THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I believe the women’s movement is the most important revolution in modern history and it is not over.”
Presentation by Mary Vasiliades that Accompanies the Video
In 1964, a group of conservative senators added the word “sex” to the civil rights bill in order to defeat it. However, the bill passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. For the first time, women as well as minorities had a legal basis for fighting discrimination. Three years later, the National Organization for Women, NOW, was founded. Women were becoming more aware of sexism at home, as well as in colleges, universities and the workplace.
Remember, this was the ’60s. Hippies were holding “Be-Ins” in Central Park and the Beatles had invaded America. President Kennedy and other leaders were assassinated. Protests against the Vietnam War were growing. Women in the antiwar movement discovered that the men wanted them to make coffee, not policy. Minority women were fighting discrimination on two fronts.
Women from a wide range of diverse groups joined together in New York City to hold the strike for equality on August 26th, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of women’s suffrage. The demands were clear: equal pay for equal work, free abortion on demand, no forced sterilization, and an end to discrimination in educational opportunities.
My name is Mary Vasiliades. I was working in New York City as a writer and public relations specialist at Roosevelt Hospital in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Women’s liberation was a hot button issue. I was on the Board of Publicity Club of New York and arranged a panel discussion with activists in the movement, that’s how I got involved. One of the speakers, Jacqui Ceballos, was an officer of New York NOW. After the panel was over, she sent me postcards saying they needed my help to plan the August 26th strike for equality.
I went to my first meeting and was hooked forever. This is a Democratic Party clubhouse where we held many of our meetings. Posters, leaflets, and buttons were stored here. I volunteered to work on the Statue of Liberty action since I had already paid for a three-week trip to Italy and the French Riviera and I wouldn’t be in New York on August 26th.
There were many suggestions for what we should do: one group wanted to hire an airplane and drop a bucket of red paint on the statue; it was voted down. Eventually we decided to drape a banner across the statue, but first we had to take the boat out there, measure the statue, and check the surroundings. The women in the picture: Pat Lawrence and Marianne Ganette, made the banner. I remember thinking, what am I doing here casing the Statue of Liberty? It all seemed very surreal. We also checked out the security on the island, we weren’t sure if we’d be arrested. Our legal adviser was Florence Kennedy, a civil rights attorney.
The morning of August 12th, 1970, a group of us took the first boat to Liberty Island where the police and media were waiting for us at the pier. I remember one of the officers saying, “Hello women’s liberation.” Pat hid the banner under a smock, pretending she was pregnant. I was in charge of publicity and my first job was to send a telegram to the speaker of the House of Representatives saying we would not leave until the Equal Rights Amendment passed. Our official flier was my first writing assignment.
The chief ranger suspected we were a bunch of communists because he thought the women’s symbol with the fist in the middle was actually the hammer and sickle and he was really upset. But not all Rangers thought we were dangerous radicals trying to overthrow the government. Our main speaker that day was Kate Millett. Her book, Sexual Politics, had just been published and it caused such a stir that she was on the cover of Time Magazine. That same magazine later outed her as a bisexual woman, but that’s getting ahead of my story.
Judge Dorothy Kenyon, the first female judge in New York state, joined the demonstration and participated in the August 26th strike. She was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. My first TV interview, ABC News with Marlene Sanders, I said I wouldn’t leave Liberty Island until the ERA was passed. Fortunately, the House did pass it that day, but later the Senate rejected it.
This was a spectacular event and we had great press coverage which helped publicize the August 26th strike. It was a PR person dream: three or four helicopters from television networks beamed pictures of our banner “Women of the World Unite Around the World”. Two weeks later, the banner was used to lead the March on Fifth Avenue. We left Liberty Island with a great sense of accomplishment. On August 26th, 50,000 women marched in the largest demonstration for women’s rights since the protest marches for suffrage earlier in the century.
Restaurants, bars and other public accommodations in New York City had the right to refuse to serve unescorted women in 1970. The assumption was that women alone were probably prostitutes and men had to be protected from them – it was an insulting premise. We were determined to end sex discrimination in public accommodations in New York City, and we did. Journalist Marcia Kramer is celebrating with a drink at McSorley’s. At the time, she was a daily news reporter and years later, an Emmy Award winning television journalist.
As I said before, I had prepared a trip to Italy and the French Riviera. On August 26th I was in Rome on my way to see archeological sites at Pompeii. At the time, I had heard that they would not allow women to view the pornographic frescoes in the bachelors quarters, so I decided to hold my own demonstration there. I insisted that I be allowed to see everything my male traveling companions were seeing since we all paid the same fee. There were groups from all over the world, tour guides were translating the arguments.
I kept saying this is history, not pornography and the men argued that the pictures were pornography, not history. When they said Italy was a Christian country, one woman said since when did Jesus Christ say men can look at pornography, but women can’t? I was threatened with arrest, so I finally backed down. But I took a picture of the men viewing the painting. The fresco in question was a man weighing his penis on a balance scale.
As I said before, Time Magazine outed Kate Millett as a bisexual woman. Panic and homophobia began to divide the woman’s movement. New York NOW’s election of officers in January 1971 became an early battleground. Everyone showed up. Voting members sat on one side, visitors on the other. The gay-straight split got ugly. A telephone campaign against Ivy Bottini, the chapter president who was running for board chairman, and others ensued. Ivy’s so-called crime was that she appeared as NOW president at a press conference supporting Kate Millett.
Except for Betty Friedan, most of the other leading feminists of the era such as Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, supported Kate and participated in the press conference. Kate was at the election with Barbara Love and Sidney Abbott, who later wrote about the episode in their book, Sappho Was A Right-On Woman. Betty Friedan was also there; she is credited with coining the phrase “lavender menace”. She didn’t believe rights for lesbians was a feminist issue and worked to defeat Ivy.
Ivy lost the election as board chairperson. Kate urged members to elect Ivy to the board, which they did but Ivy resigned shortly after and moved to California. You can see the pain and disappointment on the face of NOW member Deborah Beale after the vote was counted. It was a betrayal of women who worked tirelessly for the movement. I left NOW after that for about a year and explored other groups in the women’s movement including New York Radical Feminist, where I worked on its first rape conference.
I also joined the Majority Report Collective, one of the first women’s movement newspapers. I wrote political stories and the inquiring feminist column. The collective had many ups and downs, but the Majority Report continued to print well into the ’70s. In 1971, we decided on another August 26th march for equality. The movement had gained a lot of clout. This time Mayor Lindsay agreed to meet with a group of us in the morning before the march and rally. But first, he held his own ceremony promoting Gertrude Schimel to captain of the police force. She was the first woman to achieve this rank.
Our group included Betty Friedan, Carol Greitzer a member of the city council, Eleanor Holmes Norton the human rights commissioner, and those of us on the August 26th march organizing committee. Mayor Lindsay pledged that all of his commissioners would meet with us and he kept his word. The meetings led to many important changes having policewomen on patrol, a rape investigation unit staffed by female police officers, and improved conditions for women who worked for New York City. That was just some of the changes that were made.
Thousands and thousands of women again turned out for the March on Fifth Avenue. Women express themselves in many different ways. Abortion was still illegal; the poster shows a victim of a coat hanger abortion. “Never again shall a woman die from an illegal abortion.” This time, I was in New York for the demonstration and handled the publicity for the march and rally. That’s me on the stage in the band shell in Central Park.
The crowd was getting extremely agitated because a man was standing, blocking their view and he refused to sit down. There was a lot of anger in the air. I kept repeating, don’t let one man break up this rally. Don’t let one man break up this rally. Someone told me later he thought I stopped the riot. Betty Friedan was a major presence at this rally and if looks could kill, the group of lesbians in the front row would have done her in.
Although we included speakers to address what we called in those days, freedom of sexual expression, a group of lesbians took over the microphone for a while. The issue would not go away. 1972: by now I had worked on two mass demonstrations, lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, met with Alice Paul the famous suffragist twice, and ran to be an alternate delegate for Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president of the United States. It was a real honor to campaign with her on the streets of New York.
It wasn’t all work and no play. New York NOW challenged the CBS All Stars to a softball game, that’s me up in the corner holding the banner. We were the sisters of the Susan B. Anthony League. When we were practicing in Central Park someone asked me if we were nuns. Our coach was Bernice Gera, the first woman to become a credentialed umpire. She officiated at one game, was harassed unmercifully, and walked off the field and never returned. CBS TV anchor Jim Jensen was captain of the CBS team. This was our cheering section.
Lieutenant Julia Tucker was a New York City police officer and head of the rape investigation unit; the first woman led group in the country. I started New York NOWs Rape Prevention Committee and had invited her to speak at a public meeting. Julia had been an undercover cop during the French Connection episode. She was perfect for this post, but she got so popular with the press and became more and more of a feminist that she was reassigned to a Brooklyn precinct, never to be heard from again.
When the women’s movement first started, a man in New York state could not be found guilty of rape unless there was a witness to penetration. Obviously, laws were not written to protect women. Our movement changed that. I testified for New York NOW at a hearing held by the New York State Senate committee reviewing the law regarding rape. In particular we wanted to change the rules of evidence so that a woman’s past sexual life could not be used against her.
Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling in 1973, gave women in the United States the right to a legal safe abortion. I attended the National NOW conference in Houston in 1974 where we were picketed by the right to life and also were visited by the Grand Dragon of the KKK. He left his calling card that said, you have just received a friendly visit from the Klu Klux Klan. When we were warned not to wander anywhere alone laughter broke out. But women from the south in particular were not laughing. I heard about one African-American woman who took the first plane north.
I was undergoing a radical change: I cut my hair and changed my wardrobe. No one recognized me for a while. Oh, happy day! Nixon resigned and I won my bet with Sid Biner, a bottle of French champagne. It was delicious. Women of the world were uniting. The UN declared 1975 International Women’s Year. In New York we celebrated International Women’s Day with another march. Wages for housework, its time still has not come. The NOW Rape Prevention Committee expanded and began to focus on battered wives, as well as sex crime victims.
Rights for lesbians was still a very controversial subject and nearly divided the International Women’s Year conference later in the year. Speakers at the rally included Congresswoman Bella Abzug. She was at the forefront of the anti-war and women’s movement. Betty Friedan, she’s a fighter. I’d seen her at demonstrations arguing nose to nose with the police when they wouldn’t let us take over all of the avenue. She always won the argument. Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of MS. Magazine and an influential leader of the women’s movement. Mary Anne Krupsak was New York state lieutenant governor and very popular. She ran unsuccessfully against her boss, Hugh Carey, to become governor and seemed to drop out of the limelight.
Not all feminist activists ruined their career opportunities. Carol Bellamy is a case in point. She went from being an activist to election as a New York state senator to New York City Council president, to an investment banker on Wall Street, to heading the Peace Corps in the Clinton administration and to heading UNICEF at the United Nations. Miriam Friedlander was a New York City council member representing Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Miriam was always supportive of the woman’s movement. I ran her campaign office during her 1977 primary. Three men ran against her, but she won easily.
1976, the bicentennial year for the country, NOW held its national conference in Philadelphia, the city of sisterly love. Only that conference was anything but sisterly. Liberals and conservatives were struggling to set the agenda for the organization. Karen Silkwood was killed in a mysterious accident while on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter to discuss plutonium contamination of workers, NOW honored her and gave a posthumous membership, which her parents accepted.
I nearly got into a physical fight, it was early in the morning, voting machines broke down or were sabotaged and there was a lot of anger in the air. Some women in an elevator harassed me and I reacted. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor expecting to be beaten to a pulp but a person from the peacekeeping force intervened. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization.
At this conference NOWs president, Karen DeCrow issued an apology to the lesbian members who had been hurt by the homophobia that nearly ripped the organization apart. Margaret Sloan was on Ms. Magazine‘s editorial staff and was a founder of the National Black Lesbian Organization. Jane Field was a writer and NOW activist, and Elaine Snyder was a past president of New York NOW. Of course, Betty Friedan was there. The New York NOW contingent.
Conferences were the place to get research papers and information about the activities of women’s groups in other parts of the country. There are books and posters for all occasions. NOW’s Eastern Region Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. That’s me at the ERA demonstration. Our firebrand speaker Eleanor Smeal went on to be national NOW president and later founded the Feminist Majority. 1976, Gay Pride. Lesbians struggled not only for their place in the women’s movement they also had to battle male chauvinism in the gay rights movement.
Notice the handmade look to the signs and the way we dressed in the ’70s, we still had a ’60s look. This is my first gay pride march. Author Rita Mae Brown was a keynote speaker at the rally in Central Park. The band is The Deadly Nightshades, a wonderful women’s group that was very popular in the ’70s. In those years lesbians were very political and did not want to be at a rally with female impersonators or be associated with the Man Boy Love group that was participating in the march. So, a separate rally was held in a man free space in Central Park.
A man complained to the police that he is being discriminated against, fighting breaks out when some guys refuse to leave the area. Notice a woman holding her crutch in the air, she was about to crown somebody. Not everybody wanted to fight. These women were enjoying having their own space and their own speakers. Betty Powell was a college professor and gay rights activist. Jean O’Leary was the founder of Lesbian Feminist Liberation, as well as the National Gay Task Force. That’s Eleanor Cooper sitting in the chair, she was also very active in the women’s movement as well as the gay rights movement. Maxine Feldman was just beginning her career as a singer; she was a popular figure at women’s events.
1976, the Democratic Presidential Convention was held in New York City. I worked as a volunteer in the National Women’s Political Caucus Press Office. President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon helped defeat his election to the presidency. He and First Lady Betty Ford were active supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman’s right to a legal abortion. Jimmy Carter had this convention under his control. The women’s caucus was the only event that had any controversy. That’s Karen DeCrow, national NOW president, leading the fight for the 50-50 rule.
Feminists wanted a party rule that said 50 percent of the delegates to the national convention should be women. A highly radical suggestion in 1976. The battle was on. The Carter people wanted party unity and they opposed the change. They won this battle, but we won the war. Two years later, the rule was changed. That’s why today you will see lots of women delegates at the Democrats convention. Before the only women who got to go were the wives of the professional politicians. Barbara Jordan, a Texas congresswoman, became the star of the convention after she delivered the opening address. She was the first African-American woman to have that honor.
There were rumors that she would be Jimmy Carter’s running mate. When she addressed the women’s caucus, Jordan acknowledged that there were stories about her being on the ticket, but that she was a realist and knew it wouldn’t happen. Jenny Apuzzo addressed the women’s caucus in an attempt to get a plank in the party platform regarding sexual preference. Jenny went on to hold several important governmental positions in New York State and was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. Activist Hester Brown added a bit of women’s history to the convention. Victoria Woodhull, as you may know, was the first woman to run for president. She also campaigned on a free love platform which turned off the feminists of her day.
1977, we picketed ABC Eyewitness News. The news anchor had read a story about a 12-year-old girl who had been raped. And after he finished the weatherman said, “Confucius say, Lay back and enjoy it.” He was taken off the air, but only temporarily. Another station hired him. The demonstration was organized by Margalo Ashley Bennett, the NOW media committee chair. Civil rights attorney Flo Kennedy was our featured speaker. I only showed up for demonstrations and did whatever had to be done. Elaine Berkland, who also was on NOWs first rape committee, was there too, and took these pictures.
1977, NOWs 10th anniversary celebration was held at the Biltmore in New York City. Since it was now against the law in New York to refuse to serve unescorted women I had the pleasure of editing the men’s bar sign. The cast of Eve Merriam’s play The Club entertained; an off-Broadway musical directed by Tommy Tune. It took place at the turn of the Century Men’s Club, with women singing all of the parts.
1979 thousands of women, men and children demonstrated in Washington, D.C. for the passage of the ERA extension. There were so many people it took several hours to park our charter bus. As you may know, the amendment was never ratified by three fourths of the states, and it died.
1984 was the year Democrats held their presidential convention in San Francisco. I had to be there because a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, was going to be nominated for vice president. The day before the convention began, lesbians and gays marched through the streets of San Francisco demanding their rights. It was an exciting march with gay and lesbian officeholders and delegates joining the demonstration. Karen Clark was an assemblywoman from Minneapolis at the time, she was the only elected official who was out to the public. She had been featured in a PBS documentary several weeks before the convention.
Flo Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the rally. She told me this was the largest crowd she ever addressed. Pam Brenin, a New York feminist who moved to San Francisco, is with her and a friend. Kate Millett was a familiar voice at rallies and demonstrations for the rights of artists, women, gays and lesbians. I was at the National Women’s Political Caucus Office when Gerry Ferraro gave her speech. This was before VCRs and I had to choose between rushing to the convention center and probably missing her speech or listening and then rushing there, which is what I did.
People were still cheering when I got on the convention floor. Men had given up their floor passes so that women could witness the historic event. It was exhilarating, it was hard to believe that Mondale and Ferraro could lose after such a sendoff. But win or lose, American politics was changed forever by Ferraro’s candidacy. The glitzy ’80s, money was everywhere. Notice how much more elaborate the banners and signs are, visibility at the Pride March was on the upswing, those homemade signs of the ’70s were herstory. Lesbians would no longer be the invisible women of history, thanks to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
A decade later, assembly person Deborah Glick made history as the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to statewide office in New York State. The Women’s Pentagon Action brought the anti-nuke protests to the Pride March with their vision of a nuke free planet. SAGE: Senior Action in a Gay Environment. Two, four, six, eight. How do you know your granny is straight? 1986, Dikes on Bikes led the Pride March. Simone de Beauvoir passed in 1986 but her spirit lives on. Her book The Second Sex became a Bible for many radical feminists.
A popular outdoor group for lesbians, Hiking Dikes, changed its name to Women About in the ’90s and more than tripled its membership. Socialist groups always have very powerful banners. Instead of the silver lining, this rainbow was becoming clouded over by AIDS. The dark balloons were a constant reminder of the devastation of the community. Matrix was a women’s group that wanted to buy land to develop a woman’s community. WOW: Woman’s One World was the first lesbian theater group in New York and perhaps the country. They sang and danced their way down Fifth Avenue, stopping periodically to sing, “standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by”.
Whenever I see a NOW banner at the Pride March I’m reminded about how far NOW has changed for the better. The Statue of Liberty came out on her 100th birthday, Jane Franklin designed the shirt. 1988, I covered the Democrats presidential convention for Flo Kennedy’s cable TV show. The guests of this reception for Congresswoman Maxine Waters were a living history lesson.
That’s Rosa Parks, the woman who started the civil rights movement in the 1950s when she refused to sit in the back of the bus. Among the others in this picture are Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Congresswoman Waters and Dorothy Height. I didn’t take pictures of every event that I participated in or attended, but I tried my best. I believe the women’s movement is the most important revolution in modern history and it is not over. I’m so proud that I have the opportunity to be a part of it.