Zelda Curtis: Activist who championed the rights of the elderly
Saturday 11 February 2012
Zelda Curtis was no follower of fashion.
She was a feminist before it was fashionable to be so. She raised funds for the Morning Star at a time when few would give tuppence for the Communist daily. And she started campaigning for older peoples' rights long before it became popular to do so.
Though small in stature Zelda made a great impact on all she met. The sheer exuberance and sincerity as she made various political or sociological arguments carried a resonance that influenced many. A natural campaigner, she spent years raising money for the Morning Star, a thankless task which she carried out with great charm and humour; a rip-roaring speech, often interrupted by laughter, exhorting people to give money at the end of some long political meeting, was often the highlight of the evening.
Her parents, Ada and Manny Brown, were Jewish immigrants and she was brought up in working-class Islington. Stories about the Great Strike and of miners trying to raise money in the streets had an early impact on her. On the outbreak of war she was evacuated to Somerset, where she came in contact with the Workers' Education Association; she joined the Communist Party, and later served in the WAAF.
In 1944 she married Gerry Curtis and they settled in Finchley. One of the first projects they worked on together was helping to run the left-wing progressive Unity Theatre in St Pancras, aimed at bringing socialist plays to the working class. She later joined Labour Monthly as its managing editor, introducing a cultural section to the publication. Curtis believed that everyone had the right to access the arts, and that it should not be the prerogative of the upper and middle classes.
Through the 1970s she worked at fund-raising for the Morning Star, with a daily printed declaration warning that the failure to raise a few thousand pounds would lead to the paper's demise. She had been involved with the National Assembly for Women during its early years, believing that women had right to take action on the picket line to make their point; gradually support for feminism drew her away from the Party and she left in the early 1980s. She was active in CND, Anti Apartheid and, although rather critical of him, worked with George Galloway for War on Want. In 1981 she returned to local community politics joining The East End News, a readers' and writers' co-operative where she developed the features department and worked with local groups.
The Greenham Common protests in the early 1980s found Curtis, accompanied by three other women from her older women's group, outside the American airbase: "What a feeling of solidarity there was," she recalled in an article written in 1989. "For too long women's voices had been suppressed and their warnings gone unheeded. Now we were roaring like lions. That was one of the highest points of the last 20 years of feminism for me, 20 years of fun and fury, of reassessment, of relearning, sisterhood and separatism, trauma and triumph."
When she was aged 60 Gerry died, and Curtis was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She seemed to become more active, fighting to make sure that older people would be given a voice. Earning the name "Zelda the Elder", she formed the Association of Greater London Older Women, was co-opted on to the GLC Womens' Committee and served on Islington Womens' Committee. In 1984 she became a paid worker for the Pensioners Link Older Womens' Project funded by the GLC.
Mimi Sanderson accompanied her to Greenham Common and worked with her through the older womens' network. She has no doubt how important Curtis' contribution had been: "She was a feminist in all senses of the word, intellectually and practically. She got older women and pensioners on the GLC's agenda."
Curtis wrote a number of articles and pamphlets, and made frequent broadcasts on womens rights and pensions; she was also prepared to talk about her own sex life, declaring in a newspaper interview and in several broadcasts that she felt freer at enjoying sex: "I'm delighted to say I still have an active sex life; sex is better than when I was young because I have lost my inhibitions. Sometimes within marriage you build up a particular way of living because of the children. It's good to be free of that and start all over again."
Despite her Parkinson's she continued to lead an active life, travelling to the US in 1995 to make a documentary for Channel 4 about the Grey Panthers Movement; several of her publications have been reprinted in the US. In 1999 she edited Life After Work: stories of freedom, opportunity and change for the Women's Press; she helped to train older people to use the media and in a somewhat surprising venture taught public speaking techniques to Maasai activists from Tanzania. She also took part in research into experimental techniques to deal with Parkinson's.
Zelda Brown, feminist and campaigner: born London December 1923; married 1944 Gerry Curtis (died 1983; two daughters); died London 31 January 2012.
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