Episode 16 of the Mavens Do It Better Podcast features Zoe Nicholson, activist, lecturer, teacher, fighter for the Equal Rights Amendment, LGBTQ Rights, Alice Paul Scholar and tour de force in the world of non-violent protest. Zoe is a living legacy with a wealth of knowledge.
Zoe and Heather caught up in Los Angeles, CA & Long Beach, CA.
Listen in as Heather Newman talks with Zoe about:
Her beautiful one-woman show on Alice Paul, Tea with Alice & Me and the 19th Amendment
Zoe’s lifetime of activism, study, and fight to see the Equal Rights Amendment come into law
What equality, intersectionality and being an equality activist means
Her upcoming segment on PBS’ We’ll Meet Again with Ann Curry that airs on January 8, 2019
Follow Zoe Nicholson at:
Heather Newman: Hello everyone, you are here with the Mavens Do It Better podcast and today I am in Los Angeles and we have a great friend and colleague in Long Beach, California. Zoe Nicholson. Zoe, say hi.
Zoe Nicholson: Hi everybody. So happy to be here.
Heather Newman: Awesome. So Zoe and I met, oh, it's like it'll be a year in January, uh, at the, Into Action art and social justice event here in Los Angeles in China Town. And uh, I met her standing in front of a piece of art and she tapped me on the shoulder and the rest is kind of history. Zoe, maybe talk about the piece of art that you were standing in front of and everybody's Zoe is, she's amazing. She's been an activist and a teacher and a lecturer and an actor and active in politics and everything for many, many years. So she's, she's a maven of many, many things and she's become very dear to me and teaching me about a lot of wonderful things in the world that I didn't know about and needed to be educated on. So, I'm thrilled to have her on the show today. So Zoe, tell us about that piece of art that led us to meet.
Zoe Nicholson: Well, I'm even going to back you up one event before that. I seem to have the most amazing luck asking people to take my photograph when I'm at a Yosi Sergant event. Very first one I went to so many years ago before marriage equality was the law of the land, there was a show called Manifest Love and I thought there was just some gentlemen working the shop, the gift shop, and I said, "Will you come out here and take a picture of me? I really like this logo." And then when I got home I found out it was the curator of, the producer of the entire show. I had no idea. So when I went over to you and I said, you know, this means this banner means something to me "Forward into light. Forward out of darkness". It's an old Quaker hymn that was used a great deal in the first wave of, of, uh, the American women's movement. There it was, although it was sort of funny because it was pink and rather gaudy, very 2018, 2017, but I just had to have my picture in front of it and look who I went over and asked to take my picture. And then we spoke for a moment and all of a sudden you call these people over and we're, you know, sort of having this round table right in the middle of a, an amazing exhibition. So, uh, yes, it was about Inez Milholland. The woman who was on a white horse, everybody knows there was a woman on a white horse at the head of the, uh, the parade in 1913 going up Pennsylvania Avenue. But interesting, I look at the date today and we're coming up right now on the anniversary of Inez's death and she died right here in Los Angeles, the Samaritan Hospital in 1916 in November.
Heather Newman: Wow, yeah, no, I, that is one of the wonderful things that you've taught me a lot about, about, Inez and Alice Paul and I, and you know, when I met Zoe she had said, we talked about, I took a photo and she said, do you know what this is? And I, and I said no. And so, I'm like, I always think that when I don't know, something, you know, and uh, and she was like, do you know who Alice Paul is? And I said No. And um, it really made me look at, okay, you know, being a woman in the world and wanting to really understand our history in the United States more of, you know, I went to the Women's March two years ago and you know, and you were like, well that wasn't the first one. And I was like, tell me more about that as well, you know, and I think you and I ended up talking for about three hours that day.
Zoe Nicholson: It was astounding. I surrendered.
Heather Newman: I was like I got you and I'm not letting you go. Um, and it was great because Eleuthera my dear friend who brought me in, you got to meet Eleuthera and then we talked with Gina Belafonte and a bunch of other folks and Yosi, that was super cool. So yeah, so you know, with and I know that, um, you're an Alice Paul scholar as well. Will you talk about Alice Paul and what it means to be a scholar of her work and all of that as well?
Zoe Nicholson: Well, I'm going to tell you though, one of the things that might ignite interest even, moreover than imaginable, just think that the head of the largest Suffrage organization, her name was Carrie Chapman Catt, she wanted to be friends with President Wilson. President Wilson probably is the second worst president we've ever had. You can guess who the first is. And she wanted to have tea at the White House and get along with the party and everybody be lovely. And they had actually, they used hankies, their agendas and their calls to action were printed on hankies and they were a lovely group of rather demure ladies. In 1909, a ship landed in New Jersey with the, with the New Jersey women onboard, a Quaker named Alice Paul, and she had served time. She had been taught and she had been a part of Mrs. Pankhurst rise for suffrage in Great Britain.
Heather Newman: Right, okay.
Zoe Nicholson: And a little-known fact that in July of 2009, she was actually in class with Mrs. Pankhurst in Royal Albert Hall in London and Mrs. Pankhurst was about to launch the beginning of real violence, the beginning of burning buildings and not caring about who was in the way. And two people got up and walked out and never went back. One of them is the Quaker woman from New Jersey, Alice Paul. The other one is a young barrister who was there studying at Oxford. Who's name is Mohandas Gandhi.
Heather Newman: Wow.
Zoe Nicholson: And they were in the same class. They've written about it, each of them independently. I have to tell you when I find things like this my head explodes.
Heather Newman: Well, you just gave me goosebumps.
Zoe Nicholson: It's so exciting. And of course we know that barrister Gandhi went on to practice the law in South Africa and he did not start practicing nonviolent direct action until 10 years after Alice Paul. I also can tell you that Gandhi's longest fast was not as long as the fasting done by Alice Paul, and almost nobody knows. Now I'm going to tell you something else to blow your mind about Alice Paul. Up until 1913, Pennsylvania Avenue was thought to be a street of office buildings. The first person to ever march, ever, on Pennsylvania Avenue to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to protest, to demonstrate, to ask the President for something was Alice Paul. Nobody had ever done it before. So every time you see a march going up to the White House now, you might think, oh, that's interesting. What are they for? Climate change, there for veterans day, why they there? I think a woman started that, nobody knows it. Now I'm going to circle back and tell you why nobody knows it because Mrs. Catt actually paid a woman, whose name was Ida Harper, to redact Alice out of the six volume set of the History of Women's Suffrage. Mrs. Catt was so unhappy, so embarrassed by Alice, so upset that it was the invigoration of the march for suffrage of Alice Paul. She fought against it. She wrote Alice notes that said, I'm so sorry. She wrote President Wilson notes that Ms. Paula is wrong. I'm so sorry. This is not how American women feel. But of course it was the extreme agitation, the high risk activism, the demonstration, serving time in prison, fasting, relentless, and finally burning the President in effigy in 1918 that, um, you know, the President went across the road to Congress and said, I am now supporting suffrage. I'm asking you to go ahead and pass this out to the states. And um, every day I think about that, that there are people who spent their lives doing something and another person goes back with whiteout, a gallon of whiteout, and, and, and redacts them right out of history. It happens all the time and it's maddening to a researcher, just maddening.
Heather Newman: Yeah, I suppose it makes it difficult to find, you know, I know you, you have collected a lot of information about Alice, but I think it obviously it makes it hard to find the truth or what happened or all of that, that would be in an archive or that would be somewhere that you could get your hands on. Right?
Zoe Nicholson: It's in a box, it's in a trunk. But I, and I can tell you the best things I've ever found are either in articles, or, I am fortunate that being 70, I actually know people who worked for her. So, Was able to sit here at my desk and call people. And I'll tell you the first time I went to her house at 144 Constitution Avenue, which is now a national park site for women's suffrage. the first time I went there years ago, I knocked on the door and a woman opened the door. I didn't know her, she didn't know me and she said, "Why are you here?" And I said, "Well, I'm in love with Alice Paul and I want to see the house." And, uh, this woman said, well, I'm going to cry, she said, "I was her intern. I slept in this house and I would like to give you a tour myself." And uh, I have a YouTube of this. I'd never, never used a Flip camera before. This is, oh, I didn't know 10 years ago, 9 years ago. I didn't know that they recorded sound. So I'm holding it and I'm taking a picture, a sweeping video of Alice's bedroom, the four poster bed and the desk where she wrote and, and I'm crying.
Heather Newman: Oh, so you can hear you weeping on it too?
Zoe Nicholson: Yes, instead of me narrating because I didn't know it was gonna catch audio, it's just me blubbering. That was my first event and I've been there many times and they've been very good to me. They've given me full access to the library there. I think probably one of the greatest moments of my life was walking into Alice's library and finding my book. And when I found my book in that library, I mean, that's a moment.
Heather Newman: Yeah. For sure. Is it the, is it, uh, the one about heart?
Zoe Nicholson: The Hungry Heart, yeah, my summer of 1982. Yeah.
Heather Newman: Yeah, that book, um, everyone details, Zoe and, is it seven, six or seven other women?
Zoe Nicholson: Seven.
Heather Newman: Seven other women who fasted at the State of Illinois Congress, uh, to see if we could get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in that state, which if you've been paying attention, we know that that happened this year, which is a big deal. I know from you and I talking about it, what an event that was for you having, had that experience with those women there. Will you talk about sort of what the passing of that has meant to you?
Zoe Nicholson: Oh, it, um, well it failed miserably. it was June 27th, 1982. And Illinois did not vote to pass the amendment. An amendment goes out to the states and a super majority has to pass it in this case 38 and it failed and that was pretty much it. And the deadline was July 1st, but a bit of history almost no one knows is that of all of the amendments, only this one had a deadline.
Heather Newman: Every amendment ever?
Zoe Nicholson: Well, one other one did, the rest were open ended. They could take as long as they liked. So now I'm going to tell you one of my favorite stores about Alice. on the phone I was talking to a woman who, uh, was part of, was in the hearings. She was a witness in the hearings for the ERA in 1971. And I'm on the phone with her and, and I'm saying, "Why did they ask you?" She said, "I don't really know. I was a college girl and we were college girls and they invited us to give testimony about the importance of being in the constitution." But when they finally voted yes, uh, we ran to Alice's house because Alice's house was very close to the United States Congress and the judiciary committee, just like the one we just saw with the hearings with Kavanaugh, the Judiciary Committee voted to send it up for vote and send it out to the states. So they ran to tell Alice and Alice had only one question, "Was there a deadline?" And uh, she said yes, there was and Alice Paul in 1971 said, "It will never pass." Because they know the only thing they have to do is choke that last state by the deadline. And if there was no deadline, it was open ended, it would be a collection. We could go state to state as, as colors change. We're all about that now, aren't we? Watching colors change in states. And Alice knew it would make it easily if there was no deadline. But there was. And when I asked, I was talking to a woman named Bernice Sandler, the mother actually who's the mother of Title IX. I asked her, so why didn't they call on Alice Paul? Why wasn't Alice giving testimony? She wrote it in 1923. Why didn't they invite her? She was just a few blocks away. And Dr. Sandler started to cry, audibly, we're on the phone and she said, "Zoe, because we just thought she was an old lady in a wheel chair." Congress just thought she was an old lady, you know, she was at that time 86. And, uh, they never thought to invite the author of the Equal Rights Amendment to Congress to talk about it. So, you know, that's something you can't learn in a book. That's something you learn on the phone talking to somebody that, that knew her, that was part of her life that walked with her and uh, or sat in her house or, or slept in her house. So I've been really fortunate to be at that between age. She was born in 1885 and I was born in 1948. So I still, there are still some women alive who knew her, who talked to her, who were part of her life. And I've been able to know that she was relentless. And um, I'm gonna skip to the end of story because it's so fabulous. Her 92nd birthday was coming up. She was in a Quaker retirement home in Pennsylvania. And uh, she got word that Betty Ford was going to call her on her birthday and she, she's, she was worried, the story goes, I have photographs of this actually. The story goes that she told the caretakers, now you got to wheel my chair over so I can be sure that the pay phone I can reach the receiver from my chair. And they tested it and she got up that morning. They did her hair. And they did her lipstick and she has this quilt over her legs that says ERA on it and the phone rings and Mrs. Ford says, "Happy Birthday Alice!" And Alice says, "Thank you so much, but do you think you can ask your husband about the Equal Rights Amendment?" And uh, it's just astounding. You know, she left us about six months after that, but she never stopped ever. There was not a day, she didn't retire. She didn't go home. She didn't say we got the vote everybody let's lay back and take it easy. She never gave up. Being 70, you know, the idea that I have another 22 years of work inside of me. That's interesting.
Heather Newman: Happy Birthday by the way. I know I knew that, but everyone else. Yeah, Zoe just turned 70 and what I. So many things I love about you, but I think it is being someone, I was born in 1971, so like, that's, you know, when you say those numbers to me, I think about that and I think about your passion and what drives you and I, it's really inspiring to watch what you do in the world and be a part of it. And to witness and to help amplify that because I think it's really important. So yeah. And Alice, you know, fist in the air with quilts on knees, you know.
Zoe Nicholson: Oh fantastic. Just fantastic, yes.
Heather Newman: Absolutely. Um, we're gonna talk to Zoe over time, over bits and podcasts and so there is, we could be on the phone and podcasting for like 12 hours with her easily if not 120. but one of the things I also wanted to have you talk about a little bit is you've had this really kind of major thing happen recently that you called me and you're like, "I have to tell you something!" And I was like, "What?", and really exciting and, you know, there's a lot going on these days because of our political climate. Uh, the Women's Movement, the Me Too Movement, the Black Lives Matter, all of these things and you know, we just had our midterm elections and all of that and you know, we're looking towards the 100 year anniversary of the 19th amendment and um, lots of motion around that in the world with different organizations and things happening because of that, leading to that August 2020 date. And um, I wanted you to share with everybody because I think I want people to tune in to what's happening and something beautiful that's happening with you. That is, I think so well deserved and about darn time. Was going to swear. But anyway, um, will you tell everybody a little bit about that?
Zoe Nicholson: Sure, you know, uh, I, I'm really, really inventive. I'll try anything. I mean, it's, it's amazing, if you had an hour, we could just talk about all the things I've tried that never went anywhere. I remember sending a publisher, a floppy disk that I made on my Apple IIc, oh yeah, that would take a kid's name and it would place it in a storybook. So if your kid's name was Monica, you know, the story book will come out of the dot matrix printer with Monica in it. And the letter I got back said, I hope nothing like this ever happened. Books are books and they shouldn't be tampered with. And I mean, yeah, I was being chastised for this rather what we think of now, a small idea at the time it was outrageous. So about 11 months ago, 10 months ago, I saw a little notice on Instagram to apply for the possibility of meeting somebody from your past that you had been looking for, that actually had been in historical event that you had shared. So, I filled it out and honestly, I forgot all about it. Honestly, six weeks later I got invited to skype with the film producer, director, editor, three different people and they were all sitting in front of the skype machine and I, they interviewed me for about 90 minutes and said thank you very much. And that was that. And I didn't know what was going to happen. Well then in March I got an official email telling me that I had been selected to be one of the 12 people in this season's show "We'll Meet Again" with Ann Curry. And uh, so, uh, that was in March. And then April, May, everyday there would be more requests. More I need a photograph of this, I need a photograph of that. Would you answer these questions? What did you do then? We need a resume. Where did you go to school? It was nonstop and, and I was sworn to secrecy, so I'm not, you know, I like to tell people everything.
Heather Newman: Well, of course, but I know you can't and I'm not asking for that. Of course.
Zoe Nicholson: Even then I couldn't even tell people I was chosen. Right.? So, uh, then in June I got the scariest thing. I had to sign a piece of paper that said I would be available for 14 days with no interruptions, which means no pets, no children, no going to market, no nothing, 14 days, nothing else. And uh, I'm so fortunate that I have life that allows such a thing. And I said yes. And then they gave me a date of when they were going to show up and uh, then they would text me, this is really astounding, they would text me at night and tell me where I was going the next day.
Heather Newman: Wow. That's set on the fly. Yeah.
Zoe Nicholson: And I'm not that spontaneous of a person. So, uh, anyway, um, yeah, the first thing, I didn't meet them until Springfield, Illinois and they flew me to Springfield and on August 31st I left Long Beach and flew to Springfield and for the very first time I walked into the Rotunda of the Springfield House, stood where I had been, you know, for 40 days with Phyllis Schlafly and, and NOW, and all of them, mayhem, Betty Ford, uh, was there all the mayhem of the Equal Rights Amendment. And uh, so they shot for 14 days. And lo and behold, I, I don't, you know, I suppose it means something. I don't know what it means, but my episode is the finale. Two ladies, uh, are being featured myself and the woman who is the first woman I believe, who began as a stewardess and ended up actually being a pilot of a jetliner. And uh, so they interweave two stories and the final one airs on January, Tuesday, January 8th, and it's, We'll Meet Again with Ann Curry. And this one particular show is about women. And uh, just because I'm obsessive, I know you'll understand everybody who's listening to me, you know why I am saying this, that it's just three days before Alice Paul's birthday. Her birthday is January 11th.
Heather Newman: Oh, okay. Excellent timing. And you know, we've got, there's lots of things in January happening around Women's Marches and Women's Movements and all of that too. So, I think
Zoe Nicholson: Yes, the House will sit down.
Heather Newman: Yes, poignant.
Zoe Nicholson: His penis will be snipped, and things will happen. Yay.
Heather Newman: Absolutely. So yeah, so everyone, Zoe and I've been talking a long time and we, we often meet and go walk on the beach and talk about things and she's been so generous with her time with me and her beautiful history with me. And um, I really wanted to bring her onto the show and also invite her on more so that we can get more of her amazing work in the world that she's done for 70 years. And since she first drew breath, cause I know
Zoe Nicholson: I would totally agree. I was a rebel at that moment.
Heather Newman: Certainly, yes. So, from the stories I've heard. So, um, I think for today we're gonna I want to close out and say thank you and invite everyone to keep an eye on the podcast for more with Zoe more maybe more tea with Zoe. And, and, and talk about that a little bit too before we, before we end
Zoe Nicholson: Well, tea is code for revolution. If you know your American history, you know that every revolution we had centered around tea. It's been really integral to all of us seeking liberation from whatever country at whatever time. For some reason tea comes into play. It must be a medicinal plant. The indigenous people could probably explain that to us.
Heather Newman: Sure. Yeah. So, one of the things, Zoe does a myriad of different things, but she has this beautiful one woman show that's called Tea with Alice and Me and that is Alice Paul, which I got to see last year down in Long Beach and um, it's something that she does and she, she's brilliant. I mean you can hear her. She's brilliant at lecturing and history and stuff. And so, one of the things that she does is that one woman show. So those of you who listen to me, I know that I'm a theater major and all of that, that, you know, coming around in this year, you know, Tea with Alice and Me could be a really great thing to bring into a university or college or when you know, your groups that are interested in women's history and US history and all of that stuff. And so that's, you can check all that stuff out online at her site, which is ZoeNicholson.com. And um, yeah, and we're going to talk more about all of these fun things with her, um, as we go along on the Mavens Do It Better podcast. So, and be sure we're going to, I want to do some like viewing parties on January eighth to check out this awesome event that's going to happen and I'm so excited for you for that and for so many things. But, um, I just wanted to say thank you for being a really amazing force in my life and a friend and saying yes to this and I'm excited to hear more from you on lots of things so
Zoe Nicholson: Welcome. Let's rock!
Heather Newman: Okay, let's rock it.
Zoe Nicholson: Times a wasting.
Heather Newman: Times a wasting for sure. All right everyone. That is the latest episode of Mavens Do It Better. Have a lovely day and keep on keeping on. Cheers.