Pennie Diann Foster, 1954-2008
Heart Phoenix
October 2008

We've lost a dear friend and women's liberation movement sister.

It is with sad hearts that we tell you of the passing of Pennie Foster. She had long been a feminist activist, and a strong advocate for women's and workers rights, national health care, and against racism. Her generous spirit and unflagging dedication, not to mention her fabulous cooking skills, will be missed by all of us.

Pennie passed away Thursday evening, October 2 nd, at Shands, surrounded by her close family, friends, and co-workers from her workplace, Alachua County Court Services.

Pennie had checked herself into the Veterans Administration Hospital three weeks ago with severe back pain, and was transferred to Shands, where she battled a highly aggressive, but untreatable cancer.

All her life, whether in an organization or not, Pennie was outspoken about how women were treated. In the early 1980s, recently separated from her husband and raising her young daughter Erika, she became active in Minnesota in NOW and women's liberation. She often recalled to friends the power she felt marching with thousands of women down Hennepin Avenue, in the red light district of Minneapolis, demanding dignity and freedom for womankind.

In 1991, shortly after moving to Gainesville, she went to a meeting of the University of Florida/SFCC Campus National Organization for Women, attracted by Campus NOW's fight against Michael Katsonis, a UF Infirmary pharmacist who refused to dispense the Morning After Pill. It was one of the early political battles around this reproductive rights issue. Pennie helped in the campaign to get Katsonis fired from UF. It was the beginning of a long record of contributions to feminism in Gainesville.

Together with Francie Hunt, Pennie started Campus NOW's Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action Team. She organized consciousness-raising meetings, speakouts, and attended state and national marches for abortion rights. She put skills she gained in Santa Fe Community College's Graphics Design program to use making sharp-looking posters. Many more women joined the fight as a result. She worked on the chapter's annual beauty pageant protest, the more than 5-year battle for a UF Women's Student Center (now established!), and on the chapter's Rape Action Committee. In addition to her leadership in Campus NOW, she was also a strong supporter of Gainesville Women's Liberation.

Pennie led in a victorious fight in 1996 with three north Florida NOW chapters to protest UF's new policy preventing UF medical residents from performing abortions on their own time. In a time when many doctors won't perform abortions due to fear of retaliation, this limitation jeopardized Florida women's access to abortions. Just weeks later, UF President Lombardi announced it was dropping its restrictive policy, "but NOT due to the protest." Certainly not!

Pennie worked to block national legislation restricting women's acceses to "D & X abortions," the so-called "late term abortion ban." Gainesville chapters led nationally within NOW in pointing out that this craftily-worded legislation was an attempt to restrict all 2 nd and 3 rd trimester abortions, not just an attempt to restrict a supposedly "rare, late-term procedure."

Francie Hunt testified at Pennie's memorial: "Her special skills were truthtelling, consciousness-raising personal testimony. She was a southern anti-racist; her picture was featured on the cover of the book, 'Whites Fighting Racism." Francie said Pennie was like part of her family.

Alex Leader testified about Pennie: "Pennie loved to really give it to whoever was the problem--whether it was the police, University of Florida President, or UF Housing Services--which barred all women from a "Men's Only Rape Forum". Pennie and I physically pushed through a housing official barring the door. Pennie loved to fight injustice. I think that's what we had in common and why we were so close. Knowing that she believed in what we were organizing together, it helped me know we were doing the right thing. I had to know that to keep going."

Pennie was born in 1954 in Eden, Georgia. Upon graduating from high school, she began a military tour with the Air Force, serving for 4 years from 1973 to 1977. She was stationed in Iceland, where she had high level clearance to work on plane navigational systems. She was one of the first women to do this type of work. While in the military, she married Thomas Olsen. Together they moved to Minnesota when their military service was over, and in 1980, they had a daughter, Erika Olsen. Pennie and Tom divorced in 1985.

At Pennie's memorial service, many testified that raising Erika was Pennie's greatest pride. Erika is 28 and lived much of her life in Gainesville and attended P.K. Yonge High School and then University of Central Florida for her Bachelor's degree. She recently graduated from basic training for the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, and she is about to enter a Masters Degree program at Florida International University in Building Construction Management

Since 1994, Pennie worked as a Community Service Officer of Alachua County Court Services. The Community Services Program gives people with court-ordered community service the opportunity to do service hours with non profits or governmental organizations rather than have to pay fines. She recruited women and men into the freedom movement by encouraging them to do their community service assignment with the National Organization for Women and the Civic Media Center.

Gainesville Women's Liberation organizer Candi Churchill testified at Pennie's memorial service that she was lucky enough to be assigned to Pennie at the Community Services Program to pay off a fine for underage drinking. Pennie said, "you're a woman, you should work with NOW." Candi did, and thanks Pennie for starting her in feminist activism.

Pennie was a supporter of the union representing Alachua County employees, the Northeast Public Employees' Local 630 of the Laborers' International Union. She was an active member of the Alachua County branch of the Labor Party, which she joined not long after it was founded. Pennie actively organized in 2000 for the Alachua County Labor Party-sponsored ballot referendum for single payer health care and bravely testified at meetings about her own struggles with the for-profit health insurance system.

Pennie is survived by her mother, Nancy Beasley of Eden, Ga.; her sister Susan Canney and brother-in-law Leslie Canney; daughter Erika Olsen; and her brother Prinest Hammond.  The family organized a service for Pennie in Gainesville on October 4, 2008, at Forest Meadows Funeral Home Chapel, attended by dozens of her Court Services co-workers, movement comrades, and long-time friends, who one after another got up and testified to Pennie's courage to challenge people directly on injustice, making them think. Her co-worker testified, "if you called women 'you guys,' that was fightin' words to Pennie."

Brother-in-law Leslie opened up the service calling Pennie "a true populist; wherever she went, she asked people what they thought, because she really wanted to know."

"The thing I remember most about Pennie was--whenever she was in a queue, whether at the movies, the drugstore or McDonald's--she would turn to whatever complete stranger she was standing next to and say, 'Hi, I'm Pennie, how are you?,' and start a conversation. This was embarrassing the first few times you were with her when it happened but we all got used to it. It sounded like she was just being overfriendly, but I think there was more to it than that. I believe there was a political/activist aspect to her behavior. You see, Pennie was a true populist/progressive, and she believed to be effective, activism needed a personal touch. ..."

"Another aspect to her impromptu conversations was that she really did care about the people she was talking to. She used these talks to both learn about the lives of others and as opportunities to raise awareness and enlighten others as to the true state of the world. For her, whether oppression took the form of misogyny, racism, classism, or just corporatism, she believed her activism could make a difference for the better..."

All spoke about Pennie's love for and pride in her daughter Erika. Others said how they will miss Pennie's culinary skills, and her love of swimming in Florida springs and snorkeling down Florida's Ichetucknee River. "Now this is living!" Pennie would always say, after jumping into the cool spring water.

Donations/condolences: For those wishing to make a donation in Pennie's memory, her family has asked that donations be made to the two causes she felt most deeply about. Donations may be sent to:

Gainesville Women's Liberation, P.O. Box 2625, Gainesville, Forida 32602-2625


Alachua County Labor Party, P.O. Box 12051, Gainesville, Florida 32604.

Condolence cards for her family may be sent to Susan and Leslie Canney, c/o Gainesville Women's Liberation (address above), and they will be forwarded.

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