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Capitol Hill and the Movement: Dotty Decoster Remembers

HistoryLink.org Essay 2443 : Printer-Friendly Format

This is an exerpt from a HistoryLink interview done by Heather MacIntosh with Dotty DeCoster in April 2000. DeCoster was an outspoken member of the Women's Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s in Seattle. In this account, she recalls life on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Excerpts From the Interview

"I live in South Capitol Hill and I almost always have. We were involved, in the 1970s, in the development of the "Model Cities" program in the Central Area. "Model Cities" was a federal opportunity to provide intervention funding to rescue inner city neighborhoods. That effort in the Central Area was started by a group of dedicated folks who began the Central Area Motivation Program, known as CAMP, at the old fire house. That organization still exists as a kind of settlement house. It's pretty amazing.

"CAMP did some very interesting things initially and they did what came to be known as 'good 60s organizing.' They hired local folks to go door to door to talk to people about what was on their minds, organizing to develop a Model Cities Program. You can't imagine spending that kind of money now, but it was worth every penny.

"The folks that went door to door, they took that information and formed committees. There were committees that grew directly out of Model Cities interests. One was the Central Area School Group. They looked at improvements to Central Area schools specifically. There was a very large group working on childcare issues. There was a very large group working on medical and healthcare issues. There were a lot of concerns about health care for older people and women's health care.

"There were also concerns about infrastructure. Funds were badly needed for sewage and drainage. There was a group of people concerned about rat eradication at the time in the mid-60s well into the mid-80s. There were a lot of rats. Things like that were always considered radical.

"At the same time the Black Panther Party folk organized breakfast programs for children that we now take for granted. At the time there wasn't really any other way to do it. They worked with the schools but they also worked with nutritionists, so kids who were badly off did at least get breakfast in the morning. They [the Panthers] did a number of things, but that was probably their most important contribution to the local community.

"We were involved -- those of us who hung around the Crowleys [Seattle activists George and Louise Crowley] -- in a number of different ways. I worked with the daycare group because that was the most important issue for me at the moment. George [Crowley] was particularly interested in education. He worked with the education group. I worked on housing issues. And Louise tried to get everything recorded. She did her best.

The Greening of Seattle

"The other thing that began to happen as a result of this lifestyle called the movement is that people began to get interested in the environment. There were always people interested in leaving the city, not necessarily just Seattle, and living in a more rural setting that ... would be healthier for them and their children. But there were some of us, and I'm one of them, that think that cities are really good places to raise children and that they're really wonderful, and that everybody doesn't have to live here, but those who wants to should!

"But there's a way to live in a city that's not inhuman. It's not impossible. In the early '70s, people sort of began to orient toward a number of really serious problems, like the threat of an oil spill in the estuary of Puget Sound. There was a book that came out called Super Spill that was really scary and in fact was what happened in Prince William Sound when the Exxon hit. The book predicted that by many years and talked about it happening in Puget Sound.

"Another issue was that Lake Washington was a mess and actually [it] was mostly people who were students and professors at the University that came up with a solution to that, but we were all concerned about that and we continue to be concerned about it, so that was an issue that people paid attention to.

"The area around Harbor Island, Duwamish, it became a Super Fund site. A lot of work has been done in the interim and it's actually cleaned up now and there are fish in it. At the time it just looked horrific and no one quite knew how to deal with that.

"I didn't get terribly involved in environmental issues for a long time in part because it seemed that the solutions that people found were to create layers of regulation, and I am enough of an old anarchist to believe that too many regulations suppress activity. So while certainly there are some regulations that have to be made, the environmental movement seemed to get into regulation at that period. We continue to have social interest in that because it made a lot of difference in Seattle. In the '60s they stopped spraying the arboretum and the swamps with DDT. So that paradigm has shifted considerably.

Death of the Movement

"I left town in the late 1970s. When I returned in 1980 the movement was dead. It had disappeared. It also wasn't anywhere else -- I don't mean to imply that this was just Seattle. And it wasn't just that I wasn't paying attention because I was in touch with some of my old friends and it wasn't happening. It was the '80s. Something else was happening. It wasn't the movement.

"It was a time of loss for me, my mentors, both the Crowleys and Crocker who was the social worker at Country Doctor, so that link with the generation that was older than I am began to disappear rapidly. People quite sensibly had reached a point in their lives where they were out doing other things.

Capitol Hill Transforms

"What's most fascinating is that I continue to live on Capitol Hill and it remains a very exciting and dynamic neighborhood to live in. It's fascinating to have seen it densify below Broadway, more and more apartment buildings being built, and during the '60s there were a lot of lesbian couples who lived down [on] Capitol Hill. It was really interesting in the '80s to see Broadway become kind of home base for many male gay people. Not because they all live here, but because it became that kind of environment where they were comfortable and that's been a good thing for the neighborhood I think.

"Now we are beginning on South Capitol Hill to have a large number of immigrants from other countries, particularly from Russia and we have Spanish now. It's hard to know what this all means, but it's fascinating. It's also fascinating to see that there are young people very interested in anarchism. Really exciting to see the arts scene grow.

On Women's Health

"In my mother's day it was illegal to use birth control methods. It was illegal for me to use any form of birth control until after I was 21, and then I could use it only with my husband's permission. Illegal, in that you couldn't purchase it. It wasn't just abortion [that was prohibited].

"That was a matter of state's rights so it mattered what state you were in. I think that the women's movement here and in other places in the United States did not start about abortion. It started about birth control and access to safe birth control methods so that you could plan your family. It wasn't about not having a child, it was about having enough resources to do a good job of having your children. I don't know how it started here in Seattle.

"I think it was part of a larger tradition that started before I got here, the first generation ... so that began to happen in all kinds of isolated places. It happened within organizations like Group Health. It happened a lot when people who were patients had varied contracts. Maternity is not covered. Daycare isn't covered by anything. It is wise to remember that we haven't entirely won that battle. It's a long way to go and there's some back-cracking going on.

On the Black Panthers

"I worked in 1968 in Oakland, the Peace and Freedom Party made it because the Panther Party got the signatures. Their Washington affiliates were really different ... they were involved in local and national issues. The Black Panthers particularly focused in the late '60s on developing black pride and asked white people not to participate in their organizations. That was not uncommon. It did make sense like it made sense to organize women's caucuses. It made sense for black people to get together to figure out what black pride meant and tell us. What they forgot to tell us was part of the problem. Eventually they did tell us.

"The breakfast program was their first activity here in Seattle. It was patterned after the Black Panther party in Oakland. They were particularly interested here, as in Oakland, with police brutality, which was a major issue and continues to be an issue. Police brutality, even just the oppressive nature of the police force in the Central Area. Madison was a DMZ [demilitarized zone], we had special lights along Madison to make it easy for helicopters to patrol it, (mid- to late '50s well into the '70s). We had special helicopter police patrols up and down Madison Street and in the Central Area. For years it was hard to sleep up here in Capitol Hill.

"Its almost impossible to imagine how tense it was. I don't know if the tension was local or if it was a response to the larger tensions of the Civil Rights era. Probably both. And there was a lot of concern about education. The black contractors group came out of the Panthers.

The Boeing Bust and the Movement

"In '74 for about two or three years Boeing laid off an enormous amount of people. I used to meet them in the unemployment lines. These were people who had never imagined their security being threatened in terms of their jobs or health care or mortgages or whatever. That was another contribution to the movement. They were at risk and had time because they weren't working. And one of the things that happened as a result of that is that a lot of people moved back to Capitol Hill.

"In the late '60s, the housing here was in pretty bad shape even on Capitol Hill, not just in the Central Area. After the Boeing Crash, housing prices were so cheap that a lot of young couples bought houses here, and still live here because they can't afford to move, but there were a lot of children here in the '60s and '70s. That's not true now. You see a lot of weekend children.

"Boeing fueled the women's movement too. They needed jobs that would support their families, and women were not welcome in the trades, any trade, allowing women to become apprentices happened in the '70s. Women supported their families during the Boeing crash and didn't have the wages to do that.

"They had typing jobs. Remember this was the time before computers replaced secretaries. Women could find jobs in the medical profession -- there were a whole range of jobs. They could find jobs at Boeing doing secretarial work or typing work or stuff like that. A few women had engineering degrees who ended up drafting. They were never given much responsibility. It was an exceptional women who was actually able to work as a practicing engineer.

Women Working in the 1970s

"I went back to school to learn offset printing. I was too old to get into the apprenticeship program, not that they would have allowed me in anyway because I was a woman. I went to community college because they had promised me that it would count as apprenticeship then I could go to work as a printer, but what happened is that the industry changed overnight. It went from big presses to small offset presses.

"Very quickly that became a job that women could get because you didn't have to have the training to run a big press. By the time my friends and I left the program, men and women could only find jobs in small offset shops at significantly reduced wages and they were not eligible for union membership so I didn't have any of the benefits of being part of the Union.

"A lot of women got involved in owning small businesses, because during the '70s it became possible to own your own business. There was a shift to small entrepreneurial kinds of things. And more women were going to college. In the '60s University education was, relatively speaking, much cheaper than it had been before. There became agitation to open up research positions. By the mid-'70s there were a great many more women who had educations that suited them for professional work. There began to be more women going into medicine and law. This had not ever been completely restricted to women, but it was very difficult for women [to get into medicine or law]. It emerged as a pattern over time.

"Most of us in the '60s were expected to have children. Now it's more a question of choice. [If you didn't want kids] you were considered pretty weird, kind of strange. There was something wrong with you. Most people didn't see it as a political choice, they saw it as a personal choice, and could not understand why you would personally choose that. And folks tended to believe that people who chose not to have children were simply selfish.

The Seattle Household in the 1960s

"It's not that there weren't a lot of people growing up in single parent households before the '60s. Its just that people began to talk about it. To make it okay. Biracial households were beginning to become okay in Seattle in the 1960s. Seattle has always had a fair number of biracial households, Asians primarily. There was always prejudice and there probably always been prejudice about that. My parents would have been appalled if I had done that."


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