Monday, August 26, 2013

43rd anniversary of women's liberation movement

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, the demonstration which launched the women’s liberation movement of that era. Betty Friedan initially proposed the action to the National Organization for Women (NOW) though as more radical women & socialists joined the organizing efforts both Friedan & NOW became reluctant to participate & played very little role in building the demonstration, even if today they are given sole credit.

There was considerable wrangling over the demands of the march but the more radical versions prevailed: equal employment opportunity with equal pay; free 24-hour childcare; & free abortion on demand--no forced sterilization. The demands were more a wish list than a program for action but political debate was sharp & rancorous & exposed the chasm between women who wanted the movement to remain an elite club & those who wanted an all-inclusive social movement.

“No forced sterilization” was added to the demand for reproductive rights because a strong political force within the abortion rights movement were eugenicists who wanted to legitimize the sterilization of Black, Latino, & Native American women without their knowledge or consent. This arrant racism had been common medical practice for decades; at that time, over 30% of women in Puerto Rico had been forcibly sterilized. This was certainly the most immediately actionable demand of the three. It was also feminism throwing down the gauntlet to eugenicists--not just distinguishing ourselves from their racism in no uncertain terms but going to battle against it. Women will control our own bodies--not the church, not the state, & certainly not creepy eugenicists!

The media certainly had plenty to draw on for its caricature of feminism as a middle-class movement trying to break a glass ceiling rather than a movement to redress the grievances of working class, Black, Latino, & Native American women. Friedan only came to two organizing meetings in the last several months, arriving after the meeting ended & only because her tailor was in the same area. She didn’t inquire about how things were going but would pull out a suitcase of new dresses & try them on for us, one after the other. Her book “The Feminine Mystique” never spoke to me; it spoke for elite women & had nothing to do with my life. I had come to feminism through rebellion against unequal treatment of men & women in the Catholic church. So as a young activist watching her try on the dresses, I wasn’t disappointed so much as appalled at the disrespect she displayed for our efforts. After August 26th I attended a meeting at her home where the door was answered by a Black woman in a maid’s uniform. Her suitcase of dresses & that maid’s uniform dramatized for me the great class divide that was eventually to weaken women’s liberation as a social movement.

My job on the organizing committee was publicity director. In that capacity I would go for radio interviews though I was still a provincial kid unfamiliar with the sophistication of New York City. On a few occasions I was interviewed with Gloria Steinem who though less flamboyant than Friedan was also elitist. She was a decade older than me & a leading light in New York literary circles. Though I was intimidated by her confidence I was much more perturbed by her refusal to look at me or address me during these interviews--like I wasn’t sitting next to her or even in the conversation.

The best part of publicity director was the nightly forays of activists to wallpaper the city in march posters. We put our rollers of glue in pizza boxes & headed out all over town. We got hauled in by the police on only a few occasions--once for wallpapering the windows of the Playboy Club.

We worked tirelessly to build that march, uncertain if more than a handful would show up so you cannot imagine how overwhelmed we were when thousands of women filled Fifth Avenue & Bryant Park for the rally. Estimates of the crowd vary from 10,000 to 50,000--but whatever the size, it was a confirmation for feminist activists that we were not alone, that we weren’t just malcontents, or (as the media portrayed us) man-hating lesbians, crazies, & spinsters too ugly to get a man. Feminism entered history again, declaring opposition to inequality & demanding its redress. And despite the hiatus after elite women (including Friedan & Steinem) railroaded the movement into the Democratic Party in support of politicians, it aint going away until that mission is accomplished.

This audiotape of two interviews with me at an August 26th organizing meeting is fun for me to haul out on this day since it captures the hilarity of our postering forays:

(Photo of August 26th 1970 march in NYC by John Olsen)


  1. Made me smile, listening to your postering exploits, Mary. Thanks for the (borrowed) memories!

  2. How very alive it must have felt, to be out in the night postering. You go!

    -- Ann