Making Democracy Work

1970's Narrated by Joel Grossman Myers

LWVNO HISTORY - 1970s by Joel Grossman Myers

I want to talk about the decades of the `30s, `40s, `50s, and `60s so we'll understand the `70s. I was born in 1934, which was right during the Depression. People were very careful about the way they lived and very careful to abide by all the rules and to do what they thought was best to conserve. And women didn't necessarily expect to go to college, but if they decided to go then they were not expected to find a profession. They were expected to get their MRS. And the reason for that is that men were supposed to be the dominant person in the relationship.

So none of my friends' mothers worked outside of the home. None of my family worked outside of the home. I had no role model of a working woman. And in truth, generally speaking, working women in my socio-economic bracket didn't appear until World War II and that happened in the `40s. When World War II came along, all the factories and offices and everywhere that men worked were emptied because all those men went to war. Literally they all did go to war. Everybody who could, did. Even people who shouldn't have done it, like my father.

What to do? They needed huge numbers of people not only taking the men's places and doing what they had been doing but in creating all the material for the war effort. So women were called upon to meet the challenge and women did it. In addition to the Uncle Sam poster that everybody knows with him pointing to you and saying "I want you," there was a Rosie the Riveter poster. And Rosie the Riveter was standing up there displaying her muscles and showing that women had power and that women were needed too.

So, all of a sudden, all the women went to work outside the home and that was something very new and different. There were jobs for them and they were able to do them. And that was all very well and good until after the war was over in the middle 1940s and all those men were coming home. What were women going to do? They sort of liked the idea that they were valuable and had a role to play, but on the other hand, they knew they had to leave their jobs so the men would have something to do when they came home.

The federal government was really very clever and they put on a stupendous PR blitz to the effect that women had to be patriotic for the men to come home and feel like they had a place again. The women had to go make their homes beautiful with all the new appliances that were being invented from the war knowledge. We had washing machines. We had television. We had never had mass televisions. We had air conditioning. We had never had air conditioning. Our homes were to be the center of everything and women were going to make it happen.

So women left their jobs and they went home and they did what they were supposed to do. In addition to that, women had to become beautiful, so they started wearing much shorter skirts with petticoats galore. We had poodle skirts and then we had bubble hair so we couldn't wear hats anymore. We used to set our hair on tin cans to make it bubble. Think of Jackie Kennedy. And we had a wonderful time beautifying ourselves and our homes.

And then that got kind of old. When the `60s came we had the rise of women who were tired of being beautiful and tired of making their homes beautiful and wanted something more. And women realized the League of Women Voters was out there. It had been there all the time and it had been doing what it did all that time. When the United Nations was formed right after World War II, the League was one of its initial supporters. The League had all kinds of wonderful programs that women, who were not entirely devoted to making themselves and their homes beautiful, wanted to do. The League was one of the very few organizations available outside of the home where women could go to and learn something other than household things, and mothering and parenting things.

In the `50s when I got to be the age that I needed to know how to vote, I realized I didn't know anything. I didn't even know how to go about it. But I did know that there was a place I could learn about it and that was the League. My husband was a medical doctor and he was busy, busy and didn't have time to keep up with all that good stuff. So I joined the League and, boy, it made a difference. All of a sudden I saw that there were women who knew a great deal other than how to keep a house, women who were seriously involved in how good or bad the world was. And I wanted to do that too, and I wanted to vote for the people who could make that happen.

The League's membership started to blossom in those years. The `60s were kind of fun. The `60s were when the poodle skirt gave way to the tie dyed skirts. And women like me could go out and march and not be turned out of society. It was kind of a yeasty, eye-opening period.

Then came a book called the Feminine Mystique and nobody had read anything like that ever in my generation. In that book we were told that women were really worth something and that we could go out and do anything we wanted. We didn't have to live through our husbands or through our children or through our parents. We could live our own lives and be identified as worthwhile people, and that was an eye opener especially for a little southern girl.

So I took that greatly to heart and I decided I was going to get very active in the League of Women Voters because that was the only place I had to go. That's when I started looking into things like the United Nations.

The way the League of Women Voters worked was that there were three levels: the national level did studies that they disseminated down to the state Leagues. And the state Leagues did the same study, and the local Leagues did the same study. When the study on the United Nations came down here, I decided that it really wasn't good enough.

So we took that study and enlarged on it. In those days the local League had something called units. Units were neighborhood groups all around the city. Now the city wasn't nearly as big as it is today but we had definite neighborhoods and we had neighborhood groups. By the time I got to be president in the early `80s, we had ten units, which is ten neighborhood groups. We had close to 500 members.

Because of the League's support for the United Nations, we were considered a Communist organization because the United Nations was thought to be Communist. I remember going on the radio, which was our main means of communication, and having people saying things to me that I had never heard anybody say in my life. It was awful. But I decided, well, if I'm going to be a League of Women Voters member, I'm going to have to take conversations like that because I'm a grown up. That took some doing.

The next study we had was China. It had just become a Communist nation. Believe it or not, there was not a single book on China on the shelves in any of the New Orleans libraries. They had been banned. The only reason I could find anything out about China, other than what national League sent down, was that another member of the League of Women Voters had all these books on China. I thought, why in the world would Pat have all these books? I asked her and she said, I've just accumulated them over the years. But it turned out, which she couldn't tell me until years later, that she was a member of the CIA and they were studying China. The League of Women Voters is absolutely the only organization ever that somebody like that would join. And she was a treasure. We had a wonderful time researching China for the local League and we sent everything we did up to national and they used it. So my experiences with the League were wonderful during those years because society in general was wonderful. It was bubbling and it was exciting.

Because women were thinking that they now had a place in society of their own and didn't have to rely on their husband like they used to, the League decided that we were tired of something called the called the "lord and master" clause. It said that a husband had total control over all the property that you had whether you came into the marriage with it or not. A wife had no say in anything having to do with her property and if her husband wanted to sell everything, if he wanted to go into debt, he could without his wife's permission. I had to get my husband's signature to deal with some of the things that I came into my marriage with and he had to sign that I could do what I wanted to do. It really made me furious. So we in the League worked very hard on that clause and, little by little, we got pieces of it repealed over the years until finally in 1982 it was gone.

The other thing that we were working on through the `60s and `70s that finally came to a head really in the `80s was the Equal Rights Amendment. The idea that women should have the same rights as men was introduced really when women got the vote way back in 1920. That idea was introduced in Congress but never made it out. The 19th Amendment to the Constitutional only said that women had the right to vote, not that they had equal rights to men. And women thought we should have that.

So over the years we tried getting an Equal Rights Amendment through Congress and it never happened, never happened. Until the `70s came along, when the Equal Rights Amendment was formally reintroduced to Congress and, believe it not, it got through.

Then it had to go to the states because a Constitutional Amendment has to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. That was in 1972, but by 1982 there were still 15 states that hadn't passed it. Of course Louisiana was one of the 15.

But nevertheless, the Equal Rights Amendment got further than it had ever gotten before. Now there is a renewed effort to pass it. Just this past legislative session it was brought up to our Louisiana Legislature and believe it or not, it passed the Senate. It did not pass the House. I understand, now only two more states have to okay it. So maybe in the near future, if we all work hard, we can get it through. But it's incredible to think that people still to this day don't want to give women equal rights.

The `70s were also the era when gay rights came into being and the gay groups in New Orleans, especially the women's gay groups, very much wanted to be a part of the League of Women Voters. And we were open to that. On the other hand, we were very careful that we didn't overdo it because we didn't want to be known as a gay organization. We did want to be sympathetic and do whatever was necessary for them to have rights like everybody else.

When I first got into League, the state constitution was huge because it had been amended so much. You couldn't carry it around in one piece. So everybody kept saying we needed a new state constitution because nobody knew what was in it, which was true. But to say it was one thing and to get it done was a whole different thing. We really needed leadership to make it happen. When Governor Edwin Edwards was running for governor, we had him pledge that he would support a new constitution. And he did. He just joked his way into getting a Constitutional Convention getting going. The way he did that was by saying, we won't have a new constitution until we have a council telling us what they want to put in the new constitution.

So that gave the public another step to influence what would go into the constitution. The League of Women Voters was really active with that process and we wrote, we really did write, a bill of rights and a preamble that was the most liberal of any constitution in the United States. It's just incredible and, if you want to read something beautiful, you should read it.

And the process was so much fun. We had meetings all over the city to try to get people to tell us what they wanted to see in the new constitution. I can remember very well, we had a meeting at somebody's house and there were steps into her house. And all these people in wheelchairs arrived. We didn't know what to do with them. It turned out they arrived because they wanted to make sure that disability rights were included in the preamble and the bill of rights. We were very impressed with that. We moved the whole meeting outside so they could attend. Fortunately it was a good weather day.

So that's the kind of excitement we had around here for the new constitution. And sure enough, it got done. It got done in 1974, and it was a vast improvement. We need to do it again.