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Pioneer Feminists Reflect, Look to the Future

July 10, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

According to members, the North Orange County chapter of NOW was Orange County's first major feminist organization, formed in 1969, three years after the national group by Rosalie Abrams, a feminist playwright who lives in Anaheim. Early members were drawn from the membership of the Unitarian Church, she recalled. Some women came to meetings surreptitiously. "They thought women's liberation was a dirty word. They were afraid to be associated with it because their husbands would think ill of them."

A year later a member asked Orange County supervisors to revise job requirements in order to allow women to apply for male-dominated jobs such as surveyor, which paid more than the clerical jobs in which most women were employed. A newspaper story at the time described the NOW member making the request as "a tall, pretty blonde in a chiffon print dress" and called her "Mrs." (Many newspaper articles no longer use titles which describe marital status, and gratuitous descriptions of physical attributes of men or women are discouraged.)

"There was a lot of fun made of us," recalled Abrams, now 64, who had then just returned to Cal State Fullerton to study theater arts after raising two children. "One of the professors, a man who was a brilliant director, used to say, 'Here comes Libby,' every time he saw me in the hall. That kind of ridicule was constant."

'Tried to Educate People'

NOW was never anti-men nor anti-marriage, Abrams said. "I never never once ever put marriage down. . . . We tried to educate people to understand that both women and men were playing (dependent) roles that were not good for either one." They envisioned relationships where men and women could share their lives without feeling dependent, she said. "Where women wouldn't have to be dependent on anyone to support them, and men would not marry to have someone to wash their (clothes), but that they would come together on an egalitarian basis."

They worked to redefine rape as an act of violence, not lust; raise wages for women; open the Feminist Women's Health Center in Santa Ana; raise funds to open two Orange County shelters for battered women and lobbied to form the Orange County Commission on the Status of Women, Abrams said.

One of the early goals, she said, was to get older women back into school and to build women's studies courses on college campuses. "And we did, all over the county." Now, she said, such programs have dwindled and she receives fewer invitations to lecture.

By 1974, the Orange County NOW was a single-issue organization, focusing on ratification of the equal rights amendment, NOW official Lozano recalled. When members learned that the Mormon Church was putting a great deal of money into defeating the amendment, her chapter borrowed educational techniques from the church and sent "missionaries" from NOW to Mormon households in the county.

A period of "real disillusionment and self blame" followed the failure of the amendment, she said. "We had assumed it was so just and so rational that it would automatically pass. Many people were really shocked when it didn't. We lost some members at that time who didn't renew."

Now, she said, "We would never be naive enough to think a piece of legislation would pass because it's just. . . ."

Counting Many Victories

Nevertheless, NOW officials count many victories, among them the recent U.S. Supreme Court stand affirming an employer's responsibility in sexual harassment cases.

Locally, Abrams noted, many original NOW members went on to form other NOW chapters or other organizations such as California Women in High Education, formed by Shirley Bernard, the former NOW western regional director. NOW has also spawned other feminist organizations in the county, such as the Orange County chapter of the National Political Women's Caucus and Women For:, Abrams said.

Many things are left on NOW's agenda, the women said, citing working for global peace, ridding the media of sexist stereotypes, obtaining more representation in high-level government administration and ending abortion clinic harassment.

Every Saturday Headland-Wauson escorts women entering the Feminist Women's Health Center past anti-abortion picketers. The picketers all know her and say, 'Good morning Patti,' " she said. But they have also called her the "Angel of Death," she said.

Anonymous Threats

Sometimes, she said, she receives anonymous threats on her answering machine. But she also gets five to 10 calls a week from women complaining that they have been discriminated against at their jobs. But more often these days, women face subtle hurdles of attitude, the feminists said.

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