Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I, Building the feminist movement: Chapter 1 Philadelphia NOW: The first NOW chapter to elect an open lesbian as president

Jan Welsh distributing 1973 Barefoot and Pregnant Awards

Because of the class background and elite credentials of the first leaders of Philadelphia NOW, the organization was viewed as an establishment group in contrast to the apparently more radical Women’s Liberation Movement which was garnering media attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, the Women’s Liberation Movement was not more radical than NOW with regard to lesbian rights. Although there was certainly a pro-lesbian strand in the Women’s Liberation movement, there was also a homophobic strand. As Alice Echols in her influential study of radical feminism noted: “many radical feminists … were often skittish if not hostile toward lesbianism.” Echols cited the radical group Redstockings’ view of lesbianism as a movement “to replace feminism or eliminate it, or else … dilute it.

Although in the early 1970s some NOW chapters saw limiting visible lesbian participation as essential to building their chapter, Philadelphia NOW viewed outreach to the lesbian community as an opportunity for organization building, becoming the first NOW chapter to elect an open lesbian as chapter president. The election of Jan Welch, a 35-year-old horticulture therapist, on June 26, 1973 attracted considerable media attention. Nancy Greenberg’s feature-length article in the Sunday Bulletin Magazine described Welch’s response to her election:
My being elected in June has done something for me. You can count the lesbians in this NOW chapter on one hand; yet, I didn’t get one negative letter or phone call. Two weeks before the election I publicly announced my homosexuality and everybody took it as strength of character. It gave me an incredible high—no one was talking about my sexuality, only my candor. I was noble all of a sudden.

As with other lesbians in her age cohort, for Welch coming out was a painful experience. Her mother refused to accept that her daughter was a lesbian and wanted her to have female hormone treatments. Her father was more willing to accept the reality of her sexual orientation. According to Welch, “He believed I was a lesbian but thought life would just be easier for me if I could change.” To please her parents, she went to a psychotherapist who told her to “just go out and date a lot.” She went out with “straight guys and then with gay guys and then gay women.” Her father came to terms with her sexuality and she reported that when she told him she was coming out, “he said he was joyous.”

Jan Welch eventually found acceptance both within her family and, somewhat to her surprise, in Philadelphia NOW. Thanks to Betty Friedan’s much publicized reference to lesbians as the “Lavender Menace,” anti-lesbian feelings have been associated with NOW. These attitudes, however, were largely confined to Friedan. NOW’s second president Aileen Hernandez, who succeeded Friedan in 1970, and its third president, Wilma Scott Heide, who took office in 1971, were both strong supporters of lesbian rights. At the 1971 national NOW conference a resolution was passed acknowledging that it was time to speak out directly and forthrightly on lesbian rights. The 1971 resolution stated: “No other woman suffers more abuse and discrimination for the right to be her own person, than does the lesbian … the lesbian is doubly oppressed, both as a woman and as a homosexual.” A second resolution passed at the 1971 conference specifically addresses the rights of lesbian mothers.

Although Betty Friedan’s position on lesbians has been widely reported, the repudiation of Friedan by grassroots NOW members on local and regional levels has received less attention. Jean Buckalew reported in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletter that Friedan “received a rebuke from a large contingent of lesbians” at the 1972 NOW Eastern Regional Conference. Buckalew expressed the frustration shared by many NOW members: “How on earth Ms. Friedan can exclude one segment of the female population, i.e., lesbians, from the Women’s Movement is beyond a reasonable woman’s comprehension. Does she not know that lesbians are women? Really, Betty!” In 1973, the board of Philadelphia NOW passed a resolution of censure against Friedan. From the text of the resolution:
Whereas: Betty Friedan, a NOW member nationally recognized by the media, implied in a March 4, 1973, article in the New York Times that lesbians were “man-haters” and sought to divide the women’s movement … Be it Resolved: That the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women calls on the National Board of Directors of NOW to censure Ms. Friedan for her statements, and to state, unequivocally that these statements do not represent the policy of the National Organization for Women.

Although NOW’s image among feminists was tarnished by its association with Friedan’s statements, the reality was that most grassroots NOW members rejected homophobia, and sought to distance themselves from Friedan.

Jan Welch felt quite comfortable running for chapter president in Philadelphia, but she was concerned about Friedan, who, although no longer president of national NOW, was still very much associated with NOW by the press and the general public. According to NOW activist Lillian Ciarrochi, Friedan tried to pressure Welch to withdraw her candidacy. Friedan called Welch and asked her to come to New York to meet with some prominent feminists. Ciarrochi described them as “the Park Avenue crowd, famous Broadway female actors, famous women writers … all very well-known and very wealthy.” Clearly, the aim was to intimidate Welch. As Ciarrochi recalled Jan’s description of the encounter:
Jan went in to this big law firm and into this conference room with all of these women in silk dresses, and Betty was screaming and yelling at her saying she wanted her to withdraw from running for president of Philadelphia NOW because she thought it would hurt the movement and that people would be turned off. Jan could be whatever lifestyle she wanted but it shouldn’t be advertised.

According to Ciarrochi, “Jan stood her ground and she said that she didn’t see why she had to lead a secret life. She didn’t want it to be an issue but she wanted it known because that’s who she was.” Friedan’s hardball tactics failed and Ciarrochi reported that by the time the meeting was over many of the women were “going over to [Jan] and hugging her, saying stick to your guns, you’re right.”
Ciarrochi thought that Friedan was not personally homophobic but that she was motivated by fear that association with lesbianism would hurt the movement and deeply concerned that NOW be taken seriously as “a select committee of professional women.”77 It is difficult to disentangle anti-lesbian feeling from Friedan’s distaste for what she allegedly called “scruffy feminists.” From Roxanne Dunbar’s account of her joint appearance with Friedan on a New York television program:
She began a verbal assault on me in the dressing room when I refused to have make-up applied, and she did not stop until the show was over. I was dressed in my very best army surplus white cotton sailor trousers and a white man’s shirt. She said that I and scruffy feminists like me were giving the movement a bad name.

Although concern about a respectable image may explain Friedan’s behavior more than homophobia, there is evidence that Friedan in the 1960s and early 1970s had some visceral antipathy towards homosexuals. Her biographer, Judith Hennessee, described her personal attitudes as “an uneasy jumble of contradictions,” and quoted passages in The Feminine Mystique that were clearly homophobic. According to Hennessee, Friedan “saw homosexuality ‘spreading like murky smog over the American scene’ and considered it ominous.”

Despite the tendency of the press to conflate Friedan’s views with NOW’s, by the early 1970s she was increasingly out of step with the organization she founded. However, Friedan’s attitudes clearly evolved and at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston she made a famous speech repudiating her former opposition to lesbian rights. From Lillian Ciarrochi’s recollection of Friedan’s speech: “I sat about three feet away from Betty Friedan when she turned and there was a whole contingent of young gay women up in the balcony, carrying purple balloons. Betty was crying and said she was wrong and begged forgiveness from the women.”

When Jan Welch announced her candidacy for the presidency of Philadelphia NOW, she received strong support from Philadelphia NOW executive board members, and from founding member Ernesta Ballard and outgoing president Jean Ferson. Ferson recalled that Welch made sure everyone on the executive board knew about her sexual orientation:
Jan wanted us to know this about her, and I remember the night she told us all and just wanted to be reassured. ‘Do you still want me to run for president knowing this about me?’ And we all said, ‘Absolutely. We think you’d be a good president. We want you.’ We were strongly behind her and that was that.

Welch wanted to make sure the entire membership was aware of her sexual orientation, and wrote an open letter to the Philadelphia NOW membership setting forth her vision for the organization and affirming her sexuality: “So no one feels misled, before the election, let me state that I am a Lesbian … . I am able now to state publicly my sexual orientation because of the sisterly love and support I have received over the past year from many NOW members.” In the open letter, Welch also sought to reassure members that although she considered lesbianism a priority issue for NOW, she intended to work on additional priority issues, as her past history in NOW would indicate. She cited her service as chair of the Philadelphia Chapter’s Employment Task Force, and as NOW spokesperson in favor of the passage of the ERA. In a real shift in direction for Philadelphia NOW, Welch designated 1973 “NOW’s priority year against poverty.”

Although the overwhelming majority of Philadelphia NOW members supported Jan Welch’s candidacy for president, an opposition candidate, Elizabeth Feldman, emerged. The election attracted a good deal of attention and the Philadelphia Bulletin reported that 125 women were present at the meeting to elect a new president. All 81 dues-paying members were present and all cast ballots. Welch won by a wide margin, as did members of her slate. According to the Bulletin, “Ms. Feldman drew hisses and shouts from the audience when she referred to her opponent’s ‘undistinguished credentials.’” In an interview with a Bulletin reporter, Feldman denied that she was running as a “straight” candidate, and that she simply wanted to make the election democratic by giving voters a choice: “I’ve known Jan was a lesbian for a year. I just thought that each office should have more than one person running for it.”

Veteran Philadelphia NOW members Lillian Ciarrochi and Judy Foley were unconvinced by Feldman’s claim that she was running to make the organization more democratic; they saw Feldman’s candidacy as a Betty Friedan-like rearguard action against the “Lavender Menace.” According to Foley:
[Feldman] just didn’t want a lesbian president, so she ran at the last minute as a write-in candidate … it was very tense but she got one, maybe two votes, hers and somebody’s else’s, so it was all right. But it did get us a lot of publicity and I think probably most of it good.

The Drummer reported that Jan Welch won by a vote of 72 to 10.82 Foley’s recollections might have been slightly off regarding the vote total, but she was surely correct that Welch’s election resulted in favorable publicity for Philadelphia NOW.

Jan Welch was elected as the lesbian feminist movement was growing both in numbers and visibility. Philadelphia NOW benefited from its association with the lesbian rights movement, gaining far more members than may have been lost. There was clearly a symbiotic relationship between the lesbian movement and the feminist movement. 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 increasing acceptance of homosexuality and to the growth of the lesbian and gay rights movement. In the early 1970s, several lesbian rights groups worked in coalition with Philadelphia NOW and other feminist groups on efforts such as the August 26, 1972 Women’s Equality Day Celebration. This close cooperation was already established in 1972, a year before Welch ran for the presidency of Philadelphia NOW, and no doubt laid the groundwork for her election. In turn, Welch’s election helped to further strengthen these ties.

Although Jan Welch was strongly supported by a majority of Philadelphia NOW members, she recalled, “Because there were only two opponents to my candidacy on sexual preference grounds, I tended to be naive about the election of a lesbian. I felt the issue of lesbianism was as much an accepted principle of NOW as equal pay for equal work.”83 Three-quarters through her term she realized that although her NOW sisters were not personally homophobic, they were sometimes hesitant to speak out against anti-lesbian biases:
Even though there has been continued break-down of the myths and stereotypes about lesbianism in the past year, much more should be done by “straights” to relieve the fear of non-NOW members that NOW women are “just a bunch of dykes.” If NOW members would point out vocally and firmly that there is the same percentage of homosexuals in NOW as in a local business or neighborhood church instead of quickly denying or ignoring the issue completely, the feminist movement would, in general, gain popularity and strength.

Although feminists were generally far ahead of most of their fellow citizens, in the early 1970s many were reluctant to directly confront bias against lesbians and gays.

In addition to outreach to the lesbian community, Jan Welsh also sought to build NOW by reaching out to feminists involved in organized religion. Immediately after her election, Welch organized Sistercelebration, an ecumenical religious service for Women’s Equality Day, August 26, 1973. The religious focus of Sistercelebration was a departure from previous Women’s Equality Day rallies, but not surprising, given that, according to a 1970 survey of Philadelphia NOW members, 59 percent were affiliated with a religious organization. Fifty-nine percent may seem low in comparison with the general population, but it was a relatively high number for those who identified with progressive causes in the early 1970s.

There were frequent references to a feminist perspective on religion in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletters of the early 1970s. Although national NOW’s publications in the early 1970s had fewer such references, in both cases opposition to anti-feminist attitudes in organized religion was a recurrent theme. Among the resolutions passed at the 1971 National NOW Conference was one encouraging women “to divert all or part of their religious contributions to the NOW Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion for work being done to improve the role of women in religion.” NOW leaders clearly understood that religion was a powerful institution in American life; to achieve gender equality and combat homophobia, major changes in religious attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality were essential.

For many Philadelphia NOW members, religion was a sensitive subject, as many clearly wanted to maintain their religious affiliation without compromising their feminist values. Philadelphia NOW members apparently did not find it problematic to hold a religious celebration for a secular holiday, the anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. Unfortunately, there did not appear to be much effort to include non-Christian organizations in the Sistercelebration. Although many Jewish women were involved both in National NOW and in the broad Women’s Liberation movement, and although there were many Jewish women involved in Philadelphia progressive organizations, there were relatively few Jewish women among the NOW leadership in the early 1970s. NOW chapters tended to expand through friendship networks, which may explain the relative absence of Jewish women among the activist core in the 1970s.

Although secular feminists may have been uncomfortable with turning Women’s Equality Day into a religious celebration, outreach to women in religious organizations certainly made sense in terms of organization building. The challenge to the patriarchal values of organized region was becoming a powerful movement fueled both by feminism and by the lesbian and gay rights movement. The leaders of both the sponsoring organizations of the Sister Celebration (Philadelphia NOW and the Task Force on Women in Religion) were open lesbians and advocates of lesbian and gay rights; however, the “Feminist Letter to the Congregations” made no mention of organized religion’s discrimination against lesbians and gays. Perhaps the organizers thought the congregations were not ready for this. The Philadelphia NOW Newsletter reported:"The Sistercelebration was attended by about “100 women of all ages and life styles” and was a “feminist celebration that was joyous, life-affirming, and thought- provoking. Let’s make it a new tradition!”

Although the Sistercelebration did not become a new tradition, it enabled Philadelphia NOW to expand its networks in the religious and lesbian communities. Energized by its success, Jan Welch launched an ambitious agenda and asked for written reports from the rapidly increasing number of committee chairs.
Let me assure you that what I am consciously doing is delegating responsibilities for this organization to responsible persons, that is, you. In order to work effectively as an administrator I want complete reports of what each of you is doing! The entire board should know as well so that the unit is functioning effectively!88

As any leader of an all-volunteer organization knows, it is not so easy to delegate responsibilities. The delegatees may just (despite the best of intentions) ignore the charge.

In her first speech to the membership after her election to the presidency, Jan Welch reminded the members that Philadelphia NOW was an all-volunteer organization. She announced plans to hold one additional meeting a month—an informal community meeting. She also announced that she had offered her home for the first NOW office in Philadelphia, a transitional office to be maintained by volunteers until a permanent office was found. Welch also expressed her thanks to her partner, Dian Kramer, “for her invaluable service to date and her patience. I must see that the heavy load on the two of us gets eased quickly so we don’t become basket cases.”89 Welch announced that the chapter would also host the first Pennsylvania State-wide NOW Convention in October 1973, and the national convention in Philadelphia in 1975.

Anyone who has ever run an all-volunteer organization can see where this story would end. Jan Welch’s organizational skills, her energy, and commitment got her through the Pennsylvania State-wide NOW Convention, which was generally regarded as a successful event. According to Welch’s report in the Philadelphia NOW Newsletter, the conference was “full of unbelievable enthusiasm”; many new members joined NOW, and the Philadelphia Chapter had “three new committees formed right out of the Convention—Females and the Criminal Justice System, Nurses NOW, and Sports.”90 Despite the impressive organizational skills of Jan Welsh and the other founding members, this increasingly ambitious agenda was difficult to sustain with volunteer energy alone.

The hectic pace continued, and immediately after the Pennsylvania NOW Convention, Philadelphia NOW awarded (and got considerable publicity for) the 1973 “Barefoot and Pregnant” awards. One of these awards would be given to the Union League, “which maintains the outmoded policy of refusing to admit women in the public areas of its building and in the main dining room even though the women are invited guests.”91 The 1973 Barefoot and Pregnant Award was the opening salvo in what would be Philadelphia NOW’s long protracted war against the discriminatory practices of the Union League, an influential all-male club frequented by local business and political leaders. The battle to integrate the Union League, like the outreach to women religious leaders from mainstream religious organizations, reflected Betty Friedan’s strategy to pursue growth through outreach to women from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds. Although Friedan was quite clear that was her goal, there was no evidence that later leaders, particularly local leaders, adopted this as a deliberate strategy. More likely it just came naturally to them to focus on issues of concern to relatively privileged women.

The issues that Philadelphia NOW addressed continued to proliferate and the phone calls pouring into the NOW office continued to increase in number. Jan Welch and the officers of Philadelphia NOW also had the challenge of building the state organization and, looming on the horizon, the national NOW conference to be held in Philadelphia in 1975. Welch had expected that her high-pressure term as president would end in June 1974; however, in order to have uniform election dates in all chapters throughout the state, the Pennsylvania NOW board extended the terms of all chapter officers for six more months. Welch was not prepared to continue the heavy responsibility of the chapter presidency for another six months and in a letter to the members explained her reasons for resigning in June 1974: “Had no other factors been involved, I might have stayed in the presidency for the extra months. But I could not anticipate some major problems, (the lengthy illness and death of my mother; a break in a close relationship; three job changes; and two moves, to name some).” Welch noted that the first Philadelphia NOW office had been housed in her small apartment and had been handling upwards of three hundred calls a month. With a new office soon to open in center city, Welch hoped more volunteers would be able share in the office responsibilities. Welch concluded her letter with regret at having to resign: “I believe so in the importance of NOW. Resignation deeply saddens me, but needing rest as I do now, I do not feel capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of the office.”92

The sense of exhaustion Welch expressed recalls Jean Ferson’s comments when her presidency came to an end. It is striking how much NOW activists were willing to give to the movement, but that degree of commitment was not sustainable (certainly not on a volunteer basis). During the peak years of the feminist movement in the 1970s, many women were eager to assume leadership roles and devote their impressive organizational skills, honed in a wide range of professional and civic organizations, to building the feminist movement. In later years, the numbers were far fewer. The feminist movement was in some ways a victim of its success. Certainly, the expansion of professional opportunities for women in the 1970s contributed to the diminishing pool of talented women available to assume leadership roles in feminist organizations.

I met Jan Welch at NOW’s 40th Anniversary conference in Albany, N.Y in July. 2006. Like many veteran members, she had maintained her affiliation with NOW for decades. I told her that I planned to write a history of second-wave feminism with a focus on NOW, and she agreed to arrange a time when I could interview her. The profiles of Welch in Philadelphia newspapers written soon after her election to the presidency of Philadelphia NOW were consistent with my impression of her more than three decades later. From Ruth Rovner’s 1973 profile: “As she spoke, there was a tone of quiet strength in her voice, and in her whole manner. One could only imagine the kind of internal struggle that led to this calm.”93 Sadly, Jan Welch died of pancreatic cancer on March 31, 2008, and the interview I had looked forward to never took place.

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