Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. From Part I, Building the feminist movement: Chapter 1, The founders

Excerpt from Chapter 1 The founders
Ernesta Ballard

The leaders of the second-wave feminist movement, particularly those who were drawn to structured groups such as NOW, were for the most part skilled organization builders, who honed their skills in civic and professional associations, labor unions, and local Democratic Party committees. They were generally older, whiter, and more affluent than the younger women drawn to the Women’s Liberation movement. Although many had experience in grassroots organizations, some of these early leaders had served on the boards of elite organizations and had a network of elite connections. Chapter leaders had a great deal of latitude in deciding which of NOW’s many issues they wanted to foreground. Thus, the issues that particular chapters chose to address were very much bound up with the talents and interests of the leaders.—

The founders of Philadelphia NOW each put their personal stamp on the organization. The founder of Philadelphia NOW, Ernesta Drinker Ballard, born in 1920 into a prominent Philadelphia family, was clearly 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. Such intense commitment usually has some deeply personal source. Ballard told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter in 1981 that she had wanted to be a lawyer, but that her father “never took it seriously.”1 Although she enjoyed significant class privileges, her options were constrained by the rigid gender roles of her time and class. Despite expectations that she confine herself to a life as wife and mother, Ballard managed to build a successful horticultural business and transform the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society into a world-class organization. When the feminist movement burst on the scene in the late 1960s, Ballard found her calling and dedicated her considerable talents in organization building to Philadelphia NOW.

The first president of Philadelphia NOW was not elected until 1970. Ballard clearly wanted to be part of the feminist movement but, whether as a consequence of her elite background or personal reticence (or both), she did not want to be the public face of the chapter and recruited Mary Lynne Speers as the chapter’s first president and Jean Ferson as its second. In a 2004 interview, Ballard described her role in forming Philadelphia NOW:
The way I got into it is kind of funny … . My mother was living with us and she was very ill; she was dying of cancer. She got a letter from Betty Friedan, and Betty’s letter said that she heard about my mother because my mother had written a book about music and women … and Betty said, ‘I’m forming this new organization called the National Organization for Women.’ And she wanted mother to go onto the board.

Ballard wrote to Friedan and said that her mother “would’ve been so thrilled to have been invited, but she can’t. She’s dead. If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.” Friedan called her to say: “I’m sorry about your mother. But will you do it? You’ll be fine. We’re looking for … Mainline, you know, establishment sort of a person.” Ballard readily accepted the invitation: “I was definitely a feminist, and I was thrilled to be asked.” However, she was concerned about a conflict with her position at the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, and worried that feminism and horticulture didn’t “really mix very well.” She reported receiving critical letters, mostly from men, asking her “Why don’t you stick to your petunias?”2

Friedan was very interested in recruiting rich, well-connected women like Ballard, both for their access to financial resources and for what she saw as their ability to lend credibility to the fledgling organization. Although Friedan is often credited with launching a broad-based, grassroots movement, that was apparently not her original intention. Political scientist Jo Freeman has noted that some of NOW’s initiators like Friedan were “very high-powered women who lacked the time or patience for the slow, unglamorous work of putting together a mass organization.”3 Susan Brownmiller reported that Friedan rejected her application for membership because she did not fit the model of the successful professional woman Friedan was trying to recruit.4 However, Friedan’s original conception quickly evolved as women around the country expressed interest in forming local chapters.

Ernesta Ballard served for a year on the national NOW board and was the driving force behind the formation of the Philadelphia chapter. She reported: “Then, it came the time to really be formalized and say we have a structure and a president. And I said, ‘Look, I really can’t do it.’ It was going to interfere with my job and the media publicity … . It just wouldn’t work. So, I sort of stepped aside.” Although Mary Lynne Speers, a 28-year-old woman who aspired to go to law school, was Philadelphia NOW’s first president, Ballard was generally acknowledged to be the prime mover. According to Philadelphia NOW’s second president, Jean Ferson: “The woman who really started all this in Philadelphia was Ernesta Drinker Ballard.”5

Unlike her hero, suffragist Alice Paul, Ernesta Ballard was not accustomed to public demonstrations; it was not the way she and the people in her social networks got things done. However, when asked by Speers to participate in a 1970 vigil at the Capitol to bring the Equal Rights Amendment to the floor of Congress for a vote, she appears not to have hesitated. Ballard and Speers took the train to Washington and went to the Capitol:
And we were relieved that there were people on the steps. There weren’t that many. Three of us and maybe four or five others. Not many people paid attention to us, but we stayed there the whole night. And that was a little adventure. At about 6 or 7 o’clock some people came to relieve us. And we went to the station, got on the train, and went home.

Ballard recalled she knew the story would be in the newspapers when reporter Rose DeWolf called and said she heard that Ballard had spent the night in Washington.

The tone of Ballard’s 2004 recollection of the vigil contrasted sharply with her much less positive account reported by DeWolf the day after the event. During the 2004 interview Ballard recalled the event as an adventure and was clearly proud of the role she played. In the interview for DeWolf’s 1970 article, however, Ballard portrayed the vigil as a disappointment: “Do you know how many women were there, standing vigil? Four, that’s all. Why didn’t women come? There have been huge crowds when the issue was peace or civil rights. Don’t women care?” Mary Lynne Speers groped for an explanation: “Maybe women are just programmed to work for others, not themselves … . Or maybe they’re just tired of demonstrations…” Ballard raised questions about the wisdom of holding the event: “Maybe they were afraid to stay out at night. Maybe it was just our strategy that was wrong … maybe a 24-hour vigil just isn’t the way to make the point.”6 Another reason, no doubt, was that Philadelphia NOW’s founders did not have the resources to mobilize large numbers of people for demonstrations. Despite these setbacks, the founding members I interviewed clearly viewed the feminist movement as one of the peak experiences of their lives, and many, like Ballard, recalled the excitement and sense of solidarity much more vividly than the drudgery and disappointments
Participation in demonstrations and vigils may not have come naturally to Ernesta Ballard. What did come naturally was using her social contacts to put pressure on powerful interests to open opportunities for women. 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. According to Philadelphia NOW’s second president Jean Ferson:
Operation Native Son was something that drove Ernesta nuts … . [She said,] ‘We need to change that name.’ And we did … we got the name changed. And there was a tremendous concern around that time in terms of how language was used to discriminate against women or to insult women, and we wanted people to get more aware of that.

When told that Jean Ferson had credited her with the victory, Ernesta Ballard downplayed her role: “Well, I was writing letters. Thatcher [Longstreth, the Chamber of Commerce president] was a friend of mine, so I said we have to do something about this.”

Philadelphia NOW won the battle, but it’s not clear who or what gets credit for the victory. NOW’ s letter writing campaign? The threat of legal action? Ernesta Ballard’s behind the scenes lobbying? No doubt, all of the above. And it is certainly possible that the Chamber of Commerce realized the times had changed and locking women out of job fairs was no longer an option. The files of founding member Judy Foley included, along with news clippings about NOW’s protests against Operation Native Son, Foley’s handwritten note: “Ernesta talked to Longstreth. He’s sympathetic—tried to get it changed before.” Perhaps Longstreth welcomed the pressure from NOW, which made it easier for him to change course. For Ernesta Ballard and the other founding members of Philadelphia NOW, their modus operandi for ending discriminatory practices included letter-writing campaigns to public officials and business leaders, threats of legal action, and using their personal connections for behind-the-scenes persuasion. They were not yet utilizing such tactics as mass rallies and never even considered civil disobedience. In this respect, they were very much in accord with the tactics of national NOW in its early years.

Ending discrimination in employment and enforcing “equal pay for equal work” were clearly national NOW’s top priorities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to Ernesta Ballard’s daughter Alice, her mother strongly disagreed with the national NOW board’s initial reluctance in the 1960s to champion abortion rights and lesbian rights, the two issues Alice Ballard recalled her mother was most passionate about.8 In response to pressure from members such as Ernesta Ballard, National NOW expanded its agenda and by 1971 was on record in support of both abortion rights and lesbian rights.

However, on both national and local levels, the activist energy in the late 1960s and early 1970s focused on ending discrimination in employment. NOW was determined to end the practice of dividing classified ads into “Help Wanted for Men” and “Help Wanted for Women.” While some feminists would organize demonstrations and others would initiate legal action, Ernesta Ballard protested directly to those in power. After all, as she said, many of these people were members of her social circle. According to Ballard:
The editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, Bobby Taylor, was a friend of mine. I wrote a letter to him and said, ‘You know, this is terrible!’ He said they felt that what they were doing was right and fair and appropriate. He didn’t need any advice. It was a snooty, snooty letter. But it gradually did begin to change.

Ballard knew where she had leverage and continued to pressure the local elite to end discriminatory practices and the ridicule of the feminist movement then filling the editorial pages.
The June 1973 Philadelphia NOW Newsletter recounts her outraged response to an appallingly sexist article, ‘Why Can’t a Woman Be like a Woman?” in the Delaware Valley Business Fortnight written by Myles Standish. (Yes, that really was his name, not a pseudonym, as I originally thought.) The fact that a respectable business journal thought it fit to publish this article speaks volumes about the climate of opinion in the early 1970s. From Standish’s article, quoted in full in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletter:
It is difficult for me to see the masculine allure in an alleged male, wearing feminine, hip-hugging trousers over platform shoes made of a Joseph’s coat collection of colored leathers! Seemingly, the gay boys who got their revenge on the gals by making them look totally ridiculous in the clothes the gays designed for them, are trying to wreak the same sort of revenge on the men…9

Standish associates the break down in rigid gender roles with homosexuality—a common theme in the early 1970s reaction against feminism. Also, quite typical was Standish’s sense that demands for gender equality were really a cover for a drive for dominance over men. He further argues that deviation from traditional gender “leads inevitably to the unhappiness of the female. And I have rarely seen more unhappy women at all age levels than in the United States.”10
Blaming feminism rather than sexism for the unhappiness of American women must have enraged Ernesta Ballard. The Philadelphia NOW Newsletter reprinted her letter to Thatcher Longstreth, president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce:
As an old friend, and one has been fair to women, I am asking you to read the editorial in the Business Fortnight and ask yourself: Does it go out of its way to belittle women? Does it go out of its way to insult homosexuals? Does it belong in Business Fortnight? Does it represent the view of the Chamber of Commerce?

The Philadelphia NOW Newsletter also printed Longstreth’s response. Despite a reference to the “garbage” coming from “Women’s Lib extremists,” his reply suggested that he was more advanced than most men from his background and generation. The newsletter’s record of the correspondence ends with the injunction: LETTER WRITERS, PICK UP YOUR PENS!11 Philadelphia NOW members at this point were not taking to the streets, but using all the insider tactics at their disposal to end discrimination against women.
Would Philadelphia NOW have been successful in getting the Chamber of Commerce to change its policies regarding Operation Native Son and its inclusion of blatantly sexist articles in its publications without Ernesta Ballard’s guiding hand and determination? My guess is it would not have happened so quickly. Ballard excelled in political persuasion and organization building—marshaling resources, securing funding, gaining the support of powerful opinion leaders—skills she had acquired though the volunteer work expected of women of her social class. Although Ernesta Ballard cultivated relationships with the local elite, her name does not appear in the documents pertaining to Philadelphia NOW’s members’ early forays into partisan politics. She does not appear to have been directly involved in the formation of the Philadelphia branch of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. In the early 1970s, her public political involvement appears to have been largely confined to non-partisan civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters. Ballard’s lack of direct involvement in Philadelphia partisan politics on behalf of feminist issues in the early 1970s is no doubt in part due to her affiliation with the Republican Party. In the 1970s a political realignment was beginning to occur, and Republicans were becoming increasingly marginalized in city politics. Both nationally and locally the Democratic Party was becoming the political home of the feminist movement.
In my 2004 interview with Ballard, she bemoaned the change in her party. My guess is if she had lived, she would have left the party that had left her: “I stay Republican, partly out of stubbornness. Why should I quit … . There are a lot of moderate Republicans. We had a national organization about Republican Majority for Choice.” She wanted to go back to what she saw as the traditional Republican Party: “liberty, privacy, small government, national defense. You know they’re all good things. You couldn’t fault them.” Ballard saw no contradiction between equality for all women and the “small government” philosophy of the Republican Party. For her, feminism meant dismantling the legal barriers to women’s advancement in employment and education and safeguarding a woman’s reproductive rights; it did not include a commitment to a Scandinavian-style safety net.

As the feminist movement grew and became increasingly diverse, more feminists began to see a robust safety net funded by progressive taxation as essential for gender equality. Most of the women Ernesta Ballard worked with in the feminist movement were Democrats, advocates of government-funded social programs rather than the “small government” Ballard advocated; thus, maintaining distance from partisan politics was a way of avoiding conflict with her feminist allies. Ballard’s name appears in the membership lists of the National Women’s Political Caucus, a chapter of which was formed in Philadelphia in 1971, but the minutes do not indicate that she played a major role in the group. Her name generally does not appear in accounts of local public demonstrations—the 1970 vigil at the Capitol steps was a rare public protest for her.

Perhaps it was easier for her to engage in public protests when she was out of town. One of the few public feminist campaigns she was involved was the 1981 national NOW campaign to send feminist missionaries to Utah, the heart of the opposition to Equal Rights Amendment; they were to take the message of the ERA directly to the Mormon people, door to door. Ballard had just retired as executive director of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and perhaps felt more comfortable engaging in overt political activity and activities such as door-to-door canvasing, but it was not something that came naturally to her.

During my 2004 interview with Ballard she recalled that she was canvasing in a “beautiful development.” When she rang a doorbell, the woman who opened the door asked, “Ernesta! What are you doing here?” Ballard remembered that the woman was on the board of the Garden Federation of the United States of America when Ballard was their horticulture chair. Ballard recalled: “She remembered me and said, ‘Come in. Come in.’ And she showed us her garden in the back, and I finally said, ‘I have to tell you why we’re here.” The woman replied: “I know why you’re here. I can see your buttons and everything. I can’t really do anything to help you, but give me your literature.” Ballard had not expected such a friendly reception and she was clearly moved by the woman’s response. Just as Ballard’s 2004 recollections of the 1970 Washington ERA vigil were more positive than her account reported the day after the event in the Philadelphia Bulletin, Ballard’s 2004 recollections of her involvement in the Missionaries to the Mormons campaign focused on positive memories in sharp contrast to the feelings she expressed to an Inquirer reporter at the time of campaign.

However, despite the hostile reaction from most of the Mormons, Ernesta Ballard did not regret participating in the campaign. During her stay she sent a postcard to the then president of Philadelphia NOW Doris Pechkurow: “I really feel like a martyr. It’s HOT, exhausting and we’re not popular! But the other missionaries are wonderful and the experience is one I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed.”12 Women from Ballard’s social world were not accustomed to the anger and rejection she experienced in Utah. In the final days of the campaign for the ERA, NOW had become more militant, more reliant on tactics like mass demonstrations and door-to-door canvassing, very different from the behind-the-scenes organizing that characterized Ballard’s participation in the early days of Philadelphia NOW. Ballard was a skilled organizer, but her tactics were usually the mainstream tactics she had learned in establishment philanthropic organizations. Her willingness to go beyond her comfort level and participate in the Missionaries to the Mormons campaign is surely an indication of the depth of her commitment to the passage of the ERA…

Philadelphia was a very segregated city in the 1960s and 1970s; unsurprisingly, the local NOW chapter reflected this. NOW chapters expanded through the social networks of the founders, and as they acknowledged, those networks were largely white and middle class. Although not expressed explicitly, the founders’ comments suggested that they just did not know how to develop ties with women from different racial backgrounds. Ballard told an Inquirer reporter that recognizing her own oppression as a woman enabled her to understand and overcome racial prejudice. Born in 1920, she grew up at a time when racial and religious prejudices were the norm. She recalled: “My grandmother used to say, ‘Always remember Ernesta, there are two really wicked things in life—whiskey and the Pope.’ And Blacks—when I grew up they were servants; they weren’t people. It took a while to get used to the idea that Jews and Blacks were people just like me, and I could love them. The moment of truth came when I began to realize that women too were discriminated against.”19 Very few women of Ballard’s generation and socio-economic background made this intellectual and emotional journey…

It was not just white affluent NOW members who had difficulty reaching across the racial divide. Feminist historian Alice Echols’ report on the first Women’s Liberation conference at Sandy Springs, Maryland in 1968 includes a transcript of a discussion on Black women and the Women’s Liberation movement. The transcript does not support the Women’s Liberation movement’s reputation for being the more radical strand of the movement and makes for uncomfortable reading from a 21st-century vantage point, revealing to what extent even the most progressive members of society lived in a segregated world, with little experience outside their racial group. From the transcript: “ok … I have problems dealing with Black people; I think everyone in this room does, with men or women. I think if we are really honest about it we don’t want to work with Black women because we are not sure what our relationship is.”20 Some members of the group did want to include Black women; most saw such outreach as problematic and were wary of doing so.

References both to racial discrimination and to the Vietnam War were generally absent from the NOW documents from the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, reflecting the growing influence of the anti-war movement on the feminist movement, in 1971 national NOW changed course and passed an anti-war resolution calling for an immediate end to all American military activity in Southeast Asia.23 National NOW has historically been ahead of local chapters in recognizing the connection of gender issues with other struggles for social justice. The 1971 resolution apparently did not have a major impact on Philadelphia NOW 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.

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