August 26, 1970– The Women’s Strike For Equality
“Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot!”
The Women’s Strike For Equality was a nationwide demonstration for Women’s Rights that was held on the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. It was the first big demonstration of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the largest gathering of women protesters in history, until January 21, 2017. The leadership for the strike called the focus to be “The Unfinished Business Of Equality”.
The Women’s Strike For Equality was organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its president Betty Friedan.
At a NOW convention in March 1970, Friedan rallied women to stop working for a day to draw attention to the prevalent problem of unequal pay for women’s work. She then formed and led the National Women’s Strike Coalition to organize the protest, which used “Don’t Iron While The Strike Is Hot!” as its slogan. She asked American women to abandon their husbands, their desks and typewriters, and their service jobs, to march in the streets of American cities demanding Equal Rights.
The Equal Rights Amendment was being debated in Congress that summer, and women warned politicians to pay attention or risk losing their seats in the next election.
Friedan initially proposed the strike to NOW, but its members were afraid that the protest would be a bust, and that they would be mocked. She continued to develop a strategy despite the negative reaction from the organization she had helped form. The first planning meeting was small and chaotic; discussing possible strategies without any formal organization. As plans progressed, so did the controversy. In the final month leading up to the event, the group was significantly divided into two factions: the young radicals and the “bourgeoisie” founders.
Friedan avoided deep divisions by diversifying, recruiting women and men, liberals and conservatives. She sought a permit from NYC to close Fifth Avenue for the protest. The city refused. They marched anyway.
NYC had the largest protest. 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue; others demonstrated at the Statue Of Liberty and another group stopped the stock ticker on Wall Street. The city proclaimed it declaring Equality Day. Police directed them to one lane of traffic, but the protesters filled the street and sidewalks.
Los Angeles had a smaller protest of about 1000. In Washington D.C., women marched down Connecticut Avenue with a banner that read “We Demand Equality” and lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment. Petitions with more than 1,500 names were presented to the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana.
Women who worked at the Detroit Free Press kicked men out of one of their restrooms, protesting the fact that men had two bathrooms while women had one.
Women who worked for a New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune newspaper ran pictures of the grooms instead of the brides in engagement announcements.
Women marched in Paris, and Dutch women marched at the U.S. embassy in Amsterdam.
Critics, including many women, called the demonstrators anti-feminine and Communists. The Women’s Strike For Equality made the front page of the failing NY Times, L.A. Times, and Chicago Tribune. It was also the leading story for the three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. This was before Fox, MSNBC or CNN, and unbelievably, there was no Internet.
The failing NY Times ran a feature titled: “Liberation Yesterday: The Roots Of The Feminist Movement” . Under a photograph of early 20th century suffragettes marching down Fifth Avenue, the paper also asked: “Fifty years ago, they won the vote. Did they throw victory away?” The article pointed out that the earlier and the then-current Feminist Movements were rooted in work for Civil Rights, Peace and Radical politics, and noted that the Women’s Movement in both eras were intent on recognizing that both black people and women were being treated as second-class citizens.
The article went on to note that “Traditional Groups Prefer to Ignore Women’s Lib“. NY Times:
“The problem for such groups as the Daughters Of The AmericanRevolution (DAR) the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the League OfWomen Voters, The Junior League and the Young Women’s ChristianAssociation (YWCA) is what attitude to take toward the militant women’s liberation movement with its ridiculous exhibitionists and bands of wild lesbians.”
Bands of wild lesbians! Oh, my!
The article quoted the National Council Of Women:
“There’s no discrimination against women like they say there is. Women themselves are just self-limiting. It’s in their nature and they shouldn’t blame it on society or men.”
The NY Times also noted that Friedan was 20 minutes late for her speech at the Women’s Strike For Equality, with a headline: “Leading Feminist Puts Hairdo Before Strike”. The article also noted what she wore and where she’d purchased it, and that he had her hair done at the Vidal Sassoon Salon. Friedan’s retort:
“I don’t want people to think Women’s Lib girls don’t care about how they look. We should try to be as pretty as we can. It’s good for our self-image and it’s good politics.”
The article noted:
“The vast majority of women interviewed strongly endorsed the traditional concept of woman as a mother and a homemaker who can, and sometimes even should, supplement these activities with a career or with volunteer work.”
60 women showed up at the reception area of the Katherine Gibbs School to confront the president of the secretarial school, with charges that the school was exploiting a system that kept women in subservient roles in business. They moved on to six advertising agencies to present awards that ironically congratulated them for using degrading images of women and for under-employing women. Among the businesses they visited was that darn NY Times itself.
Friedan, who wrote groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique (1963), said the movement needed “Something big, something so big it will make national headlines”.
The Women’s Strike For Equality made headlines as people marched not just for Gender Equality, but also for the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1971, Congress passed a resolution declaring August 26 to be Women’s Equality Day. One of my earliest heroes, Representative Bella Abzug of NY was so inspired by the Women’s Strike For Equality, she introduced a bill to make Women’s Equality Day a national holiday.
Friedan left this world in 2006 on her 85th birthday. The Feminine Mystique is now considered rather quaint.