VFA HONORED HELEN THOMAS AND DC AREA PIONEER FEMINISTS
OCTOBER 30, 2007 AT THE SEWALL BELMONT HOUSE IN WASHINGTON DC.
Jacqui Ceballos, President
Feminists Who Changed America was launched in the nation's capital on October 30, 2007, 5:30 to 8, according to Sheila Tobias, VFA's Events chair. Working with Karen Mulhauser and DC resident and VFA Board member Heather Booth, and VFA's VP in charge of events, Sheila Tobias. The event was held at the historic Sewall Belmont House and Museum, home of the National Woman's Party.
Honoring the DC Pioneer Feminists celebrated in FWCA, Barbara Love, who conceived the project, collected the 2,200 bios and edited the monumental work, shared in the celebration, honoring the 160 DC pioneer feminists cited in the book. The National Women's Party, co-sponsored the event.
This gem of a house is where Alice Paul and company planned the actions that finally resulted in the Suffrage Amendment of 1920. It's the house where Paul and cohorts formed the National Woman's Party and worked for years to get the ERA into the Constitution. Most of us didn't know until October 30, 2007 that the house was given to Paul by the wealthy Belmonts so that women, coming into DC to lobby and demonstrate, would have a place to stay. This was necessary, as in those days only prostitutes stayed in hotels! That tidbit was part of the welcoming speech on a beautiful October afternoon by Amy Conroy, the Executive Director of the Sewall-Belmont.
The former back garden, now an auditorium, was filled with over 200 honorees and guests. After welcomes by Karen Mulhauser; Sheila Tobias (VFA's Executive VP) and Muriel Fox (VFA's board chair), Barbara Love, who is responsible for the magnificent "Feminists Who Changed America," talked about the why, when and wherefore of her priceless project, which is responsible for bringing many new members to VFA.
Then Bunyan presented the firsts honorees, Ellie Smeal, Kim Gandy, president of NOW, and former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. She then read off the list of great women, most who'd lived and worked in the DC area. Some , such as Bunny Sandler, Mary King, Heather Booth Barbara Bergmann, Karline Tierney, Anne Turpeau, Allie Latimer, Mary Jean Collins and others had been honored many times by many institutions., but many were thrilled to at last have their efforts acknowledged, and it was something to see them joyfully accept an honor they never expected to receive! It's been 30 or more years since pioneer feminists were in the battle lines, and this was obvious as we watched many come up to the podium with canes or walkers.
I closed the event, remarking "Isn't VFA a wonderful organization!" I introduced my daughter, Michele. As a child she had demonstrated with us, and today she's helping me with VFA events. Last year she held a memorial celebration for Betty Friedan and this year organized an event for "Feminists Who Changed America," both in Phoenix, where she lives today.
I announced that VFA is collecting mother-daughter-granddaughter stories for our webpage and ENEWS and urged women to send stories of interest about their daughters.
And so a wonderful event came to a close. VFA thanks co-chairs Karen Mulhauser (whose firm, Mulhauser & Associates, organized the event) and Heather Booth, Sheila Tobias and all on the host committee who helped make this a super event.
Washington D. C. Event in Honor of the book and the people in the book,
Feminists who Changed America, 1963-1975
OCTOBER 30, 2007
Introduction by Sheila Tobias
"How did the women's movement begin in the 1960s? At the time…
it seemed to come out of nowhere, riveting one's awareness to woman as a subject sex. Suddenly women's stories demanded attention.
Women became the most interesting people in the world…."
So begins historian Nancy Cott's Introduction to the book we are celebrating today, Barbara Love's compilation of 2,200 feminists' biographies, brought together in the volume, Feminists who Changed America, 1963-1975, published in 2006 by the University of Illinois Press.
Why 1963? Of course this is the year that Betty Friedan published the book that became a call to arms, namely The Feminine Mystique. But it was not until 1966 that, the National Organization for Women was founded, 1968 the Women's Equity Action League, and 1970 the National Women's Political Caucus. Meanwhile, Women's Liberation, which would provide so much of the cutting-edge action for the Second Wave, its younger members, and its energy, was only emerging out of the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War, and student movements from 1965 to 1969.
One might just as well ask: Why does our era "end" in 1975? when the pillars of patriarchal sexism (two words that would not have been in anyone's vocabulary before 1963) were only beginning to crumble. It would take another two decades before women (and men) would elect women in significant numbers to state and federal office, 15 more years before the scales tipped in favor of women in medicine, law, and the physical sciences, and later still before women took their place as TV news anchors, in team sports, as corporate CEO's, in near-combat missions, and at Harvard's helm.
The antecedent for the Second Wave of Feminism has to be the Civil Rights Movement, where future feminist activists both cut their political teeth and met some of the most impressive (Southern Black) women of their generation. Racism would have its counterpart in "sexism", carefully outlined in Mary Eastwood's and Pauli Murray's ground- breaking article, "Jane Crow and the Law" published in the George Washington Law Review here in this city. But even more crucial was the notion of self-liberation as a precondition of equality. Indeed, as historians will have to concede, what made the Second Wave so different from the First was its focus on culture and class, two elements that emerged directly from the Black experience.
The immediate sequence of events that precipitates the feminist activism documented in the Directory begins two years before 1963 when, upon John F. Kennedy's naming of (another) all-male Cabinet, Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have asked him: "Where are the women on your New Frontier?" In response, JFK calls into being the first ever President's Commission on the Status of Women, which he asks Eleanor Roosevelt to chair. The Commission is directed to study women's status and circumstances, not to change these. But, as one Commissioner recalled years later, the Commissioners were "radicalized by our findings," as they documented again and again how much women's problems were rooted in their inequality.
Another early landmark - also emanating from this city -- was the Federal Equal Pay Act (1963). Its passage, too, predates what we call the "Second Wave of Feminism." It was the result, rather, of a delayed appreciation for women war workers' contribution during World War II. More significant even than the Equal Pay Act was what Nancy Cott calls the "fateful addition of the word 'sex'" to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Legislation with its potential to prohibit employment discrimination -- that really launched the women's movement. At first resisted by the EEOC, charged with enforcing Title VII, the ensuing battles against employers who discriminated on the basis of sex and the need to pressure the EEOC to hear these complaints gave activists in Washington and feminist litigators all over the country plenty to do.
Fast forward to 1975, a watershed for feminist activity. Ms Magazine has been launched in 1972 and is climbing toward 400,000 subscribers, about the same number of dues-paying members of NOW. Abortion has been decriminalized in a 1973 Supreme Court decision brilliantly argued by Sarah Weddington, and abortion laws in all 50 states are suddenly unenforceable. The Equal Rights Amendment, long resisted - even by the Women's Bureau in the 1940s because it would undermine women's protective legislation at the workplace - is on its way to what would appear (at the time) to be easy ratification. And barriers to women's equal access to credit, to public accommodations, and to pensions have fallen away, giving greater power and prestige to some but not yet all classes of women -- shifting popular perceptions of women in its wake.
Some scholars have explained the initial almost unstoppable success of the women's movement (1963-1975) as having to do with feminists' focus on the kind of blunt inequities for which not even conservatives could muster support. Rulings requiring equal access to credit, mortgages, pensions, public accommodations, passed rapidly in state after state and where needed, were taken up by Federal statute. Once barriers to entry were down, it was obvious to all that working women would swell the ranks of customers, borrowers, and clients, In fact, once banks got exemption from law suits, they fully supported the 1972 Equal Credit legislation because working women would significantly augment their customer/borrower base.
By 1975, however, "equity" issues were giving way to issues having to do with "role change". Equal access to sports and sports scholarships threatened to change women's attitudes and behavior off the field as well as on: their body image, their attitudes towards other women (their team mates), worse yet, what they would "settle for" in life. The availability of the pill, coupled with legalized abortion, gave young women a level of control over their sexuality, even their mothers could not have imagined. And greater tolerance of sexuality in all its manifestations opened up the ideal and the reality of "family" to more than one model. Once gender and sexuality were understood to be but manifestations of what Kate Millett called "sexual politics," the Movement's aims swelled to include issues of identity and Lesbianism, women's right to be called to the Pulpit and to enter the military officer corps.
From the outset of the Second Wave, there is of course opposition to the women's movement. One form it takes is derision: Esquire Magazine tries a stunt in the early 1970s that swiftly backfires: a two-page spread of photographs of by then already famous feminists over the cut line: "They're cute when they're mad." The male-dominated New York-based intelligentsia, including some women like Diana Trilling and Midge Dechter, but led loudly by Norman Mailer, have it out in print and in public debate with Kate Millett, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. But not until 1975 is there organized opposition to the Women's Movement among men (significantly the National Collegiate Athletics Association defending men's right to exclude women), and among conservative women: Phyllis Schlafly's STOP ERA. Later, the so-called Concerned Women of America eventually join with anti-Gay and anti-abortion activists to slow down change.
1975 is not the beginning of the End of the Women's Movement. Rather, in my view, it signifies the end of the Beginning. Second-wave activists, like their suffragist foremothers, found themselves having to settle in for the long haul. In their struggle to make sense of how they lost the ERA (in 1982), why the press (and the Republican leadership) found it profitable to turn against them during the Reagan era, and how it was possible for younger women not to want to carry the torch, Second-Wave feminists enter an even more interesting era of criticism/self criticism as regards class and race, and U.S. foreign policy.
But that story is for another volume. With Barbara Love's superbly annotated Feminists who Changed America, we meet the Pioneers, many of whom were and remain here in Washington, leading the charge!
Sheila Tobias, is the Executive Vice President of Veteran Feminists of America and the author of Overcoming Math Anxiety (1978, 1994), Women, Militarism, and War (with Jean Elshtain, 1992), and Faces of Feminism: An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement (1997).