Feminism In Philadelphia: The Glory Years

Last Spring the New York Times lamented– in the Fashion & Style section – that the women’s movement had not found another Gloria Steinem, one dynamic leader to be the “voice of feminism” as if there were only ever one leader of this movement that spans centuries. As if Steinem single-handedly started the second wave. Steinem is phenomenal, a particularly able leader, but she is not alone in leadership. She is the first to say that progress for women, in this country and globally, has come about through the sustained efforts of countless women, and countless female leaders. This reflects the media’s hangups more than any problem in the women’s movement. After all, as women are half the population, there are bound to be multiple leaders, just as there are multiple feminist issues. Indeed, it’s been more convenient than accurate for the press to pigeonhole feminist issues as “women’s issues” and stick them on the Style page in the first place than to treat seriously the injustice and inequality women face daily, inequities that are severely straining families and communities.

And so it was a breath of fresh air to read Karen Bojar’s Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, a lively account of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women. Bojar traces the chapter’s history from its unlikely founding in 1967 by Ernesta Drinker Ballard, a socially prominent, wealthy Republican and lifelong feminist, through the campaign for abortion rights and workplace equality, and against racial and gender discrimination, to the eventual defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1982. Bojar’s engaging book particularizes the movement and brings it home, outlining the development of Philadelphia NOW and its interaction with the Pennsylvania state chapter and national NOW. It offers a glimpse into the day to day struggle of many committed feminists over time who have worked continuously to improve the status of women, in Philadelphia and beyond, through NOW. The movement is made up of these women; they are the boots on the ground, then as now.

Bojar debunks pervasive myths about the movement and about NOW. Despite NOW founder Betty Friedan’s fears in 1969 of a “lavendar menace” hijacking the feminist movement, NOW quickly evolved to embrace the struggle for lesbian rights in 1971, and it has been a core mission ever since. The Philadelphia chapter elected NOW’s first out lesbian president, Jan Welch, in 1973. Contrary to depictions that feminists are man-haters, NOW has welcomed male members all along: Richard Graham was elected the first Vice President of national NOW, and men have been involved throughout NOW’s history. As Bojar says, “NOW leaders welcomed male allies and consistently stressed that individual men were not the enemy; the enemy was the patriarchal system.”

The critique that NOW is a primarily middle class white woman’s organization – a charge Steinem’s face on the movement reinforced, but one she herself has worked tirelessly to debunk – has “more than a grain of truth” according to Bojar, but she shows how the struggle to understand how racism and poverty intersect with sexism played out in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania as women of color joined NOW and assumed leadership roles within it. Jocelyn Morris, originally a member of Philadelphia NOW, convened Germantown NOW to specifically tackle the issues of racism and sexism and to include women of color in the local movement. Pennsylvania NOW made combatting racism a top priority during the late 1970s, and Morris went on to serve on the national NOW board and the national Combatting Racism committee.

Bojar admits that the structure of NOW, that it is so hierarchical, is sometimes seen as a drawback to young feminists, but she argues persuasively for NOW’s multi-issue approach as well as its system of local, state and national groups which parallels the US political system. NOW has depth, and reach, and both flexibility and staying power. NOW at every level has brought about considerable political change, an impressive record on behalf of women that few organizations can boast.

While young feminists are essential to sustained progress, Bojar believes “A revitalized feminist-led labor movement is essential to addressing the needs of women trapped in low-wage jobs, the women who have not been the major beneficiaries of the feminist movement.” And indeed, NOW has increasingly turned its attention to economic empowerment issues.

In recounting the backlash against Roe v. Wade, and the push for the ERA, Bojar reminds readers just how long ago were begun the battles being fought today. Due to the current “war on women” it’s easy to despair, and feel that women’s rights have taken a huge step backwards, and they have. But Bojar’s history reminds feminists of all the progress that’s been made through the years by an army of sisters of all ages, ethnicities, classes, and sexual orientation living and working all over the country. It reminds us that our history, like our fate, is inextricably bound together through the actions we take collectively to reach equality. The stories of battles fought and won in our own communities, naturally led by different people at different times, are the true stories of the movement. This is the way movements progress, and there is ample room for many leaders, as Feminism in Philadelphia illustrates.

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