Saturday, March 26, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I: Building the feminist movement, Chapter 2, Victories in education and employment opportunities

Penelope Brace, the first woman detective in the Philadelphia police department.

Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, for which NOW had aggressively lobbied, had placed a powerful tool in feminist hands. Any educational program receiving federal financial assistance could not discriminate with regard to sex; athletics programs quickly became a major focus of feminist efforts to provide equal educational opportunities for girls. Also, Billy Jean King’s trouncing Bobby Riggs certainly provided inspiration and much-needed publicity for women’s sports. NOW was not fighting for “separate but equal” athletics programs but rather for integrated gym and extracurricular sports activity. In a lengthy article in the Pennsylvania NOW Times Beverly Jones explained the rationale for NOW’s position on integrated sports activity:
One, we are interested in equality of opportunity not just to participate but to excel. And history has shown that when those who are under-privileged and discriminated against are shunted off into separate programs, the opportunity for any of their number to excel in the total community is ephemeral indeed.16

Jones contended that there was no evidence that in a fair, integrated athletic program girls and women would be unable to hold their own. In 1974 most people (including some feminists) were not ready for Jones’ vision. From the perspective of the 21st century, with women soldiers courageously serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jones’ ideas seem far less radical.

On March 19, 1975, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled 5 to 1 that the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) rule prohibiting girls from competing against boys in interscholastic athletics was unconstitutional. The majority decision, written by Judge Genevieve Blatt, rejected PIAA’s contention that, as a whole, girls are weaker and more injury-prone. NOW members were well aware that progress was not just a matter of changing laws. NOW itself was founded because of frustration with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s unwillingness to enforce existing laws against sex discrimination. In her analysis of PIAA’s decision to comply with the Commonwealth Court ruling, Philadelphia NOW member Carol Kranick concluded with a warning that the struggle had just begun:
For those who feel that once you win the legal battle, the war is over, they need only to look at the abortion scene. We won the Supreme Court decision. But we are still in the battle of improving the climate so that decisions can be, in fact, the law of the land.

Kranick noted that in sports, as in the battle for abortion rights, feminists have eliminated the legal barriers: “The legal victory placed us in the position of being able to fight the next barrier and we are much closer, much sooner than any of us dreamed to the goal of total equality—at least in sport."21

NOW used a variety of tactics, lobbying, rallying, demonstrating,and when all else failed, resorting to legal action. Philadelphia NOW found it necessary to take legal action to win one of its major victories over the Philadelphia School Disrict—-the protracted struggle to integrate Central High School, the once male-only school for the academically talented. In 1974, Susan Lynn Vorchheimer, an honors student and winner of multiple awards, decided she wanted to attend Central High School because “it had a better reputation than Philadelphia High School for Girls, the other academic high school in the City.”23 Although her academic qualifications were undisputed, Vorchheimer’s application was rejected. Her parents sued the School District and the court ruled in Vorcheimer’s favor. The Philadelphia Board of Education successfully appealed the decision, and Vorchheimer returned to her neighborhood school. The appellate court claimed that gender had never been a suspect classification, requiring the level of scrutiny required for claims of racial discrimination. The suit eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court which in 1977 issued a four-to-four decision allowing the appellate court ruling to stand.

The situation was not resolved until 1983, when Common Pleas Court Judge William M. Marutani ordered the Philadelphia School District to admit six girls to Central High School. Marutani’s ruling stated that Central’s facilities were “materially superior” to those at Girls High, and that the “educational opportunities are materially unequal”; therefore, the district’s policy violated the 14th amendment to the Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.27 The desegregation of Central High received national attention; the New York Times reported:
The girls who walked up the steps at about 8 A.M. today to break the tradition appeared self-contained and pleased. “I’m excited, but nervous,” said Karen Seif. Elizabeth Newberg, the young woman who a year ago persuaded two friends to join her in instituting the suit, proclaimed. “I’m here. I feel fine.” Miss Newberg said she planned to start a women’s organization at Central but would not exclude males.28

Despite continuing opposition from Central alumni, the School District bowed to the pressure of public opinion and did not pursue appeals. By the time of the final victory in 1983, NOW was one of many organizations supporting the end of gender segregation. The tide of public opinion had turned, with the local establishment generally in support of integrating Central High. A Philadelphia Inquirer editorial stated: “Thus it is understandable, but no longer defensible, that the two schools have continued to maintain single-sex enrollments despite changing laws and customs.”29 Very quickly the enrollment of girls at Central, once unthinkable to some alumni and local power brokers, became the new normal. Sometimes NOW’s victories were swift and decisive (e.g., the desegregation of Help Wanted ads), at other times long and protracted (e.g., the nine-year battle to integrate Central High), but the trajectory of NOW in the 1970s was victory after victory.

NOW has sometimes been characterized as a middle-class women’s organization primarily concerned with expanding opportunities for relatively privileged women and girls. However, 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. Given the dramatic changes in our society, it is easy to forget what a radical notion it was to demand that police and fire departments and construction sites be open to women. According to historian Nancy MacLean, when civil rights groups fought to open jobs to African-American women, they targeted white women’s jobs rather than the relatively well-paid jobs held by white men. Female union activists focused on improving conditions and pay in the jobs women already held. MacLean quotes one labor activist: “We never questioned it when they posted female and male jobs…we didn’t realize it was discrimination … .”30 It took the conceptual breakthrough of the feminist movement to build labor union support for opening up traditionally male jobs to women.

National NOW’s ground-breaking campaign against AT&T in the case of Lorena Weeks vs. Southern Bell Telephone established the principle that an employer could not automatically assume physically demanding jobs could be performed only by men, but must consider the qualifications of individual applicants without regard to sex. The beneficiaries of this decision were largely working-class women. In 1966, Lorena Weeks, who had worked as a telephone operator for Southern Bell, applied for a better paying job as a “switchman” and was told this job could be performed only by a man. Weeks sued in Federal Court, but the US District Court ruled against her because the job involved “strenuous activity” such as lifting 31-pound equipment, a violation of a Georgia regulation prohibiting women employees from lifting weights in excess of 30 pounds. When Weeks’ court-appointed lawyer refused to file an appeal, she contacted NOW, whose attorneys took the case. NOW attorney Sylvia Roberts, “a little smaller than the average woman casually lifted all of the equipment required for the job,” thus demolishing the “strenuous activity” argument.31

On March 4, 1969 the Fifth United States Circuit Court ruled that sex was not a bona fide qualification for the job; thus, Southern Bell was in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred sex discrimination in employment. From the decision as quoted in NOW Acts: “Men have always had the right to determine whether the incremental increase in remuneration for strenuous, dangerous, obnoxious or unromantic tasks is worth the candle. The promise of Title VII is that women are now on equal footing.” The Court told Southern Bell it must consider Weeks for the job, and sent the case back to the lower court for “determination and appropriate relief.” NOW Acts reported: “Appropriate relief” came March 4, 1971, when Weeks was appointed to a switchman’s job, but then subjected to harassment on the job: “A Supervisor in her area told workers to treat her “just like any nigger” and co-workers took to calling her “switch bitch.” Her union, Communication Workers of America, condemned the use of “nigger” but dismissed “switch bitch” as “humorous office camaraderie.” In response to this harassment, on March 29, 1971, NOW members staged a nation-wide demonstration in 15 cities; among the picket signs was “Switch Bitch is Beautiful.” As a consequence of the media attention, Southern Bell took measures to protect Weeks from harassment.32

The major effort in Philadelphia NOW’s campaign to open non-traditional jobs to women was its strong, sustained support for NOW member Penelope Brace’s battle against discrimination in the Philadelphia Police Department. Brace had been a police officer in the Juvenile Aid Division for nine years when she decided she wanted to become a detective—a more challenging, better-paid position. She was told she wasn’t qualified to take the exam because she was a woman. She filed suit against the department; three days later she was fired. According to NOW member Lillian Ciarrochi, “The reason given was that she had not logged her coffee breaks!”33 The City Civil Service Commission ordered Brace reinstated three months later but, as Ciarrochi reported: “The harassment was just beginning. She was ordered to take psychiatric examinations, assigned to the district farthest from her home and received anonymous threats that her house would be fire-bombed.”34

Ciarrochi described how NOW supported Brace and encouraged her to file a lawsuit. The United States Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department and withheld $4 million of federal funds because of its treatment of Brace. The Philadelphia Police Department appeared not to realize that the world had changed, and in federal court it “admitted to discrimination because, they said, women are constitutionally, emotionally, and psychologically unable to do the job.”36

On March 7, 1976, the City of Philadelphia and the US Justice Department entered into agreement in the Penelope Brace case. Under the terms of that settlement, the Police Department would hire a hundred women for street patrol duty and conduct a two-year study of the women’s performance. When a hundred new female police officers entered the Police Academy in June 1976, the Police Department did everything imaginable to discourage the new recruits. According to a Philadelphia Daily News article written on the 20th anniversary of 1976 agreement:
The women were to chop their hair off into what was called a “butch” cut. They were given men’s uniforms and shoes, and were told to wear T-shirts under their dress shirts so no trace of a bra showed. Finally, they were assigned to the six police districts with the highest crime rates in the city. And when they arrived at those districts, they were sent out on patrol alone, without the benefit of a breaking-in period with an experienced officer that all of the male cops enjoyed.37

Ironically, despite placing women officers in dangerous conditions, Police Commissioner O’Neill claimed that his reason for opposing women on the force was concern for their safety. In a 1996 interview with the then retired O’Neill, he still claimed to be motivated by concern for the women officers’ well-being: “I’m still very much concerned about their personal safety. Every time I see them roaming around alone, I express concern.”38

In 1978, under an order from US District Judge Charles Weiner, Brace became the city’s first woman detective. However, real change would come only with a change in top command. As late as 1978 in response to a federal attorney’s question why women were not assigned to patrol duty, O’Neill replied:
Because God in his infinite wisdom made them different … . In general they are weaker than males. I believe they would be inclined to let their emotions overtake their good judgment. I don’t mean to embarrass the ladies but there are periods in their life when they are psychologically unbalanced because of physical problems occurring within them.39

It was not until O’Neill retired in 1980 and Morton Solomon took over as police commissioner that the six-year lawsuit between the federal government and the Philadelphia Police Department was finally settled. Women were given the opportunity to work throughout the department, and Commissioner Solomon ended the petty cruelty of forcing women to wear uniforms designed for male officers, ordering that uniforms designed specifically for the female body be made available to women officers. The agreement also called for the city to pay $700,000 in back pay to be divided among the victims of sexual discrimination and committed the department to a 30 percent hiring goal for female police officers. Given what Brace and other female police officers endured, the financial settlement was woefully inadequate, but Brace and other victims had reached the end of the legal road. Brace said she would do it all again: “Looking back … if I had to do it again, I would file the suit, but I would have done it sooner.”40

As a result of her lawsuit, An important principle had been established, but the Police Department was very far from gender parity. Slow but steady progress occurred throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In a 1996 interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Brace urged other women police officers to continue the struggle: “I’m sure there are many qualified women … . I would urge them to file suit. It takes a revolution. You can’t change the Joe O’Neill’s of this world so you have to take them to court. It’s an old boys’ network that has to be stopped.”42

The ugly treatment of women aspiring to non-traditional jobs was not confined to the Philadelphia Police Department, but occurred in police and fire departments around the country. In her account of the resistance encountered by New York City fire fighter Brenda Berkman, Nancy MacLean stated: “What Berkman and her colleagues encountered when they crossed those once-undisputed gender boundaries was not simply reasoned, judicious skepticism from people who doubted the capacity of the new-comers to do the job. Repeatedly what they met was elemental anger that they would even dare to try.”43

The progress made in the Police Department would not have been possible without courageous women like Penelope Brace and without a feminist support network, which encouraged Brace to file her suit and supported her struggle. Both Brace and her allies in NOW saw her case as part of a much larger battle against employment discrimination—one played out on national, state, and local levels. With its federated structure, NOW was well positioned to mobilize politically to pressure politicians and judges, whether appointed by politicians or elected by voters.

By 1975, the feminist movement in general and NOW in particular had much to be proud of: the Supreme Court decisions guaranteeing the right to abortion and ending gender segregation in classified ads; the landmark settlement with AT&T; and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act, which expanded athletic opportunities for women, to cite a few of the most dramatic victories. Major social institutions were undergoing rapid changes, which only a few years earlier would have struck many citizens as unthinkable. NOW activists themselves were dazzled by the speed and extent of the changes the feminist movement had wrought. Very few women’s lives were untouched.

NOW members were poised for still greater victories and confident that they would achieve passage of the ERA by the end of the decade. But the strains of building a movement on volunteer energy alone were increasingly apparent.There were clearly too few people doing too much work. In the early 1970s, the president may have been suffering from exhaustion, but there was always a new energized leader ready to take her place. By the mid-1970s, at a time when Philadelphia could justly savor its victories, burnout and exhaustion were spreading throughout the organization.

Not only were there many more phone calls for the volunteer staff to respond to, new members brought new ideas about the direction and focus of NOW. 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. 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.

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