Portrait of Kipp Dawson speaking into a microphone.Dawson speaking, circa the early 1970s. Source: Dawson, Kipp. Gay Liberation: A Socialist Perspective (New York: Pathfinder, 1975).

By Catherine A. Evans and Jessie B. Ramey

For the current issue of Radical History Review, we wrote about activist Kipp Dawson. Drawing from two new archives covering her sixty years of organizing across major social movements since the 1950s, the piece features photographs, documents, and ephemera from the Kipp Dawson Papers (now at the University of Pittsburgh) along with excerpts from interviews with Dawson in the Women Miners Oral History Project (at West Virginia University). In this conversation with Dawson, we ask her to reflect on her life of activism and expand on some of the themes from the article to help us think about how feminists have confronted state violence in different social movements.

Let’s start with how you define state violence.

Dawson: We could spend days and books on this alone, even if just confined to my own interactions with state violence. We need to be reminded that “the state” was founded to keep the ruling class ruling, using violence to do so. In a nutshell: since the state exists to maintain the status quo and insists that it alone has the right to use violence, any of us who stand up against it have been, are, and will be subject to state violence. In my experience, this has included both threatened and carried-out violence and fear against me as well as family members, friends, and comrades.

Resisting state violence opened you and other organizers up to personal attacks. Can you say more about how the state targeted you and your family?

Dawson: Like many of us whose ancestors were victims of racial, national, and gender discrimination, my female forebears lived lives of resisting state violence and violence encouraged by the state. My grandmother fled anti-Jewish pogroms in Poland to the United States, only to have the US government tell her she had to flee again, this time from Erie, PA. In 1922, her Jewish socialist husband was murdered. He had stood up with coal miners and African Americans who were organizing against mob violence in Appalachia and the South. When my grandmother asked the Erie authorities to find out who had killed her husband, they told her she needed to get out of town. She did and then continued her work in Los Angeles.

My mother raised me with examples of standing up against state violence. I saw this violence directed against her striking factory co-workers, against Black people through state-tolerated and encouraged lynch mobs, against police harassment of my Black stepfather, and in its ultimate form, in the electrocution of Ethel Rosenberg. Because I’ve lived a life blessed by being a part of making “good trouble,” I have witnessed all of these and more firsthand. She taught me how to hide from that violence by being circumspect about our politics and activities and to never give in to intimidation.

What was/is the role of FBI, CIA, and other U.S. governmental agencies in upholding state violence?

Dawson: I grew up knowing that the FBI went after working-class justice fighters, as some of my earliest and most frequent memories are of looking up at my mom and two men in suits. In my first week living on my own, when I was newly 18, I used my mom’s response when it happened to me. I had yet to ever get in trouble with authorities (this was before my civil rights arrests). The banging on my apartment door was from just one man. “Hello Kipp. I’m Sgt. ___ from the San Francisco Police Red Squad. We just want you to know that we know where you are.” I told him I had nothing to say to him “without my lawyer being present,” and he laughed and left. My first direct victory against state institutions of violence.

But little did I know that the FBI and other government agencies had been following me for years, at least since my friends and I had started the first civil rights club at Berkeley High School. Against me, along with my family and peers, these police agencies leaked their information to right-wing hate groups and the House Committee on Un-American Activities in California. When I worked to raise money for the Socialist Workers Party’s lawsuit that exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, I got to see samples of the files the FBI, CIA, and others had been accumulating since I was a “threatening” little girl.

Unlike the more direct and lethal violence police agencies used against Black activists, I never experienced bodily harm from these agencies. While my high school friends and I never got beaten away from lunch counters or bus terminals as did our peers in the South, we did face the violence of arrest and incarceration as we used the same sit-in tactics in our San Francisco work to integrate the job market. While in jail, we felt the degradation, humiliation, and, in my case, the violence of solitary confinement during our relatively short-term arrests and sentences.

A scrapbook page with two photos and one note with handwritten text.
A page from Dawson’s scrapbook documenting her visit to El Salvador in solidarity with union organizing in 1985. In the top photo, Dawson is center left and Febe Elizabeth Velásquez is center. Source: Kipp Dawson Papers, 1951–2021, AIS.2022.10, Archives and Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System.

Your organizing efforts extended across national borders, too. During your time as a member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) you visited El Salvador to meet with trade unionists. How did resistance to state violence manifest during that trip?

Dawson: I came into direct contact with deadly state and state-backed mob violence during that trip to San Salvador in 1985. My local union sent me to be a part of a delegation to a courageous, open conference of workers daring to form a union there. As we gathered, our hosts helped us learn how and when to duck to the floor of the car when we came too close to the machine guns being aimed out of the back of the Jeep Cherokees driven around by death squads. These gangs were not only tolerated but protected and used by the Salvadoran government which, in turn, was financed by our U.S. government. All to keep down workers like us who were Salvadoran.

This conference elected their first open leader, Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, a young mother and worker at the Levi’s plant which was resisting union organization. We took the threats of violence seriously, as we also were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers who were part of the civil war going on in the countryside. Not long after this conference, we heard the news reports. Febe was among the victims of a bomb attack on the union headquarters there. Our sister, Febe.

When I reported on this trip to my UMWA local, my buddies were not surprised to learn of this kind of violence being directed against our union sisters and brothers. Many of them had grown up under the violent eye of the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania who terrorized, and sometimes shot, coal miners and their families during union organizing drives right here.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the current use of federal and state policies to inflict violence on bodies, including denying access to abortion and gender-affirming healthcare. You’ve told your story of seeking an abortion that the government had deemed illegal. Do you want to say more about these forms of government violence and your experience?

Dawson: Absolutely. I was a young child when I first learned that “coat hanger” meant something other than hanging up clothes. I can still smell the blood the term evoked in my mom, as she joined other young women to help a local woman get treatment for a botched abortion.

In 1966, I subjected myself to violence against my body to abort my own surprise pregnancy. I was 21, just out from serving 29 days in jail for a civil rights arrest, when my newly resumed birth control pills had not taken hold. It took me longer to recognize I was pregnant than those time limits states are passing today to prevent women from getting so-called “late-term abortions.” I was finding a way to Mexico, where many of my peers went for help, when a friend told me of Edgar Keemer, a brave doctor in Detroit. I can say his name now, as later he “came out” as an abortion provider. He was willing to face state violence to do what he considered his medical duty.

Today, these laws that prohibit people from having control over their own bodies, they all come back to policing and control of women. Of course, their impacts are felt disproportionately in this society built on racism and colonial violence. But, if all women had control over reproduction and the raising of their children in a socially productive and conscientious manner, then the state would be in trouble, wouldn’t it?

Two women embrace in a crowd.
Dawson with her mother, Ann, at the July 9, 1978 ERA march in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Kipp Dawson.

You previously said you were “living” intersectionality before such a term existed and a lot of your philosophy comes from Black women and Black feminism, including from your sister, former Black Panther and now womanist Reverend Cheryl Dawson. Would you speak a little more about how you came to understand and practice this philosophy in your organizing and life?

Dawson: I’ve never quite gotten used to the term, “intersectionality.” The life I’ve been gifted always presented things as all connected with one another. We were living in a system with many names, but was most clearly described as an international dictatorship of the wealthy few over the vast majority, the rest of us, and our planet. They use violence of all kinds to keep us divided from and fighting one another; to keep us impoverished and too busy trying to stay alive to be able to fight back; to keep us looking down on all other people down here on the bottom and ourselves; especially to keep women from recognizing one another and our own potential power. Racism is one of their biggest tools, as are national boundaries, patriotism, xenophobia, homophobia, and imposed ignorance. If we were to work toward a different kind of world – the only kind that could provide a better future – we would have to embrace everything positive that stood against this evil. We could seek a society based on each according to ability, and to each according to need. Yes, we could! But we have to take on everything in our way.

My family exemplifies for me the ridiculousness of the evils. We experienced racism daily as the Black members of my family faced (and face) violence that we who are white do not. I have been right close to the beauty of Black women– including my sister – recognizing her own strength and beauty and growing so strong as she found this power with other Black women and activists. It’s a part of my life from which I keep learning and listening. I will never stop learning by following the lead of Black women like my sister.

For me, my role always has been to be a bridge. A bridge among people of different sexualities, different races, different religions, different nationalities, and all the other differences our oppressors wage against us. Like with San Salvador, where we really put ourselves out there. In a way, we laid our bodies down to raise others up. There is power there, too, in this bridging work which I’ve grown up with examples of. So, call it what we will, I choose to focus on the power of our interconnected struggles, or if you insist, our intersectionality. Today, this is a power we can’t let them keep us from.

Three women pose facing the camera.
Catherine, Kipp, and Jessie standing in front of the Kipp Dawson Paper’s boxes at the University of Pittsburgh, celebrating their opening to the public, in October 2022. Image courtesy of Jessie Ramey.

Your archive, now “The Kipp Dawson Papers” housed at the University of Pittsburgh, covers the breadth of your organizing efforts and includes a wide range of objects such as buttons, stickers, and cassette tapes alongside diaries, unpublished poetry, and organizational documents. Clearly, you saved these things for a reason. Why?

Dawson: From my mom and her generation of working-class women, I have breathed in respect for “people like us” in history, across the planet now, and those to come. Especially women. People who behind the scenes kept one another and the coming generations in mind and in action with everything they did and do. As historians have begun to call us, people “from below.” People who do the “women’s work,” and do it together. People who haven’t had much time to write, and whom so many writers don’t recognize exist. Artists, musicians, teachers, and plumbers, garbage collectors, nurses. People whose stories are whispered and sung out loud, but don’t do what they do to be noticed. People who keep alive the spirit of what it is to be human, without seeking fame or fortune in the process. And I was gifted from the beginning to be among them. To be able to learn with and from those who were older than I, and experiment and try it all out with those from my own generation. I knew from an early time that I was working with history. So, I kept things others threw away.

I also have been empowered by story. I feel a debt that I love working to fulfill – to pass on what others have given me. To hold a mirror up to young people that shows them their potential – their beauty and power as was done for me. So, I wrote and wrote; saved and saved. Now much of that is available to anyone who is interested and can travel to Pittsburgh. To inspire them to see themselves also as actors, potential collaborators, and builders of a future worthy of the name.

So, where do we go from here? What do you want us, my generation and the next, to know about the way that feminists have or could continue to confront state violence?

Dawson: Young people right now are facing things that are different in their dynamics than what we faced when we were their age. I have more to learn than to teach. This is a combination of my aging and recognizing that so much is happening in spheres in which I have little experience. I find myself hungry to read, to watch theater, to listen to young people grapple with ideas, to go back to music and relive its emotional powers. We need to keep feeding our souls to build the connections this dying capitalism wants to destroy. Without denying the seriousness of all of the dangers that grow around us, let us also not close our eyes to the beauty and power of those everywhere.

I would also say to look at my own generation with caution. You know, we are not the ones who caused all this mess that’s going on, and we should stop apologizing for passing it on, especially anyone who tried to change things. I’m not defensive here, but I really feel adamant about getting past this guilt and moving toward solidarity between generations. My generation doesn’t have the answers. People my age need to stop approaching younger people like you don’t know anything. We do have things to pass on, thank goodness, we do, but if we knew it all, we would have solved all the world’s problems by now.

Even what we’re doing here today, in conversation, is an example. We have three generations represented here. When we come together, we can pull things out of the darkness and into the light where others can use them. And that’s what we do because we can, and because we’re crazy enough to try and make it happen. So, let’s make it happen. Sí se puede.


Kipp Dawson is a life-long activist, woman coal miner, educator, and radical. Her papers, The Kipp Dawson Papers, are now housed at the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives & Special Collections.

Catherine A. Evans is a PhD candidate in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She served as the archival intern for the Kipp Dawson Papers.

Jessie B. Ramey is the founding director of the Women’s Institute and associate professor of women’s and gender studies and history at Chatham University. She is the author of Childcare in Black and White: Working Families and the History of Orphanages (2012).