Sunday, March 27, 2022

Feminist Organizing Across the Generations. Part I: Building the feminist movement, Chapter 2, Managing conflict

Karen Decrow, past president of national NOW and pioneer of what we now call intersectional feminism

Managing conflict

The enormous energy NOW members put into achieving their many victories led to exhaustion and volunteer burnout spreading throughout the organization. In its weakened state NOW on all levels was more vulnerable to internal division. By the mid-1970s the social movements that arose in the 1960s were experiencing deepening internal conflicts. The New Left was imploding and many of the loosely organized Women’s Liberation collectives were seriously weakened and in some cases torn apart by internal strife. Unlike NOW, most of these collectives had no formal mechanism for dispute resolution. NOW had a formal grievance procedure; elected boards on the national, state, and local levels, which made decisions by majority vote; and a process for ousting current officers and electing new ones whose priorities were in tune with the majority. In short, NOW had mechanisms for conflict resolution, which enabled it to survive the battles of the mid-1970s, bruised and battered but still standing.

Conflicts in national NOW were becoming increasingly bitter and, as a consequence of hosting the 1975 national conference, Philadelphia NOW was drawn into the disputes tearing apart national NOW. In the early 1970s, Philadelphia NOW newsletters focused on local projects and did not report on the dissension at the national level. The first account of problems in national NOW was then Philadelphia NOW president Karen Knudsen’s 1974 report: “The Convention in Houston taught us that ‘feminist politics’ aren’t much different than any other politics. They are intense, heated, stimulating, and sometimes unfair and cruel…. [often] feminists appear to confuse personal and political conflict.”46 The difficulty of disentangling personal tensions and competing ambitions from genuine political differences is a recurrent theme in the history of NOW. Maryann Barasko in her study of the structure of NOW quotes an unpublished 1973 letter from NOW activist Jo-Ann Gardner describing a power struggle within national NOW over “the question of who should run NOW and how. Some of the issues are ideological … and some are about power—e.g. whose project shall have how much funding, who shall make critical decisions, etc.”47

Philadelphia NOW in the early 1970s seemed largely free of such conflicts, but this would change in the middle 1970s. In the January 1975 national NOW president Karen DeCrow and her allies broke from the rest of the national board and formed a group they called the Majority Caucus.48 The Pennsylvania NOW board voted to escrow the dues owed to national NOW and to join the Majority Caucus, pledging to pursue “radicalization, decentralization, returning control to the membership and integrity to the organization.”49 There was no explanation as to what Pennsylvania NOW meant by “radicalization,” and members must have been confused as what actual issues divided the two increasingly antagonistic factions of NOW.

The situation deteriorated to the point where the two sides faced each other in court. The Majority Caucus had initiated a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of proposed bylaws amendments; the judge decided in favor of the Majority Caucus, and “the bylaws were enjoined from further progress.” Fortunately, NOW had a structure and an existing set of bylaws, which a court could interpret to resolve the dispute. After coming dangerously close to splitting into two separate organizations, the two factions managed to agree on procedures for the October 1975 NOW conference in Philadelphia.50

The Majority Caucus then adopted the slogan, “Out of the Mainstream, into the Revolution.” This was quite a departure from the Statement of Purpose adopted at the first NOW conference in 1966: “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society.”51 In sharp contrast, national NOW president Karen DeCrow stated in 1975:
Most feminists have concluded that it is time for our aspirations and our actions to go out of the mainstream and into the revolution. To emerge from trying to get a piece of the pie which is tasteless and unfulfilling at best—to changing the very fabric of life for women and men and children alike.52

Many NOW members in the mid-1970s saw themselves as at a turning point in the feminist movement. This was especially the case with Pennsylvania NOW and Philadelphia NOW, which were among the strongest supporters of the Majority Caucus.

Philadelphia NOW saw the Majority Caucus as the more inclusive feminist group, which would reach out to non-elite women. From Philadelphia NOW activist Lillian Ciarrochi’s description of the opposition to the Majority Caucus: “We nicknamed them the whole-wheat caucus because they were so namby-pamby … . And they were the ones who wore white gloves and pillbox hats and nylon stockings and we were the rabble-rousers.” The opposition to the Majority Caucus formed a short-lived “network” called “Womensurge,” which according to Ciarrochi, “didn’t want to support abortion rights like we did: ‘Oh that offends people you know and we’re going to lose people.'" An article in Electric Circle, a Majority Caucus publication, expressed a similar perspective, noting that as the feminist movement achieves more public support, some NOW members have wanted “to abandon the abortion issue until the ERA is ratified … [and] push lesbians back into the closet and pretend the 1971 resolution supporting lesbian rights, doesn’t exist.”55

Although some Philadelphia NOW activists saw the split as at root a class divide exacerbated by lingering tension over abortion and lesbian rights, in its official publications the Majority Caucus did not present the divide in those terms. Despite the radical theme—“out of the mainstream into the revolution”—the booklet prepared by the Majority Caucus for the National NOW Conference was far from incendiary and stressed democratic process and procedures, pledging “to create an organization that will be responsive to and controlled by the membership … [and] adhere to principles that permit and demand open discussion, deliberation and fair play.56 Although the Majority Caucus conference booklet de-emphasized issues and focused on procedures, there clearly were serious ideological disagreements with the opposing faction about the direction of the organization. Beverly Jones, in an Electric Circle article, argues that the structural and procedural changes advocated by the Majority Caucus were essential to the realization of their radical vision:
A decentralized NOW will be more radical and aggressive … . With respect to racism, the poor, lesbianism, and classism as well as sexism, the national board and particularly its still-dominant conservative faction have played a timid, stand-pat game. Decentralizing NOW will free radical and aggressive state organizations … . It will liberate us to fight sexists instead of power-oriented sisters.57

In addition to demands for greater autonomy for state affiliates, the dominant theme emerging from Electric Circle was a longing for a feminist movement that would address broad social justice issues. Decades before Occupy Wall Street, Toni Carabillo framed the issue in terms of the 99 percent against the 1 percent. She argued for building coalitions “not only with all the dispossessed in our society—the women, minorities, the poor, the aged—but also with the disenchanted—those members of the middle class of our society who have in the past been manipulated into being angry with all those below them on the economic ladder, when their anger and hostility should be redirected up-ward to the top 1%.”58
The second issue of Electric Circle contained the platform of the Majority Caucus, and unlike their official conference booklet, the platform focused on revolutionary vision rather than democratic procedures:
The Majority Caucus affirms the necessity to include and support within the movement women who are doubly and triply oppressed because of the combined effect of sex discrimination and race, age, ethnic, religious, sexual preference, and economic discrimination. There should be no doubt regarding our conviction that creating jobs for all women who want them is as much a feminist issue as obtaining better jobs for those women who are already employed.58

The platform further committed NOW to “ensuring that its public image and all facets of NOW’s action program reflect the multi-racial, multi-cultural nature of feminism … utilizing NOW’s political clout, financial resources and membership energies to combat racism in America.”59 The Majority Caucus appears to have made a tactical decision: creating a convention booklet with moderate arguments designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of the membership and publishing the Electric Circle manifesto designed to inspire and energize those already committed
What Toni Carabillo, Karen DeCrow, Eleanor Smeal, and other members of the Majority Caucus saw as a broadening of the movement essential to its continued growth and success, their opposition saw as de-emphasizing gender discrimination and thus betraying the original mission of NOW. According to Jacqui Ceballos, who ran against DeCrow for the presidency of national NOW (but withdrew after the first ballot): “The Majority Caucus is taking the feminism out of the feminist movement and making it a political movement that will kill feminism in this country.”60 The election was close. On the second ballot Karen DeCrow faced one opponent, South Dakota’s Mary Lynn Myers. DeCrow won with 1,132 votes to Myers’ 1,034 votes.61 Each side saw victory as essential to the future of feminism and each claimed to be the majority. Mary Lynn Myers contended, “we represented at least one-half of the members here … . And we’re sure we represent the majority of the organization.”62 She did not, however, contest the election, which had been conducted by the American Arbitration Association.

Although what we now call intersectional feminism is often thought to be a movement of the 1990s, the concept was central to the Majority Caucus vision in 1975. In her keynote address Karen DeCrow declared: “This is not a woman’s movement; this is a people’s movement.” She made a public apology to lesbians and gays noting that “our failure has been in not seeing the unbreakable connection between sexual stereotyping and fear of gay people.” She also made an apology to women and men of color, pledging that NOW must use its resources to fight against racism in America, and affirming “this is not a white organization.”63 Although DeCrow’s message resonated with members of the Majority Caucus, whether NOW should move beyond women’s issues (strictly construed) and become a broad social justice organization remained controversial.

The divisions at the 1975 national conference provide an explanation for the very different perceptions of NOW in the 1970s; on the one hand, NOW was viewed as a white, middle-class liberal reform group; on the other hand, as an activist organization with a radical, counter-cultural edge. Someone who lived in Pierre, South Dakota and was a member of Mary Lynn Myers’ chapter would no doubt have the former impression; someone who lived in Syracuse, New York and was a member of Karen DeCrow’s chapter would in all likelihood have the latter impression. Karen de Crow’s determination to “move out of the mainstream and into the revolution” reflected the extent to which the Women’s Liberation movement and the social justice movements of the 1970s had influenced NOW.

In addition to differences about the scope of NOW’s concerns, divisions also existed over tactics. Despite its radical rhetoric and advocacy of more street demonstrations, the Majority Caucus also espoused tactics that were decidedly mainstream. Karen DeCrow and Eleanor Smeal were convinced that NOW must be directly involved in electoral politics; in her keynote speech DeCrow urged: “We should be the mayors, the governors; we should be President of the United States … . Instead of accepting those persons, we intend to be those persons.”65 Congresswoman Bella Abzug urged NOW members to run for political office and argued “the lobby is the outer room … . We have to be prepared to have our people in the outer and inner rooms of power.” Abzug, then a candidate for the US Senate, noted that although there were 19 women in the House of Representatives, “We have a stag Senate.”66 The opposition to the Majority Caucus was wary of involvement in electoral politics and in some cases adamantly opposed, fearing that endorsing candidates would tie NOW to the Democratic Party and alienate Republican feminists. However, the Majority Caucus call to enter the electoral arena resonated with many NOW members and permanently changed the organization, which formed a political action committee in 1977. Despite this shift in direction, how closely NOW should be allied with the Democratic Party remained a source of tension.

The bitterly fought 1975 election for the presidency of national NOW was both an exhausting and exhilarating experience for NOW activists and particularly so for Philadelphia NOW. Lillian Ciarrochi’s recollections of the 1975 conference convey the stress, the excitement, the passionate commitment to a new direction for NOW as well her fear of forces she thought were threatening the gains of the feminist movement: “We realized that we were infiltrated by the FBI, CIA; we even had people working for the FBI on our national board … . I can give you some names.” Ciarrochi’s fears of FBI infiltration were confirmed in 1977 when FBI files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act documented that the FBI used women informants between 1969 and 1973 to infiltrate feminist groups.

However, the FBI infiltration was no laughing matter. Historian Ruth Rosen, who documented the extent of FBI surveillance of the feminist movement, stated: “Still in my wildest flights of paranoia I never imagined the extent to which the FBI spied on feminists or how many people did the spying. We may never know the full extent of this infiltration, what damage it caused or how it affected the trajectory.” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with finding communists and convinced that the women’s movement was a communist front. According to Rosen, when FBI regional offices, unable to uncover any subversive activity, asked Hoover to end surveillance of the women’s movement, Hoover refused, stating “that members of the women’s movement should be viewed as part of the enemy.”68 The infiltration, and the belief that such infiltration was occurring, sowed discord in the feminist movement, fostering a tendency to suspect that ideological opponents were government agents or informers.

illian Ciarrochi saw threats to NOW coming from both government surveillance and left-wing organizations seeking to infiltrate NOW and disrupt planning meetings for the 1975 national conference. She recalled:
We started to notice at meetings that we were being infiltrated by members of the Socialist Workers Party. They would disrupt meetings and scream and yell. They all joined for ten dollars, which was the cheapest rate we had. They tried to make us dysfunctional, to shut down our meetings.
There was considerable fear of foul play at the conference and concern about security. Ciarrochi stated that the Majority Caucus thought it necessary to hire security twenty-four hours a day for DeCrow, Smeal, and several other leaders. As a result of members’ concerns about the credentialing process, NOW hired the American Arbitration Society to run the election for national NOW president.

For Ciarrochi and other Philadelphia NOW members, the 1975 conference was a transformative experience, one of the peak experiences of their lives, but it took a toll. There was considerable soul-searching about how feminists dealt with conflict in the aftermath of the conference. Toni Carabillo, in the post-conference issue of the national NOW newsletter, shared her thoughts on feminist ethics. She held feminists to high standards: “I know that to be genuinely feminist and committed to sisterhood, I cannot harbor or practice racism, ageism, or sexism, that sisterhood must encompass the old as well as the young, and that one can and must be sisterly to a feminist brother.” She advocated the values of participatory democracy, associated with the New Left and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which largely disappeared when those movements imploded (in the case of the New Left) or lost some of their social movement fervor (in the case of the feminist movement). Carabillo pledged to “never sacrifice principles of participatory democracy to the false idol of organizational efficiency.”71

At a time when women were beginning to get jobs in feminist service and advocacy organizations or were building careers (e.g., in journalism, politics) as a result of their involvement in organized feminism, there were increasing possibilities for conflict of interest. Carabillo noted:
While my participation in a feminist action organization, particularly as a leader, may provide some financial rewards, I must be wary of becoming dependent on the organization and my position in it as a source of support or as a platform for professional advancement, knowing I may run the risk of confusing my personal needs or ambitions with the political necessities of our cause.72

Carabillo’s delineation of a “Feminist Ethic” is informed by her belief in women’s different values and different voice, which characterized much feminist thought in the 1970s and 1980s, a strand usually associated with Carol Gilligan among others.73 Carabillo argued that “cooperation and collaboration—not competition or authoritarianism—are the feminist approach.”74 It’s not clear to what extent NOW’s membership as a whole was grappling with the issues Carabillo addressed, but it is clear that members were learning, as Karen Knudsen did in the aftermath of the 1974 national conference: “feminist politics aren’t much different than any other politics. They are intense, heated, stimulating, and sometimes unfair and cruel.”75

The perceived threat of the Socialist Workers Party

Although national NOW eventually emerged from the 1975 conference stronger despite the battle scars, this was not the case with Philadelphia NOW. In 1977, a combination of exhaustion, volunteer burnout, and personal and political tensions threatened the existence of the Philadelphia chapter. Finally, the entrance of members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) into the chapter was a source of tension, and according to some veteran members, the primary cause of the near-dissolution of the chapter in 1977.

Socialist Workers Party members were not the only new members with an anti-capitalist analysis who joined NOW in the mid-1970s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, critiques of capitalism were absent from NOW publications—the focus was very much on integrating women into existing socio-economic structures. The entrance of new members in the mid and late 1970s, many of whom were abandoning the then disintegrating New Left, led to an increasing number of NOW members questioning the US economic system. In Electric Circle, a series of articles called for redistributive measures such as a full-employment policy and massive public works programs concentrated in human services. The series began with a call to action: “If poverty is to be eliminated, the economic class structure must be eliminated.”77

The big tent of NOW could accommodate the perspectives of left feminists who questioned the compatibility of feminism and capitalism. What it would not accommodate was the attempt of a highly disciplined left-wing organization like the Socialist Workers Party to take over NOW. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Socialist Workers Party attempted to infiltrate NOW on the national and local levels. Political scientist Jo Freeman documents that the SWP and its youth movement, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), had deliberately targeted the feminist movement as early as the late 1960s. Freeman quotes a 1970 YSA publication, which concludes: “the movement for women’s liberation represents an historic opportunity for the revolutionary socialist movement …The openness of the women involved in the movement, and the anti-capitalist thrust of the movement as a whole, offer excellent opportunities to the YSA to win the best of these women to revolutionary socialism and to the YSA.”79 The YSA may have over-estimated the anti-capitalist thrust of the feminist movement, but it was certainly correct about its openness.

NOW leaders feared that the openness of which they were justly proud would provide an opportunity for SWP infiltration, and they issued repeated warnings to members. An article in the October 1978 California NOW Times, “SWP in NOW: The Persistent Parasites,” alerts NOW members to an “insidious invasion into our organization,” and warns that the Socialist Workers Party will be attending the 1978 NOW National Conference in Washington “in full force with their usual hidden agendas, and a bag full of gratuitous resolutions—fashioned in SWP meetings, by SWP leaders—to accomplish SWP purposes, not NOW’s.” The California NOW Times asserted: “Most activists in NOW are feminists first and foremost and only incidentally Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or whatever. This is not true of members of SWP when they join other organizations. Their primary allegiance remains to SWP.” Interestingly, the 1978 California NOW Times article refers to the 1966 NOW “Statement of Purpose” “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society,” rather than the radical 1975 statement, “out of the mainstream, into the revolution.”80 The 1975 slogan gradually disappeared from the literature of national NOW. NOW’s focus was increasingly on passage of the ERA; the 1975 slogan would not have helped build broad-based support necessary for its passage.

California NOW’s prediction of a significant Socialist Workers Party presence at the 1978 National NOW Conference proved to be accurate. NOW members were aware of the dangers of over-reacting to the SWP and compromising their democratic beliefs in an attempt to squelch the perceived SWP threat. Yet they could not simply ignore SWP attempts to take over NOW chapters. They noted that when large numbers of SWP members joined a NOW chapter, that chapter tended to become embroiled in internal conflict and as a consequence declined in numbers and activity—a pattern that had been reported in all regions of NOW. The members at the 1978 conference passed the following resolution in an attempt to balance democratic values with the need to protect the integrity and independence of the organization: “WHEREAS, the National Organization for Women (NOW) has always been an independent feminist organization … THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that no political party be allowed to use NOW or any subunit of NOW as a vehicle to further its political goals.81

The tension between SWP and NOW chapters played out differently in different parts of the country. In Philadelphia, the situation was complicated by personal tensions and volunteer burnout. According to founding member Judy Foley: “Near disintegration of the ten-year-old chapter in December 1977 was a sobering reminder of the fragility of a purely volunteer organization.” She noted that membership had fallen and attendance at regular monthly meetings was minimal. SWP members who had been a vocal minority in the organization saw an opportunity to take over Philadelphia NOW. However, according to Foley, long-time NOW members mobilized to save the chapter.82 The response of founding members to the threatened demise of the chapter was a testament to their deep loyalty to the organization. However, in the Philadelphia case it is impossible to disentangle tension created by SWP influence from conflicts of a more personal nature.

The problems came to a head in the fall of 1977, leading to a split in the chapter leadership. There were several newspaper reports on the split, which is evidence that NOW was considered an organization with significant influence. (It is inconceivable that disagreements within a local NOW chapter would get press coverage today.) Marci Shatzman in the Philadelphia Bulletin reported that Philadelphia NOW was in disarray due to the resignations of eight of its nine officers and the closing of its office. Shatzman quotes resigning officer Kay Whitlock, who claimed that the root of the problem was the increasing SWP presence at chapter meetings: “At almost every meeting there were hideously long debates over mass action.”83 Shatzman reported that the one officer who did not resign, SWP member Clare Fraenzl, denied that the SWP presence was the cause of the split and said she would ask those who resigned to reconsider their decision. The eight were not interested in returning and applied to national NOW for a charter to form a new chapter in Philadelphia.

NOW president Eleanor Smeal approved the appointment of an interim steering committee chaired by Karen Knudsen to govern Philadelphia NOW until elections for new officers could be held.Knudsen thought that splitting into two chapters would only exacerbate the chapter’s financial difficulties, and she invited the former chapter officers to return: “Whatever the reason for their disaffection, we urge them to put the unity of the movement ahead of petty disagreements … . We will welcome back those who made a hasty and ill-considered decision to resign.”84 The tone of Knudsen’s overture with its reference to the resignations as a “hasty and ill-considered decision” suggests the statement was intended more as a reproach than as an olive branch. Knudsen charged that the chapter had outstanding bills and that the financial records were not in good order. Also, she reported that the newsletter had not been mailed regularly, phone calls went unanswered, mail was not picked up, and member participation was at an all-time low.

Press reports detailing the ensuing charges and countercharges continued to frame the split as a dispute over the SWP role in Philadelphia NOW. The local press for the most part tried hard to be even-handed, with the Philadelphia Bulletin printing a letter from each side under the heading: “Despite tensions, NOW is alive and well!”85 Longtime NOW member Judy Foley faulted the press for what she considered an exaggerated emphasis on the SWP. In her article “Sexism and the System: 19 Nonsensical Days in December,” Foley contended that only Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Sue Chastain told the full story by stating that the resignations followed months of conflict, that the former president acknowledged being overworked, that membership was shrinking, and that there were only seven SWP members among the 200 members of Philadelphia NOW. Foley saw the real story as: “feminists who try to maintain a big organization, homes, jobs and sanity eventually get tired.”86 In an interview thirty years later, Judy Foley’s analysis was unchanged. She recalled the emphasis on an SWP takeover as overblown and not the root cause of the problem, which she identified as volunteer burnout.87

Whatever the reasons for the near-dissolution of Philadelphia NOW, the founding members rallied to save their chapter. Newly elected secretary Irene Osborne reported that the December 19 meeting to elect new officers drew about a hundred people, many of them former members returning. According to Osborne, “The atmosphere was one of quiet celebration, of homecoming, of old friends glad to be back.”88 The election of new officers received a generally positive spin in the local press. From Marci Shatzman’s report in the Philadelphia Bulletin: “There was a collective ‘high’ at the meeting which produced a reunion of the faithful …Most of the women who brought feminism to Philadelphia a decade ago were there.”89

National president Eleanor Smeal attended the meeting and noted that chapters in large cities often experienced difficulties due to an influx of new members.89 The support Smeal provided to the chapter illustrates the advantage of being a part of a national organization. If a chapter becomes non-functional for a period of time, the organization continues to exist on the national level; thus it is relatively easy to revive the local affiliate. When small, unaffiliated organizations cease functioning they are far less likely to rebound. This was the case with many of the Women’s Liberation collectives, which consisted largely of unaffiliated groups, without any national organization that could mediate disputes.

Although the Socialist Workers Party had faded from the scene in Philadelphia NOW after the 1977 chapter election, it continued to be a source of concern on the national level. NOW publications focused on the disruptive tactics of the SWP but not on the ideological challenges. From its earliest days NOW had claimed that feminists of all political persuasions could find a home in NOW and that the movement for gender equality transcended political ideology. Socialist feminists who entered NOW in the mid-1970s challenged the idea that feminist beliefs trumped all political ideology. Claire Fraenzl in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer stated: “Many feminists, in their experiences in fighting for the rights of women, come to see the capitalist system as the source of their oppression and become convinced of the need for fundamental change in all social relations.”92 Fraenzl presented no evidence supporting her claim that a “significant” number of women in NOW shared this view. The literature suggests that her views were a minority opinion within NOW, but there were certainly NOW members and members of the broad feminist movement who questioned whether gender equality could be achieved under capitalism.

Some NOW members would argue that feminist goals were not incompatible with all forms of capitalism, but that the US model of low tax, largely unregulated capitalism could not provide the supports needed by working women and their families. They looked to the hybrid economies of the social democratic countries of Northwestern Europe for policies that would advance gender equality. However, direct arguments in favor of social democracy (or socialism) were rarely made in official NOW publications and were probably viewed as unhelpful in the struggle to build support for the ERA. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the backlash against the utopian visions of the 1960s and early 1970s was in full force and the left-wing groups of those decades disappeared or were greatly diminished in numbers. The political center of gravity had shifted dramatically to the right and there was no longer any reason to fear disruption from the SWP.

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