Friday, March 10, 2017
From the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFrom the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In 1977, eight women from Dorchester were invited to join a larger group of women from around Boston who were planning an International Women's Day celebration in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which was to be titled "Basta la Repression." The eight Dorchester women (Eileen Bisson, Janet Connors, Christine Maguire, Sandy McCleary, Pat Rackowski, Catherine Russo, Linda Zwickert, and Donna Finn) decided that this original celebration was too radical to garner much support throughout Dorchester and subsequently convened their own planning committee to host the first Dorchester International Women's Day. Their focus was to pay tribute to the leaders, heroines, and hard-working women of Boston's largest multicultural neighborhood, Dorchester. On March 11, 1978, the first Dorchester International Women's Day was celebrated by approximately 300 women at the Grover Cleveland School in Boston, Massachusetts. The event featured speeches; skits on welfare and alcohol and drug abuse; workshops on toy making; assertiveness training and karate, massage, and home birth classes for women; and a slide show. The welcome speech was written by Sandra McCleary on pink paper; this speech was used from year to year and was referred to as the "pink speech." Daycare was available to those who needed it, as well as a home-cooked free lunch of soup and bread. The Planning Committee sent out evaluations in the fall of 1978 to the participants, and the responses they received back were extremely positive.

The format of the Dorchester International Women's Day varied from year to year. Often, the event included skits, forums, workshops, cultural fairs, and entertainment. Boston-area activists often gave the welcome or closing speech during these celebrations. In 1981, Kip Tiernan asked during her speech, "Who is that loud-mouthed woman from Dorchester?" This would become part of the Dorchester Women's Committee's motto, "Who is that Loud-Mouthed Woman from Dorchester? She's All of Us!" In 1989, the Dorchester Women's Committee performed a reading of "Kitchen Table Conversations," a collection of skits that outlined the history and planning of the Dorchester International Women's Day. The Planning Committee chose to perform a reading, not only to share the origins of the Dorchester International Women's Day, but also because it would be less expensive and time consuming to host. Free South Africa, the Disabled People's Liberation Front, the Prisoner Families Group of Massachusetts, and the Women's Alliance against Repression all collaborated in the planning, as well as in the event itself. In 1993, the planning committee hosted a talk show as the format for the celebration. They hoped to generate a lively discussion with ideas on how to bridge the gap between generations.

In 2003, the Dorchester International Women's Day was an anti-war rally in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Boston. No matter what the format was, however, the group always offered a free, home cooked meal to all participants. Each year, the Dorchester International Women's Day featured a different theme, such as "Women Fighting Back," "Women Who Dare," "Crossing Bridges," and "Strong and Together: A Vision for the Nineties." Men often volunteered for security details, childcare, and other behind-the-scenes duties, but generally did not participate in the event itself.

"A message to Dorchester women." From the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library"A message to Dorchester women." From the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In 1979, after the second Dorchester International Women's Day, Donna Finn and several other members of the planning committee formed the Dorchester Women's Committee. The Dorchester Women's Committee's goals were to build an ongoing women's organization that reflected the composition of the Dorchester community, with regard to race, class, nationality, and age. Their statement of purpose was to address and end instances of prejudice and discrimination against women; to sponsor and celebrate International Women's Day yearly, providing women and children of the community the space and resources to address issues relating to women; to be a balanced multiracial and ethnic group of neighborhood women working for racial harmony and a better quality of living in the community; and to build alliances with other agencies and groups to further these goals. The Dorchester Women's Committee founded many other groups, including the Green Lite Safe House Network, the Subcommittee on Heating or Eating (S. H. E.), the Women's Collaborative for Building and Development, the Women's Writes Collective, and the Organizing and Resource Center for Neighborhood Women and Girls.

The Green Lite Safe House Network was born out of the multiple murders of women of color in Boston during 1979. A women who was alone and felt unsafe on the street could go to a house with a green porch light for safety. The program was designed to offer temporary refuge to women and to act as a referral service in a crisis situation. Green light bulbs, buttons, and bumper stickers were given to women who applied to be a Green Lite participant. The participants were required to have a first-aid kit, tear gas, and a whistle by their front door. Neighborhood groups were formed to provide extra services, such as a ride home or to the emergency room. A Green Lite participant was also expected to call ahead to the hospital if the victim was raped or attacked, so that the hospital would have a rape team available. At the end of 1979, 100 houses were participating in the Green Lite Safe House Network, and the network had reached other parts of the Boston area, such as Cambridge.

In 1981, the Dorchester Women's Committee teamed with the Boston Neighborhood's Energy Coalition to combat rising energy prices. The Subcommittee on Heating or Eating (S. H. E.) was formed to assist community members in receiving fuel assistance. The group sponsored a winter survival workshop to share strategies in keeping warm, assistance in determining eligibility for fuel assistance, and preventing utilities from being shut off. Members of S. H. E. also contributed recipes for a "Poor People's Cookbook," including corn chowder, American chop suey, corned beef hash, and other low-cost, nutritious foods.

The Grass Roots Network for Peace and Justice, founded after the start of the 1990 Gulf War, hoped to act as a resource and information sharing space for Boston-area organizers and organizations. Its aim was to educate the public about the dangers of United States' domestic and foreign policies, as well as be an advocate of alternative uses of tax dollars to meet the needs of citizens. The Dorchester Women's Committee teamed with several other groups in the Boston area, including the Mystic Valley Peace Action, the Arlington Committee for Peace and Justice, Lexington Coalition for Peace, the New Jewish Agenda, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The Grass Roots Network for Peace and Justice developed literature and audio-visual materials, and arranged speaker bureaus for use in community education and organizing work. In 1994 the network was absorbed into Boston's Peace and Justice Hotline.

The Women's Collaborative for Building and Development was a joint effort during the 1990s with Mujeres Unidas en Acción, Project on Women and Disability, Child Care Project, Women's Theological Center, Hecha a Mano, and Women in the Building Trades to plan and develop the first women's building in the Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston. It was hoped that when built, the building would provide office and meeting space for women's groups, and incubator space for newly developing women's businesses. In addition, construction of the building would provide training opportunities for low income women interested in learning the building trades. This project never developed past the planning stages, however.

The Dorchester Women's Committee also organized smaller groups, such as a support group for the Framingham 8 and the Women's Writes Collective. The Framingham 8 were women incarcerated at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution, a Framingham, Massachusetts facility for women. The Framingham 8 consisted of Patricia Allen, Shannon Booker, Lisa Grimshaw, Patricia Hennessy, Elaine Hyde, Eugenia Moore, Debra Reid, and Meekah Scott. All eight women had been convicted of killing abusive partners in self-defense and eventually had their sentences commuted by then-Massachusetts governor William Weld. The Women's Writes Collective was formed in 1991 to provide members the opportunity to express themselves politically through writing.

In 1989, the Dorchester Women's Committee formed a youth group, who members often wrote, directed, and performed skits during Dorchester International Women's Day. This group of young women, who eventually called themselves Young Sisters in Struggle for Change and Empowerment, developed a multi-language poster on teen dating violence, which they unveiled at Boston City Hall in 1994.

Also in 1994, the Dorchester Women's Committee published its "Women: Help Stop Abuse" booklet for battered women in need of help. It contained the contact information of shelters and support groups in eight languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Khmer, Haitian Creole, and Cape Verdean Creole.

By 1997, the Center for Neighborhood Women and Girls storefront closed due to lack of funding, and the Dorchester Women's Committee went back to operating from Donna Finn's kitchen table. To compensate for the loss of their office space, the Dorchester Women's Committee decided to distribute "Truth Sheets" that contained information for the women of Dorchester. Topics included the death penalty, welfare, and the prison system. By 2008, however, only a small number of members were still active, and the Dorchester Women's Committee legally dissolved.

"Truth sheet" distributed by the Dorchester Women's Committee. From the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library"Truth sheet" distributed by the Dorchester Women's Committee. From the Papers of Donna Finn. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

Author: 
Cat Holbrook