How Betrayal and Shame in the Women’s Movement Keeps Holding Us Back

Illustration by Stella Perrett

The history of any movement is littered with betrayal and shame. The women’s movement is no different – and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.

SILENCED HISTORY OF A HEIST:  ‘… every lesbian in the community in turn was heavily warned to never speak of this shameful incident as we were all told, ‘if this news gets out it would only make all of us ‘sisters’ look bad.’ 

Back in the early 80s there was this incredible lesbian owned ice creamery that became a cultural hub for our community in the East Bay of San Francisco. This tiny spot in downtown Berkeley became so successful that it not only turned a nice profit but spawned a second store about six miles away. Along with all the bookstores, eateries, bars and clubs that lesbians had created, it cannot be stressed just how important Vivoli’s became in the reshaping of societal acceptance of lesbian culture and visibility. 

The thriving culture at that time was built primarily on the backs of working class lesbians who came from various backgrounds, but the clear sentiment was that every one of us had struggled to combine a feminist ethos within a capitalist structure. What that was supposed to reflect were values of fairness and equal access for all women, but it also carried an unspoken contract of honesty and always making an effort to lift others up within a structure that came with many flaws. 

Vivoli’s employed a plethora of young lesbians who faced discrimination in the general work arena and the owners recognized this and often hired second-chancers who’d been previously fired from another job simply for being homosexual. Based on the belief that they were building a sense of loyalty to the company as a whole, the owners were fairly generous in their bonuses and vacation scheduling with all staff. Overall, it was pretty successful for them until they hired a particular couple: one as the bookkeeper, and the other as the primary delivery driver. Unbeknownst to all their co-workers and the owners, this cocaine-fueled and party-hard couple had developed a great system of embezzlement. Working together, they concocted a scheme in which one resold the product for cash-in-hand while the other cooked the books. Unfortunately, their cocaine habit took them over the edge and one day they absconded with $35,000 in cash and left town. 

Rumour had it that when they landed on the big island of Hawaii the authorities were waiting for them. A fateful end to a hot romance, perhaps. But what is beyond question is that the company’s workers and every lesbian in the community in turn was heavily warned to never speak of this shameful incident as we were all told, ‘if this news gets out it would only make all of us ‘sisters’ look bad.’ 

A collective Scarlet Letter if you will on the Sisterhood. 

The theft was viewed as such a massive betrayal in the lesbian community and was so shocking that a shame was cemented very easily and quickly. Silence was the daily diet for at least a year. So many gains had been made within the community-at large that took a little over a decade to obtain, so it felt too precious to examine. If any of it could possibly lead to learning of others who might have known about the embezzlement and the heist, how would we deal with that knowledge? But after some time passed, gossip and questioning of the couple’s friends shut down quietly a number of relationships and splintered our lesbian-utopian bubble for a period anyway. The shame just really took a toll.

The fraud and grand theft episode of Vivoli’s ended up being silenced thoroughly. However it ended up carrying over into another chapter of financial betrayal in the lesbian community a couple of years later. After the sting from that shock and betrayal, along came a multi-level marketing scheme that felt urgent for some 90% of the community to join in on. Again, with a largely working class ‘sisterhood’, the seduction of a gain of $11,000.00 by investing $1,500.00, The Airplane Game flew into town in the guise of a friend asking for ‘a hand of support’ as it was sold. While some of us saw it for the danger that it was, most took to it like a social contagion and got deeply involved.

All of a sudden many of us were receiving phone calls from long lost ‘friends’ who were asking for ‘a hand of support’ from out of the blue. Yeah, nah. 

Like with every Ponzi scheme, there were only going to be a limited number of those who would end up with cashing out of the ‘game’, while many would end up losing more than they bargained for. Relationships of all types were destroyed over a period of about three years in the late 80s and into the 90s throughout California as access to money was shifting everyone’s perspectives about what ‘sisterhood’ even meant any longer.
While some of the early adopters were placing down payments on houses or producing expensive vanity projects all of a sudden, a silencing came crashing down around our community as those who gained in wealth began to recognize those who’d been the collateral damage of their unmitigated greed.
Again, shame would cloud so much of the culture we’d worked so hard to create and many bonds were broken that had an overall negative affect on the whole west coast arguably felt for around a decade.

A FRAUD AMONG US: …’ today’s equivalent of those old rent parties now comes in the form of the online crowdfunder. The stakes though and the amount of the asks are much higher.’

So here I am some forty years later and I’ve just witnessed the biggest financial mishap and betrayal in the women’s community I’ve seen in years. This particular betrayal, within a small group of women who all care deeply about the rights of women and girls, arrived in the form of a charismatic smile and the urgent call to make some noise and help prevent the President of the United States to not turn all women in real life into one of the female characters from The Handmaid’s Tale. Without a huge following but a decent eye for talent in other forms, this saleswoman was just skilled enough to help average a take of approximately a thousand dollars a day in just over thirty days.

Now back in the 70s and 80s we used to throw rent parties and the host would provide some minimal eats and drinks in exchange for maybe a ten-dollar bill with the goal of keeping a roof over our heads. The objective was clear, no need to put it in writing, and so we collectively understood what activity we were engaged in. The added benefit of socializing was an attractive pull as well. No mystery afoot. But today’s equivalent of those old rent parties now comes in the form of the online crowdfunder. The stakes though and the amount of the asks are much higher. Also, you don’t get snacks.

In today’s climate of raising money and in order to justify asking for it, we need to substitute the basic goal that used to be for survival (those rent parties) with other honorable reasons for desiring the intended amount. It may still be personal and is often a vanity ask, but the request for donations is driven by an emotional contract between the ‘asker’ and the ‘potential donor’. In this particular situation though the reason for the desired goal was never stated on the website. What would substitute for basic transparency of that goal became instead a silent worry that would be carried by the few individuals who believed that they should not question the motives of the asker. 

With lots of self-promotion, promises of private security and a professional film crew for the up-coming main event, this saleswoman who was the central figurehead managed to convince mothers it would be fine to bring their children, too. For this event – in the great tradition of sign-holding, yelling loudly into mega-and-micro phones – would be one to surely provide a great opportunity to feel Sisterhood and share in something that had been stripped from the women who marched with all those pussy-hats at the corporate-captured Women’s March just a few years ago. THIS was going to be different. THIS was going to be special. And THIS was going to end up taking the donations from 345 (mostly) women to apparently help 99% for the immediate organizer (the saleswoman). This may not have been her original goal, but it did become her moral and ethical downfall because make no mistake: this became a heist.

 “I expected security.  Every meeting included a crystal clear discussion about security, hired security, being paramount to our safety at the event. I spent hundreds of dollars traveling and donating for this event, and I trusted the only two people I saw as holding leadership positions. I was told they had already secured private security, that it was a done deal.  I was also told they had found an out-of-state professional film crew who were willing to travel to cover this event. These things never materialized.”  

By the time the actual event was over and the saleswoman could be tracked in her social media seen traveling seamlessly from state-to-state, those who had been closest to the situation began asking the simple question: Where was the money? But instead of responding to that question she continued doing live streams in her travels and kept asking for more donations so that she could continue ‘building the movement’ as she claimed. With her very public behavior and apparent ignoring of the elephant in the room of the accountability issue, a bombshell hit the small community:
the semi-public resignation of one of the organizers that blew the issue up in a much wider way as she claimed that she was resigning due in large part over the lack of accountability for the donated funds. She needed to publicly distance herself from what was about to become a meltdown of the saleswoman’s character, fading charisma and integrity of any sort who had sole access to donations in the crowdfunder.

“I think the biggest flaw overall is that there was never a budget to begin with. We never mapped out what expenses we could expect and where the money would go. This is the flaw that really set off all other things… had there been a clear budget to begin with things could not have unraveled in this way.”

The realization that the saleswoman had actually withdrawn ALL the donations and transferred them directly into her personal credit union account had been made public, and this created a stronger demand to know how all that hard-earned money had been used. This pressed the saleswoman to finally create a semblance of a spreadsheet that she then sent out as a large group email to explain the reconciliation and accounting for all funds collected. But what she offered in her version of a spreadsheet was a total disaster and did not accurately represent the expenditures in the slightest. Those who received the attachment were in shock and two days later when the saleswoman called for a kind of online ‘clearing up’ about the matter with a very large group of affected women, this semi-public display of admission only revealed that she was afraid of Excel and that she was a disorganized person. And that was really that.
(If someone placed a blank piece of paper down on a floor and had their cat walk across it with dirty paw prints, THAT would have made a better ‘spreadsheet’. Just draw a big dollar sign on it and it’s good-to-go!)

With every attendee who experienced that ‘clearing up’ online session, this played out like a performance of a bad audition for blatant incompetence coupled with a type of hubris that was akin to a collective feminist nightmare. The saleswoman then stated that she felt the information in the spreadsheets was clear and then introduced another woman who was supposed to act as the ‘moderator’ of this invitation-only ‘zoom-confessional-combined-with-Q&A for viewers’ session. But what the audience actually received from saleswoman #2 was a syrupy pitch about how the event from a few weeks before now was a great success and how everyone should be proud of what they all had accomplished in this ‘sisterhood’ together. She continued and revealed her own bombshell that the remaining funds that had been transferred from the crowdfunder into the personal account of the original saleswoman had then been transferred to her own personal account, and there the money would stay until a brand new non-profit was created to place those funds into.

But wait! That’s not all!

The new yet-to-be-realized non-profit needed a brand new Board of Directors, so saleswoman #2 informed the audience that the new Board was going to be comprised of herself, saleswoman #1, and a random innocent who would then be able to decide how to utilize those said funds.

LET. THIS. ALL. SINK. IN.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF: …’How this will allow us to move on and forward with having to deal with the amount of fall-out and damage will only be measured in years now.’

Theft does not occur in a vacuum. The saleswoman had a handful of individuals who bore witness and suspicions around her activities and behaviors for weeks leading up to the event had only grown. As has been suggested – the saleswoman may not have schemed in advance to abscond with the thousands that have gone unaccounted for 
to-date, but the signs of her lacking in any accountability were clear. In another group email from one of those close to the original plans, this co-organizer claimed that she’d been asking the saleswoman ‘for weeks’ to reconcile the expenditures. 

Weeks later when the saleswoman actually arrived at the location prior-to the big event, everyone in her immediate proximity soon learned that she had zero plans, no notes and zero leadership. It was obvious that she was incapable of directing any type of organized event let alone a movement. But the urgency to take ownership and action to replace her by those who could have became stifled. It was reported that a kind of shock and disbelief had taken hold and if not for a few who jumped into panic mode and utilized their organizational skill sets, the event would not have pulled off as much as it did. 

It cannot be denied that a good portion of the women who attended this quickly-rushed event experienced a wonderful time as this was certainly nothing like the infamous Fyre Festival, where participants were duped into attending a fraudulently marketed event—quite the contrary. But the inner circle that inhabited that behind-the-scenes production process had an entirely different experience and at the point of this writing, no one is really willing to make their experience about it public. The funds are disappeared like smoke from a joint, the saleswoman appears to be flaunting her ‘earnings’, and a small group of women have retreated into embarrassment and shame of their participation in it all. How this will allow us to move on and forward with having to deal with the amount of fall-out and damage will only be measured in years now. This betrayal was a huge set-back and like in the 80’s and 90’s, the recovery of broken relationships and other political alliances will likely not be fully mended.

I’ll leave the following statements made by one of the top organizers of this outrageous debacle that occurred on American soil as our original Suffragette Foremothers roll in their graves from embarrassment for the existence of it:

“I both want to defend my own involvement… and yet, I want to put down my hands and reveal the truth. The truth is that I don’t know what the justification ever was for raising $30k. The truth is I don’t know what the ‘leader’ or anyone else ever planned for that money. The truth is that I have no idea where that money is today. The truth is that raising that much money with no plans was irresponsible at best, and deceptive at worst.”

“There are a lot of excuses I could provide for my own actions, my inexperience, my trust in others who I believed had more experience than me, my trust in those who I assumed would never allow anything out of integrity to happen, and so I felt more willing to dismiss my worries. And the excuse that everything happened so fast, that we created this event in six weeks time and everything was so rushed and reckless and filled with the energy of the righteous fight. I don’t know what these excuses can possibly add up to, but they are also true.”

“Am I still proud that I protested Biden’s ridiculous executive order that outright attacks women/girls? Yes. And I’m still grateful to have met so many women and had the opportunity to stand in solidarity with them. I’m still grateful for all the connections.”
 
“I’m proud of what we accomplished together. And I’m defensive of this pride. How can I protect what was good, and earnest, and connecting about this event, while revealing the disorganization, miscommunication, shifting narratives, and manipulations? I don’t know how to resolve those two needs. Perhaps this story will accomplish those things? That is my hope.”

33 Comments

    • …and the title would be: The Women’s Pickpocket Scandal….!
      ..and in the epilogue it would say:
      I was one of the twelve original endorsers for this concept that became an event. When I watched the original ask of the crowdfunder move up by $70,000, I began tracking in earnest everything I could because I smelled a potential disaster.
      I interviewed by email, phone and text messaging over 26 of the women who either were part of the original organizers spoken about in this article, and others who were part of the handful that made up the ‘core group’. Others interviewed included persons who witnessed first-hand the activities of what appeared to be a spending spree, old friends, and also several women who were eyewitnesses to events that took place at the event site over a course of two-to-three days prior to and after the event itself. I had conversations with event participants who had a joyous time and never suspected anything was amiss. The most common complaint was that no publicity seemed to have been organized and a real concern that no professional security was present.
      I also had access to seeing dozens of emails written by and circulated by more than 20 women that detail specific strategies that are still being discussed as this article goes to publication.
      This is an ongoing investigation.
      I want to thank all those women who came forward with their testimonials and thoughtful remembrances in regards to the original project. Even though you all have to remain anonymous here, I hope you feel this brings some relief for the pain caused and may you heal and build up the strength to grow new connections in this fight we all face.

        • Everyone knows exactly who this is about. And we all know damn well it isn’t hearsay no matter how many times ppl stamp their foot about it.

          • There are those of us who are NOT deeply within “the know” and only have suspicions of who this might be. However, I’d sure like to fucking know who I’m dealing with! I would have greatly appreciated names being named & knowing where exactly the quotes at the end got pulled from – FB, one of those Zoom meetings, something else? I attended with a couple of other women local to me and we were all massively underwhelmed by the event. It DID come across as very un-organized, once we got to the field (near Washington Monument). I had listened to this interview with Piper a few days before the march and it got me so pumped up! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0RaZMJZ0XY

            The best thing that came out of this for me was some networking and having my first ‘real’ social in-person event since March of ’20. This was my first march/protest event I have ever gone to and I’d sure like to avoid these same specific organizers again, if I can & I’d like to know with who specifically I can be, at the very least, frustrated with.

  1. Is UCG publishing a gossip column now? This article contains no evidence, no names, no nothin’…we all know who you’re talking about, but you’ve failed to provide any actual reason for dragging her through the mud. Just hearsay. From anonymous sources. Did you make up those quotes yourself? This isn’t journalism, it’s petty gossip. Looks like the ‘betrayal and shame holding us back’ is coming from inside the house in this case.

    • Alicia, We can see your fan girling is strong! Did you also amplify the event all over social media as well? I’m sorry – not sorry – but this story had to be told. There are too many grifters out there that get away with this type of unethical behaviour and this writer is known for doing her research (look above at her response to Alix Aharon). Your defensive stance is proof that the ‘Saleswoman’ relies heavily on those who do not question her actions. Can you imagine donating any amount of money only to learn that it was almost 100% used for personal reasons? We need to look at the larger picture here and this is a cautionary tale. You just validated it even more with your attempt to degrade it. You just amplified it without even understanding you helped throw your protagonist under the bus.

      • I only donated $100, but I was hoping it would go toward security, speaker transportation, advertising for the event itself. I am disappointed to know the money was misused, and no answers were forthcoming to stakeholders who put their names and reputations on the line when promoting the event.

        It’s no big shame on the Women Picket DC movement itself to have money misused by one person, but it needs to be acknowledged. It’s not as if the questions are not being spoken behind the scenes, and I would be surprised if credit chargebacks are not occurring.

        It’s funny. My mother was watching the livestream, and asked where all the money went. She noticed the lack of security, same as everyone did. Perhaps I should not have been so quick to reassure her.

  2. PUT UP OR SHUT UP….

    name names and provide hard evidence…

    i’m a journalist (as in fully trained and credentialed)…. have also, in my time as a PR and marketing consultant, organised large events (the actual event mismanagement here is not the issue so i wont comment on that aspect)

    shame on the author for publishing this article on a platform WHICH SERVES THE SAME PURPOSE AS A NEWSPAPER without being willing to name names and post supporting evidence, which evidence can be challenged and either refuted or verified….

    the correct, ethical thing to do IF you have documented evidence in support of these claims, is to go to the police or to file civil suit against this unnamed woman….

    once you do that and this all becomes a matter of PUBLIC RECORD, THEN you publish an ‘article’ like this, naming names and posting your evidence….

    and i know why the author didnt name names here — if she did, she’s be opening herself up to a libel action filed against her by the woman to whom she’s referring here…

    this is such shameful, cowardly, unethical behaviour on the part of the author….

    it doesnt help women and our community one little bit – in fact it damages us all… we all start to look at each other sideways, wondering what this is about and who is the woman to whom the author refers….

    and whatever happened to the concept of INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY?

    what are we? vigilantes? we’re going to hang, draw and quarter a woman in the court of public opinion without seeing any real evidence of her crimes?

    and what happens IF this situation goes to court and THEN this (at this point) unnamed woman is found NOT GUILTY of the crimes of which she’s accused? how are you going to undo the damage to her reputation you caused by posting this on a public forum and encouraging conjecture and gossiping?

    it’s not the patriarchy we should be worried about — we’re doing a fine job hurting ourselves and keeping ourselves down with this BS way we deal with problems in our own community….

    • @Sahila (is ‘Changebringer’ YOUR REAL LAST NAME ?? – Didn’t think so. I smell appropriation here…an author at FACEBOOK! (and one in The Stranger-) But let’s not get bogged down in the whole ‘trained journalist’ thing shall we? WOAH! “what are we? vigilantes? we’re going to hang, draw and quarter a woman in the court of public opinion without seeing any real evidence of her crimes?” Oh my! What violence! Taking lessons in claiming a kind of ‘literal violence’ that the transactivists are famous for? She doth protest too much! Your response is so over-the-top it’s beyond laughable. Must be one of her ‘friends’ because there is no name listed – even stated it wasn’t a crime – you really must be noodling this one out otherwise – don’t tax your brain! The meds are arriving in the post soon! …(facebook is awaiting)…!

      • yes indeed — SAHILA CHANGEBRINGER is my real name…

        and you should stop wasting your time trying to have a got at belittling and smearing me….

        other women have already tried that because i dont toe the party line, i dont do identity politics and i call out BS when and where i see it, regardless of the ‘rank’ or ‘status’ or ‘claim to fame’ of the bullshitter….

        you’re really going to have to do better than that, Diane…

    • The only thing shameful here is YOU!!! All of us know what happened. And if you do not then you either were not there or paying attention. Either way there is nothing wrong with this other than a few of Sales Person #1 friends getting butt hurt over the truth being shared gently. Giving people who have been shamed, guilted or Intimidated a different view of how to handle things going forward in respect to the person this is talking about.
      We were all supporters once. So many of us. Now that the lies and the real personality and acts by this person has been exposed we know better now and no amount of words or shaming from people like You or her can change that!!!!

    • And Furthermore, You have no idea what people’s legal actions are going forward.
      Also if we don’t start holding our own supposed leaders to task we are no better than the people we have to fight against. Take your Offended self and have several seats.

  3. I can’t thank you enough for reporting this. My sister attended with a friend for the event. This was her first social gathering since experiencing an assault and she was assured there would be security. The two friends had driven for 8 hours to get there, found out that there was no security and literally got back to their hotel room and crashed. My sister is just too fragile to risk getting attacked again and this was a huge blow to her. I know there are often communication problems with events like this, but anyone dealing with the violence that we know these activists are capable of (they broke my sister’s arm but her spirit is what’s really damaged), should be mindful before they make promises. We don’t know about anything having to do with money and this event, but this is not something we would ever trust again if they put on other events. Really disappointing.

  4. pitiful – you’ve all lost your moral compass….

    you’ve given up any allegiance to the principles of due process, fairness and justice…

    you’ve decided you have the right to try, convict, execute a woman in public, in the court of public opinion – in what is the equivalent of a NEWSPAPER – without naming her or producing any evidence…. talk about a WITCH HUNT!!

    you dont give her space within the ‘article’ to answer the accusations you level against her…. IF she’s done what you claim she has done, THEN she has the right to explain herself and her actions… that’s what happens in civilised communities….

    people in various groups have identified who you’re talking about here so this BS about anonymising her in this post is just to protect yourself from a libel suit … which means that you know on some level that what you’re doing here is unacceptable and inappropriate…

    shame on you all….

  5. The problem is she won’t share the truth. It was asked for and then demanded. Nothing but some made up excel sheet with numbers that were off base. She has had plenty of time to defend herself, it’s been 7 weeks after all, but she would rather have brownie a la mode and drinks then shove it in the faces of the mostly women she misappropriated the money from. Names don’t need to be mentioned… obviously everyone knows what went down, its scandalous and may or may not have been a “legal” crime but it certainly has been an eye opener for those of us that watched it play out in real life, behind closed doors(to save to movement) and it makes us all a lot more cautious about where we put our money and our faith in “Sisters.”

  6. This article is an opinion piece without facts. It is sad that uncommon ground printed it without any. Not a good look for them. One thing that radical feminism has taught me is to not be afraid to speak up when I am the minority and afraid of being attacked. That is true even in women’s circles. I expect to receive backlash but I hope I am wrong. The biggest damage here is the lack of proof. It’s what women are fighting for and what we expect from our leaders. Unfortunately, we get to listen to accusations every day of our lives. What we don’t need is more of the same from within. It was wrong to publish this article without a real investigation into misuse of funds. I am certain there was a way to do that first. Women deserve to know the facts so that they can make their own opinions. Has someone looked into an audit? There is money left over to pay for an investigation into allegations of fraud. Why not just do it? Why is that hard? It is a much better solution than leaving everyone in confusion. It’s certainly a better use of everyone’s time. There must be at least one board member who wants this settled once and for all. Walking away without taking any responsibility seems way too easy but that is just my opinion.

  7. @Connie. Left over? Are you talking about the money that was transferred to another state, that no one has has access to and don’t know how the money was spent? There have been many requests for transparency to which the women were handed nothing but a half assed accounting previously spoken about. Do you think anyone is going to give that information freely when asked?(They have not.) Why don’t you reach out the the organizer(s) and ask the questions that over 20 other women have asked? Maybe you’ll get a different answer and if you do please share with us where the money went, because it wasn’t spent in the ways that were touted across many platforms on the internet.You know, security, scholarships and an out of state film crew for a documentary on the event. How do you know that there isn’t an investigation or lawsuits coming? You don’t. If you want to know more why don’t you do research, find the women who were involved and ask for their truth. I think you will find that this “story” not off base at all. And, trust that these women who spoke up for this story have tried to be responsible and have asked the questions that need to be answered, only to have doors slammed in their faces. It’s wasn’t easy and the blood noses are many. The flat out refusal for answers has spoken for itself. I for one am thankful that this story is coming to light, no matter how it has to be done.

  8. Sometimes there is no time or money to do an investigation. The issue is to stop more stealing/conning of women. So anyone concerned can be cautious, do their own research, and not give out money until they know it’s safe, no matter the hook.

    Considering women as part of our community and “sisters” and “feminists” often means trust without reason to trust. I finally figured out that someone willing to harm other women is not a feminist and not who I assume is part of my community. We can be friendly and open, but when money (which means survival for many of us) is an issue, we need to be cautious and say no until those asking for money are proven trustworthy.

  9. I donated $100 USD and I would be happy if that money went to literally anything to do with the event (food for literally anyone, I know housing and transportation cost quite a bit, security, posters, t shirts, anything at all). If they were looking for ways to spend the money they could have reimbursed travel for anyone coming from out of town. I am still considering asking for it back but part of me thinks that if any money was spent on the event (which obvious, some money was), I’m okay considering that’s where my donation was. I am a bit torn. I am still proud to have supported the event. I live in Canada and there was zero chance of me making it out but I know US radfems would support us the same way (sending funds if they can’t make it out) if we had an event here.

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