Pharr, Suzanne

Rose Norman interviewed Suzanne Pharr by phone March 28, 2013 (Pharr lives in Knoxville, TN). In 2005, Suzanne Pharr did an intensive interview for Smith College’s Voices of Feminism Oral History Project. The 81-page transcript of that interview is available online, and covers her entire life, with much detail about her work with domestic violence, anti-racism and anti-sexism through the Women’s Project in Arkansas and the Lesbian Task Force of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Pharr.pdf). Rather than replicate that interview, we developed questions that build on it. Suzanne Pharr, interview by Kelly Anderson, video recording, June 28, 2005, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, tape.

Biographical Information

Suzanne Pharr (b. 1939) was born and raised on a farm near Lawrenceville, GA, northeast of Atlanta. She attended colleges and universities in Milledgeville, GA, Buffalo, NY, and New Orleans, LA, completing an MA in English at SUNY/Buffalo, and most of the requirements for the Ph.D. in American literature from Tulane University. She was [a ]co-founder of the first domestic violence shelter in Arkansas and founded the Arkansas Women’s Project in 1981, working there until 199[8]. She also [created] the Women’s Watchcare Network, which monitors and documents religious, racist, sexist, and anti-gay and lesbian violence. From 1977 to 1978, she was director of the Washington County Head Start Program in Fayetteville, AR. In 1988, she co-chaired Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in Arkansas. From 1999 to 2004, she directed the Highlander Research & Education Center, a historic [civil rights] organization based in New Market, TN, [which focuses] on social and economic justice. She was its first woman executive director. She is the author of two books, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (Chardon Press, 1988; updated 1997) and In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation (Chardon Press, 1996), and over 50 essays published in Transformations (the newsletter of the Arkansas Women’s Project) and in other newsletters and journals. In 1993, she was one of six co-founders of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), and has recently returned to work on the SONG staff.

On coming out as a lesbian

The Voices of Feminism interview shows you growing up always knowing you were different (your family saying that there were 4 boys, 3 girls, and Suzanne), cutting your hair, liking boys’ clothes, knowing you were attracted to girls and boys, knowing you shouldn't let on about that, but having a relationship with a girl in high school while double dating with football players, not being very attuned to civil rights issues. Then you went to the small state women’s college your aunts had attended, heard the word “homosexual” for the first time (aimed at you) and got a little more aware about various forms of closeted lesbian culture and about civil rights politics. After that, the path is hard to follow. I’m inferring that it was mostly a personal path, following your own sensibilities, being conflicted about the necessity for being closeted, deciding to go to New Zealand after what happened when your girlfriend [Ann’s] parents found out about your relationship. Then, boom, you come back from New Zealand and walk into the feminist movement in New Orleans in 1969. You start a C-R group and become so embedded in women’s liberation activism that it supersedes your love of teaching and desire to have an academic career. From there, it’s clearer how one thing leads to another.

I guess I’m looking for aha moments, or clicks that brought you there, like Mandy Carter hearing that AFSC guy talk about peace and justice and the power of one.

"I think the most compelling motivator in my life was that I was so rebellious. I was shocked all of my life by injustice, as little kids are. And some of us maintain it, and some of us don’t. For me, it stuck. Maybe it came from having seven older brothers and sisters, and always looking to see that the pie is cut in exactly equal portions. That probably fed some of my sense of injustice, and then I saw the contradictions within the church. I grew up in a rural Methodist church where there were huge contractions between belief and behavior, as there are in so many places. I can’t say I had great awareness of the civil rights movement growing up, because I lived out in the country where it was all white [with rare exceptions]. There were conversations with my family members, and there was the conflict within that church. Even though no one was knocking on the door, they had a huge split over whether to let Black people attend."

On the history of social justice activism

"Then I went to college at what was then Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville (1957-1961), a little school of 600 students that was mostly for children of farmers and small town people. The head of Religious Affairs there was Izzie Rogers (I think her full name was Isabel Wood Rogers), and she was very progressive. Just in the last year, I looked her up and learned that she went on from there to teach at Union Theological Seminary, and was eventually the highest ranking woman in the Presbyterian church."

[Footnote: Isabel Wood Rogers, 1924-2007, was born in Tallahassee, FL, graduated from Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University), and earned a PhD in theology and ethics from Duke University. She taught at Georgia State College for Women from 1949 to 1961, and then at Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE, later Union Theological Seminary, PSCE), from which she retired in 1998, having written five books on Christianity. She was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1987, its highest elected office From Virginia Women in History 2008, Library of Virginia, http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/vawomen/2008/honorees.asp?bio=5.)

"We didn’t have a framework to put that in, but all of us who thought we were rebelling against whatever status quo existed were attracted to her. She was a single woman, very smart, very compassionate, who held these great discussion groups where you actually got to talk in very real ways about things that were going on. She was the one who introduced us to this great thing that was happening around civil rights. She helped to get us to have some critical conversation and vision about it, and she also engaged us in some activities. It was in Milledgeville that I first saw the Klan ride through town on horses. She involved us in the great debate that was going on in the state about whether to close the public schools because of the possibility of desegregation. She organized us to go to a very large meeting where the Grand Dragon of the KKK spoke against desegregation, and for the closure of schools, and we testified in favor of keeping schools open."

"It was in Buffalo, NY [working on the MA in English] that I was around Black students for the first time, in the presence of Jewish students for the first time. Malcolm X spoke there, and there was the Communism scare, leading to a huge political move at the university about whether to sign the loyalty oath, and I took part in that action against the oath. I guess I was in a Discover the World part of my growth then. I hadn't been anywhere, or seen or heard or talked about these things."

"Then when I taught English at Mary Washington College [in Fredericksburg, VA, she taught there 1964-1967] it was more buffered from the civil rights movement. What was moving there more than anything was feminism, the beginning of conversation about feminism. I was teaching 19th century American literature, the period of the first round of the women’s movement. I was also getting more and more engaged in protesting the Vietnam war."

On her move to New Zealand and further travels

"All those things came together at the same time, and I was trying to figure out how to be a lesbian in the world, not knowing how to deal with that. One of the good things that happened was going to New Zealand, out of great rebellion and search for freedom and profound ignorance (sometimes a volatile combination!). My partner and I-- girlfriend I guess I called her then—we went so we could be lesbians. We went also because we were sick of this country. We felt it was a country without a soul. But the thing that propelled us the most was that we didn’t know how to be engaged with each other as lesbians and have a life, without escaping the life we had here."

"The profound ignorance was that we didn't really know anything about New Zealand, kind of chose it out of books. I think we thought it was an undeveloped English-speaking country where we could build it, rather than being at the heart of the Empire. What was good was that we were in the position of having to explain the U.S. We were both teaching, first in high school, and then I taught at the university. People kept asking about race and Vietnam. There’s nothing like that to make you have to think. We’d never been asked piercing questions like that before, where we had to either critique our country or defend our country."

"So we decided to come back, and at that time you could buy a plane ticket that, as long as you were in a forward progression, you could stop anywhere you wanted to, so we were able to stop in a number of countries, and one of them was India, and one of the places was Calcutta. That was a transformative moment for me. I thought I had seen poverty and knew what it was, and colonialism. It was quite staggering for me. I decided I would go back and figure out a way to—I didn't have the language then, but if I had, I would have said I wanted to spend my time working on social justice issues. What I said then was that I wanted to change things so we don’t have poverty."

"And then I stepped off the plane into the women’s movement in New Orleans, and started the first consciousness-raising group in New Orleans. It was the first time I ever came out publicly as a lesbian, age 29 or 30, saying those words for the first time in a group of 7 or 8 people."

[FOOTNOTE: This work in New Orleans while she was in graduate school at Tulane is described in some detail in the Voices of Feminism interview and in some of this is in her book Homophobia.]

On feminist activism

Do you see yourself as a lesbian-feminist activist or something else?

"That or a lesbian feminist revolutionary! No, I’m teasing. I wish I were a revolutionary. Yes, I’d say lesbian-feminist activist, organizer, and I’d add anti-racist activist. That has been for years my core. So many of us were formed and shaped in strong ways by the Combahee River Collective Statement—Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, and that group—"

[Footnote: The Combahee River Collective Statement is dated April 1977, copyrighted 1978 by Zillah Eisenstein, and included in Barbara Smith’s 1983 anthology Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Full text of the statement is available online at http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html]

"and by Kitchen Table Press, some of the essential writing of Adrienne Rich. I still carry those things. I listen to this DOMA and marriage debate, and I keep thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality” and Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic.” Every day in my work, I talk about intersectionality, and where did I get that idea? I got it from the Combahee River Collective Statement."

On the intersection of feminism and anti-racism

When did you start having Black friends and making anti-racism such an important part of your activism?

"I think it began in New Orleans in the women’s movement there, as we were building it. Part of it came through reading, but it came through feminism, not so much through the civil rights movement itself. These two--feminism and anti-racism, in the writings of Black lesbian feminists-- kept coming together and I was able to see them through Black women’s thinking and bodies. It was a gradual increase in awareness, understanding, analysis that came, probably through the writings published by Kitchen Table Press more than anything, in terms of the real bringing everything together. I think of the people who were going back and forth across the country in the 70's—what I call the Great Lesbian Migration. Olivia Music was sending people all over, to little towns. You’d have somebody great come to a place like Fayetteville, Arkansas, people like [African American singer] Linda Tillery, in a tiny auditorium with 50 women. Then in my work in Head Start for a couple of years, I was able to really put it on the ground--the intersections of gender, race, and poverty."

"And then there was the work on the first battered women’s shelter in northwest Arkansas. When we began, there were already Black women involved. At that time, by the way, we were seeing the world as Black and white, not multi-racial. And a lot of white people were beginning to catch on to anti-racism. All through the 70s in Arkansas, even if people were not living in racially mixed situations, in what I think of as the left of the women’s movement, there was a constant conversation and analysis, trying to figure racial justice out."

You do mention in the Voices of Feminism interview that all the CR groups in New Orleans were white. Mandy Carter in her interview talks about the importance of including Black women from the beginning, not as an afterthought.

"I totally agree with Mandy, but that was not where we were in 1969 in New Orleans."

You were finding your way then.

"Very much so. I feel like that’s the story of my life. My political analysis and awareness has been evolving. That’s why I believe in social change. If a person such as myself can change so much, in my view of life, my commitments, there’s a little hope for everybody."

"I do remember that when we had the first meeting in Fayetteville to talk about the battered women’s shelter, it was a racially mixed group."

On racism and SONG

One of the most important things about SONG is the way the organizational model works: co-directors, 50:50 black/white from the beginning, reaching out to non-gay groups about “non-gay” issues. That seems to be a model you were working on when you started the Women’s Project in Arkansas. Are you the one who brought that to SONG?

"I brought a lot of the Women’s Project to SONG. The Women’s Project had already been going for about 11 or 12 years then (since 1981). The Women’s Project was amazing and life-changing for many of us who worked on that in Arkansas. I had not only brought my politics to it but, with others, built my politics there. The big thing I brought to SONG was a sense of political integrity, that your organization and what you do in your organization and how you treat each other should mirror what you’re demanding of society. So don’t demand racial justice if you’re going to insist that white people be in the majority. Don’t demand economic justice if you’re going to have huge differences in salaries. You don’t demand equality if people don’t have a full share of decision-making and control over resources. That’s what I brought and that the Women’s Project built on and carried far beyond what I had envisioned or dreamed. We knew that we have such a history of racial injustice, and it’s so ingrained in every fiber of our society, that you can’t change that just by fighting it. You have to create models of living where you would tilt the balance toward equality and full self-determination and wholeness of people of color. That’s why I always said 50:50 could never work, because white people carry so much greater share of privilege and power. You've got to have a majority people of color in authority and leadership to tilt the history of injustice toward justice."

"The Women’s Project began with lesbians and straight women, Black and white. Later it became multi-racial, and in the 80's we began to have trans women volunteering, and we always had sex workers. We said that we will always work on racism and sexism together because they are linked."

Tell us your story about how SONG came about.

"It came together at the Creating Change conference in North Carolina, at a time when there was a lot of conversation about NAFTA. Mab Segrest had a huge leadership role at the conference, insisting that we talk about NAFTA, and focusing her plenary speech on that. It caused great upset, particularly among guys, who were walking around saying “What the hell does this have to do with my gay freedom?” We knew it was a problem before we went in, but we really recognized it then, after there was so much controversy: how badly we needed to get people off single-identity politics, at least in the South, and to get LGBT people to take on race, class, and gender, in addition to LBGTQ identity. And we saw that was not all that was needed. We needed to get the historic civil rights organizations to take on homophobia as well."

"In terms of who would be part of SONG, we were all women, lesbian-feminists, three Black women, three white women. It took us a long time to let men be in leadership. Our standard was that you can’t be part of this unless you are feminist and anti-racist, and have a track record, not just talk about it. That’s what made us reluctant to bring in men, because they had to have a track record around feminism - not talk, but something you had done and were doing, that permeated your work."

"That kick-off--to move beyond single identity politics, combined with us all having a strong inclination to carry into it an economic analysis and analysis around violence--set up the political part of it. And also we really, really believed in the power of our relationships, the power of our Southern histories and lives. We recognized that the South is this extraordinary combination of a horrible racist history, horrible labor history, oppression of workers and of women, and at the same time carries the most outstanding movement of the 20th century, the civil rights movement, as well as extraordinary work by women. Throughout all of that, we recognized that people who grew up in the South love the smells and sounds and tastes of the South. This belief in how our cultural lives intertwine with our political lives—that has been SONG."

"We expand as our awareness expands. Now we are multi-racial, now we are multi-gendered, now we are engaged in work around immigration. We always want to place at the center of our work marginalized people: poor people, people who are persecuted for violating gender—it’s a whole list, and our awareness of those people at the center grows all the time."

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"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

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