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Female bonding

Local feminists who launched the Feminist Forum in the early 1990s found a home in an unlikely place and brought it new life.

The group was invited to join the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach — at first glance an odd haven, where the declining membership was still listed by their husband’s names, and card players were the most active participants.

That soon changed, as the six core members of the Feminist Forum became more involved in the club, eager to expand its traditional role in the community.

“Our goal was to empower all of the women of Laguna Beach, even if they only wanted to play cards,” said Anne Johnson, who co-founded the forum with the late Renee Kogel, soon joined by Marsha Bode, Karen Jacques, Sharen Heath and Bobbi Cox.

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True to its feminist goals, the club annually presents in January a program of special significance to women.

This year, the speaker is Laguna Beach resident Marion Jacobs, a practicing clinical psychologist who formerly served as director of the UC Irvine Counseling Center and the UCLA Psychology Clinic.

Her interactive program, titled “Choices and Change,” will be held Jan. 18, beginning at 7:15 p.m., at the clubhouse at 286 St. Ann’s Drive.

The public is invited. Admission is free.

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“These Feminist Leadership programs enlighten all of us, opening our eyes to all the possibilities as women, the paths that you can choose to take,” club President Peggy Ford said.

Although Ford has trod a nontraditional career path — she was one of the first female Western Electric plant managers in the country while raising her two daughters alone — she does not consider herself a feminist in the truest sense of the word.

“Feminists are those of us who believe the sky should be the limit for women in all aspects of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom,” said Johnson, who chairs the club’s Feminist Leadership Programs.

“There are many women who do not think of themselves as feminists that I would consider feminists because of the lives they have led.”

Johnson counts herself among the feminists, although she never gave up makeup, burned a bra or stopped shaving her legs.

“Feminist” practically defines Kim Salter, who served as club president from 2000 to 2003, but had to cut back on club activities when she was elected President of the California Branch of the National Organization of Women.

Salter works in Laguna and, although a resident of Laguna Niguel, she chose to join the club here because of the powerhouse women in town.

“If we had had our way, we would have had an all-woman City Council,” Salter said of the recent election.

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And she would have cheered.

LAGUNA FEMINISTS FIND A PLATFORM

A feminist since girlhood, before she ever heard the word in her traditional Irish-Italian neighborhood, Johnson went into orbit about the treatment of Anita Hill, who spoke during the 1990 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas, alleging he acted improperly toward women.

“I was in a cold rage,” Johnson said.

She and Kogel, who had become friends as members of the same book club that met at the defunct Upchurch Brown Booksellers in the Lumberyard Mall, agreed that something had to be done.

“We talked to the bookshop owner and asked if we could use the store for meetings,” Johnson said. “Then we put a little blurb in a community newspaper and about 100 people showed up, mostly women but a few men. They were hanging from the rafters.”

About half a dozen meetings were held in the tight quarters before the store was sold and the group was ousted.

Bobbi Cox stepped up to the plate.

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Cox was one of the younger women the late Jean Davis, woman’s club president in 1995-'96, was trying to get interested in Altrusa, a woman’s service club that was formed at the same time as Rotary for men.

“I talked to Jean because the woman’s club had the house, but an aging membership and the forum had the energy but no house,” Cox said.

It was a stretch for the forum members.

“They thought of the woman’s club as fuddy-duddies and didn’t realize what the club had contributed to the community,” said Cox, among the women who do not consider themselves a feminist.

“In the 1960s and ‘70s, I was doing what the feminists were fighting for,” Cox said. “So, while I had sympathy for them, I supported equal opportunity but not affirmative action determined by race, religion or gender.”

Despite early doubts about the compatibility of the two groups, the forum accepted the invitation to join the club as a “department,” as special interest groups are designated in the by-laws.

“The more we learned about the club, the more we became interested,” said Johnson, who eventually served as club president from 1996 to 1998.

“The history of the club was activist. Early members encouraged young women to be prepared to be financially secure if they were widowed or, less usual in those days, divorced.

“We couldn’t believe it when we looked at the yearbook and saw members listed as Mrs. John Jones.”

Woe betides the person who addresses Johnson as Mrs. Marv Johnson, despite her respect and affection for her husband.

Kogel ended the practice of identifying club members by their husband’s names when she went on the board, not long after the Feminist Forum joined the club.

Salter never even took her husband’s name.

CLUB GOALS

The club’s new “department” got an enormous boost in 1995, the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Founded in 1922, just two years after the amendment passed — and five years before the city was incorporated — the Laguna Beach club is a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs International, chartered by Congress in 1901.

The goals of the federation’s nearly 6,000 clubs are to encourage women to improve their skills, expand their rights and apply their abilities and special sensitivity to the problems of their communities and nations.

According to its mission statement, the federation is dedicated to community improvement by enhancing the lives of others through volunteer service.

Feminist Forum members interpreted that as an umbrella for all the women in Laguna, from card players to council members.

The club has hosted a Round Robin Bridge Tournament for at least 30 years, said Ganell Baker, tournament director for the past decade.

“It is the best bargain in town,” Baker said. “We have eight tables — a wonderful group of 32 people doing what they like to do.”

For more information about forming a foursome or substituting, call (949) 494-0050.

There’s always room for more at the club — whether card players or community activists.

THE TALENT POOL RUNS DEEP

Laguna Beach is blessed with a plethora of women in leadership roles, Johnson said.

“One of the first things we did [after becoming a significant voice in the club] was to honor the Woman of the Year,” Johnson said. “The hardest thing to do was choose; we had so many candidates.”

Attorney Jane Egly, educator Toni Iseman, public relations consultant Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider and Certified Public Accountant Cheryl Kinsman have followed in the footsteps of Lida Lenney, Ann Christoph, Kathleen Blackburn, Phyllis Sweeney and other women who have served on the City Council. Martha Anderson succeeded Verna Rollinger as city clerk. Laura Parisi is the city’s treasurer.

Actress Eve Plumb chairs the Design Review Board. Linda Dietrich chairs the Planning Commission.

Attorney Susan Traeger was the first woman to serve on the Laguna Beach County Water District board. Renae Hinchy was the district’s first general manager. Anita Mangels is the president of the Festival of Arts Board of Directors. Mary Ferguson served as chair of the College of Art & Design Board of Trustees. Martha Lydick is president of the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. and the Friends of the Laguna Beach Library. Carolyn Wood is president of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy; Mary Fegraus is executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation.

Sande St. John is listened to by almost every nonprofit organization in town, including the Women’s Resource Center, founded by the Feminist Forum and into which it merged.

Many of these leaders, a majority in fact, are club members.

For the past couple of years, club efforts have been directed to raising funds for building maintenance. Now it’s time to reaffirm its goals, Salter said.

“Laguna outshines other communities in women leaders, and the club does a good job on lower socio-economic and family issues, but we could do more to empower working women between the high and low ends,” Salter said.

That is one reason the Women Leadership Programs are held at night. Luncheon programs have been curtailed to accommodate working women as well as women involved with other organizations, Johnson said.

“I would like to have three or four feminist meetings a year, but for so many women, time is a constraint,” Johnson said.

For more information, call (949) 497-1200.


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