The Women's Strike for Equality was a nationwide demonstration for women's rights held on August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage. It was described by Time magazine as “the first big demonstration of the Women's Liberation movement.” The leadership called the object of the rallies "the unfinished business of equality."
Organized by NOW
The Women's Strike for Equality was organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its then-president Betty Friedan. At a NOW conference in March 1970, Betty Friedan called for the Strike for Equality, asking women to stop working for a day to draw attention to the prevalent problem of unequal pay for women's work. She then headed the National Women's Strike Coalition to organize the protest, which used “Don't Iron While the Strike is Hot!” among other slogans.
Fifty years after women were granted the right to vote in the United States, feminists were again taking a political message to their government and demanding equality and more political power. The Equal Rights Amendment was being discussed in Congress, and the protesting women warned politicians to pay attention or risk losing their seats in the next election.
The Women's Strike for Equality took various forms in more than ninety cities across the United States. Here are a few examples:
- New York, home to radical feminist groups such as New York Radical Women and Redstockings, had the largest protest. Tens of thousands marched down Fifth Avenue; others demonstrated at the Statue of Liberty and stopped the stock ticker on Wall Street.
- New York City issued a proclamation declaring Equality Day.
- Los Angeles had a smaller protest, numbering in the hundreds, including women who stood holding a vigil for women's rights.
- In Washington D.C., women marched on Connecticut Avenue with a banner that read “We Demand Equality” and lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment. Petitions with more than 1,500 names were presented to the Senate majority leader and minority floor leader.
- Detroit women who worked at the Detroit Free Press kicked men out of one of their restrooms, protesting the fact that men had two bathrooms while women had one.
- Women who worked for a New Orleans newspaper ran pictures of the grooms instead of the brides in engagement announcements.
- International Solidarity: French women marched in Paris, and Dutch women marched at the U.S. embassy in Amsterdam.
Some people called the demonstrators anti-feminine or even Communist. The Women's Strike for Equality made the front page of national newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. It was also covered by the three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, which was the pinnacle of extensive television news coverage in 1970.
The Women's Strike for Equality is often remembered as the first major protest of the Women's Liberation movement, even though there had been other protests by feminists, some of which also received media attention. The Women's Strike for Equality was the largest protest for women's rights at that time.
The next year, Congress passed a resolution declaring August 26 Women's Equality Day. Bella Abzug was inspired by the Women's Strike for Equality to introduce the bill promoting the holiday.
Signs of the Times
Some articles from the New York Times from the time of the demonstrations illustrate some of the context of the Women's Strike for Equality.
The New York Times featured an article a few days before the August 26 rallies and anniversary titled "Liberation Yesterday: The Roots of the Feminist Movement." Under a photograph of suffragettes sic marching down Fifth Avenue, the paper also asked the question: "Fifty years ago, they won the vote.
Did they throw victory away?" The article pointed to both the earlier and the then-current feminist movements as rooted in work for civil rights, peace, and radical politics, and noted that the women's movement both times was rooted in recognizing that both black people and women were treated as second-class citizens.
In an article on the day of the march, the Times noted that "Traditional Groups Prefer to Ignore Women's Lib." "The problem for such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the League of Women Voters, The Junior League and the Young Women's Christian Association is what attitude to take toward the militant women's liberation movement."
The article included quotes about "ridiculous exhibitionists" and "a band of wild lesbians." The article quoted Mrs. Saul Schary sic of the National Council of Women: "There's no discrimination against women like they say there is. Women themselves are just self-limiting. It's in their nature and they shouldn't blame it on society or men."
In the kind of paternalistic belittling of the feminist movement and women that feminism criticized, a headline the next day in the New York Times noted that Betty Friedan was 20 minutes late for her appearance at the Women's Strike for Equality: "Leading Feminist Puts Hairdo Before Strike." the article also noted what she wore and where she'd purchased it, and that he had her hair done at the Vidal Sassoon Salon on Madison Avenue.
She was quoted saying "I don't want people to think Women's Lib girls don't care about how they look. We should try to be as pretty as we can. It's good for our self-image and it's good politics." The article noted that "The vast majority of women interviewed strongly endorsed the traditional concept of woman as a mother and a homemaker who can, and sometimes even should, supplement these activities with a career or with volunteer work."
In yet another article, the New York Times asked two women partners in Wall Street firms what they thought of "picketing, denouncing men and bra-burning?" Muriel F. Siebert, chairman sic of Muriel F. Siebert & Co., replied: "I like men and I like brassieres." She was also quoted saying "There's no reason to go to college, get married and then stop thinking. People should be able to do what they're capable of doing and there's no reason why a woman doing the same job as a man should be paid less."
This article has been edited by and considerable additional material added by Jone Johnson Lewis.