THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY
[Cross-posted to one of my favorite blogs, The Edge of the American West — the folks from whom we stole the “This Day in History” idea in the first place.]
On August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the notorious feminist author and activist Betty Friedan, out-going president of the four-year-old National Organization of Women, led tens of thousands of women in a march down Fifth Avenue toward Bryant Park, where, packed on the lawns behind the New York Public Library, the crowd heard addresses from Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Kate Millett, among others.
The Women’s Strike for Equality, as it was billed, called on women to withhold their labor for a day as a way to protest unequal pay — roughly 60 cents to every dollar a man made at the time — though the march itself didn’t begin until after 5 pm in case potential marchers elected to stay on the job. Organizers also asked housewives to refuse work: “Don’t Cook Dinner — Starve a Rat Tonight,” a typical sign read. The Equality march even included some who were old enough to have paraded for women’s suffrage over a half century earlier, and some marchers demanded complete constitutional equality under the Equal Rights Amendment, which, once it passed the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972, would spend the next decade being debated, ratified (and in some cases rescinded) by states, yet ultimately refused.
(August 26, 1970, also happens to have been the day I was born, across the continent in the rural Southwest, a world away from New York City and Women’s Lib alike. A few years later I would ride with other children on a July 4th parade float, dressed as a tree holding a stop sign that read: “STOP THE ERA!” But I digress.)
The Times coverage seems by turns both excited by the prospect of the women’s movement and bewildered by the day’s spectacle, noting the support of state and national political figures for commemorative celebrations as well as the apparently surprising fact that the Bryant Park rally was uninterrupted by hecklers. The article also reports on oddball moments: for instance, a smaller crowd had gathered earlier in Duffy Square (Broadway between 46th and 47th), where one “Ms. Mary Ordovan, dressed in cassock and surplice as a ‘symbolic priest,'” consecrated the spot for a statue of Susan B. Anthony, which would replace the one of Father Francis Duffy, a WWI chaplain and Hell’s Kitchen reformer. Crossing herself, Ordovan called on the name of “The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Granddaughter. Ah-Women, Ah-Women.”
In a brief aside, the reporter then explains that “‘Ms.’ is used by women who object to the distinction between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ to denote marital status.” (Within a year Ms. magazine would be founded by Steinem.)
I first came across this Times article — which was itself my introduction to the history of the Women’s Strike for Equality — a decade ago when, as a grad student in American Studies, I had the chance, by an odd set of circumstances, to teach several semesters of U.S. Women’s History. The experience was rewarding and humbling for several reasons — not least because the classes often included one or two elderly women who spent their retirements as “evergreen” students, taking a class a semester in topics that interested them. Their presence initially made me somewhat uncomfortable once we’d reach the 1940s and I’d realize that from here on out some of my students had lived — as women — through the very history I had to lecture on, as a 28-year-old male.
But the courses were also made challenging by the advent of what was just then being called “post-feminism,” a fact that made me somewhat uncomfortable when I’d inevitably realize that a lot of my younger students thought they had no need for feminism in their own lives. To them the world as all a hold-hands-and-sing Coca Cola Christmas commercial; they thought gender inequality belonged to the past or to distant cultures whose traditions, short of female circumcision and slavery, needed to be respected. When I asked them to recall Hillary Clinton’s controversial “stay home and bake cookies” moment during the 1992 campaign — after all, it had happened only five or six years earlier — they reminded me that they had been in middle school at the time; such things were as remote to them as playground bullies and kickball.
Only a quarter-century after the Women’s Strike for Equality, as we were routinely told in the late 1990s, the television series Ally McBeal had driven the last nails in the movement’s coffin. Remember that Time Magazine cover? Looking back, it also seems like a watershed moment when feminist studies in the academy gave way to cultural studies of feminism; rather than argue about what women had or hadn’t gained, how they’d done it, and when, we’d henceforth talk, for better or worse, about how feminists exploited or were exploited by celebrity culture and mass media. Was the Equality march really a landmark event in American women’s history? Or had Friedan’s media tactics simply ensured it would be remembered that way?
Either way, what those 50,000 women had done — their march spilling over from the police-approved single lane, filling the Avenue from curb to curb — seemed almost impossible to imagine, not so much because their feminism seemed outdated, but because so many younger women had become politically apathetic, appeased by a modest set of gains that masqueraded as equality. The media were full of stories about younger women who bought the line that feminism had done them wrong, powerful women who decided to quit their jobs, once they’d begun to reproduce, and give traditional stay-at-home motherhood a chance. And voila! We have contemporary Park Slope, Brooklyn, and its hordes of organic, free-range — but highly monitored — children.
At 3pm on August 26, 1970, according to the Times,
Sixty women jammed into the reception area of the Katherine Gibbs
School, on the third floor of the Pan Am building at 200 Park Avenue,
to confront Alan L. Baker, president of the secretarial school, with their
charges that the school was ‘fortifying’ and ‘exploiting’ a system that kept women in subservient roles in business. Mr. Baker said he would ‘take a good look’ at the question. About 10 members of NOW, starting at 9 A.M. and continuing on into the afternoon, visited six firms, business and advertising agencies, to present mocking awards for allegedly degrading images of women and for underemploying women.
Among the businesses they visited, the article concludes somewhat dryly, was the New York Times itself. Who knew that NOW anticipated Michael Moore by all those years? Too bad they hadn’t taken more cameras with them.
Betty Friedan, the “mother of modern feminism,” died in 2006 on her 85th birthday; her landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, reductively credited with jump-starting the movement, is now generally considered quaint — even offensive in places — if surprisingly compelling.
Gloria Steinem, on whom I developed a mad, Harold-and-Maude style crush on hearing her speak in the early 90s, is now in her 75th year; during the recent primary season she endorsed Clinton and wrote in a Times op-ed that gender, rather than race, remained the bigger obstacle to equality in American life.
Bella Abzug wore big hats and talked refreshingly brash talk until she died in 1998; I hope she was spared the debate about Ally McBeal‘s impact on the movement.
Kate Millett, who in 1970 had just published her excoriating if wooden Columbia Ph.D. dissertation as Sexual Politics (the only really exciting parts are the summaries and quotations from dirty, sexist books) survived years of troubled relations with media outlets and, more recently, Bowerydevelopers; though her Christmas tree farm has gone the way of her downtown loft, she continues to run an upstate artist’s colony for women at age 74.
Can anyone name four feminist leaders of their stature — or even their celebrity — today? If not, whose fault is it?
Happy Birthday, Bryan!