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Looking back.

Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End by Sara Evans.

New York: The Free Press, 2003, 288 PP., $26.00 hardcover.

Women, Power and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace by Lois Kathryn Herr.

Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003, 200 pp., $18.95 paper

Sara Evans uses the image of a tidal wave to describe the feminist insurgency of the second half of the twentieth century. No one who lived through it would argue with her metaphor, or debate the thematic aptness of chapters tided "Undertow" "Crest," "Deep Currents." Well, I would debate "Resurgence." I see an unstoppable continuation of practical gains, but if we are talking about organized action, "Eddies and Ripples" would be more exact.

Several activists from the glory years of feminism, including me, have felt a powerful compulsion to get our history on paper before it is lost. Each historian uncovers fresh material or stresses events ignored in previous works; each is beholden to the prior efforts and, not surprisingly, offers a different perspective. Ours was not a movement that spoke in one voice. Geographical distances alone were sufficient to affect perspective, particularly about who said what first.

Evans comes to the job with great credentials. A civil rights and antiwar activist with socialist ideals, she was on the scene in Chicago in 1967 at the lusty birth of the West Siders, arguably the first radical women's group in the country. Within a year she had started a consciousness-raising group at the University of North Carolina, where she was pursuing her graduate studies in history. After a spate of spinoffs and splits that were characteristic of the women's liberation movement, Evans and some likeminded young mothers in her original group formed Lollipop Power, whose aim was to create nonsexist picture hooks for preschoolers. She produced one children's book for Lollipop and then blazed an original trail as a historian with Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left Personal Politics remains an indispensable classic for those seeking to understand the ties of feminist activism to the radicalism that preceded it in the ongoing American struggle fo r social justice.

How do you ride a tidal wave and land right side up to report it? The sheer force of the material, not to mention its breadth, is enough to drown the hardiest witness, especially one who wishes to honor all conflicting currents while she amends and clarifies the existing record. In Tidal Wave Evans deliberately sacrifices a narrative drive and a linear chronology in a brave attempt to be comprehensive. Movement struggles share her pages with accounts of personal transformations; government backlash in the Reagan years jostles for space with societal changes. Little-known women receive more attention than recognizable names, by strategic intention.

I admire the way Evans traces the evolution of feminism's lesbian presence from a starting point of invisibility in the late sixties, when everyone was assumed to be straight and those who weren't were quaking, to the Michigan Women's Music Festival a decade later, where "women's culture," and the use of the word "woman" itself, had be come interchangeable with a lesbian lifestyle. I believe she overestimates the influence of socialist feminism; the great, creative leaps in conceiving of and politicizing new issues (rape, battery, sexual harassment) owed nothing to the Marxist-feminist discussion groups. I wish Evans had narrowed her canvas drastically to a discussion of the lesbian presence, or the socialist presence, or the struggle to involve black women, or to one of about ten phenomena, including spirituality and transformations in organized religion, that she tries to follow. She would have produced a more readable book.

Evans is writing for an academic audience, but that is no excuse for not wrestling the demon of all-inclusiveness to the ground. I understand that in-the-text attributions are a convention in academia, and in Evans' hands they are a sweet form of generosity, but she is too free with this tipping of the hat to earlier scholars. Sentences that begin "Alice Echols has described," "As Susan Brownmiller recounts," "Indeed, as historian Ruth Rosen has demonstrated conclusively" assume that a reader is familiar with all the literature, or will dash off to look up the cites. More problematically, such sentences carry a halo of authority and an aura of diligently researched, non-debatable fact.

We know the FBI played a devious role in the Black Panther Party and set faction against faction in the far left, but Ruth Rosen, in The World Split Open, did not demonstrate conclusively that FBI infiltrators were behind some or any of the feminist movement's chaotic moments. (In my book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, I offered the tart observation that one movement crazy could do the work of ten agents provocateur.) When Evans wishes to explain the fractious, destructive behavior at the Sagaris women writers conference in Vermont in 1975, she uses Rosen as her authority. This is not scholarship; it is ideologically inspired thinking. A few more easy, convenient cites in subsequent books, and the feds will have been granted a starring role in our movement's history that they never achieved in life.

By far," Evans writes, "the single greatest impact of the women's movement was in the American workforce." Lois Kathryn Herr, in Women, Power, and AT&T, reports meticulously on one such impact. Herr, a member of NOW, was stymied in lower-level management at Ma Bell when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took on the telephone giant during the Nixon years. Her "I was there" story is an exciting contribution to business and government lore as well as to feminist history, one that points the way, I hope, toward future avenues of scholarship.

The AT&T story is fascinating. Affirmative action in major corporations was conceptualized initially as a benign, moderate Republican approach to ameliorating racial discrimination. Certainly it was preferred by the Nixon White House over earlier strategies for integration, such as school busing, that the Democrats had favored. Its use as a remedy for sex discrimination was something that happened along the way, thanks to the almost accidental language of Title VII and the feminist wave that surged during the Nixon years. The EEOC under chairman William H. Brown III, a black Republican appointee, did not have enforcement powers. Herr reports that the president referred to Brown on one of his tapes as "that thin fellow that heads equal opportunities." In his Nixonish way he added that unlike others of Brown's kind, "He's got it." More to the point, Brown had a strong protector in Nixon advisor Len Garment. He also had a staff of longhaired radical lawyers left over from the sixties.

One of those longhairs, David Copus, a former Peace Corps volunteer, made it his personal mission to bring EEOC charges against AT&T on the grounds of racial discrimination. The new feminist militancy inside and outside the government alerted Copus and his boss to Ma Bell's sorry record on sex discrimination, which was more blatant and egregious than its record on hiring and promoting minorities.

The EEOC filed its charges against the telephone giant in December 1971. NOW, headed in those years by Wilma Scott Heide, fed the EEOC a stream of employment statistics and psychological studies, and outfitted NOW's small army of local chapters with media kits and organizing guides to keep up the pressure on the local Bells. With a kind of chutzpah that seems amazing today, NOW lobbied hard for an official role in the negotiating process and met with AT&T's top management on several occasions. In a real sense Heide's volunteer team was the beneficiary of a power vacuum. The phone company's two labor unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Communication Workers of America, sat on their heels during most of the negotiations.

Ma Bell was a natural target for the women's movement. Lorena Weeks, a Southern Bell employee in Georgia, had sued the company in 1966 when it denied her a switchman's job that was off-limits to women. Several early signs of the gathering feminist wave had come from low-paid telephone operators in AT&T's famously female ghettos across the country. Working shoulder to shoulder in cramped, windowless quarters, Bell System operators labored under strict supervision with regulated bathroom breaks, a dress code that excluded trousers, and no chance for advancement.

Weeks, who won her case in court, was among those who testified at an EEOC hearing in Washington in February 1972. A hearing in New York City that May, at which some NOW members spoke, was disrupted by phone operators from a militant group called CULA, the Center for United Labor Action. The AT&T Alliance for Women, a group Herr had formed from a scattering of female representation in management, kept a low profile. The alliance ran issue-oriented discussion meetings for employees after regular work hours, and its braver members sometimes wore equal-opportunity buttons. They declined to sponsor an activists' newsletter that Herr wrote and distributed to Bell workers.

The phone company, with one million employees, was horrified to hear itself described in the EEOC charges as "the nation's largest oppressor of women." Herr's interviews with AT&T executives from that era reveal some well-meaning individuals who did not know what had hit them. The top honchos were no more clueless than male management elsewhere in corporate America. They relied on the old standbys that women did not wish to have careers in a corporate hierarchy or desire to perform "non-traditional" work in the high-paid crafts that were an exclusively male domain.

A settlement, called a Memorandum of Agreement, was negotiated in January 1973. It did not get major news coverage, Herr believes, because of the Watergate scandal, then in full swing. The EEOC and NOW won on the issues of affirmative action timetables and back pay, and lost on the issue of paid maternity leave. By the following year, the number of women in management had increased by 25 percent, and the number of women in crafts jobs had increased by 78 percent. "Gradually," Herr writes, "the AT&T numbers would change at even higher levels."

Ma Bell was hit by a court-ordered divestiture in 1982 that broke the telecom monopoly into a chain of little Bells, ostensibly to encourage fair competition and lower rates for consumers. Ironically, Herr's career at AT&T, which had prospered under affirmative action, was stymied once again by divestiture. Her dream in the giddy days of the EEOC settlement of rising to the executive suite was not to be. She left the company in the 1990s, started a new career in academia, and eventually harnessed her energies to write the story she had lived through and helped make happen.

SUSAN BROWNMILLER's most recent book is In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution.
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Title Annotation:women's rights
Author:Brownmiller, Susan
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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