Episode 8: WITCH in Action (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: On Halloween, lots of kids dress up to collect candy. But there are other reasons to put on a costume. For instance, as a form of political protest. Here’s an example: women dressed as beauty pageant contestants recently paraded in front of Republican campaign headquarters in tightly contested states. They wore sashes that said “Miss Eating Machine”, “Miss Piggy”, “Miss Piece of Ass.” These are all things Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has called women.
Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous and this is Can We Talk? from the Jewish Women’s Archive. Do not worry, this isn’t another show about the election, or about Trump. This month we’re talking about a women’s protest movement from the late 1960s. It involved costumes and was called WITCH.
Heather Booth: Sometimes women in past history were called witches when they were just bold and courageous women.
Nahanni: On Halloween 1968, a coven of witches stormed Wall Street and hexed the male dominated institution. The women wore black robes, pointy black hats and white face paint. The women’s liberation movement had just started brewing… the cauldron was beginning to bubble.
Nahanni: WITCH stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. But the women in WITCH weren’t terrorists. Their weapons were humor and satire. They used guerrilla theater to protest patriarchy, capitalism, and the Vietnam War. It wasn’t a Jewish movement, but many Jewish women were involved. Later in the show, historian Joyce Antler will help us put this “witch work” in context. We’ll also hear from Heather Booth, who was part of a witches coven in Chicago. But first… the origin of the black cloaked witches can be traced to an unlikely event: the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
[Archival audio: “In just a few short minutes from now, ladies and gentlemen, we will know the name of our new Miss America.”]
Nahanni: Bev Grant was in the audience that day.
Bev Grant: I was an avid fan of the Miss America Beauty Pageant growing up. There weren’t a lot of things to look forward to for women, you know… if you had the kind of beauty that was in fashion then, you know, it was an option for you to kind of get ahead to have your college education paid for and stuff like that.
Nahanni: Bev grew up in a working class Jewish family in Portland, Oregon in the 1950s. She wasn’t at the 1968 Miss America Beauty Pageant as a fan. She had been part of consciousness raising sessions in New York about women’s oppression. Bev was at The Pageant with a coalition called New York Radical Women, and they were there to protest.
Bev: We went inside, I had a stink bomb.
Nahanni: A stink bomb in one hand, and her camera in the other; Bev was also a photojournalist.
Bev: I had a press pass so I was able to be right at the runway and take photos of the contestants as they came down and as Miss America made her parade down the aisle. [Laughs] It was quite exciting.
Nahanni: On stage, the Miss America hopefuls stood in a semi-circle, wearing white gloves and ball gowns. They smiled at the audience’s applause and waited to hear who would be crowned queen.
Archival Audio, Singing: And now for the most important announcement of all, Miss America for 1968! Miss Illinois is Miss America… we are going to sing your song. There she is, Miss America. There she is…
Nahanni: The television camera scanned the cheering crowd. Then Bev’s co-conspirators unfurled a banner and dropped it from a balcony. It read: “Women’s Liberation” in all caps. It may have been the first time that phrase was seen on national television. Miss America didn’t seem to notice, and continued on down the runway. Bev and her friend prepared their stink bombs. But in her excitement, Bev’s friend accidentally sprayed Bev. They ran out!
Nahanni: Outside on the boardwalk, more demonstrations were in the works.
Archival audio: Yes siree, boys, step right up, how much am i offered for this number one piece of prime American property. She sings...
Nahanni: The prime American property was a Miss America puppet: a 7 foot tall large breasted blonde woman in an American flag bathing suit.
Bev: And she was manipulated by two or three of the women while Peggy Dobbins was dressed up in a men’s suit with big galoshes on her feet and she auctioned off the puppet. Other women were chained to the puppet walking around as if displaying themselves alluringly.
[Shouting on boardwalk]
Nahanni: Woman also took turns tossing things into what they called the “freedom trash can.” Things they saw as symbols of oppression: bras, high-heels, diapers, playboy magazines.
[Cheering: “bras… women use your brains, not your bodies!”]
Nahanni: They wanted to burn them, just as male protesters had burned their draft cards, but they couldn’t get a fire permit on the wooden boardwalk. Even though it never happened, this is probably where idea of “bra burners” originated. The press loved the visuals, but in hindsight, Bev thinks the demonstrations missed the mark.
Bev: The message was this was a symbol or our oppression, that we are just simply meat, and women are unfairly judged based on their looks.
Nahanni: But to some, the protests seemed to be targeting the women who participated in the pageant.
Bev: There were critiques written after the demo kind of pointing that out and it’s just not the women’s fault to try to use that to their advantage since there weren’t too many ways you could take advantage of things when you were a woman.
Nahanni: In retrospect, Bev says shaming the women wasn’t right, but in 1968 she felt full of excitement and power after pulling off the political action. On the way home from the demonstration, someone joked that if they kept this up they’d be burned at the stake just like the women in the Salem witch trials. And that’s where the WITCH idea came from.
Bev: Somebody came up with it, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.
Nahanni: They identified with women throughout history who were seen as deviant.
Bev: The independent women, the rebel women, the midwives, probably the lesbians, although they weren’t called that then. Women who were burned at the stake for being different. That was kind of the origin of the name witch.
Nahanni: The next month, on Halloween day, the WITCHes put on black robes and capes, painted their faces white, and marched onto Wall Street.
Bev: We acted like a coven, you, getting together and making noises and things like that. There was a big gathering of guys below us who were kind of bemused and wondering what the heck we were doing. I think we were chanting, you know. Probably some Wizard of Oz kind of thing. Bubble bubble boil and whatever… [Laughs]
Nahanni: Inside Chase Manhattan Bank, the women huddled, made incantations, swirled around in their capes.
Bev: You know, eventually we went home. [Laughs] It was the first Occupy Wall Street I think.
Nahanni: The hexing of Wall Street received national attention and new covens cropped up across the country. Some groups created new acronyms for WITCH. Telephone operators protesting labor conditions called themselves WITCH: “Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment.” In Chicago, activist Heather Booth was in her early 20s when she heard about the hexing of Wall Street. By then she had already traveled to Mississippi with the Freedom Summer Project, protested the Vietnam War, and helped start an underground abortion service. She was also involved in consciousness raising groups.
Heather: Women’s discontent was being discussed. Women were reentering the workforce and we didn’t have childcare, women generally were paid less for almost every job. There were sex segregated want ads… the executive positions were only advertised for the men. You could have an all male panel and no one would ever think twice about it.
Nahanni: So Heather and her allies decided to start a witches coven in Chicago. They used the same playful tactics.
Heather: I had a big, black, spiky hat with a big brim and a black dress we got at second hand stores…
Nahanni: They cooked up a special hex for an all-male panel at the University of Chicago.
Heather: We ran onto the stage and did our hex. One part of the hex went, “Knowledge is power through which you control, our mind, our spirit, our body, our soul… HEX!” And then we all went back home, cleaned up, laughed. So it was fun, a little anonymity, and also it made a point. Why would these brazen women do this?
Nahanni: With their hex, the witches were trying to point out that women’s voices were missing.
Nahanni: Heather and many of the other Chicago WITCHes were Jewish, but Heather says they rarely discussed this part of their lives.
Heather: First of all, the motivating effort was identifying that we were women, and so we didn’t look for things that made us different from anyone else, but only what made us unified as women.
Nahanni: But for Heather, Judaism was also a motivating factor. She grew up in a secular Jewish family.
Heather: When i grew up social justice was at the heart of what it meant to be jewish. And was very valuable in my life, in my world.…
Nahanni: Heather says the tradition of Judaism is consistent with people struggling for liberation. It’s a struggle she’s taken seriously during her life-long career as an activist.
Heather: If we organized we can change the world… and we have changed the world, but only when we organize.
Nahanni: Joyce Antler is a professor at Brandeis University and is writing a book about Jewish women and radical feminism. We asked her to weigh in on the meaning and impact of WITCH.
Joyce Antler: While women’s liberationists were accused of being so serious—right? Can’t tell a joke, couldn’t take a joke... i think the opposite is true. A dozen women were able, through sporadic actions, to draw attention to major problems with a sense of humor.
Nahanni: WITCH knew how to grab the media’s attention, partly because they challenged stereotypes in unconventional ways. What they were doing was funny, but at the time, really threatening.
Joyce: You didn’t have to do much to challenge the social order. The idea of women uniting to protest sexism in their midst was itself outrageous.
Nahanni: For a little context, Joyce recalls one of the first battles she was involved with when she worked for the city of New York in 1969.
Joyce: Our first goal was to wear pants to work. You have no idea what opposition we got! So, you know, throwing the tools of women’s oppression— the dishrag, the diapers, the bras… in the freedom trash can seemed totally outrageous and dangerous and threatening.
Nahanni: The WITCH movement lasted about a year, but it inspired women around the country.
Joyce: When WITCH disbanded it wasn’t that the women didn’t do anything further. They went on to create theory, consciousness raising and really to create a mass movement. I think these sporadic zap actions and spectacles were important but I think there was a shared understanding that they’d have to work together to create what they hoped would be a mass movement and that required a different kind of organizing.
Nahanni: The women in WITCH, and other movements, went on to organize millions of women in marches, demonstrations, and advocacy campaigns. They built organizations and fought for reproductive rights, childcare, and equal pay. Many of WITCH’s founders, like Heather Booth and Bev Grant, are still working for women’s rights and social justice. A new generation of activists has adopted their playful guerilla tactics. We’ve come a long way from fighting for the right to wear pants to work… but there’s much more to be done.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk?. We’ve done eight shows now, and we’d love to hear from you. Have any of our stories reminded you of something from your own life? What’s been your favorite episode? Is there a topic you’d like us to consider? Get in touch.
[Theme music fades]
Nahanni: Our team includes Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Communications Director Rachel King. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe, and send your friends a link to your favorite episodes. You can also listen on iTunes, and if you do, please review us. It helps other people find the show. We’re looking for sponsors for Can We Talk?! If you like our podcast and want to help keep us in production, please make a donation at jwa.org. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. I’ll see you again next month.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 8: WITCH in Action (Transcript)." (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-8-witch-in-action/transcript>.