task of changing the world. That we were able to produce a monthly newspaper full of original artwork, philosophy, news from around the world, while remaining transparent in our collective process, is something to be proud of. Ah, youth- many of us had "straight" jobs, spent countless hours writing and in production without the benefit of computers (just an IBM Selectric), weekly meetings, yet, were still able to go dancing til midnight! My best to you!- Vicki Piotter

  3. I so enjoyed reading about your reminiscing about putting out a feminist newspaper. Much of it is familiar because of my time on off our backs. It's wonderful that you were able to have a reunion!