It’s about this mother-of-us-all business.
It is Sunday morning in Miami Beach, the day before the Democratic Convention is to begin, and the National Women’s Political Caucus is holding a press conference. The cameras are clicking at Gloria, and Bella has swept in trailed by a vortex of television crews, and there is Betty, off to the side, just slightly out of frame. The cameras will occasionally catch a shoulder of her flowered granny dress or a stray wisp of her chaotic graying hair or one of her hands churning up the air; but it will be accidental, background in a photograph of Gloria, or a photograph of Bella, or a photograph of Gloria and Bella. Betty’s eyes are darting back and forth trying to catch someone’s attention, anyone’s attention. No use. Gloria is speaking, and then Bella, and then Sissy Farenthold from Texas. And finally … Betty’s lips tighten as she hears the inevitable introduction coming: “Betty Friedan, the mother of us all.” That does it. “I’m getting sick and tired of this mother-of-us-all thing,” she says. She is absolutely right, of course: in the women’s movement, to be called the mother of anything is rarely a compliment. And what it means in this context, make no mistake, is that Betty, having in fact given birth, ought to cut the cord. Bug off. Shut up. At the very least, retire gracefully to the role of senior citizen, professor emeritus. Betty Friedan has no intention of doing anything of the kind. It’s her baby, damn it. Her movement. Is she supposed to sit still and let a beautiful thin lady run off with it?
The National Women’s Political Caucus (N.W.P.C.) was organized in July 1971, by a shaky coalition of women’s movement leaders. Its purpose was help women in and into political life, particularly above the envelope-licking level. Just how well the caucus will do in its first national election remains to be seen, but in terms of the Democratic Convention it was wildly successful—so much so, in fact, that by the time the convention was to begin, the N.W.P.C. leaders were undergoing a profound sense of anticlimax. There were 1,121 women delegates, up from 13 percent four years ago to nearly 40 percent. There was a comprehensive and stunning women’s plank in the platform; four years ago there was none. There were battles still to be fought at the convention—the South Carolina challenge and the abortion plank—but the first was small potatoes (or so it seemed beforehand) and the second was a guaranteed loswer. And so, in a sense, the major function for the N.W.P.C. was to be ornamental—that is, it was simply to be there. Making its presence felt. Putting forth the best possible face. Pretending to a unity that did not exist. Above all, putting on a good show: the abortion plank would never carry, a woman would not be nominated as Vice-President this year, but the N.W.P.C. would put on a good show. Nineteen seventy-six, and all that. Punctuating all this would be what at times seemed an absurd emphasis on semantics: committees were run by “spokespersons” and “chairpersons”; phones were never manned but “womanned” and “personned.” All this was public relations, not politics. They are two different approaches: the first is genteel, dignified, orderly, goes by the rules, and that was the one the women planned to play. They got an inadvertent baptism in the second primarily because George McGovern crossed them, but also because politics, after all, is the name of the game.
In 1962, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and became a national celebrity. She moved from the suburbs to Manhattan, separated from her husband, and began to devote much of her time to public speaking. She was a founder of the N.W.P.C. and of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.), from whose national board she resigned voluntarily last year. This year she ran and lost as a Chisholm delegate to the convention. Among the high points of her campaign was a press release announcing she would appear in Harlem with a “Traveling Watermelon Feast” to distribute to the natives. In recent months, her influence within the movement has waned to the point that even when she is right (which she is occasionally, though usually for the wrong reasons), no one pays any attention to her. Two weeks before the convention, the N.W.P.C. council met to elect a spokesperson in Miami and chose Gloria Steinem over Friedan. The election was yet another chapter in Friedan’s ongoing feud with Steinem—the two barely speak—and by the time Betty arrived in Miami she was furious. “I’m so disgusted with Gloria,” she would mutter on her way to an N.W.P.C. meeting. Gloria was selling out the women. Gloria was ripping off the movement. Gloria was a tool of George McGovern. Gloria and Bella were bossing the delegates around. Gloria was part of a racist clique that would not support Shirley Chisholm for Vice-President. And so it went. Every day, Friedan would call N.W.P.C. headquarters at the dingy Betsy Ross Hotel downtown and threaten to call a press conference to expose the caucus; every day, at the meeting the N.W.P.C. held for press and female delegates, movement leaders would watch with a kind of horrified fascination to see what Betty Friedan would do next.
And Gloria. Sic transit, etc. Gloria Steinem has in the past year undergone a total metamorphosis, one that makes her critics extremely uncomfortable. Like Jane Fonda, she has become dedicated in a way that is a little frightening and almost awe-inspiring; she is demanding to be taken seriously—and it is the one demand her detractors, who prefer to lump her in with all the other radical-chic beautiful people, cannot bear to grant her. Once the glamour girl, all legs and short skirts and long painted nails, David Webb rings, Pucci, Gucci, you-name-it-she-had-it, once a fixture in gossip columns which linked her to on attractive man after another, she has managed to transform herself almost totally. She now wears Levi’s and simple T-shirts—and often the same outfit two days running. The nails are as long as ever, but they are unpolished, and her fingers bare. She has managed to keep whatever private life she still has out of the papers. Most important, she projects a calm, peaceful, subdued quality; her humor is gentle, understated. Every so often, someone suggests that Gloria Steinem is only into the women’s movement because it is currently the chic place to be; it always makes me smile, because she is about the only remotely chic thing connected with the movement.
It is probably too easy to go on about the two of them this way: Betty as Wicked Witch of the West, Gloria as Ozma, Glinda, Dorothy—take your pick. To talk this way ignores the subtleties, right? Gloria is not, after all, uninterested in power. And yes, she manages to remain above the feud, but that is partly because, unlike Betty, she has friends who will fight dirty for her. Still, it is hard to come out anywhere but squarely on her side. Betty Friedan, in her thoroughly irrational hatred of Steinem, has ceased caring whether or not the effects of that hatred are good or bad for the women’s movement. Her attack on Steinem in the August McCall’s, which followed the convention by barely a week, quoted Steinem out of context (Steinem’s remark, “Marriage is prostitution,” was made in the course of a speech on the effects of discrimination in marriage laws) and implied the Gloria was defiantly anti-male, a charge that is, of course, preposterous. I am not criticizing Friedan for discussing the divisions in the movement; nor do I object to her concern about man-haters; if she wants to air all that, it’s okay with me. What I do not understand is why—for any but personal reasons—she chooses to discredit Steinem (and Bella Abzug) by tying them in with philosophies they have absolutely nothing to do with.
At a certain point in the convention, every N.W.P.C. meeting began to look and sound the same. Airless, windowless rooms decked with taffeta valances and Miami Beach plaster statuary. Gloria in her jeans and aviator glasses, quoting a female delegate on the gains women have made in her political life this year: “It’s like pushing marbles through a sieve. It means the sieve will never be the same again.” Bella Abzug in her straw hat, bifocals cocked down her nose, explaining that abortion is too a Constitutional right and belongs in a national platform. “I would like an attorney to advise us on this,” says a New York delegate who believes it is a local matter. “One just did,” Bella replies. Clancy and Sullivan, two women delegates from Illinois whose credentials are being challenged by the Daley machine, stand and are cheered. Germaine Greer, in overalls, takes notes quietly into a tiny tape recorder. Betty looks unhappy. The South Carolina challenge is discussed: the women want to add seven more delegates to the nine women already serving on the thirty-two-member delegation. “Are these new delegates going to be women or wives?” asks one woman. “Because I’m from Missouri and we filed a challenge and now we have twelve new delegates who turned out to be sisters of, wives, daughters of…. What is the point of having a woman on a delegation who will simply say, ‘Honey, how do we vote?’” The microphone breaks down. “Until women control technology,” says Gloria, “we will have to be dependent in a situation like this.” The days pass, and “Make Policy Not Coffee” buttons are replaced by “Boycott Lettuce” buttons are replaced by “Sissy for Vice-President” buttons. The days pass, and Betty is still somewhat under control.
The task Friedan ultimately busied herself with was a drive to make Shirley Chisholm Vice-President, something Shirley Chisholm had no interest whatsoever in becoming. Friedan began lobbying for this the Friday before the convention began, when she asked the N.W.P.C. to endorse Chisholm for Vice-President; the council decided to hold back from endorsing anyone until it was clear who wanted to run. And meanwhile it would be ready with other women’s names; among those that came up were Farenthold, Abzug, Steinem, and Representative Martha Griffiths. Jane Galvin Lewis, a black who was representing Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women at the convention, had suggested Steinem at the meeting. The night Shirley Chisholm was to arrive in Miami, Lewis went up to the Deauville Hotel to welcome her and bumped into Betty Friedan in the lobby.
“What are you doing here?” Friedan asked.
“I’m here to meet Shirley,” said Lewis.
“You really play both ends, don’t you?” said Friedan.
“Explain that,” said Lewis.
“What kind of black are you anyway?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t even want to support Shirley Chisholm,” Friedan said, her voice rising. “I heard you. I heard you put up somebody else’s name.”
“That was after we decided to have a list ready,” said Lewis.
“Stop screaming at me.”
“I’m going to do an exposé,” shouted Friedan. “I’m going to expose everyone. If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it.” She turned, walked off to a group of women, and left Jane Lewis standing alone.
“It’s like pushing marbles through a sieve,” Gloria is saying. Monday, opening day, and the N.W.P.C. is holding a caucus for women delegates to hear the Presidential candidates. Betty has publicly announced her drive to run Chisholm for Vice-President. The ballroom of the Carillon Hotel, packed full of boisterous, exuberant delegates, activists, and press, gives her suggestion a standing ovation; minutes later, it is hissing Chisholm with equal gusto for waffling on the California challenge. I am sitting next to Shirley MacLaine, McGovern’s chief adviser on women’s issues, and she is explaining to fellow delegate Marlo Thomas that McGovern will abandon the South Carolina challenge if there is any danger of its brining up the procedural question of what constitutes a majority. McGovern, she is saying, plans to soft-pedal the challenge in his speech here—and here he is now, pushing through another standing ovation, beaming while he is graciously introduced by Liz Carpenter. “We know we wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for you,” she says. “George McGovern didn’t talk about reform—he did something about it.” The audience is McGovern’s. “I am grateful for the introduction that all of you are here because of me,” says the candidate rumored to be most in touch with women’s issues. “But I really think the credit for that has to go to Adam instead….” He pauses for the laugh and looks genuinely astonished when what he gets instead is a resounding hiss. “Can I recover if I say Adam and Eve?” he asks. The he goes on to discuss the challenges, beginning with South Carolina. “On that challenge,” he says, “you have my full and unequivocal support.” Twelve hours later, the women find out that full and unequivocal support from George McGovern is considerably less than that.
“We were screwed,” Debbie Leff is saying. Leff is press liaison for the N.W.P.C., and she is putting mildly what the McGovern forces did to the women. Monday night, the caucus, under floor leader Bella Abzug, delivered over 200 non-McGovern delegate votes on South Carolina—100 more than they had been told were necessary—and then watched, incredulous, as the McGovern staff panicked and pulled back its support. Tuesday night, the fight over the abortion plank—which was referred to as the “human-reproduction plank” because it never once mentioned the word “abortion”—produced the most emotional floor fight of the convention. The McGovern people had been opposed to the plank because they thought it would hurt his candidacy; at the last minute, they produced a right-to-lifer to give a seconding speech, a move they had promised the women they would not make. “Because of that pledge,” said Steinem, “we didn’t mention butchering women on kitchen tables in our speeches, and then they have a speaker who’s saying, ‘Next thing you know, they’ll be murdering old people.’” Female members of the press lobbied for the plank. Male delegates left their seats to allow women alternates to vote. The movement split over whether to have a roll call or simply a voice vote. At four in the morning, Bella Abzug was screaming at Shirley MacLaine, and Steinem, in tears, was confronting McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart: “You promised us you would not take the low road, you bastards.” The roll call on the plank was held largely at Betty Friedan’s insistence. She and Martha McKay of North Carolina were the only N.W.P.C. leaders who were willing to take the risk; the rest thought the roll call would be so badly defeated that it would be best to avoid the humiliation. Friedan was in this case right for the wrong reasons: “We have to find out who our enemies are,” she said. Incredibly, the plank went down to a thoroughly respectable defeat, 1572.80 against, 1101.37 for.
Thursday. A rumor is circulating that Gloria Steinem is at the Doral Hotel to speak with McGovern. I find her in the lobby. “I didn’t see him,” she says. “I don’t want to see him.” She is walking over to the Fontainebleau for a meeting; and on the way out of the Doral, Bob Anson, a former Time reporter, who interviewed her for a McGovern profile, says hello.
“At some point I’d like to talk to you about the socks,” Gloria says.
“What do you mean?” asks Anson.
“You said in that article that I give him advice about socks and shirts. I don’t talk to him about things like that. He listens to men about clothes.”
Anson apologizes, claims he had nothing to do with the error, and as we leave the hotel, I suggest to Gloria that such incorrect facts stem from a kind of newsmagazine tidbit madness.
“That’s not it,” says Gloria. “It’s just that if you’re a woman, all they can think about your relationship with a politician is that you’re either sleeping with him or advising him about clothes.” We start walking up Collins Avenue, past lettuce-boycott petitioners and welfare-rights pamphleteers. “It’s just so difficult,” she says, crying now. I begin babbling—all the pressures on you, no private life, no sleep, no wonder you’re upset. “It’s not that,” says Gloria. “It’s just that they won’t take us seriously.” She wipes at her cheeks with her hand, and begins crying again. “And I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends. By George McGovern, whom I raised half the money for in his first campaign, wrote his speeches. I can see him. I can get in to see him. That’s easy. But what would be the point? He just doesn’t understand We went to see him at one point about abortion, and the question of welfare came up. ‘Why are you concerned about welfare?’ he said. He didn’t understand it was a women’s issue.” She paused. “They won’t take us seriously. We’re just walking wombs. And the television coverage. Teddy White and Eric Sevareid saying that now that the women are here, next thing there’ll be a caucus of left-handed Lithuanians.” She is still crying, and I try to offer some reassuring words, something, but everything I say is wrong; I have never cried over anything remotely political in my life, and I honestly have no idea what to say.
And so Friday, at last, and it is over. Sissy Farenthold has made a triumphant, albeit symbolic, run for the vice-presidency and come in second; as a final irony, she was endorsed by Shirley Chisholm. Jean Westwood is the new chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, although she prefers to be called chairman. I am talking to Martha McKay. “I’m 52 years old,” she is saying. “I’ve gotten to the point where I choose what I spend time on. Look at the situation in North Carolina. Forty-four percent of the black women who work are domestics. In the eastern part of the state, some are making $15 a week and totin’. You know what that is? That’s taking home roast beef, and that’s supposed to make up for the wages. We’re talking about bread on the table. We’re talking about women who are heads of households who can’t get credit. They hook up with a man, he signs the credit agreement, they make the payments, and in the end he owns the house. When things like this are going on in the country, who’s got time to get caught in the rock-crushing at the national level? I’m just amazed that these gals fight like they do. It’s so enervating.”