Monday, January 12, 2015

Florence Cohen, Social Justice Activist and Committed Feminist

We lost Florence Cohen on January 10, 2014. Her obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer described her as a life-long civil rights and community activist. I would have added “and committed feminist.” Although the obituary cited her work as project director of the Pennsylvania Program for Women and Girl Offenders, her passionate commitment to women’s rights was not mentioned. (Granted, when a woman has had such a long and illustrious career as Florence Cohen’s, it’s difficult to include everything.)

I became aware of the role Florence Cohen played in the Philadelphia feminist movement when doing research for Feminism in Philadelphia, The Glory Years: Philadelphia NOW 1968-1982

A member of the National Organization for Women and the Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus(PWPC), in the early 1970’s she was the organizational genius behind an effort spearheaded by PWPC to get more women invoved in local politics. This was an exciting time to be involved in grasrootos politics, as electoral politics and social movement politics were closely intertwined in Philadelphia in the '70’s. African-Americans (many of whom had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement)and feminists (usually under the banner of the Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus) organized against the Democratic machine, fighting for inclusion and fair representation as elected officials and as Democratic Party ward leaders and committee persons.

Florence Cohen organized a series of political education workshops sponsored by PWPC which dealt with the basics of the political structure in preparation for the 1972 primary election. According to Cohen, “We have to get a new type of woman--an independent woman--involved in politics.” In a handout she prepared on the political structure, she defined what she meant by an “independent,” someone motivated by issues rather than by political allegiances and loyalties.

Florence was well aware of the distaste many feminists had for partisan politics; she challenged the attendees at a December 1971 political workshop to overcome their reluctance to get involved: “Politics is dirty but we MUST have a part of it. The machine will control parties to the extent that there is apathy, to the extent that we are disorganized. We must use our collective strength--women are 52% of the electorate.” She noted that in 1971 only 7 out of 66 Democratic ward leaders were women, but according to Cohen “none whom you’d call independent women.”

When Philadelphia NOW in 1998 and again in 2002 organized a series of workshops to encourage women to run for committeeperson, we thought we were doing something new and different. But unknown to us, Florence Cohen had spearheaded a much more successful effort 3 decades earlier.

I saw Florence for the last time in December 2013 when I spoke to a group of residents of the Watermark Retirement Community where Florence resided at that time. Although she was experiencing physical disabilities, her mind was as sharp as ever and her commitment to gender equity as strong as ever. The feminist community has lost a powerful advocate for women’s rights.

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