Five (Nearly) Forgotten Feminists
Gloria Steinem. Eleanor Smeal. Susan Brownmiller. Betty Friedan. Susan Faludi. The names of these women are instantly familiar: they are famous feminist activists and writers. But what about Norma McCorvey and Betsy Wade and Mary Howell Raugust? You may not recognize their names, but their feminist activism has no doubt affected your life.
In fact, there are many not-so-famous feminists who have made enormous contributions to the advancement of women. These feminists have been overlooked either because they are too humble to call attention to their own achievements or because they refuse to play by anyones rules but their own. Profiles of five such women - certainly representative of many more - follow. In some cases, theyve been punished for their activism. Yet all of them continue to root out discrimination.
When you think of female movers and shakers in newspaper journalism, one name that springs to mind is Anna Quindlen, until recently an op-ed columnist at the New York Times<>. What few realize is that Quindlen would never have advanced as far as she did without the activism of the Timess<> female employees of the 1970s. They called attention to the second-class treatment of women and brought a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against the paper.
Betsy Wade, who was then known by her married name, Boylan, was the leading plaintiff; the case is known as Boylan v. Times,<> and its details are recounted in The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and The New York Times<> (Random House, 1993), by Nan Robertson. The case was one of several media sex-discrimination suits in the 1970s brought by employees against their employers (including Newsweek<> and Readers Digest<>).
Wades first job in journalism was as an editor of the "womens page" of the New York Herald Tribune<> in 1952. A year later, her boss discovered that Wade was pregnant, and she was fired. "I was horrified," Wade says. "At the time, you could not collect unemployment insurance in New York State if you were pregnant. I was depressed and deeply upset." Three years later, at the age of 27, she went to work at the Times<> - the first female copyreader ever hired by the newspaper.
As time went on, Wade was disturbed by the fact that she had so few female colleagues, and that they werent taken as seriously as the men were. In 1972, along with Joan Cook and Grace Glueck, she co-founded the Womens Caucus to address the problems at the Times<>. The three women did some digging and discovered that the discrimination was far more serious than they had imagined: the average salary of male Times<> reporters was $59 a week higher than the average salary of the female reporters. Women at all levels of experience were paid less than men, primarily because women at the Times<> were confined to lower-paying jobs. But even when men and women held jobs in the same classification, and their education, ability, and length of service were comparable, the women were paid less.
The caucus appealed to the managing editor, publisher, and other top executives, but their concerns were largely ignored. And so they hired civil-rights lawyer Harriet Rabb to represent all 550 women working for the paper under Newspaper Guild jurisdiction, as well as all management-level secretaries. In the several years that followed, as Wade and other caucus leaders prepared for the case, the salary gap widened: by 1977, the men at the Times<> were earning $98.67 a week, or $5160 a year, more than the women.
A union leader with the Newspaper Guild of New York, Wade was instrumental in igniting a sense of solidarity among workers. She knew that the Times<>s discriminatory practices were by no means confined to female editors and writers, and thus made sure that clerks and classified-ad staff were included in the suit.
Boylan v. Times<> was settled out of court in 1978. The Times<> women won an affirmative-action plan for promoting and hiring that was supervised by the court for four years, and a cash settlement of $350,000, of which $233,000 went to the women - an average of $454 each. "It was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," Wade comments dryly, "but it was the most successful of all the media sex-discrimination settlements of the 70s."
Of the seven named plaintiffs, only Wade, now 65, continues to work at the Times<>. She has received nothing but union-mandated raises since the settlement, and in the late 80s was transferred from the prestigious position as head of the foreign copy desk to the less challenging job as editor of the weekly travel supplement. She feels she would have difficulty finding another job in journalism because she suspects she is on a blacklist. "Im not happy at the Times<>;" she says, "Im not unhappy. Its a living." (According to a former colleague, many at the Times<> believe Wade is such a talented editor that, if she were a man, she would be executive editor or even editor in chief.)
Salary inequities due to sex discrimination have by no means been eradicated - at the Times<> or at other media outlets. Newly hired Times<> female reporters and editors still earn an average of 11 percent less than newly hired men. And at National Public Radio, long-time freelance reporter Katie Davis recently sued her employer because it pays her less than it pays male reporters performing similar work.
"I am amazed at the degree to which people fail to realize that history is yapping at their heels," says Wade. "I think young people feel that [discrimination] happened a long, long time ago and has nothing to do with them. . . . I think people have dropped the ball on what affirmative action was about."
Charlotte Klein was not only one of the few female executives in the male-dominated field of public relations in the 1950s, but she brought PR into the popular consciousness. During her more than 30 years in the business, she handled a variety of clients - from governments to trade associations, from television networks to non-profit institutions. But her aim was always the same: to inject politically progressive messages into her accounts.
Kleins first PR job was at Edward Gottlieb & Associates, a leading Los Angeles firm that handled Hollywood clients. There, she quickly made herself indispensable and rose to the level of vice-president. It wasnt easy being taken seriously as a young woman in the 50s. Only 11 percent of the members of the Public Relations Society of America were women in those days. Klein, who every day wore a hat and white gloves, had to be creative to get the attention of the male magazine editors with whom she was trying to place stories about her clients. If she initiated a lunch meeting, for instance, and was rebuffed, Klein would bring a lunch basket to the editors office. "What could they say? They were thrilled," she says now.
Klein also promoted French couture and products such as petroleum jelly and mustard. "But I was getting tired of pushing products like that. I wanted to do something more socially significant," she recalls. Klein convinced her boss to allow her to advance causes she considered important: the rights of minorities and women. In 1951, she was instrumental in launching what was called the "first anthropologically correct Negro doll" ever mass-marketed in the United States. The doll, created by the Ideal Toy Corporation, had a realistic skin color, broad nose, and full upper lip; it was designed to give black children a sense of self-respect and to combat racial prejudice among children of all races. The toy caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who headed a "jury" to decide the dolls exact shade. It was the biggest-selling toy in the South during the Christmas shopping season of 1951.
Klein also originated the Womens Hall of Fame, which pays tribute to outstanding women in American history. The Purex Corporation, one of her clients, came up with the idea of a womens hospitality center, to be established at the New York Worlds Fair in 1965. "It was a dud," she says. "No one went there." So Klein thought of using the space to house a Womens Hall of Fame. (The US Hall of Fame, at Columbia University, included no women at the time.)
Klein called upon the leading womens-page editors of newspapers and magazines to elect 10 living and 10 deceased famous American women of the 20th century. Those who received the most votes, and whose photographs were then displayed in the exhibit, included Jane Addams, Rachel Carson, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, and Margaret Mead. The Womens Hall of Fame was a major success, garnering high praise from the press and the public. At least one million people visited it during the Worlds Fair.
In 1969, with Kleins permission, the Historical Preserve established the permanent National Womens Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, New York. Klein has never been publicly credited as its founder.
Kleins itch to get involved in progressive politics led her, in the 1970s, to become an active member of the American Arbitration Association; in 1976, she originated and presented an award to President Jimmy Carter for his role in the 1976 Camp David peace accord. More recently, Klein launched a "hospital brigade" to raise awareness about domestic violence among hospital administrators. Eight major New York hospitals now make identifying and treating battered women a priority.
Klein, who lives and works in New York City, hopes that young women, who have benefited by the feminists of her generation, will use their power. "We seem to be going backwards," she told me. "Theres still a glass ceiling for minorities and women. I am appalled that theres a serious discussion of doing away with affirmative action."
One of the few black women involved in the early womens liberation movement, Florynce Kennedy is a civil-rights lawyer who became a lecturer and then a TV host. She speaks for the rights of women, racial minorities, and gays and lesbians. Now 79, Kennedy sits in a wheelchair, her hair wrapped in an African-style kerchief, and greets visitors to her New York City apartment with self-deprecating wisecracks. Although Kennedy was well-known in the 1970s as a vocal feminist activist, her ill health has kept her out of the public eye in recent years. She jokes that she is on her death bed, but her mind is as sharp as ever.
Kennedy was taught at an early age to be a fighter. She grew up in a "poor, white trash" neighborhood in Kansas City, where her father owned his own taxicab. One day, the Klan ordered the family to move out by the next day. "My father," Kennedy remembers, "went into his house and came back with his gun and said, 'The first foot that hits that step belongs to the man I kill.'" The men never returned.
Kennedys father wasnt the only one who taught the family lessons in self-reliance. "Once, my sister came in crying," she says. "She said that a girl in the neighborhood, had hit her. My mother made her go back out and find the girl and hit her back. Now, my mother was gentle. She was sweet as a pie. But she didnt teach us to take no shit off nobody."
After graduating from high school, Kennedy helped the local NAACP organize a boycott against the Coca-Cola bottling plant to force them to hire black truck drivers. She put herself through Columbia University, graduating in 1951. She was the only black in the class of 1951. And she was one of only five women.
After law school and 10 years of private practice, Kennedy started to lecture on college campuses. She formed a feminist group in the late 60s known as the Feminist Party, which sprouted chapters on campuses around the country.
From the beginning, Kennedy spoke out for the rights of gay people. In the early years of womens liberation, it was suggested that feminism had little legitimacy as a political movement because many feminists were lesbians. Betty Friedan herself was concerned that the "lavender menace," as she called it, undermined feminisms credibility. In response, Kennedy organized a press conference with Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, and other leading feminists that issued a declaration linking womens liberation with gay liberation. On the subject of Betty Friedan, Kennedy is still quite forthright: "I cant stand her. I think shes a pig."
Kennedy was also involved with the Black Panthers. "I loved them," she says. "I thought they were darling. I knew that when we want things to change, we go to war - whether its with another country or anyone else. So why should I be worried about violence, for Gods sake?"
Diane Shulder Abrams, a lawyer and oral historian who has known Kennedy since the late 60s and who co-wrote with her the pro-choice book Abortion Rap<> (McGraw-Hill, 1971), pinpoints the common element in Kennedys wide-ranging activism: "Flo fights oppression in all forms. Having a brilliant mind, she conceptualized the factors that lead to oppression. She really constructed a theory of oppression and how to deal with it.
"The other thing about Flo," Abrams adds, "is that she has an incredible sense of humor. Her theory is that youve got to have fun being political, or else you wont stay active very long." Indeed, Kennedy is responsible for many sayings, such as, "Freedom is like taking a bath: you have to do it every day," and "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."
Kennedy continues to offer insightful commentary. She appears weekly on a Manhattan public-access TV program, The Flo Kennedy Show.<> Racism today, she believes, is largely institutionalized, not personal. She says, "White people are embarrassed to be racist. So they always go out of their way to be decent, good individuals when they meet a black person. People who are racist are racist institutionally. The way the society is set up is racist, as far as schools, budgets, and everything else go. But as individuals, most people dont hate anybody."
Mary Howell Raugust
Just as Betsy Wade fought the New York Times<> patriarchy, Mary Howell Raugust exposed discrimination against female medical students and hospital patients in her book Why Would a Girl Go into Medicine?<> (Feminist Press, 1973).
Raugust, the first woman ever hired as a dean at Harvard Medical School, served as associate dean for student affairs from 1972 to 1975. She didnt set out to raise awareness about sexism. She was simply trying to do her job. She thought she should know more about her students, so she casually distributed a questionnaire.
But when she read through the completed questionnaires, a flood of ugly memories surfaced. Raugust had cried after her own medical-school interview, in the late 1950s, because the interviewer, an assistant dean at the University of Minnesota, "explained to me condescendingly that they didnt really like to admit women, because women hardly ever practiced, and that, after all, it was a state school and it was a waste of taxpayer money to admit women students." In her first-year anatomy class ("a rich source of sexist jokes," she says), Raugust was treated with hostility by the male students and instructors. One day, they tied a ribbon around a cadavers penis and said to her, "See, Mary, we saved the best for you."
Twenty years later, her own students were voicing similar complaints - from bemoaning the fact that there were few women on the Harvard faculty to remarking on the overall demeaning atmosphere. Raugust decided to find out if other female medical students felt the same way. She distributed her questionnaire to all the medical schools in the United States. The results revealed a pervasive pattern of discrimination.
In her book, Raugust quotes from the questionnaires and pinpointed three categories of discrimination: institutional (policies and procedures sanctioned by the institution that demonstrate that women are valued less than men); overt (actions performed by individuals who intentionally demean or belittle women); and subtle (actions performed without conscious intent to demean women). Raugust also pointed out that female patients were routinely disparaged: they were always called by their first names; it was assumed that their complaints were "psychological"; and they were over-prescribed tranquilizers and anti-depressants.
Raugusts book was published under the pseudonym Margaret Campbell because, she says, "I knew that the dean at the time disliked conflict." Her authorship remained a secret until 1975, the year she resigned from Harvard and published a "coming-out" letter in an alternative health journal.
The repercussions were far-reaching: when Raugust, living in Maine at the time, sought a job as medical director at a neighborhood health center, "it looked like a sure thing, but then it fell apart." She discovered that she was blacklisted in the medical community. In fact, two years passed before she was able to secure a medical job, as assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.
The ostracism only intensified. In 1985, Raugust did return to Harvard - this time as a professor of pediatrics - but the medical school did not want to be associated with her, she says, explaining that faculty members often denied that she was employed at there. Just last month, Harvard hosted a weekend-long celebration of women in medicine, and, though Raugust was mentioned on the timeline created for the event, she was not invited to attend.
At 63, she is no longer involved in medical practice and academic medicine. But, as a co-founder of the National Womens Health Network and a contributor to the Boston Womens Health Book Collective, Raugust has remained a visible leader in the womens-health movement. The director of an adoption agency (of her seven children, three are adopted), she lives in Watertown, Mass.
Norma McCorvey was the catalyst in the movement that gave women access to legal abortions; she was the "Jane Roe" in Roe v. Wade.<> Yet she never emerged as a leader in pro-choice politics - in part, McCorvey admits, because "Im just a bitch, plain and simple. I shoot straight from the hip. I guess in some ways thats good, but in other ways its really bad. I am who I am, and I cant be anything else."
When she was 21, McCorvey became pregnant for the third time, after having given up her first two children for adoption. Because the pregnancy was unwanted and would cause her to lose her waitressing job, she desperately sought an abortion. In her opinion, "There was no good reason to bring this poor thing into the world."
The year was 1970, when abortions were legal in only two states: New York and California. McCorvey - whose story is recounted in I Am Roe<> (co-written with Andy Meisler, HarperCollins, 1994) and in the TV movie Roe v. Wade<> (1989, with Holly Hunter) - lived in Dallas, where not a single physician would risk performing an abortion, and was dirt-poor and couldnt possibly afford to fly out of state. She rejected the services of a back-alley abortionist whose "office" was smelly and soiled with dried blood.
And so, when she heard about two young lawyers - Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee - who might be of help to her, McCorvey met them with a great deal of hope. Weddington and Coffee were trying to find a plaintiff for a class-action lawsuit to overturn the Texas law against abortions. They needed a woman who wanted an abortion right away. But, uneducated and intimidated by the two lawyers, McCorvey - who was a lesbian - lied and said her pregnancy resulted from a rape. Afraid of losing her one shot at a safe and legal abortion, she tried to make her case as sympathetic as possible. She also mistakenly believed that if she had been raped she could obtain a legal abortion in Texas.
What McCorvey didnt realize, because neither lawyer bothered to tell her, was that there was practically no chance she would personally gain from the lawsuit. She was two and a half months pregnant by the time she met Weddington and Coffee, and wasnt aware that the case could take months to go through the courts. She never did obtain an abortion; she gave her child up for adoption. Roe v. Wade<> had less to do with McCorvey than with all the other women seeking abortions in the future. Yet without McCorvey, the ruling would never have been possible.
McCorvey did not publicly reveal her identity as "Jane Roe" until the mid 1980s, because, she told me, "I was so afraid of getting killed, afraid of getting bombed."
That fear turned out to be well-founded. In April 1989, several days before a major pro-choice march in Washington, DC, that McCorvey was planning to attend, she woke up in Dallas to shots fired at her house and car by anti-abortion activists. She and her girlfriend, Connie, would easily have been killed had they been in the living room at the time. Says McCorvey: "But I told Connie, Were going to that march. If theyre gonna shoot me, at least Ill be dying for a purpose. They obviously know where I live, so why should I hide now?'"
McCorvey works today as a phone counselor at a reproductive-health clinic in Dallas. She says, "Ill do just about anything, as long as its about spreading the word for choice."
Her words may shed light on why there are so many unsung feminists: "I dont care anything about being in charge. Im the behind-the-scenes person."