Women of the Early NEC

by John Amodio, former NEC Executive Director

 

The early 1970’s, when the NEC was founded, was a tumultuous time in America.  “Liberation” was the common goal for an array of marginalized groups seeking greater recognition and equality. One of the more active and controversial was the movement by women to achieve full equality under the law and in all realms. At that time, it was the norm for women to do most of the work in community organizations, rarely as acknowledged leaders, but as the behind-the-scenes, essential volunteers without whom success was not possible.

Anne Richards, the wry Texas elected official and social commentator, summarized this greater challenge of succeeding as a woman when describing the phenomenal dance duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:

“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

The NEC was not immune from the times, but it was also part of the change. The women of the early NEC not only served many of the traditional “women’s roles,” but were among its most important leaders. Being an outspoken environmental advocate “behind the Redwood Curtain” at that time when Big Timber dominated the regional economy and politics was daunting. Criticizing and actively opposing the long-established and deeply entrenched power structure was not for the faint of heart. Doing so as women made them even more prominent targets, and sometimes resulted in even more venomous attacks.  

That there were so many women who contributed in so many ways, most of which were not recognized at that time, assures that any attempt to give credit now will be woefully incomplete, especially when relying on memories from fifty years ago. With sincere apologies to the many women not included in this tribute, let’s at least acknowledge some.

Two were virtually environmental saints through their steadfast and skilled contributions: Lucille Vinyard and Susie Van Kirk. While being remarkably different, they were the closest of friends and bedrocks in their unflinching leadership, in spite of the animosity they endured. Each of their lives of environmental and community service are now enshrined in the Humboldt Historical Collection at HSU.

 

Lucille Vinyard moved to Southern Humboldt from Santa Cruz as a Republican business woman. In time, she moved above Moonstone Beach. She became the voice and face of the Redwood Group of the Sierra Club for decades, starting as a key leader in the creation of Redwood National Park in the 1960s and continuing until her death. She worked on the full spectrum of environmental issues, from the major wilderness battles of the 1970s down to local planning issues. For those of us in the early NEC, she was a first-class role model who was always available to mentor us by sharing her vast knowledge of players and strategies, and a controlled passion that helped us stay focused on being effective rather than simply enraged. For her endless personal sacrifices on behalf of our environment, Lucille became the poster-child for anti-environmentalist hate in full-page ads railing against “Lucille Vinyard and her ilk.”  

 

Susie Van Kirk embodied the “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Susie simply did whatever was required, virtually without recognition. She was the NEC Board Chairwoman during the Redwood Park expansion, when the NEC endured boycotts by businesses who stopped advertising in the EcoNews, threats of violence against staff and our store-front, and a successful timber industry campaign to cut off the NEC’s federal funding of nonprofits that enabled the NEC to employ both Tim McKay and myself. Faced with this elimination of our main source of funding, Susie calmly rallied our core community to keep moving forward, reassuring us all through her equanimity.

Kay Chaffee and husband Keith at the then-famous Berry Glen clearcut. Photo by Dave Van de Mark

While almost forgotten, it is worth noting that the NEC women were actually renewing a legacy of woman-led preservation of the redwoods in the 1920s. How Humboldt women were the actual key leaders in the first successful preservation of the redwoods is revealed in extraordinary detail in a recent book, Who Saved the Redwoods?, by Laura and James Wasserman. Read it, and be grateful and inspired.

Their efforts inspired the 1919 Valedictorian of Eureka High School, Ru-Flo Harper Lee, to a lifetime of challenging and exposing the Humboldt “old-boy” network. She stood almost alone in opposing the construction of the pulp mills that would enrich two corporations at the expense of public health, for which she was attacked by an industry rep in the national Saturday Evening Post exclaiming, “we could stand twice the stench (from the pulp mills), if it would drive Ru-Flo out of town.” As her last courageous act, Ru-Flo, at the age of 78, testified in favor of Redwood Park expansion before a howling mob at the Congressional field hearing in Eureka in 1978. I was genuinely in awe of her, and was sickened to learn of vulgar calls made to her by those pretending to be me. She was not fooled at all, shrugging them off as just one more attempt to intimidate her.  

Here are a few of the remarkable women who also made major contributions in the early years of the NEC, enabling it to more than survive but to thrive over the past five decades. I remember and revere them all with immense gratitude and love.

 

Mary Abbot

Chris Beresford

Kay Chaffee

Christie Lee Fairchild

Pat Ferris

Maggie Gainer 

Thea Gast

Harriet Gray

Suzanne Guerra

Paige Meier

Carol Monet 

Karen Nardi

Sarah Parsons

Nancy Reichard

Connie Stewart

Alex Stillman

Andrea Tuttle

Ruth Spowart