The following is the third in a series of three excerpts from David Ranney’s longer piece “Reflections: Well, How Did I Get Here?”
After leaving graduate school in 1966, I entered what I have called my first academic career. It would only last until 1974. Between 1970 and 1974, I was a faculty member at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. My faculty responsibilities were secondary in my mind to the rise of left activism and the promise of a new society, which mirrored what was happening throughout the U.S. and in many parts of the world. The segment below offers a snapshot of some of this.
Upon arriving in Iowa City, the chairman of my department told me that to get tenure I would need to get a research project underway. He sent me to the computer center where I could access a document that showed who had grants in my field and where the money came from. I went into a copy room where I could get a printed list. By mistake someone had left a printout of the University Computer Center’s budget in the room. I put it into my briefcase thinking it might be useful. When I got back to my office and looked at the budget I realized that I had important information. Roughly half of the revenues of the University of Iowa Computer Center came from the U.S. Department of Defense. Specifically, they were being funded by the Rock Island Arsenal, a near-by complex that made munitions used in the Vietnam War. The Computer Center was working on a project to make U.S. howitzers and other artillery more accurate. This constituted proof of direct participation by the University of Iowa in the Vietnam War.
I had noticed that the University student newspaper had taken a strong anti-war stance so I walked over to their office. There I met Lowell May, who was co-editor and a law student. I showed him what I had and he suggested we write an article together for the paper. (Lowell and I would go on to become life-long friends and comrades until his early death in 2018). When the paper came out, students immediately mobilized and marched on the Computer Center. The University was forced to place a 24-hour guard around and in the building for several weeks. I had made instant friends and enemies.
My years at the University of Iowa and Iowa City were important years for my own political development. My involvement in local, national and international issues greatly accelerated and it brought me into contact with a variety of left-wing political organizations. My activities included being part of a group, People’s Alliance, that was organizing cooperative housing collectives that some called communes. They were just different groups of people with different ideas about how a group living together would manage things. Some groups experimented with sharing sexual partners (which all ended in disaster). Some were quite haphazard. There was no organized cleaning, cooking and shopping. Others, like ours, were highly organized. Houses were usually rented. But I bought a big old farmhouse and a group of us moved in. It included students, children and some faculty. Some were single and some were couples. We had weekly assignments for chores and regular house meetings to work out tensions over anything that came up. We shared expenses for food and supplies. Since I had a faculty salary, I made the payments on the mortgage. We had three children in our house including, for a time, my wife and our son, Chris. It worked out pretty well. But after a time, my wife left and took our son with her.
People’s Alliance also organized other cooperatives including a food coop and a bicycle repair coop. But organizing and operating cooperative daycare was a political priority. Prior to my arriving in Iowa City, a group of parents, who had organized cooperative daycare in their homes, demanded that the University make a number of houses they owned available as daycare facilities. The houses were a perk for entering faculty who paid a minimal rent while they got settled. The University refused the demand that some of these houses should be devoted to cooperative daycare. So a large group of the parents marched to the Chancellor’s Office to press their demands. And they brought their children with them along with reporters from a number of media outlets including The New York Times. They opened the doors to the suite of offices of the Chancellor and other high-level administrators and told the children they could play with anything in the offices. The children streamed in, the Chancellor panicked and called in the police and instructed them to arrest the parents. The children freaked out calling for their mommies and daddies and the TV stations and media photographers got it all. The University took a huge public relations hit and after several negotiations agreed to make six houses available. This was the rosy dawn of the Iowa City daycare movement.
Groups of parents teamed up and formed daycares that represented different ideas about what childcare should be and how children should be raised politically. Parents and volunteers alike would sign up for a shift at daycare that included a hot meal at lunchtime. The daycare I belonged to was called the “Free Underground Childcare Kollective” or FUCK Daycare for short. As you might guess it had a counterculture orientation. Our collective was the result of a split over what to do about the boys who were bullying girls. My side of the split had argued that the adults talk to the children about why bullying was wrong. But a group of radical feminists insisted we should teach the little girls to beat the shit out of the little boys. That faction ended up forming a separate daycare that was all women. Men who agreed with their principles provided childcare at night if the mother worked late or just needed a night out. Within FUCK there were considerable disagreements on what actual care was. Some adults favored just letting kids do whatever they wanted and used the time during their daycare shift to get other work done. Others, including myself, wanted more structured activities. We had a dispute over prohibiting adults from smoking dope while on duty (I was for the prohibition). We had disputes over basic sanitation. We had government supplied surplus food for the hot meals and an inspector took that away from us because of unsanitary conditions including dirty kitchen and rodent feces in the bulk oatmeal bin. I led a faction dedicated to cleaning it up and then went to a social worker to plea for reinstatement. The social worker said to me: “If you were me and a working-class welfare mother came to me to find daycare, would you recommend they come to one called FUCK and operates the way yours does?” I replied: “Well not just yet but we’re going to get there.” We eventually got reinstated but I was labeled as “straight” which was considered an insult. I concluded that socialism wasn’t made in a day—contradictions among the people!
My son, Chris, was initially part of this daycare arrangement until his mother left Iowa City and took him with her. He also had a few summers in daycare. The differences I had with some of the other adults became more intense when Chris was there. I recall going to pick him up one day and neither of the adults on duty had any idea where he was. One of them was stoned. The house had a back yard where the kids could play. There were some fairly dirty kids and no adults out there. I asked one of the kids where Chris was. He pointed to the roof of the house. Chris had climbed a tree and jumped over to the roof. He put his arms in the air and shouted “The amazing Christopher!” I calmly talked him down and then took him home. I wasn’t so calm at the next parents meeting.
During this period in the early 1970s, the women’s movement was gaining strength nationally. It was very strong in Iowa City and was dominated by women who called themselves radical feminists. Many men in the movement were very sexist at this time and were being confronted by various segments of the women’s movement. A number of women argued that men should organize themselves into “men’s groups” to read and discuss radical feminist literature, engage in self-criticism of their own sexist behavior, and learn to have relationships with other men. A group of women asked me to join such a group in 1971. I didn’t initially know any of the men involved except one of my students named John. But in my group were two people who became lifelong friends and comrades in the movement. They were Hal Adams who was a professor in the University of Iowa Education College and Kingsley Clarke who was a young lawyer who represented the Black Panthers in Des Moines and had just established a law office in Iowa City where he did a lot of pro bono work, mostly with students who needed legal help. I think Hal, Kingsley and I learned a lot and hopefully improved our behavior. We read radical feminist writers like Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone and discussed the implications of their writings for our activities in the movement. We discussed our behavior in movement meetings where men had been criticized for dominating discussion and “mansplaining” (the practice of many men of repeating what a woman had said as if the point came from him). At meetings of the People’s Alliance there were women who kept track of such things and reported the results at the end of the meeting. So we discussed those reports and criticized ourselves accordingly. We talked about our failed relationships with specific women and how sexism played a role in that. And most importantly we tried to talk about our relationships with other men and with each other, answering the criticism that men avoided such relationships, requiring women to handle all our personal needs.
The work of the People’s Alliance was extensive. In addition to housing coops and daycare, we organized around a wide range of international, national and local issues. Internationally there was anti-war work and anti-colonialism work that focused on support for insurgents in African national wars for independence from various colonial powers. Nationally we did support work for the United Farm Workers by launching an Iowa City boycott of lettuce, grapes and wine. We joined with a local Chicano/Indian Center that was supporting striking workers in the Southwest who were making Farah jeans. Locally we joined with an independent women’s collective who had opened a free women’s medical clinic. Among its activities was an underground, illegal but safe, abortion facility. We also launched a campaign opposing an urban renewal proposal and instead proposed programs that would promote low-income housing, a landlord tenant code, public transportation improvements, publicly funded after-school child care. We opposed city development priorities that benefited high-cost housing and contributed to runoff that flooded lower income neighborhoods. We supported collective bargaining rights for city and county workers. And we presented the city with an alternative budget.
To organize around these activities, we did door to door canvasing and tried to organize block clubs. We published articles about various initiatives in our newspaper and also did property research that exposed local politicians who used insider information to speculate on land whose value would be enhanced by the urban renewal proposal. We held free spaghetti dinners where speakers explained some of the issues and our stance on them. We campaigned on and defeated a referendum to enable the urban renewal proposal to go through. And I ran with another member of the People’s Alliance for City Council. We both lost but got a surprisingly high vote total and, most importantly, used the campaign to promote People’s Alliance politics and proposals. (I really didn’t want to be on the Council and was relieved that I lost).
All of this was exhausting. I did these things on top of my faculty teaching and advising work. Research and academic publication took a back seat. But at this point, I had tenure so my job was not in jeopardy. After the City Council elections, People’s Alliance began to wane. Students who had been active were graduating and leaving Iowa City and the housing coops and various activities we had initiated. The left nationally was becoming increasingly sectarian and that carried over to Iowa City as individuals in other organizations launched attacks on People’s Alliance priorities and political line. About this time, the national leadership of an organization that had supported People’s Alliance, New American Movement (NAM), decided to move the national office to Chicago and hire two people to run it. I was given the opportunity to be one of the people who would do this. I asked the University for a one-year leave of absence which my department granted. (They were probably relieved to have me out of town for a year). But ultimately, I gave up my tenured job in Iowa City to do full-time work in a larger arena, that was Chicago. I didn’t return to academia for ten years while I did full time political work and supported myself doing factory work.