Two Lives, Two Deaths
by Jo Freeman
In the last month I've gone to memorial services for two friends whose lives were radically different and strikingly similar: Flo Kennedy and Audrey Meyer.
Flo was famous; Audrey was not. Flo was black; Audrey was white. Flo was outspoken and outrageous; Audrey was quiet and cautious.
Both were born and raised in Missouri. Both lived in New York City and died in their 80s. Both were feminists. Together their lives illustrate the diverse paths through which social change occurs.
Florynce Rae Kennedy was born in Kansas City, Mo. on February 11, 1916, the second of five daughters. After working for a few years, she moved to New York City and enrolled in Columbia University. She moved on to the Law School after threatening a discrimination suit when initially denied admission. On getting her degree in 1951 she went into private practice. Flo soon soured on the law. She later said the courts were not the place to go for solutions to social problems.
Flo's real calling was as an agitator. She was happiest when stirring things up. And she was good at it. Although a protester from an early age, she hit her stride when the women's liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s. It created a demand for women who could "tell it like it is," and Flo was one of the best.
Flo had a mouth. But it was not a 'bad' mouth. Even as she threw verbal darts at powerful institutions, people and practices, she sweet-talked her audience.
My most cogent memory of her is speaking from a platform in the square of the Justice Department at a federal woman's program. President Nixon was under investigation for what would become known as Watergate. Her audience was composed of federal employees. Flo started off softly, gently ridiculing the President. By the time she was finished, she had a couple dozen Justice Department women on the platform with her singing anti-Nixon songs. They were having a good time.
Audrey was anything but an agitator. Her Columbia education was in Missouri. Born in St. Louis on July 13,1913, she attended the state university through a M.A. in Sociology. She started a dissertation, but never finished it. Instead she began teaching, married and raised two children.
Teaching brought Audrey to New York City in the mid 1960s. After a career at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a trade school for the fashion industry, she was still teaching part time four months before she died. Like Flo, she had a calling for social justice, but she did her work behind the scenes, through school programs, classroom speakers and counseling students. Flo was one of the women she brought to FIT for a day long program in 1971.
When the feminist movement began, Audrey added its critiques to her curriculum. She didn't make outrageous statements and she didn't make the newspapers, but over ten thousand students went through her classes, where they imbibed the rudiments of feminism with their sociology. She created the platforms where other women could perform.
Audrey's public protests were confined to marches, where her ladylike appearance often contrasted with the signs she carried. In one pro-choice march in Washington D.C., she and her friend Helen Hacker captured attention with a sign saying "Post-Menopausal Women Nostalgic for Choice."
I met Audrey when I joined the New York City Chapter of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), part of a national organization founded in 1969 as a spin off from the American Sociological Association. NYC-SWS held monthly discussions of topics related to the study of women. Audrey was the backbone of the chapter, putting together the programs, maintaining the mailing list, and sending out regular notices.
When I ran for the New York State Assembly in 1992 I asked Flo and Audrey (and a lot of other people) for help. Both came through in their own way. Flo came to Brooklyn to be the 'draw' for a fundraising party -- even though strokes and heart problems had put her in a wheelchair -- and Audrey gave me the SWS mailing list.
Both Flo and Audrey had memorial services at New York's imposing Riverside Church -- Flo in the main nave and Audrey in a side chapel. As I listened to others talk about their lives, I thought about the different routes each had taken through life and how each had made their contribution to making the world a better place, not just for women but for everyone.
The outside world probably would see Flo as the more important, as reflected in the larger audience and more famous people giving testimonials at her service. But it is the Audreys who make it possible for the Flos to strut their stuff.
We need both inside and outside agitators to shake up the world. It is not the path we follow in life but what we do while on it that matters.