From The Archives

The Women’s Movement Is Still Moving

Congresswoman ‘Battling’ Bella Abzug rebuts the assertions of an earlier Voice article on the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in New York State


In his postmortem (Village Voice, November 17) on the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in New York State, Pete Hamill set up his defenses against the expected rebuttals by predicting that some women will complain that no man should be allowed to write about the Women’s Movement.

I agree it would have been better if Pete had not rushed into print. Not because he is a man, but because — despite his friendships with me and other feminists — he doesn’t know beans about the Women’s Movement.

I found astonishing his journalistic arrogance in thinking he could reach his verdict prematurely proclaiming the collapse of a national movement simply on the basis of a touching description of a near-deserted headquarters the morning after; quotes from a half-dozen women, some anonymous; a smattering of untrue gossip; and his judgment that women’s issues are of “minor importance” to the working class and that the ERA campaign “divided the Left on grounds of sex.”

There is a great deal of wishful thinking, but very little truth, in the post-election analyses by the Times, Hamill, and assorted TV programs which transmogrified one setback in a long and continuing campaign into a complete rout of the entire Women’s Movement.

Although the hard analysis of the defeat is still being put together by the ERA coalition, a case can be made that it was the very breadth and diversity of the movement that led to a complacency which in turn led to an inadequate campaign. There were, of course, the problems created by an off-year election that brought only a 24 percent turnout of voters in New York City and a larger turnout upstate where there were electoral contests. But, also, many feminists I have talked to since the referendum have told me that because of the impressively broad coalition of groups supporting ERA, including both the Democratic and Republican parties, they felt there was no urgency to get deeply involved in the campaign.

Much of that broad support turned out to be tokenism. It did not produce enough money to finance a vigorous campaign, or enough concentration of purpose or troops to mount a get-out-the-vote operation. The danger is that the long-term significance of the defeat will be exaggerated by both friends and enemies of the movement and feed what can be a very ugly and emotional aftermath: an attempt to rescind the legislature’s ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment which, although it would not stand up in the courts, would have to be fought. Also likely is a renewed and more highly organized attack on abortion rights.

Most of the post-referendum discussion reveals a total ignorance of past women’s struggles, including the century-long battle for women’s suffrage, which encountered on the way to final victory many defeats far worse than what happened in New York a few weeks ago.

Then, as now, women suffragists discovered that the referenda route in the states could be extremely rocky and nonproductive. For years, the suffragists, having met with little success in getting Congress to pass a suffrage amendment to the U. S. Constitution, tried a state-by-state approach, seeking to win some form of suffrage in the individual states.

The biggest defeat was in New York, where the referendum lost by a margin of 194,984 votes. But two years later, a state referendum won handily, and two years after that, the New York legislature almost routinely ratified the federal amendment, which had finally won Senate approval in June 1919.

Then, as now, the press eagerly reported that many women were opposed to having rights extended to them. Men were always able to find some women to speak and demonstrate against suffrage, to accept nominal leadership of the opposition organizations, and to declare that they would never, never think of voting.

The arguments were familiar. Votes for women would destroy the family, make husbands and wives unhappy, leave children unprotected, threaten the economy, undermine religion, and burden women with responsibilities they neither needed nor wanted. Anti-suffrage propaganda centered on the myth of the happy, privileged homemaker who didn’t want to change a thing.

Similar 19th-century “happy homemakers” doctrine has been assiduously pushed over TV and radio by Phyllis Schlafly, chief spokeswoman for the right-wing-based campaign to stop ERA, who tells us: “American women are a privileged group…beneficiaries of a tradition of respect for women which dates from the Christian age of chivalry [and] the honor and respect paid to Mary, the mother of Christ.”

No doubt many women are contented and creative and fulfilled in their roles as wives and mothers, especially those lucky enough to have high family incomes. I have never criticized women who choose to stay at home to raise families or to engage in nonpaying occupations, because freedom of choice is the heart of the women’s liberation creed.

In the recent New York campaign, the biggest worry of the presumably happy anti-ERA housewives was that they might lose alimony rights, which raised doubts about just how happy some of them are. One of the illuminating facts that never got across in the welter of lies and distortions peddled by Schlafly, Annette Stern, and others is that under current divorce laws alimony is granted in only about 2 percent of permanent divorce settlements, and according to a study done by the Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, child support payments “generally are less than enough to furnish half of the support of the children” and “even these small payments are frequently not adhered to.”

Schlafly’s privileged woman concept also ignores the real problems faced by working women whose low seniority status makes them vulnerable in the current recession; minority women, who get the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs; working mothers who need and usually don’t have access to low-cost or free nurseries for their six million pre-school-age youngsters; homemakers unfortunate enough to be divorced by their husbands before 20 years of marriage (thus losing out on Social Security benefits); thousands of women who get raped (more women than ever before had that “privilege” last year, according to the Justice Department’s latest crime data); gay women, who have problems in employment, housing, and other facets of daily life; and the multitudes of other women who have encountered a variety of discriminatory practices ranging from the picayune (no drinking at the Plaza men’s bar) to massive legal, social, political, and educational discrimination.

It is understandable that Schlafly and other anti-ERA propagandists perpetuate myths about the real status of women in America. It is also understandable why many women and men, in the absence of an effective statewide campaign by pro-ERA forces, should have fallen for their arguments, especially in the present negative political climate when fear and economic insecurity are dominant.

But it is less understandable why alleged friends of women’s rights seize on the false arguments of ERA opponents to seek to prove, as Hamill does, that ERA is “something out of time, a leftover,” and that “maybe the movement of the Women’s Movement is over.”

To put ERA in perspective, the federal amendment has been ratified by 34 states and has until 1979 to get the necessary ratification by four other states. Fifteen states have enacted state equal rights provisions or amendments to their own constitutions. In none of these states have any of the horrors conjured up by the anti-ERA forces materialized.

Instead, the amendment is providing the framework and impetus for review and reform of hundreds of existing laws to eliminate unequal treatment that primarily victimizes women but also in some also stands as a barrier against enactment of discriminatory legislation.

Under the attorney general opinions interpreting state ERAs, most states have been extending benefits to the excluded group rather than doing away with the benefits. These include such benefits as the right to support or alimony, the right to receive pension benefits based on the employment record or occupation of one’s spouse, the right to use the surname of one’s choice regardless of marriage, and the right to be protected from forcible sexual assault.

In Washington state, reform of divorce laws by eliminating fault grounds was coordinated with efforts to provide non-sex-based economic protection for the homemaking spouse. In Arizona, this was achieved by ERA-based legislation giving spouses equal powers of management and control over community property, which in practice strengthens the protection of most women.

Far from being a “leftover,” ERA is needed on the federal level for the establishment of uniform, nationwide standards of sexual equality. It would provide a firm constitutional commitment to equal rights, free from the present vagaries of subjective court interpretations.

But what about the Women’s Movement itself? Has it passed its prime, lost its momentum, and been diverted into irrelevancies and elitism, as Hamill claims? Page one stories in the Times about rifts in NOW accentuate the impression that the Women’s Movement is in trouble. In my view, all it shows is that NOW, whose membership has tripled in the past few years, is in the great American political tradition. I have never heard of any movement (except maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses?) that did not along the way develop conflicts, ideologic rifts, factions, unity moves, spinoffs, et cetera. It would be naive to expect unanimity and uniformity from the great, diverse, free-wheeling, explorative surge of personal, social, political, economic, cultural, and educational activity by millions of American women of all classes that is loosely described as “the movement.” Its achievements are indisputable, its influence worldwide, and its momentum is now pushing it into more directions than casual observers could fathom.

Even after the New York defeat, a national Harris Poll showed a 70 to 15 percent majority of Americans in favor of ERA, with 73 percent of women favoring it, compared with a 68 percent majority of men. Similarly, a Gallup Poll in September reported that 71 percent of Americans feel the country would be governed as well or better with more women in public office, and 73 percent said they would vote for a qualified woman for president. New York voters, while defeating ERA, elected 60 percent of the women who ran for various offices around the state, continuing a national trend that has seen the election of thousands of women to local and state office in the past few years. The trend didn’t just happen. It was in response to the “Win With Women” campaign developed by the multipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus, which has been on the scene only since 1971.

The slogan developed by Karen DeCrow supporters in NOW — “Out of the mainstream into the revolution” — is an acknowledgment that many of the movement’s basic goals have been accepted as the goals of a majority of American women, and that vanguard groups feel a need to press on toward larger goals. How many women I’ve met who ritualistically say, “I’m not for women’s lib,” and then add, “of course, I’m for equal pay and job opportunities and things like that.”

They have not yet made the connection that even though we have equal pay laws, we need a movement to get the laws enforced. More and more women are making the connection.

The Women’s Movement wears many different faces, speaks with many different voices, ranging from Betty Ford in the White House to the most avant-garde groups that see undifferentiated man as the enemy. A magazine like McCall’s, still mostly recipes, fiction, fashions, and titillating gossip about Kennedys and Rockefellers, runs as its lead article, “Just a Housewife,” a serious and lengthy report on a weekend conference and workshops sponsored by the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, at which housewives worried about their legal rights and economic problems. In Oakland, Tish Sommers organizes the Association for Displaced Homemakers, in recognition of the rising number of women who find themselves deserted or divorced in middle age. In the House of Representatives, most of the 19 women members now meet regularly in an informal caucus. We have introduced pioneering legislation to provide Social Security benefits to homemakers in their own right. When Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns tried to issue regulations scuttling the recently won Equal Credit Opportunity Act, forbidding discrimination against women in credit cards, mortgages, and loans, 14 of my women colleagues went with me to confront him, and we forced him to back down. On December 10, the House overwhelmingly passed an Abzug-Mink bill authorizing $5 million for conferences in all the states to discuss women’s issues, culminating in a Bicentennial national women’s conference.

Within the last two years, feminist organizations of black, Puerto Rican, and other Spanish-speaking women have formed. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, launched at a huge conference in Chicago two years ago, works on programs for the 27 percent of AFL-CIO members who are women. In New York, Margie Albert, a CLUW founder, is busy organizing for District 65 women who work, underpaid and underpromoted, in the big publishing firms. A campaign is also underway to unionize the multitudes of women office workers in our city. Baltimore City Councilwoman Barbara Mikulski, feminist Jan Peterson, Italian-American leader Mary Sansone get together to organize ethnic women, and Peterson finds it easier to communicate with Polish-American women because, as a community poverty worker, she helped lead the Northside fight to save their homes in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. To say the momentum has gone out of the Women’s Movement is like remarking on how calm the ocean is.

I agree with Hamill that the economic crisis probably had an adverse effect on the ERA vote. Men and nonworking women too often see working women as expendable rather than as individuals who need jobs to survive. Responding to the recession, laid-off women workers are beginning to grapple with seniority problems and share-the-work plans. Although these women would undoubtedly be happy to join with men in a militant campaign for full employment and to save New York, few would share Hamill’s optimism that now is the time for women to disband their organizations and put their faith in a textbook class struggle in which suddenly men and women will be comrades together, sexism gone and forgotten.

Let him tell that to the Committee of Female Police Officers, representing the 400 women who were laid off by the New York City Department along with 3600 men as a result of the fiscal crisis. The 400 were two-thirds of all the women in the police force. When 2000 officers were called back, only 20 to 30 women were returned to work. The women, who have filed discrimination complaints against the department, know realistically that their male colleagues are not going to fight to restore the women’s jobs, although 42 percent of the laid-off women have to support themselves, 87 percent contribute at least half the family income, and 22 percent are heads of households and have children to support. The policewomen know that merging their struggle with the male police officers will, in effect, mean submerging their own needs.

Women and men should not have to compete with each other for jobs. They should be working together for a new kind of society that is organized to take care of the basic needs of all people, to provide jobs for all who can work, to offer everyone an opportunity for a decent life. Our chances of getting that kind of society are better with a strong Women’s Movement than without one, a Women’s Movement that even in its more establishment forms is dominated by humanist values and in its more radical forms seeks to move women into active leadership of the forces seeking real change.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 18, 2019