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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

Feminist History Preserved By Those Who Lived It

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

The history of feminism, and the stories of the individuals who make up that history, are an invaluable resource. These chronicles tell us how far we have come, illustrate the great efforts required to make change, and help to ensure that we will never go back. The history of the struggle for women's equality, however, can be overlooked or misrepresented by mainstream historians and publishers, simply because women still are discriminated against and their lives marginalized.

Author Barbara Love and the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), in an effort to preserve the more recent history of feminism, have undertaken a major project. The Feminist Pioneers Project will be a groundbreaking reference work that will document the individual contributions of hundreds of pioneer feminists who participated in the early years of the Second Wave women's movement (1963 to 1975). Many well-known feminists are supporting the project, including Susan Brownmiller, Betty Friedan, Del Martin, Kate Millett, Eleanor Smeal and Gloria Steinem.

Love, who is editing the Directory of Feminist Pioneers, says: "I have been working on this project for four years now because I think there is a crying need to recognize the grassroots feminists who devoted the best part of their lives to improving the lives of all of us ... The pioneers of the second wave are getting older (may of the founders have passed away) and we need to do this now."

The recognition of grassroots feminists makes this project unique. Also of importance, it is composed primarily of first-hand accounts. The first phase of the project is nearing completion. Love and her colleagues have been reaching out to all feminists—men as well as women everywhere, radical and reformist, famous and not-at-all-famous, national and local—who were active in 1975 or before. The large majority of these feminists are still alive and active, and it is imperative that their stories be recorded now, in order to make this a truly living document.

Biographies are already being prepared on the above mentioned women as well as others who started their feminist activism during that era, such as Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, Florynce Kennedy, Phyllis Chesler, Mary Daly, Kim Gandy, Shere Hite, Patricia Ireland, Catherine MacKinnon, Patricia Schroeder and Chocolate Waters.

"Even more important than all of these famous women is the inclusion of grassroots feminists who have not been recognized or applauded for their great work before," says Love. "We must not lose sight of the fact that this was a movement of many women—and it is those many who made it happen, the unsung heroes."

To ensure that African American women are well represented in the directory, Love and the VFA have a special task force working on outreach to black feminists.

The Directory of Feminist Pioneers is expected to be a valuable primary source for historians, feminists, women's studies' groups, journalists and researchers. The biographies will be in two forms—as a database and as a print directory. The database will be housed at The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

"There has to be a record of what we did to make the world a better place for women," Love said. "And we have to create that record ourselves so we know that what we've done is not distorted or outright forgotten. It's a huge project. In fact, it's impossible. But then, we feminists often do the impossible."

Visit The Pioneer Feminists Project to download a questionnaire form and see who is already part of the project.

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