Veteran Feminists of America, Inc.

Veteran Feminists workshops warmly received at NOW conference
June 25, 2016  Washington, DC

Mary Jean Collins


NOW conference audience.
Photo Credit: Dori Jacobson

NOW was founded on June 30, 1966 at a meeting of participants at a government conference of individuals from Commissions on the Status of women and others, most notably Betty Friedan.  When the women were refused permission to bring a resolution to the floor of the conference criticizing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decision to permit employers to continue to use segregated want ads, the women decided it was time to start an organization in support of women’s rights.  Everyone threw in $5 and NOW, National Organization for Women, (named by Betty Friedan) was born.  Four months later in October, 1966, the founding meeting of NOW was held in DC and the Statement of Purpose adopted. 

Having the VFA Board meeting during the conference also provided an opportunity for our Board to interact with older and younger feminists.  We had an excellent turnout of directors.  Sixteen Board members attended the meeting including three newly elected members for whom this was their first in person meeting.  The conference and workshops were quite an orientation to VFA and our history. 

VFA also had an exhibitor’s table to provide us with an opportunity to talk with conference attendees.  The table served as a place to sign up members after the exciting workshops we sponsored.  Placing a membership blank in each conference
packet, we hope that those memberships will continue to arrive.  Ginny Watkins and Mary-Ann Lupa managed the table along with many board members who volunteered to staff the table and talk to potential members.  It was a highly successful endeavor.

I was surprised and pleased when NOW put out a call to its members to submit workshop ideas for the consideration of the planners.   VFA decided to submit 2 workshop proposals: “The founding of NOW: She Was There” featuring Muriel Fox an actual founder; and Pam Ross, our Treasurer, who suggested workshop “Recruiting NOW Leaders – Attracting Young and Older Feminists” Pam wanted the opportunity to share her experience recruiting and activating retired feminists to work on current issues.

After some weeks, NOW approved three workshops for VFA,  “She Was There,’ Parts 1 and 2 on the history of NOW and Pam’s intergenerational workshop.  The proposal we made for the history workshop was to have the following panelists: Muriel Fox, Chair of the VFA Board; Eleanor Pam, VFA President; and Barbara Love, longtime VFA Board member.  I, also a VFA director, was given the role of moderator and co-panelist.

When NOW offered us a second workshop about its founding history, we decided that our panel should focus on the August 26, 1970 events that actually launched NOW and the women’s revolution into a mass movement and organization.  We added Carole DeSaram who joined NOW as a result of the call to Strike and offered her perspective to the discussion.  I’m very glad we did.  She added both levity and gravitas.

 “The Founding of NOW: She Was There” was held Friday afternoon and drew about 200 people, a third to a half of all the attendees at the conference.   My first surprise was when a man came and asked to put a mike on each of the speakers.  He was from C-Span and they were taping the workshop, something I didn’t know before that moment.  So, I will describe the workshop but you will also have a chance to see if for yourself in the future.

Linda Stein, Rebecca Lubetkin, Carole DeSaram at the
VFA exhibit table.  Photo Credit: Dori Jacobson

As moderator I briefly told an account of the June meeting taken from books by Dr. Pauli Murray and Catherine Conroy (a mentor of mine from Wisconsin.) The founders described the urgency and tension of the decision to actually form an organization.  Muriel described the atmosphere created by the energy of especially the civil rights movement as well as the outright sexist world of limited opportunities, segregated want ads, denied credit for married women and so many other issues affecting and limiting women’s lives. 

Muriel talked about the unique role of Betty Friedan and her ability to attract extremely successful and energized women like herself who were at the top of their profession but still subject to limitations as women and willing to fight for change for all women.   

She described Friedan’s role in leading the organization and setting goals for early actions.  Muriel talked about the roles of individuals who worked to make the organization grow, efforts to push the government to use its power to enforce Title VII and other laws to insist employers move beyond discrimination.  She explained that NOW targeted virtually every institution for change: the workplace, the family, education, and religion, adding more as they were identified.

Betty Friedan, her contrbutions, limitations and contradictions were a common thread for the workshop.   I knew that the workshop would bring to the surface painful as well as joyful feelings 50 years ago for me and others as we relived the struggles over issues and priorities in the early days of NOW. 

Eleanor provided a personal account of the contribution of Kate Millet to the founding period not only of NOW but the burgeoning women’s movement including the brilliant analysis Millet proclaimed in her writing, speaking and being.  Eleanor described her own transition in higher education from a high level academic administrator to a feminist activist supporting women across the entire university spectrum, including faculty, staff and management.  She criticized Friedan’s opposition to lesbian rights as an active issue in early NOW and said “I was puzzled than an organization dedicated to opposing the oppression of women, was being led by someone in favor of oppressing a large cohort of women within the organization.”

Barbara Love who co-authored “Sappho Was a Right On Woman with Sydney Abbott detailed the negative impact on lesbians of the Friedan philosophy.  Love researched actual statements at the time from both Friedan and lesbians to provide a factual and painful account of the dispute.  Barbara showed great emotion in talking about the early hardships around the “lavender menace.”  The audience was clearly moved.

There was a lively exchange of views among the panel and questioning from the audience/participants. 

As moderator, I watched the audience and here are my impressions:  There was such an honest and authentic recounting of facts and feeling as each speaker relived and told of their personal experiences about those early years; people were totally absorbed and listening—both with head and emotions as they identified and absorbed what they were hearing. The feelings of anger, and sadness were 50 years old but just as intense, as though time hadn’t passed.  In being honest and true to their own beliefs, the panelists provided a unique experience for all and a multi dimensional telling of the story as each person lived it.

Most of the audience came back the next day for the workshop.

She was There panel: Mary jean Collins, Muriel Fox, Barbara Love, Eleanor Pam   Photo Credit: Dori Jacobson

“She Was There” Part 2.

The August 26, 1970 Strike for Women was announced by Betty Friedan in her last speech as President of NOW at the national conference outside Chicago in March 1970.  I talked about Betty’s hope for the event.  Betty was aware that we needed to be a movement involving masses of women all over the country and saw the Strike as a mobilizing event.  My experience in Chicago bore out her hope.  Our chapter doubled on August 26, and grew from that day.

Carole DeSaram brought documents from actions at that time and told stories about the papers she brought.   Her talk brought to life all the outrageous acts of the NOW women from shutting down the Stock Exchange, actually stopping the ticker to putting out a wanted poster of corporate leaders with their home phone numbers on it.  There was much appreciative laugh-out-outbursts during Carole’s presentation.  It reminded me of so many actions we did in Chicago from painting the driveway of the Playboy Club to plastering “This insults women” on offensive ads.  People rushed up to see Carole’s documents at the end of the workshop. 

Barbara Love talked about “Feminists Who Changed America” telling the story of how and why it was produced as a project of VFA.  She acknowledged the work of Muriel and others and the struggle to find a publisher, get the biographies edited, all the hours of work required to tell the story of 2200 feminists who made the women’s movement successful in that early period.  There were more than 25 people in the room who are in the book. 

Eleanor shared the story of VFA and our work and urged people to join.  She asked people to stand who had attended the March in 1970.  Over a dozen people were please to say they were there.   Eleanor talked about the importance of preserving our history. 

Again, there were excellent questions from the audience including younger feminists thanking the pioneers for our work.  It was very touching to feel the love among the generations.

Alice Cohan, a long time NOW activist and now staffer at the Feminist Majority came to talk about NOW’s work on lesbian rights and to correct any putative impression from the first workshop that NOW was not a supporter of lesbian rights after the 1971 resolution and through the years. 

The workshop closed with a warm exchange between audience and panel.

“Recruiting NOW Leaders-Attracting Young and Older Feminists”

This workshop was based on Pam Ross’ suggestion that we have a workshop to discuss how retired feminists’ skills and contacts might be put to use in support of issues in local communities.  NOW tweaked the idea and added to the panel younger feminist leaders from a variety of organizations. Pam and I were joined by Bettina Hager, Director of the DC office of the ERA coalition; Jeanine Johnson, President of DC NOW; Pam Yuen, Government Relations Coordinator of AAUW (American Association of University Women); and Hannah Wyatt, a 17 year old who wants to form a NOW chapter at Wilson High, her school in DC.

Bettina Hager (ERA Coalition), Mary Jean Collins, Pam Ross 
Photo Credit: Dori Jacobson

At a pre-conference planning meeting, we agreed to introduce ourselves and describe how we came to feminism.  Each of us told our story and we were able to see many common areas.  Pam told her own story of early marriage and motherhood, spousal abuse and managing to make a living without a college degree.  Pam then described what was accomplished in St. Louis when she rallied retired women she knew to assist a young mother who had been arrested for leaving her children alone because she couldn’t pay a baby sitter while she went to work. 

Pam explained how the women went from helping an individual to tackling policy questions of inadequate childcare opportunities for limited income women who wanted to support their families. 

There was a good exchange with audience who added their own stories and plans for action in their local communities.

Pam brought a unique and concrete set of ideas to the workshop that excited ideas particularly among NOW activists in the audience who discussed how they might involve retired NOW members in their own communities.  

I believe the effort to bring our VFA board together in the context of the NOW 50th anniversary conference was very successful and I’m grateful for all who made it possible.  We are the living history that people want to know and experience.  Thanks to all who made it possible.


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