‘Weird Little Girls in Black’ Became Bohemian Women
Nicole Panter grew up in Palm Springs, a child of privilege.
Even so, she likes to think her radicalism is genetic--"My grandmother on my mother’s side was Dora Goldman. She always said she was a cousin of Emma Goldman . . . probably the most dangerous woman of this century.”
At 14, Panter’s hero was Cesar Chavez and she made her first political statement by organizing a grape boycott.
Part of the L.A. punk rock scene in the late ‘70s, she once managed The Germs, whose lead singer Darby Crash died of a drug overdose. Divorced from artist Gary Panter, she lives in a chicly Bohemian garage apartment in Venice.
In April, 1992, Panter and punk rocker Exene Cervenka of X founded the Bohemian Women’s Political Alliance. (Because of career commitments, Cervenka is no longer actively involved.)
The Alliance is “pro-woman, pro-choice, pro-child, pro-minority, pro-queer, pro-Earth, prolific, prodigious, profane, pro-arts, pro-change, pro-union and anti-censorship.” The group was highly visible at the recent “Breast Cancer War Mammorial” rally in West L.A., and on Sunday the alliance will sponsor “The Breast Art Auction Ever” as a fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Breast Cancer Alliance.
Q. How do you define a Bohemian Woman?
A. It’s in our manifesto: ". . .We are the weird girls who didn’t fit in . . . the little girls your parents wouldn’t let you play with . . . the teen-agers who dressed in black, the bad girls who climbed out of our bedroom windows after dark and caught taxis home at dawn. We are the daughters of Lilith, Lily Munster, Patti Smith and Emma Goldman. We are the women your preachers warn you about.”
Q. How was the Alliance born?
A. Well, after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, I just went to bed and cried. I couldn’t believe that Thomas was confirmed. Exene said, “The way we can fix this is to get more women in the Senate.” So we put on this show at the Palladium and it raised about $54,000 for Barbara Boxer.
We took a couple of hundred bucks, bought these fabulously beautiful cakes to kind of seduce everybody and had this tea party. Jackie Goldberg came and gave a marvelous talk about how to organize.
A lot of us had always been torn between rock and roll and activism. Now we’d found a way to combine the two. We’re mostly women in the kind of entertainment underground--poets, writers, artists, musicians. There’s a few housewives with pink hair.
Q. How many members do you have?
A. Our mailing list has grown to about 150. We meet at the Grassy Knoll coffee house on East Sunset every other Sunday. There’s no dues. We pass a cup. We don’t really have leaders. Each event has an organizer.
We raise money for things like Sunset Hall, which is a home for elderly radicals, and for the Homeless Writers Coalition.
If you feel like you’re one of “those girls”, and you’re not a lady who lunches, then you’re one of us.
Q. Does the alliance admit men?
A. Not at present, but that might change. Personally, I would love it. Some of my best friends are men. But some woman are very opposed.
Q. What sets you apart from mainstream feminist groups?
A. Bohemian Women are not so doctrinaire, so dogmatic, so bound up in theory. We keep sight of the goal rather than getting lost on the way with side issues like, are short skirts OK? Is pornography OK?
It’s also the Bohemian class thing. I find most mainstream women’s organizations very middle class. It’s no better than being in a corporation run by men.
My vision of Bohemian Women is kind of activism with an edge, with a bite, in your face. In a way, we’re looking out for our own future. Bohemian-type women are going to be the ones pushing the shopping carts if we don’t make sure that some kind of support system is put into place.
Q. You grew up in a well-to-do family. What turned you into a radical?
A. The people who took care of my family were Mexicans and had relatives who were pickers. Sometimes I’d sneak off with them to where Chavez would be organizing. As a teen-ager, I ran away and picked lettuce and citrus for a while in El Centro and lived in a migrant camp.
I’m really angry knowing that I live in one of the wealthiest countries on the face of this Earth and seeing poverty worse than I’ve seen in India.
Q. But how do you make the people with the money let go of it?
A. I think one way is you jolly them out of it, make them feel good for giving it away. We do, on a small level. We put on a show and they pay.
Q. What were you doing in India?
A. I was living in London and I was really cold and airline prices were really cheap. I traveled around India for a year, volunteering at hostels for poor people, dying people.
In London, I scraped by working as an illegal waitress. I made a pilot called “Dream Date” for London Channel 4. The idea was to go out with a wonderfully peculiar famous man on his idea of a perfect evening.
Q. Who would be your Los Angeles dream date?
A. Richard Riordan, I suppose. I’m really curious about him. There is that generous streak, that compassionate streak, that I find quite interesting and cling to as a shred of hope. Although, God knows, I wouldn’t vote for him.
Q. How do you support yourself?
A. It’s always been kind of odd jobs. I work a few days a week for Frank Pierson, who wrote “Cool Hand Luke” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” I make money writing, too, although I usually get paid in literary magazines, which I’m sure will taste great on toast with ketchup someday.
Q. You were only 14 when you graduated from Palm Springs High. Where did you go, what did you do?
A. After picking fruit for a while, I came to UCLA and got my bachelor’s in sociology and anthropology. I put myself through school.
Then punk rock happened.
It was like something I knew I was from birth, even before it was. A lot of people in the Alliance are people I met 15 years ago at a Hollywood club, the Masque.
Q. How long did you stay in the punk scene?
A. Even in 1993, at the age of 34, the subculture I identify with is hard core punk. I think I’ll be 90 and still think I’m a punk.
I’ve always been different, the weirdo. If people liked me when I was growing up, it was not because I was pretty and popular and the perkiest, cheerleadingest girl in the universe. It was because I was weird and dark and arty.
It’s my attitude. You have to be really angry about things to be as committed and dedicated to changing them as we are. I dress like a normal person. I buy my clothes at The Gap now.
But punk as we knew it is dead. In 1977, you knew you were truly on a cutting edge. I chopped my hair off. It was green for a while. Platinum. Red. Pink. I wore thrift store clothes.
Now, you can go to the store and buy yourself a complete punk outfit. We really worked hard to look like that.
Q. Are your tattoos from that era?
A. Just the little ones. I waited until I was 30 to get a big, big, big piece of work. (She shows a photo of her back, which is tattooed down both sides from shoulders to the base of her spine in Hopi designs).
It took 35 hours over a year and a half. But, it’s like high heels. Beauty is pain. You couldn’t pay me to walk around in high heels.
Q. Say that by the year 2000 America is ready to elect a woman President. From those prominent enough to be considered, whom would you choose?
A. Carol Moseley Braun (Democratic senator from Illinois). She’s got a big mouth and she’s not afraid to use it. Or pre-election Hillary Clinton.
Q. Might the Alliance someday be funding and grooming Bohemian women as candidates for office?
A. In a world where one’s tattoos are held against them, I think we’d be viewed as having political skeletons way too far out of the closet.