by Margaret Mann

This story appears in “Old Lesbians and their brief moments of fame,” by Joy D. Griffith, Karen Gibson and J. Ross, Xlibris Corporation, 2012

My name is Margaret Mann. I am a 64 year old, Caucasian/Apache, lesbian, Buddhist who uses a wheelchair to get around. I was raised in multi-cultural Hawaii by an Apache who wished he was Japanese (oh, the stories I could tell…). After a wonderful career working on behalf of women and girls on the mainland, I retired home to Honolulu, Hawaii in 2003.

In 1984 I was working in the national office of the League of Women Voters in Washington DC. I was a community organizer where it was my job was to support the local chapters. I was sent to Raleigh, North Carolina to do a workshop. The first issue they raised was: How do we expand our chapter to include women of color? We invite Black women to attend our meetings but they never come.

I said, “Well, it’s not a problem, just invite your Black friends and neighbors to attend. Or, you could join the local chapter of National Council of Negro Women and attend their meetings.” There was dead silence. It took two clicks for the message to sink in. They had no Black friends or neighbors and the thought of joining NCNW was abhorrent to them.

We had a great discussion afterwards. We talked about how the problem was larger than the LWV, that if we were to address the issue we were going to have to think outside the box. They understood clearly their own reluctance to go to an all Black neighborhood to attend NCNW meeting but they had little understanding why a Black women did not want to go to an all White neighborhood to attend a LWV meeting. We talked about how Black women usually come into White neighborhoods as maids and how a Black woman who wasn’t on her way to work might be treated with suspicion. We talked about how uncomfortable it would be to be a minority of one in a group. And they were clear that they didn’t want to be the “one” minority at a NCNW meeting. They were very well meaning and sincere in their quest, but just a little ignorant of how race plays out in real life. The story, however, has a happy ending. At my suggestion, they contacted the local chapter of NCNW to ask if they would be interested in conducting a joint voter registration campaign.

Back in Washington DC, I had been meeting with my counterpart in the national office of NCNW so I was fairly certain that they would have a warm reception. The LWV national office had hired Melva Ware, (one of two Black women in the 75 person national office), to design a program to integrate the LWV. They did not give her much of a budget and little support. I became her lifelong friend when I suggested that she purchase black shoe polish with her tiny budget and distribute it to the chapters. That way they could paint their faces black and have Black LWV members just like them. It was Melva’s idea to contact the NCNW and get the two national offices talking to one another and we cooked up the idea of joint campaigns.

About this same time, the LWV national office hired a PR firm to produce a membership brochure which would reflect the integrated membership they hoped to attain. The traditional brochure was red, white and blue with pictures of White women. The new brochure was green and white and had pictures of Black and White women working together. The members hated the new brochure and refused to use it. We had our work cut out for us.

Back in Raleigh, at the first joint meeting several months later two women, one White, one Black had a tearful reunion. They had worked together in the sixties integrating the schools and had not seen each other in years. It was very touching and sad at the same time. They clearly liked each other and had worked hard together on a difficult task and yet the segregated society in Raleigh had kept them apart all those years.  

by Margaret Mann

I have been struggling lately with the notion of "women born women” and the controversy about letting them attend “women’s” events. Certain questions come to mind as I struggle. The first question that pops into mind is why? Why do we need to define who can attend events and who cannot? The second question is how to determine who is WBW?

Last year I met a very charming woman who identified herself as a lesbian and I invited her to attend a picnic sponsored by a lesbian group here in Hawaii. The picnic was held at a public beach park. As she approached the picnic site she was asked by one of the organizers to leave because this was event for WBW only.  Boy children are welcome at this picnic and it made no sense to me that transgendered folks are not.  It broke my heart that we could not expand our definition of who "we are" to include someone who wanted to be with us. Who are we to draw lines in the sand? Have we not experienced first hand for centuries what is like to be on the wrong side of the line as lesbians, as women, as young or old, as women of color, or as poor women? What right do we have to impose that experience on someone else?

At a meeting of lesbians meeting to plan events for folks on Oahu I suggested that we open the invitation to all women. One of the lesbians said that once she had worked with transgendered folks on a committee and they were very difficult to work with and she didn't want to put up with that again. I pointed out that I had served on several committees with lesbians who were difficult and it didn't stop me from wanting to work with lesbians! This is when a preference becomes a prejudice. Because we could not seem to resolve this issue I decided to leave LIPS and form the Lesbian Arts and Culture Exchange (LACE) which has no "woman born woman" rules.

A few years ago I attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. One workshop there was a panel of women theologians from around the world discussing the rise of fundamentalism. The conclusion was that people want certainty, they want to know the rules, and they want to know what is right and what is wrong. The theologians determined that in this age of pluralities where everything is acceptable and the differences we once thought separated them from us now begin to blur. In an effort to make sense out of this and comfort the unease that goes with it, some folks turn to fundamentalism as an answer. I suspect the same need for an answer is behind the WBW notion. In an age of indeterminate gender, multi-culturalism, and hyphenated ethnicity we have to draw the line somewhere…or do we?

On a nine-hour plane ride recently I sat next to a young person whose gender I could not determine. It was several hours before I decided that this person was female. She was quite a good cartoonist as was drawing characters from a television program that featured similar non-gender-specific characters. I suspect the younger generation might have something to teach us about this. I suspect they find gender-less appealing for the same reasons some find women-born-women appealing. As I sat next to this young person I asked myself why it was important that I know whether she was male or female. The only reason I could come up with was sex. You would only need to know what sex a person was if you intended to have sex with them. I did not intend to have sex with that person, so in a way, their sex and/or gender are irrelevant.

It seems to me that the drawing of lines in the sand almost always lead to discrimination. Or so it seems for the last 4,000 years of recorded history.  I further suspect that these lines are becoming archaic. I read a book about the X chromosome recently and in there the author points out that many more people than previously known are actually combinations of X and Y chromosomes in much greater variety than XX and XY. So, how are we to actually to determine whether someone is " really" a WBW? Require genetic testing? How are we going to determine whether someone is transgendered as the science of hormone regulation and plastic surgery advance to the point where we can no longer tell from ones appearance? Perhaps then we will have to give up our gender prejudices and judge the people we meet on their own merit. What a revolutionary thought! Maybe like the woman in that poem who wore purple and a red hat that didn't go we could start practicing now…