Reflections of a Female Yippie: An Interview with Judy Gumbo
by Kat Georges
Lifelong activist Judy Gumbo, author of YIPPIE GIRL: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, was one of the few female members of the original Yippies, a notorious satirical protest group founded in the 1960s and involved in organizing Chicago 1968 protests that led to arrests, and to the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. As part of her activism, Judy was involved in notorious feminist organizations, radical environmentalism, visited North Vietnam during the war, and traveled the globe agitating against the war and for the liberation of women. Her activism led to illegal surveillance by the FBI; she later successfully sued to obtain copies of their extensive records on her. Three Rooms Press co-director Kat Georges recently asked her about her new book, the 1960s and 1970s protest movements, and what modern-day activists can learn from this in-depth look at antiwar activism from a feminist perspective.
TRP: Yippie Girl is a fierce book about your days in the 60s and 70s anti-war Yippie movement. What did being a Yippie mean to you at this time?
Judy Gumbo: Yippie gave me the freedom to break through the limits and constrictions imposed on me by my Communist Party parents, and the passivity expected of me as a woman that I learned growing up. The Yippies taught me I could be left wing and radical but personally and individually free. They provided me an alternate way of thinking and a reality that empowered me to act as I choose, to make a better world as I thought it should be.
TRP: Your memoir details many of key events of the day that Yippies were involved in, particularly the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention where the Yippie-led anti-war protest/gathering turned into a brutal riot by Chicago police which in turn led to the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Some would say the situation is similar to the January 6th insurrection, by people who seem to have polar opposite views from the Yippies. How would you distinguish between the two events?
JG: The Chicago 1968 and January 6, 2021 protests may appear similar on the surface, but the politics and fundamental set of beliefs which inspired both are polar opposites. January 6 was a violent riot by adherents of the far right. These rioters excused their racism by proclaiming that the 2020 presidential election had been “stolen.” Their goal was trying to instill fear in others, which they did by means of aggressive attacks. Some were members of actual police forces. In Chicago 68, we were trying to inspire others to join our peaceful protest to end a horrific war. Instead, Chicago police tear-gassed and attacked us. Our movement was about preserving democracy, giving a voice to those who were trying to be silenced, while the January 6th insurrection was about stifling democracy and refuting the democratic process. Chicago 1968 and January 6, 2020 may look alike on the surface, but the moral basis of the two events is totally opposite.
TRP: Woven into Yippie Girl is also the story of your long relationship, and eventual marriage, to Yippie founding member Stew Albert. What were some of things that kept bringing you two back together, despite some pretty harsh breakups?
JG: Stew and I got back together because of a series of internal and external events that morphed into its own segmented process: I needed first to break up with Stew, so I could understand myself and what I wanted to achieve as a female human being. I broke up with Stew in the fall of 1970, after the Chicago Conspiracy Trial verdict. By Mayday, 1971, I no longer needed Stew to give me love, admiration, power and prestige. We were briefly reunited thanks to the US Department of (In)Justice who subpoenaed Stew and me to a Grand Jury, while they investigated us for a bombing we did not do. They put us in the same room to face the same enemy, forcing us together when we should have been apart. The hostility we felt towards each other during this time triggered our most significant breakup. At my initiation, Stew and I separated. We remained apart for a year and a half – which gave me the independence to identify as a feminist and explore my sexuality. I gained the confidence and self-knowledge that allowed Stew and me to get back together—on equal terms. To escape noticeable FBI surveillance in the summer of 1973, Stew and I moved together to a tiny cabin in the Catskill mountains where winter, the demise of the social movements which had defined our lives, and the re-emergence of our love for each other helped us forge a new relationship.
TRP: The Yippies were a male-dominated protest organization, at a time where women were finding their voice and power. Today, male dominance is still being dealt with in many protest organizations. What tips can you offer today’s female activists to give their voices an equal platform?
JG: I learned two important lessons—rely on my feminist intuition and not be intimidated out of speaking up. In his book Mayday 1971 Larry Roberts has me stomping onto the stage, grabbing the mic from lead singer Mike Love, and giving an impassioned speech about women’s liberation. Yippie for me!
My most important tip is—do not be intimidated. Even if you are not listened to or passed over, you must continue to speak up. Speak up! Even the FBI noticed. They labelled me “the ill-tempered Judy Gumbo.” Be confident. You know you’re right!
Here’s another tip: If those men who you are trying to convince are really your friends, they will listen to you. If they don’t, ask yourself—are they really your friends or just dogmatic assholes? If you can, avoid triggering men who you consider friends. Be patient but firm. Here’s a maxim that I try to live by, told to me by a Vietnamese poet and friend:
Be good to friends who are good to you, also be good to friends who are bad to you, for only friends will go with you on the long road to revolution.
TRP: The FBI illegally surveilled you and Stew—along with many other activists—for years. One of my favorite quotes in the book from the FBI surveillance records is:
Stew Albert and Judy Gumbo are difficult to surveil because of the extreme paranoia which pervades their thinking about being surveilled.
It almost seems funny now, but how did you feel at the time? Were your frightened? angry? Did the surveillance curtail your activities?
JG: I didn’t know about this quote at the time. But then I followed my feminist intuition, and I discovered an FBI tracking device on my car when Stew and I were back together and living our cabin in the Catskill Mountains. It turned out Stew and I were under heavy FBI surveillance—Seven burglaries of our cabin in one year, our phone was tapped, our cabin itself was bugged, and we eventually discovered the FBI had installed two, not one, tracking devices on our car. I discovered that second tracking device on December 13, 1975. I felt proud of myself when I found the device under the rear bumper of my car. I realized I was important enough to be surveilled! But the day after my discovery, the reality of what I’d found set in and I got scared. Here’s another tip: when you or any Movement activist discovers they’re in trouble with the law, find and go directly to a Movement lawyer. Which I did.
Discovering the second tracking device did not curtail my Yippie activities, just the opposite. Stew and I held a press conference to show the world what our lawyers identified as an illegal device. My finding that tracking device on my car ultimately led the FBI to stop surveilling us because it was such a major embarrassment to them that I had discovered it.
Ultimately, ours was an idealistic movement—anyone who wanted to be could be a Yippie. We put our trust in those around us and our shared vision for a better future. Only later did we learn about COINTELPRO and other FBI activities to disrupt us. Maybe we should have been more suspicious, but I think that trust is what made it possible for us to do what we did.
TRP: What do you feel was the biggest accomplishment of the Yippies during your time with them? Biggest disappointment?
JG: Our biggest Yippie accomplishment was to legitimize theatrical and youth-based protest as a method to stop a horrific war. And to use the media to make our countercultural message of comedic resistance widespread: we levitated the Pentagon, we brought the Stock exchange to a halt by throwing money from the balcony and of course Chicago 1968, we ran a pig for president. To protest war, racism and straight-laced politics, Yippies also invaded Disneyland, Canadian Yippies briefly invaded the United States, a Yip-In occurred at Grand Central Station, plus other actions.
My biggest disappointment is that the Yippies faded as a cultural force, to be replaced by leftist politics that often feels grim and serious. I believe strongly that using satire to help convey a serious message is the best way to convince people to join your cause. Also, the Yippies were unable to find a way to continue organizationally after the Vietnam War ended. But even in today’s uber-serious times, Yippie action re-emerges. Just the other day Marina Ovsyannikova, a courageous Russian woman, strode behind a broadcaster on a major Russian TV network, carrying a gigantic NO WAR sign. Given her brilliant use of media to subvert state-controlled TV, I consider her a descendant of the Yippies. I’m confident that Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI will make its own unique contribution for protesters today.
TRP: War continues, with the US military currently active in Yemen, Somali, Syria, and more, in addition to the growing conflict in Ukraine? What advice would you pass along to young anti-war activists of today? What is something you wish you knew in your youth that young activists could learn from?;
JG: My advice is to young people is to be persistent and courageous, no matter how scary the odds. Keep fighting. Volodymyr Zelensky is a model—and what’s his background? He was once a comedian. A satirist. A performer. Comic, satiric, theatrical protest is a very effective tool to mobilize folks. But comedy does not equal cowardly. The Ukrainians understand theirs is a fight to the death for liberty against incredible odds. Live like them!
My advice I wish I knew that I didn’t know when I first became an activist, is “don’t bring your parents with you.” This not easy but it must be done. I titled Chapter 1 of Yippie Girl “Kill your Parents,” a phrase I borrowed from Jerry Rubin. I’m not advocating matricide or patricide but for young activists to recognize and fully abandon the dysfunctional behaviors they absorbed growing up.
At 78 years old, it makes me sad I’m not up to demonstrating and protesting on, cop-infested, potentially violent streets. I do give money, I put protest signs on my house and I cheer from the sidelines. And that’s a huge part of why I’m publishing Yippie Girl—to continue the legacy of the late 1960s countercultural anti-war movement in the hope that it will inspire this generation and those to come. For me, at my age, it’s the written word that lasts.
TRP: Why did you choose to wait to publish Yippie Girl? What encouragement can you give to others who have waited to tell their story?
JG: I didn’t choose to wait. I had no choice. I worked hard for two years, approaching literary agents, all of whom rejected me. I kept on keeping on because I believed in myself and Yippie Girl. But I didn’t recognize that my best market would be a small press with countercultural values. That insight is important—I believe Yippie Girl’s values and message are what my publisher, Three Rooms Press, appreciates most about my story.
One caution: many women, myself included, tend to be perfectionists. I couldn’t get myself out of that dysfunctional loop. Women are often taught to self-regulate in a way that men are not, and during this process I didn’t get it that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Until my professor husband Art sat me down and pushed me through. I encourage others to recognize and reject perfectionism, not to wait for a perfect version before trying to get published. I’m glad I did. And now the moment has clearly arrived for Yippie Girl, a rollicking tale written by a woman about how to make good protest.
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