Saturday, March 19, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I, Building the feminist movement: Chapter 1,NOW’s reluctance to become involved in electoral politics

Jean Ferson (Philadelphia NOW)and Sharon Wallis (Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus)

NOW shared the distrust of electoral politics, pervasive among the progressive movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Historian Alice Echols reported that at the left-wing counter-inaugural demonstration in 1969, a group of women identified with the radical strand of the Women’s Liberation Movement burned their voter registration cards, declaring that “suffragism, which they claimed had vitiated the earlier wave of feminism, was dead and that a new movement for genuine liberation was underway.” They actually asked the legendary suffragist Alice Paul if she would join them in “giving back the vote.” Alice Paul reportedly “hit the ceiling.” As someone who had devoted her life to the struggle for suffrage, had been jailed and endured a hunger strike, Paul was not sympathetic to their contention that voting was a “mockery of democracy.”

Echols makes the sweeping generalization: “To women’s liberationists who had acquired their political education in the civil rights movement and the new left, voting was a mockery of democracy.”57 Echols surely exaggerates, but the refusal to participate in electoral politics, especially involvement in the Democratic or Republican parties, ran deep among progressive/feminist groups in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although Philadelphia NOW members were politically active in lobbying legislators, most were not ready to risk compromising NOW’s non-partisan identity—hence the appeal of the Women’s Political Caucus, which provided an opportunity for individual NOW members to support feminist/progressive candidates without involving NOW directly in partisan politics.

Politicaldivisions among the members might have been another reason Philadelphia NOW opted not to participate in electoral politics. A “Survey of NOW Members” published in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletter reported that in the 1968 presidential election, 55.5 percent of Philadelphia NOW members voted for Hubert Humphrey, 18 percent for Richard Nixon, and 4 percent for Dick Gregory.58 (Presumably 22.5 percent either did not vote or chose not to respond to the survey.) Philadelphia NOW members made different choices in the voting booth, but most participated in the electoral process and were certainly not interested in burning their voter registration cards.

Philadelphia NOW members, andPhiladelphia progressives in general, had a powerful reason for not burningthose voter registration cards—his name was Frank Rizzo, a Philadelphia police commissioner with a national reputation for brutality, especially directed at African-Americans, lesbians and gays, feminists, hippies, and anti-war activists. The “Stop Rizzo” movement was one of the galvanizing forces behind the founding of the Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus (PWPC) in July 1971. NOW played a major role in forming PWPC and the relationship between the two organizations was quite close with considerable overlapping membership. The October 18, 1971 press release announcing the official formation of PWPC stated that the group was “against the candidacy of Frank Rizzo for mayor on the basis of the sexism, racism and violence of his past record.”59

Rizzo was not deterredby PWPC’s condemnation. The Bulletin reported Rizzo’s response to a questionregarding his position on appointing women to high-level positions in city government: “The Democratic mayoral candidate reacted by first looking the reporter (female) up and down. He then commented enthusiastically on her features, told her he’d be more than happy to discuss the matter with her after the election and jovially offered her a job.”60

Rizzo ran an extraordinarilyugly, racially charged campaign. Despite sweeping the African-American wards andreceiving strong support from white liberals, the Republican candidate Thatcher Longstreth lost narrowly to Rizzo.61 Viewed as a disaster by most liberals, Rizzo’s election was a boon to progressive organizing, especially to the growth of African-American political power. Police abuse in the African-American community during Rizzo’s tenure as police commissioner and later as mayor has been well documented. Although feminists had to endure Rizzo’s ridicule andcontemptuous dismissal of their concerns, for African-Americans the situationwas more dire. Rizzo did not raid the NOW office or arrest members on trumped-upcharges; rather, he encouraged a culture of contempt for feminist aspirations.

Despite the stark difference between Rizzo and Longstreth, PWPC declined to endorse Longstreth. Nonetheless, PWPC president Sharon Wallis urged Philadelphia women to vote for Longstreth.62 PWPC took the same position that national NOW did when it formed a political action committee in the late 1970s. For NOW and for PWPC (at this point), endorsement was reserved for those candidates who met the highest feminist standards; both organizations, however, would urge members to vote for candidates who fell short but were clearly superior to their opponents. A distinction without a difference to some, but for both NOW and PWPC, endorsing only those meeting the highest standards was essential to protecting their organization’s integrity. Also, given that some NOW members had ties to the Republican Party, political endorsements could potentially lead to internal divisions, thus weakening the organization.

However, whatever theirparty affiliation, NOW and PWPC members were united in their opposition to FrankRizzo. Although NOW and PWPC maintained their position against endorsing candidates unless they met the highest standards, both organizations encouraged political participation. PWPC launched a political education initiative designed to encourage more women to run for political office, including party offices such as committeeperson and ward leader. A similar political education effort was underway with the Philadelphia Black Political Forum. Electoral politics and social movement politics were closely intertwined as feminists and African-Americans organized against the Democratic machine, fighting for inclusion and fair representation as elected officials and as Democratic Party ward leaders and committeepersons.

The organizational genius behind the feminist political education effort was Florence Cohen,who was a member both ofPhiladelphia NOW and PWPC and of a group she formed called the New DemocraticCoalition. Cohen was well aware of the distaste many feminists had for partisanpolitics; she challenged the attendees at the December 1971 political workshop to overcome their reluctance to get involved: “Politics is dirty but we MUSThave a part of it. The machine will control parties to the extent that there isbapathy, to the extent that we are disorganized. We must use our collective strength—women are 52% of the electorate.”63 Cohen clearly understood ward politicsand was eager to share her knowledge with other feminists. NOW memberswere eager to learn,and the close relationship and overlapping membership between Philadelphia NOW and PWPC continued throughout the 1970s.

PWPC launched another major initiative in 1971, the campaign to pass a sex discrimination ordinance. PWPC minutes report that newly elected Philadelphia councilperson Ethel Allen, an African-American physician and a Republican, was providing key support for the ordinance and strategic advice to PWPC. The minutes report discussion about whether to also include discrimination based on sexual orientation. A majority of PWPC members voted to support the ordinance to ban sex discrimination, but discrimination based on sexual orientation was not included.64 PWPC members apparently thought the city was not ready for a measure banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and did not want to jeopardize the ban against sex discrimination. The ordinance passed on August 24, 1972 without language prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community. Banning sex discrimination was beginning to strike more and more politicians as reasonable. Perhaps more to the point, politicians could count, and feminists kept reminding them that women were a majority of the electorate.

PWPC was a pragmatic group. According to Judy Foley, a founding member of both PWPC and NOW, PWPC was willing to work with politicians not known for their gender sensitivity, if that’s what it took to get pro-woman legislation passed. Foley described PWPC efforts to get a council ordinance passed banning sex discrimination: “We got that bill passed right away. Dr. Ethel Allen was the woman on city council but Isadore Bellis, he put it in for us; that was the difference between the true believers in NOW and the pragmatists in Women’s Political Caucus. We got Izzie to put it in, hey, we’ll take Izzie; we didn’t care.” PWPC took support where it could get it and was quite willing to accept sponsorship from machine politicians like Isadore Bellis. Despite the overlapping membership between PWPC and NOW, PWPC appears to have been far more comfortable with the messiness of political deal-making.

PWPC leadership alsoappeared to be more actively involved in reaching out to women of color than wasthe leadership of Philadelphia NOW. One of the three founding officers of PWPC, Ruth Harper, was an African-American woman, elected in 1976 to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. PWPC had more success in building alliances with women of color than did Philadelphia NOW, perhaps because PWPC members tried harder, or perhaps because those women of color interested in electoral politics were most likely to forge alliances with white women.

Also, the National Women’sPolitical Caucus (NWPC), like its Philadelphia affiliate (PWPC), was moresuccessful than national NOW and Women’s Liberation groups in reaching out to women of color. In a 1971 article, which expressed deep distrust of the Women’s Liberation Movement and asserted that there “is no rush of Black women into the chapters of NOW,” Toni Morrison expressed a positive view of the newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus: The liberation movement has moved from shrieks to shape. It is focusing itself, becoming a hardheaded power base, as the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington attested last month … . Representative Shirley Chisholm was radiant. Collectively we’ve come together, not as a Women’s Lib group, but as a women’s political movement … women talking about human rights rather than sexual rights.65

Morrison and Chisholm saw theNational Women’s Political Caucus as having a broader agenda and believed NWPC was a better vehicle for achieving both racial and gender justice,and thus less likely to drive a wedge between Black women and Black men. This may have been due to NWPC’s 1971 “Statement of Purpose,” which argued: “Women must take action to unite against sexism, racism, and institutional violence and poverty,”66 a much stronger statement than the brief reference to “Negro women who are victims of the double discrimination of race and sex” in the 1966 NOW Statement of Purpose.67 The difference in language is no doubt partly a consequence of the change in political climate from 1966 to 1971. For many women of color, Women’s Liberation collectives, with their generally exclusive focus on gender and unwillingness to work with male allies, were the least attractive strand of the feminist movement.

The National Women’s Political Caucus, like NOWand unlike many Women’s Liberation groups of the 1970s, welcomed male members. However, in the Philadelphia Women’s Political Caucus (PWPC), initially there was some resistance to the participation of men. At the December 1971 meeting, a motion was introduced that PWPC should not limit membership on the basis of sex.The opposition to the motion echoed arguments often heard in Women’s Liberation groups, such as the fear that “if men join they soon begin to head all committees and women are intimidated.”68 The motion to allow male members with voting rights passed with 23 members in favor and three opposed. PWPC, like Philadelphia NOW, stood apart from the separatist current which characterized much feminist organizing in the early 1970s.

Rather than focusing exclusively onthe creation of women-only spaces (e.g., consciousness-raising groups, radicalfeminist collectives, lesbian bars, women’s bookstores and coffee houses), both PWPC and Philadelphia NOW were building broad-based organizations which welcomed all allies committed to advancing a feminist agenda. The 1971 vote allowing male members underscores how Philadelphia NOW and PWPC were similar in core values;they worked closely together, often issuing joint statements.

Considering howmany issues were on Philadelphia NOW’s agenda, Jean Ferson no doubt was quite happy to have PWPC take over political issues which, although important to her, were not among her top priorities.
I got myself into a state of practically physical collapse. And I had to slow down. I had to learn to say no to things. I stayed as a dues-paying member, and probably always will be forever and ever amen. I was exhausted to tell you the truth. I had been in effect carrying two jobs for a long time. And there was a lot of burnout in the beginning. Now I’m doing what I can financially. I don’t want to be giving speeches and running to meetings.

Ferson’s experience is all too common. Many organizations have not figured out how to keep people involved after a period of intense activity. Taking a sabbatical and returning to activism is a much less frequent path than Ferson’s, in which her once total involvement wound down to the financial level. The feminist movement still needs all the activist energy and talent it can muster, and preventing the cycle of intense activity followed by total withdrawal continues to be an ongoing challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment