In Honor of Womyn’s Herstory Month
By: Sheila D
Every year, when our special month rolls around, I enjoy spending time remembering how fortunate I was to land in this hotbed of feminism known as the Miami Valley.
There was no way to know, in 1972, that my move from rural southern Ohio to Dayton would result in permanent changes in my thoughts and attitudes about myself and the world.
A few things had already happened to set me up for being open to new ideas. The Vietnam war, Kent State, the drug culture and a roommate’s pregnancy led me to begin questioning how the institutions that prescribed my life were or were not working to support womyn and particular classes and races of people.
Within a few months of moving to Dayton, I joined a “consciousness-raising” (CR) group. These groups were organized by Dayton Women’s Liberation (DWL), founded in 1969 by a handful of womyn who were young (25-35), white and discontented in their roles as housewives and workers subjected to sexism and limited opportunities for advancement and equal pay. Many were married with children, some were active in their churches, some were involved in anti-war efforts and New Left leaning politics. Most were frustrated by being shut out of leadership positions and decision-making processes, whether at work, in political activities or family life.
An entire book could be written about why the Miami Valley/ Dayton gave birth to the feminist activism that thrived in the 1970s and ‘80s. DWL was well organized, published a newsletter, coordinated with other organized groups whose goals coalesced with their own, and started a hot line with an answering machine to help womyn find resources. My call to that hotline helped me find my CR group and get the support I needed to start my life as an independent womyn
The CR groups were a cornerstone for DWL to promote the power of womyn. DWL encouraged an open structure for the groups and advocated for shared leadership within them, open honest communication, assertiveness, and decision-making by consensus rather than majority rule.
Some groups were dedicated to various tasks and projects, such as ending the war in Vietnam or educating womyn and the public about womyn’s issues –particularly health and safety, civil rights and systemic discrimination. Child care was provided for most events and meetings so mothers could attend without worrying about bringing their kids or paying for babysitters. CR groups worked together on many projects including a newsletter and the first Dayton Women’s Center.
Dayton Women Working, Women Against Rape, and the Dayton Women’s Health Center are three prime examples of organizations that were direct results of DWL members, along with other community groups, deciding that some subjects had to be openly confronted and sometimes legally challenged. Equity in the workplace, sexual assault, domestic violence, and abortion were concerns discussed in all CR groups, and the object of much DWL action.
My original CR group, Boadicea (named for the Celtic queen of the Iceni tribe), eventually morphed into a group called Sappho’s Army. We were composed of lesbians and womyn questioning their sexual orientation. Our group functioned as a resource for lesbians of all classes and races in the Miami Valley, and we were available to the DWL speakers’ bureau for educational presentations and local television and radio spots. DWL was welcoming when our group formed and the Women’s Center gave us meeting space when our group became too large to attend in anyone’s home.
Fifty years have passed since I settled in Dayton. Changes have happened to improve womyn’s lives, but some of those changes are under threat. Roe vs Wade is in peril, womyn are still under represented in government and corporate leadership. Womyn professional athletes have to sue for pay equity. Womyn are overrepresented in low wage occupations, which could partly explain why we are still earning only 83% of what men earn. Womyn are still subject to an epidemic of battering and rape while the justice system prosecutes few perpetrators and incarcerates fewer. Law enforcement is under fire for injustice to people of color due to systemic racism. The justice system is incarcerating large numbers of black people per capita compared other races. War still appears to be a popular method our government uses to resolve conflict, as evidenced by the very few years the U.S. has not been actively engaged in one war or another since the war in Vietnam ended.
I am hard pressed to identify many sustained victories from liberation to the present. Birth control methods have improved and become more accessible, but clinics for obtaining an abortion are finding it impossible to keep their doors open.
Marriage is an option for the LGBTQIA people now, but back in the day, we even dared to question if the institution of marriage benefitted womyn and their children. LGBTQIA people have gained more social acceptance and support within some circles, but discrimination and gay bashing persists. The incidence of the murder of trans persons increases annually, with Black and Latinx trans people particularly victimized.
The MeToo movement has gained some traction for helping womyn identify sexual harassment and assault in workplaces. It seems a whole generation or two somehow missed getting the message we were yelling about in the 1970s that this goes on everywhere all the time and IT’S AGAINST THE LAW! Yes, it takes courage to fight patriarchal systems that threaten us with losing our jobs, not getting paid a fair wage, or not getting a promotion unless we allow unwanted invasions of our bodies.
Title IX was a definite victory for girls and womyn to have access to the same educational resources and opportunities to participate in activities as boys and men, and it protects against discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Title IX is wide in its scope of protections and is probably underutilized due to the general population not understanding the rights it grants under the law.
Feminist activists are still walking the walk. We organize gatherings, protests, marches and we show up. We call and write our legislators. We use our voices. We demand justice. I feel fortunate to have experienced those times 50 years ago. I made dear friends that are my sisters to this day. We have each other’s backs always. Many of us are gone but we do not want what they/we did to be forgotten. We want our daughters, nieces, and grandchildren to know this herstory and understand that no victory can be taken for granted or eventually lost due to apathy or ignorance.
Thanks and credit to Judith Ezekiel, author of Feminism in the Heartland, a fine reference used to verify dates and other facts sin this article.