Biographies of VFA Fabulous Feminists
Jane Everhart: The Press Club Picket – The Demonstration that No One Remembers
I was new to the City in 1967 and it seemed fresh and fragrant and exciting and full of possibilities. Was it the Summer of Love? In the 1960s, every summer was the summer of love. Central Park was full of Beatle music, pot-smoking and long-haired boys playing their guitars around the Bethesda fountain. I was newly divorced, with hair down to my waist and I wore long Indian skirts and bangles.
My three children and I lived on East 87th Street, in what was known as Yorkville, a neighborhood of luxury high rises, German sausage shops and Chinese restaurants. I had splurged for a two-bedroom apartment in one of those luxury hi-rise buildings, $375 a month in those days, but I considered it worth the enormous price because it was in a good school district, Public School Number Five. It was a lot of money then; apartments were going for $60 a month down in the East Village. But with my new job at Cosmopolitan magazine, I felt we could make it.
I met a neighbor in my building, a mother of four who had moved to New York from Bogota, Colombia, whose children were roughly the same ages as my kids. I had seen her, sleek and smiling, and heard her unique melodic laugh at the school. Her name was Jacqui Ceballos. One day she buttonholed me in the elevator and whispered earnestly, “Women are organizing! You must join us. We are fighting for women’s liberation! Come hear Kate Millett speak at the Press Club this Saturday.” She handed me her card. In those days, everybody had cards even if they didn’t have a job.
“Who is Kate Millett and why should I go hear her?” I asked.
“She is a Columbia University graduate student who is writing a book called Sexual Politics,” Jacqui said sotto voce. “This is our revolution! Come, you will see. We need to organize!”
JACQUI CEBALLOS DID NOT GIVE UP on me. She was a slender, dark-haired woman in her early 40ies who carried herself with the panache of an opera star. Later I learned that she had indeed trained to do opera but got married instead. Jacqui grew up in a small town near New Orleans, where her French-rooted family was involved in local politics; her brother was some sort of an elected official in their town. In her youth, Jacqui had come to New York to study voice (she had a pleasant mezzo soprano operatic voice) but had ended up meeting and marrying a rich Colombian industrialist, moving to Bogota, Colombia and giving birth to four children.
Two of Jacqui’s children were in their teens when she moved back to New York (the youngest was about seven); they were supported by her mostly absent husband, who stayed in Colombia to supervise his business. She had, it was rumored, persuaded her husband that it was necessary for the children to be schooled in the arts in a big city like New York. But the actual reason for her coming to New York, I learned, was much darker.
In Bogota, as a young mother with enough servants so that she had time on her hands (“I had servants to do everything,” she told me), Jacqui had started a small opera company, El Teatro Experimental de la Opera, of which she was the director as well as a musical star and diva. But rumors of her gallivanting about town with musicians, singers and supporters of her opera reached the ears of her husband’s prominent family and in the end, her husband forbade her to have anything to do with the opera company she founded. Jacqui was relegated to home and hearth, no more than that, and while her home was substantial even by Colombian standards, Jacqui chafed at her confinement.
A woman with four children to raise can be imprisoned not only by her husband’s decrees but also by circumstances: Jacqui had no way to support the children. She had acquired no professional skills outside of singing and starting an opera company – and even that had been a nonpaying job.
But Jacqui was clever. She was, in the end, able to persuade her husband that their two daughters were theatrically talented and needed to be in a big city to study dance, voice and drama. The husband was much older than Jacqui; it was his second marriage and he had children by his first marriage. (I met him in later years and found him to be a courtly, rather charming elderly gentleman). He agreed to support Jacqui in New York while she accompanied their two daughters (the two sons eventually also came to New York to be with her) so the girls could study at what Jacqui hoped were the finest art, drama and dance schools New York could provide.
Jacqui reveled in her freedom in New York. When I first met her, she and three of her children were living in the same building that I lived in, but in a bigger, more expensive apartment. I loved her back story of having been an aspiring opera singer who had been seduced by love and marriage into giving up her career aspirations. I totally identified with her starting an opera company in Bogota to give more meaning to her life and recapture those youthful aspirations. I even understood her escape to New York after she was forbidden a life outside of domesticity in Colombia.
What I couldn’t quite fathom as I got to know Jacqui was the extent of her outrage at the fate of most women, an outrage so potent it watered down even her interest in her girls’ theatrical training and inspired a change in her focus from just the children to the cause she dubbed “women’s liberation.” Her talents, when I met her, were riveted on the worldwide plight of women. Opera, music, marriage – all went by the wayside as she devoted her skills and time to her new cause. And in 1967-68, she was pulling me into it.
But not just me: By the end of the 1970’s, Jacqui would become known as the number-one recruiter for the National Organization for Women (N.O.W). And later in that first decade of the Second Wave of the Women’s Rights movement, Jacqui would debate Norman Mailer on stage in Manhattan’s Town Hall.
I TOO HAD READ BETTY FRIEDAN’S life-shattering book, The Feminine Mystique, way back in 1963 or 1964, when it first came out. It changed my life as well – but my changes were subtle and gradual. In Jacqui I saw the zeal of a martyr to the cause; I saw in her the women knitting in front of the guillotine in the French Revolution; I saw Joan of Arc riding into battle, I saw the Valkyries.
I went with Jacqui one evening in 1968 to a meeting at the New York Press Club of what turned out to be a small, rudimentary group of women in the National Organization for Women. Betty Friedan had started N.O.W. in Washington in 1966 but it hadn’t gotten much notice and no one really gave it much credence. Despite the buzz started by The Feminine Mystique – to the male world, to Christendom, and to most of the world – women’s rights were still a yawn in 1968. Hadn’t women already gotten the vote?
The Press Club’s headquarters were in a six-story red brick building on 41st Street, just off Fifth Avenue. We met in a narrow, dismal room on an upper floor with heavily draped windows and a lot of folding chairs in rows. There were maybe 20 women there, counting me and Jacqui. At the front of the room, sitting at a small oak table, was a lithe, pale young woman, Ti-Grace Atkinson, who was president of N.O.W.’s New York chapter. Ti-Grace slunk in her chair like a bored debutante (which, it was whispered later, she was) and in due time introduced speaker KATE MILLETT as “a graduate student in literature and art at Columbia University” who was writing a book titled Sexual Politics.
Kate, a serious young woman with clunky eyeglasses, read from her manuscript droningly. My mind wandered; her book was all about anti-women attitudes in famous literary books. Literature was the least of my concerns. When it came to women’s rights, I was pragmatically interested in things like equal pay for equal work and child care centers for working mothers. Kate’s book seemed like a luxury for feminists who didn’t have children or jobs. I was beginning to get exasperated with Jacqui for dragging me to this meeting when Kate wrapped up and I heard Ti-Grace saying something that caught my attention.
“We can’t meet here in the Press Club any more,” Ti-Grace said. “This Press Club is an all-male organization and they don’t allow women on the premises.”
There was angry muttering from the women in the audience.
“Well, why were we allowed here today?” one woman asked.
Ti Grace explained that when she booked the room, she did not mention to the Press Club that we are a women’s group. They thought she was a secretary, booking for a men’s group. “Only when they saw us come in did they realize what they had done and I was given word tonight that we cannot meet here anymore.”
“LET’S PICKET THE PLACE!” someone shouted. It might even have been me. Ti-Grace threw the crazy idea out for a vote. To everyone’s surprise, the vote passed. I found myself agreeing to send out a press release to announce our demonstration.
I could even do more than that, I knew. What none of the women knew was that I was, at the time, dating the City Editor at Manhattan’s Associated Press, Pierce Lehmbeck. I felt I could persuade him to cover a women’s demonstration against the Press Club even if no other media outlet was interested.
We set a date for the demonstration and I dutifully sent out press releases to all the media – everyone from the New York Times to the Daily News to local radio stations.
I did not get a single response. No one had ever heard of N.O.W.
I got on the phone with Pierce. “Look,” I said, “I need you to send a reporter to our women’s group demonstration.”
I could hear Pierce groan.
“I don’t have an extra reporter,” he said. “It costs us money to send a reporter to an event. I have to justify it. How can I justify a silly, unimportant story like this one?”
Pierce, like most men in 1968, harbored attitudes about women that he was not aware of and one of them was that whatever “cause” women were into was basically not important.
I sensed the need for a stronger approach. I was about to use tactics that I hated. “Pierce,” I said, “If you don’t send a reporter to this demonstration, we’re through. Do you hear me? We’re finished! This is important to me.”
Then I added, just for good measure, “But if you do send one, you won’t be sorry.” It was the icing on the cake and I hated myself for it. What the hell. I hung up.
So it happened that in the early summer of 1968, a small group of women, members of a virtually unknown group, the National Organization for Women, demonstrated one hot afternoon at 3 o’clock in front of the New York Press Club on 41st Street, carrying placards that said “PRESS CLUB DISCRIMINATES AGAINST WOMEN” and “WE ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THIS BUILDING. WHY? BECAUSE WE ARE WOMEN!”
I stood there in the heat of 41st Street with the other women in our floaty summer dresses, in front of the Press Club, sometimes marching in a circle, sometimes chanting, “What do we want? Equality!” Jacqui was there, Kate Millett was there, Ti-Grace, Flo Kennedy, Anselma Dell Olio. About a dozen women showed up. We were all a little scared, shaky, embarrassed to be expressing ourselves so boldly in public. It was Flo Kennedy who gave us courage: Cowboy hat atilt, cigarette holder protruding from under her hat, Flo’s anthem was: “Fuck ‘em. We know our rights. The sidewalk belongs to us.” She had learned from the Black civil rights movement.
“What Do We Need? Equal Rights! Our voices filled the empty street.
My watch said 3:30 and no media had appeared. No reporters, no photographers. Then it was 4 p.m. and the midtown offices were beginning to empty out. Still no media. Across the street, pedestrians were slowly gathering and watching us picket. We were a motley crew, now down to about eight women as some left, our voices echoing in the empty street between the New York Public Library and the skyscrapers.
Then suddenly, a young man appeared, notebook and camera in hand, press card pinned to his jacket lapel.
“Where are you from?” I asked desperately.
“Associated Press,” he said. “Who can I interview? Do you have a spokesperson?”
Pierce had come through.
The next day the, well, news, hit the fan. The Associated Press had gotten itself a scoop. Everywhere, all over the country, headlines screamed, WOMEN BARRED FROM PRESS CLUB and WOMEN PICKET PRESS CLUB, CLAIMING DISCRIMINATION and WOMEN THROWN OUT OF PRESS CLUB. Our photos in front of the Press Club made just about every newspaper across the country that carried A.P. news. Associated Press, you see, is syndicated nationwide. We made the Los Angeles Times, the Des Moines Register, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Daily Nebraskan, the Chicago Tribune and even the Anchorage Daily News.
Interestingly, we didn’t hit the New York media as strongly as we hit the nationwide media. In those days, the New York press generally followed what was known as the A.P. “Day Book” – the assignment book for A.P. reporters. The rest of the NYC press was content to follow A.P.’s selection of what was the hot news that day. Alas, Pierce had forgotten to put our demonstration on the A.P. Day Book. Apparently sending a reporter to our picket was a last-minute decision that he had agonized over. So in New York City, our demonstration at the Press Club was lost in the shuffle of news that day.
But the nationwide coverage was ample: Our phones rang off the hook. Everybody wanted to know what was this N.O.W. women’s organization. Ti-Grace was interviewed on radio, Jacqui answered phone calls from around the country and in the end, Kate Millet, surprisingly, was to make the cover of TIME Magazine in 1970.
Our story had touched a nerve because every big city in the country had a Press Club. And, we discovered, everywhere it existed, the Press Club was a male domain in 1968.
In the end, it wasn’t just that Pierce had come through for us; it turned out that we had come through for him: Years later, A.P. was lauded for being one of the first news organizations to recognize that the Second Wave of the women’s movement was being born and becoming important. Indeed, women’s liberation was soon to become a force that would culminate in the August 1970 march of half a million women down Fifth Avenue.
Pierce, as the city editor of A.P., got kudos from the news industry for having the insight to be the first news organization to send a reporter to a women’s demonstration. It was the kind of irony that I was to joke about with Pierce years later after he had retired and moved to Florida.
“Pierce,” I would say, “how do you feel knowing that you probably helped the women’s movement get off the ground?” It is a provocative question to ask a man proud of his machismo.
“I think it was damn smart of me to recognize a good story when I saw one,” he would say.
And we would both laugh.
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