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I fought for women’s rights 50 years ago

By Sandy Handsher


That’s what my sign said at the Women’s March on Washington.

I didn’t have a sense of humor about it, as some women my age did:  “Do I really have to protest this shit all over again?”  The other side of my sign said, “I will fight AGAIN for women to remain free, strong, and equal.” 


Serious.  And angry.


I became an instant celebrity, a living piece of history.  I got at least 150 shouted thank-you’s throughout the day.  A bunch of young people sat atop a high white wall with an overview of the whole tight-packed crowd.  A young man yelled out, “Hey! Fifty years! That’s awesome. Thank you.”  Women my age just nodded and mumbled, “Yeah.  Me too.” But the young ones.  The young ones. They did slow takes, as if they were watching a beautiful race horse trotting by, their smiles of appreciation growing as they watched me move, holding my sign above my head.  At the peak of appreciation, they would yell out or crow or sing “Tha-a-a-ank you!”  Some came close up close to me to ask what it was like back then. “Did you protest 50 years ago?”  One woman in her 20s, half her head shaved and the other half blue, turned around in the crowd, fixed her eyes on my sign, and said, “That’s great!  That’s great!”  She paused.  “Can I get a hug?”  We hugged each other long and softly into each other.   Three journalists interviewed me. 


For me, it was the surprise of the Women’s March on Washington — for the first time in my long life of activism, people were thanking me for what I did, instead of asking me if I knew that I was just a trouble-maker. And “why didn’t I just stop making waves?”  It was gratifying to be acknowledged … validated … for all my hard work.  And as they asked me questions, I recounted my life of activism, of bitter battles, of doubting whether I was really right. Working for women’s rights 50 years ago wasn’t only protests.

In 1967, in Levittown, New York, I was in the second semester of my first teaching job. Junior high school.   I was 23 and a popular English teacher.  Every day, two 13 year old girls came to see me after school for twenty minutes or so.  One of them told me she was fucking any boy who wanted to in the parking lot of the shopping center.  She also told me that her very Catholic father and brother would literally kill her if she got pregnant.  1967:  The pill was on the market and AIDS had not yet appeared.  But in New York state, it was illegal for any adult to give birth control information to a person under the age of 18.  I figured it wasn’t illegal for me to explain female anatomy and the menstrual cycle.  These two girls listened intently and watched me draw fallopian tubes on the blackboard, quickly erasing the drawings. One day, I asked one of the girls to stop brushing her hair in the classroom; it was against the rules, and I would get in trouble if the principal walked by. They got mad at me and never came back. I was fired from that first teaching job.  The principal, whom I confronted when I got a pink slip in my school mailbox the day before Spring vacation, said that he and his vice-principals decided that I must be crazy. Clearly, I did not have a social life, if I stayed after school to talk to the kids.  He said I was too friendly with the kids.


1967 was two years before the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement started for real.  There was no organized force to fight school administrators who made girls kneel before them each morning, so the men could check to see that the hem of the girls’ short, stylish mini-skirts reached the floor when they kneeled. That was the rule: the skirt had to touch the floor if the knees were on the ground.  Boys were mistreated too:  sent home if their hair was too long, spanked with a wooden paddle if they misbehaved in class and were sent to the office.  In 1968, the Beatles came out with “You say you want a revolution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change the world.”

In New York, the Women’s Liberation Movement started with the Red Stockings’ Consciousness-Raising groups.  I was there.  One Sunday, a thousand women showed up at an auditorium and were divided into neighborhoods for leaderless consciousness raising groups of 10 women each.  For six months or so, we talked — in turn — on subjects like having brothers, education, sexuality, marriage.  After many months of talking, we each decided on an action.  In my group, one woman started the first day care center in Greenwich Village, in a space donated by Bella Abzug on the second floor of her campaign headquarters.  Another woman was co-writer of the lesbian broadside “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Somebody else wrote an article in the first Ms. Magazine — “The Last Frontier:  Body Hair.” We worked to get Susan, a housewife on Sesame Street, a job. The writers made her a nurse. In 1970, I was offered a job producing at Children’s TV Workshop, but instead, I went to graduate school in East Africa.  Another member later coined the term “sexual harassment.”  Some of us went to the Second Women’s Liberation Conference, where 20 women in lavender t-shirts with “The Lavender Menace” printed on the back grabbed the microphone from the speaker.  Rita Mae Brown said into the microphone that until the Women’s Liberation Movement acknowledged lesbians, it would never be a real Women’s Movement.  At the time, I was shocked at their bold, rude behavior.  Nasty women get things done.


I moved to California and started teaching in community colleges.  In 1973, I founded the Women’s Studies program and the Women’s Center and ran it for ten years.  We offered 27 units in Women’s Studies with classes packed with 35 students each.  We also started a men’s program, in 1974, with classes of bewildered and angry men back from fighting in Viet Nam.  We dealt with their issues, even before the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” had been coined.  We put on three conferences a year — to encourage women to go into science, technology and math, to learn non-traditional skills, to meet women in unusual careers. We counseled women whose husbands didn’t want them to go to school, women who were raped, women who strived for a better life.  In 1976, we were attacked by The Church of the Open Door, a fundamentalist church based in the town where the college was. I had proposed an 8-week Women’s Film Festival, each week on a different subject:  Women and Motherhood, Women and Work, Women and Marriage.  The church objected to two subjects — Women Loving Women and Women and Prostitution.  The Pastor of that church (later fired for seducing his women parishioners) brought 300 members of the church to the Board of Trustees meeting to protest.  They scared everyone on campus.  The Board of Trustees postponed the film festival and re-designed it to make sure therapists would be present, in case audience members “freaked out.”  More press was devoted to this incident than to any other event in the previous 50 years of the college.  The college administration was so scared by this incident that they took away the physical space the women’s center occupied, cut the units allotted to the popular women’s studies program, and secretly worked “to fire the woman who did the film festival.”  The women students spoke at Board meetings, protested with signs, begged the administration to keep the women’s programs, said it was saving their lives.  That was 1976.  The cover of Ms. Magazine had a cover story asking:  “Is the Women’s Movement Dead?”  I mumbled, “not in the suburbs, it’s not.”


I was hired full-time (thanks to allies I didn’t know I had on the hiring committee) and ran the women’s programs until 1983.  I continued to teach Women’s Studies, as well as screenwriting, film history, women directors.  I worked in quite a few movements — Civil Rights, Women’s, studied the politics of neocolonialism in East Africa, worked on the San Francisco AIDS Hotline for six years. Things had been seeming better than when I was working so hard for women’s rights.  I did resent young women claiming that they didn’t identify with being a “feminist,” and it made me pretty angry that some young women said they didn’t need a feminist movement; they had everything they needed, they said.

Not everything was better for women; we still had work to do. Equal pay was still a sticking point.  And the culture of rape became so clear when the Billy Bush-future so-called-future-president video emerged.  A lot of women got triggered and woke up to the abuses we had been suffering. President Obama told us that 1 in 5 women are raped in college. One in four women have been raped in their lifetimes.  That is a bad score.


But I thought we had made a pretty good start.  Our so-called 45 and his administration are doing something good for us; they have awakened a gigantic, previously sleeping movement of women who have been triggered by his culture of rape, by his minions who threaten to take away abortion at a time in history when the fewest number of abortions are happening because women have access and education about birth control, by his administration’s trampling on the principles of our country’s devotion to helping refugees, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the Earth.  The generous spirit of women is leading the way.  Every time another woman is abused or mistreated by this administration, we rise up. Triggered. Angry.  Strong. We are the conscience of this country — Women and all our allies.  This is what a feminist looks like.


We are not going back.

About the writer

Sandy Handsher is a life-long teacher of English, Women’s Studies, film history, and screenwriting.  Probably the most fun she ever had was directing a ten-minute film called “The Ultimate, Unresolvable Struggle between the Sexes,” a comedy about dishwashing. Retirement, she claims, is like graduating from high school — anything is possible. Since retiring, Sandy has written and performed a solo autobiographical piece, produced two documentary films — one shot inside San Quentin Prison — put on a couple of film festivals, and has struggled with writing.  Politics enthrall and disgust her and give her heart palpitations, especially now.  She is not dead yet.


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