Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I: Building the feminist movement, Chapter 3, The struggle for gender justice and racial justice


Jocelyn Morris placing flowers on the grave of Lucretia Mott, November 11, 1980

The struggle for gender justice and racial justice

Although NOW’s structure provided avenues for managing political and ideological conflict, racial tensions proved to be a far more intractable problem. Over the years, the persistence of racism has been the most difficult issue for NOW and for the feminist movement in general. At all levels of the organization, NOW has struggled with how to address racism within NOW. The ease with which members could form new chapters focused on racial justice, and the committee structure initiated by national NOW, served as vehicles for advancing ideas that the full membership was not ready to embrace.

The tension between the struggles for gender equality and for racial equality has a long history. Although 19th-century feminist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony participated in the abolitionist movement, in the post-Civil War period they became disillusioned with their former allies, who, they thought, placed less importance on women’s voting rights than they did on rights for African-American men. Catharine Stimpson, among others, has documented this tension, and explores historical connections between the struggle for gender equality and that for racial equality in both “first wave” and “second wave” feminist movements.1 Movements for gender equality have tended to emerge at times when there were broad-based social justice movements. Perhaps because gender roles seemed so “natural” to so many, it took times of intense social upheaval to create conditions where gender discrimination would be challenged. Movements for gender equality have historically followed movements for racial equality. The 19th-century women’s suffrage movement followed the antislavery movement; the second-wave feminist movement followed the civil rights movement.

Sadly, Stanton and Anthony and their former allies in the abolitionist movement became bitter antagonists over the dispute as to whether the 15th amendment, which guaranteed the voting rights of Black men, should also include women. Tensions between the movements for racial equality and gender equality erupted again in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The conflicts were not as severe those in the 19th century, but a similar pattern of disillusionment can be found among women veterans of the civil rights movement, particularly among white women, as they discovered that the men they worked with did not share their commitment to gender equality.2 In 2008, the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama resurrected many of the old arguments about which form of oppression was deeper, racism or sexism. The tension between Clinton’s supporters and Obama’s caused real strain among feminists. The scars have yet to fully heal.

Although by the mid-1970s combating racism became part of national NOW’s core mission, it was not central to NOW’s initial mission—not surprising in view of the deeply entrenched racism in American society in the mid-1960s. NOW’s 1966 “Statement of Purpose” contained a brief reference to “Negro women who are victims of the double discrimination of race and sex,3 but made no mention of combating racism within NOW. Furthermore, the early position papers of national NOW, such as the 1971 “Poverty Statement,” did not address the link between race and poverty.4

The absence of explicit references to racism was generally true of local NOW chapters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Philadelphia, the elimination of neither racism nor poverty was cited among the chapter’s goals. Furthermore, a 1970 survey of members included no questions about racial identity or racial attitudes.5 In response to a question about the race/class composition of the founding members of Philadelphia NOW, the chapter’s second president, Jean Ferson, responded in a 2004 interview: “We were predominantly white middle class,” and she acknowledged that the organization had not made much of an effort to reach out to women of color.6 The 1975 chapter president, Betsy Parziale, stated that by the late 1970s the group was working on issues relevant to women of color, but there were still very few women of color involved in NOW.7

NOW chapters expanded through the social networks of the members, and as the members acknowledged, those networks were largely white and middle class. In the minutes of 1970s meetings of Philadelphia NOW there is no evidence that members seriously considered developing a strategy of outreach to women of color. On the contrary, there is evidence that the members had something of a tin ear regarding what might resonate with African-American women. In 1976 Philadelphia NOW awarded one of its Barefoot and Pregnant awards, given to those guilty of egregious sexism, to civil rights icon and then city councilman Cecil B. Moore. The press release that announced the award cited “his appalling sexism and absolute inhumanity including his remarks and attitudes toward rape victims.”8 I doubt if many African-American women or fair-minded Philadelphians would agree with the characterization of the “absolute inhumanity” of the man who led the battle to desegregate Philadelphia’s public and private institutions in the 1960s. Moore was a controversial figure, but few would deny the assessment in a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article that “Nobody did more than Moore to break down barriers against Blacks’ securing industrial and government jobs.”9 As a defense attorney, Moore’s treatment of rape victims may have been reprehensible,10 but it was probably not all that different from many defense lawyers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Singling him out for special opprobrium was not likely to make Philadelphia NOW attractive to African-American women.

Even if NOW chapters had had an aggressive strategy to recruit African-American women, they would have had a difficult time. African-American women who identified as feminists usually formed separate organizations, such as National Black Feminist Organization, National Alliance of Black Feminists, Third World Women’s Alliance, Combahee River Collective, and Black Women Organized for Action. Sociologist Benita Roth, among others, has attributed the formation of these organizations in part to a “resurgent masculinism in the Black movement [which] sought to contain women within the domestic sphere.”11 Many Black women who had held positions of responsibility in the civil rights movement were not willing to accept the constraints of traditional gender roles. For Black feminists with a strong commitment to Black empowerment, joining the largely white feminist movement was not an option—hence the formation of separate Black feminist groups.

These organizations were short-lived, largely due to lack of resources. Historian Kimberly Springer has noted: “Overall, Black feminists’ organizations had few material resources to rely on because their constituents, Black women, had few material resources to give.”12 Black women fighting for gender equality were under enormous pressure to dissociate themselves from white feminists. Springer documents the antagonism towards feminism among many in the Black community, who thought it a white woman’s disease. She describes the cover of the April 1974 issue of Encore magazine featuring an African-American woman with an Afro and wearing an African-print coat, who appeared “to be staving off the advances of feminism.” The cartoon character Olive Oyle, representing feminism, was depicted offering the Black woman a can of “feminist spinach.” Olive Oyle was dressed in male clothing, reinforcing the message in the accompanying articles that feminism was inextricably bound up with lesbianism and therefore irrelevant to Black women.13

No doubt because of the difficulty of recruiting Black women to NOW, Black Women Organized for Action was founded by NOW’s second president, Aileen Hernandez, and two members of NOW’s National Task Force on Minority Women. Despite their involvement in and commitment to NOW, these women also saw a need for an organization exclusively for Black women. National NOW was deeply concerned about the negative perception of feminism in the African-American community and eager to recruit women of color. By 1974 National NOW had an active National Task Force on Minority Women; it was clearly far ahead of most local affiliates. In May 1974 NOW published the Report of the Task Force, documenting chapters’ activities in this area, and asking members “What should be the Role of the National Task Force on Minority Women and Women’s Rights?” Sixty-seven chapters from across the country responded; the report did not indicate the total number of individual respondents. Although the majority of the responses suggested members supported the work of the Task Force, some indicated that internal education on racism was sorely needed. The majority of the responses were variations on the following: “Help chapters develop techniques for recruiting and working with members of minority groups without being patronizing to them (because of unconscious race or class bias).”

However, there were some responses that suggested that Black women’s lack of feminist consciousness was the problem: “Minority women must realize that they are oppressed as women—this lack of realization is what hampers us so badly. Get them to stop trying to liberate Black men. Have pride in their strength—stop sacrificing.” There were a few responses that suggested that combating racism should not be a priority for NOW: “I really think NOW takes on too much. We should work most hard on ERA since if that doesn’t pass we don’t have anything … . I think the best thing the Task Force on minority women can do is disband.”

Finally, a few responses were disturbingly racist and surprising to see in a survey of NOW members:
Many Blacks seem to want all “whites” to commit suicide out of sheer remorse for what has happened in the past. This seems to be the only thing that could possibly satisfy some Black speakers. Unless of course these Black speakers could simply stab and rape and shoot us all—to them that would be even better than suicide on our parts … they say that no matter how hard we try, it is not good enough.14

As the above quotations demonstrate, the authors of the report were clearly interested in presenting an honest portrait of racial attitudes within NOW. National NOW was ahead of many of its members in its determination to address the existence of racism both within NOW and in the larger society.

Some of the racial tensions described in the 1974 report diminished in the late 1970s and early 1980s, no doubt as a consequence of the winding down of the social movements which arose in the 1960s. For those of us who lived through those days, the cooling down of passionate commitment and intense emotions was palpable. Also, increasing opportunities for Black women in post-civil rights America meant that Black and white women had greater contact in the workplace and in educational institutions, thus increasing opportunities for mutual understanding. The involvement of Latina, Asian-American, and Native-American women in the feminist movement diffused the intensity of Black/white conflict, shifting the focus to the broader agenda of women of color confronting discrimination in white-dominated America. These changes in the larger society probably account for NOW’s (albeit limited) success in recruiting women of color in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Another reason for NOW’s increasing gains in recruiting women of color may have been white women’s growing awareness of racism, thanks to the outpouring of literary, historical, and sociological works by women of color in the 1970s and 1980s. Jane Mansbridge has noted that it was not until a significant literature by women of color appeared that the feminist movement began to seriously grapple with racism
:
It was too painful for each Black woman individually to have to teach White feminists in her organization about the differences in their experiences. But through the written word, which can teach many at once … the movement is now beginning to absorb, confront, and be transformed by these new insights.16

Reading lists of texts by women of color began to appear in the Pennsylvania NOW Times in the early 1980s. “Eliminating Racism: A Bibliography” by then vice president of Germantown NOW, Nancie Dent, included a lengthy list of works by and about African-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and Iroquois women. In addition to feminist classics such as fiction by Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, there were some surprising choices. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, for example, did not usually appear on feminist booklists. However, Dent acknowledged: “This list is, also, not a feminist book list. It includes books that depict a variety of cultural experiences of minority women. And sexism is certainly a cultural experience we all share.” Dent also cautioned: “The list is not intended to be a short-cut whereby a person becomes an instant expert … . The books should be read and discussed with your friends of whatever race.”17

Pennsylvania NOW’s increasing focus on racial justice

There was considerable variation in the willingness of NOW’s state and local affiliates to address racism. Pennsylvania NOW was one of the leaders among state organizations in addressing the interconnections of sexism and racism and, in the 1970s, had greater success in reaching out to women of color than did Philadelphia NOW. In 1976 Pennsylvania NOW held a Black Feminist Conference at the University of Pittsburgh organized by the African-American Women of Pennsylvania NOW. According to the Pennsylvania NOW Times, “A great number of Black feminists are geographically separated. Sometimes there is only one Black woman in a chapter … . It is hoped that a communications network will provide the moral and emotional support that Black women in the feminist movement so desperately need.”18

In the late 1970s, addressing racism became a major priority for Pennsylvania NOW. The change was sudden and dramatic. According to the list of priorities for 1976 reported in Pennsylvania NOW Times, racism was not among the top priority issues.19 However, no doubt in part due to the above-mentioned Black Feminist Conference, attitudes about the importance of confronting racism were about to change dramatically. The February 1978 “Pennsylvania NOW State Board Report” states that eliminating racism both within NOW and within the larger society had become the top priority of the organization.20 In July 1979 Pennsylvania NOW Times published a special issue dedicated to “Eliminating Racism.” The lead article stated that responses to the 1974 survey conducted by NOW’s National Task Force on Minority Women indicated that all minority respondents and most non-minority respondents witnessed or experienced racism within NOW. Racism was described as:
The pretense that racism does not exist in NOW. The belief that [education on racism] is unnecessary, that “it is divisive.” The belief and practice that consciousness-raising groups are not the place to discuss racism. (“They are not ready for it.”) The introduction of minorities into a conversation right away leads to discussion on poverty.21

NOW members were cautioned that “being feminist does not necessarily mean being non-racist” and were urged to work to change the image of NOW as a white middle-class organization. The 1979 article concludes: “Racism is a sickness. It is as dangerous as a malignant tumor … . Racism should be abhorred for what it does to the practitioner of racism as well as to the victim of racism.”22 Pennsylvania NOW leader Jo Ann Evans-Gardner acknowledged that the leadership was far ahead of its grassroots members. She believed that probably none of the white feminists have the elimination of racism as a first priority. A tiny number might accord it equal priority. A moderate number … if pushed will accept some responsibility. Far too many can be heard to argue that to make racism a concern is divisive (or diluting) to feminism.mGardner challenged white feminists “to be as knowledgeable and militant about racism as we are about sexism.”23

To underscore its commitment to eliminating racism, Pennsylvania NOW held two major conferences on racism and sexism, one in Pittsburgh in 1979 and one in Philadelphia in 1980. As result of the Philadelphia conference a new chapter, Germantown NOW in Northwest Philadelphia, was formed to focus on the connections between sexism and racism. The core Philadelphia chapter remained focused on the ERA; Philadelphia NOW members interested in working for racial justice either became involved in Pennsylvania NOW or joined Germantown NOW. Furthermore, the formation of a new chapter such as Germantown NOW gave its members a greater voice in the state organization and thus a larger arena in which to advance their issues. The state organization was partly responsible for the formation of Germantown NOW and the Germantown NOW members who were active on the state level played a role in Pennsylvania NOW’s increasing focus on racial justice.

There was a similar push to confront racism from Pittsburgh’s Brenda Frazier, who was encouraged by what she experienced at the 1978 national conference: “Before then, I felt I was knocking, trying to get in, to make someone see that we have issues. This year, it was not ‘their’ conference; it was ‘our’ conference, and I felt it profoundly.” Frazier was willing to challenge white feminists about racism and African-American leaders about sexism. She described her conversation with Jesse Jackson about the women’s movement:
I told him that I didn’t hear him say anything about women’s issues. He said ‘I talked about women … I talked about my grandmother.’ I asked him if he supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Then he looked at me and he realized that he was looking at a real live Black feminist. He wasn’t ready for it. I offered to meet with him. He said he was busy—had to be in California. I said I could go to California: just let me know.24

In “East End NOW—A Racially Integrated Chapter,” Frazier describes how she and five other NOW members left Pittsburgh’s East Hills NOW to form a new chapter which “would fight against sexism and racism at the same time and with the same energy.” Once again the ease with which a new chapter could be formed forestalled conflict. As with Germantown NOW, the separation in Pittsburgh appears to have been amicable. There was general agreement in both cases that those with different priorities should have the option of forming a new chapter. East End NOW gave Frazier an organizational base within NOW. In the July 1979 Pennsylvania NOW Times, she reported: “I am so on fire. I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear other people talk about the elimination of racism as a feminist issue and mean it … not just words, but a willingness to act.”25 The new chapter allowed Frazier to exert considerable influence on national NOW and on Pennsylvania NOW; she was instrumental in the creation of committees addressing racism on the state, regional, and national levels. Both the ease of forming new chapters on the local level and forming task forces or committees on the state and national levels enabled members to deal with differences in priorities while still maintaining allegiance to the national organization.

Germantown NOW: Dedicated to advancing racial and gender justice
Philadelphia NOW member Jocelyn Morris noted that combating racism was not among her chapter’s top priorities, and concluded that rather than trying to change the priorities of Philadelphia NOW she would have more success addressing the interconnections between racism and sexism in a new chapter, Germantown NOW. Lillian Ciarrochi, then president of Philadelphia NOW, reported that her chapter did not discourage the formation of Germantown NOW, but wanted to stay focused on what members identified as their primary objective, passage of the ERA. Ciarrochi described the reactions of Philadelphia NOW members to the formation of Germantown NOW:
I remember people saying it’s not the NAACP; we represent all women and there was a certain group who wanted it all to be about race. We had to concentrate like a laser beam on women’s rights because it helps all women and we can’t be sidetracked with other issues.27

According to Ciarrochi, Philadelphia NOW members “didn’t think Germantown NOW would last because it was founded for the wrong reasons. I don’t think there was ever any fight about it.” Ciarrochi recalled that there were times when the Philadelphia chapter had meetings to discuss racism, and that some members wanted to have meetings in minority communities: “Some of the chapter members agreed and were willing to do it. Others had issues of safety in some of these neighborhoods at night. It just never happened.”

Ciarrochi thought that the focus of Germantown NOW would be on poor women and that it “would have been a mammoth task. These women were poor, single moms, a lot of times battered women. The last thing they were going to do was form a NOW chapter in their area. They were fighting for food stamps, a way to survive, to stop the battering.” According to Ciarrochi, the possibilities for outreach to women of color are now much greater:
Now, there are minority professional women who believe in women’s rights and want to work on issues related to sexism. A lot of that is because of the Women’s Movement. I think it has directly affected the lives of minority women greatly. Our employment committee fought hard for affirmative action. That was the one issue related to minority rights that clicked with everybody because it just seemed like an issue of fairness.

During my 2008 interview with Ciarrochi, she expressed support for NOW’s current focus on combating racism and sexism, but in the early 1980s she believed Philadelphia NOW’s energies should be focused on the battle to ratify the ERA.

Jocelyn Morris did not recall any discussion with Philadelphia NOW about Germantown NOW’s focus on racism and sexism, and said she was unaware of any concern. Morris noted that Germantown NOW was not reaching out to women in extreme poverty, as some Philadelphia NOW members apparently thought:
Germantown at that time was middle class or lower middle class, not impoverished. Not every Black person was on food stamps. I was never on food stamps; most of the people I recruited for NOW were not on food stamps or being battered. We had middle-class families, and that’s who we recruited. It’s not like 80% of us were impoverished.28

Morris also wanted Black women to have a chapter closer to home: “Philadelphia NOW never reached out to the community. A lot of women did not want to travel from Germantown to Center City; Germantown women didn’t feel safe in Center City.” There apparently was reluctance to travel outside their neighborhoods on the part of both the mostly Center City residents in Philadelphia NOW and the members of Germantown NOW.

Morris saw her focus on women of color as directly advancing the cause of the ERA, arguing that outreach to minority women was critical to its passage. She noted that although most minority women had experienced racism, few were aware of how the “double jeopardy” of racism and sexism combined to limit their opportunities. In an article in the Pennsylvania NOW Times, Morris described her efforts reaching out to African-American women:
Many of the minority women I have talked to in my efforts to recruit them as NOW members perceive the women’s movement as dominated by white middle class women who are advocating the breakup of the family. The enemies of the women’s movement plant these ideas and use them as a means of keeping all women from uniting around common issues. Many Black women feel they have enough problems maintaining good relationships with Black men without adding the issue of women’s equality into their home life. One minority woman who came to the convening meeting of Germantown NOW said that what she was learning about sexism was making her angry, and that she did not want to have to deal with it. She has never returned.29

Morris believed that African-American women and men heard only the misinformation spread by the anti-ERA forces, and she was determined to bring the feminist message to Black women.

Although Morris was correct that some Black women had been misinformed about the ERA, there is evidence that Black women were significantly more receptive to feminism than were white women. Jocelyn Morris did not recall any discussion with Philadelphia NOW about Germantown NOW’s focus on racism and sexism, and said she was unaware of any concern. Morris noted that Germantown NOW was not reaching out to women in extreme poverty, as some Philadelphia NOW members apparently thought:
Germantown at that time was middle class or lower middle class, not impoverished. Not every Black person was on food stamps. I was never on food stamps; most of the people I recruited for NOW were not on food stamps or being battered. We had middle-class families, and that’s who we recruited. It’s not like 80% of us were impoverished.28

Morris saw her focus on women of color as directly advancing the cause of the ERA, arguing that outreach to minority women was critical to its passage. She noted that although most minority women had experienced racism, few were aware of how the “double jeopardy” of racism and sexism combined to limit their opportunities. In an article in the Pennsylvania NOW Times, Morris described her efforts reaching out to African-American women:orris believed that African-American women and men heard only the misinformation spread by the anti-ERA forces, and she was determined to bring the feminist message to Black women.

Although Morris was correct that some Black women had been misinformed about the ERA, there is evidence that Black women were significantly more receptive to feminism than were white women. A series of polls conducted by the Lewis Harris agency, which measured women’s attitudes on political and social issues for the years 1970, 1972, 1974, and 1980, consistently reported that Black women sympathized with the feminist movement at a higher percentage than white women.30 Also, polling data indicated that Black women consistently supported the ERA in greater numbers than white women. Political scientist Ethel Klein reported that 27 percent of white women and 40 percent of Black women expressed serious disappointment with the failure of the ERA. However, the greater support for the ERA among Black women did not lead to Black women’s increased participation in feminist organizations. According to Klein, “most Black feminists [in the 1980s] were working outside of mainstream feminist organizations to create space for discussing the problems of Black women.31

In attempting to recruit more Black women for NOW, Morris was fighting an uphill battle. She was apparently concerned about the impact of starting a new chapter in Philadelphia, which might be perceived as a rival to the existing local chapter. She reached out to Pennsylvania NOW leaders for advice on starting Germantown NOW. In a letter to Morris, Pennsylvania NOW president Dixie White refers to her chapter’s statement providing the rationale for a new chapter in downtown Allentown. “Why another NOW chapter in the area? In all areas with multiple chapters, it has been clearly demonstrated that each chapter increases the level of activism in that area. Each additional chapter appeals to a slightly different segment of the overall feminist population.” White emphasized that the new Allentown chapter would focus on issues of particular concern to her community: “elimination of racism, discrimination against the lesbian and gay population, and budget concerns that have a greater impact on economically disadvantaged segments of the population.”

White further argued that multiple chapters provide more opportunities for leadership and that “variations in chapter ‘image’ also make the point that we are everywhere, and that we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, styles, but have the same overall goals.” She saw the new Allentown chapter as a vehicle for “debunking the media mythology that feminism is primarily for upper-middle-class white professional women.” She noted the diversity of the Allentown chapter, which was advancing what we now call intersectional feminism. White considered the ideal maximum size for a chapter to be 25–50 and stated: “If a chapter gets larger, the level of activism does not increase, but tapers off because it is more difficult to be in constant contact with the entire membership, and decision-making tends to become concentrated in a small group of people.” Emphasizing the importance of personal contact, White believed chapters wasted too much time and energy on newsletters, and was proud of the fact that Allentown NOW’s members were able to stay in regular contact with each other by telephone. She stated that her chapter chose “to grow very slowly, so we get to know each other well.” Considerable effort was put into strengthening personal bonds and meetings were regularly combined with potluck suppers.32

The philosophy of the Allentown chapter was very much in tune with many Women’s Liberation collectives, which placed a high premium on personal connections and decision-making by consensus. As Myra Marx Ferree and Beth Hess have noted, in the late 1970s NOW was “pulled towards less hierarchical and more participatory styles by incoming streams of grassroots members.”33 A consensus has emerged among historians of the feminist movement that the two arris agency, which measured women’s attitudes on political and social issues for the years 1970, 1972, 1974, and 1980, consistently reported that Black women sympathized with the feminist movement at a higher percentage than white women.30 Also, polling data indicated that Black women consistently supported the ERA in greater numbers than white women. Political scientist Ethel Klein reported that 27 percent of white women and 40 percent of Black women expressed serious disappointment with the failure of the ERA. However, the greater support for the ERA among Black women did not lead to Black women’s increased participation in feminist organizations. According to Klein, “most Black feminists [in the 1980s] were working outside of mainstream feminist organizations to create space for discussing the problems of Black women.31

In attempting to recruit more Black women for NOW, Morris was fighting an uphill battle. She was apparently concerned about the impact of starting a new chapter in Philadelphia, which might be perceived as a rival to the existing local chapter. She reached out to Pennsylvania NOW leaders for advice on starting Germantown NOW. In a letter to Morris, Pennsylvania NOW president Dixie White refers to her chapter’s statement providing the rationale for a new chapter in downtown Allentown. “Why another NOW chapter in the area? In all areas with multiple chapters, it has been clearly demonstrated that each chapter increases the level of activism in that area. Each additional chapter appeals to a slightly different segment of the overall feminist population.” White emphasized that the new Allentown chapter would focus on issues of particular concern to her community: “elimination of racism, discrimination against the lesbian and gay population, and budget concerns that have a greater impact on economically disadvantaged segments of the population.”

White further argued that multiple chapters provide more opportunities for leadership and that “variations in chapter ‘image’ also make the point that we are everywhere, and that we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, styles, but have the same overall goals.” She saw the new Allentown chapter as a vehicle for “debunking the media mythology that feminism is primarily for upper-middle-class white professional women.” She noted the diversity of the Allentown chapter, which was advancing what we now call intersectional feminism. White considered the ideal maximum size for a chapter to be 25–50 and stated: “If a chapter gets larger, the level of activism does not increase, but tapers off because it is more difficult to be in constant contact with the entire membership, and decision-making tends to become concentrated in a small group of people.” Emphasizing the importance of personal contact, White believed chapters wasted too much time and energy on newsletters and was proud of the fact that Allentown NOW’s members were able to stay in regular contact with each other by telephone. She stated that her chapter chose “to grow very slowly, so we get to know each other well.” Considerable effort was put into strengthening personal bonds and meetings were regularly combined with potluck suppers.32

The philosophy of the Allentown chapter was very much in tune with many Women’s Liberation collectives, which placed a high premium on personal connections and decision-making by consensus. As Myra Marx Ferree and Beth Hess have noted, in the late 1970s NOW was “pulled towards less hierarchical and more participatory styles by incoming streams of grassroots members.”33 A consensus has emerged among historians of the feminist movement that the two strands of the feminist movement—the liberal reform movement with its bureaucratic structure and the radical Women’s Liberation movement with its collectivist structure—for all practical purposes merged in the late 1970s and early 1980s.34 The Allentown chapter represented just such a fusion of these strands. It retained the hierarchical model of a NOW chapter with an elected leadership, but emphasis was on equal participation of all members within a unit small enough to accommodate this approach. The ease with which members could form new (often very small) chapters allowed those who subscribed to a model of feminist organizing different from that of their local chapter to simply form their own group.

Jocelyn Morris wanted to create a chapter, which like Allentown NOW would place greater emphasis on reaching out to women of color, but she was clearly not interested in a very small chapter relying primarily on close relationships among members. She wanted to increase membership and build a strong organization that would be a powerful player in the community. Furthermore, she was not interested in forming a separate Black women’s organization. She chose to get involved with NOW because she saw NOW “as the primary organization that speaks on women’s issues. That’s why I got involved and stay involved over 30 years later. My goal was to ensure there would be a Black woman’s voice and influence within NOW.”

Morris wrote to all those who attended the Pennsylvania NOW 1980 Conference on Racism and Sexism, inviting them to join Germantown NOW or, if they were already members of a chapter, to work with Germantown NOW on the interconnections between sexism and racism and outreach to women of color.35 The application to establish Germantown NOW was filed on July 18, 1980; among the founding members were former Philadelphia NOW president Betsy Parziale and noted African-American attorney Sadie Alexander.36 Interestingly, not all the members of Germantown NOW lived in Germantown, and some NOW members living in Germantown belonged to the Center City or the breakaway East Philadelphia chapter. Some of the support for Germantown NOW may have been related to old feuds with Philadelphia NOW as well as support for Germantown NOW’s focus on racism and outreach to women of color.

Jocelyn Morris cast a wide net in recruiting for Germantown NOW’s first public meeting and sent letters to many prominent women, including several women on Philadelphia City Council and on the staff of local political leaders, inviting them to attend the first meeting of the new chapter.37 The flyer for the event proclaimed: “The Elimination of Racism is a Feminist Issue!”38 According to the Germantown Courier, about 35 women attended the first meeting of Germantown NOW; among the speakers were then Pennsylvania NOW president Bridget M. Whitley and African-American educator Earline Sloan. Sloan urged the group: “Don’t get caught up in, ‘my oppression is greater than your oppression’ … . Black women shouldn’t have to feel they have to choose between being a feminist and being Black.”39

Despite Morris’s efforts, the only newspapers that covered Germantown NOW were the neighborhood paper and the major African-American paper, the Philadelphia Tribune. In a lengthy article in the Tribune profiling Morris, the reporter apparently felt she had to reassure her readers that “It’s not true that the feminist movement is a single-purpose group of lesbians and anti-male advocates” and quoted Morris that NOW was “in fact a social change organization with broad concerns” relevant to Black women.

Morris described the tensions in her personal life as she tried to juggle the roles of wife, mother, and working woman: “I soon learned that others felt the same way. A large percentage of divorces and separations among Black couples are due to sexism and the inability of women to combine the dual roles.” She stated that NOW never actively recruited Black women or placed them in policy-making positions, that there were few minorities in any level of the organization and that “what we are now doing is grooming Black women for leadership.”40 Some NOW leaders would no doubt dispute Morris’s contention that they had never “actively recruited” Black women, but their relatively low numbers within the organization and in leadership roles was beyond dispute.

Morris was frustrated by national NOW’s inability to produce the kinds of recruitment materials she needed. In November 1980, she wrote to the National NOW Action Center charging that the “lack of available materials needed to recruit minority women is detrimental to the goal of Germantown NOW, which is to do specific outreach to minority women.” She stated that since July 1980 she had been trying, without any success, to obtain the brochures “Minority Women and Feminism” and “Minority Women and the ERA,” and noted that “at a time when we have less than 600 days until we get three more states to ratify the ERA it is imperative that national effort be made to recruit minority women and educate them about the ERA.”41 The tone of her letter suggested real frustration and anger at what she perceived as national NOW’s lack of support for her efforts.

Morris worked tirelessly to build Germantown NOW. Beginning in February 1981 the chapter held two meetings per month at the Germantown YWCA and organized a series of forums, including “Black Women and the ERA” and “Political Power and how to go about getting it.” Morris managed to get some high-profile speakers for the forums, which ensured coverage in the Germantown Courier. Diane Kiddy, executive director of the Mayor’s Commission for Women, was the main speaker at the forum on “Political Power.” Kiddy urged the attendees to learn the rules of politics, get involved in political campaigns, donate money to political candidates of their choice, and back women candidates.42 Morris was making every effort to connect her focus on racism and outreach to minority women with NOW’s key priorities, the ERA and participation in the political process.

In addition, Morris, like the 1970s Philadelphia NOW leaders, was ever-vigilant about sexist practices in the media. In her capacity as president of Germantown NOW, she wrote to Alan Nesbitt, news assignment editor of WPVI TV, to complain about coverage of the swearing-in ceremony of the members of the Philadelphia Commission for Women: “I was infuriated and disappointed that the news assignment editor did not consider the swearing-in ceremony of 36 prominent women leaders in our community important enough to be given more than 10 seconds coverage!”43 From Nesbitt’s reply: “The fact that we covered the story, and gave it more than ten seconds, shows that we are sensitive to important events involving women.”44 His response was less conciliatory than responses to Philadelphia NOW’s complaints about media coverage in the mid-1970s.

Like Pittsburgh’s Brenda Frazier, Jocelyn Morris did not hesitate to take on African-American leaders for sexist practices. Leaders who came out of the civil rights movement, particularly those who became involved in electoral politics, were usually on record as in favor of gender equality. Unlike some leaders involved in Black Nationalist organizations, civil rights leaders and members of the Black establishment were unlikely to totally dismiss feminist concerns. Morris wrote to Walter Livingston, chair of the board of the Philadelphia Tribune, to protest the lack of women panelists at the Tribune’s December 1980 seminar on Black on Black Crime. She stated, “As president of the Germantown chapter of the National Organization for Women I suggest that all of your seminars feature top women Black leaders on your panel … . It is time the Black community stop treating women as second-class citizens.”45 Morris also wrote to Robert W. Sorrell, president of the Urban League, to protest the choice of Senator John Heinz as keynote for the organization’s 1981 annual dinner. While acknowledging that Heinz had “a good voting record on minority issues,” Morris noted that he was the co-sponsor of a constitutional amendment known as the Human Life Amendment, which would outlaw abortion and most forms of contraception.46

Morris put considerable time and energy into organizing petition drives against the amendment and writing letters to the editor to educate the public on its consequences. Somehow Morris managed to combine her commitment to NOW with her family responsibilities, her pursuit of an advanced degree, and her full-time job as an employment counselor. Given this grueling workload, it comes as no surprise to see Jocelyn Morris’s resignation letter sent to active members of Germantown NOW informing them that effective from May 31, 1981, she was resigning as president of Germantown NOW. Morris stated the reasons for her decision:
I feel in the best interest of fostering shared responsibility of running the chapter by all members, not just the minority officers, I must resign. I also feel my family and school responsibilities dictate that I can no long carry the amount of responsibility that the Presidency of the chapter entails.47

Morris was clearly frustrated that other members of the chapter did not share her commitment and work ethic. When she received no response to her resignation letter, she sent a second letter, expressing her frustration more directly and informing chapter members that she could no longer “carry the burden of running the chapter by [her]self”:
We have a lot of work, and no one willing to take responsibility for any of it. Besides having a full-time job, I am currently working on my B.A. degree in Human Services at Antioch University. I have two small children and a husband who is not always supportive of my activities in NOW and the women’s movement. I will continue as chapter president until the October 1981 elections only if you will come out to meetings and lend your support.48

This is a familiar story: a chapter leader throws herself heart and soul into the work of the organization; she becomes totally exhausted, and seeing that she is doing most of the work with relatively little support, decides she can no longer continue. There is very much a gender dimension to volunteer burnout. When activist commitments take time away from family responsibilities, women often suffer greater guilt than do their male counterparts—a burden of guilt which itself contributes to the overwhelming sense of exhaustion.

In an August 1981 interview with The Philadelphia Tribune, Morris acknowledged that recruiting Black women into the interracial Germantown NOW chapter “has not been easy. Black women are not exactly breaking down doors to join organizations such as NOW.” She noted that even the Germantown chapter, founded to combat racism and reach out to women of color, was a majority white chapter; of the 52 members of Germantown NOW, 20 were Black. However, Morris told the Tribune she hoped this would soon change, as “NOW has recognized the need for Black women to be involved if it is to speak authoritatively about the needs and concerns of all women” and has recently incorporated affirmative action guidelines into its bylaws.49

Thanks to its organizational structure, NOW had a decided advantage over the loosely organized Women’s Liberation collectives, which had no mechanism for mandating inclusion of women of color. However, as national NOW leaders would soon realize, affirmative action guidelines were necessary but far from sufficient for NOW to significantly increase the participation of women of color. National NOW did not mandate that its local affiliates revise their bylaws to include affirmative action, no doubt realizing how difficult it would be to ensure compliance. Consequently, after Morris left the Philadelphia area, the racial composition of Germantown NOW began to change. The new president, Betsy Parziale, was a white woman and the racial composition of the executive board of Germantown NOW also shifted. When Jocelyn Morris was president, the vice president was an African-American woman, Nancie Dent. All four of the officers were now white women. No doubt in an effort to create a more diverse board, in January 1982 the board was expanded to included two new state board delegates and two alternate delegates. Two of the delegates were African-American.50

The focus of Germantown NOW shifted to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. This shift in priorities was not surprising, as NOW at every level of the organization poured all its resources into the final push for passage of the ERA. The leaders of Germantown NOW, although focused primarily on passage of the ERA, did not want to abandon their focus on combating racism, and at the January general membership meeting selected the following priorities for 1982: 1) ERA Ratification; 2) Reproductive Freedom; 3) Eliminating Racism; 4) Lesbian Rights; 5) Economic Justice.51 Germantown NOW also held a Black History Month event, “A celebration of Black Women in Pennsylvania History” presented by African-American educator Shirley Parham.52 Although much less focused on combating racism than during Jocelyn Morris’ presidency, Germantown NOW still retained its identity as an interracial chapter with a greater emphasis on racial equality than was the case with Philadelphia NOW.

As with Philadelphia NOW, Germantown NOW’s priorities reflected the national organization’s increased emphasis on participation in electoral politics. The reservations of some NOW members regarding electoral politics were largely swept away as a consequence of the ERA campaign, which had demonstrated the importance of feminists holding office. On April 29, 1982, Germantown NOW hosted a candidates’ forum for all candidates for state office residing in or near Northwest Philadelphia. Although both Pennsylvania NOW and Germantown NOW were on record as having eliminating racism as one of their top priorities, the Pennsylvania NOWPAC questionnaire distributed to the candidates did not raise the issue of racism. The lack of questions on racism was particularly surprising in the case of Pennsylvania NOW, given the resolutions passed by the 1981 Pennsylvania NOW Convention affirming that eliminating racism continued to be a top priority.53

How, then, does one explain the Pennsylvania NOWPAC 1982 questionnaire’s failure to include any questions on racism? Although National NOW and Pennsylvania NOW leaders declared their commitment to combating racism, Pennsylvania NOW activist Jo Ann Evans-Gardner stated that his was not the case with the grassroots membership: “Far too many can be heard to argue that to make racism a concern is divisive (or diluting) to feminism.”54 The commitment to eliminating racism apparently was not sufficiently internalized by the members, and the Pennsylvania NOWPAC questionnaire failed to include a question on racism.

One consequence of Germanton NOW’s 1982 prioritizing of the ERA over eliminating racism was a shift in press coverage of the chapter. Under Jocelyn Morris’s presidency, the Germantown Courier and the African-American-owned Philadelphia Tribune covered the events of Germantown NOW. In February 1982, apparently for the first time, an article about Germantown NOW appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local, the paper covering the most affluent neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia. The Chestnut Hill Local reported that the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was “tops on the priority list” of Germantown NOW.55 An accompanying article noted that Germantown NOW would hold “A Celebration of Black Women in Pennsylvania History” presented by Shirley Parham.56 The chapter’s focus on racism and outreach to women of color remained, but the emphasis had changed.

After the defeat of the ERA in June 1982, Germantown NOW focused on what could be achieved for women under the Pennsylvania ERA. At some point in 1983, Betsy Parziale could no longer continue as president—again, the all too familiar burnout story.In the early 1970s when chapter leaders expressed similar exhaustion there were many new recruits ready to move into leadership. The landscape was very different in 1983. Although NOW’s national leaders worked hard to create a new post-ERA agenda for NOW, many members who had put their lives on hold to work for the passage of the ERA could no longer sustain the same level of commitment. The heady social movement phase of the feminist movement was ending and with it the exhilaration of participating in a world-changing (and life-changing) movement. When Betsy Parziale left Germantown NOW, there was no one to pick up the torch and the chapter dedicated to racial and gender justice fell apart. Although leaders like JoAnn Gardner were championing the cause of racial justice, there were not enough members who shared sharing this commitment to sustain the chapter. The dissolution of Germantown NOW also illustrates a downside of very small chapters: when the leaders burn out, the pool of potential successors is small; eventually, the chapter dissolves or winds down to one or two members keeping the memory alive.

However, breakaway chapters had their advantages, in keeping dissident members within the big tent of NOW and thus paying dues to the national organization. The breakaway Germantown chapter was formed in response to philosophical differences as to what counts as a feminist issue and whether the struggle for gender justice and racial justice were intertwined. In the 1980s, the leadership of National NOW and of Pennsylvania were trying to educate their members about racism but the membership of the Philadelphia chapter was not yet ready for this. Chapters had a great deal of autonomy and national NOW had no mechanism for forcing the conversation. The struggle to educate NOW members about racial justice continues into the 21st century.

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