This important book tells the story of Alice Embree’s struggle to be heard at a time when women were especially marginalized.
By Sharon Shelton | The Rag Blog | August 26, 2021
Voice Lessons by Alice Embree (Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas Press, 2021) tells the story of an Austin, Texas, in change from the harsh segregation and gender oppression of the 1950s through the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s to the present. Far from a dry history, this highly readable memoir brings those heady years alive and at the same time paints a picture of the personal life of a woman activist and leader inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to begin what became for her a lifetime struggle for the voices of marginalized people to be heard.
For old-time Austinites, Embree’s book, both its words and photos, will vividly bring back the joys, the mistakes, the humor, and the obstacles of an idealistic movement that, as it matured, sought to end racist, sexist, and economic oppression at home and imperialist wars abroad. For today’s activists who are continuing that struggle but may not have experienced those pivotal times, her book contains many invaluable lessons of a young movement charting a path into the unknown out of the deeply entrenched and all-pervading racism and sexism of the 1950s. These are lessons that remain as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
The book tells the story of Embree’s struggle to be heard at a time when women were especially marginalized.
This important book also tells the story of Alice Embree’s own ongoing struggle to be heard at a time when women were especially marginalized and oppressed, including in the movement, at least in its early days. Alice’s effort to develop her voice began even before she left Austin High, which was newly integrated at the time. One particular incident that occurred then shows the principled path she would take throughout her life. At a restaurant in Corpus Christi, where she had traveled as part her drill team to a football game, one of the drill team members was abruptly told she couldn’t be served because she was Black. Alice readily spoke up, calling on the rest of the squad to leave, and then, when they didn’t, left the restaurant in solidarity with her fellow team member.
Voice Lessons details Alice’s subsequent experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, her participation in sit-ins and picket lines at segregated UT dorms, at stores on the “Drag” where Black students weren’t allowed to shop, at the Piccadilly restaurant, and other Austin sites. These protests marked not only her active participation in the struggles of the oppressed, but also her growing understanding in the years that followed of the overlapping connections between categories such as race, social class, and gender.
Alice’s account of her activism during the ’60s and ’70s reads like a timeline of radical struggle in Austin as well as nationally. She takes her readers through her experiences as an early member of SDS drawn by its ideal of participatory democracy; as a worker on The Rag who, like many other women staffers, was at first pigeonholed as a typist and labeled “shit worker” in the masthead; as a speaker in the University Freedom Movement who faced disciplinary action at UT for her role; as an exchange student in Chile who refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem in protest of the Vietnam War, as a participant in a pioneering SDS trip to Cuba in defiance of Washington’s travel ban; as a NACLA researcher who exposed imperialist exploitation of Latin America; as a supporter of the Columbia University student takeover; as an observer at the Chicago 7 trial who was expelled for refusing to stand for repressive Judge Julian Hoffman…The list goes on and on.
It was the woman’s movement and women’s eventual leadership at The Rag, however, that became a turning point in Alice Embree’s efforts to break through the deep sexism that infected not only the society as a whole, but the movement itself and even her longtime personal relationship with activist Jeff Shero. This relationship ended as she began to find her voice and her strength as a woman. As Alice explains:
Back in Austin, within the safe spaces of women’s groups, in conversations with women friends, I began to see myself differently, with new eyes. I felt bolstered and strengthened by sisterhood. I could see how my upbringing had shaped me to accept, not to assert; to acquiesce, not to demand to be heard; to type, not to write. It was baked into our 1950s upbringing, modeled for us in our families, demonstrated to us by teachers, and advised by school counselors. And it was baked into our relationships with movement men. That self-scrutiny, taking place with other women, emboldened us. It was exhilarating. It was also hard. —Voice Lessons, 113
The city of Austin was forever changed by this generation of newly outspoken women.
The city of Austin was forever changed by this generation of newly outspoken women, who along with Alice Embree, developed their voices and leadership together. They battled for reproductive rights, successfully demanded rape counseling at Brackenridge Hospital, reinstated celebration of International Women’s Day and got City Council approval, organized a women-run printing press, and participated in guerrilla theater — all the while continuing to organize and attend demonstrations in solidarity with Black, Latino, Lesbian and Gay and other marginalized peoples at home and oppressed peoples abroad.
Voice Lessons emerges as a unique and powerful memoir, written from an unapologetic women’s viewpoint in full awareness of the necessary but too often forgotten connection between the personal and political. Moreover, unlike many accounts of the history of the ’60s and ’70s, this indispensable book shows that those early struggles never ended. It’s a testimony to Alice Embree’s commitment to social justice that she continues to be a presence at protests and rallies as an active member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans.
[Sharon Shelton, a former staffer at Austin’s Rag newspaper, is a retired English professor who taught classes on women artists and gender studies for over 10 years at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. She received her BJ and MA from the University of Texas at Austin and her PhD from New York University where she also received a certificate of participation in Women’s Studies.]
BookWoman, a feminist bookstore in Austin, is sponsoring a virtual book launch of Voice Lessons, 7:00 p.m., Thursday, September 2, 2021. It will be a conversation between author Alice Embree and Melissa Hield of People’s History of Texas. Please register. Information available on the BookWoman calendar and at Events.
Books are available at BookWoman, 5901 North Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX 78751 as well as at through UT Press.
Great review, Sharon! I’m so excited about Alice’s work and really looking forward to reading it! Thanks for this peek!
I’ll always care for you and your thoughts.
Excellent, thanks for bringing this book to my attention. Ordered my copy yesterday. As someone who moved to Austin in ’68 at the age of 14, I was in and out and roundabout of various leftish-sorta-scenes. Of course, as a teenage boy, my comprehension of the issues addressed in Alice’s book was fairly nil. That, and a wee bit of nostalgia perhaps, have me wanting to read it. Also useful to have my recollections corrected or changed by other’s experiences.
Having just now read the book, I’ll merely add: Get it! Read it! This is real His- no, HER-story, as opposed to the crap peddled by, say, Ken Burns. Also suffused with a subtle wit, to wit (p.206): “‘If I need a degree, I’ll print it,’ I popped off to my professor father. This wasn’t an entirely hollow threat, since I was working as an offset printer.”
This book is the perfect corrective to the many memoirs of certain famous movement men, who, in hindsight, seem to have done a lot of posturing while Alice and the women she worked, and works, with, actually DID (and do) a very great deal. Again- read it!
Thomas, wow and thanks. Much appreciated. Alice