Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ “40th Anniversary Event” • Interview with Eloise DeSpain

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Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ “40th Anniversary Event” • Interview with Eloise DeSpain


lesbian, Tucson, activism, history, feminists, 1970s, collectives, media


Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ “40th Anniversary Event” • Eloise DeSpain interview: 36:46

Southwest Feminists Reunite celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Southwest Feminist Festival Retreat held north of Tucson. That powerful experience in March 1973 and the dynamic creativity and political action that followed sparked feminists and lesbian feminists to reinvent their lives and organize for change over the next four decades. This collection consists of oral histories and digital scans of photographs from the past 40 years.


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives
Anastasia Freyermuth, video producer


MiniDV tapes recorded on Panasonic DVX-100A digital video camera


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives


16 March 2013


Southwest Feminists Reunite, Lavina Tomer, and Deborah Dobson


Rights given to the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project and the Arizona Queer Archives


Southwest Feminists Reunite


H.264 300Kbps streaming QuickTime movie, 320 x 240

Eloise DeSpain interview: 36:46 and 86.6MB





Alternative Title

Eloise DeSpain interview

Date Available

12 December 2013

Date Created

16 March 2013

Rights Holder

Rights given to the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project and the Arizona Queer Archives
Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Jamie A. Lee


Eloise DeSpain


Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, Tucson, AZ


Transcription by Courtney Martinez

So Eloise, would you tell me your last name?

Eloise DeSpain: Uhm, my last name is DeSpain, that’s my married name…

Interviewer: Okay

Eloise DeSpain: …My middle name is Wycott, W-Y-C-O-T-T.

Interviewer: And then how do you spell your last name?

Eloise DeSpain: Uhm. D-e-S-P-A-I-N just like in the country, and it’s all one word.

Interviewer: Okay. So when were you active in the Tucson community?

Eloise DeSpain:
Uhm…around…well…I went to the opening of Antigone and Johnny Cunningham who worked there…uhm…was a housemate of mine and Pat Kelly and Barbara Atwood uhm…were…very close friends of mine and they were partners at the time. And uhm…so one thing just lead to another and they did not live that far away from….I did not live that far away and we all lived in the old part of Tucson downtown, I lived in the barrio on main street in a huge old house that had lots of bedrooms and screened in porches, so it was you know…pretty much non-stop with….people, trans- women transitioning from one situation to another. And uhm…it was kind of idling, to think I ever had a key to my front door, but it, that’s what the barrio was like 40 years ago…

uh-huh…And you know after hearing all of these stories like all day today, what is it about Tucson that….Was it anything about the place or was it that somehow the people ended up here and it made the…

Eloise DeSpain:
I was born and raised here, I’m a fourth generation native Arizonian. My grandfather was a third generation and he was Irish from county court and my grandmother was a Yaqui Indian and she…that’s…we always made jokes in the family that Arizona was not Arizona it was Sonora. And they would make snide remarks about the Gadsden Purchase...uhm…because, well, everybody, my father was the youngest. Uhm…he was born in Winklemen Arizona and he was the youngest and his father was a minor, and when he was six years old, his father died in a mining accident and his Yaqui mother who had six kids, five of them were males, she started taking laundry in for the Mormons and she saved enough money to buy this house down in uhm…the barrio, El Pasidio, and we also had a ranch, a small ranch…and horses and cows. And of course, I had the usually goats and ganders and chickens and you know- I still have chickens (laughs) and I give them away free.

Uhm…I’m very active in my community…Uhm...other than this…

Interviewer: You’ve always been?

Eloise DeSpain: Yeah…

Interviewer: That’s great…

Eloise DeSpain:
Yeah, I always have been it’s in my blood. When I was eighteen I went to jail for crossing the state line with intentions to riot in Pulaski county Mississippi and uhm…uh…a large part, a large number of my friends…we consider ourselves a spiritual family a…a large number of them are black cause I have a comfort zone because Winslow is very conservative and uhm…so my activism uhm…is in the form of historic preservation and working with the aged in particular, women, in particular uhm…and uhm…community cleanup projects; I have an old truck a V8 ¾ ton that the police chief has a key to and when we have…and when an older person has…their yard has just gotten away from them because they have no family and their infirm, we just schedule a work day and the police officers volunteers, the fire department volunteers, and I work up a bunch of volunteers and we just go over their and clean up their whole yard and lot and take it to the land fill and that’s the kind of stuff I do.

And I had several…there isn’t a very large lesbian community but I will say this, I do know all of them. And they feel comfortable with me and ..uh...they come to my house and uhm…I’ve been teaching quilting and I’ve always taught quilts that taught history. One quilt I taught was moving west and that was about all of these instrumental women who, starting with the state of Kansas, moving west to California.

And another one was a misbehaving and that was one of my favorite ones because these were women who broke the molds. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. With regards to... well, for example the um-short ways triangle fire. Triangle Short Ways Factory in New York, are you aware of that? It caught on fire and they were making those Gibson girl blouses and they were all gauzy and they had all of the exits locked. And all of these women couldn’t get out. This fire started and most of them jumped to their death. And the building is still there and one woman, one woman survived, well…a lot of women survived but most of them died.

She moved to New Mexico and she started it, she started all over again working with older people, working with older women to get women’s equal wages in the garment industry. She was Jewish and when she died, her Jewish organization planted as many trees…she was buried in Israel in the area right next to John Kennedy. And they planted as many trees at her site that they did at that President Kennedy’s. Just remarkable women like that home startes, on their own. The woman who developed physical therapy with a doctor because of doing handwork. And I used to teach women’s history. I was a union plumber working my way through graduate school because my father was a union plumber and had a shop. So I grew up, I’m very mechanical, so I grew up working as a plumber. His helper. And so, when I finally turned 40 and realized I had 10 fingers and 10 toes and I was vested in the union I decided that it was time for me to retire, and start teaching at the college level. Which I did and I cried when I got my first paycheck because after working for Buckle for 16 years, the college was paying me one month what I used to make in one week. But it didn’t seem to stop me. I just kept going. I became a Main street manage and I wrote grants. I’m still writing grants for nothing, for the city. Um…from everything from you know, softball money, money for basketball, you know, intermural sports for the city of Winslow because we are…we are pretty poor. The city of Winslow is very very poor. And I work with the poor primarily and I also work with a group of women. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Madonna House? Well it’s a catholic organization that the main motherhouse is in Canada. And the woman who founded it was a polish Jew who converted to Catholicism. Along with Dorothy Day and Thomas Murphy were working in Harlem and um… they take a vow of poverty and they go and help the poorest of the poor. So, I help them. And I make sure that friends of mine who are well healed give them money every year. What I do is I go to quote “Sam’s Club” and I will buy two or three…at Christmas…two or three cases of toilet paper but the biggest thing that they say “Oh this is gold! Eloise!” is sanitary napkins. (laughter) “Oh this is gold!” ‘Cause no one ever thinks about that, you know, because they don’t use tampax, so I’ll buy two or three big big things of sanitary napkins and Um…the speed limit is about 25mph in Winslow and the population is… they say its 10,000 but it’s a lot less than 10,000. And I can ride my bicycle everywhere, to the library, to the post office, to my dentist, to my chiropractor, Um…to my uh…I get to my massage. I get a free massage all the time because the police chief, his wife is may missus. And because I take care of all the older…and she’s black. I take care of all the older black women in town. We just swap it out. “You just keep doing what you are doing Eloise”. And she’s a very good massage therapist. And we have a ripple in time together as girlfriends. So Um... sometimes people will say to me, “Winslow!” and I bite my tongue because it’s a best kept secret. I don’t really want…you know…I feel that the valley is creeping up the hill and its almost like I can feel it coming and I don’t want it to do that. Because I’m pretty much anti-conspicuous consumerism and mansions and overdevelopment and you know. And I have a huge vegetable garden, and I had chickens…I don’t know. Do you want to ask me other questions?

You had mentioned Pat Callaway and Barbara? Where they the founders of Antigone? And were you part of that?

Eloise DeSpain:
Yeah. Well, I would go down there and volunteer and the other woman, Johnny Cunningham who worked there. She was my housemate. We all ran together.

Interviewer: So the volunteers ran the store?

Eloise DeSpain:
No. But when I say we ran together I mean we ran the streets together (laughter). We raised hell! (laughter). We took names and kicked ass (laughter). With everybody. Sometimes I look back on it and think, “Wow! I can’t believe I did the things I did!” But most of the time I’m OK with it.

When you look back at the early ‘70s that time that all of these things were coming to be around 4th Avenue, 5th Avenue, and 6th Street. When you look back can you see today repercussions or ripples?

Eloise DeSpain: Oh yeah!

Interviewer: What are you most proud of?

Eloise DeSpain:
What am I most proud of? In Tucson? The fact that I lived there. The fact that I was born there. The fact that I still have very dear friends, very dear women friends that have stuck it out for me. So that when I come to visit I have a place to stay but because of the traffic and the exclusion of development. Usually when I come to Tucson, RC, Pam’s Husband has already clipped out all of the articles of City Council debates and news about developers and all the things that happened with the developers because I’ll have a hissy fit when I finally get there because I look at all of the wonderful architecture that they have destroyed that made Tucson so unique and so beautiful and it just kills me. And I love the Sonoran dessert. I have grown to love the Colorado plateau because it’s almost the ultimate expression or the ultimate experience of surviving. It’s very harsh. It’s very conservative. It’s very racist. There’s no dirt in Winslow. It’s all shale. All of the dirt is in Colorado. So, I’ve been growing dirt for years and my husband was a rancher in 86. One of the largest in Arizona. We were married for 16 years and he died of cancer. And I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to come back to Tucson. And the house that I had bought in Winslow because I knew that eventually that was going to happen because the ranch was in a family trust. And he was Mormon, and I’m Catholic that his kids were just convinced that I was…well they didn’t know how to get over me any rate. They just really didn’t. They were really unaccustomed to somebody like me. And you know my women friends would come to visit, and my husband loved them because they were so down to earth. I would call them up and say, “We are going to be bailing hey, do you guys want to come up? I’ll cook!” and then they’ll get up there and we would just work them to death. And we had a very good marriage. I was very happy, and I feel very fortunate because he was a gentleman. He was a very nice man. He was self-taught. He was a cross between Will Rogers and Mark Twain. Very, very funny. Extremely funny. Very dry wit. He was very intuitive. He was a wonderful cattleman. He taught me a lot. He taught me a whole lot. And he grounded me. He said things to me that no one else had ever said, like, “ You can do anything you set your mind to. You have no business working for anybody else.” He also said that I was a barometer for assholes because people who were insecure immediately felt threatened by me. And I had never known that. I knew that I had always had interpersonal difficulties with people that I didn’t understand because I’m so direct. So that was always a problem particularly in Navajo county because I always called a Spade a Spade and how a cow ate the cabbage. The roles for women, because it was primarily a Mormon community, the roles for women were so prescribe that they could not step out of them. Because they were so repressed, they manifested their repression in some really hostile negative behaviors towards other women. Its that mirror reflection thing. And that was hard to deal with. I’ve developed a circle of friends, as I say, that are spiritual friends. In my older age I learned to detox myself from toxic people. And I just don’t do drama anymore.

That’s why I’m learning the whole, “Unplug from the Drama”. (Sound effect) Put up that protection. (inaudible)

Eloise DeSpain: Yeah.

What would be some advice for young feminists who will look at these tapes?

Eloise DeSpain:
Because I’m so isolated, and even though I do have some very very good friends, women friends in Winslow, I don’t have any women friends in Winslow who have any kind of activist consciousness when it comes to feminism. Some of them are just flat out feminist, but they would never…they don’t know what that means. And so, basically, I have been relatively-and I hate to say this, and everyone is going to expect me to say it any rate-I want to know where they are. I want to know where these young people are. These young women. Because I know they are bright, I know they are articulate. I know that they have probably a lot more advantages than the rest of us do during that time of the early ‘70s. And they certainly aren’t as marginalized as we were. I would really like to see more activism. I would really like to see them push the envelope a little more. Take the bull by the horns. And I’m kind of disappointed by that. An example would be that with these group of women, you know with some of the older ones, they would get mad at me because they would be putting up a flyer or a poster for a consciousness raising group that was going to meet but they would put it on the 2nd and 3rd floor of the graduate school, of whatever graduate school they were going to. I kept on telling them, “You know what you need to do. You are preaching to the choir. What you need to do is you need to get on the busses that go from downtown, or south Tucson and go route to all of the foothills that takes all of these working class women and give them these invitations. Because otherwise you are just giving them to each other. And you are not expanding, you are not doing this exponential expansion of what we say we want. And you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be on the soapbox and on the pedestal at the same time. It just doesn’t work. And they would get upset with me. “Oh, Eloise you are such an asshole”. But basically I’ve gotten over that, and I still have four or five really really good good friends. Which are here today, and I’m really glad to see them. It was really pleasant experience. I almost didn’t come. Because I was just nervous. And a lot of these women I don’t know, and I’m sure they are just absolutely wonderful women. I’m glad that there are so many of them and that everybody is pitching in and I think all of it is great but, you know, I’ve done all of the taboo things that nobody is supposed to do. I’ve worked in construction with all-men crews. I’ve done ranch work. I’ve done all these things that…and I’m not a food Nazi. Even though I’m extremely liberal, people don’t give me the chance to tell them just how liberal I am. Because I have some real strong feelings about allowing us to be who we are, and a lot of it is spiritual and people all agree that its quote religious and so they don’t want to have that conversation and its OK with me. It’s all right. Because I had a good job, I just kept going to graduate school until they told me that, “Eloise, you’ve been here for seven years. You’ve written two dissertations. You’ve done all the post-doc work you could possibly do. You’ve taken every class there was. You’ve got to move on.” And I didn’t want to because I had this very good paying job that paid for graduate school and I worked on the weekends on call. Service calls. An example would be that some women came out to one of the construction jobs that I was on, which is an absolute total no no. And didn’t ask me, and didn’t notify me, and didn’t call ahead anybody at the time and just walked on the job with no hard-hats, no safety glasses, no steel toe boots. And wanted to interview me for the paper. I’m making 16 dollars an hour-and this is like 1975-will you pay me that when the foreman who is headed right from the foreman shack right now when he stomps over here and wants to know what in the hell you guys are doing here. Are you willing to pay me that salary? Because you’ve just broken three OSHA laws. Put your thinking cap on. This is my job. This is where I work. You know, they would get mad at me. “I love you guys but come talk to me at home. I’ll even buy the beer!” (laughter)

Interviewer: Exactly.

Eloise DeSpain:
You know, that kind of stuff. (laughter) But I also think because it was so new and there was this fervor that a lot of people couldn’t help themselves and I understand all of that now and it feels all right, I don’t have any grudges towards anybody. I never had any grudges towards anybody at any rate. I think this is great what you are doing. I think this is wonderful. That’s what we are doing with the American Quilt Study Group. We are doing a save our stories. We are going around and interview older women quilters and I’m in the quilter’s hall of fame for preserving the fine art of hand quilting. I don’t do any fancy tricks. I don’t have a rich husband who is going to buy me a $35,000 quilting machine. And I ride my bicycle almost everywhere, I mean there are cobwebs under my truck (laughter). And I’ve never owned anything but a truck. I’ve been a tomboy all my life. My first traumatic awareness of sexual identity was the first day of school, and the school bus pulled up from our dirt road and I had my Roy Rogers lunch box, and I was dressed in my lucky red-and-white horseshoe boxer shorts and that was all. I didn’t even had any shoes on. And the guy said, “You cannot get on the bus.” And it was crushing to me because I had no comprehension. I had no comprehension as to why, and then when two or three people had to sit me down because I was hysterical, that I didn’t get to go to school on the first day when they told me that I was going to have to start to wear dresses. Because I had never worn a dress. I don’t wear dresses now.

I know, I went to a funeral and I felt like I was in drag. Oh my Gosh!

Eloise DeSpain:
I know, I know that’s how I feel. I feel like if I have to wear a dress to something like that, I feel like I’m in drag. And that was good about my relationship with my husband, because he actually lost track of my kid in me because he said, “I married you to keep from having to hire you.” Because I rebuilt all of his pumps. It just came to me naturally, and I loved working in the ranch, and I loved working outdoors. I loved being with him because we were best of friends. The relationship that I had with the woman, unfortunately she died and I really took it hard. I’ve lived alone most of my life, except for the roommates that I had in the 16 years that I was married. The roommates that I had when I was living in the Barrio when all of this stuff was happening. I was kidding Pam about, “Can you think of one good thing about why you should come to visit? And I said, yeah! I’m hopping to meet a woman that I’m going to fall in love…I’m hoping to meet the right woman.” And when people would accuse me, or I would hear that so-and-so had said that I was gay, or that I was queer, in Winslow, my response is “I’m just waiting for the right woman to come along.” And that always throws them for a loop. I’m walking on firmer ground in my life, and I feel good about that. One of the reasons why I feel good about it is because I actually think that the women’s movement reinforced what I intuitively know all along. Because as a young girl being an artist, the first thing that I told my family was that I was not going to go by Eloise when I sign my art because I would never get anywhere because you had to be a male to be an artist. And I wasn’t even in the second grade, and I already had that awareness. And fortunately my mother and my father, and my grandmother, in particular who was a Yaqui Indian, I think she knew that about me and she never said a disparaging thing. She never tried to push me in any other direction. As a matter of fact she was very supportive because she was so independent. She curated after being widowed in the Barrio down in Tucson, until the day she died. She was in her 90s and I was living with her. They would make me get up at 5:30 in the morning because they couldn’t keep her in bed because she would get up and start making tortillas. I write. I’ve been keeping a journal since, probably, I was 18 years old. I have two full trunks of journals and I write every day, and pam knows that when I kick the bucket she has to burn them. Because I do not change the names to protect the guilty. And lots of it is the temperature, the weather. How many eggs I got, you know. I’m a huge reader. I support the library. We have a library-reading group and last month we did “To Kill A Mockingbird” because I am scout. That was my other identity reckoning, was when I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” I just thought, “And that’s why I always wear converse high tops.” These are my Spiderman converse high tops. I have about 30 of them. It’s the only shoe I wear. When I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” completely and totally transformed that trauma that I had about not being able to get on that bus because I thought, “You are OK. You are OK just the way you are.” And I also kind of think that that book kind of radicalized me, well I know it did, and also being a civil rights worker it definitely radicalized me after spending six months in the county jail. Holly shit! That really radicalized me and from there I went to live in Memphis, and then I went into art school. I wanted to be an attorney, and I had gotten accepted to Stanford, and I had a Rockefeller Fellowship but Stanford sent me this letter saying they didn’t want any more radicals. Because during those days they were bombing the president’s offices. So I lived in Memphis for four years and the week after that they assassinated Martin Luther King I left, and went back to Tucson and went to graduate school at the U of A. Because my identity was so wrapped up in a black culture, in a black blues and Jazz culture and it still is, that I I knew…because the hole town of Memphis filled up with the Ku Klux Klan and I knew I had to get out of there because my identity was so conflicted that I knew that they knew, and that I was next. And I’m still friends with people that I work with, Andy and Charles Clawson. He’s a retired school administrator and he was the first black man to teach at Indianapolis, and he’s a Vietnam Vet, and he and his wife came to my husband’s ranch several times while we lived there and he and my husband loved him. My husband loved all of my women friends, he just thought they were the greatest thing since peanut butter. Because he loved tomboys. Just to see him smile and have such a good time and be three or four women and him and we would all be cooking and he would be grilling steaks…he just loved it. We would be riding horses and he was in his 70’s and he had a shit-eaten grin on his face all the time to be surrounded by four or five women that really knew what they were doing and weren’t agoraphobic or any of those things. “Oh No! An Insect!” I understand that people have all their phobias and all of that stuff but not too many things disturb me, upset me. Except toxic people.

and we went a little bit long. Have you seen Julian Beamer? Do you know that name?

Eloise DeSpain: No.

Okay, she was supposed to be here seven minutes ago, I guess. (laughter)

Eloise DeSpain: Well maybe she was.

End of Interview


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives Anastasia Freyermuth, video producer , “Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ “40th Anniversary Event” • Interview with Eloise DeSpain,” Arizona Queer Archives, accessed February 25, 2024,