Step by Step: Building a Feminist Movement
You Funding for Step-by-Step was provided by the Hilldale Fund, the Anonymous Fund, the Division of Continuing Studies, and the Humanistic Fund, all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and by the Wisconsin-Sesquicentennial Commission, the Evue Foundation, and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Step-by-Step, the longest step can be won, can be won. Step-by-Step generation after generation, American women have fought for their rights, reaching
across differences of age, culture, wealth, and race. These women united to challenge the customs and laws that held them back. They called the discrimination they faced sexism, and they organized to end it. I talk to young women who don't even begin to know about the struggle that was, not to mention the struggle that is, and when we talk to them about the road over which we've come and yet, and still we've survived, and we've helped to make things different for them, not
complete, but better for them. It's amazing when they say to us that they haven't heard the story. This is the story of the generation of Midwestern women who continued the struggles for equality and justice in the decades after women won the right to vote. They came out of the region's labor unions, political parties, religious orders, and universities, and began their efforts during World War II. I was at Swarthmore as a freshman. December 7th happened very early, you see, in my college years, and the men disappeared. And in looking back, I realized that because of that, and I even knew it then, I had the roles of leadership that were extraordinary, I got to go to a leadership training institute at Campabello, the Roosevelt's home for five weeks, set on the floor with Mrs. Roosevelt. But I was picked because, as I later read in a letter, John Chapman had gone in the Navy,
Peter Kud had gone in the Army, and here's Mary Lou Rogers. And that state, I think, in my memory, that little Colonel, here she is, but only because the men had left. My first real-paying job was a job at Armand Company. I was hired there in 1941, and I was taken straight to the Canning Department to pack stew in cans for the Army. And I found out that the women on the line made 62 in a fraction of a sense an hour. And that the men made 14 cents an hour more than the women. And I discovered that most of the women thought that men's work was valued more than women's work, and that it was all right to do that. Despite unequal pay women worked in unprecedented numbers during the Second World War, there
was a 50% increase in the number of women employed outside the home. Workers for Victory, it's the assembly line that interests Uncle Sam's daughters now. The war-producing board expects a million women in industry this year. Well, women were doing all kinds of work. They were doing riveting. They were operating cranes. They were doing inspection. They sent me to school, taught me how to be a final inspector, taught me how to reprints and read all the gauges and stuff that I'd need to do inspection work. Because the wages were really considerably higher than any of us had ever made before. That's United States employment offices throughout the country. Former war workers line up to register for new jobs.
When the war was over, it was extremely difficult. I finally went back to work at Kaiser Fraser, but I hired in doing a clerical job. When I started working in the office, I would number one outrage because they wouldn't give me an inspection job. Number two, my wages were much less than I would have made in the plant. I realized when the war was over, that period of my life was over. Banks made for a job well done. I knew in a sense that the men were coming back and the role of leadership was going to pass back to male leadership. I threw myself, I think, into the role of a mother, had four children, and a rather intense volunteer life. Many of the talents that I had that I developed through my political work in college and all fit in beautifully to the League of Women Voters and politics here in Madison.
I call it, do good, women that were the backbone, really, I think, of community life. Post-war prosperity fueled the rapid growth of suburbs and allowed many women, like Mary Lou Muntz, to devote themselves to family and community life. A few women went into business. Jean Boyer and her husband, a former baseball player, opened a furniture store in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. I immediately went to the Chamber of Commerce and I purchased two memberships in the Chamber, one for myself and one for my husband. But within a couple of months, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce paid a visit to the store and took my husband aside and asked him if he would see to it that I wouldn't come to any more of the Chamber of Commerce meetings because the men were made uncomfortable by my presence.
It was such a put down, you know, because I was the business woman. My husband was previously a baseball player. The economy boomed as manufacturers pushed to meet the demand for consumer goods, especially automobiles. Rising consumer aspirations and increasing employment opportunities pulled an ever-growing number of wives and mothers into paid work outside the home. We wanted a home of our own so badly. And so I went to the GM plant, that was one of the better paying jobs. They had not too many women, but women were relegated to the cushion line at that time. I went in under the objection of my brother, my older brother who was very active in local 95 union at that time, he had been president and so on, he always sort of felt like that wasn't a place for women to work. But I guess as much as I thought of him, I figured you're there, why can't I be?
Like Doris' home, most wager-ning women were concentrated in low-paying occupations. Women seeking improved employment conditions sought support from the Midwest's more progressive labor unions, including the United Packing House workers and the United Auto Workers. I always say that the union really educated me, you know, I had went to school, but I really didn't get educated until I had become associated with the labor movement. It taught me the broader problems that we face in our society, and it taught me how to use the talents I had, it taught me how to speak, and how to get up in a meeting and project my own thoughts, and it taught me, you know, what the issues were, and where I lined up as far as the issues were concerned. I was a member first of the United Packing House Workers Union, UPWA, which was a very progressive union, and our workers fought together before the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s
to eliminate the wage differential that existed between men and women, the wage differential that existed between workers in the North and workers in the South, and Titus Cremination was mandatory within all of our ranks, and of course we had to learn how to live with it and how to make it happen. The UAW Women's Department set up in 1946 Regional Women's Committees, and I was appointed to that Regional Women's Committee, so I at least become well acquainted with other women at that point in time from the UAW. Now as a member of the Executive Committee of the UAW Local 95 in Jamesville, I was then sent to the Women's Committee Central Headquarters that was held in Milwaukee. Our Region 10 was centered there at that time.
It was a learning experience. I really learned a lot from the women, because most of these women who had worked in the plants all in the whole area worked everywhere in the plant, and that's where the seed began to grow in my mind, why was I cornered in one little corner on the cushion line, when the wages were much better, the work itself was much easier, somewhere else in the plant. Women were raising many questions about limitations they faced in the workplace, questions that surfaced in 1953 at a UPWA conference on discrimination. In my report, as a delegate, I emphasized the fact that we needed to have women leaders, and we suggested that we'd have a white male president of our local union, and we should have a women vice president.
And some of the older women came to me and said, you know, it is so moving what we're doing. I think we can really accomplish it, but we can't find a woman who will run. So we need to ask you to do that, and I didn't want to hear it, because I was already involved in my church, I was involved in the community, working with you, and I had children at home, and a wonderful young husband, and I did not want to be a leader in the union. reluctantly, Eddie Wyatt agreed to run. She won the election as vice president, shortly afterwards, the president resigned, and Wyatt became the first woman president of a UPWA local. Took me about three months to really say to my husband that I am the president of a local union, and he just said to me, well, if you're going to be the president of that local union, you can't leave things undone here at home, and that's usually the, you know, the male
position that they take, and I promise that nothing would go like in at home. But because we were depending up on the union to help us to make life better for ourselves and our children, we had a responsibility to help make that happen. My ambition really was serving on the top negotiating committee, and I won that election, and of course, it was a real breakthrough for me, and some of the people that I was associated with, especially some of the men, although some of the men supported me strongly, but the ones who I thought would be the most supportive, they really didn't, and it was a bitter lesson for me to learn, really was. I didn't think the Biden committee was a good spot for a woman that, you know, the kind of language and discussion and negotiations, I wouldn't like it, and that they didn't think I should be doing it.
As labor women were gaining ground in their unions, political activists were carving out places for themselves in the progressive political parties taking shape in the Midwest, like the Democratic Farm Labor Party, the DFL. What was so unusual about the DFL was that for every chairman, there was a chairwoman, there was a powerful set of older women who became role models for me. In 1948, Arvon Skeleton took a job with the DFL. I'll never forget a young man and I were working together. We were going to get raises. I discovered he got more than I did and I went into Freeman, the chair, who was a lawyer and said, how come he got more of a raise than I did? He said, because you're a woman, I was furious, I've never forgotten it, obviously. During the 1940s and 50s, women did the groundwork to strengthen the party.
They knew how to work the system, they knew how to run campaigns. They raised money, they knew everybody, they got all the literature out, they did the phoning, the women ran the infrastructure and the guys ran for office. Arvon Skeleton's marriage to Don Frazier in 1950 forged just such a political partnership. A party official herself, she ran several successful campaigns to elect her husband to state office in Minnesota. Then he decided to run for the U.S. Congress. What was a little irritating was that we paid for household help so I could run the campaign, but somehow the mystique was that he had to have a male campaign manager in name and pay him. That was hard for the male campaign manager and it irritated the heck out of me, but I
loved running the campaign. When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, women hoped his campaign theme of a new frontier would include expanded opportunity for them. During the 60s presidential election when Kennedy was elected, women were very active in that campaign, they encouraged them to be active and the Democratic Party encouraged them to be active. President, the Democratic platform in which you ran for election promises to work for if they rights for women including equal pay. Now you have made efforts on behalf of others, what have you done for the women according to the promises of the platform? Well I'm sure we haven't done enough and under pressure to take women's issues seriously, President Kennedy established a commission on the status of women and appointed former
first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as chair. The commission was established to examine the needs and rights of American women today and make recommendations for the elimination of barriers that result in waste, injustice and frustration. I feel confident that in the years ahead many of the remaining outmoded barriers to women's aspirations will disappear. I was appointed to serve on the commission on the status of women. Our job was to make a study of the status of American women and to hold conferences throughout this country and to report to President Kennedy our findings and also recommendations to make the status of women in our country better to improve their plight economically, politically and socially.
One of my assignments was to research all of the Supreme Court cases having to do with discrimination against women and it was under the 14th amendment and the issue was do we need another amendment, do we need an equal rights amendment. So they wanted me to research the cases thus far and it was a real eye opener. I was very surprised to learn that women really were not equal legally in this country under the Constitution. It really was the forerunner of bringing together women from very diverse kind of groups who discovered that they had the same kind of problems. After two years of study the commission issued its report entitled American Women. In honor of Eleanor Roosevelt who died as they were completing their work the commissioners chose her birthday in October 1963 to present their results to President Kennedy. In the months that followed individual states created groups to study women's lives.
At the University of Wisconsin professor Catherine Clarenbach called a conference in February 1964 to launch that state's commission. And I will never forget watching Catherine Clarenbach talking about the real conditions of women in our society. It was like opening up the floodgates of emotions that I had accumulated over all those previous years of feeling that I was somehow a stranger in this world. I can hear her voice even today saying the Chinese bind the feet of their women and we bind the minds of our women. It was so, it made such an impact on me that the tears just began to stream down my face. From that time on I became a feminist. I went home and looked it up in the dictionary because I realized that I now had a different
view and I think she must have used the term in her speech that means that you are a believer in the equality of women at all levels, educationally, economically, philosophically. And I thought, yes, that is me, I do believe in that. Across the nation, women were rethinking their beliefs as Gene Boyer did. Many had begun to question the cultural pressures that channeled women into roles as wives and mothers. Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, gave a name to the frustrations they were experiencing. I got a call in the middle of the night in a woman in Pittsburgh and say, I put my kids in the pajamas in the station wagon, I've gone all over the city looking for a copy of your book I've heard about. I know it's what I needed, it's what I needed, where can I get it? And it was as if there were millions of women and each one thought she was a freak. She was alone if she wasn't having an orgasm boxing in the kitchen floor.
I mean, if she, if no matter how much she wanted, that has been no children, this suburban dream house that was supposed to be the end of everyone's life, that sometimes eating peanut butter sandwiches with the kids in this suburban sexual ghetto world between the hours of nine and five, nothing stirred over three feet tall and she said is this all. When Don was elected to Congress and we moved to Washington, I was devastated after the move. I had had a real career in Minnesota, everybody thought I should be delighted to be sitting in the suburbs with six little kids. I was not delighted, I hated it, even got to the point of being fairly seriously depressed and a friend gave me Betty for dance, the feminine mystique and that sort of did it.
I read this book and I thought she's missed the whole point. I was just very resentful because I felt she was denigrating the great work that I was doing and that others were doing in a variety of things and the fact that this was not only something we enjoyed doing, we were doing the real work for the common wheel. On the other hand, there was a little seed that she planted. In 1964, women lobbied four and one legislation to advance their cause. Congress passes the most sweeping civil rights bill ever to be written into the law. This civil rights act is a challenge to all of us, to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of
sex as well as race and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, to enforce the new law. Women were talking about the Equal Opportunity Commission. That made me think maybe that's the vehicle I need to get out of the cushion line. So I went back to the plant and the first thing I did was sign a grievance. I called my committee man and I said I want to file a grievance, I want to get out of the cushion line. Immediately I was called in the whole entire executive board. I sat there with all these people, people from Detroit. They were not happy with me, let me tell you. I can remember one man saying to me, young woman, do you know what you're doing? Do you realize? I said, you bet your life I do. He said, look at the books that we're going to have to change and I said tough. As we were passing those laws, even the legislators would say to us, well you know you can change
the law but you can't change attitudes. Of course they were right but we would say them, you changed the laws, let us worry about the attitudes. We'll continue to work on that. Doris Tome was assigned to a job in the pits, putting weather stripping on car doors. People would come from all over the plant and point and say, look there's a woman working down there. They'd look like you were an animal in the zoo of course. At first I got kind of a kick out of it and then it kind of irked me a little bit. But that didn't bother me as much as the fact that nobody would talk to me and I thought, how am I going to do this now? They aren't speaking to me. So I brought in two cakes, I brought in a chocolate cake and a white cake. And I brought in napkins, I brought in little paper plates and forks and then gradually one by one they came down, they came down and had a piece of cake. You know it's a little hard not to say to somebody, well happy birthday if they're eating
your cake and that did it and that broke the ice. Individual breakthroughs like Tome's were few and far between. Women were flooding the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with grievances, especially concerning the segregation of job listings. The commission was failing to issue regulations that would make newspapers stop advertising jobs under help wanted male and help wanted female. If you were a woman you had to look under those jobs and those were mainly, you know, clerking in stores, secretaries, the sort of thing. If you were an engineer you would be looking under the men, help wanted men and chances are they weren't interested in a woman. And EEOC was doing nothing about that. I would take off and go to the office of the local newspaper and talk to them about this policy in Sheboygan, the editor, literally grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and tossed me out of his office because he thought I guess I was just too uppity a female to deal
with. He was totally affronted by the suggestion that he should change his policies. Tired of lobbying and conducting studies only to have their grievances ignored, representatives of the state commissions on the status of women gathered in Washington, D.C. in June of 1966 to talk strategy. I remember sitting at the end of the table and in walk Betty for Dan and her usual impatient style kept pushing for us to create a resolution to take to the floor of the conference. One of them was to call on the EEOC to actually implement Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which had never been applied seriously to women. And that was when Kay Clarenback got called into it. Off she went to try to get this to happen.
Word came back much to her surprise and they were not going to permit us to introduce these resolutions on the floor of the conference and I think the reason it was given was that this was a conference sponsored by government and at least one of our resolutions was critical of government. We were saying, you know, government, do your job and implement this law that's been passed. So we were denied the opportunity to do that. Well, this made Betty for Dan absolutely furious and when Betty gets furious, then really starts the wheels churning. By that time there had been a talk among various groups about the need to start a woman's group and we knew that if we were going to build an organization, it had to be something like the NAACP that had to be a pressure group from the outside. And so NOW was formed, the national organization for women and even the word for is very illuminative because it wasn't the national organization of women because we wanted
both women and men to be involved. And so we discussed every issue under the sun, tried to decide where we should center our efforts. One of the good things about all those different women was they brought such disparate experience. NOW was founded in October 1966 to quote, take action to bring women into truly equal partnership with men. Betty for Dan was the first president, Katherine Claren Bach, first chair of the board. The United Auto Workers in Detroit and the University of Wisconsin provided resources and support for the new organization. Midwestern women from educational, religious, political, and labor groups were a majority of NOW's initial members. Sister Austin Doherty, Gene Boyer, Dorothy Hainer, Doris Tom, Eddie Wyatt, and Mary Eastwood were all founding members and helped set NOW's priorities.
We decided to pick at the EEOC for failing to require employers to publish their want-to-ads in a nondiscriminatory manner. And so we made a lot of picket signs in my apartment and we wanted press, of course, but at the same time we were scared, those of us who were working in the government. We pick it during our lunch hour and it was my luck to have my picture in the Washington Post the next morning as carrying a picket sign. My boss indicated to me that was not a very good idea when you were working for the government because somebody could spot me and realize that I worked for the Justice Department. NOW began pushing for full legal equality in the form of an equal rights amendment to the Constitution, the ERA. I believe that the Equal Rights Amendment was a minimum commitment to the equality of women. The Constitution is our basic document and it was extremely important that it reflect what our fundamental rights are and I thought that to be a feminist it means that you believe
that women should be equal with men under the law. One of the interesting board meetings that I remember of the National Organization for Women was a meeting we held in Chicago in the mid-60s and one of the women, a lawyer who was very influential on the board, she was there and she was not feeling well and so we knew that we should go out and get some medication for her but it was late at night I think it was maybe perhaps almost midnight. Masters Austin Doherty and Joel Reed decided to walk several blocks to the nearest pharmacy. And it was interesting to me that all the other women on the board recognized that even though they didn't want to impose on us they knew that that would be the best thing to do because we were in habit as Roman Catholic sisters and we would be safer on the streets than other women might be. As we reflected on it it taught us a great deal about some of the issues that we all had to be a little bit more concerned about and why was it that certain women might be able
to be secure on streets and other women were not. Meanwhile, a younger generation of activists with experience in civil rights, anti-war and radical student groups began mounting their own protests against sex discrimination. Their demonstrations like those at the 1968 Miss America pageant raised new issues and promoted a social revolution they called women's liberation. Public protests were designed to capture media attention, but much more of the women's liberation movement occurred in small consciousness raising groups where women explored the
personal and political implications of being female. What was the women's movement was something that came upon me in a variety of exposures. I remember one of the first things that happened that was on the advisory committee to the WCA and a young woman came up from Chicago and this had to be early, maybe 66 or 7, and she had to sit around a circle and we had to go around and describe where we are. I didn't even know the phrase where we are, she really meant where we are in our development of our feminist consciousness. I now understand that's what she meant, but it was really quite amazing because we didn't quite know what we were doing, but we knew we were doing something different and it was because we were listening to this young woman who had already, you know, she was already
someplace. She knew where she was. It's like you don't have any opportunities, you don't have options open to you. You have a lot of options, you can be somebody's wife, you can be somebody's mother, you can be somebody's lover, you can be somebody's anything which can't be somebody. There was just beginning to be information in the newspapers about the young women's lived groups. I was talking to other wives about living in Washington, all these discussions and this reading led to calling a sort of a group together with a brown bag. We decided nobody was going to make a lunch, a fancy lunch, so we were all going to bring brown bags and we also decided we were not going to go around and introduce ourselves as related to any man and one woman said this is the first time in 20 years that anybody has asked me who I am.
As the 1970s began, women of all generations and political persuasions joined forces to fight the sexism that pervaded American attitudes and institutions. When NOW called a nationwide striped for equality on August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of women's right to vote, feminists took to the streets. And I did a one woman demonstration in Beaver Damatown of 14,000 very conservative souls and I stood out there in front of my furniture store with my buttons and my literature and I did all the things that they were doing in New York except march up and down the street. And the manager, the penny store, happened to walk by and gave me the old line about woman's place was in the home and I simply said to him, well when you return to your store I'd like you to count the number of women and let me know how many you have that are outside
of the working outside of the home today and how important it is to them to have that income. Across the nation in places like Beaver Dam and Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago and New York, the slogan for the day was don't iron while the strike is hot. There's another slogan that women have for this strike which says sisterhood is powerful and that's what we're here reminding ourselves today. I am woman, hear me boy, in numbers too big to ignore and I know too much to go back and pretend. Feminism was now a mass movement. Now equal pay for equal work, when do we want it now? No one's ever going to keep it down again. Women who had been activists for decades returned to their homes and their work with new energy and vision. I'm working in her husband's congressional office, Arvon Frazier was at the center of a new push for legislative change.
I began to meet other women on Capitol Hill who were interested in the, let's say, the incipient in a way feminist movement. We were inside the structure, but we also had all kinds of elected officials who knew since this movement then were responsive. And so we began a kind of feminist underground right there in pretty much on the house side of Capitol Hill. Women did not remain underground for long. Public policy activists scored impressive gains in such areas as education and health, military and social security benefits, financial credit, reproduction and employment. A key strategy was to use the courts to challenge state laws that place limitations on what women could do in the workplace.
I worked with several other women attorneys on several cases challenging the state protective laws under Title VII. One case was against the Colgate-Paul Moll of Company, which excluded women from any job that required lifting 35 pounds or more. Well, the court record in the trial of that case itself weighed 38.6 pounds and we had to carry it up numerous steps to the post office to send it back to the court. The courts ruled that Colgate-Paul Moll of and other employers that restricted jobs by sex were violating federal law, as barriers to equal employment fell, women tackled other issues. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. The following year, feminist attorneys won at landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion. You felt like you were part of a movement that was going to change things for all time for women.
You were feeling it every place and I think the most striking thing to me was happening with my own mother. She had graduated with a Master's in Chemistry for the University of Washington and couldn't get a job in a laboratory. I never heard her talk about that until it became possible for her to talk about it, to say this happened to me and that meant that she was able to be supportive of my running for the legislature in a way that my father actually wasn't. He was sort of what about the children and my mother was saying, that's right for you. That's a wonderful thing for you to do, Mary Lou. Women became supportive of their daughters when they were fearful before and that their daughters, if they tried it, they wouldn't be successful. But she thought, ah, this time she may be successful. At age 46, Mary Lou months entered law school and was later elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly. One of only seven women in the Assembly, she paid particular attention to the concerns
feminists were raising. When I go out and talk to traditional women's groups, like an AAUW chapter or a junior league or mostly women not employed outside the home, I would say you know the problem is that you keep working for nothing. You do all these home-maker tasks and they're not accounted in the GNP and they're not appreciated, not because they don't have value but because you don't get paid for them. So what you really ought to do is you should stop doing your own housework, go next door and do your neighbor's housework and she will pay you and put money in your social security account so that when you retire you will have claim to your own social security and then she should come and work in your house and you pay her and pay her social security and give her the benefits of employment. And then we will have a system in which homemaking is appreciated and valued and recognized for what it contributes to the economy of our society.
Mary Lou Munn sponsored legislation to reform Wisconsin's property laws. The reform would redefine marriage as an economic partnership of equals and make Wisconsin the first state to change from a separate property to a marital property system. The bankers, accountants, real estate people, all of the groups that lobby the legislature when they understood what this bill meant were just shocked. No hostility. It made feminists out of women who I think just thought they were doing a good legal and voter's bill. They didn't know they've gotten into something that was as fundamental I think in terms of ingrade attitudes toward women. After debating the bill for three sessions, the state assembly passed the Marital Property Reform Act. What it means is that this homemaking role became equally valuable and that's a fundamental change. You're not working for pay and yet you are contributing equally to the marriage.
And what Marital Property says is that what you accumulate together is equally shared. Regardless of role, that is a really revolutionary concept. Women in newfound positions of power were making fundamental change. Many found they paid a personal price. For example, a woman who I had known for many years, I was walking down the street one day and she was approaching me and all of a sudden she stopped dead in her tracks and crossed the street. And I realized she was not doing that for any other reason but to avoid me. And so I called her up on the telephone and I said, is there some problem? I've done something to offend you. She said, oh no, and she practically was whispering into the phone. She said, my husband says, I had better not talk to that jean boy or any more because she has some mighty weird ideas and I don't want her filling your head with them.
As feminists pushed for new rights, they learned that sisterhood was powerful but it was not simple. Inequality is among women often created conflict. Two of my big concerns have always been the question of minimum wage and equal pay but on minimum wage, two-thirds of the working people in this country affected by that law are women. And good share of them are women who really have to work, they have no choice about it. So that has been one of my primary issues and it really has not been the big issue of the women's movement. There were things like the Equal Rights Amendment, it was hard selling that to some women. You had some of them who believed in abortion, you had some of them who believed in racism. They really were racist, they did not want to see black and white women together.
There were some who did not believe in women of all economic classes sharing together. I can recall in one of our meetings some of the women were championing the cause of poor women on welfare. And so they took off to say, I think we should have invited women on welfare to attend this meeting and everybody looked around, some looked around with guilt, you know, it's a good idea but nobody thought of it. We should have invited women who are on welfare and a sister stood up, she said, what do you mean women on welfare are not here? She said, what do you expect them to look like? We are here. I think the conflict and controversy within the women's movement was on the whole very healthy.
The split-offs on these various issues caused a lot more women to become involved in the different organizations and it also, some of the more controversial ideas, some of the more radical ones caused other women who were more conservative in their approach to rethink and do at least think about these other issues. The number of women committed to feminism was growing steadily. As the United States prepared to celebrate its 200th anniversary as a nation, movement leaders seized upon the bicentennial as an occasion to widen their impact. It had been, you know, well over 10 years since the dynamism of the women's movement, you know, had taken off again and so we wanted to keep that momentum going. In 1975, Bella Abzug and other congresswomen called for a national initiative to assess the progress women had made and define ways to remove the remaining obstacles to their full participation in American life.
This is a great country. We think it's a marvelous democracy. It's a great constitution under which we function. Our forefathers did a great job in drafting it, except that they forgot all about our foremothers. Catherine Clarenbach took on the two-year task of organizing meetings in every state and territory to select delegates and propose resolutions for a plan of action to be debated at a national gathering in Houston, Texas. Congress passed legislation which calls for a national women's conference to bring together women from all over the country, people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, bridges, geographic areas, economic levels, with funding to make it possible for low-income women to attend the meetings. Thank you. Thank you very much. You know, this is a basic precept of a democratic society that no one shall be above the law
and that no one shall be treated differently because of extraneous factors, because of any factor. When all 20,000 women attended the Houston Conference in 1977, Doherty, Wyatt, Hainer, Frazier, Munson Boyer were there as the torch which had been carried across the nation arrived to mark the opening of the historic event. We are here to move history forward, despite some gains made in the past 200 years, man-made barriers, laws, social customs and prejudices continue to keep a majority of women in an inferior position without full control of our lives and our bodies. We demand, as a human right, a full voice and role for women in determining the depth
of our world, our nation, our families and our individual lives. To be there with this kind of group was just dynamized when those moving experiences of my life. For three days, the delegates debated the 26 planks of the proposed plan of action. They voted to promote federally funded childcare, accurate portrayal of women in the media, services for older and disabled women, and the elimination of violence. There was a lot of learning there, meeting together and sharing with other women who were not on your side, but trying to get them to understand how you win support and how you lose support.
On the second day, proceedings grew to Maltruis, as a caucus of African-American, Latina, Native American and Asian-American women sought to substitute their own plank on minority women's issues. The delegates to this conference are uprearied not of a single mind. We should not be of a single mind. No one person, no one person, and no subgroup at this conference has the right answer. The delegates celebrated passage of the plank as a sign that, for the first time, minority women were present in such a critical mass that they were able to define their own needs and forge their own coalitions. We represented millions and millions and millions of other women.
And so it was thrilling, and then there were moments of frustration and disgust, as a matter of fact, we learned how to disagree and even fight on the floor. One of the most divisive issues at the Women's Conference in 1977 was the question of gay and lesbian rights. There was a whole section of women that I came to think of as the Perstlips crowd because they sat, and I was visually obvious that they could hardly think about this issue. The delegates had to approve or reject a plank supporting legislation to end discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. And there was a woman who had been sitting among the Perstlips crowd who had some dialogue with at one point, and she was particularly turned off by this issue.
But as the proposition came before the body, and timidly at first one hand after another was raised in support of this issue being included in the plan, I saw her raise, her hand, and I thought this is really a tremendous change in the national consciousness. The vote was an historic endorsement of lesbian rights as a feminist issue. The plank became part of the conference report, The Spirit of Houston, which was sent to the President of the United States. Hundreds of women's organizations adopted the Houston plan and pledged to work for its implementation. There was an agenda setting for women that was enormously impressive. Sometimes you need to sort of celebrate where you've come and where you're going, and I think that's what Houston did.
You have a beautiful confidence, and the recommendations came out of there with a really good resolution to recommendations. They haven't really been implemented yet, but they were good. They began to be clear to us that we were headed into a whole new period for women. There was beginning to be some serious, outspoken opposition to the progress that women were beginning to make. That backlash isn't itself an indication of our success, the fact that we really have gotten people to understand. We are starting to get the institutions to change, and because it's happening, people are afraid because they were moving into the unknown.
What is this unknown? This unknown is the egalitarian society in which women really carry half the sky. We're going to keep on walking forward. The Midwestern women who helped pave the way to Houston continued step-by-step to advance women's interests. Jean Boyer founded a coalition to expand opportunities for Wisconsin business women. As Dean of El Verno College in Milwaukee, Sister Austin Doherty developed a nationally celebrated curriculum for women. Mary Eastwood was elected president of the National Women's Party and remained committed
to the Equal Rights Amendment, which has never been ratified. Arbonne Frazier became a top official in the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she advocated women's interests in the making of foreign policy. Dorothy Hainer served on the Michigan Human Rights Commission, and as a member of the older women's league, helped secure equal pension benefits for women. After serving six terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly, Mary Lou Mons became the first woman appointed to the State's Public Service Commission. Doris Tom remained involved in the women's committee of her local union, and was proud to help select the first woman minister of her church in Jane'sville, Wisconsin. Atty Wyatt became international vice president of her union and vice president of the National Council of Negro Women. She and her husband are co-pasters of the Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago. We're going to work for change together, work for change together, work for change together,
never turning back, never turning back. We're going to keep on working forward, keep on working forward, keep on working forward, never turning back, never turning back. Funding for Step-by-Step was provided by the Hildale Fund, the Anonymous Fund, the Division of Continuing Studies, and the Humanistic Fund, all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and by the Wisconsin-Sesquicentennial Commission, the EVU Foundation, and the Wisconsin Humanities
Council. To purchase a VHS cassette copy of Step-by-Step for Educational Use, send $40 to Step-by-Step PO Box 285, Worthington, Massachusetts, 01098.
- Producing Organization
- Wisconsin Public Television
- Contributing Organization
- PBS Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin)
- AAPB ID
- Program Description
- Focuses on the feminist movement as experienced by several women who were active in the movement as it developed in America through the decades following World War II.
- Program Description
- Includes interviews with Addie Wyatt, Dorothy Haener, Gene Boyer, Doris Thom, Arvonne Fraser, Mary Eastwood, Betty Freidan, Mary Lou Munts, Kathryn F. Clarenbach (not interviewed but there is footage of an interview; her role in the movement is discussed by others), Sister Austin Doherty, women's liberation movement, National Organization of Women NOW, protest footage, Strike for Equality, women's rights, feminism, equal rights, Marital Property Reform Act, Bella Abzug footage, footage of Barbara Jordan at Houston National Women's Conference, inclusion of minority women, women of color, gay and lesbian rights, LGBT.
- Created Date
- Asset type
- Women in History; LGBTQ Movement; Civil Rights Movement
- Media type
- Moving Image
Interviewee: Friedan, Betty
Interviewee: Munts, Mary Lou
Interviewee: Wyatt, Addie
Interviewee: Haener, Dorothy
Interviewee: Boyer, Gene
Interviewee: Thom, Doris
Interviewee: Eastwood, Mary
Interviewee: Fraser, Arvonne
Interviewee: Doherty, Austin
Producing Organization: Wisconsin Public Television
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Wisconsin Public Television (WHA-TV)
Identifier: 2SBS0000HD (WPT)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-29-xw47p8vz9r.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “Step by Step: Building a Feminist Movement,” 1998-08-17, PBS Wisconsin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 4, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-29-xw47p8vz9r.
- MLA: “Step by Step: Building a Feminist Movement.” 1998-08-17. PBS Wisconsin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 4, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-29-xw47p8vz9r>.
- APA: Step by Step: Building a Feminist Movement. Boston, MA: PBS Wisconsin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-29-xw47p8vz9r