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Sunday, March 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Still Active -- Radical Clara Fraser Turns A Feisty 73

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Clara Fraser, the socialist-feminist, civil-rights activist revolutionary, was about to issue an ultimatum.

She does so at this time every year.

"I have decreed," she said in a throaty voice, thumping the table, "there will be no presents. No flowers."

All she wanted for her birthday celebration yesterday was a card and one of those coupon books that promise a massage, a home-baked pie and a free hour of labor.

Fraser, who turned 73 last week, is from the generation of die-hard radicals who first rose to prominence in the 1960s as rabble rousers for the left.

"I wasn't supposed to be here that long," Fraser said recently. "When I was growing up, all I knew was that I was going to be rich and famous."

She is not rich, but, within certain social and political circles, she is revered. A fighter, feisty and forthright, she's been blasting The System and crying out for change since she was a girl growing up in Los Angeles.

For more than a half-century, she has agitated on behalf of women, people of color, union workers, the poor, homosexuals, prisoners.

She has organized department-store workers, Boeing Co. machinists, steelworkers, advocates for the poor, library workers and Seattle City Light employees. She helped write the state's first divorce-reform bill and organized the state's first abortion-rights rally. She campaigned for university-funded child care at the University of Washington and worked to get women in the electrical trade at Seattle City Light.

She's been a waitress, sales clerk, bus cleaner, camp counselor, scriptwriter, electrician, cab driver, typographical worker, secretary and education coordinator.

When City Light fired her in 1975, she alleged sex and political discrimination and fought the city-owned utility for seven years to get her job back. She won.

While friends may consider her gutsy, others have described Fraser as offensive, abrasive and a troublemaker.

"She was an obstacle rather than an asset," said Gordon Vickery, who was the superintendent at Seattle City Light when Fraser led an 11-day walkout in 1974.

In today's more conservative political climate, she's still shaking things up from the left.

From the time she wakes up, she writes, faxes, clips newspapers, reads, counsels callers and plans events for Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, which she helped found in the 1960s.

And whatever else she's doing, she's talking.

On socialism: "People hear that word and they think `rhetoric. Karl Marx.' People's eyes get that kind of glazed look. (Socialism) is when the whole family is sitting around the dinner table, sharing and everyone gets alike."

On change: "Capitalism is constant change, but when you advocate change, people cry out, "That's revolutionary! Subversive!' And my favorite: `Un-American!' Of all the people who should be shocked - Americans. How the hell do they think they got here?"

On the future: "Capitalism is approaching a crisis. Everyone senses it. That's why they say `Throw out the immigrants. Put up tariff walls. Send women home. Get rid of affirmative action. Build more prisons.' "

Fraser is self-assured, with the glamour of a celebrity.

Her hands shake every now and then, but her nails are a manicured burgundy-brown. Her face is loose and soft and it is subtly made up. Her hair is done. Her jewelry gold.

She was destined to be an activist. Her parents, Jewish immigrants, were union organizers. Her multi-ethnic, immigrant Boyle Heights neighborhood was a hodgepodge of political ideologies. By the time she was in junior high, she had already joined a socialist youth group.

She went to the University of California at Berkeley and graduated from UCLA. In 1967, she and the late Gloria Martin, a longtime friend with whom she founded Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, started a class at the UW's Free University that would become the university's first women's-studies course. It also spurred the creation of Radical Women, a group rooted in the belief that women must take a key role in the revolutionary movement.

"We endured, we survived because we stuck to our program," Fraser said. The group now has chapters throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Australia and Europe.

"We never compromised on our principles," she said. "As long as you are out there battling the establishment, the politicians, the cops, the right wing, the bosses, as long as we're involved with the struggle, we're not going to get encrusted by empty theory. That's why we're still alive."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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