Remembering the Revolution

March 29, 2018

For Islanders who fought on the frontlines of the Women’s Movement, lessons still resonate.

 

The first skirmishes for women’s rights were likely sit-downs by cavewomen who wanted to get out of the house and hunt for dinner with their husbands. Today, many of the battles have been won, though some insidious failures remain. 

 

Women like Roosevelt Islanders Lorraine Altman, Sharon Bermon, and Gilda Hannah fought on the front lines in the second wave of the American Women’s Movement, celebrated every year in March. Their memories of the sting and exultation of the fight for equal rights have informed their lives in quiet but important ways.

 

“Yes, I was there,” Bermon says. “Exciting things were happening, all of them very quickly. And they happened because women started making noise. Asking for power. Insisting.”

 

From left to right: Sharon Bermon, Lorraine Altman, and Gilda Hannah.

 

Ladies did little overt insisting in mid-nineteenth century America. But some women chafed at the cramped injustices of their lives. The formal beginning of the Women’s Movement as we know it today occurred on a hot July afternoon in 1848 in upstate New York, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton realized she could no longer accept the limitations faced by women, who were property, legally dead in the eyes of the law.

 

Two days later , she helped organize “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of woman,” to take place just six days later in Seneca Falls, New York. The focus was on gaining the right to vote. Women succeeded in 1920, despite facing overwhelming ridicule and hostility that persisted well into the second wave of the American women’s movement, from the early 1960s into the 1980s.

 

The movement’s vision was subversively simple, “feminism is the radical notion.” As the women’s studies scholar Cheris Kramarae put it, “That women are human beings.”

 

It was a time of great political and social tumult and the second wave faced its most vicious (and frightened) public fightback from the “pro-life” movement, which opposed women’s right to make their own decisions about their own bodies, including abortion. But now the second wavers were armed with a stronger, deeper sense of themselves. They found that the personal was indeed political.

 

The formation and activities of new radical women’s groups were entertaining. Bras were burned. A sheep was crowned Miss America. Men entering the Playboy Club had their bottoms squeezed by middle-class women determined, though somewhat nervously, to show the men what women endured. 

 

Redstockings, the best known of the groups, was responsible for many of the most effective protests. But the group’s most lasting effect was its work in consciousness-raising, central to the second wave. That was what drew Altman to the movement. 

 

“That really changed my life,” she says. A wife and mother like Bermon and Hannah, Altman started to think of herself “more as a person. I came to realize I had a voice.” She applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a Master’s Degree. Divorce followed.

 

“I do feel the movement did not focus on the needs of women who had left their husbands. We had no support to help us or our children.”

 

 Lorraine Altman, left, with Gilda Hannah and Sharon Bermon reminisce about their days in the second wave of the Women's Movement.

 

Not long after Hannah joined the Redstockings in 1970, invited to a meeting by her downstairs neighbor, she was asked to conduct the sessions, which took place in participants’ homes and usually included up to eight women. “I had never done anything like this,” she recalls. “You just told your story. That was what consciousness-raising was all about. Our own stories.”

 

But cracks were appearing in the second wave foundation. Men were not allowed to join the groups for fear they would take them over. And one day Hannah suddenly found herself out of the Redstockings, excluded from their activities after two years. “Who was I? A white middle-class housewife. So much for their support of women” Largely run by academics, Redstockings and other groups were looking into new populations. Should they take in black women? Lesbians?

 

Hannah laughed, remembering a Redstocking retort to members who believed racial inequities were a greater problem than women’s rights: “Beneath every black man is a black woman.” But Hannah recalls her time with Redstockings as “the most interesting and exciting experience I have ever had in my life. And I met the most interesting and intelligent people.”

 

The movement also taught women how to help other women become professionals. “There were women who were not doing anything special until they began working for equal rights,” Bermon says. “In the process, they learned many skills: organizing events, writing press releases, giving speeches, and more. And some of those women used their skills to run for office and do other things that put them in positions of power.” Others spent endless hours talking to small church and community organizations.

 

Bermon, right, being sworn in as vice chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women by Mayor Edward I. Koch.

 

A perfect example was the career of Sandra Zwerling, a Roosevelt Island second waver who surveyed and exposed employment agencies that discriminated against women. She worked with the New York Times and the Daily News to improve the image of women, wrote extensively on feminist issues, and was a feminist representative on radio and television and in the mainstream media.

 

Many women of the third wave generation, which began in the 1990s, are embarrassed by being thought of as “Feminists.” They’d already arrived because of now forgotten struggles. And the fourth wave? They will be identified as the hashtag generation. 

 

But the struggles of second wave feminists were worth a lot to the women who went through them. “The movement raised issues I had not thought about,” Hannah says. “I was absolutely not the same person. My consciousness was raised.”

 

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