Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ Doris Dillon "Dillon", Karen Kushner, Dianne Roberts interview

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Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ Doris Dillon "Dillon", Karen Kushner, Dianne Roberts interview


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


Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ Doris Dillon "Dillon", Karen Kushner, Dianne Roberts interview
This oral history interview highlights local feminist and lesbian feminist activists as part of the Southwest Feminists Reunite collection, which was started in spring 2013 during their 40th Anniversary celebration in Tucson, AZ. 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.


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives


Recorded digitally on Sony HDR-CX580 digital video camera


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives


Southwest Feminists Reunite. Lavinia 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, 427 x 240




MovingImage and Oral History


Southwest Feminists Reunite

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Anastasia Freyermuth


Doris Dillon "Dillon", Karen Kushner, Dianne Roberts


Q: If you don’t mind stating your name and a little bit about yourself, a tidbit about yourself.
A: My name is Doris Dillon. I go by Dillon now. I lived in Tucson in the early 70s, mid 70s probably for 30 years and I didn’t know anything about feminists or feminism or anything like that. I came from a small town 15 miles away from here played in a band after I got out of high school. As soon as the band broke up, maybe three or four years, I moved to Tucson and I met these people here at a women’s shelter. Gradually, it just started being more and more friendly, it never really seemed like a feminism thing. It just seemed like we had the same ideas, we wanted to make things better for people that really couldn’t make it for themselves and of course it was mostly women we were concerned with because there were more women like that than men. We just tried to think of ways to help that women could have a shelter to go to in case they were raped they go and talk to someone and just the way were could make women’s lives better and at the same time we were learning about making our lives better.
Well my name is Karen Kushner (sic) and I am a physician’s assistant now which is probably hard for most people to believe because back in the day, and in the 70s, I was probably abusing drugs more than I was prescribing them as I do now. I think the difference that you can see is that the experience for me at least in Tucson was that it completely turned my life around. It afforded the opportunity for me to realize that I was a lesbian. I think I knew it as a small child but couldn’t deal with it and couldn’t recognize it and put myself in all kind of situations that were probably very dangerous for me. The blessing that I received was that after a small car accident in New Mexico I ended up in Tucson and I had dog named Reefer and I could not find a place to stay with my dog. So I called around I got many declines from many places except for the Tucson Women’s Center. The phone was answered by a woman named Marion who said all we have is floor space but you’re welcome to come, you and your dog. So I slept on the floor and when I woke up, I saw all these posters that said things like Sappho was a Right On Woman and Women’s Poetry Night and all kinds of things of that nature and that was my start to where I am now.
I’m Diane Roberts and I was born and raised in Tucson, still here I’m actually a second generation. I was in Fine Arts classes at the U of A and in the U of A Wildcat there was an ad for Les Femmes, a consciousness-raising group. It was a little place on Sixth Street, right across from the U of A they and they these had meetings at night. I met someone there by the name of Lynn Lane whom I recognized as being one of the artist models in my art classes. So she and I started talking and I started learning… so when I went there, I was so defensive. I mean I knew that I was a lesbian, I’d known since I was 14. I had a big crush on someone in high school so I kind of knew but there was no one to talk to about it. So it was really wonderful to talk with these women about being a lesbian but also being a woman and having the right to live my life the way I wanted to as a woman.
So when I went there I was very self-protective, and kind of shy. I had really long hair and I wore cowboy boots. I didn’t feel like I fit in because all these wild women from New Mexico were there. Dandelion, known as Dandelion at that time, she lived there, and Lavina and some people, and they had been very politically active in New Mexico and in other places. Then I started meeting these women from New York, Queens. All of a sudden my Tucson world which was very small started getting very big. And my whole life changed. It really caused issues with my family whom I have just been visiting. My two parents are in their 80s right now who thought that I was…because I stopped wearing a bra, that was their biggest issue at the time. But I began to really grow as an individual, as a person. My art grew, a lot of things grew. But I also had issues, being young, being in my early 20s. I think I did stay stoned a lot of the time when I lived there because when Lavina moved out I moved in and I lived there with Dandelion who was constantly making carrot juice from fresh carrots and smoking pot. It’s all in the past. I’ve been in recovery for almost 30 years now. I actually I was really happy, you know I have some challenges. I feel really happy. I’ve been with someone for almost 25 years now. My partner of 25 years, we have great-grand kids in our lives. It’s kind of a neat time. I wouldn’t be here, I think if I hadn’t taken the chance and gone to the Les Femmes consciousness-raising.
Q: When did you first become aware of the feminist and lesbian feminist movement.
A: Dillon: I really didn’t become aware of it as much as just being a part of it. As she said she woke up and at least she had some signs to help. I thought this guy is kind of strange and act different and they have had a strong mind about how this is and that is and I started listening and noticing- yeah-women’s ways and men’s ways are a lot different and there is a lot to fight for. Like I said most of the women before we didn’t make as much money as men made. You couldn’t even get into the military and now you can’t get out without being raped but then you couldn’t even get in. I didn’t get caught up in the labels of whether I was feminist or a lesbian. I just wanted to try be a good person. The labels didn’t mean so much to me. At one time I really didn’t identify with being a feminist and being called a lesbian kind of hurt my feelings. Then I got comfortable being called a dyke and then pretty soon, lesbian wasn’t so bad. Yeah, I’m a feminist. It was just a gradual moving into a different kind of seeing things.
Kushner: It’s interesting because one of the memories I have is of Marian driving down the street, she was one of the first people that I met in Tucson at the Women’s Center and she was a big gal, she was like the Meg Christian. She was a big strong woman. And she was driving and I think she had the lesbian symbol, the two women symbol, hanging from her rearview mirror and she was at a red light and some guy made a comment and she rolled down her window and was going to say something back to the guy and he punched her in the nose and broken her nose.
That’s when I started to realize, wow, this really isn’t okay, this lifestyle is not okay. What’s up with that? We’re women and just because we’re choosing to have a relationship with another woman does that makes us less than, does that make us your target? What is up with that? It started to raise those questions for me. And so Like Doris, though, I didn’t really label myself but other people are labeling us. I started to, as I was at the Women’s Center, to realize that things were not fair and I think that’s what a lot of us were dealing with you know, hey that’s not fair: A woman wants to leave her husband? Well it’s not fair that he’s beating her up. I’m going to go get her, and we started doing that kind of thing at the Women’s Center just without training just on the basis of what you’re doing is not right and we all have equal rights or we should. So if you need help then I’m going to go to your house and get you and your kids. There are some interesting stories that happened about going to people’s homes without their permission.
Roberts: And just going back a little big to what Doris was saying I was like searching here in Arizona, where there’s a lot of Catholics and a lot of people at that time, and it’s hard to believe but it’s more liberal here than in the Phoenix area, but I was going to bars with people. My first lover was my art teacher, a woman and so we just thought it was this artistic thing to do it wasn’t in any context. So we went out to this place, a bar way, way out in the middle of nowhere. It was the only women’s bar that we could find. There were women who dressed up like men and there were women who were all really femmie and stuff. So Cynthia and I would sit at the bar and there was this one woman who was a truck driver and actually like wore a gun on her hip she wore all black and stuff and had a bull whip on the other hip. It was like oh my God, and we felt like we didn’t fit in. We were lovers but and then she looked at us and asked “Which one of you is the girl?” Cynthia and I go, what? I mean, we’re both girls. You know the whole thing of roles is what kind of kept me thinking like well I’m kind of weird because I don’t really feel like a man and I don’t feel like a housewife and I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to be with a man, so what am I? So for me, realizing that the roles were something different than what being a lesbian was, and I just didn’t like the roles. I didn’t want to get married to some guy and have kids and all that stuff so I ended up getting married to some women and had kids.
Even if it’s genetic and even if it’s physical, it doesn’t matter. I really love women and I don’t have to look a certain way to do that.
Dillon: The whole feminist thing really came out to be just allowing women, allowing ourselves to stand up and be strong against, you know, now women are fighting against rape in the military, you know women are still trying to earn as much as men, be considered to work this job. We just wanted the fairness, you know? And you didn’t have to be gay for that, it was happening to straight women all across the board. Women were just getting less. We’d had enough.
Q: Could you describe your history and involvement, specifically with the Sixth Street Women’s Center?
Roberts: Well I can. When I moved in, Lavina had been living there with Dash, then known as Dandelion Aquitatas, was her name. Dash really kind of blew me away. I mean, I would go there to the meetings and Dash was like no one I had ever met in my entire life. She was from Boston but she was so grounded and she just did what she wanted to do and I really hadn’t been around too many women who did that. So I hung around there a lot, I went to a lot of meetings, I volunteered a lot and did what I could. So what happened was when Lavina moved to the Fifth Avenue house, where there was another group of women who lived there-Debra Malski (sic), Ann Yellot, some other people. They asked if I wanted to move in there. It was a lot of organizing. I actually did things with Dash like go out and walk topless through Sabino Canyon. She felt like that women shouldn’t have to wear shirts so she often took her shirt off a lot so I thought I’d try it. So I went up to Sabino and these men started following us and finally one guy said, “You know you start getting used to it after a while.”
But we did a lot of demonstrations, we were involved in a lot of political actions, we did a lot of partying and I found out I really liked to party. It was great. There was a time though when I did too much of it and I needed to give it up which is why I’m now in recovery. It was one of the best times of my life. You know, you hear teenagers, young people talk about how they had their wild time or whatever. We all did a lot of really positive things and because I work in mental health now and because I work in referrals for case management, all of the things that we did, many of them are still in place. All of us, all of us who were involved in that, whether it was pulling women out of the homes, whether it was starting the Tucson Center for Women and Children, those things, I still do referrals to. And at the time, and this will be for later, but I know we were being watched by people who thought we were subversive. So we often had to deal with some of that too. We worked and answered the phones when women were sexually assaulted, we ended up in emergency rooms supporting women. We did a lot of that.
Dillon: If a woman needed help, this was the place, the one place. It didn’t matter what was the problem, if they needed help, they could find help here. It just was the place where women could go for help. When I got there, it was kind of, I wouldn’t say falling apart as far as funding and stuff, but it was a two-story building and rent had to be paid. Some women were able to pay and some women weren’t. The people who used the services weren’t always able to pay. So it became kind of like the women who lived there, paid the rent. They were the people who lived upstairs and people lived downstairs and never the two shall meet. A lot of women were totally homeless and crazy. But those kind of women, too, we’d try to get them places to be. We were struggling we didn’t have the money for the phone sometimes, so we were struggling with money. So people came together at that time to get a way to make this work because this wasn’t working. There was a woman who had just been raped who didn’t want to come to the shelter where a woman was walking around with an ax. It was too much.
Roberts: The Sixth Street house is the place where things got started. The Tucson Center for Women and Children, that got started at the Sixth Street House versus Sixth Avenue which was a whole different ball of wax. We did things, I think Ellen Litman and I forget his name, I think it was Howie…a lot of the men who were involved were very feminist as well so what they would do, Robert Litman, and Howie, so they started a day care center and took care of the kids. They were taking care of the kids and in conjunction with the Fifth Avenue House there were a lot of programs started, the Free Clinic, that Debra Homolski was involved in, and then Barbara Byrd I think had her counseling center there over on Convent area. Then there was New Directions for Young Women, New Directions for Women, the Women’s Collective, Women Against Rape which was Veronica Angel. I don’t know what happened to all those journals that we had when we made all those calls and we worked with the police department to set up a sexual crimes division. There was a very tall blond woman who was woman who was the first contact we had. I wish Dash were here because she would remember more. And then out of that came this big move to write a program, a grant to start the Tucson Center for Women and Children and get the city council involved which is when Ann and I and a bunch of us did the grant writing and sent out to the Southwest Presbyterian Church.
Dillion: For about five thousand.
Kushner: And didn’t Ann get granted a position, or maybe it was your position but that position ended up getting split between I don’t know how many people but I was one of the recipients, we all got a little bit of money. Honestly, I had no training except that I had been to school for a little bit, I had done some EMT training in New York I had moved out from New York and so anyone who seemed to be capable at that time and wasn’t in a current stressful situation so they could handle the phone calls could handle could handle some of the impromptu rescues or handle being supportive to somebody else, those were the people that were hired. Again, another life-changing event for me because now I’m in a healing profession. I get to give back, now I have the training and I can think back on what an incredible experience that was for me. It’s amazing that’s it’s still going.
Roberts: So the Sixth Street was the start. We had women coming from all over the country. For a while Dash went off with Reverend Moon or something and some women from New Mexico came to rescue her. They came blowing in from New Mexico. I think one woman’s name was “Duck.” Women were changing their names to non- traditional non-patriarchal names, non-traditional is a better word, so there was “Duck” and “Cayenne” and all these people that went off and they got her out of that compound. It was very exciting for me to meet all these women from different parts of the country. Tina Effron was from Queens. I had never even heard of Queens in my life.
Dillon: And we never thought that we couldn’t do it. Even if the police got in the way or anybody got in the way, we did it anyway.
Kushner: We did it anyway. We had that spirit amongst us that, well that’s okay, that’s probably not really legal, we’re still going to go ahead and go do this. Whatever this was, whether it be a big ad, a poster board up on a highway or going to someone’s house and getting the kids or going into the middle of the street and picking up someone because she was not really having a seizure because she was mentally ill but she was in the middle of the street. I would stop traffic, took her to the emergency room. We just did it.
Dillon: We would do anything. We would go light somebody’s furnace if a family didn’t know how to light their furnace. Everybody would just call “we need help.”
Kushner: We’d be there.
Roberts: Doris and Karen and Marion I consider them like Robo Cops. I was much more timid.
Kushner: You were doing the grant writing we needed that.
Roberts: It’s my nature. I tended to think too much. These guys just went out and they did it. There were women who were very, very grateful for that over time. There were women who had respite at the Sixth Street as well as the Sixth Avenue House and who had their kids with them which was innovative at that time to have their kids with them. Most women if they wanted a shelter or something would have to give their kids up. So these guys just never gave up and they didn’t care. I mean Marion had that Volkswagon.
Kushner: The truck thing.
Roberts: Yeah and they would just take off.
Kushner: And I had eventually gotten a car because I worked during the day and I bought a car and I had to go out into the desert, remember? And I had to rescue somebody, Charlie and the puppies was this woman and her lover and they had this big dog, I don’t even remember what it was, it was huge and they had like twelve puppies, they were out in the desert, they didn’t have any food, it was raining. We just did it, I learned how to drive three on the column driving that car by the seat of my pants, just go, stall, go stall, get ‘em. It was a great car.
Q: Going back to personal information, how has the Women’s Movement impacted or transformed your life?
Dillon: It’s made it easy for me to see that sexism really isn’t just violent and what it is. I really don’t know how it’s transformed it because I’ve always felt like, it wasn’t transforming me as much as I was just, I can’t really say that the Women’s Movement, I didn’t have much of a problem, that we can just get things done. Together we can get things done. The main sign at that time was that Sisterhood is Powerful and that really sums that up.
Kushner: And you know for me it was being at the Center, the Sixth Street Center, like Diane mentioned, I met women from all over- women that had already been coupled, or un-coupled, or reconfiguring their relationships with their friends, there was a lot of shifting, bed-hopping that was going on, and I was like, oh, so it doesn’t have to be like you’re with one person all the time for the rest of your life. I mean, this was all news to me. So how does it work when you’re in this kind of relationship? Can you still be friends when you’re not with that person? How do women treat each other differently than men treat each other or treat other women? I think I had my eyes open and my mouth open for about a year before I could do anything and just taking it all in and then realized that I didn’t have to fit what my parents thought was supposed to be the way life was and growing up a short Jewish woman from New York, even though I had some aspects of being independent and pretty tough and could take a lot of stuff, I hadn’t really learned what it was like to have family and these people became my family. I’ll never forget it. I’d leave town for a while, I’d come back and I’d seek out my family. And they still are.
Dillon: We didn’t know she was a short Jewish woman, I thought you were like five eight.
Kushner: Everybody tells me I have a tall voice.
Roberts: I remember being in a car with Reefer when we got down to Mexico.
Kushner: He was a good dog.
Roberts: I loved him.
Kushner: He was a big, big dog.
Roberts: We’d go across town to the Women’s Center.
Kushner: And he’d get out, he was awesome. I moved from the Women’s Center to another place. The Women’s Center which was on Sixth Street, south of Grant, and he would get out and he would just cruise. I’d call the Women’s Center, “Is Reefer there?” And they’d say, “Yeah, he’s on the back porch. Don’t worry.” She would reassure me that he hadn’t gotten squashed out there. He was huge.
Roberts: I have to say quickly that for me, I was raised part of the time out in Tanque Verde and by the time I was eight, I was shooting beer cans off of a dump. In my family, the men were men and the women were men. It was kind of like everything was male. So believe it or not, I got more in touch I think with my feminine nature in a way by being involved with these women because everything in my family was very male-oriented and even women had to be really tough. I had powder burns on one finger for about six years after shooting off a Colt 45 and not knowing how to hold it right. Even my grandmother said to me before she died. “I really admire you. If I’d I’d been in your generation I would have been a bloomer girl, too.” So it was freeing for me. I really think, and this is going to sound really awful, I really think that young women, like my niece you know, I want them to thank me. It’s just natural and normal for young women to be exactly who they want to be and know they have the choice to do it with the exceptions of some military stuff that we’ve been talking about.
Q: That segways perfectly into another question I have. What advice or messages would you pass to young feminists?
Roberts: Are there young feminists?
Kushner: They are out there.
Roberts: It’s good to know that it’s still alive because frankly, I have been working so hard for many years doing and learning my profession at this point, and really trying hard to be normal in some ways by earning money and making a living because I’m really not very normal.
Kushner: I know the young feminists are out there because one of the things I’ve had the great opportunity to work with is, I live in Chico, California now and there is a Stonewall group there and I work with the teen group there. Those kids are, they’re amazing. They’re very inspiring. So, I think we helped them be able to dress male or if a female wants to dress as a male, or if a female wants to think about transgender surgery, if a male wants to wear a dress and not get bullied, I mean it’s still happening, there is still a lot of discrimination, but I think the fact that we’ve been through it, we can help guide them and we can help refer them and we can go to the school now and say “Hey, this kid’s having a hard time, you, principal need to do something about it.” Whereas before we’d have to go to the school and beat some other people up and get the kid out. We were renegades before and now we can be activists and go in a peaceful manner and help resolve a situation and hopefully in a permanent way so that other kids can go forth and be who they want to be. It’s amazing. They’re out there.
Dillon: I want to say to young feminists, first of all, I’m totally honored that you guys even cared to include us and ask us about this. I’m proud that you’re out there. We lose touch and that you want to come here and spend your time and to carry on a tradition of strong women. Just don’t get caught up in the labels, just keep trying to be the best person you can be no matter what the label is that comes up at the time, we’ve got to stick together, women must stick together and do it.
Kushner: I’m glad you said that because one of the things I brought to this reunion is some pins from the group that I belong to that says “No Labels.” I’ll be happy to pass those out.
Q: We touched on this but going back to the Sixth Street Women’s Center, what do you think has been the impact, the larger impact on the community has been recently.
Roberts: I can speak to that. As I said, in 1993, I worked in the substance abuse field for a long time. When I got into case management and I had caseloads of people who had mental illness, and mental illness can range from anything from depression to psychotic disorder, there were women, a lot of time homeless, who were being beaten by someone, the same thing that I had experienced firsthand at the Women’s Centers, and there it was, Tucson Center for Women and Children and here’s the referral process and it’s still going. It’s been through many changes over the years so it’s still around. The Food Bank which had actually around the time we were doing that, we liaisoned with a lot to get food for the house is still around. I really feel like it just spread. All these things started popping up. People started developing awareness. I feel very proud of all of us that we just stuck in there and did it without any training or whatever because the Women Against Rape because the Rape Crisis and now it’s the SACASA and they have incredible programs. Ann was a big part of those later on in developing some of those programs. I just think that we gave Tucson a gift and I feel honored to have been a part of that. I’m honored, I’m so glad I came, I wasn’t going to come but I’m so glad to see you and Doris. All of a sudden, I said, I don’t remember anything now I’m going to go party.
Kushner: To sort of respond off of what you’re saying, what I ended up doing with what I learned, I took it to a level of trying to reproduce what we had where I live which is in Chico. So myself and two other people started a Free Clinic up there in Chico and it’s grown. We’ve definitely outgrown our space but it’s with the idea that it’s for anybody who doesn’t have health insurance. We don’t care where you’re from, we don’t ask for identification, we don’t ask for anything except that you treat everybody with respect. It’s extremely Holistic and I sort of modeled it in my mind after the Free Clinic here and then the Women’s Center and the programs that we had and that feeling of having people that are passionate be our volunteers. I don’t care what training you have. Obviously I didn’t have any and I did it. So you’ll get the training you’ll get that experience by being around people that are caring and loving and inclusive, yet we have a very professional side to the clinic where we provide medical care, mental health care and alternative health services for people that need it. So thank you Tucson again.
Dillon: I’ll just say that a lot of women are alive today because we started a women’s shelter and it’s still here, so that’s the best thing that came out of that.
Roberts: And I want to say that before I left my training on Friday, I’m training with AETNA, this giant insurance company and it’s like I’m actually going to sleep half the time in my training, oh I guess I shouldn’t say that, well the training is hard, it’s intensive, so they say, what do you want to share that no one else knows, you know they do these ice-breaker sessions. I said “I’m going to reunite with a group of women that all of us together started the Tucson Center for Women and Children, the Rape Crisis Center which is now blah, blah, blah.” and people, they were all women, actually got up and they all clapped. I almost cried. It was really a nice acknowledgement to be thanked.
Kushner: And I also had the experience of being thanked because of the work for the clinic and my buddy here was able to attend this little ceremony for me because I got nominated, or awarded, I don’t even know what they called it, “Physician Assistant of the Year” by the Family Practice P.A., the national PA, the whole United States, so you can touch me now. But really I am so thankful because it never would have happened if I hadn’t stopped in Tucson.
Roberts: And Reefer hadn’t kept you here for a while.
Kushner: The wonder dog.
Roberts: The wonder dog.
Q: Well you’ve all accomplished so much so this question might be a little difficult to answer, what are you most proud of?
Dillon: Starting the Women’s Center. I’m most proud of that.
Kushner: Knowing all the women that I know from that time.
Roberts: That’s ditto, too. And I’m looking forward to meeting. I saw that list and I said oh good. What I’m most proud of is making it to 63 last week because actually the way I was living my life for a while there it seemed like that might not happen. I have to say I’m proud of the people, the women that I’m here with because I’ve gotten little gifts from each one of them and hopefully, I can give back.
Q: That’s all the questions I have unless there are any concluding remarks.
Dillon: To interviewer: How did you get started?
Interviewer: Feminism in general I have to give credit to my mom, she got me started, I grew passionate about it and I came here to the U of A and I immediately enrolled in Gender and Women’s Studies and I’ll be graduating in May.
Kushner: Good job. Congratulations.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the Women’s Center or anything?
Roberts: I’m looking forward to dancing.
Kushner: I just want to put out a spiritual hello to Marion who is no longer with us. She’s a big part of why I’m here.
Roberts: She had a big heart. There’s another person I’m going to miss is Lynn.
Dillon: We’ve lost a lot of women along the way.
Kushner: So it’s pretty miraculous that we’re still here.


Jamie A. Lee, Project Director, Arizona Queer Archives, “Southwest Feminists Reunite ~ Doris Dillon "Dillon", Karen Kushner, Dianne Roberts interview,” Arizona Queer Archives, accessed September 29, 2023,