Friday, May 7, 2021

A Brief History of Philadelphia NOW: The first 50 years


Focus on ending discrimination in employment

Philadelphia NOW was officially incorporated as a chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1971 with Mary Lynne Speers, as the chapter’s first president. However, Ernesta Ballard was generally acknowledged to be the founder and the force behind the chapter in the early years. Born in 1920 into a prominent Philadelphia family, Ballard was not the typical founder of a local NOW chapter. Her socialite background and life-long affiliation with the Republican Party notwithstanding, she was a passionate, committed feminist.

One of Philadelphia NOW’s first and most successful actions was challenging the sexist assumptions underlying a local job fair called Operation Native Son, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Once a year, the Chamber of Commerce provided an opportunity for Pennsylvanians attending college outside the state to be interviewed by prospective employers from the Philadelphia area. The program was blatantly discriminatory against women. Thanks to the efforts of Philadelphia NOW the name was changed to Delaware Valley Career Opportunities.

On both national and local levels, NOW in the late 1960s and early 1970s focused on ending discrimination in employment. Among its many victories, NOW fought to end the practice of dividing classified ads into “Help Wanted for Men” and “Help Wanted for Women.”
Ernesta Ballard, founder of Philadelphia NOW

The consciousness raising movement

As the movement broadened in the early 1970s, it drew women who had never before been involved in political activism. Their primary interest was the impact of feminism on their personal lives, and they were drawn to the consciousness-raising groups cropping up everywhere.

Jean Ferson, a skilled organizational builder, was elected the second president of Philadelphia NOW at a time of tremendous growth in the feminist movement. As the movement broadened in the early 1970s, it drew women who had never before been involved in political activism. Their primary interest was the impact of feminism on their personal lives and they were drawn to the consciousness-raising groups cropping up everywhere. Jean Ferson, a psychologist, was in many ways the ideal person to lead the organization in the early 1970s; unlike some NOW activists, Ferson was very receptive to the rapidly growing consciousness-raising movement.

Although Philadelphia NOW has evolved as a multi-issue feminist organization that recognizes the intersection of gender, race/class and sexuality issues, Philadelphia NOW in the early years was focused almost exclusively on women’s rights. The road to becoming an intersectional feminist organization would be a long and rocky one.
Philadelphia NOW’s second President Jean Ferson and Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus Founder and first President Sharon Wallis

Philadelphia NOW an early champion of lesbian rights

Despite the homophobia associated with Betty Friedan, many local NOW chapters such as Philadelphia NOW were strong supporters of lesbian rights, with Philadelphia NOW as the first chapter in the country to elect an open lesbian Jan Welch as President in 1973. The lesbian feminist movement was growing both in numbers and visibility. The talent and energy of many lesbian feminists was of critical importance in building NOW and the feminist movement in general; NOW’s embrace of lesbian rights contributed to the growth of the lesbian and gay rights movement.
Philadelphia NOW’s third President Jan Welch


The battle to integrate Central High; the battle against discrimination in the Philadelphia police department

In the mid-1970s National NOW made combating sexism in schools a top priority, focusing on advocacy for Women’s Studies Programs in high schools and colleges and for expansion of athletic opportunities for girls. NOW chapters across the country took up the crusade; the Philadelphia Chapter was especially active, no doubt because of the many educators among its activist core. The Philadelphia chapter devoted considerable energy to the nine-year battle to integrate Central High.

A major priority for NOW in the middle 1970s was the struggle to desegregate what were for women “non-traditional jobs”—well paid blue collar jobs traditionally held by men. Philadelphia NOW provided strong, sustained support for NOW member Penelope Brace’s battle against discrimination in the Philadelphia Police Department.
Philadelphia’s first female police detective Penelope Brace receiving the City of Sisterly Love Award from Philadelphia NOW on February 15, 1979.

NOW built an organizational structure for the long haul, with national, state, and local affiliates, enabling the group to achieve an impressive number of victories in the early and mid-1970s. NOW’s organizational structure included a mechanism for managing conflict, which enabled it to survive the battles of the mid-1970s, bruised and battered but still standing.

Managing conflict

Throughout 1975, the national organization was roiled by major disagreements about the direction of NOW, culminating in the bitterly fought election at the national NOW convention in Philadelphia in October 1975.

Although what we now call intersectional feminism is often thought to be a movement which began in the 1990s, the concept was central to what was known as the 1975 Majority Caucus led by then national NOW president Karen DeCrow. At the national conference held in Philadelphia in 1975, DeCrow pledged that NOW would use its resources to fight against racism in America, and affirmed: “This is not a white organization.” DeCrow’s determination to “move out of the mainstream and into the revolution” reflected the extent to which the Women’s Liberation Movement and the social justice movements of the 1970s were having an impact on NOW.

Karen DeCrow elected president of NOW at the national conference held in Philadelphia in 1975.

The following year, deep divisions were to emerge in the Philadelphia chapter as well. In many ways the conflicts were the inevitable by-product of NOW’s success—its dramatic growth and increasing ideological diversity. The presence of the Socialist Workers Party was a source of conflict within NOW, both on the national and local level. NOW members focused on what they considered the disruptive tactics of the SWP but not on the ideological challenges. Socialist feminists who entered NOW in the mid-1970s challenged the idea that feminist beliefs trumped over-all political ideology and questioned whether gender equality could be achieved under capitalism.


The struggle for gender justice and racial justice

Although by the late 1970s combating racism had become part of national NOW’s core mission, it was not among the priorities of most local NOW chapters. Local chapters expanded through the social networks of the members, and as the members acknowledged, those networks were largely white and middle class. Philadelphia NOW like many chapters at that time, did not see the struggle for racial justice as a feminist issue.

In 1980 Jocelyn Morris formed new chapter in Northwest Philadelphia, Germantown NOW, to focus on the connections between sexism and racism. NOW’s leaders developed an effective safety valve for dealing with potential conflict, allowing members whose priorities differed from those of their local chapter to easily form a new chapter, thus defusing tension while keeping everyone within the big tent of NOW. The core Philadelphia chapter remained focused on the ERA; Philadelphia NOW members who were interested in addressing racial issues either became involved in Pennsylvania NOW or joined Germantown NOW. Although some leaders on the state and national level were championing the cause of racial justice, there were not enough grassroots members who shared this commitment to sustain Germantown NOW which folded soon after Morris moved out of the Philadelphia area.
Jocelyn Morris, founder and first president of Germantown NOW, placing flowers on the grave of lucretia Mott on November 11, 1980, the 100th anniversary of Mott’s death.

The battle for the ERA

Through the mid-1970s the feminist movement achieved victory after victory. The momentum began to stall in the late 1970s, and on June 30, 1982 the feminist movement experienced a major defeat, all the more painful because a decade earlier an easy victory had been expected.

Lillian Ciarrochi,elected president of Philadelphia NOW in 1979, and Doris Pechkurow, elected in 1980, led the Philadelphia chapter in the final years of the struggle. The fight for the ERA convinced many NOW members that they must elect feminists to legislative bodies. The ERA campaign itself became a training ground in the basics of the political process, and in the aftermath of the defeat of the ERA, NOW chapters were building teams of politically savvy members capable of launching a run for political office or providing critical support for feminist candidates.
Lillian Ciarrochi, Philadelphia NOW President, 1979-1980

The mid 1980s through the 1990s

The heady social movement phase of second wave feminism had come to an end, but organized feminism, particularly the feminist service organizations, in some cases grew stronger than ever. NOW had won many victories, although the major prize the ERA eluded them. However, the movement’s glaring weakness—its lack of racial inclusiveness—was not seriously addressed and remains a source of tension.

In the mid 1980s and through the 1990s, the locus of feminist activity shifted to Pennsylvania NOW. This was partially because the struggle for abortion rights was waged primarily on the state level and because of the energy and commitment of Pennsylvania NOW state president Barbara DiTullio. In the late 1990s, DiTullio focused on racial justice issues and organized a Women of Color and Allies Conference held in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia chapter under the leadership of Kathy Miller was involved in planning for and publicizing the conference.

The early 21st century 2001-2009

In 2001 Kathy Miller became president of Pennsylvania NOW and in Philadelphia a diverse new leadership team was elected and served through 2009. The officers during this period were Karen Bojar who served as president Louise Francis who served as treasurer for 8 years. Others who served as officers during this period were: Francesca Alvarado, Cindy Bass, Kathy Black, Tammy Gavitt, Caryn Hunt, Dee Johnson, Doris Pridgen, Vicki Redmond, Marlene Santoyo, and Rosa Woods. For the first time in the history of the chapter half of the officers were women of color. These officers strengthened Philadelphia NOW’s connections with a range of progressive organizations, including the Coalition of Labor Union and the Coalition of Women100 Black Women.

The organization grew with the incorporation of the Philadelphia NOW Education Fund, incorporated as a 501c3 in 2005. PNEF was eligible to receive charitable contributions and foundation grants and sponsored several educational efforts including the very well attended 2006 Women of Color and Allies Conference chaired by Cindy Bass and a Town Hall on Reparations co-sponsored with the Coalition of Labor Union women in 2007. PNEF also sponsored a series of educational workshops encouraging women to become involved in grassroots politics, in particular by running for committeeperson in 2002, again in 2010 and in 2014.

In 2003 Philadelphia NOW established a political action committee which allowed it to endorse candidates and to raise funds to support its endorsed candidates. In addition to the chapter officers who served ex-officio, Gloria Gilman, Sharon Losier and Helen Seitz also served on the political action committee.

Philadelphia NOW’s political involvement also included lobbying campaigns such as the campaign to end the shackling of pregnant prisoners spearheaded by Dee Johnson, who represented Philadelphia NOW on the Anti-Shackling committee of the Working Group to Enhance Services for Incarcerated Women, sponsored by PA Prison society.
Philadelphia NOW President Karen Bojar, Lauren Townsend, award recipient Councilperson Maria Quinones Sanchez, Philadelphia NOW Vice-Presidents Cindy Bass, Rosa Woodxs, and Kathy Black at the 2006 Philadelphia NOW awards ceremony


In 2010 Caryn Hunt became president of Philadelphia NOW. She focused on women’s health issues and fought for improved services for pregnant women, including birthing centers in Philadelphia, a concern she advanced on the state level when she became president of PANOW in 2012.

Terri Falbo became president of Philadelphia NOW in 2012. A union organizer and active member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, she worked with CLUW president Kathy Black to strengthen ties between NOW and CLUW as both organizations worked to bring Earned Sick Time to Philadelphia Workers.

Nina Ahmad became president of Philadelphia NOW in 2013, the first woman of color and first Asian-American to become president of Philadelphia NOW. She reached out to women of color and especially to the immigrant community Her successful effort to expose blatant sexism in the District Attorney’s office dramatically increased the profile of Philadelphia NOW. She resigned in 2016 to become Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement in the Kenney administration.
Samantha Pierson, Pennsylvania NOW President, 2018-2020; Nina Ahmad, Philadelphia NOW President 2013-2016; Krishna Rami Philadelphia NOW President 2017-2019 at the launch of Nina Ahmad’s campaign for Auditor General, December 11, 2019. Photo Credit, Naroen Chinn.

From 2016 through 2019, Natalie Catin St. Louis, Krishna Rami, and Jenne Ayers served as presidents of Philadelphia NOW. Increasingly young women with demanding jobs and family responsibilities are finding that the chapter model with its high demands on the president is difficult to sustain.

In 2019, Vanessa Fields a recently retired African-American woman with extensive experience in women’s organizations and in the labor movement, was elected as chapter president. Fields organized a widely viewed and highly regarded virtual Town Hall on reparations for slavery held in December 2020.

Vanessa Fields currently serves as Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women and has co-developed several program jointly with the Commission for Women.

Vanessa Fields, current president of Philadelphia NOW

NOW’s history has been a long struggle to define what counts as a feminist issue. In the early 1970s NOW defined lesbian rights as a feminist issue; although many NOW chapters were receptive, a minority of members did not see this as a core issue. However, by the late 1970s the vast majority of NOW members were strong supporters of lesbian rights. The struggle to include racial justice as a core feminist issue has taken much longer to resolve and given the recent controversy over racism in NOW there is clearly more work to be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment