Joanna Foley

“The women’s liberation movement and bra destruction have nothing to do with each other.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, August 2021

KR:  Joanna, thank you so much for being willing to be interviewed for the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. We’re looking forward to hearing your great story. I’ve known you for a lot of years, and you had a major influence on my life, for which I’m grateful. So, I’m excited that I get to be the one to interview you. So maybe you could just start by telling us your full name and a little bit about your background, where you grew up, what kind of ethnic background, what kind of family? Just to sort of set the context.

JF:  My name is Joanna Foley. I’ve also been known at various stages in my life as Joanna Foley Martin or Joanna Martin. The usual confusion of people of my generation of figuring out what to call ourselves. I was born in 1943. I think I was my father’s draft exemption in the Second World War. My family background, I grew up thinking it was Scottish, Irish, English, and it mostly is. I found some German ancestors, some French Huguenot ancestors and a smidgen of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

We were a lower middle-class family. We lived on a farm which my parents owned. It was always assumed that I would go to college. My parents had attended college, but did not, due to the depression. I grew up  the smallest county in Tennessee. A family with very fixed notions about gender. When I wanted to build a tree house, my family said, “Oh, don’t, you might hurt yourself.”

I think what they really meant is you might break your father’s tools. School was more of the same people, very kind. But I felt like I bumped into limitations everywhere I went. This continued in college. Still in the state of Tennessee, I was at Vanderbilt University. There was something called a social honor code, which was parallel to the academic honor code, which, of course, everyone supported. But the social honor code was just for women. And I routinely signed it the first year or two in college.

Then I decided, why am I doing this? Why are any of us doing this? So, I asked quietly, what will happen to me if I don’t sign? And they said, “Well, if you get into any trouble, you will just be assumed to be without honor.” And I said, “Well, so be it.” So, I didn’t sign. I even wrote a piece in the student paper about it, and nothing terrible happened at the time. But I heard that a few years later the social honor code was “greatly relaxed.” I think it was killed off.

I was a student journalist, and I was very involved in covering women’s stories and other stories as well. But I couldn’t aspire to be the editor of the paper because I had to be back in the dorm at 11:00 at night. The paper went to the printer at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Now it occurs to me that I probably could have advocated for myself, and I might even have gotten that change.

At the time, it was just another rule. One more thing that I’m butting up against; can’t do anything about it. After school, I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with my life if I didn’t want to be a nurse like one of my grandmothers, and I didn’t want to be a teacher like the other grandmother. Fine professions, they just didn’t speak to me. As a teenager, I had flirted with the idea of being a missionary, but then I found that most female missionaries were either nurses or teachers.

That was kind of a dead end. Impulsively, I took the LSAT and ended up in law school. My husband was in graduate school for social work at the time. 

We assumed that we’re struggling students and we would help each other along the way. But I would sit up at night helping him to write his papers. And then when the time came for him to help me write my papers, he went to sleep. Trying to have it all was not working. So I dropped out of school and did what women did at that time, went to work, and put hubby through school.

In some ways, that was really interesting. I was working for a social service civil rights organization with a lot of good, strong women there, mostly Black women. Then I found out it was really an open secret that we were not paid equally with the guys. The agency rationalized this, saying, well, they couldn’t send us out in the community to do work in the evening, because it wouldn’t be safe. So therefore, they couldn’t pay us as much money. I felt like everywhere I turned, there was a “No, you can’t do this.” So, I was ready for the women’s movement when it came along. 

KR:  Where were you living at that point? 

JF:  I was living in Chicago at that point. My husband and I had applied to social work school and law school in Nashville, in Louisville and Chicago. And the acceptances shook out best for Chicago.

KR:  So how did you get involved in the women’s movement? 

JF:  Well, in law school, I felt like it was more of the same. There were six of us female students out of a class of 96, and no female faculty. I think my path into the women’s movement was running into women’s trade union activists through my work at a social service agency. There was a conference in a suburb of Chicago, probably ’66 or ’67, and I hitched a ride there with Catherine Conroy, one of the founding mothers of NOW.  I met a couple of terrific women. Clara Day and Addie Wyatt were there, powerhouse women activists.  I came away from that thinking, wow, this is where I belong. And I can’t remember the exact founding date of Chicago NOW. But I was around at the beginning or shortly after. 

KR:  And then what did you do? How did you get involved? What kind of activities did you get involved in? 

JF:  Well, I was already working as a PR person or community education, as we called it, a nicer word. I had some skills to bring to the group and some media contacts. That was very much needed because early media coverage of the movement and of NOW was inaccurate at best and sometimes downright hostile. Someone who could kind of help us get our message out and attract more people was needed. So, I happily jumped in to do that. 

We had various demonstrations as we moved along a little bit. We would have events with speakers. We began to have conferences, and we tried to get, of course, the most impressive people possible to speak. Shirley Chisholm was one. 

Then we would arrange local media interviews. One thing that occurs to me, everything I can think of about the early days of the movement were media related. There was the leading newspaper of the town in terms of circulation, also the most conservative paper, and it had a huge list of help wanted ads. Segregated by gender, of course.

We asked for a meeting with the publisher and the advertising staff, and we said this doesn’t comply with Title VII of the Equal Opportunity Act, the Civil Rights Act. 

They, of course, did not agree.  So, we started picketing every Monday at noon – an informational picket. We were not really trying to block people from going into the building. It  was exhausting. We would dash out from our respective jobs, sling a sign around our neck, walk in a circle, smile, try to make eye contact, try to educate people, hand out literature, sing, and then dash back to work. I wore out a pair of very expensive Italian leather shoes. But the newspaper eventually changed its policy. 

KR:  Was that the Chicago Tribune? 

JF:  Yes. I can’t remember what they said when they announced the change to the policy. I’m sure they did not thank Chicago NOW for raising their consciousness. But I remember we did one final picket, one final thank you picket with a big sign. 

KR:  Where was your paid job at that time?

JF:  It was at Chicago Urban League, 4500 South Michigan. I had to jump in my car, run downtown, picket for an hour, jump in my car and run back to work. 

KR:  What other issues were you involved in? I know you chaired the public relations committee. What kinds of activities went on there? What kind of things did you do? 

JF:  Well, obviously, we ran a speakers Bureau. Anybody that wanted us to speak, we would send someone out. We always put out press releases for our demonstrations and activities. And sometimes we hyped things a little bit if we hadn’t figured out something to do for August the 26th. We once put out a press release saying we weren’t celebrating because we didn’t have anything to celebrate. We were obviously not going to say we didn’t get it together in time.

I remember a demonstration in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was downtown in front of the federal building. We had sent out a press release about that. There were a half a dozen of us, maybe a dozen at most.  A young male TV journalist showed up, and he had no clue. He was doing equally clueless classic “man on the street” interviews. And the guys didn’t know what the Equal Rights Amendment was about, but they were against it anyway. So I stepped up and said, “Please interview me.” He said, “Okay,” but he did not give me the usual courtesy of a run-through, a dry run.

He just said, “Here, you are on.” Fueled by rage, I managed to sound quite coherent. Then I went back to work and told my colleagues what I had done and thought they would be proud of me. And they were. But they also said, “You are in danger of messing up our relationships with the media. Your job is going to be in jeopardy if that interview runs tonight at 6:00.”  

I was really torn. I knew I had done a good interview. I wanted it to be on the air, but I also wanted to keep working. As it shook out, the interview did not run. And soon that journalist was calling me for a date, besieging me actually. So again, it was learning to walk a fine line of saying, no sorry, a regretful smile, and keep moving. This happened more than once, for even revered figures of the left. There was a “casting couch” mentality that if you would be nice to them, they would give you good coverage. I’ve never really talked about this with other movement PR people, but I’m assuming it happened all over the place. 

KR:  I’m sure you’re right. What’s your recollection about August 26, 1970? 

JF:  Oh, my goodness. Well, Betty Friedan gave us marching orders that we were going to put on this women’s strike. I think we all said, ”This is overwhelming. How are we going to do this?” But then we threw ourselves into it, heart and soul.  I remember a huge gathering of people at the Civic Center Plaza in Chicago. I remember at some point it felt like the bystanders at first were neutral or maybe hostile, and then you could feel them getting into the spirit of it.

People were fully on board by the end of the demonstration. The mayor invited a select group of us to come and speak to him. I cannot remember anything about  the substance that we talked about. He did tell me that I had a sweet Irish face, and I have no idea what I said to that. But it felt like that really raised our profile in the media and all across the city. And it was absolutely worth doing, even though it was a huge amount of work.

KR:  Are there other events or moments that were particularly memorable? 

JF:  There’s one that I did that was more of a “busman’s holiday,” an adventure. It wasn’t a particular action of Chicago NOW, but it was with a woman I had met through Chicago NOW. We decided to go to the Miss America demonstration. The New York Radical Women were putting on an action in Atlantic City on the boardwalk, and they had a freedom trash can. We decided that we would go.  I managed to get somewhat sketchy press credentials from a friend of mine who worked for a very small wire service.

My friend was the photographer and I was the reporter. We showed up for the demonstration where women were throwing in bras and girdles and false eyelashes and hairspray and high heel shoes, all the symbols of oppression of women. 

Then because we had our press credentials, we actually got inside for the Miss America competition. We even assertively got ourselves to the front of the press table. So there we were taking notes. I actually filed a story for this wire service. I don’t remember whether it ran or not, and the wire service is no longer in existence, so I can’t check. 

But the thing that came out of that demonstration was that in the mainstream media, [they] went into the trivializing myth about bra burning. That that’s what the women’s movement was all about. And it was really distressing, because it took attention away from all the important issues. But one good thing that came out of that is that the Chicago Journalism Review reached out to me and said, would you like to tell the real story? Would you like to tell what happened? And I did. It was published under the title of Confessions of a Non-Bra Burner. I said, “No bras were burned that day, and I can’t swear that no bras have ever been burned, but that is not the issue of the women’s movement.” 

What happened was in the same time period, men were burning their draft cards, and women were discarding symbols of female oppression. And somehow those two things get conflated.  I don’t think it was entirely an accident that this happened. I think it was the trivializing lens with which the mainstream media were viewing the women’s movement. But I was at least glad to have the opportunity to put out a rebuttal. I find that that article is quoted in academic circles now. I found several references and citations to it. 

KR:  Did you find any supportive media, any of the women journalists who tended to be more supportive of the movement in their coverage? 

JF:  Indeed, I did. There was a woman at the Sun-Times who was excellent. We got to be personal friends, so much so that when she would call me with something like Roe v Wade, she was calling for a quote – she was calling for a professional reason. And I would get into a personal reaction, “Oh, my God.” And then after, I had to gear myself back and think, what do I want to say officially here? Women journalists were having their own struggles. And a few years later, there were sex discrimination lawsuits at Newsweek and The New York Times.  I covered The New York Times story for Seven Days. I think it was the lead story. I kept in touch with women journalists and followed their struggles. 

KR:  This is kind of a leading question. And if you won’t answer it the way I want it answered, I will. But do you feel like the fact that you were a public relations and communications professional helped to build the credibility of Chicago NOW and of the movement in the Chicago area? Because it did. 

JF:  I do think it did. I think it helped that I had skills and that I had media contacts and that I could use the agency’s account at the City News Bureau to put out press releases. I think all those helped. For me personally, there were issues about walking a fine line and not messing up my agency’s standing with local journalists. They were worried about that. I managed not to step over that line and get myself fired. It was complicated. But yes, I do think it helped. 

KR:  Do you think that your movement experience affected in any way the rest of your life? 

JF:  Well, I was a movement affiliated feminist for five years, and then my life veered into motherhood, and the need to be more serious about making money. So, I accepted a job as an advertising manager for a new feminist publication, The Spokeswoman. We were selling help wanted advertising. I was dealing with companies and colleges and encouraging them to place help wanted ads. 

Some of them were doing it for tokenism reasons. And some of them were sincerely searching for women to fill positions that they had not been in before.

One of my friends from college actually got a wonderful legal job in Connecticut as the result of ads in The Spokeswoman. So, going around selling advertising, even help wanted, EEOC oriented advertising was a little routine. It was not as exciting as what I had been doing before. But it was decently paid. And I learned more about employment issues.  I occasionally wrote for the publication, as well as being its advertising manager, including one cover story on the EEOC. It had its advantages for me.

For the rest of my life, I went about doing the normal things, going to grad school in journalism and working as a freelancer and as an editor, and then going to grad school in social work and working in social service agencies and having a private practice. In everything that I did, I brought my feminist sensibility with me. I joined the Women’s Caucus if there was one, and I established one if there wasn’t. And although I was no longer attending meetings, I still represented women wherever I was.

This continues in retirement. In retirement, I’ve been very active with my faith community. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, grew up United Methodist, and I’m a member of a small congregation in Berkeley.  I have been facilitating a group called Women’s Voices with the female Minister of our Church. It’s what we would have called back in the day a consciousness raising group. Out of that, it was revealed that there was a serious issue of sexual harassment in our congregation, and there were two serial abusers. As a result of all that came out, they are no longer in our congregation. And the board passed a statement, an anti-harassment statement, of making the congregation safe for all, including trans people and nongender binary people. 

KR:  We’ve covered a lot, from growing up to retirement. What have we not covered in your life  that’s important to this interview? 

JF:  Well, I can address family issues a little bit. I was encouraging my son to do his share of cooking and the family laundry, and he was saying, “But other guys my age don’t have to do this.” And I said, “That’s true. But when their first wives are leaving them, you will be glad that you learned to do these things.” He has been married for 20 years now, still with the same woman. She had a minor in women’s studies, and a major in biology. They each have their own law firms.

Out of the blue, one day she sent me a text saying, “Thank you for raising a feminist son.” He still doesn’t do as much of the household cooking as I wish he did, but she’s okay with it. I read feminist books to my grandchildren, and I even write feminist stories for my grandchildren. My granddaughter is more enthusiastic than my grandson, but he doesn’t resist. So that’s the way I think about feminism; it is the major narrative arc of my life. 

KR:  Sounds like from when you were very young.  

JF:  Yes. And the one thing I will say is that I had good pre-feminist instincts, but I think I started out as an individualist. “These silly rules shouldn’t apply to bright ole me.” It’s like no, we need to have a collective action that we’re all in this together. It’s not a matter of “bend the rules for me.” It’s “get rid of the rules.” It’s “get rid of the gender rules and roles.”  

KR:  Very well said. I personally can’t let this interview end without thanking you, because when I joined NOW in August of 1970, I joined the public relations committee that you chaired, and you taught me everything I know about public relations, and I had a great career in PR, all of it thanks to you. And I’m very grateful to you for that.  

JF:  I’m so glad that it played out the way it did for you. And it’s interesting because I didn’t stay in public relations. I always stayed in media-oriented stuff, from advertising to freelance journalism. But I’m glad it really took for you. Actually, one more thing – that reminds me. Just before I retired, I was a member of a Unitarian Church in New York City.  I joined the Women’s Caucus, it was the V-Day group that works to end violence against women and girls through arts-oriented productions including Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues

I realized that I hadn’t done public relations in 40 years, but it all came right back. I think some part of my early training there really stuck. And I would like to give credit to Connie Seals. She was officially my boss, but she was my mentor and my soul sister and everything I know, she taught me. We continued to stay in touch and she came to my son’s wedding in California 20 years ago.

Let me bring you up to date about my life as an activist now. Last summer, like most people or many people in this country, I was responding to the disclosures about police brutality against Black people. I read an editorial, an Op-Ed in The New York Times, written by Lucian Truscott, who is a white descendent of Thomas Jefferson. He has progressive political leanings and said that he thought that the Jefferson Monument in DC should come down, to be be replaced by a monument of Harriet Tubman. I read that and thought, yes, I agree. My second thought was there’s a statue of my slave-holding ancestor that is standing on a national military park in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

At the moment, I was feeling like, yeah, and that statue should come down too. 

So I wrote an Op-Ed and submitted it to the local paper, and it was published. The title of it was, “Should the statue of my ancestor in Greensboro come down?” At the time, my answer was yes. Not in what I officially published; I did not want to instigate other people to break the law if I wasn’t there to share the consequences. But I thought if I were there and if I had a crowbar…Anyway, this got me into a whole interesting conversation with the people who work at the military park, the people who volunteer there, the people who are head of the local auxiliary. I was interviewed on a podcast by the history museum there, and I decided I was really asking the wrong question.

It is not, “should my ancestor’s statue come down?” It should be, “Why isn’t the truth told about this battle?” There were a goodly number of black combatants. But nowhere in the 28 statues there, would you see any evidence of that. It’s not like, take a statue down. It’s put a statue up.  I have been working on that ever since, and I got an invitation to come and speak with the auxiliary organization back in April. Then they put it off because they had some personal stuff going on, and I haven’t heard back from them yet.

There are various thoughts that I have about what’s going on, one, that they said yes, but they didn’t mean it; two, that they are slow walking me through this process and hoping that I will forget about it; and three, if that is the case, I think I have made enough contacts locally that I can pursue this. It’s much harder to do community organizing from one coast to the other, but not impossible. I did find one other interesting thing. The last statue that went up there was in 2016, and it was for the Crown Forces. 

I wrote another piece called “Statues So White.” And this one was not published. It’s just as well that it wasn’t because I’m using it as an organizing piece. At the same time that this was happening in Greensboro, the sort of friendly rival of the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park is Kings Mountain in South Carolina. They put up a statue to African American Patriots in 2015, the same time these other people were putting up the statue to the white men of the Crown Forces. 

I think, well, if the local auxiliary doesn’t work with me, maybe I can work with the DAR, because they were the ones who sponsored the action at Kings Mountain and were responsible for the monument to the black Patriots. All of this is interesting and exciting. I wish I had more of a committee to work on this with me.  I think I need to go to North Carolina and just do some local organizing.