By Diane Minor
For many women, a mass action like NOW's Rally for Women's Lives April 9 is an unprecedented opportunity to speak out and do grassroots organizing, a celebration of strength and unity and a defining moment in their lives.
"At the end of a day of work together, many women I talk with say they got hooked on being an activist the moment they stepped off a bus and into a crowd of hundreds of thousands of other feminists," says NOW President Patricia Ireland.
The history of mass political actions organized by U.S. women dates back to the turn of the century. As early as 1903, labor reformer Mary Harry ("Mother") Jones organized children working in factories to parade in front of city hall in Kensington, Pa., with their maimed fingers and hands held high in the air.
A suffrage parade in 1913 on the eve of President Wilson's inauguration was marred by violence, but also helped to integrate the movement. Members of the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta marched as a delegation, while Black journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells marched side-by-side with white women from Illinois.
In 1916 and 1917 suffragists picketed the White House, with one silent picket leading to the arrest of 218 women from 26 states. The 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote passed Congress in 1918 and was ratified in 1920.
In the latter part of this century, Latina women who were founders and activists in the United Farm Workers Movement marched on behalf of improved working conditions.
With a single act of protest, refusing to give up her seat on a bus, Rosa Parks gave new vigor to the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Black women were among the 1,000 protesters arrested during a May 1963 civil rights march on Birmingham, Ala. They were also among the more than 250,000 people who heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech during the August 1963 march on Washington.
Young white women joined in Vietnam era student marches and protests that drew record crowds to Washington in 1969 and 1971. But something was missing for women in the radical student movement and many of the other movements of the 1960s.
"Many of our earliest activists were women who felt squeezed out of leadership in these movements, and were drawn to possibilities for them in the women's movement," says Ireland.
And the possibilities were endless, with the energetic new movement using creativity, daring and some of both the costumes and techniques of the suffragists.
In perhaps the first picket ever by NOW members, activists in August 1967 dressed in vintage clothing to protest the old-fashioned policies of The New York Times, which then segregated help-wanted ads by gender. In December of the same year, NOW held its first national day of demonstrations in five cities, targeting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for issuing guidelines approving of the ads.
In September 1968, New York NOW members and other women's liberation activists picketed the Miss America pageant and, though no bras were burned that day, this is the event from which the myth of the bra burners evolved.
On Aug. 26, 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage, NOW Women organized a "Women's Strike for Equality." Approximately 50,000 women marched in New York and another 100,000 women participated in demonstrations and rallies in 90 cities, 42 states.
In 1973, feminist activists organized the first "Take Back the Night" marches and vigils around the country, which protested sexual assault and other violence against women. And in 1979, feminists joined in a 5,000-person anti- pornography march in New York and helped organize the first national lesbian and gay rights march, which drew 100,000 people to Washington.
Marches on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment began in May 1976, when NOW brought 16,000 supporters to Springfield, Ill., many of them arriving from the East Coast on the ERA Freedom Train. In August 1977, 4,000 people marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand that President Carter take a more active role in efforts to ratify the ERA. Days later activists donned jogging shoes for the first of what became five annual ERA walk-a-thons that together raised approximately $1.7 million.
The next year 100,000 people marched on Washington in 95-degree heat, in a sea of purple, gold and white suffragist colors, to press for an extension of the time limit on ratifying the ERA. Having won the extension, NOW activists organized a record 90,000 people to march on Chicago in support of the ERA in 1980.
These marches forced the issue of abortion rights into the forefront of political debate going into the 1992 elections and provided strong, new networks of activists and contributors.
Lesbian and gay rights marches on Washington in 1993 and New York in 1994 each drew crowds estimated at 300,000 to 1 million and more elected officials than before. Bearing petitions with 2.8 million signatures, even a far smaller crowd of 1,000 people who marched on Washington in 1993 helped increase domestic appropriations for breast cancer research by $100 million.
Marches build and rejuvenate the various movements for women's rights by changing the lives of participants.
"When women work to mobilize and fund a group of local participants for a big event like our April rally they are often transformed from enthusiastic but inexperienced activists into community leaders," says Ireland. "I've seen it happen over and over again. We count on it.
"The other transformation I have seen hits everyone from the most seasoned pioneer activist to the college sophomore. Standing side by side with a sea of kindred spirits, each of us finds renewed strength to wage the struggle for women's equality."
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