From feminism

Today in Feminist History: Pittsburgh Press vs. Pittsburgh Commission

On June 21, 1973, in an opinion written by Justice Lewis Powell, the Supreme Court ruled against the Pittsburgh Press, which had claimed that a Pittsburgh ordinance banning sex-segregated job ads violated their freedom of the press. The court had that local authorities were permitted to prohibit commercial speech advertising illegal services and that descriminatory hiring was illegal under the ordinance.

An appendix of listings from the paper told the story of what this discrimination meant in practice: the first few jobs listed under “Jobs – Male Interest” on January 4, 1970 and their salaries read as follows:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000

ADM. ASS’T, CPA . . . . . . . .. . 15,000

ADVERTISING MGR. . . . . . . . . . 10,000

BOOKKEEPER F-C. . . . . . . .. . . 9,000.

“Female Interest” went like this:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 6,000

AUTO-INS. UNDERWRITER. . . . . . . OPEN

BOOKKEEPER-INS . . . . . . . . . . 5,000

CLERK-TYPIST . . . . . . . . . . . 4,200

(Full list is found here. The male-female “interest” designation was a modification-without a difference the Pittsburgh Press had taken on to replace the traditional “male help wanted.”)

In theory, job discrimination on the basis of sex became illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was added in under strange and fascinating circumstances – according to some accounts as a joke, to others as an attempt at a poison pill.  As Gillian Thomas’s book outlines, it took many years of case law to make this theoretical right at least something of a reality. The desegregation of the ads in the New York Times was an early victory for the National Organization for Women, which in those early years was populated with many women with experience in journalism and in similarly highly visible but low-paid and highly-discriminatory media industries.  The Pittsburgh case was also driven by NOW, with the Pittsburgh chapter having helped passed the ordinance challenged by the Press. 

As I’ve been immersed in reading feminist history, the role of local NOW chapters during this key years is interesting for a number of reasons.  With its focus on ending formal discrimination in the workplace and the public sphere and the passage of the ERA, NOW is often seen as the embodiment of “liberal,” reformist feminism, as opposed to the radical groups that emphasized utopian reworking of every gendered aspect of society, especially sexuality and the family.

There’s a lot to the distinction in terms of how activists at the time saw themselves and their goals. Today, however, when the history of cases like Pittsburgh isn’t much remembered, the label can obscure as much as it tells us, as associated as its become with elitism. NOW and the ERA movement were both mainstream and grassroots. Talk to women from that generation, and you’re as likely to hear stories about the friends involved with their local chapter or ERA campaign as with a consciousness-raising group.  And not insignificantly, NOW and its leadership were by many accounts more diverse than many highly visible radical movements. With certain politicians who shall remain nameless capturing the mantle of inside-the-system activists, the activist part of that equation gets lost. Whatever causes they espouse, most politicians (to say nothing of celebrities with book contracts) don’t belong in the same category as someone like Wilma Scott Heide, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter and later President of NOW, tireless ERA campaigner and the activist most responsible for the Pittsburgh Press victory.

Last year Jill Lepore had a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about why the nineteenth amendment,  unlike the fourteenth, became a kind of dead branch of law. I’d read a lot of versions of the argument that it would have been better had Griswold, Roe and other reproductive rights cases been made on the basis of equality rather than privacy, but for some reasons I hadn’t really considered the nineteenth amendment as specifically the untaken route.

Aside from the legal implications, this feels like an interesting analogue to what has happened with historical memory.  During the 1970s, many feminists wrote about the demobilization of the feminist movement after the achievement of suffrage as a cautionary tale. Tragically, more than any of the many victories, it was the loss of ERA that played the largest role.   The fact that so many victories from this period came through cases like Pittsburgh perhaps speaks to why the movement is more often remembered through a handful of celebrities and cultural tropes than through its actual significant accomplishments.

At the same time, however, it’s a mistake to see these victories as evidence for the efficacy of insider strategy at the expense of street action and agitation. Without Heide and countless activists like her, there would have been no court cases to win. Behind important cases like EEOC vs. Sears were the activists who organized, shared information, selected targets, and shifted public mores to such an extent that these victories were possible. Whatever opportunists try to sell us, even to be an inside agitator, you have have stepped far enough outside to know what needs agitating.

Novels and Children

When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.

One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:

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Two Virginia Woolf Passages in Search of an Essay

In two weeks I’m heading up to the “happy valley” in Western Massachusetts for my 20th college reunion at Smith College. I’m working on an essay about this – not about me or being forty-one or about the turning of the generations, but about the place, its history and what, if anything, it still means to spend time in a place dedicated to women’s education, history, experiences.

When I’ve visited recently, especially when there are no students there, I keep thinking about its beauty – it’s such an obvious thing, the beauty of the place, but you forget it, and it has to mean something. And the quietness when the students are not there, but that everything is waiting for them, the care that is given to help us believe we are cared for:

“A. Williams – one may read it in the moonlight; and next to it some Mary or Eleanor, Mildred, Sarah, Phoebe upon square cards on their doors. All names, nothing but names. The cool white light withered them and starched them until it seemed as if the only purpose of all those names was to rise martially in order should there be a call on them to extinguish a fire, suppress an insurrection, or pass an examination. Such is the power of names written upon cards pinned on doors. Such too the resemblance, what with tiles, corridors, and bedroom doors, to dairy or nunnery, a place of seclusion or discipline, where the bowl of milk stands cool and pure and there’s a great washing of linen.”

Virginia Woolf, “A Woman’s College from Outside,” 1928

In Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes she was grateful for her Catholic education, in spite of everything because it was a history, a narrative, that she could reject and modify but it got her into the story. Looking at the world Smith gave me, I think something like that – it was not perfect in all sots of ways I want to give proper attention and space to – but it was a history. For many of us, you could be ambivalent or reject assets of the history, the traditions, but few were apathetic to it. It didn’t make a utopia, it may or may not have made a counterculture, but it was an experience, it was something, it wasn’t a place you went to pass the time. And so I go back to Woolf:

she lay in this good world, this new world, the world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, ad there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming. “Oh,” she cried, as if in pain.

Today in Feminist History: Speaking of Jewish Socialists . . .

Speaking of Jewish socialists: on this day in 1882, Rose Schneiderman was born in Savin, Poland. After her family immigrated to the United States, her education was interrupted by her family’s poverty. When the more “respectable” job of salesgirl didn’t make enough, she turned to the factories. After successfully organizing her fellow workers into the United Cloth and Cap Makers, she became the first woman elected union official.  She helped lead the great shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910, led New York Women’s Trade Union League, ran for Senate on the Labor Party ticket, worked on labor legislation with the FDR administration, and resettle Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Flo Kennedy, 1916-2000

February 11 is Flo Kennedy’s 100th birthday.  A lawyer who defended the Black Panthers and was instrumental to winning abortion rights in New York State, a founder of the Feminist Party that nominated Shirley Chisholm for President, a long time star of the speaking circuit that spread feminist ideals and supported feminist work, who built coalitions with a range of organizations and activists ranging from Adam Clayton Powell to Gloria Steinem. She was famous for her quips and style and she was incredibly effective.  Kennedy breaks down all the lazy categories people rely on to separate idealists from pragmatists and talkers from doers, and reminds us that social justice coalitions across race and gender lines are possible whatever their challenges. I just ordered the recently published biography by Sherie Randolph which I’ve heard wonderful things about. I’m especially looking forward to an account of the protest mentioned in her 2000 obituary, of leading a “mass urination” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard.

Friends with Books: Class War by Megan Erickson

There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us.  When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul.  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Martha Griffiths, or What Is “Liberal Feminism” Anyways?

Today is the 104th birthday of Martha Griffiths, a ten-term congresswoman sometimes dubbed the “mother of the ERA.” Her most significant contribution, however, came as a key figure in the inclusion of women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a hugely important and fascinating story that understandably isn’t much known – understandably because it was purposefully done behind the scenes, so as not to induce the ridicule of an establishment who by and large still saw women’s rights as a joke at best.

I’m interested in people like Griffiths right now for a lot of reasons, partly because of the way “liberal feminism” or “bourgeois feminism” are sometimes used to describe people who really really really want to see a woman President or Sheryl Sandburg pontificating at Davos.

Having been immersed in the feminist archive from the 1960s and 1970s for a better part of the last year, I think this is unfair: not to HRC of Sandburg but to liberal feminism. In the activist history of the period, there were, by and large, clear divisions between the liberal and radical wings of the movement. Liberals wanted to integrate the public sphere, the professions, and end not just job and pay discrimination but the complete job segregation that existed at the time. It’s found in figures like Griffiths, journalists like, Marlene Sanders and Judy Klemersrud, who snuck sympathetic coverage into the mainstream, and organizations like the National Organization for Women and many local and national organizations that fought for the ERA. And they fought for the reform of abortion laws – an issue on which liberals and radicals were united.

This wing was criticized by radicals who thought not only the public sphere but the family, sexuality and all human relations needed to be reconsidered. They rightly targeted figures like NOW founder Betty Friedan for their homophobia. Many saw the ERA as a distraction and the demobilization that followed its defeat suggested there was much to this. Certainly, the remarkable cultural, social and political changes could not have occurred without the radicals pushing at the wing of the possible.

At the same time, the liberals achieved a lot, starting with NOW’s huge win right at its founding when the Times desegregated its job ads. And it was a real movement – Griffith’s work was supported by a real grassroots network. Given how many forests have died over whether it matters to call oneself a feminist, I don’t have too much invested in these terms either, but if you’re interested in the real “inside/outside” dynamics of change, disingenuous claims about “making change from the inside” shouldn’t take away from the legacies of those who actually did it.

Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Johnnie Tillmon

Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of 69. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news, the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of  poor women, a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms. which I was reading religiously.*  Tilmmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children:  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Alice Paul and The Night of Terror

On November 15, 1917, Alice Paul, the thirty-two year old founder of the National Woman’s Party, had begun serving a seven month prison sentence,  purportedly for blocking traffic but in reality because of the series of provocative protests targeting President Wilson. NWP called Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” targeted a meeting between Wilson and the new Russian government, and staged the first ongoing picket of the White House and burned copies of his speeches, a particularly bold action during a time of war and repression of dissent.

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