The Day I Met The Suffragette

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You can’t see me in this iconic photograph, but I was present among the estimated 50,000 women to march down Fifth Avenue on August 26th, 1970 at the Women’s Strike For Equality in New York City. This was a stellar experience for me and one I remembered throughout my life. On that day I marched beside an original suffragette, who had marched with Susan B. Anthony to win women the vote.  I knew then that someday I’d write about the experience and I did. Without further preamble  here’s the story as it appeared in the Anthology, Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60 & 70s, published in 2013.

***

I still remember what she looked like all these years later — a petite woman with a quiet demeanor and a look of determination in her clear green eyes. Her silvery hair, parted in the middle came halfway to her shoulders. She wore no makeup I could see, except a little lipstick, and was simply dressed in lightweight cotton clothing and serviceable sandals — no being hobbled in high heels for her. And she was old enough to be my grandmother — in her early seventies, maybe, but straight backed and fast-moving. I liked her immediately. 

We met on August 26th, 1970, fellow marchers in the Women’s Strike For Equality — a national event, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. The strike called for women across the country to stop work that day to spotlight inequities in the workforce, In politics, and in social institutions such as marriage. That afternoon in New York City, tens of thousands of women gathered on the sweltering streets of Manhattan and marched down Fifth Avenue to the lawns behind the New York Public Library — demanding equal rights under the law.

I was a twenty-six year old housewife. Leaving my husband home with our two sons and joining the march was a personal declaration of independence for me. I’d been married  for eight years to a man who espoused equal rights and justice for all — but at home, as the assumed head of our household he felt entitled to be in charge.

He was okay with watching the kids three evenings a week while I took college classes — as long as I did the shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and the balance of child care, in addition to my schoolwork. But he wasn’t pleased when I joined the National Organization For Women. Or when I read The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir and began questioning the male/female status quo. Or when I told him he’d be feeding the kids dinner that evening, because was striking  for equality.

My husband shook his head at that. “If you women had to deal with the serous issues men do, you’d stop complaining fast. Well, be home before dark. The streets aren’t safe at night.”

I sighed. His  comments irked me, but I kept silent, not wanting to argue. I kissed my family goodbye and left the apartment, promising to return before dark.

How can we be equal, I wondered, if half of us can’t go out alone at night?

 ***

Filled with excitement and sense of resolve, I rode the subway downtown, exiting at Fifty-Seventh Street and heading east toward Fifth Avenue. The Strike began in the late afternoon and would continue on into the evening, to allow as many women as possible to participate. I was stunned at how many of us there were. Approaching Fifth Avenue, I looked out at a sea of female faces: women of all shapes and sizes, all colors, all ages, married or single, gay or straight. Some held signs  bearing messages: Women Unite! Equality under the Law! We Are The Fifty-one Percent Minority, I Am Not A Barbie Doll! And the slogan of the day — Don’t Iron While The Strike Is Hot!

THE TIME IS NOW!” someone yelled, and the mass of women began moving  forward. This is it I thought, and thrilled by my own daring, merged  with the crowd. When the march monitors on our block passed along  that we would be taking the entire width of the street — not the half  we’d been allotted by the city — we surged forward, arms linked, and with cheers of victory took Fifth Avenue from curb to curb unchallenged by the police.

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”

“EQUALITY!”

“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”

“NOW!”

Observers lined the streets: women with baby carriages, office workers, shopkeepers, tourists. The majority of people I saw were women, with a sprinkling of men, We were cheered and given the thumbs up sign from the office of a liberal congressional candidate. There were boos, jeers, and loud shouts of “GET BACK IN THE KITCHEN YOU BRA-LESS BIMBOS!” from a crew of construction workers we passed. 

Among the leading marchers were women of achievement: Betty Friedan, strike organizer, first president of NOW, and author of The Feminine Mystique: Gloria Steinem, political activist and founder of New York Magazine: Kate Millet, author of Sexual Politics, and straight talking, peppery, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, tireless champion of women’s rights. I felt honored to be among them.

***

But the highlight of the experience was my encounter with the silver-haired  woman. Somewhere along the way we fell into step together. I smiled at her, impressed that a woman of her age would be marching. Linking arms we walked side by side.

 “This is my first march. I felt I had to come.” I confided. “And you?”

The woman told me that half a century ago when she was twenty, she had marched with Susan B. Anthony to win women the vote.

“I was scared to death by my own daring, The world didn’t take kindly to uppity women back then.” She laughed, her eyes crinkling at the corners, and shook her head  at the ways of the world.” My family was scandalized and my gentleman friend left me over it. But I marched anyway,” she said.

And in that moment, I realized I was in the presence of a living, breathing, direct link with history — and that this courageous woman and others like her had put themselves on the line for something they believed was simple  justice — for everyone. Now I was part of the link.

I felt overwhelmed by emotion. “Thank you for my right to vote,” I whispered. “I won’t ever take it for granted — or any other right.”

Our eyes met, an understanding passed between us. We hugged goodbye when the march ended at Bryant Park. Intending to head straight for the subway, I began weaving my way through the throngs of women who stood  listening to the speakers. But I, also felt compelled to stop and listen myself. The sky was darkening as I walked away from the crowd on my way home. My husband would have to understand.

***

So, Happy Woman’s Equality Day — we’ve come a long way baby, as the slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes once said. But let us not forget our sisters around the world who are enslaved, genitally mutilated, denied the right to an education, and even the right to show their faces outside their homes.  Let us not forget either,, that although Congress officially recognized August, 8th, 1971 as Women’s Equality Day, The Equal Right’s Amendment has still not been ratified in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Illinois, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. Also that political and religious factions, committed to stripping women of their hard-won rights to choose, and so many other rights, are hard at work right now. And finally, that Hilary Clinton has shattered the infamous glass ceiling, and is the Democratic presidential candidate for the election of 2016.  

Remember to vote wisely in the election to come. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but we still have a long way to go.        

 

 

 

 

 

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7 comments

  1. Dorothy, I do love this story and it inspired me to write my own story about the 50th anniversary of the vote and women’s equality day. In the US, the word used by suffrage activists was suffragist. Suffragette was British and it was used as a put-down in this country. But I know it’s made all the more confusing by the movie called Suffragette. That was about the fight for women’s suffrage in the UK. One wonders what the “suffragette” in your story would have called herself.

    1. Dear Tradeswoman, Thanks for being a loyal reader of my blog. I I get what you’re saying about the the distinction between the terms “suffragist”
      and “suffragette.” For some reason the term “suffragette” stuck in my head ever since my meeting with the woman at the march, so I used that term in the anthology and in my blog post.

  2. An exciting essay with a few grammatical errors and maybe a few questionable word choices, but overall a wonderful tribute to the suffragettes, who made a choice to push the boundaries of polite society. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience.

    1. Dear Carl, Thanks for being a loyal reader and for calling my story an exciting essay and a wonder tribute to the brave women, who made a choice to push the boundaries of our male dominated society. (I’d love to know what grammatical errors and questionable word choices you’re referring to. Perhaps you’ll be willing to share these with me in a private email.)

  3. Great story Lynn, I forwarded to some friends.

    On Fri, Aug 26, 2016 at 4:43 PM, Dorothy Freed Writes wrote:

    > dorothyfreed posted: ” You can’t see me in this iconic photograph, but I > was present among the estimated 50,000 women to march down Fifth Avenue on > August 26th, 1970, at the Women’s Strike For Equality in New York > City. This was a stellar experience for me and one I remembere” >

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