Friday, March 18, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I, Building the feminist movement: Chapter 1, An Ever-Expanding Agenda


Pennsylvania NOW activist JoAnn Gardner addressing a rally in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square

An ever-expanding agenda

Jean Ferson, a skilled organization builder, was elected the second president of Philadelphia NOW at a time of tremendous growth in the feminist movement; fortunately, she was up to the challenge of managing that growth. In December of 1971 national NOW claimed 5,800 members; by the spring of 1973 the number had grown to over 20,000. 24 Most of NOW’s founding members were political/civic activists prior to their involvement 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.

National NOW and many local NOW chapters initially had an uneasy relationship with the consciousness-raising groups that came to define early 1970s feminism. Many NOW leaders were suspicious of consciousness-raising and some were downright hostile. Pennsylvania NOW activist Beverly Jones argued: “Such groups cannot possibly excel in developing the self-confidence, initiative, and ability of their women … consciousness-raising itself, divorced from the possibility of relevant political activity, cannot operate effectively.”25 The hostility to consciousness-raising was not confined to NOW. Jacqueline Rhodes in Rewriting Radical Women noted that radical women’s liberation groups such as Redstockings and Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) were suspicious of consciousness-raising groups, which some of their members saw as all talk and no action.26

However, local NOW chapters often made their accommodations to consciousness-raising, and some chapter leaders like Jean Ferson enthusiastically embraced these groups. Maren Lockwood Carden speculated, “By the end of 1972, perhaps as many as half of NOW chapters made such sessions an integral part of their overall program.”27 Some NOW chapters built formal ties between the chapter and the consciousness-raising groups; New York City NOW, for example, incorporated consciousness-raising into its committee structure.28 The genius of the chapter model was that it allowed for a range of projects which resonated with local members. And in the early 1970s nothing resonated quite like consciousness-raising.

Ferson acknowledged that the structure of the consciousness-raising group was the antithesis of national NOW with its formal procedures and clear leadership structure, but she saw no problem with NOW’s encouraging and sponsoring these groups. Unlike Beverly Jones, Ferson saw them as a form of political education rather than as a flight from political action:
There were a lot of women who had just been so … brainwashed; they were just beginning to think about certain issues that had never even entered their heads. This was something that we took from the Cultural Revolution in China. They used to have groups of peasants called “Speak Bitterness Groups.”29

Ferson saw consciousness-raising as a form of political education, “trying to get people to think about what they were worth, what they had a right to demand.” She understood that the chapter had to make room for the consciousness-raising movement if it was to meet the needs and expectations of the growing numbers of women eager to join NOW.She managed to maintain the traditional NOW structure at the same time as she encouraged consciousness-raising groups. The chapter was the formally organized political wing, the consciousness-raising group the source of support and sustenance that made political action possible.

Consciousness-raising certainly helped many women free themselves from internalized gender stereotypes and thus become more effective advocates for gender equality. However, groups that were generally seen as “safe spaces” also served to re-enforce race/class divisions. Shirley Geok-lin Lim notes that “safe spaces” are problematic because of “who gets defined outside these spaces” and that women of color, immigrant women, blue collar women whose class and familial positions did not permit them the time to participate, women who did not easily share the cultural values that enabled them to openly discuss ‘the intimate details of their lives’ were much less likely to be invited to participate in consciousness raising groups.Lim recalled:
Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I heard my Anglo-European-American college acquaintances plan for baby-sitters and car rides to their women’s groups; but even as a graduate student in a prestigious university, I was never invited to attend one of the many consciousness-raising groups that [Sara] Evans’s history made out to be so democratically accessible.30

Through the early 1970s consciousness-raising groups generally did not reach out to women of color, the groups associated with NOW did reach out to men from members’ social networks. Contrary to the stereotype of man-hating feminism, at both the local and national level NOW welcomed male participation. The October 1970 Philadelphia NOW Newsletter announced the formation of a consciousness-raising husband and wife discussion group as well as an all-male discussion group.31 NOW leaders consistently stressed that individual men were not the enemy; the enemy was the patriarchal system. Men were sometimes damaged by their inability to live up to gender stereotypes and could benefit from the consciousness-raising movement’s challenge to traditional therapy, with its assumption that the patient was ill and that getting well involved adjusting to a sexist society. Rather than relying on an all-powerful doctor prescribing treatment, women [and men] in the consciousness-raising groups struggled to help each other heal.

Feminist anger against the medical establishment was intense. The 1971 Philadelphia NOW Newsletter reported that psychologist Phyllis Chesler called for “$1 million in reparations for the damage done to women via psychotherapy and institutionalization in mental hospitals.”32 Jean Ferson reported that the chapter kept “records of doctors who failed to treat us well … . We wanted a place where you could look up your doctor and find out what kind of rating he got from us. Did he treat women with respect and with dignity?” The chapter did not publicize the information in a formal way, but rather circulated it informally among chapter members. Philadelphia NOW in the early days tried to be both a service and advocacy organization—an unsustainable goal for an organization without paid staff.

Ferson’s personal and professional experiences no doubt played a role in her distrust of the medical establishment and receptiveness to the consciousness-raising movement. In an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Linda Lloyd, she discussed her struggles with self-doubt and fear that she was ugly. At 27, she earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas, ranking top of her class. She recalled: “Instead of rejoicing and building on it like a man would do without thinking, I got a major depression.” She credits the feminist movement with helping her to win her battle with depression: “I got such support out of NOW, such a feeling of it’s all right! I have allies; I have support.” She described how her personal life had been transformed by feminism and that her relationships with both men and women have improved: “The comfort I feel with men is unexpected, but delightful! And men love it—some of them, that is. Those who want a relationship with another human being instead of a cheering gallery or a servant or a mother.”33 Her five-year marriage ended without rancor, just a sense of disappointment.

Ferson thought she had been recruited by Ernesta Ballard to be the second chapter president because she presented the right image:Ernesta thought I would be a good candidate. First of all, I had finished my degree. I was already divorced—because the movement broke up a lot of marriages. And I had the doctorate and I had a professional job. I probably looked okay. They couldn’t say, ‘Of course she’s a feminist. Look how ugly she is.’ Or something stupid like that.

When Ferson assumed the presidency of Philadelphia NOW, the media was increasingly covering the feminist movement, both nationally and locally. Thanks to her good looks, she generated considerable media interest. Press coverage always stressed her physical attractiveness and usually expressed surprise that a conventionally attractive woman like Ferson would become a liberationist. Even female reporters appeared to share the assumption that there was something surprising about a beautiful woman becoming a feminist. From Linda Lloyd’s profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Dr. Jean Ferson didn’t have to become a liberationist. One basic premise from outside the women’s movement is that women who reject their conventional role—housewife and mother—must be losers who couldn’t play the game, so they want to change it. Jean Ferson, on the other hand, is by all appearances a winner.34

Her good looks and professional success certainly contributed to enhancing the image of NOW that was often seen as an organization of ugly, man-hating harridans.

NOW gave Ferson the courage to pursue her goals and provided validation for her choices. Ferson in turn was loyal to NOW and, convinced that strong organizations were essential to advancing the feminist agenda, she devoted considerable time and energy to organization building. Since Ferson didn’t have children or family responsibilities, she was free to devote considerable time to NOW: “It kind of took over my life rather quickly.” The chapter held two monthly meetings—an educational forum, which Ferson thought at times attracted a hundred people, and chapter business meetings open only to officers and the committee chairs. In addition, the officers ran a Speakers Bureau. According to Ferson, all kinds of local organizations, including men’s service clubs and Rotary Clubs wanted a speaker to explain what NOW all was about. The members who staffed the Speakers Bureau prepared for hostile audiences. Ferson reported: “We had a kind of game we played, ‘Hostile Audience.’ People would come up with insulting kinds of questions. And we would practice how to handle those things. And it was good practice because you would get a certain number of wise guys inevitably.” It is astonishing that all this work was done by volunteers, including volunteers like Ferson with full-time, demanding professional jobs.

Both Ferson’s ferocious work ethic and media savvy were characteristic of many NOW leaders in the 1970s. NOW’s media skills created the illusion that the organization was larger and stronger than it actually was. According to national vice president Toni Carabillo’s report on the first national NOW conference, “When the organizing conference opened, there were actually only about 30 of the 300 members present, though many of us who joined later long had the impression the whole 300 had been in attendance. NOW’s flair for making the few seem many began with this first formal meeting.”35

This ability to conjure up a presence much larger than the organization’s numbers warranted was also noted by the founding members of Philadelphia NOW. Founding member Judy Foley recalled: “One of the things that always amazed me about NOW was that we always had a larger than life image in Philadelphia … even though we were only a little gang.” She recalled someone calling for information about a press release and asking if he could come over to our office and interview me, to which she answered: “It’s really a bad time.” Foley acknowledged: “We didn’t have an office; but there was no way that I was going to let him know that we didn’t have an office. But it just cracked me up because we did have this gigantic image for this little group of people.”36

NOW was concerned both with effective use of the media to advance its agenda and with analysis of the media’s role in upholding sexist institutions. Jean Ferson reported that her most popular committee was the one focused on images of women in the media; women were angry about the hyper-sexualized images of women and the stereotype of the ugly, man-hating feminist. Sexist advertising was a major target of feminist anger, as NOW chapters across the country organized letter-writing campaigns and boycotts against products promoted by sexist ads. Philadelphia NOW published its list of the “Ten Worst Ads of the Year” and urged members to write letters of protest to the ad agencies and sponsoring companies and to boycott the products. Among the ads on the ten worst list were: a print ad for Amelia Earhart Luggage which portrayed a naked woman painted with stripes to match the luggage; a television commercial for Chrysler portraying a mother and daughter looking for a new car in which the mother advises her daughter that she “must not appear bright and capable if she wants to catch a man.”38

Philadelphia NOW’s media savvy activists took on the constant barrage of ridicule directed at feminists, meeting insult with insult. And while anti-feminist tirades are now for the most part limited to the cultural margins, in the early 1970s they were mainstream. The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1971 ran a regular weekly column by Donald C. Drake, Alias “The Gypsy,” appearing in the “For and About Women” section of the paper ridiculing the feminist movement.39 Drake was not the most talented satirist and his point was often lost in his heavy-handed prose, but his animus towards feminism came through loud and clear. Like so many of those attacking feminism, Drake interpreted the demand for equality as a demand for role reversal. On January 8, 1971 Philadelphia NOW awarded Drake the first of its annual “Barefoot and Pregnant” awards for “Male Chauvinism par Excellence.”40 Predictably, Drake used the award as an occasion to heap more ridicule on feminism in general and NOW in particular. However, Drake’s column provided free publicity for NOW, and his columns arguably did more to advance feminist rather than antifeminist attitudes. The Barefoot and Pregnant awards continued through the 1970s, serving as a useful vehicle for attracting new recruits to the chapter. In 1972 the award was accompanied by greater fanfare and went to multiple recipients, among them was the Philadelphia Office of National Airlines for their participation in the sexist “Fly Me” ad campaign.41

Not only did feminists have to deal with rampant sexism and male ridicule of their demands for gender equality; they also had to contend with women who attacked and ridiculed their agenda. The backlash was not, as is sometimes assumed, a phenomenon of the 1980s. The backlash, including female anti-feminism, began as soon as the feminist movement emerged. Before Phyllis Schlafly built an exciting, lucrative career out of arguing that other women should just stay at home, three New York City professional women—Lucianne Goldberg, Jeannie Sakol, and Joan Elbaum Gordon—clearly saw a business opportunity in bashing feminism. They formed an organization, the Pussycat League, to mock the feminist movement and challenge the claim that gender discrimination exists… Criticism of the feminist movement from women writers drew attention. As Elizabeth Duff put it in her Philadelphia Inquirer article on the female backlash against feminism: “Anti-lib articles have popped up like dandelions lately, authored both by movement outsiders and deserters. They are the new ‘in piece’ to write. Backlash is fashionable.”45 Philadelphia NOW’s founding members for the most part viewed the backlash as a measure of their success and continued to utilize the attacks as an opportunity to gain publicity for the feminist movement in general and NOW in particular.

The media’s refusal to treat the feminist movement as newsworthy angered many Philadelphia NOW members. In addition to responding to the barrage of anti-feminist material in the women’s sections of local papers, they also kept up a steady drumbeat of objections to the very existence of a section labeled “For and about Women.” NOW member Babette Newberg [Joseph]’s letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer challenged the rationale behind publishing a separate women’s section. She expressed her dismay that a report of a talk by Gloria Steinem appeared only in the women’s section of the Inquirer and asked the editors: “Would you name a section of your newspaper ‘For and About Blacks’ and report there and only there that Rev. Leon Sullivan endorsed Longstreth for Mayor?”46

NOW chapters combatted the backlash and pursued their agenda with a range of tactics: media campaigns, demonstrations, lobbying campaigns, and where applicable, legal action. Through its Barefoot and Pregnant Award, Philadelphia NOW engaged in a media campaign against the “Fly Me” ad campaign and also held a demonstration in Philadelphia in front of the National Airlines ticket office. Judy Foley reported that the demonstrators had posters with the ad and signs saying “Get Cheryl out of the Back of the Plane;” they gave out the addresses of the advertising agency and of National Airlines and urged people to write to them.47 This was the kind of coordinated strategy Toni Carabillo advocated in which the media message worked in tandem with grassroots actions.

At the same time as NOW members were combating the backlash, they were also trying to build an organization with an ever-expanding agenda. The list of four issues cited in the press release for the 1970 Women’s Equality Day Rally (passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; equality in jobs and education; 24-hour day care facilities; and abortion on demand) had expanded to include divorce reform, women in prison, and women in politics. Also, the childcare issue, which had not received a great deal of attention in Philadelphia NOW’s first year, assumed much greater importance under Jean Ferson’s presidency, no doubt in part because of her profession as a psychologist specializing in child development. Many feminists thought the country was ready to institute a universal childcare program, available to all citizens as a basic right, similar to the programs in European social democracies. Unfortunately, despite widespread public support for childcare, President Nixon vetoed an ambitious federal childcare bill in December 1971. Affordable, high-quality childcare is still part of the unfinished agenda of second-wave feminism.

As was usually the case with NOW chapters across the country, the officers emphasized issues of special importance to them. An issue that received increasing attention during Jean Ferson’s presidency was the plight of incarcerated women. The Pennsylvania State Legislature was considering a bill proposing establishment of community centers as an alternative to incarceration for women convicted of narcotics violations. Ferson, in partnership with the American Association of University Women, organized a Committee for Community Treatment Centers for Women. Their recruitment flyer “SAVE WOMEN FROM JAILS” stated that most women are imprisoned for drug-related offenses and need treatment, not jails. The flyer urged citizens to write to legislators demanding establishment of treatment centers.48 An article in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletter, “Women Come First in Major Jail Reform,” reinforced the message.49 The language of the flyer and newsletter article suggested that women deserved special treatment, based on the presumption than female offenders are primarily victims.

Philadelphia NOW activists in the early 1970s did not appear particularly interested in the argument then raging in feminist theory circles as to whether women are fundamentally similar to men and therefore should be treated equally before the law or whether there are fundamental differences, biologically or culturally driven, which policy makers must take into account. NOW activists did not seem concerned about theoretical consistency and might argue for equal treatment in employment based on women’s fundamental sameness with men, while at the same time arguing for differential treatment in the criminal justice system. Historian Nancy Cott explored the same lack of theoretical consistency on the part of 19th-century feminist activists and characterized this as “a functional ambiguity rather than a debilitating tension.”50 In short, whatever works. Similarly, NOW activists in the early 1970s, overwhelmed with an expanding agenda and operating solely on volunteer energy, were understandably focused on improving women’s lives rather than engaging in theoretical debates about gender difference.

Despite the enormous energy and commitment of Philadelphia NOW’s founders, there were never enough hours in the day, never enough activists to deal with NOW’s lengthening list of priorities. A 1972 memo from Mary Bell Desborough to the Philadelphia NOW officers listed priorities identified by NOW members: Sexist Images of Women in the Media, 37; Employment, 35; Legislation and politics, 30; Abortion: 29; 14 write-ins for childcare centers.51 The records throughout the 1970s suggest that these remained the key issues for most members, with passage of the ERA moving up the list of priority issues as the decade wore on. Although Jean Ferson was clearly committed to addressing the issues of women in prison, she does not appear to have enlisted many chapter members in making this a priority issue. Given the race/class composition of Philadelphia NOW, it is not surprising that women prisoners would not have been a major concern; most members had no one in their families or friendship networks who had been incarcerated.

Jean Ferson described the demographics of Philadelphia NOW as “predominantly white and middle class … and a lot of teachers and professional people.” When asked if the chapter did anything to reach out to women of color and address their issues, Ferson replied: "I don’t think we did much of anything really … we sort of had a full plate as it was. We had enough trouble; we were not looking for it. But, on the national level it came up, and people did more things aggressively with it. But, locally? No, we didn’t do much of anything with it."NOW chapters expanded through the friendship networks of individual members, and in the segregated society of the early 1970s few NOW members had integrated social networks.

Although resolutions addressing the issues of minority and working class women, were passed at the September 1971 national NOWconference, this was not a high priority for national NOW in 1971, nor did these resolutions affect priorities in Philadelphia NOW.54 The August 1972 Women’s Equality Day Celebration organized by Philadelphia NOW in conjunction with other women’s organizations did not include groups led by and/or addressing issues of concern to women of color.55 Locating feminist organizations led by women of color would have been a challenge for Philadelphia NOW members in the early 1970s, especially as they were looking for coalition partners who identified as feminists and explicitly addressed gender issues. The best-known anti-poverty organization, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), had a strong Philadelphia chapter led by the dynamic Roxanne Jones, who became the first African-American woman elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate. Roxanne Jones’ name does not appear in the Philadelphia NOW newsleNtters of the 1970s, and there appears to have been no connection between NWRO and Philadelphia NOW. However, as Annelise Orleck documents, there were connections between national NOW and welfare rights leader Ruby Duncan, who served for many years on the board of national NOW.56

Philadelphia NOW in the early 1970s did not appear to have had connections (certainly not close connections) with the broader progressive movement; its relationships were primarily with other explicitly feminist organizations. The early 1970s saw a proliferation of organizations advocating for or providing services for women and girls. Many were short-lived and, of the 18 organizations sponsoring the August 25–26, 1972 Women’s Equality Day Celebration, only three have survived. The survivors were local affiliates of national organizations: the League of Women Voters, the National Organization for Women, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The support from national organizations no doubt played a part in the staying power of their Philadelphia affiliates. Furthermore, the organizations with staying power were all structured and hierarchically organized, unlike the loosely organized, evanescent Women’s Liberation groups. Philadelphia NOW members were especially interested in building coalitions with structured, established organizations, like the League of Women Voters. The distrust of coalition work, which surfaced in Pennsylvania NOW and national NOW, was not a concern in the early days of Philadelphia NOW.

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