By Mikki Sharp
“Real women dealing with real concerns in the real world.” — Jane Myers, The Ann Arbor News, 1979
In a time when men dominated the media landscape, a group of incredible female media specialists joined forces with the Ann Arbor Women’s Crisis Center to pave the way for all women. They were over two decades ahead of their time.
The concept of women banding together professionally during a time of great inequality intrigued me, so I sought to learn more about these groundbreaking women and their organization, Bread and Roses Productions.
It all started with the tapes — nine cassettes and seven reels housed at the Special Collections Research Center on the sixth floor of the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Graduate Library. Contained within those tapes are stories that have played a part in influencing women’s voices not only throughout Ann Arbor, but I’d like to think the rest of the United States as well. These ranged from interviews with Pat Reuss, former Legislative Director of WEAL (Women’s Equity Action League) — only one of two female lobbyists in the late 1970s — to panel discussions on how women were viewed in society at the time. These social leaders didn’t hold back on Ann Arbor’s community access television.
I was able to speak with Marge Greene, one of Bread and Roses Productions’ original and primary members (as well as the member who donated the original Bread and Roses Productions tapes to the University of Michigan). It was an honor to discuss the project with the former reporter and current Ann Arbor psychotherapist. Marge has over 40 years of clinical social work experience, and at the time, she was the host of Ourselves, a weekly television program written and produced by Bread and Roses Productions.
“We grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when males dominated television with strong patriarchal figures, such as those in Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. We wanted to break those barriers and show that women can do much more than domestic work in the home, if they choose to do so,” she said when speaking about the message Bread and Roses Productions tried to convey. That was counter to the Madison Avenue approach of that era. Over four decades later, women on TV today are much more inspiring and admirable because of women like them.
The origin of the production team’s name came from the 1912 textile mill strike in Lawrence, MA, in which women were active participants. “‘Give us bread and give us roses,’” Marge Greene quoted. “‘Give us the staples but also the frill.’”
She went on to describe how they combated TV’s portrayal of women at the time. “We mostly did interviews with revolutionary women such as Lorraine Beebe, the third woman in history to sit on the Michigan Senate; but we also covered events, like a presentation by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda when they came to town, Holly Near on her Nuclear Free Future Tour, and Carol Ober, the only female oboist in the local symphony orchestra at that time.” She also added that May Sarton, a famous Belgian-American poet, novelist, memoirist, and feminist writer, gave Bread and Roses Productions an honorary mention while they were filming one of her talks at the University of Michigan. May Sarton announced to the audience that the Bread and Roses Productions team were a women-for-women crew covering the event that night. It was a very notable moment for the group.
Another significant event for the crew was when Tom Hayden’s family borrowed the Bread and Roses Productions tapes from the University of Michigan. Tom Hayden was an American social and political activist, author, and politician. He was best known for his role as an anti-war, civil rights, and intellectual activist in the 1960s. He authored the Port Huron Statement and stood trial in the Chicago Seven case.
Bread and Roses Productions focused primarily on women’s rights, but they represented civil rights in general for all those who were marginalized, including the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.
Dee Axelrod, Pamela Waskul, Amy Coha, January Nordman, Shirleen Moore, and Marsha Katz were some of the other original pioneers who developed the concept and executed a series of polished projects. These women were their own educated directors, production specialists, camera crew, reporters, and writers. Though they demonstrated a plethora of talents in production media, they also represented a wide breadth of professions. Some of their primary professions included a truck driver, a nurse, a professor of music at Eastern Michigan University, communications students, a licensed social work therapist, and manager at Hudson’s.
“It all started with Dee Axelrod and Pam Waskul working on a communications degree at Eastern Michigan University,” said Greene. “The initial idea was a special advertising project with the Ann Arbor Women’s Crisis Center for college credits, then it evolved into a weekly project.” Marge also spoke about how Dee Axelrod was the mother of a two-year-old toddler around the time the project started, and would bring her child along with her while she worked. It was an example of how motherhood didn’t hold back accomplishments and productivity.
Marge Greene and Amy Coha still keep in touch, and reminisced about the production team between my discussions with Marge.
“We expanded along the way, training new people in video production and media. It was a fabulous learning experience, and it was timed well with the beginning of the Ann Arbor community access television,” Greene explained. “It couldn’t have happened without them.”
In Greene’s interview with former legislative director Pat Reuss in 1979, they discussed the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The Equal Rights Amendment is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Marge and Pat’s conversation covered the amendment’s potentially positive impact on equal pay, and the end to legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. The ERA was approved in 1972, and Virginia ratified the amendment in 2020, finally completing the quorum of 38 states. After two years the amendment should have been operative on January 27, 2022. However, due to technicalities, it’s still not; and there are twelve states that remain unratified. If one of those twelve states is ratified, the amendment may have a chance at officially being passed.
Greene and I talked about whether or not women’s equality has improved since her interview with Pat Reuss. She said we’ve come a long way, but there is still so much to do.
I asked her one final question. “If you could share one piece of advice with women today, what would it be?”
As expected, she had words of encouragement. “Always believe in yourself and trust in yourself. You can do anything you set your mind to, and don’t let others discourage you from your dreams.”
In speaking about her inspiration, Greene mentioned her mother. “My mother was a teacher, and she was one of the few women who worked outside the home while I was growing up. I was lucky, I had a good role model in that way,” she said.
Bread and Roses Productions ended its run around 1983. The messages and legacies of these trailblazing pioneers will live on forever.
I’d like to say a special thank-you to Marge Green for interviewing with me and sharing the Ann Arbor News article from 1979; to Amy Coha for her insight as well; and to Gideon Goodrich and Julie Herrada of the Special Collections at the University of Michigan Hatcher Graduate Library for finding the equipment and organizing the Bread and Roses Productions tapes.
Mikki Sharp is a writer and advertising specialist with a degree in journalism from EMU. She has been a contributing writer and editor for Eastern Echo, Gothic Beauty Magazine, and Monroe News. She is currently a Sr. Trader at DP+.
She lives with her family in the King neighborhood of Ann Arbor. In addition to being involved in local women’s initiatives, Mikki and her family also frequently attend Ann Arbor charitable events.