Smith, Pam

Barbara Esrig Interviewed Pam Smith, with Rose Norman making additional additional edits to the piece.

Biographical Information

"I moved to Gainesville from southern California with my husband in August 1968. He was starting grad school in Psychology, and we were in our 20's. In California, we’d been mostly hippies and borderline activists, putting flowers in cops’ guns, “be-ins”. We chose Florida because UF had the only humanist program in Psychology in the country at that time. It drew people from all over the country."

"I felt like I was going from the center of the universe to WAY on the periphery. I had a major culture shock coming to the South in 1968. Gainesville was fairly small, maybe a 50,000 population, including the university. But it had a huge population of alternative people, and it was very music oriented and alternative. For example, a lot of Gainesville people went to an anti-war march in Washington in 1969. Gainesville was really beautiful but it took me a while to care about its beauty. I was 23 and a wife with two little kids, so I felt very peripheral. It took me awhile to make my own world. I only knew student wives. I couldn't go to school the first year, because it took a year to get in-state residency."

On beginning involvement with activism

"By somewhere in 1969, I was able to go to The Free University set up by the alternative people there. Anyone could go, it was completely free, and it was as serious as the classes at the University (but no papers and tests). I took a bunch of classes, including one in civil rights, one in Black literature. In the civil rights class, one day, the professor told us that the next week there were women coming from the women’s liberation movement, and they would meet with women separately from the men."

"Judith Brown and Carol Giardino came, and did a consciousness raising group with 10-12 of the women from that class. They explained the main ground rules: speak only from your own experience and be as honest as you can with yourself and others, not what you've read or what others have experienced. They did two topics that night. First, "have you wanted your male partner to be smarter than you?" I felt a major “aha” about always being attracted to men who were very smart. The next topic was “if you are with men in your household, do you do more of the housework than they do?” Of course, I was, and I did 100% of the housework. They left us with literature about those two topics, and I read things they had written and so on. They also gave us contacts for joining a group."

"I went home and shared this with my husband. He was his own “radical” self but this womyn’s liberation was all brand new to both of us and it was pretty threatening to him. These women were talking about men taking an equal part of the work at the house. I was a Mom and doing all the cooking and cleaning. We were both students, and he had no other job, so it started kind of a rift between us when I started demanding that he do some of the work."

"I joined a women’s consciousness group, and that was just incredible. The women were extremely serious. This whole thing about ‘speak only from your experience’ was gigantic. The only way to find out truth was to go to your own experience, because we couldn't trust things that were written. And this fit perfectly with my hippie point of view. Meanwhile, there was a whole other life going on about being extremely expansive relationship wise, experimenting with love in general, open relationships. It was all part of trying to change our consciousness from how we were raised."

"The women’s liberation thing was never university based. The people from the university came to that civil rights class to talk about it, but the consciousness raising group met in people’s homes. I was very heterosexual at that time, but intellectually I completely got this ‘sleeping with the enemy’ thing. The cool women I knew were with cool men, but the men were losing a lot, and we were gaining a lot. It was hard in those days, and it stayed hard for a decade or two."

"The first activist thing I did was to give a speech at the university against a racist and misogynist man who was running for the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t even remember his name, but he did not get into the Supreme Court. This was not a specifically women’s liberation action, but I was to talk about how he was bad for women. I kept up my anti-war activities, but I was more conscious of how women in that movement were doing the secretarial work and men were the spokespeople. My husband and I split up at that time, but it was not to do with women’s liberation. We split because I went with another man, who I eventually married and moved to Colorado with (he was going to graduate school in Psychology). In Colorado, I never found the depth that there was in Gainesville, and I didn't get into any activism there. I just met middle class women who weren't really adamant about changing things."

On starting work at the Gainesville Women's Health Center

"I split up with that man two years later, and moved back to Gainesville. That was 1973. I finished college, graduating in 1974, and within a month of graduating saw a sign about a women’s health center that was opening. It didn't say “feminist.” We didn't like that word then. It seemed more like those middle class women in Colorado. I knocked on that door, and I said, “I want to work here.” They said, “I’m sorry, there’s no jobs,” and I said, “that’s OK, you don’t have to pay me.” It wasn't even open yet, but they invited me to a night of looking at our cervixes. These women were serious about consciousness raising! The women were Joan Edelson, Betsy David, Candice Harrington, Byllye Avery, and Judy Levy. Margaret Parrish was peripheral. I think she did social stuff with them."

"Within a month, they hired me to work in the front office, answering the phones, and in another month I was an abortion counselor. From the very beginning, they wanted to have a homey atmosphere, not like a doctor’s office, but beautiful. They offered both first trimester abortions and well woman care. I think we were in the first year of women-run abortion clinics, after it became legal in 1973. We were in charge. The doctors were hired and came in to do the abortions, and we educated them on the sensitivity we expected for our patients. We ran our own health center."

"The doctors who did abortions (all men at first) were coming from Jacksonville. Joan Edelson was the mover and shaker at this point. Betsy and Candace were nursing students that Judy Levy and Byllye Avery found when they went to the nursing school looking for nurses. They already had the building and the doctors when I came in. When women came for an abortion, they got to see a counselor. If anybody said their father or boyfriend wanted them to have an abortion, we stopped them and talked to them about what they wanted. We told them, ‘You can’t do this just to please them or satisfy their needs, but because you want to. There’s many other options and we’ll help you figure those out.’ We were major into education and empowerment, and having women feel like this was a positive experience, even if it had an enormous amount of sadness (which it didn't have for everybody). It was inexpensive, we kept it as cheap as possible (about $150), and Medicaid paid for any woman who was poor."

"The running of the center was all done by consensus. We did have a board of directors—Judy and Byllye and Joan. Margaret was probably on the board. All of these women were still straight, though we had lesbians working there. The first big issue I remember had to do with a staff member, Deborah David, who was a radical Black women’s and men’s empowerment person. She herself was extremely powerful, and she wanted the center to go much more in the direction of helping black women. She wasn't really a women’s liberationist. She didn't think white women really needed that. The board (who had all the real power) laid down the law about this. They shut down the center for a day and called in every staff member and went over the mission, which was a women’s liberation mission. Either you agreed with the mission, or you left. I believe they fired Deborah when she didn't agree with that. That was the beginning of a split between white and black women. This is maybe 1975. We weren't really able to communicate well. I think it was because we had real different goals. So there was a lock-out, those women were locked out, and the board had control again. Somewhere in there I got on the board, when they decided to have more workers on the board."

On the Women’s Health Conference

"Betsy, Byllye, and I had gone to Boston for a women’s health conference by the Boston Women’s Collective, and we decided to put on a Southern women’s health conference. But we had women from all over the country, thousands of women, not just Southern women. This was in April 1976. [Many of the women later significant in the Gainesville Women’s Health Center came to this conference and got radicalized—Lynda Lou Simmons, Marilyn Mesh]. I think it was called the Southeastern Women’s Health Conference. It was 3-4 days long, with hundreds of workshops, organized in 7-8 tracks, one on lesbians and straight women working together, one on prostitution, etc."

"This conference is significant because of the lesbian component in the planning. The women’s health center was the center, but there were other women on the planning committee—Gerry Greene, Rosalie Miller, both strong lesbians, in a lesbian women’s C-R group. Meanwhile, all the straight women planners were getting more and more drawn to lesbians. We were listening to Lavender Jane by Alix Dobkin. Now sexuality seemed more fluid to us. Maybe we aren't just straight. Maybe we could be lesbians (we never said homosexual). We were planning this huge conference where thousands of women were coming. I was in charge of the speakers. We got Rita Mae Brown, Phyllis Chesler, Pauline K [an academic psychologist], Barbara Ehrenreich. I got to be the one communicating with all those women. Meanwhile we were also planning workshops. We were going to the edge with women’s issues. All through this process, we at the Women’s Health Center were working with the lesbians, and that radicalized us. Every one of us became a lesbian, except Judy Levy (but I don’t think she was ever with a man again). Byllye Avery, Candace, Betsy David, me. The photographer, Vickie, got with another Betsy. We just all crossed over in 1976. I think most of us were just really tired of the men in our lives. We were loving being around women, and the lesbians were pretty attractive, and their lifestyle was pretty attractive. They were much freer, they seemed to have a lot more fun, and they seemed to have higher consciousness. That was our thing, transforming consciousness as far as we could."

"Another important piece is the workshop Gerry Greene and I led on child sexual abuse. I think this was the first time in the United States that a group of women got together and talked about incest and their childhood sexual experiences. Gerry and I were both child sexual abuse victims, survivors."

On coming out as a lesbian

"There’s such a range of what pulled straight women to lesbianism. Of course, there’s a whole continuum, from women who have always known they are lesbian, to women who are truly straight, who chose to be lesbians, for social, cultural, and other reasons. For me personally, it was because that childhood sexual abuse meant I couldn't get completely comfortable with men. I was drawn to men and was perfectly happy with a man for maybe six months, but I could never be completely intimate. Once it got beyond pheromones to true intimacy, I couldn't be honest. I was always ashamed, and couldn't be very giving sexually [because she had been forced to masturbate her stepfather from age 7], and that was a major obstacle. And then, during the planning of that conference, I fell in love with a woman, Rosalie. It wasn't reciprocated, but I really, really fell for her. I wrote her a letter telling her, and she wrote me a nice letter back saying I wasn't her type, and then had a talk with me about not writing a letter next time I was attracted. Next time I was attracted to a woman (Mary Boynton), I went up to her in person, and that led to my first sexual experience, and we were together for a year, living in a big communal situation. I was still raising my kids. After that I tried to be with men again, thinking I was really heterosexual."

On conflict at the Women's Health Center

"Meanwhile, I was still working at the Gainesville Women’s Health Center and there was another lockout (about 1980). Judy and Byllye and Randi Camion had decided that to be fully encompassing of women’s health, we needed a birthing center. They hired Joan McTigue as their midwife (moved here from somewhere else). Randi and Barbara Frentzen had been in the underground lay midwifery movement, and this was their baby, but the board didn't want Randi and Barbara in charge of it. They wanted Byllye in charge of it (even though she wasn't a midwife). They closed down the center and locked out Randi, Barbara, and anyone else who supported them. Almost all of us supported the midwives, and we had a sit-in, wouldn't allow ourselves to be locked out. We just started running it. The solution was for Judy and Byllye and Margaret (and maybe Joan) - that they would get the birth center (which was in another building), and we would get the health center [the abortion clinic]. Randi and Barbara were broken hearted about that."

"So I said I was on the side of the midwives at that time, which was true, but I also understood Judy and Byllye’s point of view . . . and I trusted their women’s liberation point of view more than I trusted the midwives’ point of view. I just didn't think it was fair to take the birth center from them. I supported the split and that they got the birth center. I was helping to run the abortion clinic at that point, so it wasn't a personal loss for me, though it was for Randi, Joan, and Barbara. It was huge for them, and I’m not sure Barbara ever got over it. When Judy Levy was dying of liver cancer, she had a big gathering of people, to say good bye. And Randi wouldn't go to it, even though it was years later. Randi made up with Byllye, but she could never forgive Judy for what she did to them."

On living as a lesbian

"I stayed conflicted about the lesbian part of myself. I fell in love with a charismatic crazy woman in about 1980, and from then on I have only been a lesbian. It’s not been without its problems. I still consider myself more heterosexual, but I've been married to a woman for 20 years and am completely ensconced in that life. I love her, and I love the life. I can’t quite see living a heterosexual life, even though I am personally more heterosexual. I don’t like the life of it. If anybody asked me, I might say I was bisexual, or heterosexual choosing to live a lesbian life. I’m more sexually attracted to men, but not to the life. But I’ll be 68 in two weeks. I’m just not that sexual in general. I can fully embrace the lesbian lifestyle. I don’t think at the core of it it has that much to do with sexuality. . . . I think it would be a non-issue now, though not so in the 1970's."

On the anti-nuclear power movement

"My next stage of lesbian feminist activism was with the anti-nuclear power movement. I forget what we called ourselves, but we became major activists, organizing marches. We went to the Savannah River plant protest in South Carolina. During the demonstration, we did civil disobedience and got arrested. There were some straight women in that group, but it was led by lesbians—Corky Culver, Lynda Lou Simmons, Kate Gallagher, Weed, Jean (she and Kate became lovers in jail), Judy Keathley —12 of us got arrested. That’s where we met the women from Sugarloaf [in Key West]. Barbara Deming was not healthy enough to come, but she sent Blue Lunden."

"We were arrested for blocking a road. Our whole purpose was to get national attention, so blocking trucks from getting in was how we did it, that and refusing to tell our names. About a hundred were arrested, and the 12 of us got to stay together. We were arrested in Barnwell, SC, and the twelve of us were sent to a little country jail in Aiken, SC. It had two floors, and they gave us the top floor, and kept the men on the ground floor. The jail cells were around a U-shaped hall, four on each side. We wouldn't give our names, but were known as the Jane Doe’s. The jail people liked us and recognized what we were doing. After the first night, they didn’t lock the cells, and we had the run of that whole floor. So we had a giant CR group, three times a day. People brought us yarn and we decorated, putting webs all over the place. NPR came and interviewed us, all the local newspapers came, the Gainesville Sun interviewed us. We majorly got our word out."

Peace Walk

"Another woman we met in jail, Quin, was with Blue. Blue was about 10 years older than us and came out of a radical lesbian experience. It was incredible hearing the stories of those women’s lives." [There’s a story she decides not to tell, involving violence. Her group believed strongly that non-violence was a central core of feminism.]

"We started sharing our dreams in the CR group. We had a dream group every morning. Out of that we decided to have a women’s peace march when we got out. We stayed in jail two weeks (including Halloween), and then we gave our names and got out. Then we did the Women’s Peace March in December 1983, walking from Gainesville to Key West. Again, the purpose was to spread the word to communities along the way. As we went along, that slowly changed and became more and more about women’s inner development. By halfway through Florida, nobody was reaching out anymore except to women’s groups. At first, it was reaching out to the whole world, but by halfway, we were much more into radical, internal lesbian feminism."

"It was at that time that I personally had a split with some of my best friends, because they became lesbian separatists on that walk. I would say that the majority of women who stuck with that walk became separatists. I had a boy child, and I never could embrace separatism. I think I had a core spiritual belief that even though I wanted to live my life mostly separate from men, I didn't see that as my long-term goal. I saw a purpose for doing that, but I didn't’ see it as a goal. Some of my most significant best friends followed the separatist path and lived it for the next, maybe ten years. I lost two of my very best friends during that time and didn't get back with them [Judy and Lynda Lou] until the early 1990's. Our lives just went in really different directions. Judy and Lynda Lou went into a very separatist stage."

"I met Becki Dale on that walk. We stayed at her house outside Orlando on the walk. Becki came to our circle that night and she just said “I’m going with these women.” And she left her life. That happened to a lot of women on that walk. They came to that walk and left what they were doing. It took us months to get to Key West."

"Sandra Lambert, from Atlanta, was on the walk. She was a co-owner of Charis Books at that time [a feminist bookstore]. She was on crutches at that time, and had been at Savannah River, but was not arrested. It would have been hard for her [she had post polio syndrome]. That peace walk brought Sandra to Gainesville permanently."

"You know one important way the lesbians from the South were different - we were a really dynamic group of women who were fun-loving. Corky and that whole group of women, oh my God! They were separatist before there was such a word. They just had fun. They did not think consciousness excluded being wild and fun. That was something extremely attractive about us. We were emotional and deep. Those were core values of the Southern women, to take our feelings into account, to trust them, and to be deep, not superficial, and then to have a heck of a lot of fun. Music was always a part of it, and that kind of leads you to fun."

On events in the Women's Movement

"While I was working as a waitress at Pizza Hut in 1973, Corky and somebody came in and ordered cokes or something, and they were writing. I asked if they were women’s liberationists, and they said yes, and they were planning a women’s art and health festival at the Thomas Center. It was a precursor to the spring arts festival. I told them I wanted to help. So that’s how I met Corky, well before the Women’s Health Center. That was all fun—puppets and art."

"They were the partiers, and we started partying. That was a big thing in Gainesville, having music and parties. Probably a fair amount of drinking, but people didn't really get drunk. Everybody smoked marijuana (I wouldn't trust anybody who didn't). They were having fun, and working out their relationships. Adrienne Rich’s book on radical honesty Notes on Lying was our Bible. It was a whole cultural movement, and for me and my people fun was part of it."

"During this time I was with Lynda Lou and Marilyn Mesh, who were with men doing an organic farm. It was maybe 1976, and I was still at the health center. We did sweat lodges and such. We believed the world might end any time, and we always wanted to be prepared with a knife and water and a blanket. We never fit in one little story. It still informs me to this day. The basic parts of my consciousness that grew during that time are there right now."

"Corky and the people at the Red House and the North 40 began to plan LEAP after that peace walk. I wasn't part of the planning, because by then it was lesbian separatists doing the planning."

On leaving the Women's Health Center

"Betsy went to graduate school. I was farming and on a spiritual path (Eloise Page’s Natural Law classes). Candace went off on her own spiritual thing. Judy Levy was dying. Byllye moved to Atlanta, then DC to start the National Black Women’s Health Project [1981] and she just became huge, got a MacArthur grant. Betsy got a PhD and started a world (rural?) women’s health thing, and now teaches at UNC, Chapel Hill, and is a major mover and shaker. At the Women’s Health Center we taught the doctors how to examine women by us being the models. Betsy is still teaching that model to doctors. Randy went to PA school and began working with children who were victims of abuse. Each of us just went on and did our own thing. I worked at the birth center, working for the midwives who had bought out Judy and the others."

On activism after the 80's

"I’m not sure I did much activism after the 80's. I went to acupuncture school and became an alternative medicine person. From the 70's on, I was interested in dream work, and just in the last few years went through a 2-year program in Jungian dream work. Once you get consciousness, I think you keep consciousness. I’m still totally interested in the environment and am in a group fighting the people ruining the aquifer. I still do activism with that. Relationships between men and women are still critical to me. My daughter and son are both activists with the Occupy movement. My daughter's group is called Middle-Aged Ladies Supporting Occupy, and that has gone national. My son was one of the founders of Occupy Gainesville."

"Those people I was estranged from through separatism are my friends again. I was in a bad car accident in 1994, and that brought us all back together. When I was almost dying, they just came, they just came to the hospital. No differences mattered any more."

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"Empowerment comes from ideas."

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