THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Nancy Drum Dawson
A conversation with Nancy Drum Dawson and Meredith Drum, June 2018
ND: Hello. I’m Nancy Dawson and I am so honored to be part of this project for the Veteran Feminists of America, the Oral History of my second wave involvement. I am living in France — I retired to France. I was born in Philadelphia and went to college in North Carolina and lived most of my adult life in North Carolina. But I am now in France. My daughter and I are talking to you from evening in France. We live in the southwest of France and we have a house that was built in the 17th century and our village nearby is a 12th century village.
MD: I think your name was Nancy Drum during the movement and the [ERA] campaign. I am Meredith Drum and I’m happy to be here as well. I’m a professor in the School of Art at Arizona State University. Let’s jump into it. Mom, when did you first get interested in feminism?
ND: Ironically it was in France in 1957. I had just read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I was 16 and I was an exchange student. I arrived in Paris at the first end in my junior year and I asked a friend to take me to the Café de Flore because I knew that was where Simone de Beauvoir and her friend [Jean Paul] Sartre hung out.
I knew they would be upstairs, but I was too shy to go upstairs, so my friend and I sat down outside. I looked around and took in all the ambience. It didn’t matter whether I knew she was there or not, but it was important for me to be there. I think my consciousness was raised in that very space.
MD: That’s an awesome story. How about other influences from when you were younger?
ND: I was raised in Quaker schools and my parents were very ethical. They were intelligent readers. Neither of them were college graduates because of their era — post-depression or mid-depression. I learned young that if you believed in something, it was something you live by. We essentially had a change-directed life and style of thinking and I think it is one of the things that has been very important as an undergirding in my feminism.
MD: Where and when were you when you became active in the women’s movement?
ND: It was a decade later in the 1970’s and I helped organize the first NOW chapter in my town and probably one of the first in North Carolina. We had expected 25 to 30 women and 60 came. We were overwhelmed and very excited. I think the important thing for us is that we hadn’t been in a situation, especially in the South, where we were with people who felt the same outrageous things as we were thinking. Not that they were that far out, but we were really different. As I’ll explain a little bit later, the South has had a very different attitude toward feminism and the women’s movement than most of the parts of the country.
MD: That makes sense. How did you get involved with NOW? What was it like?
ND: It was after the war in Vietnam and after the Civil Rights Movement. During both those movements or those activities most of the women licked stamps and stuffed envelopes and went to the post office and ran errands and answered the phone. I think we were really ready to be involved.
There was a saying that at the time that “all the men were in the back room where it was smoke-filled.” We wanted to be there. It was demeaning, because we were so capable and it was so demeaning to do such menial tasks. When feminism appeared on the horizon it felt that it was the way forward for us.
MD: I think you said that you felt like you were at home for the first time in the South.
ND: I really did. And then for the next five years I was very involved, very strongly committed to working with NOW, initially at a local level and then a state level.
MD: How did people respond to the NOW meetings and NOW movement?
ND: Feminism had a pretty dramatic entrance in the South. There was a huge amount of media interest and of course they focused on the radical things – or what we thought were the silly things. We were really not prepared for it; it was a surprise. The newspaper came to our meetings and they wanted to understand our discussions about things that probably had no place in the newspaper, they were so minor.
We got calls from teachers at public schools about issues with women or feminism or the history of feminism or anything that was related. I was called by women I had never met wanting advice: marital and job advice; [they were] curious about what feminism might mean for them or NOW. We were a real curiosity. It was sort of like we were from another planet. People would meet us and say, “Oh you’re the feminist.”
MD: How was this response different than if you’d been in the northeast?
ND: It has to do with Southern culture and chivalry was big in southern culture. It almost goes back to medieval England with knights and ladies in distress, but chivalry was really big in the South. Men always opened doors for women. The Feminine Mystique was strong and women were proud to be on a pedestal where they were looked up to, where they could be admired from a distance. They basically utilized their power within the context of the mythology of the Southern belle. The world was the man’s.
The other part about the South and especially in North Carolina, is that fundamentalist religion often had the last word. We realized early on there wouldn’t be any bra burning in North Carolina. We really felt and understood the need to be understood, to speak in a way that people could hear us. And also, we wanted to disabuse people of the notion or perception of us in a frenzied sense.
We worked hard, we thought hard, and we essentially felt that we needed to be feminine and feminist. We needed to walk in a way, dress in a way, address our issues in a way that they were not confrontational, but that they could be heard and understood.
MD: What was your particular involvement and your specific role?
ND: I was the second President of the NOW chapter; the town I lived in was Winston-Salem and that was 1972 and ’73. The first task that we undertook when I was President was desegregating the male-female want ads, the employment ads in the paper. We took a delegation of women to meet with the publisher and he listened to us and he agreed. He conceded that it was a good idea, it was right to desegregate the ads.
As a matter of fact, at times when I looked for a job early on, I’d look at the women’s column and I didn’t qualify for any jobs because I couldn’t type. So invariably I’d look at the men’s jobs and that was my source for the few jobs that I got in college and after college.
The day that the ads were desegregated, there was a front page editorial in the newspaper and it talked about the demise of the “traditional Southern woman” and described her world as the sun rising over a very fancy dress shop in downtown and setting on the trotting ring in the suburbs. I think the hardest thing that was mentioned in the context of this editorial was that a pretty woman just didn’t have anything else to worry her pretty little head except maybe a broken fingernail.
It really hit hard, and I could imagine how somebody would have felt — an intelligent Southern woman reading that and how insulting it was and no wonder many of them were threatened by us.
After the want ads we did a survey of public schools, the employment in public schools, male vs. female employment. And we found the expected proliferation or the high numbers of female teachers and it was 78% in our district. But what really shocked us was that only 1% of the principals and assistant principals were women. And that was less than 1%.
MD: The leadership was mostly men. I’d love to hear about the Jesse Helms visit.
ND: Jesse Helms was a North Carolina senator who was one of the most conservative senators in the Senate for many years and really held forth and was extremely effective. He was elected in 1973. In the year he was elected our chapter organized a group of six women who had had abortions for ethically defendable reasons. I was one of them, I had rubella, others had Tay-Sachs disease. Others had problems that were diagnostically difficult for the fetus.
We had had abortions for reasons that were defensible and we thought he might hear us. So, we made an appointment. He invited us down to his farm in eastern North Carolina. It took most of us half a day to get there. We arrived and he introduced us to his wife and his dog and we went out to his office in a trailer and it was very tight.
We managed to squeeze in and sit down; he sat by the door because he was a big man and he leaned forward and said, “Okay ladies, I welcome you here and I want to hear what you have to say.” And one by one we told our story. It was hard because they were difficult memories and when we finished we all sat quietly.
He cleared his throat and said, “Thank you ladies. I feel your pain and I am sorry, but I have to tell you that many years ago I adopted a child with cerebral palsy and he is the light of my life. Thank you for coming.” I cleared my throat, because I wanted to say more, I didn’t want him off the hook that quickly.
We all had reasons that were defensible, but he stood up and dismissed us and we filed out. As we did, we realized what women were going to be up against and what looked like it might be a long career in politics for this young senator. And it was a prophetic meeting.
MD: He was a tough one. Can you talk about your work in the legislature in the Raleigh state capital and how this started?
ND: I was state President of NOW. I finished my term as the chapter President in Winston-Salem and I was elected state President in 1974 and served though ’76. But at the same time issues with the ERA were really mounting and it became our focus. We [NOW] put together along with 27 other organizations a coalition that would work to ratify the ERA. Members included the AFL/CIO, League of Women Voters, AAUW, Democratic Women and Young Republicans. There were hundreds of thousands of people who were members of the coalition and we named ourselves ERA United, because we felt we were united, men and women across the state.
MD: That’s impressive.
ND: Yes, it was. This was the second year that there was organization going on for the ERA during legislative sessions for ratification. We were not alone in this by any means. It was a nationwide movement. I was elected Vice President of the [ERA United] board and I was asked to, and I agreed to coordinate the state campaign for ratification. Again, it became my life.
I want to tell you a back story before we do much more talking about my trajectory in the ERA. When Shirley Chisholm was running for President, I took my daughter who was then preschool, probably four or five years old, for her to see me vote for a woman for President. When I got to the voting booth, I was told that I couldn’t take her in because there was a law in North Carolina that was only for women and only for blind people that the legislature, in their paternalism, felt would be the only ones who would need assistance in the voting booth.
MD: That’s ridiculous.
ND: I turned to the poll watcher and I said, “Listen, I’m a woman but I don’t need assistance and I can see perfectly well to vote. And all I want is for my daughter to witness me voting for a woman for President”. And she said, “Go on in, you can take her in.” I did and let Jennifer pull the lever to vote for Shirley Chisholm.
MD: That’s such a great story. Can you tell me about the tea party event?
ND: Oh boy, yes, absolutely. This is one of the nicest stories. There was a tea party, much like Boston’s, in 1774, but it was organized solely by the women. No men were involved at all. It was the very first political activity of any kind [organized by women] to happen in the U.S.
Fifty-one women from North Carolina signed a statement saying that men had protested the king before, but women had been too long for their voices to be heard, so they signed the statement. We were there, standing two hundred years later with the wind whipping across the sound, standing at our microphones under the same Live Oaks that our sisters had.
MD: That’s a gorgeous image. The 1774 event – that was the first political event organized solely by women in the U.S. What else did you do to get ready for the campaign?
ND: We marshaled our forces and so did our opposition. There were hordes of women with big red STOP ERA signs and they were huge and they were all over the legislature. They brought home baked bread, some of it was still warm. You could smell it in areas where they were organizing themselves and they were tied up with ribbons and on the ribbon they said for our bread winners – i.e. the men and their legislators. They also came in droves with their children, with their anger, with their fear. And it was quite astonishing.
MD: How was your team different?
ND: To a large degree, our women in the movement were fairly well-educated women, but nonetheless we still had to talk to them about how they should present themselves. They visited each legislator, of whom they were the constituents, and provided information and petitions, if they could get them. The most important thing, we asked them was to express their personal interest in seeing the ERA ratified. About the same time, the letter writing, on both parts, was an important thing to do with all the legislatures.
But on the opposition’s part, it was overwhelming and the legislators complained that they had to weigh their mail instead of counting it. And they also complained that there was a lot on Tuesdays, like we were responsible for this?! What we soon realized was that fundamentalist preachers had taken the ERA to the pulpit. Churches all across the state had tables set outside for after the service where their congregation could write letters. They even had sample letters and stamps.
I’m sure that every Sunday, because the [Tuesday’s] mail was unbelievable, that part of the sermon was devoted to something about women and feminism and men and women as the Bible said they should be. Legislators were seeing this, and they were getting nervous.
There hadn’t been much of a challenge to ERA up to this point: the year before it was short lived. But we were gaining momentum, it was becoming much more discussed. People were looking at different issues. The opposition was growing and growing, not just in North Carolina but all over. And they were nervous. The legislature was flooded with opponents and proponents, they came by the bus loads. Children with their teachers came, ERA flags and balloons. It was really quite something.
And the constitutional amendments committee that was appointed was a disaster. The person who was the chair was committed to defeating it; we had all sorts of delays, any tactic I think that the chair could figure to do. He introduced bills to have a referendum for the ERA, to do a state ERA and to require three-fifths majority for a federal amendment; luckily all of those were defeated. But it was getting quite tense. We had so many brush fires with things coming at us that it just took up so much of our time.
[There were] fears about the draft and women going into combat; rape being eliminated as a crime; same sex marriages, same sex bathrooms, privacy issues — it just went on and on. These were some of the headlines: Opponents Say ERA Violates God’s Laws; The Death of ERA Sought to Preserve the Family; ERA is Immoral, Communistic.
And then to our faces our opponents would say, “You libers promote abortions instead of families, you are denying my right to be supported by my husband, you are taking away privileges and robbing me of my pedestal.” The campaign was rife with animosity and fear. It was so hard to address that. It was emotionally driven. We basically countered with facts.
I felt particularly that Southern women needed the equal rights amendment because in this campaign they were subordinating themselves in a way that defeated their own liberties. It looked like the vote was going to end up being based on fear and not reason. It was looking bad. There were times when I was surrounded after the end of a meeting or in some cases it would be a debate with an opponent, and I’d be speaking on behalf of the amendment. One time I felt if this had been a century earlier, I would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town. It was pretty powerful.
MD: How did you deal with this? Was this one of your biggest concerns?
ND: We were very well organized in this campaign and as I mentioned it was the second. The first round in all states that had a legislative session in that year had learned the things we did or didn’t do, or should have done. And we had backing on a national level and on a state level. We got things in writing.
The President’s wife, Betty Ford, was an advocate. We had a well-known political consulting team that was hired by the National Coalition. We were a mirror of that coalition of the biggest women’s and men’s organizations – but I’d say more liberal organizations in the U.S. The consulting team came and spent a week with us and after that they had looked us over and talked about our plans, they said, “You’ve got the best organized campaign at this point in 1975.”
We had made some decisions early on and one was that we would hire a lobbyist. We hired a lobbyist who was a former member of the House and he was a man in good standing. He was a middle of the road progressive legislator, so he could speak to all sides and speak well. We appointed a woman who was a suffragette and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt as our titular head of ERA, because she’d brought us respectability and responsibility.
There also was a downside to this, because we realized as we were moving along in a campaign that not only Mrs. Tillett, but also some of the older leaders of the statewide organizations like the League and the AAUW and BPW were more conservative. And I don’t mean that politically, but more conservative in their approaches than we were. Although we were being very careful, it really created a schism between the older leadership and the newer leadership. It was basically a generation gap and it was a big concern to us.
The other thing that worried our older leadership was the fervor of the headlines and stories on the front page of how bad everything was. The headlines gave you a good example of that. But what we had done is that we had provided all the newspapers in the state with position papers, the book that we wrote about the ERA and with reasoned information that produced very fair and very reasonable editorials.
One of the things that illustrated this schism or the generation gap more or less can focus on one particular incident that I laugh about now. When I was in a television debate with a leader of the opposition [Mrs. Bobbie Matthews] and my top button came unbuttoned on my blouse. The second button down was hardly provocative. And I was criticized because I’d cross my knees. So there was a big thing made about this top button and my legs crossed at my knees.
In the middle, in the context of this, Ms. Matthews said to me, “Nancy if your law passes, my little girls are going to have to go to war and I want you to tell me that when they are in the trenches, where are they going to plug in their hair dryers?” She was serious. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, but she was really serious. This is also the sort of thing that happened to us in the arguments or the talks, every which way we turned. And I think Mrs. Tillett until the day she died believed that my unbuttoned blouse killed the ERA.
Not long after that, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who was right out of Watergate – he was the chair of the Investigative Committee for Watergate and he was a national hero and North Carolina’s favorite son. He came to North Carolina to speak before the legislature, and he did to a joint meeting of the House and the Senate. I watched him dramatically ascend to his podium, his eyebrows were working, like they were if anyone remembers watching the Watergate hearings — and he said in a voice trembling with emotion, “This amendment will repeal the handiwork of God who created men and women different.” Amen.
Some weeks or so later we were recounting our votes again and again and somebody from the committee of women that were sitting at a big table said, “My goodness, the Fayetteville young man is in Washington at an orientation for Republican legislators. We gotta get him back. He’s a strong ‘yes’.” And we thought: Betty Ford.
I called the political advising group that had been visiting us and explained the situation. Within hours the First Lady wrote a handwritten note and asked a staff person to deliver it to this young man in a committee meeting; and he did. And the note said, “Please go back to North Carolina to vote for the ERA as a personal favor to me.” This young man came back the next day, which was the day of the vote.
MD: The real vote?
ND: The real vote. I’ll explain the “non” real vote. He floated to his seat to cast his “yea” vote. As Meredith referred to, there was a vote that was the preliminary vote — it’s a parliamentary procedure that doesn’t count. But in that preliminary vote we won by one vote and it was so promising. We knew it was tight. But on the same day, all the morning newspapers ran a story that the Gallup Poll was reporting 52% of North Carolinians were in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and only 30% were against it. But we lost by five votes.
MD: Can you tell me a little bit about those votes that you lost?
ND: I will tell you about one in particular because she’s very special. She was a new state representative from rural North Carolina, the mountains. Her name is Lulu Belle Wiseman, actually Myrtle Wiseman, and Lulu Belle was her stage name. She was a country music singer and had a radio program and that’s how she was known as a singer.
She had been a “yes” vote up until the preliminary vote. And the night of the vote she had dozens and dozens and dozens of calls from her constituents voicing fear and concern. They didn’t understand what the amendment was. And she said to us in her heart and it hurt her badly to do this, she couldn’t go against her own people. And after she cast her “no” vote, she buried her face in her arms and sobbed. She was the only woman to vote “no”.
It happened to many other legislators, not quite as movingly or devastatingly as it did with Representative Wiseman. But so many were swayed by their constituents and what we felt were uninformed fears and that was what defeated us. The other thing we were realizing in our scrutiny was that we were no match for the emotional intensity of the opponent’s argument. Ours was an intellectual, reasoned and factual campaign and I think that hurt us as well.
We also realized that although this goes hand-in-hand with it, we were too cerebral. We were all upper-class educated women and we often just preached to the choir. We never once reached out in any comprehensive way to working class women and that was a big mistake, because they had a lot more to benefit from the ERA than we did. Our campaign was reasoned and staid compared to a heightened hysteria (really hysteria) of the opponent’s campaign.
MD: I think it’s important that you recognized you neglected to reach out to your working class neighbors and peers. Looking back what do you think are your most important accomplishments during this time?
ND: I think that we were as close to winning is very important, winning actually in the preliminary vote and then losing by five votes in the vote that held. The most important to me was that we conducted the campaign with integrity and dignity, responsibility, honesty, intelligence. Tom Wicker, who was a New York Times columnist, wrote something that states it just beautifully, “It was not just the defeat. It was the way they did it, in a welter of misinformation, false apprehensions and emotional pressures.”
A friend of mine who was the national logistics political person for the League of Women Voters called me (we had talked regularly during the campaign) and she said, “You know this isn’t us, it’s bigger than us.” And I think she was right. So, Meredith, it’s hard to point to major accomplishments. It is the most important work that I think any of us did and we all felt that it was right. It’s been 100 years since the amendment was introduced in Congress. And there are 197 countries with constitutions around the world, 78% percent of them guarantee gender equity and the U.S. doesn’t.
MD: It sounds to me like working on the ERA was your most important work.
ND: Oh, very much so. And having the opportunity for me personally and for all of us to be involved with feminist initiatives in a Southern state was a challenge and it was complicated. It was important because these were the states where the hardest work had to take place. And we learned how to respond in a way to be heard and understood and we were very mindful not to be aggressive or antagonistic or alienate the votes, the support of the people that we needed to have to succeed.
MD: I know you had some really wonderful experiences along the way. Could you tell us about some of them?
ND: After the vote a legislator had a party for us. At the party was a man who was a long standing legislator and one of the finest progressive legislators/politicians in North Carolina. He raised a glass and toasted us saying that he had fought for good causes all his life in the public sector and in the private sector, in politics and in the legislature and never before had it been so clear that he was on the right side.
And another one that was an astonishing and memorable experience with the NBC Today Show. We were getting a lot of media attention at this point and the NBC Today Show sent a team to do a story and they stayed for a week and talked with the proponents, the opponents and in the legislature. We had a pretty good idea that this was going to be a very big story. And as part of my work that week when they were there, I was making a speech at a Lions Club.
They said they would like to follow me, so I called the Lions Club ahead and asked them if it was okay and asked for their cooperation. We arrived early so the camera people could set up. We walked in and I looked around the room and in the back there was a very big cage with bars and quite a few young men wearing nothing but brief underpants who were prancing and sparring and roaring like lions. I asked what was going on and I was told it was initiation night and they were the young lions.
And the minute he said that I thought: I bet, when those guys found out an NBC team wanted to come, they moved their initiation night to that night. I could just imagine the guffawing, the “boy, are we going to show them.” Well they didn’t. I was determined not to lose my dignity and I even made jokes at the Young Lions expense. The news segment was called Nancy Drum Beats the Drums for the ERA. It was five minutes long and I never saw it because it ran that morning, the morning of our vote.
MD: I know that you had an opportunity to work with the legislature after that, can you say more about that?
ND: Yes. The Senate had a constitutional amendment committee, which if we had passed the House, the amendment would have gone to them — and they came to me and asked if I would write a fair employment bill. We went to the ERA board and they approved it, so I went to work and at that point only 21 states had passed fair employment legislation. But there were a lot of commissions and I got an enormous amount of help from them and also from the law schools at Duke and UNC.
We put it together and it was a collective effort, and I was the one who was typing it (and I don’t know how to type). It was edited by the attorney general’s office and introduced in 1975 and failed and then it was reintroduced for the next ten years — also unsuccessfully.
Not long after I finished writing this bill, I heard about a position in my hometown that was for an EEOC coordinator. That is, an equal employment opportunity commission coordinator which is exactly what I was doing. I went for an interview and an older, balding man, a personnel officer said, “Tell me young lady, how many words can you type a minute?” I paused and said, “I beg your pardon, sir.” He looked at my résumé and continued what became a very short interview — I wasn’t offered the job and I wasn’t interested.
MD: Can you tell me how working in the movement has affected your life since then, personally and professionally?
ND: Right after the campaign, which was the majority of my feminist work, I had to get a job because I was out of money. I had used my divorce settlement to support myself for a year, and a lot of us did that. The only money available that we were funded was for positions like the lobbyist, and they were positions that most of them expected to be paid.
I have no regrets. I was offered a job almost immediately at a wonderful state-supported arts conservatory in my hometown and they wanted me because of my knowledge of the legislature and the cultural and political climate of the state. I worked for 30 years for the school and had very little time for anything else. And the only thing I regret is that long hiatus in my feminist activism.
MD: So how about now in France?
ND: I’ve spent most of my time since we moved here eight years ago settling in, learning French. I’ve done an awful lot of writing about living in France. But always, I’ve been interested in women and the issues around women and noticing how women presented themselves, how they’re treated. I noticed in particular when I got this very slick publication from what is the equivalent of a governor’s office of our state, the Dordogne, the magazine was really slick.
I was impressed with that, but there was nothing about women. No pictures, nothing! No copy. I couldn’t resist, and I wrote a very diplomatically and carefully worded letter explaining how I felt about it and also bringing in the fact that I’d been an exchange student and informed by French feminism in my interest in women. I included an article from The New York Times that was about the World Economic Forum’s ranking [on gender equity] and France was 46th out of 144 countries in 2010.
I never got a response from the letter to the magazine, which I wrote in French. I worked hard on it and I had other people check it. But there was an immediate and noticeable change, slow change. And then, within a few years it was really dramatic and women now have an equal presence on the pages of this magazine called Vivre en Périgord.
The other thing that was very interesting and I was excited to find out that the economic forum reports on gender in 2016 showed France placing at 17th. That is an enormous change from seven years prior when they were 46th. So they moved to 17th place in 2016. And then in 2017 they dropped down to 11th place, which is just astonishing.
And there was no news accompanying this. There were never any articles that I noticed, and I read a lot in both the French and English newspapers for non-French speaking people living in France. Nor was there any evidence of any kind of movement. I feel that what happened in France that happened quietly, is that a lot of people and a lot of companies have been doing the right thing.
MD: What about in the U.S.? What do you know about what is happening there?
ND: I did look at the US. In 2016 the US ranked 45th and 2017 it ranked 49th. But even worse, in a wage equity ranking for similar work, I mean this should be the most telling of all, it ranked 65th. This really makes me sad. I’m committing a good part of my time that I want to use responsibly to learning how this happened in France and why it happened now, and this isn’t going to be easy, because France is a very complex and psychoanalytical culture.
To give you an idea, when I googled French Feminism this is what came up – psychoanalytically influenced post structural feminist theory. It makes me smile, because it’s so French. The way I want to approach this since there really is nothing – no organized leadership or movement that I’m aware of and if I do find there is I’ll follow up.
I really want to do this one-on-one starting with my friends. My friend Mathilda, who is wise and thoughtful and who is my neighbor and friend. And my lively intelligent teacher friend Caroline and so many other really wonderful, bright and stimulating women. I actually even have a discussion group of just French women and this is where I’m going to go to find out.
But all together I think what I want to say is that feminism is, was and always will be a very important force in my life. It’s my lens, it’s my value and an imperative, it’s a continuity and my gestalt and it defines who I am. I love the way my life has come full circle. My feminism is still my pedestal and I will go back to the Café de Flore when I go to Paris in September and I think I’ll go to the second floor.
MD: Cheers to that.
ND: Thank you, sweetheart, and thank you Veteran Feminists of America.