Last weekend, the National Women’s Political Caucus gathered in Washington to celebrate its 40th anniversary. There were workshops on campaign skills, and rousing speeches from feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood. But for me the high point was the Saturday luncheon, when four women who had been present at the first gathering in the summer of 1971 shared their memories of it.
Ronnie Feit recalled that she was “just a housewife inNew York City,” when Betty Friedan asked her to help organize the first meeting. Feit explained that after she had lost one of her young sons to leukemia, “I decided to look up the women’s movement.” She joked that “those were the early days when Betty was still modest.”
Friedan, she recalled, had received thousands of letters from women who had read The Feminine Mystique, and now Feit and others worked to sort their names by state and reach out to them and encourage them to come to the meeting. Friedan, she said, had been determined that the caucus should be broader than the “Eastern liberal establishment” and that “all hell broke loose” when Friedan returned from vacation and discovered that the meeting was in danger of becoming just that.
Initially, Elly Peterson decided, as she wrote a friend at the time, that the gathering was “definitely just the same womens lib people,” and chose not to attend. But after the founding meeting, when Peterson saw that women like Democrat activistLiz Carpenter and Virginia Allan, a former president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, were involved, she changed her mind. When the caucus immediately set out to recruit more Republican leaders, Peterson joined its first National Council.
At this year’s gathering, Eleanor Smeal, the former president of the National Organization for Women and now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, joked with Alice Cohan, political director of the Feminist Majority, about their memories of the battles between various sub-caucuses that occurred 40 years ago. Smeal was then a polyester-pantsuit-clad activist from Pittsburgh and Cohan, a tie-dyed-caftan-clad college student, when they discovered their common interests as younger members of the caucus.
Many battles ensued before an organizational structure was hammered out. But as Feit observed, the caucus meeting resulted in positive stories on the front page of The New York Times and in other major newspapers. “If we had not had a good positive response from the press,” she noted, the caucus never would have gotten off the ground.
Forty years ago there was only one woman serving in the U.S. Senate and only 13 in the U.S. House. In 2011, there were 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House. Still no one at last weekend’s meeting was ready to declare victory. In the last election cycle the numbers of women in Congress actually declined, though women have since won two special elections for open congressional seats.
At an afternoon workshop at this year’s gathering, Smeal sounded a rallying cry: “All of us have to come to the aid of our movement because it is being battered.” She pointed to recent legislative challenges to funding for Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court’s recent decision rejecting sex-discrimination complaints at Wal-mart, as well as threatened cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“They still want to keep us barefoot and pregnant,” she said, “but we are not going back!”