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93-Year-Old Ivy Bottini Reflects on Her Lifetime of Activism

Ivy Bottini

"The movement always came first and relationships came second," the iconic lesbian activist tells LGBTQ&A.

In 1970, a group of women ferried across the water to the Statue of Liberty with fabric hidden under their dresses. It was folded up over their stomachs making them look like a massive contingency of pregnant women.

When they arrived at the Statue of Liberty, they put the fabric together, hanging it over the railing of the statue to form a gigantic banner that read, "Women Of The World Unite." They proceeded to take over the monument, singing, playing guitar, and dancing in a kickline until the police were called.

Ivy Bottini was the president of the New York chapter of the National Organization For Women at this time, and conceived and lead the demonstration. She worked side-by-side with Betty Friedan in the Women's Movement in the 1960s before being kicked out for being a lesbian. From there she joined the fight for LGBTQ rights, creating the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles, and co-founding the U.S.'s first affordable housing complex for LGBTQ seniors.

Now 93, Bottini sat down with the LGBTQ&A podcast to talk about the early days of her activism, why she always prioritized the movement over romantic relationships, and what it was like to reach middle age and finally kiss another woman for the first time.

Read a preview below and click here to listen to the full podcast interview.

Jeffrey Masters: I was surprised to learn that you joined the Women's Movement in the '60s by accident. You followed a girl to your first meeting--your co-worker, Dolores.

Ivy Bottini: Yes. It was a get together of Betty Friedan, Muriel Fox, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Flo Kennedy.

I hadn't come out. I was struggling. I was trying to figure out who I was. And so, to just put the icing on the cake so nobody would think that I was a lesbian or struggling with the question, I went out and I bought--this is crazy--I bought a hat. It was blue with white polka dots. I bought gloves to match.

I went to the meeting with my oldest daughter who was like 13 or 14 at the time because I figured they're never going to think I'm struggling if I have a child with me. I honestly didn't know what they were talking about because I was just so fascinated by who they were. I was watching how they composed themselves and presented themselves. That was my first encounter with the National Organization for Women.

JM: Betty Friedan famously wrote The Feminine Mystique, which is credited with starting the second wave of feminism in America. Had you read it?

IB: No. I never read it, but I recognized very early in the response the book received that Betty Friedan had touched a nerve.

JM: Looking back on that period, we see that it did not always include women of color or queer people. It was mainly middle-class, white women. Was that something that was discussed?

IB: No. It was recognized, but it wasn't being discussed, yet. I was pretty stunned at how radical some women...that they got what that book was about, that The Feminine Mystique really spoke to them.

JM: You were forced out in a lesbian purge. What was the argument against lesbians being in the movement?

IB: That we would kill the women's movement, that because of the subject matter people would be disgusted, angry, withdraw support. And that the Women's Movement would be stopped. That was Betty Friedan's image in her head.

JM: What was it like working with her?

IB: Interestingly enough, Dolores, Betty Friedan, and myself all ended up living in the same brownstone on West 93rd Street.

Friedan lived on the first floor and I lived on four and Dolores on five. It was very convenient for Betty Friedan to call her on the phone at 2:00 in the morning and say, "I need to speak to you now. Please come up."

When she spoke to the people on the board, she was more respectful in her tone but her words were the same. When she spoke to us lowly people in the trenches, she could prove to be a formidable foe.

JM: One memorable protest took place at the Statue of Liberty. A group hung a sign that said, "Women of the world unite."

IB: Yes. On the top of the pedestal. These two lesbians decided they were going to blow up a statue in Queens called Civic Virtue because it was of this male Greek God with a bare chest and loincloth. He had a spear and the point's part was around a woman's neck. This serpent had the head of a woman. They were going to blow it up.

So, I suggested that that was small potatoes, that we should do something big, "Let's take over the Statue of Liberty." Never giving one thought that it would happen.

JM: You proposed it because it was so outrageous.

IB: Yes. I figured it would never happen and they will forget that they wanted to blow up a statue. And yet, it finally came to fruition.

JM: And you stuffed fabric from the banner in your dresses, hiding it to look like pregnant bellies.

IB: It looked like there were a lot of pregnant women making their way up to the statue and climbing the stairs.

It was fascinating. The police finally came across the water. Three police boats arrived and two fireboats. I thought for sure that we were all going to be arrested and go to the Federal Pen because that's who governs that island. They don't let people mess around.

The police arrived and the captain of the middle one stepped off onto the wharf with a bullhorn yelled up to me, "What are you women doing up there?" There were those of us who we had a picket line going and we were singing songs, so I said, "Oh, we're just walking and singing and playing guitars."

And he said, "How long do you think you'll be?" I said, "Maybe half an hour." And he said, "Okay. I'll be right here waiting for you to finish."

And I yelled down to him, "And I'll be right here doing what I'm doing." And that's what happened. It must have been another 20 minutes at least and all the women congregated again and we walked down the steps to the wharf and the boats started to come in. And we got on two different boats and we went home.

JM: Was anyone arrested?

IB: Nobody. The finish of the demonstration was the police boats decided to join in on our protest because they turned on their siren and the fireboats each had these big water cannons. And they started to shoot the water cannons up in the air...whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop. It was a party.

JM: They joined the celebration. Was that surprising?

IB: I was absolutely stunned. I thought, "Oh, they do have a heart," like they were supporting us in some way.

JM: You've said that you didn't know being a lesbian was an option, but you also had crushes on women throughout your life.

IB: Oh, I started with a major crush on our gym teacher when I was in kindergarten, Miss Rose. She could whistle through her teeth. Oh my God.

JM: Since you being in a relationship wasn't an option in your mind, how were you interpreting those feelings?

IB: Very painfully. It was an agonizing time in my life because not only was I having these feelings, but I had two daughters and a husband. It was probably just about the worst thing that happened to me along the way, the feeling that I'm fighting with two identities and it was a horrible, horrible, horrible time.

JM: Did those feelings go away when you started to live more openly?

IB: Not until I finally made the choice of that I will embrace the fact that I'm a lesbian.

JM: How old were you?

IB: God, I think my early 50s, late 40s. You know, I honestly don't know. It was right around there.

I knew I loved women all along growing up. That was clear to me. I didn't know that it could be a choice because I didn't know there were really other lesbians that felt the same way I did.

JM: Do you remember your first kiss with a woman?

IB: I have to think who it was. Yes, I do. After I graduated from high school and even art school. One night, I said to one of the players on my basketball team, "Take me to a gay bar." That was a big, big request for me. I mean, it's acknowledging that I wanted to participate or see if there was a place for me.

I ended up dating a woman that I saw at the bar a couple of nights later when I went back by myself. Her name was Nancy and that was the first time I ever kissed a woman.

JM: What did it feel like?

IB: I was thinking, "Am I doing this right?" And then, I felt, "Well, if I kissed a man and then kissed a woman, it's got to be the same kind of kiss." Yeah, I liked kissing women.

I've had three relationships in my life over a period of time. Nancy and I never lived together although she was in my life a lot. But the next two, we did live together. I finally understand what happened to my relationships. The movement always came first and relationships came second, and that doesn't work with a partner. Eventually, they start to resent being second and start looking elsewhere.

JM: Was that a conscious decision to put the movement first always?

IB: No. It's just what I realized I've done over my life. It took me many, many, many, many, many years. It's only fairly recently because I was really looking at my life and how events had impacted me.

JM: Did the movement also interfere with your relationship with your kids?

IB: Well, yes, because I moved to the city and they stayed with their dad. We would get together and talk on the phone. You know, that kind of long-distance relationship.

JM: Did you have kids because you wanted to be a mother or was it simply what was expected for you back then?

IB: No. I wanted to have kids, absolutely.

JM: As you're getting older, do you think about your death?

IB: Yes, I do. I find death is a big waste of time when you could be alive doing something. But I'm getting used to the idea. I really do think it's a waste of time. I swear to God, I do. It makes no sense to me. If you're a productive human being, why do you have to leave?

I wonder if I'll be scared. I realize it's going to happen and there are days that I go, "I'm so tired." And then I'll go, "That's ridiculous. Just get back to work."

Click here to listen to the full podcast with Ivy Bottini.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Alok Vaid-Menon, Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Tracey "Africa" Norman, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.

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