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Oral Histories: Barbara Winslow

Barbara Winslow grew up in an “all-white affluent suburb” of New York City, an environment she says she quickly escaped for the open-minded radicalism of Antioch College. Active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, Winslow moved to Seattle and entered graduate school at the University of Washington, where she and her then-husband became leaders in the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the UW Vietnam Committee.

As she describes it, Winslow found her own political voice with the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in Seattle, a movement she was an integral part of. A coalition of women from the socialist “old left” and the younger “New Left” formed Seattle Radical Women. Winslow quickly became a spokesperson for the emergent women’s movement after giving an impromptu speech at a protest of a playboy bunny who had been invited to speak by the campus administration.

Seattle, Winslow believes, was an extraordinary site for the early women’s movement, for the presence of the old left meant that much of the antiwar and labor movements were sympathetic to what was then known as “the woman question.” However, by 1968, Winslow and other New Left activists left Radical Women to form Women’s Liberation Seattle, breaking from what they saw as the rigidity of the old left as well as the sexism within male-dominated New Left groups like SDS. The burgeoning women’s movement worked on gaining childcare and reproductive care for University of Washington women; organized around abortion laws; supported union rights; and hosted panels on sexism in sports. For Winslow in particular, feminist politics refined and reshaped her opposition to the Vietnam War and her work with antiwar soldiers.

Feminism transformed Winslow’s academic, personal, and political life. She helped begin the women’s studies department at the University of Washington, and found intellectual and political inspiration while doing graduate work in 1969-1970 with legendary social historian E.P. Thompson in England, where she played a role in the early protests and conferences of the English women’s movement. As she says, the women’s movement was “inventing a whole new world”—an exhilarating, exhausting, and, as she put it, tremendously fun project.

After leaving Seattle in 1973, Winslow continued teaching women’s, labor, and African American history at public colleges and universities from Cleveland to New York, and is still a committed socialist feminist and labor advocate. She is now an Associate Professor in the School of Education at Brooklyn College/CUNY, where she serves as the head of the women’s studies program and runs the Shirley Chisholm Project on grassroots women’s activism.

Barbara Winslow was interviewed in Seattle on March 25, 2009 by Jessie Kindig and Trevor Griffey.