A few memories of Felice and class from Betsy Leondar-Wright
I remember when Felice first identified herself as working-class. When she was in her mid-20s, members of Movement for a New Society (MNS) began caucusing by class background, and she joined a middle-class caucus. After all, she had always known that she’d be going to college; wasn’t that a marker of being middle class?
But Fai Coffin, a Jewish working-class woman, took her aside and told her she was not middle class, she was working class; that values about education and class worked differently for Jews. Felice had grown up in a small rented apartment; her parents had high-school degrees, worked at working-class jobs; but Felice hadn’t put those pieces together into a class identity before. Fai became one of her mentors in discovering the impact of her class background on her life.
It was like flipping on a light switch. Felice was suddenly as fiercely working class as she had been fiercely feminist since the late 1960s; she started blasting middle-class people as she had earlier blasted men. For example, one cold winter weekend when a group of MNS women went on a retreat in a big drafty house, Felice gathered us at one point for a tirade about how some women from upper-middle-class backgrounds weren’t suffering from the cold because they had thick wool sweaters, but she and Fai and other working-class women were freezing in their thin clothes. She told us wool-wearing women in no uncertain terms how oblivious and classist we were being about the temperature problem. How could we not notice other women shivering? What was wrong with us? She was right, but I know I wasn’t the only woman there to find her loud challenge scary.
I remember something similar happening once during MNS’s process of cost-sharing, a way of dividing up the expenses of an event according to ability to pay — not by a sliding scale formula, but by a process of discussion and discernment about many facets of participants’ past and future lives. A woman from a middle-class background had suggested that she should pay almost nothing for a weekend retreat because her income had been low ever since she went down to part-time work to make time to do her art, and her expenses were high because of therapy that was helping her recover from childhood abuse. “Those are CHOICES!,” Felice told the woman fierce. “You have OPTIONS! You should be paying at the TOP of the scale!” Once again, Felice was right, but she was scary.
If Felice had stayed at that stage of rage, she probably wouldn’t have chosen to specialize in facilitating classism workshops with mixed-class groups. I’ve heard from other raised-in-poverty and working-class people that they’d rather have a sharp stick poked in their eye than have to listen to the guilt, defensiveness and confusion of class-privileged people as they get their class consciousness raised. “Cross-class dialogue? No thanks.” That could have been Felice.
But in her late 20s she had a revelation. This is how I often heard her describe it: “I figured out that they need us.” She realized that many middle-class and owning-class people didn’t grow up with the amount of laughter, blunt communication, warm bonds and loose boundaries in their families and neighborhoods that she and many other working-class people had. Things that were second nature to her — feeling her own gut feelings and expressing them, intuiting others’ gut feelings and spontaneously responding to them – were actually difficult for others, she realized, in particular for some upper-middle-class and owning-class white people. She figured out that the reason so many of us more privileged people were stiffer, colder and less communicative was that we had been injured by the strictures of proper good manners, which froze some good people into ice. She took it upon herself to melt away that ice.
I was one of the middle-class people she took under her wing. When we first became friends, she called me her “stiff white girl.” She would ask me how I felt emotionally, and was amazed when I would say, “I don’t know.” “How can you not know how you feel?,” she would ask me. Her constant challenges had an undercurrent of compassion that was very moving to me.
The cross-class dialogue group that led to the founding of Class Action was made up of half people who grew up working-class or poor (including Felice, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez and Linda Stout) and half owning-class people from multi-millionaire families (including Class Action co-founder Jenny Ladd). Their assumption was that all of them were harmed by the class system, that all of their dreams had been blocked by their class conditioning, though in very different ways. Those without material constraints and hardships nevertheless had inner constraints distinct to their class. They worked towards the deep transformation of each of them to become more fully themselves, explicitly seeing those at opposite ends of the class spectrum as midwives for each other.
With this new approach towards class-privileged people, Felice was able to become one of the most remarkable facilitators of cross-class dialogue ever to walk this earth. She could tune in to and draw out workshop participants of all classes, races and nationalities, ages, and political opinions, including the most timid and the most skeptical. She became one of a small, small number of people able to focus simultaneously on the structural political and economic inequalities harming poor and working-class people and on the special strengths of working-class cultures.
I’m sure I’m one of tens of thousands of people awed by those moments when she suddenly channeled what a group felt, and then did just what the group needed. She would get an intent, focused look; she’d ditch the agenda; she’d speak from the gut; and the room would erupt into some raw, unplanned conversation that had been itching to happen.
I remember once she was supposed to give a keynote speech at a women’s conference. She threw aside her written speech, sat on the edge of the stage, and talked about how fraught it had been for her to decide what to wear as a keynoter, about her tortured feelings about clothing generally; then she described how every woman in that room had decided that morning what to wear to the conference with a fear of being judged, of being condemned for being too formal or too casual or too sexy or too raggedy; and she put forward a vision of how powerful radical acceptance of each other could be.
That was Felice: starting from her own story, empathically connecting with others, speaking difficult truths and challenging us to embrace our fullest humanity. Her strengths were rare ones. She leaves a huge hole.