A trailblazing women’s rights activist, Ginny Nicarthy has been a life-long activist for social change. Ginny was a founder of the first rape relief organization in Seattle, Washington, and her 1982 book, Getting Free, has been called “the bible of domestic violence texts”. In addition to counseling, teaching and writing, Ginny has held a wide range of jobs, from driving a taxi to serving cocktails to working in a mental hospital. Her volunteer work has ranged from helping construct Habitat for Humanity houses, to advocating for drug policy reform, to leading groups for abused women. Ginny has also published travel memoirs as well as other articles, and is currently writing a novel.
Born in 1927, Ginny Nicarthy has seen an enormous amount of social change over her lifetime. But she has learned that real change takes time. The fight for a better world is a marathon, not a sprint.
Ginny feels that it’s important to step back and put the scope of the challenge facing social justice activists into perspective:
“I think one of the problems we get into is having expectations that are not realistic. Movements I’ve been involved in are trying to wipe out poverty, wipe out racism, wipe out sexism, wipe out war – in other words we are trying to turn upside the entire history of the entire world.”
This, she discovered, is not a job for the impatient, “People, especially young people, often think that they can do that in the next six months, or in the next election cycle.”
Ginny recalls young people who would get involved for the first time, for example putting in long days volunteering for a progressive candidate’s election campaign, only to see them lose. “Then some of them would say ‘I’m finished with politics.’”
Ginny would try to convince them not to throw in the towel, “We older people would say ‘this is step by step, and some of the steps are going to be backwards.’”
Taking the long view of history is crucial, she explains: “Often our movements don’t know our own history, we lack perspective, and if you only look back ten years -- things look bad.”
Early political instincts
Ginny Nicarthy grew up in what is now California’s Silicon Valley, in a Catholic family with five children. Even as a young girl, she felt like a “rebel without a cause”, reacting from her gut instincts to prejudice and injustice in the adult world.
“If was as if I was born with tabs in my head that said ‘question authority’ ‘racism is bad’ ‘sexism is bad’. Very early on, I questioned things. How come I have to do dishes and my brother doesn’t? I grew up in an almost all white neighborhood. But I reacted to racist comments when I was a child.”
It was not until 1949, when she fell in with a group of “pre-Beatnik eccentric intellectuals” at San Francisco’s City College, that she realized, “Oh, this is a political stance and there were are people who agreed with me.”
Ginny would serve as the president of the Cosmopolitan Society at City College, an organization dedicated to fighting racism. Ginny recalls that this group was more talk than action, but at the time this was still significant, “Just getting together with the idea of fighting racism, in those days, was pretty weird.”
The racism of the times ended up being one of the causes of her move up the west coast to Washington State, where she has made her home for over 50 years.
Having traveled with a friend from California to Hawaii, with notions of making a permanent move to the islands, Ginny was horrified by what she found: “It was the most overtly racist place I had ever been, I had never seen anything like it, with slurs against the native Hawaiians made openly.”
Within a month, she left to Seattle, where she had a sister. She soon took up with a man who was very political, who had been a conscientious objector. Ginny married him, and they had a child.
Ginny was not yet very politically active, but the seminal events of the 1950s had their impact on her. She describes an exchange with a colleague in an office she worked at:
“One day he came in and said, ‘Isn’t this great, we’re at war in Korea, I get to go back to being a bombardier.’ And I said, ‘So you drop bombs on people?’ And he replied, ‘It’s not like that, I don’t see anyone die, I just look through the cross-hairs.’”
In 1954, at the height of McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’ in the U.S., Ginny stumbled across the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing in Seattle during her spring vacation: “I just sat there and listened to the hearings from 9 to 5 everyday – I was outraged at what was being done, hundreds of people’s lives were destroyed.”
By the early 1960s, Ginny had begun to act on her earlier anti-war instincts, joining the peace education committee of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), who organized a peace walk every Easter.
Ginny explains that the first peace marches were modest and reserved affairs compared to the anti Vietnam War movement that would later blossom:
“We just did a walk to downtown and had a rally. We made nicely done, professionally painted signs. We worked hard to craft our leaflets. At first anybody who came to our demonstration was not permitted to carry their own sign, nor hand out their own leaflet. In this respect it was as far from the Tea Party rallies as you could get.”
“We always used to have to go get a permit for the march – we would call it a ‘walk’ just to have our demonstration. I was also involved in anti-racist marches at the time. As those grew larger we said we wanted to walk on the street, and the city said ‘no’. Then we said, ‘we’re not going to ask permission, we have a right to march where we want.’ We pulled it off without a permit. And that was a huge deal.”
As the years went on, Ginny’s commitment to anti-war activism increased. She believed strongly in civil disobedience against militarism, but recalls being at first reluctant to join in:
“There were about 50 of us protesting at the gates of Bangor military base. Three of our people committed civil disobedience, just trying to go through the gate. The guards kept picking them up, carrying them away and dropping them on the ground. They weren’t fighting back. I was standing there, thinking this was horrible, and thinking that it was three men and no women and that I should be joining them. But I didn’t because I was dressed in my proper lady’s clothes, a skirt of some sort. My fear was that if I went up there and they picked me up my skirt would hike up and my garters would show… what I imagined was me on the front page of the [newspaper] with my garters showing!”
Next time she was determined to take action: “We committed the hanus crime of cutting the fence that protected the military base from the dangerous public. I got arrested and went to jail overnight. I was charged with destroying government property and wound up in King County jail for 60 days. I knew what to expect. I predicted I would get 60 days. I could have gotten out earlier but I refused to promise that I would never do it again.”
Ginny does not regret doing the time, “I came away believing that all middle class white people should spend some time in jail, to see what they can learn about our culture.”
In later years, Ginny was arrested at protests against the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, outside the Consulate of apartheid-era South Africa, and also at a die-in in Washington, D.C.
More recently, Ginny travelled to Iraq about six months before the 2003 invasion. “I wanted to know who were these people my country’s was going to demolish, I wanted to see the real people.” She also went to war-torn Afghanistan.
Women’s movement activism
One of the common insults Ginny remembers from those early peace movement marches in the 1960s was directed specifically at the women: ‘Go back to the kitchen where you belong.’ But women like Ginny were never going to bow down to petty sexist insults. She threw herself into the emerging women’s movement.
Ginny did not experience the worst of the 60s era radical movement’s sexism first-hand, but she has heard about and read the harrowing tales of women suffering abuse, harassment and assault in some of the ‘revolutionary’ movements during those years. Before the women’s movement took off, men, whether otherwise progressive or not, had a level of impunity at home.
Women’s ‘rap groups’, or consciousness-raising circles, began to break all this down. Ginny took part in one of the early women’s rap sessions in Seattle. She remembers nine women gathered at someone’s house, just sharing their stories. At the beginning, almost everyone was married but “within a couple of years I think only one person in our group was still married.” Women were discovering that they did not have to accept their lot, and that others suffered and felt like they did.
Seattle had a YWCA that became a hub for the women’s movement. Ginny remembers “a tiny little place trembling with activity, with an abortion line, lesbian resource centre, a training centre so women could learn trades they had been excluded from.” Naturally, Ginny joined the board at the YWCA, and took it upon herself to expand their services for women.
“We decided we wanted to do this rape crisis line. I was a founder. We trained ourselves, and learned from the women who called us and said they’d been raped. I became the director of rape relief.”
Today, Ginny is recognized for her pioneering role in the women’s movement. In 1982 she published a book, entitled Getting Free, which has been called “the bible of domestic violence texts.”
Ginny is still fighting for social justice, and still writing, currently working on a book about her political travels.