Pioneer Feminists Reflect, Look to the Future

Times Staff Writer

When the National Organization for Women was born 20 years ago, Patti Headland-Wauson was 9 years old.

As she grew up, NOW members were promoting abortion rights, fighting sex and wage discrimination and forming women's health clinics, shelters, study programs and commissions. Some were laughed at or called hateful names, some became disheartened.

But many pioneer feminists still carry on, now joined by younger women such as Headland-Wauson, who is serving her second term as coordinator of the North Orange County chapter of NOW.

Together, they march, register voters, picket or write. They speak out for equality for women in all areas of life and against what they see as new threats to their past progress: apathy, stereotypes and the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan and the religious right.

"There are still a lot of problems. Women still need to fight for our rights," Headland-Wauson said. "The other side," she said, referring to the religious right, "is on the move. If we sit back and let them, we could lose it."

An interpreter for the deaf and longtime feminist who joined NOW three years ago, Headland-Wauson leads a chapter with 250 members--the largest of the county's three NOW chapters. Counting members who belong to the national organization but are not affiliated with a local chapter, there are an estimated 3,000 NOW members in Orange County. Celebrations will be held in October to commemorate NOW's 20th anniversary.

Despite a persistent radical image, "We're a mainstream organization," said Wendy Lozano, co-coordinator of the South Coast chapter of NOW. A recent survey of its membership showed NOW members are "not that much different from other women in Orange County," she said. "More than half the Orange County NOW membership is married, many more live in Leisure World than we were aware of."

Along with a dozen other Orange County delegates, Headland-Wauson, Lozano and Beverly Deal, coordinator of the coastal Bay View chapter of NOW, recently returned from NOW's 20th annual convention in Denver. There they came face to face with "the other side," in this case, members of the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group holding its 13th annual convention across town.

Headland-Wauson disagreed with reports calling the scheduling of the two conventions a coincidence. "We decided the location of our conference one to three years back. . . ." She said the other convention was booked later. "It sounds planned to me."

J.C. Willkie, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said the scheduling was "total coincidence."

"When we found out, we tried to change the date, but found out we had a firm contract (with the hotel)," he said. "We were concerned, distressed, not pleased. As it turned out, it didn't make much of a difference."

At their convention, NOW delegates passed resolutions calling for public funding of child care, programs to prevent unwanted teen-age pregnancy and more AIDS research and also reaffirmed their pro-choice stand, calling for legal action against harassment of abortion clinic personnel and a strike force to monitor the activities of some anti-abortion groups.

Abortion rights are NOW's most visible priority, Headland-Wauson said, because the organization must constantly fight anti-abortion riders that are tacked on to unrelated legislative proposals, including tax reform bills. "You can't get away from it. If (legislators) don't want something to pass, they put an (anti-) abortion amendment on it."

She said NOW delegates failed to pass a resolution against pornography because they could not agree on a means of limiting pornography in a way that wouldn't backfire against some feminist publications, such as "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a self-help women's health manual that has anatomical drawings and photographs for teaching purposes.

Political Independence

While political candidates wooed Right to Life delegates in Denver, there were none at the NOW convention. However, Headland-Wauson said she agreed with NOW President Eleanor Smeal, who announced a new era of independence from political parties. "There isn't a party that has consistently included women's rights on their agenda. I don't want to hook into the mainstream political system," Headland-Wauson said. "You can't depend on the established parties as they are."

She called the convention an "immediate charge" of adrenaline and said inspiration from the annual convention gets her through the year. "I live in Orange County. I've got Dannemeyer (William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton)) for a representative. I think, 'How can I do this?' "

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.

For example, fathers need to feel personal as well as economic responsibility for their children, Lozano said. And if they did, parental--not just maternity--leave policies would be more common, she said. Lozano said that her chapter plans to revive consciousness raising--free meetings open to the public to "allow us to understand our personal experiences in the context of political reality."

"If anything, I am more concerned than ever," Abrams said, referring to the poverty of older women, proposals that oppose abortion but provide no social programs for children and a new theory suggesting that biology, not socialization, is to blame for women's relatively low performance in math.

Bay View chapter coordinator Deal, 40, a marriage and family counselor who practices in Orange County, said she plans to start a campaign to keep politics out of the U.S. Supreme Court and to continue the boycott of Trans World Airlines for cutting flight attendants' pay.

In order to reach a wider audience and help soften its radical image, NOW has begun to form coalitions with other county women's groups, including Women For:, the National Women's Political Caucus, the League of Women Voters, the American Assn. of University Women and various women's resource centers, Lozano said. Three years ago, Lozano said, such a coalition picketed the first women's conference sponsored by state Sen. William Campbell for including seminars on topics such as cosmetic surgery and excluding issues such as peace, the environment and the needs of minorities and youth.

The North Orange County chapter is also forming a speakers' bureau and continues its membership drive. As far as members go, Headland-Wauson said: "There are never enough."

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