The taxi driver’s mouth was flapping as he steered his cab through the streets of Albany, N.Y. “Those good-for-nothing politicians, including the governor,” he was complaining. “To hell with ’em…They oughta be—” he stopped short, then muttered, “Ooops, sorry ladies.” The passenger on the front seat broke into a robust laugh. “Oooooooooo, honey,” she said, “that’s just baby talk.”
She should know. Her name is Florynce Rae Kennedy—Flo to friend and enemy alike—and she is the biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist-activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause. She was in the New York state capital to give some legislators a piece of that mouth. “You tell the senator,” Flo warned a starchy-faced secretary, “that if he doesn’t get moving on the Household Technicians bill he’ll have more s—-dumped on him than his family inheritance [from a laxative business] could possibly generate.” Earlier in the day she had warmed up at a women’s political caucus meeting where she called New York Governor Hugh Carey “the greatest disappointment since Teflon.”
An original member of the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus, Flo Kennedy’s credentials as a card-carrying earthshaker have been extolled by feminist editor Gloria Steinem. “For those who had been in the black movement when it was still known as the civil rights movement,” says Steinem, “or in the consumers’ movement that predated Ralph Nader, or in the women’s movement when it was still supposed to be a few malcontents in sneakers, or in the peace movement when there was more worry about nuclear fallout than about Vietnam, Flo was a political touchstone—a catalyst.”
Kennedy’s recent calendar reads like that of a barnstorming candidate. On Saturday she was in Newark meeting with a coalition of blacks and socialists (“I get nervous about the glorification of the worker when so many of them were marching in South Boston”); then off to Albany at dawn Sunday to blast the media for its “white-out” of the women’s political caucus (“Every news crew is following the Onassis story. What’s so newsworthy about the death of a 69-year-old man even if he is a billionaire?”). Back in New York on Monday, she went to Harlem to give blunt advice to transit, construction and consumer activists (“You need a strategy to heal the splits in the black community”). At a meeting Tuesday of the National Organization of Non-Parents (she’s a board member) at the Hampshire House, she lashed out at a man who ridiculed the Women’s International Conference in Mexico City as a “sorority mishmash” (“It couldn’t be a worse mess than Penn Central and the Pentagon”). The following day she flew to St. Louis to lunch with black students and talk with a Kennedy assassinologist about organizing an East Coast conference to probe the death of the President. She wound up the week in Washington, D.C. at a meeting of women law students (“Try to diversify your focus on feminism…Work on impeaching ‘Smiling Whitey Ford’ and ‘Oily Rockefeller,’ They’re vulnerable, because they weren’t elected as constitutionally required”).
A self-appointed activist “spokes-person,” she brings a lawyer’s logic to her verbal explosions. In her lectures to students—whether at the University of California or Texas or at Wellesley, three among the 25 institutions where she has spoken this year—she urges them not to resort to violence until they have exhausted every other avenue of change. “Violence is not necessary. It is the establishment specialty. They have police, arsenals and napalm.”
With an annual income of $30,000, mostly from college appearances, Flo has all but abandoned her law practice, except to argue for such causes as abortion or the Black Panthers. Occasionally she gives legal advice to friends. “Law was just getting one ass out of the wringer at a time,” she explains. “Now I have one of the best gigs going. I’m a 59-year-old colored woman. I can afford to be frank and get paid for it.”
Her repertoire embraces a lot of show-business pizzazz. In a recent outing to Albany she carried a plastic bag of tricks that included protest buttons and songs like “Striped Christmas.” (“I’m dreaming of a STRIPED Christmas like Richard Nixon never knew. Where a sheriff’s badge glistens and Nixon listens…”) “Music is so important,” says Flo.
Flo can inflame, but she also knows when to pour cooling advice onto a molten group. In Newark militant blacks and socialists were wrangling bitterly over whether to support the 1976 Democratic presidential ticket or put up their own candidate. Flo listened attentively, then defused the growing anger with common sense advice: stay with the party candidate for maximum political influence; at least wait and see who that candidate is.
Says feminist lawyer Diane Schulder, who was co-author with Flo of Abortion Rap, a book about the class action suit that liberalized New York’s law: “Some people will only come to a demonstration if there are enough people. Flo will be there when you’re really in trouble, and then she doesn’t stay around to cash in on the success.” Flo was part of the legal team that challenged the constitutionality of New York’s abortion law and as such collaborated on briefs and cross-examined witnesses in pretrial hearings.
When not hustling around the lecture circuit or embattled on some far-flung legal front, Flo divides her time between an East Side Manhattan apartment (which doubles as office) and an 11-room suburban New Jersey home she recently bought with her sister Joy. Tottering at the edge of their indoor swimming pool, Flo is jubilant: “Ooooooo, this is so wonderful! I tell all my radical, rich friends not to be guilty about having money.”
Born in Kansas City, Mo., the second of five daughters, Flo Kennedy did not grow up rich and radical. Her father was a taxi driver; when things got rough during Depression days, her mother went to work as a domestic. But Flo recalls being showered with affection. “Our parents had us so convinced we were precious that by the time I found out I was nothing, it was already too late—I knew I was something.”
Younger sister Joy, whose book The Neurotic Woman’s Guide to Non-Fulfillment will be published this fall, remembers Flo as the eternal optimist, despite a childhood injury that left her with a fused spine. “We were so poor we didn’t have money to heat the house,” says Joy, “but Flo would be writing letters to people she read about in the newspaper and admired, as though she belonged to the same country club.” The five sisters are enormously close. Of middle sister Grace, a widow living in Queens, Flo says: “She’s so square she wouldn’t even sign a petition for Martin Luther King’s birthday. But I know if anything ever happened, I could count on her more than on some of my revolutionary friends.” Another sister Faye, a parole officer, has just taken up writing and has completed a “sex mystery.” The oldest sister, Evelyn, works in Macy’s housewares department.
After high school Flo sold hats and operated an elevator in her hometown. Then, after her mother’s death, she moved to New York and entered a prelaw program at Columbia University at 26. During the day she worked in libraries and museums to pay the tuition and to support herself, and maintained an “A” average. But her application for Columbia Law School was rejected, the dean explaining it was because of her sex, not her race. Flo replied, “It feels the same to me.” Shortly thereafter the dean was persuaded to change his mind.
After college Flo signed on with a New York law firm as a clerk. She left after three years and the firm later broke up. Attorney Irving Bergman, an associate handling labor matters in the firm, remembers that “She had a sharp, incisive mind, a great command of vocabulary and was extremely productive. At that time I never believed she would become such an activist. In those days she only talked about law.” Flo started her own legal firm, which floundered when her white southern partner left abruptly.
Without rancor, Flo paid off his debts, and struck out on her own again, this time as a show biz and matrimonial lawyer. And today, next to her own nameplate outside the office door appear those of two clients whose estates she still handles: Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
Joy Kennedy views the break-up of the law partnership as a turning point in her sister’s life: “She was always so conservative in those years. She’d give a party and only invite whites. She’d save for weeks to buy shoes at Bergdorf Goodman. She was so flattered this man thought enough of her to want to be her partner. Her disillusionment afterward was profound.”
Flo was married briefly to a Welsh science-fiction writer, 10 years her junior and now dead. “Anyone who marries a drunk Welshman doesn’t deserve any sympathy,” she says. Of marriage in general? “It’s like signing up for your favorite meal. But do you have to eat it every single day the rest of your life, morning, noon and night?”
The complete change—into leather pants, boots, polo shirts and caps decorated with protest buttons—came after Flo was hauled into court for crossing a police barricade near her home in 1965. “The police didn’t believe I could live in such a good neighborhood. As nicely and conservatively as I was dressed, I was still just another nigger. I realized then I had to make things better for all black people.”
Not all observers think the “new” Flo Kennedy is an improvement. Justice Theodore R. Kupferman of the Appellate Division of New York State’s Supreme Court (formerly Republican Congressman from Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District) says, “Before she changed her life-style, Flo had a great many white friends who appreciated her and through her saw problems of members of her race much more clearly. Suddenly she turned the whites off and became a black militant, and the shock of it, if anything, has had the opposite effect.”
Democratic presidential aspirant Fred Harris sizes up Flo and her impact somewhat differently: “Flo is tough as nails. You cannot help but be caught up in her aura. She serves as a good, shocking experience for people who have been dormant, underpowered. She helps them see what the problem is but that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
In the book she is finishing, The Pathology of Oppression, Flo Kennedy argues, as she lives, forcibly: “Loserism is when oppressed people sit around and think up reasons why they can’t do something. Well just do it. Thinking up reasons why you can’t is the Establishment’s job.”