THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Ginny (Virginia Smith) Watkins
“Women Have Power”
Interviewed by Rhonda Watkins, Ginny’s Daughter, 2017
RW: Who was the most influential woman in your life and why?
GW: I had the rather rare experience of having a woman minister or pastor when I was a child. This was in the United Methodist Church and knowing her was quite interesting to me because I had been giving some thought to the idea that a lot of women who I knew in my home town – I didn’t think they had much of a life. I even had a wish that some of them would have a career or a calling. We’re talking in adult terms now. The way I thought about it, as a child was a little different.
I was very happy with this pastor. Her name was Reverend Grace Anderson and I will never forget when I became a member of the United Methodist Church when I was 11 years old. That was about the time they had the memberships. I still remember the moment when she took my hand and looked at me straight in the eye from her pulpit and made me a member of the church and to me that was seeing a woman having power.
RW: Did people in your family or community feel differently than you did about women and men’s proper roles?
Women Encounter Discrimination Every Day
GW: My family really wasn’t so bad in that area. But my teacher in high school civics class, a man, made a comment one day that women should never be given equal rights – never should have equality – something like that. I immediately challenged him. I don’t remember exactly what I said – but the class became quiet. Finally one student asked me – if I didn’t want boys and men to hold doors for me. Well anyway I took care of that pretty well too. I don’t remember my exact reply, but I confidently declared that really was a trivial matter compared to wide ranging discrimination that women encountered every day in employment.
RW: Can you recall the moment or occasion when you became a feminist?
Betty Friedan Became My Hero
GW: The day I bought the book The Feminine Mystique. Betty Friedan conceptualized what I had vaguely thought about in my childhood and also in my early womanhood. I just thought that she did very good job of sorting out what women’s problems were and how they needed to be dealt with. She became my hero.
RW: What changes did you bring about in relation to the struggle for gender equality and how did you do that?
GW: I lived in Des Moines at the time that I became active. I convened the NOW chapter there and I was elected president. But then after about a year, I moved with my family to Minneapolis and there I joined Twin Cities NOW. NOW meaning, National Organization for Women, and was immediately elected Secretary.
I Was Excited to Learn That a Women’s Political Caucus Was Being Formed.
And also I got to become a founder of the Women’s Political Caucus in Minnesota. Betty Friedan came to Minneapolis St. Paul for our first organizing conference and I had the privilege of driving her to one of her appearances. After a year, I was elected president of Twin Cities NOW and served in that capacity for three years. During that time the chapter was quite active. We did some lobbying with the Minnesota Legislature.
In fact we had a bill that eased employment discrimination against women. Discrimination that was due to what was known as Veterans Preference and of course that meant the veterans coming back from wars had to have jobs. But Veterans Preferences kind of rolled on and on and on for a few years by then.
It Actually Was an Obstacle for Women to Get Good Jobs.
Our NOW chapter lobbied the legislature and successfully got rid of Veterans Preference. Even some of the legislators who are veterans were quite nice about it and they thought it was time as well. Eventually I was elected the Minnesota State Coordinator of NOW. And at that time it was mostly convening chapters across the state. Of course we had our Twin Cities chapter and there was one that might have started in Duluth. At any rate I spent two years doing that and Minnesota was ultimately very well represented with NOW.
I was employed by the greater Minneapolis Daycare Association at the time. I became involved with the Minnesota Children’s Lobby and was elected president. During that time I successfully lobbied the Minnesota Legislature for the Sliding Fee Act, which helped parents who worked but who didn’t have enough income to cover their child care expenses. Ultimately I was elected to the NOW National Board. I served six years, five of them as the Midwest Regional Director.
I Also Served On The NOW PAC.
When I was on the NOW Board most of our effort was put toward the ERA campaign to have a National Equal Rights Amendment. Unfortunately we didn’t prevail on that but we did gain some things by that effort. Some states ratified their own ERA’s and actually the Equal Rights Amendment is still before us. And I think that we still have a pretty good momentum getting just the remaining three states that we need so that we will have the ERA. There were just some very strange things about this. For example, Illinois didn’t ratify, which seems very strange. They have a state law that required three fifths of a vote for a federal amendment. Those were some of the problems. But not all was lost because some of the states then passed ERA’s and there still is hope for an Equal Rights Amendment.
Every now and then there would be coming to Minneapolis some leaders of fundamentalist churches. We would demonstrate. Just a nice polite demonstration with some signs and try to persuade them to at least allow a little more power for women in their churches. One example was the Billy Graham Association. We did manage to – and of course they at that time were in Minneapolis – we managed to persuade them to at least have a woman on their board. We thought that was getting somewhere.
And in fact that brings me back to just one more thing about Reverend Grace Anderson and her having to take an assignment in a small town instead of a larger city. The United Methodist Church over the years has made huge improvements. Now I think probably about half of the pastors are women and we have women in very high places of the church. I didn’t want it to be left that we have this woman in this small town that was a pastor and it was the only place she could get a job because huge improvements have been made. And actually I have even sat on some commissions to bring about those changes. And in fact even leaders for whole states are often women now.
Many Significant Actions
The Twin Cities NOW did in their early years – another issue that we had to do with the Sears Corporation. This wasn’t just our chapter in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We actually worked with the Chicago chapter. Chicago was where Sears was located and they needed support throughout the country about some of the inequality that Sears was doing. Much of it had to do with the fact that men had far better jobs even in sales than the [women in the] stores. And in fact [they] always were the people who got to sell the big appliances. Which of course meant more commissions. There were all kinds of problems like that. That turned out to be a very long process and a very long story but at least Sears now today is greatly improved, as are some other similar stores like Sears.
RW: What were the obstacles you faced and how did you handle them?
GW: The extreme right is our enemy. Wherever you find them – whether it’s through their fundamentalist churches or otherwise they are the biggest threat that we have. I think that a lot of people – they sort of vaguely know about the extreme right and how they don’t like feminism. But it’s easy to forget some of the heinous things they have done. For example killing abortion doctors and that sort of thing. So they can be very destructive.
RW: Can you identify the high point of your life in feminism or your greatest achievement or victory?
GW: Going back to Des Moines in 1992 for a book-signing event. Louise Rosenfield Noun, who had written a book about women’s suffrage in Iowa. Noun authored a book called Strong Minded Women. It was about women of the second wave – leaders of the second wave in Iowa and I was one of the people featured in her book. And of course you know there are just so many challenges that you can have. Being an officer in an organization like NOW you can have an awful lot of challenges – spend a lot of time and that sort of thing. And so [a] little reward like that once in a while is very good and I really appreciated that.
RW: What benefits have you seen from your own activism and or activism in concert with others?
GW: I think that leadership skills are what I learned. And we even at a certain point – our NOW chapter – we had a professional leadership organization come and help us.
Leadership Skills are Very Important.
For example to gather a group of people for a march – that’s one thing. But you can’t just stop at that. You have to follow up on it. All the people who you attracted – you have to get in touch with them. That was something that was very useful for me.
RW: What still needs to be done?
GW: The Electoral College! The Electoral College! The Electoral College! That’s what it’s all about right now. What a disappointment. I can certainly attest to my own – but to so many women who thought that we were going to have our first woman president. But now because of the Electoral College we don’t. And of course things are happening that are not good. I was at a women’s meeting not too long ago in New York and I got up and spoke about that and many people came up to me afterward and said – yes we have to do it. So now we just have to get organized and find out how to do something about the Electoral College.