Women on the March: “We’re a Movement Now!”

“They were amazed, those young women who had been meeting in small groups or taking part in small actions for months. No one of them would have dared to say before that evening that the women's liberation movement had 20,000 members in New York City alone.”


“Why not?”

“‘Cause I go to sleep in the school. But I don’t like to lie down.”

“What do you like to do?”

“I like to draw.”

“What does your mother do?”

“She works.”

“What does she do at work?”

“I don’t know, but she works.”

“And your father, what does he do?”

“He goes for interview.”

Mrs. Dorothy Pitman, the chairman of the Committee for Community Controlled Day Care, was busy telling reporters how centers like the one on West 80th Street could free welfare mothers to go back to work.

Lucy Komisar, the famous and constant gadfly in the haunts of men, would later petulantly accuse Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio of paying attention to the day care needs of poor women alone. And Betty Friedan was to drop a couple of comments about the rich women who’d joined the demonstrators because “they know that all women are poor.” But the day began with West 80th Street hold­ing its own on behalf of poor mothers.

Soon the not-so-poor mothers began wandering into the park. They were young women like Mrs. Carolyn Marshall McKee, mothers educated enough to feel frustrated in domesticity but also poor enough to have to drag their young progeny along on their own adventures.

Mrs. McKee wore her son, age one-and-three-quarters (“by last count”) strapped to her back. In her blue workshirt and bell bottom pants, she looked ready for action on the front, wherever that was. And she kept repeating the phrase, “I’m ready.”

A pretty young woman, she explained that she had had her ambitions “shot down” twice in her short life, once at Mount Holyoke College, where she had been studying pre-med, and the second time when she had learned she was pregnant.

“Like, I got married and I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’re pregnant,’ and I said, ‘Shit!’ And the doctor said, ‘Nobody ever said that before.’ I worked up until the week I had the baby.”

Doug, her young son, was meanwhile going into ecstasies over a string of lollipops that hung from a branch just above his head.

Mrs. McKee went on to explain that she’d been doing some “consciousness raising” with the Radical Feminists. She had learned that there were “two fronts you have to fight on,” one within yourself and the other with the outside world.

“It’s as sort of a sense of the future,” she said, looking thoughtful. “Now it’s really coming back.” Breaking into a smile, she looked around at the beginnings of the Women’s Strike.

“I really really feel good,” she said with a nod, “I feel good today.”

Which is what every demonstrator who was asked about her feelings would repeat throughout the day. There was no great unity of styles or goals in the Women’s National Strike for Equality. There were the three basic demands: free abortion on demand, 24-hour daycare for all mothers, and employment, pay, and promotion opportunities for women equal to those for men. But no one seems to harp much on these demands. The common bond was the demonstration itself, their presence in the streets together, sharing defiant sisterhood.

Mrs. Friedan would speak about her “rich women, who know all women are poor,” while Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s Human Rights Commissioner, would emphasize the plights of black women forced to leave their children untended as they went off to clean the homes of the rich. But for that day, at least, neither of these feminists seems disturbed by their disparate constituencies.

Mrs. Friedan looked almost tearful as she accepted Mayor Lindsay’s proclamation declaring August 26, 1970, Equality for Women Day in New York City. And though Richard Aurelio, the Deputy Mayor who presented it to her, disappeared abruptly thereafter, walking out on a promised dialogue with the feminists, Mrs. Friedan seemed overjoyed. Only Lucy Komisar shouted at his disappearing posterior from the other end of the car that served as a platform. She later trapped him up against a fence in City Hall Park to tell him that the Mayor had said nothing about daycare centers for non-poor mothers. Aurelio looked pained and quickly backed off again.

(No one seemed aware of the fact that the Mayor’s Assistant for “Women’s Affairs” is a man. His name is Marvin Schick, and he was assigned to deal with women’s problems several months ago, a task which fit in with his general liaison work with the Human Rights Commission. A member of Women in City Government United told me her group was pleased with Schick’s work on behalf of women but unhappy that a man had been selected to do it. Schick is an orthodox Jew who every morning recites the Hebrew prayer, “Blessed art though, king of the world, that thou has not made me a woman.” He chuckles good-naturedly when asked about the prayer and explains that it is merely a way of expressing thanks for being able to perform the religious duties of a man. According to Schick, most women’s liberationists do not understand that prayer.)

The counter-revolutionaries were reading off the names of people they’d chosen for “Adam’s Rib” awards. Calling themselves “Men Our Masters,” they held up pink signs which said “MOM.”

One of their group strayed into enemy ranks. They quickly started challenging her. Trembling all the while, she tried to stand up to them.

“What are you fighting against?” A feminist asked her.

“The idea of putting sex down … One man today lit my cigarette for me. I thought it was wonderful,” the MOM girl replied without much spirit. Her heavy make-up was beginning to streak in the heat, and she looked forlorn.

“Why can’t you light your own fucking cigarettes?” the feminist asked impatiently.

“Why are you cursing” asked the MOM girl. “That’s very, uh — ”

“Unladylike,” the feminist suggested with a knowing nod.

“Don’t you think there’s room for both?” an interested male bystander asked the MOM girl.

“She’s putting us down,” said the girl, her sign hand shaking. “Why do you feel unliberated?” she addressed her tormentor.

“I don’t feel unliberated,” came the answer. “Why are you against us?”

“Because we don’t like your ideals.”

“What do you do? Do you work?” another feminist asked.

The MOM girl saw her enemies closing in on her. She started to look for an opening in the throng behind her.

“I’m a bookkeeper,” she said, “and I make a good salary, just as good as a man does.”

“Have you ever come up against job discrimination?”

“No,” said MOM girl, beginning to look really uncom­fortable.

“Would you like to become an accountant?” asked the male bystander

“I could if I wanted to,” said the miserable girl, “but I don’t want that responsibility.”

With that she turned around and shoved back toward her friends, consciousness still unraised.

There were more encounters to come and some already ac­complished before the eager press could get there to record them. Some Media Women had invaded the New York Times early that morning, going to the offices of Abe Rosenthal and John Oakes. Lindsay van Gelder of the Post, four and a half months pregnant, but defiant as ever had gone to Rosenthal’s office. She later said that he treated her group with respect, “was not paternal,” and frequently admitted the Times’ failings.

Mrs. van Gelder said her group had complained about the paper’s hiring and promotion of women, about its women’s page (“as if everything else in there is for men”), and about its extensive columns of engagement announcements.

“We told him that if they were all going to leave those in, they ought to at least show us the men, so we can have something to drool over,” said Mrs. van Gelder.

She was chattering happily about her triumph to the women who are about to invade the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School on the fourth floor of the Pan American building. Barred from the main elevators, this group circumvented the guards and appeared, some 50 strong, at the Katharine Gibbs reception desk. Reporters, sensing a good fight in the offing, had flocked to the school.

The determined women had their encounter with Alan Baker, the director of the school, and the dialogue went like this:

Baker: Actually, in 1911, women couldn’t get responsible jobs at all … Women were actually called typewriters. (Katharine Gibbs’s) idea was, lets get women good jobs.

NOW Woman: On the average, secretaries with college degrees earn 60 percent less than men with college degrees.

Baker: We agree with you entirely … I think what you’re all overlooking is that you’re talking with people who are working for women …

Young Women’s Lib Member: Why did Katharine Gibbs start this school? Because she couldn’t get a job?

NOW Woman: At what age does a girl become a woman?

Baker: I think you’re more qualified to answer that than I am … We don’t expect our girls to wear white gloves or hats anymore. I think we stopped that in about 1964 or ’65.

NOW Woman: I’m talking about an air of subservience … Do you train people to be office wives?

Young Liberationist: How many of your secretaries have gone on to other jobs?

Baker: I think what you should all recognize is that you’re putting me in the position of defending the system.

NOW Woman: You’re fortifying it with your ads! (Those things that say: Now that you’ve got a college degree, come to Katharine Gibbs and learn how to type.)

Young Liberationist: What are your plans for accepting men?

Baker: We have some which we can’t announce at this point … I think we’re all victims of the system.

Liberationist: Were you ever a secretary?

Baker: Well, I was a secretary, but they called it administrative assistant. (Many groans here.) … We have had many complaints and many criticisms about our advertising.

Liberationist: Who were the complaints from?

Baker: Girls.

Several Liberationists in Unison: Women!

Baker: (Looking sheepish) Women … I remember one girl in particular. She said, “I saw your ad, and it was like an answer from heaven.” (Very loud groans here.)

Liberationist: What is her salary?

Baker: $135 a week.

Liberationist: Is she a college graduate?

Baker: Yes.

Liberationist: Is that a good salary for a college graduate?

Baker: Yes … But I’m not defending the system …

NOW Woman: These women who come to you could go into a management trainee job at Chase Manhattan Bank …

Baker: Most women don’t want to work more than three years or four years. (The loudest groans yet.)

Liberationist: You’re not supposed to want to work more than three years or four years!

Eventually, the group grew weary of challenging Baker. Sev­eral NOW women thanked him for his time and told him they would be back. He promised to re-examine the school’s curriculum to find out whether his students were really being en­couraged to adopt “an altitude of subservience” toward men.

Similar encounters occurred at companies and banks during the afternoon. First National City got a “Thanks for Nothing Award” for its hiring and promotion practices. The inventors of Silva Thins were told that Women’s Liberation did not appreciate their ads.

On another front marriage came under attack.  A group car­rying placards which said things like “Oppressed Women: Don’t Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today!” invaded the office of the First Deputy and Acting City Clerk. They presented him with a sample pamphlet entitled “You and Your Marriage,” something they said all prospective husbands and wives ought to read. The pamphlet listed the legal rights and responsibilities of each partner — although the page entitled “Wife’s Responsibilities” contained nothing but a question mark.

The First Deputy and Acting City Clerk said he didn’t know whether his office should give out legal advice, but he would con­sider the pamphlet.

A female reporter asked the distraught-looking clerk what he thought of women’s liberation.

“Well, I’m not against it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think women should be every place that a man is at all times, like clubs and bars.”

“The women might call you a male chauvinist,” said the reporter.

“Yes, they might,” said the clerk.

Late in the afternoon, a small cadre of women plus one pony-­tailed man from the East Village ­Other went off to liberate the men’s bar in the Biltmore Hotel. They were served immediately by a smiling bartender. Male boozers glared at them for a few minutes and then went back to staring at their drinks.

Claudia Dreifus, an EVO writ­er and member of the cadre, soon decided she ought to liber­ate the Men’s Room just off the bar. A gamy young feminist went along with her for moral support.

Two minutes later they were back at their table looking a little put out.

“There was a man using one of the urinals in there,” said Miss Dreifus.

“I don’t like urinals, anyway,” said another member of the group.

“Pissing is a private thing,” said Miss Dreifus gravely. The Men’s Room in the Biltmore would have to be liberated another day.

Off to the “Powder Room” they all went, pony-tailed male included. He sat in the mirror-lined outer chamber as the females used the facilities, complaining all the while about the 10-cent charge. When the women emerged, he told them he’d never seen a men’s room quite so splendid.

Soon someone decided the gilded Powder Room mirrors were offensive. Up went the stickers: “Smash Sexism!”, “Women’s Strike for Equality, August 25, 1970,” and, over a fine, clear mirror: “This Insults Women.”

The Biltmore Powder Room stick-up seemed the right finishing touch somehow, the last final guerrilla comedy action of the day. It was not a day for anger. The women who had made it their special day were too cheerful, too proud of them­selves and their predecessors.

And up at the Plaza fountain where the march was assembling all was happy chaos. You couldn’t tell the spectators from the reporters or from the demon­strators. It seemed that every two-bit magazine, tv station, city desk, and news service had sent a female reporter. These women were dressed in the motley liber­ation styles and could not be dis­tinguished from their subjects unless their press cards were vis­ible. There were in addition scores of male reporters and photographers, milling and shoving around in aggressive ef­forts to be on the spot when the march began. Spectators, reporters, and women stood like figures on a life-sized wedding cake along each tier of the fountain. They quite obscured the little placard ceremony for Sojourner Truth, the black female un­derground railroad worker, for whom the liberationists wanted to erect a monument in place of that Plaza statue.

The vague beginnings of the line-up for the march were over at the 60th Street exit from Park Drive. There the lower half of Gloria Steinem’s face was visi­ble under a poster of the My Lai massacre which bore the words “Masculine Mystique.” There Ed Koch’s face was a full foot above the crowd, beaming out with its characteristic liberal good cheer. There a serious-looking young woman with a bull horn was commanding reporters to step back in between her calls for Ruth Ann Miller and other women’s lib celebrities who had been swallowed up by the crowd.

Kate Millett came drifting by, frowning over a movie camera. A serpent-like line of women wove through the crowd with the huge “Women of the World Unite!” banner that had been displayed at the Statue of Liberty.

It seemed that everyone was waiting for a signal. One young liberationist with a sense of organization got a small group chanting “Out of the houses! Out of the jails! Up from under! Women unite!” for a brief period. But even she didn’t seem to know where the sign to start the march would be coming from.

Through the crush of it all a man and woman were bumping and shoving themselves down the Fifth Avenue sidewalk toward the fountain. They apparently lived nearby, for he was carrying a poodle. And as they walked past the women, he could be heard telling her:

“My dear, they’re always disorganized.”

Somehow, it got under way. And then, only then, did the women realize how large their demonstration was. As they moved down Fifth Avenue, they kept jumping above the crowd to get quick views of the numbers still behind them. “Did you see how far back it goes?” they kept asking each other in excited tones. They were amazed, those young women who had been meeting in small groups or taking part in small actions for months. And with each block of their route as the line stretched out longer and longer behind them, their jubilation grew. No one of them would have dared to say before that evening that the women’s liberation movement had 20,000 members in New York City alone.

The march was liberally sprinkled with men. And in the end the newspaper crowd estimates were widely disparate. One march organizer said a po­liceman told her “there must be 50,000 people here.” The New York Post said there were 7000. But Pete Hamill estimated that 35,000 had taken part in the march. Bryant Park, where they staged their final rally, holds 20,000 and every we blade of grass in there was occupied.

The women were white, young, and college-educated. Their movement was, no getting around it, made up of the women least in need of a special politics to get their fair share of power and wealth. But for one brief eve­ning they felt themselves to be standing up for all women every­where. Tomorrow they could think of their old factions and divisions, tomorrow Betty Friedan and Eleanor Holmes Norton might discover that it would take more than woman-hood to unite them. But that night, as the darkness fell on Bryant Park, they were simply amazed at their numbers.

Kate Millett uttered what they were all thinking as she looked out over the park. “Wow!” she said, “we’re a movement now!” They cheered and cheered at this, for they all seemed to know that women’s liberation had not really emerged until then. It had gotten by on humor and anger and shock effect. It had received publicity far out of proportion to its size. The demonstration’s organizers themselves were later to admit they had expected a much smaller turnout. They did not know until the end of August 26 that the women’s liberation movement had finally earned its title. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2020