I was a young actress in Hollywood trying to sell a TV show about a single girl living in New York who had every interest in a career, and zero interest in marriage. So when I went to my first pitch meeting at the network, I took along a copy of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's 1963 treatise on the unhappy state of the American woman.
My point was to convince the guys in the suits that That Girl was not a revolutionary figure, but, in fact, a fait accompli. True to Friedan's observations in her seismic book, across the country the foundation beneath women's lives was dramatically cracking. We were not our mothers' daughters. We were a whole different breed. One of the network executives paged through Freidan's book, then looked at me in horror. "Is this gonna happen to my wife?" he asked.
Yeah, I thought. It probably will.
As Gloria Steinem so wisely commented, "A movement is only people moving." And that's what was happening in 1965 -- women were moving, separately, but headed in the same direction. Gloria had gone undercover for New York magazine, posing as a bunny at a Playboy Club -- wearing that famous scanty, black satin bustier, complete with cottontail and rabbit ears -- exposing the sexism and low wages experienced by the women who worked there. Then there was Bella Abzug, an attorney and activist whose organization, Women Strike for Peace, was speaking out against the Vietnam War, eventually landing her in the House of Representatives -- and on Richard Nixon's enemy list. And in her pink sunglasses and cowboy hat, the audacious Flo Kennedy was fighting for civil rights and stepping up to the explosive issue of abortion with her characteristic wisdom and wit: "If men could get pregnant," she said, "abortion would be a sacrament."
There were fresh and startling revelations bursting from all corners. "Of my two handicaps," thundered New York's Shirley Chisholm, "being female has put more obstacles in my path than being black" -- this, as she was about to become the first African-American woman elected to the U.S Congress.
And there I was in Hollywood -- filming the series that Betty's book had helped propel.
When the mail started pouring in, it was startling. We got the usual "I love your haircut" type of letter. But I was also receiving mail from desperate young females unloading their secrets.
"I'm 16 years old and I'm pregnant and can't tell my father. What should I do?"
"I'm 23 years old, and have two kids, no job and a husband who hits me. What should I do?"
I didn't expect it. I was doing a comedy show. But the more I read those letters, the more I realized that there was nothing in the system to help these women. And it politicized me.
All around the country, women were reading not just Freidan's book, but the works of a passionately engaged army of women writers, whose wildly divergent voices -- from the scholarly ferocity of Robin Morgan, to the righteous anger of Andrea Dworkin, to the soulful artistry of Alice Walker -- would become the vibrant soundtrack of the era.
It was like a pipe had burst, and our homes could no longer hold us. So we took to the street. And we marched. And we lobbied our legislatures. And we made speeches. And we were being heard. I remember an ERA rally at the great mall in Washington, D.C., Gloria, with her ponytail blowing in the wind, her fist in the air, her voice booming over the sound system: "We are the women our parents warned us about, and we are proud!"
We knew that the battle ahead was going to be hard and long. But we also knew that this energy could never be put back in the bottle. And it hasn't been.
But it's taken a different form. Where once we used to march, they now point-and-click. The internet has become our National Mall, and through countless websites -- like MomsRising.org, with its issues-driven interactivity, or Salon.com, with its progressive journalism and high-feminist energy -- women everywhere can mobilize and organize and strategize in numbers more massive than ever before.
And they've tapped into the power of local politics. As activist and co-founder of The Third Wave, Amy Richards, told me:
In years past, women adapted to the system. But now we must get the system to adapt to us. Eve Ensler's V-Day has become a powerful template for women in more than 700 communities throughout the nation. The women choose passages from Eve's Vagina Monologues, and put on benefits to raise money for local organizations that fight violence against women and girls.
They're not waiting for the system to change -- they are changing how the system works in their own lives.
Since the beginning, the fundamental criteria of feminism has been for women to help other women. So it is impossible not to acknowledge -- and feel a responsibility for -- women around the globe who are living neither free nor safe. Having found our voice and muscle in our own country, we now focus our passion on our sisters in Africa and the Middle East and countless other lands, who continue to suffer at the hands of those who would abuse and oppress them, and bar them from an education.
Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, is on the front lines of this global crusade, helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives. "Our agenda is not about anything else but doing the right thing for women and serving them," Zalbi says."And the day we lose that -- the day we lose our love, our authenticity and our sincerity for our mission -- we will lose everything."
This is the definition of feminism. And we are still proud.
Take a look back at the women's movement in photos:
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