When Ann Simonton marched down Pacific Avenue wearing a dress made of link sausages and ham cutlets in June of 1982, everybody in Santa Cruz knew about it. Simonton and Nikki Craft were queens of the media spectacle that pushed the city into the national spotlight, with Ms. Magazine calling it a “feminist utopia.”
The famous meat dress (repurposed for pop shock by Lady Gaga decades later) was meant to serve as a visual protest of the annual Miss California pageant, which originated in Santa Cruz in 1924. At the forefront of the movement dubbed “Myth California,” Craft and Simonton were speaking out against what they saw as female objectification and commodification.
“We would come up with outrageous things that the media would want to be there for,” says Simonton now. “I dragged a bathroom scale down to the mall in a bathing suit while this man hung up a sign saying ‘Beauty Obedience School’ and I was trying to jump through a hoop. It made a lot of noise.”
Members of the Myth California campaign became famous (and infamous) nationwide for throwing their own blood on the pageant entryway, publicly vomiting Kellogg’s cornflakes and Nestle Crunch bars, and destroying issues of Hustler magazine in a local convenience store using a large gold phallus. Craft, Simonton, and others were arrested numerous times for their acts of civil disobedience.
These were the days of public outrage. Outrage that inspired people to take to the streets in support of reproductive rights, realistic media representations, equal pay, and gender-neutral language. Activists made big, loud statements against stereotyped assumptions about women’s capabilities. It was a global movement that changed lives and legislature. Ultimately, it was—and still is—a movement that demanded equal opportunity for all.
But where did it go? Walking down Pacific today is a rather different scene. Artists, street performers, musicians, panhandlers, sure. The streets are generally devoid of topless women with signs and megaphones unless a national scandal provokes an outcry. Did they leave because Myth California accomplished all they sought to?
The Myth California protests drew not only media fanfare, but also thousands of supporters outside the pageant doors, says Howie Schneider, who was active in the California Men’s Anti-Sexist Political Caucus at the time—“You couldn’t live in Santa Cruz and not know that was going on.”
Eventually, “there were always more people out on the street than there were inside the Civic Auditorium,” where the Miss California pageant was held, he says.
Schneider, who is now a local rabbi, unveiled a banner on the pageant stage at the 1984 event with the words “Men Resist Sexism!” splayed proudly across it along with two fellow activists, Gary Reynolds and Alan Acacia. They waited until the precise moment when the winner was crowned.
“Miss California that year, she was pissed. It was her moment and we stole it,” Schneider recounts. “As they took us off the stage, women in the audience were hitting us with their pocketbooks, and when we went outside thousands of people were cheering us.”
Schneider and the other two men were arrested, but released shortly thereafter. Miss California 1984, Donna Cherry, made a full recovery and went on to become an actor and voice-over artist.
“It just seems so basic to me, feminism, for women to be considered equal,” Schneider says with a laugh. “What is the big deal? Is that so radical?”
F-Word on the Street
That depends on who you talk to, even today, says Amy Burrell, a 22-year-old educator for a local solar company, and a recent UCSC graduate.
“Anyone you talk to about it is still either immediately accepting, or instantly put off by it. I’ve gotten called a ‘feminazi’ or ‘armchair feminist’ before by people who have absolutely no idea what my beliefs are. All they hear is that I care about women’s rights, and they jump to those conclusions,” she says.
Indeed, even in Santa Cruz many people equate “feminism” with images of angry Amazons rushing to eradicate maleness entirely. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who say that the word lacks meaning in our contemporary context. Has it become passé?
It’s a question that Marla Novo, curator of collections for the Museum of Art & History, considers as she recalls growing up in Santa Cruz when Simonton and Myth California were at their height of notoriety.
“I just don’t know if women still call themselves feminists,” she says. “Like these female surfers in a predominantly male sport. There are so many women surfing out there, and it’s rad, but I’m wondering if identifying with being a feminist seems in some way outdated.”
Novo remembers seeing Simonton’s meat dress and being inspired: “I had never seen anything like that before, and I thought that was pretty powerful,” she says.
But, put simply, things have changed. “I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I’m raising her to be a powerful, empowered individual that is like a rad girl that will one day be an amazing woman. I don’t know if I’ve ever told her about feminism. I think she’s kind of like, ‘Well duh, I can do whatever boys can do.’”
If indeed there has been such a shift, it’s not necessarily all bad, or all good.
“Feminism is the F-word now. Maybe it doesn’t need to be,” says Novo. “As a positive, maybe we don’t need to use the word as much.”
Wendy Martyna, a lecturer in Psychology and Sociology at UCSC who has been deeply involved with feminist issues through her work on gender-neutral language, says that the movement became less prominent as the word “feminism” became less definable. Rallying behind a word when no one can agree what it means makes things difficult. Today, Martyna says, many feminists focus on transgender and queer issues.
But whatever the current feelings about the word itself, feminists like Simonton, Schneider and Craft left their mark. “Let’s not forget that all the rhetoric and all the marching and misunderstanding, all that led to institutions that we now take for granted,” Martyna says. “So that young women have the freedom now to say, ‘oh, I’m not a feminist’ and take advantage of everything the feminist movement achieved.”
The ’60s and ’70s were about making the problem known, she says, and the ‘80s and ‘90s were about building institutions.
“All the structures that are in place that never would have been in place—the Women’s Center, Women’s Crisis Support, Rape Prevention Center,” says Martyna. “Those institutions are now a part of the structure in so many ways. They’re what feminism is to me.”
While those who were on the frontlines of the vociferous, often dangerous, debate might no longer be able to recognize the way gender issues are discussed today, women in Santa Cruz are still dealing with them.
“Everyday sexism is a huge thing,” says Burrell. “In my work, for instance, when I speak to men and I’m trying to do my job, and all they can do is look at me with a kind of glazed-over look, comment on my smile, and then turn to my male co-worker to ask for more information because they don’t trust me.”
So where did the momentum, that outrage, from Myth California go?
When the pageant moved to San Diego in 1985, the magnetic rallying point dissipated, and Santa Cruz quietly rode out the end of second-wave feminism. No other efforts to push for women’s equality garnered the same media attention.
“I guess it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to keep up that momentum without the Miss California pageant to focus around,” says Schneider, who after Myth began to channel his work towards peace in the Middle East with a feminist perspective. “I can’t think of any major events or demonstrations after that. There wasn’t the kind of groundswell.”
Santa Cruz’s young feminists became media darlings not only because their tactics were brazen and shocking, but also because they were faces that the cameras wanted to see.
When Simonton began championing women’s rights in the 1980s, she wasn’t coming from a background of activism; Simonton had been a “cover girl” ever since she was discovered at the age of 14. From Sports Illustrated to Cosmo, Simonton had been on a linear path to stardom when she moved to New York City to work for the notoriously strict modeling agency executive Eileen Ford. Shortly after moving to the city to work under Ford, Simonton experienced something that shattered her reality.
“[Ford] always wanted us to take subways so that we would be on time, because if we got caught in the street traffic, we’d be late,” Simonton recounts. “I had a job at Columbia University after two months of arriving, and I was gang raped at knifepoint on my way to that job.”
Simonton says she was met with a justice system that didn’t recognize the crime, even after the incredible trauma of the assault itself.
“I found myself saying ‘Oh, I was mugged, I wasn’t raped,’ because if you said you were raped you were acknowledging you were at fault, which is a big issue continually. Women are still blamed,” she says.
“I was finally able to understand—only on my own, not from any help from the industry, the community—that I was part of a system that was contributing to violence against women because I was being seen as an object, and if you dehumanize people it’s easier to hurt them.”
To Simonton, portrayals that objectify women are still hugely damaging when they depict females “flat on our backs with our legs open,” as she puts it. As the founder of Media Watch, a local organization which seeks to challenge stereotypes, Simonton is vocal about how she sees these images influence day-to-day behavior.
Seeing a woman “playing coy” on a TV show, being dominated in porn, or accepting blatant sexism on a talk show—all these visual reifications of the status quo can often quickly confuse the interactions between males and females in real life, she says—and when the reality doesn’t match the media-driven expectation, it can lead to violence against women.
Wall of Silence?
Incidents of violence against women remain a huge problem in Santa Cruz, and Gillian Greensite, a local activist who started the Rape Prevention Education program at UC Santa Cruz in 1979 (which was absorbed into the Student Health Outreach and Promotion program in 2010), says the number of rapes committed here is abnormally high.
In 2006, Greensite was also part of the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, which compiled a report to review how the Santa Cruz Police Department handled rape cases.
“We got a firm from Watsonville [Applied Survey Research] to crunch the numbers, and we found a high rate of reported rapes and a low arrest rate,” says Greensite. “There’s been this wall of silence erected around the crime.”
Nothing resulted from the findings, which Greensite claims the SCPD ignored, and she says it’s because of Santa Cruz’s main industry.
“I think tourism is now seen as the golden egg, and they’ll do nothing that would ruffle that,” she says, her passionate words delivered in breezy, Australian accent—suggesting that tourism would be down if the city’s rape statistics were publicized.
In response, SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark says that the department has been working to reduce the rape rate for years, and that Greensite is inaccurately attributing the high number of rapes to “stranger rape.” In actuality, says Clark, most rapes in Santa Cruz fall into the category of “acquaintance rape.”
“A stranger rape to us is that person that’s leaping off the street corner, or breaking into the house in the middle of the night, there has not been a prior relationship.”
Acquaintance rape, in which the victim has had prior contact with the attacker, is more difficult to prosecute, says Clark, and alcohol or drugs are often involved.
“It’s easy for people to say, ‘oh you’re blaming the victim.’ No we’re not, but we’re telling the victim to make wise choices. Don’t place yourself in a situation that’s vulnerable. Protect yourself,” he says. “We all, as a community, can be more effective.”
According to the SCPD’s crime report, the number of annual rapes rose from 32 in 1990 to 59 in 2004. Greensite says that these numbers are fairly high when compared with much larger cities like San Francisco.
According to the most recent available U.S. Census estimate, in 2013 San Francisco’s population was 837,442, and Santa Cruz’s was 62,864. The City Data website reported that there were 108 cases of rape in San Francisco, and 34 in Santa Cruz.
While at first glance, these numbers might seem vaguely proportional, they’re not.
The data suggests is that Santa Cruz’s rate of rape is 4.5 times higher than the much larger city. Even when accounting for factors such as socioeconomic differences, urban density, population, and crime rate, it would be expected that either the rate in San Francisco would be far higher, or in Santa Cruz it would be far lower.
“It’s a bit disturbing, because we’re not just talking numbers, we’re talking people and more people have been raped,” says Greensite. Little is being done to understand what factors might be contributing to those numbers, she says.
Sustainable change, Greensite and Simonton agree, can only come from education.
“We need to reach out to our kids—male and female. If you’re interested in stopping sexual violence against women you have to start with the boys,” says Simonton. “They’re sponges too, they really want to know how to be in the world.”
Step By Step
Since the days of Simonton’s meat dress appearances, educating the populace on inequality and sexism has come a long way. The Santa Cruz County public sector, for one, has taken equal opportunity very seriously.
According to the 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) report, women are being promoted at a higher rate than men, with 150 upward appointments of women compared to 57 men, from March 2013 to March of this year. Elected officials are still 82 percent male, but in departments such as District Attorney and Probation, women account for slightly more than half of the staff.
Former Watsonville mayor Ana Phares now works for the EEO office under the Board of Supervisors, and sees the report as representative of a newer shift in education.
“We’re seeing the result of women going for the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees,” she says.
Even in the traditionally male-dominated fields such as protective services (the police department, etc.) there’s been a change: “Sheriff’s deputies and probation officers, they’re 28 percent women and the available work force out there is 14 percent.”
Phares says that the Board of Supervisors has always supported equal employment opportunity and continuously works to promote diversity.
Interestingly, though, there are also more women in the county than men. The U.S. Census estimated that the population in 2013 was 269,419, with 50.3 percent being women. Other reports, such as the 2011 Status of Women and Girls (SOWAG) report published by the Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission, still show a lag in employment in certain fields: women accounted for a bigger percentage of voter turnout in state elections, but were found to be less likely to actually run for office due to men’s “ambition advantage,” child-care responsibilities, and lack of available resources—but they’re not less likely to win an election.
The employment differences on the state level are a bit more grim. A report by the American Association of University Women showed that in California, women are paid an average of 84 percent what men receive.
At the local level, at least, the loudness of Myth California may have played a role in ensuring that women are allowed the opportunity to excel. For some community leaders, however, using a word to describe yourself has little to do with finding success. Santa Cruz Mayor Lynn Robinson says that although she has “lived feminism,” as a leading female figure, the word itself isn’t such a high priority. It’s more about action, less about talk.
“In another part of my life, if someone had said ‘you’re going to be the mayor of Santa Cruz,’ I would’ve said ‘uh-huh, sure,” she says. “But yet when I put my life together, I’ve done many things where it was in male-dominated roles and yet there I was. I never thought twice about it.”
The changing nature of feminism and the way in which the word is treated might be what’s limiting the goals behind it, she says.
“There’s feminism as a cause, and then there’s the feminism that’s more personal; my experience with it is the more personal, the everyday living of it,” she says. “But you can’t ignore the fact that because someone made it as their life’s work, that’s one of the reasons that I get to experience the personal part of it, because they kept it in the limelight.”
Bye Bye Bra Burnings
With some steps forward and some backward, Simonton agrees there are now complications around the word “feminism.”
“There was a lot of solidarity amongst us to give voice to this budding feeling that we had a right to speak up, that we had a right to challenge sexual violence, that we had a right to say ‘take back the night’ and be a part of real social change,” Simonton remembers. “And now, as I see it, the word is co-opted—anybody’s a feminist, everybody’s a feminist. There’s a lack of real conversation that I think needs to take place.”
Regarding sexuality, the messages are mixed. There’s nothing wrong with claiming your sexuality and being proud of that fact, she says, but when the picture of women as docile or hypersexual or both still pervade available media, it does far more damage than good. Wheareas some third-wave feminists would argue that certain definitions of sexism are outdated, Simonton is not a fan of media representations like the “Model of the Month” feature on local web site SantaCruzWaves.com, which has drawn criticism for featuring photographs of young local women in revealing swimwear and sometimes suggestive poses: “We see the men, in this example, reminding themselves they are the King Surfers and females are good as sex toys who we will let surf now and again.”
But while such gender issues are just as contested as they were in the ’80s, taking to the streets has become far less popular.
Has the Internet diluted activism, then, or served to heighten it? With the ability to “like” a political group’s page or sign an online petition, does feminism have the same meaning it once did?
“I think the Internet has, in the simplest answer, taken the place of what demonstrations needed to do,” says UCSC lecturer Martyna. “Now you stage a conversation and a panel, an educated conversation about these issues and the media’s probably not going to cover it. You do something dramatic, the media is going to cover it. You get an audience.”
Alana Bradley would agree, but she thinks it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a fourth-year Feminist Studies major at UCSC, she has found the movement to be blossoming in completely new ways.
“I think the youth are using their own potential to create activism, to create their own reality,” she says.
“I think there’s a recognition that until everybody is free and everybody is truly equal— and not by law, but by practice—then nobody is free.”
Yet, with the reliance on the Internet, more cooperation and action still needs to take place in order for real change to happen, says Bradley. Picketing on Pacific Avenue just doesn’t fulfill the same need it once did.
“Folks who are truly affected by monetary and gendered inequality have to work eight hours a day to feed themselves. Those who are out protesting are taking a day of work or are students who don’t have to work,” she says. “Folks who are able to protest and those who can’t need to come together and find a more nuanced and permanent way to affect change. I’m 21 years old, I don’t know what that answer is, but I think there are conversations going on that’ll start real solutions.”
Bradley, who is active in organizations that don’t call themselves “feminist,” per se, says that movements can learn a lot from the Simontons and Crafts of history.
“Communities need compassionate, motivated people,” she says. “Feminism, in the theory and the practice, is compassionate activism.”
It’s a continuous fight, says Simonton: “The idea of a utopia, it’s never completely true.”