Seattle author Gloria Martin, a galvanizing force in U.S. feminism and a political bridge between the Old and New Left, died Wednesday, November 22, of cancer. She was 79.
Martin, a working mother of eight children, was raised in the South in the days of Jim Crow. Her early experiences spurred her evolution into a bracing critic of American capitalism and its racism and sexism. She eventually became a leader of the Trotskyist and feminist Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), which she joined shortly after it formed in 1966, and a co-founder of Radical Women.
"Gloria was a pioneer in fusing women's rights with socialism, and she had a seminal impact on American feminism," said Clara Fraser, Martin's friend and colleague for 45 years. "This was no pallid liberal. She was a radical. She wanted fundamental change and never wavered from this principle. And she was indomitably stout-hearted in never losing her hope and optimism and belief in individuals and humanity."
Yolanda Alaniz, a Chicana activist and writer and former candidate for Seattle City Council, spoke of Martin's influence: "She taught me how to be a bold feminist and speak my mind. I loved her direct and blunt way. It had a bite and kick which helped keep you on track."
Gloria Hermena Seegar was born June 3, 1916 in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in Asheville, North Carolina. Her family moved back to St. Louis when she was eight, along with her sister, Mary Lee.
At 14, Martin quit high school to work in a department store office to help her family survive. In her early twenties, Martin joined the Young Communist League (YCL) and participated in the drive to end segregation in St. Louis. During World War II, she quit the YCL, disenchanted with its sexism and the twists and turns of policy dictated by Stalin.
In 1950, Martin moved to Seattle. There she became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP, supporting herself and her family through the years by means of such varied occupations as janitorial work, leather-crafting, and chicken-plucking.
In 1966, she joined forces with militant Black women, including Mary Louise Williams, to organize welfare recipients into the Aid to Dependent Children Motivated Mothers project launched by the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP). She later worked on other antipoverty programs such as Education Talent Search and the South King County Multi-Service Center, where she was executive director.
After so many years in the trenches as a grassroots agitator for change for working and poor women and women of color, Martin was more than ready for the new wave of feminism when it began to gather momentum in the 1960s. She forged practical and theoretical links between female Marxists and women of the New Left through her groundbreaking initiation of a popular and frequently repeated 1966 workshop series called "Women in Society" at Seattle's alternative Free University.
There Martin collaborated closely with veteran radicals like Fraser, who in May of that same year helped lead a Seattle branch exodus from the Socialist Workers Party and create the Freedom Socialist Party. Martin supported the split and entered the new party when she saw it shared her commitment to women's liberation, Black freedom, revolutionary socialism, societal and organizational democracy, and principled politics.
Martin and Fraser joined with Susan Stern and other members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to found Radical Women in 1967. RW's goal was to teach women the leadership skills, social history, and workingclass consciousness they were denied in the male-dominated antiwar, antipoverty and civil-rights movements.
"To Gloria, building women's leadership was all-important," Fraser said. "She believed women's place is at the head of all the movements for revolutionary change. She was an encourager, a recruiter and a facilitator of education and development."
From 1968 to 1970, Martin was a key player in the multiracial, statewide mobilization of low-income women that resulted in the legalization of abortion in Washington State three years before Roe v. Wade. Eyewitness accounts of this effort and of campaigns for divorce reform, for an independent union for low-paid workers at the University of Washington, and for a stop to police brutality are described in Martin's book, "Socialist Feminism: The First Decade 1966-76," published in 1978.
In 1969, she helped establish Seattle's first union for antipoverty staffers, Planned Action Progress for Specialists.
That year and the next, Martin and the FSP volunteered as public defense guards for the local Black Panther Party, which was faced with a constant threat of police violence.
In 1970, at the request of Native American leader Janet McCloud, she pitched in to build the Committee for Human Survival to forestall the implementation of state welfare cuts. After several stormy mass hearings in Olympia, the group succeeded.
Martin served as FSP organizer from 1973-78, decisive years when the party developed from a lone Seattle local into a national entity with a quarterly newspaper, the Freedom Socialist. She was a longstanding member of the party's elected leadership body, the National Committee.
Her tenure was marked not only by political growth but by cultural advances as well. She trained younger members in the art of staging original theatrical productions, such as 1975's "Day in the Life of a Woman Organizer," a musical satire on the problems, drama, and comedy confronted by female rebels.
Martin was both a homebody and an international traveler who maintained magnificent gardens and adopted stray cats. In the 1980s, she visited France and England three times; in Amsterdam in 1981, she was part of a demonstration of a quarter million people demanding nuclear disarmament, and she met with women from the Greenham Common peace encampment. In 1985, she sojourned to Israel, where she interviewed Jewish and Palestinian feminists.
Martin was also a lover and collector of literature and a tireless archivist of civil-rights and feminist memorabilia, and she believed in sharing her treasures. In 1980, she opened Shakespeare & Martin Booksellers with family members, which later became Shakespeare & Co. in the Pike Place Market. The store specialized in Women's literature and memorabilia.
In 1990, at age 74, Martin was elected organizer of Radical Women's Seattle branch. At the time, she was a defendant in the Freeway Hall Case, a lawsuit over money waged by a disgruntled ex-member of the FSP, which ended in 1992 in victory for the FSP. The legal victory served to improve privacy protections for members of voluntary organizations in Washington.
Interviewed by the Seattle Times on July 5, 1990 on the occasion of her inauguration as RW helmswoman, Martin was quoted as saying, "We have to fight for survival issues--better pay, benefits, abortion rights, child care. But then we have to go further. We have to change the system, because as long as the system is the same, we'll be fighting all our lives for the same thing....When people have had enough, revolution can happen suddenly."
Martin's last week was spent at The Care Center at Kelsey Creek in Bellevue, where she was surrounded by relatives, friends, and comrades. Martin was predeceased by son Kevin and survived by her sister Mary Lee, and brother-in-law Mac; seven children--Adrian, David, Michael, Denise, Terrance, Thomas, and Jonathan; nephews--Daniel and Michael; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A public memorial will be held on Sunday, December 17, 2:00 p.m., followed by a buffet featuring her favorite foods, at the Jefferson Community Center, 3801 Beacon Ave. S., in Seattle. For more information, call (206) 722-2453. Remembrances may be sent to Red Letter Press for the "Gloria Martin Memorial Publications Fund" at Bush Asia Building, 409 Maynard Avenue South, Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98104. (206) 682-0990.