BY MARY REINHOLZ | The pictures flashing across a wall inside Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village showed icons of the women’s liberation movement from the last half of the 20th century: activists like Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy taking aim at gender inequality in America.
A couple of venerable speakers, who had lived through the movement’s early triumphs and disappointments, delivered stinging attacks against Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States. But Trump’s persona did not loom large at an event focused on marking a historic time that had nothing to do with him.
“We’re still here, but so is that maniac in the White House,” said Susan Brownmiller, the 82-year-old Jane St. author of the groundbreaking 1975 treatise on rape, “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” after she took the open microphone at a reunion of second-wave feminists held Saturday afternoon in Judson, at 55 Washington Square Park South.
Brownmiller went on to recount the need for today’s activists to resist right-wing efforts throughout the U.S. to roll back Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that granted women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Brownmiller noted that she carried a sign promoting abortion during one of the women’s marches that sprang up around the U.S. a day after Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 21.
“Abortion is empowerment,” she said to applause from about 120 other older women seated at long tables, who drank bottled water and nibbled on chicken, egg and tuna sandwiches. “Motherhood should be for women who want to be mothers. It’s a choice, not a mandatory destiny for anyone anywhere in the world,” Brownmiller added, sounding like a young radical on the barricades 50 years ago.
“Right on!” shouted a woman of a certain age who stood in the back of the second-floor Judson Hall, where there were books on sale by feminist lawyer / author Jo Freeman and Bowery artist / scribe Kate Millett, author of “Sexual Politics,” a bestselling 1970 book of literary criticism based on her Ph.D. dissertation. There were also handouts describing the decades-long reissuing of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a controversial booklet put together by a Boston feminist collective in 1969. It sparked the women’s health movement, and was derided as “obscene trash” by Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority during the early 1980s.
The hours-long reunion, billed as a speak-out and sponsored by the nonprofit Veteran Feminists of America, drew at least 20 women from out of state, according to Carole DeSaram, a former New York chapter president of NOW and a board member of V.F.A. who helped to organize it. Attendees paid $50 each for tickets to cover the costs of food and renting the hall at Judson, where volunteers welcomed them in red T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “We Won’t Go Back!”
Several men also showed up, including a bearded gent from Oregon who wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “I’m With That Nasty Woman!” He heaped praise on Berkeley archivist Laura X, founder of the National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape, and another speaker at the event.
DeSaram gave the speakers two minutes each to offer their messages. Some went considerably overtime, such as mixed-media artist Suzanne Benton from Connecticut, who at one point in her remarks donned a white mask and intoned in a raspy sepulchral voice: “I am from the graves of [women] martyrs here to give you courage!”
One second-wave feminist stirred laughter and enthusiastic applause as she taught the audience sign language by singing lyrics that included lines like: “If it wasn’t for women / We would not be living.”
Early on in the program, Rebecca Lubetkin of New Jersey, a longtime NOW activist, reminded the assembled sistahs that the Center for Women’s History — run by the New-York Historical Society — opened its museum doors in March on Central Park West. The new center requires potential contributors to fill out forms and send them in advance to determine if the center could use artifacts that tell “personal stories” and “reflect women’s struggle for their rights.”
Another speaker noted that the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), dormant since its deadline for passage by Congress in 1982, had been ratified this year by Nevada in March, “and only two more states” are needed for possible passage by Congress. She urged the audience members to contact their local politicians to support the long-stalled amendment. It guarantees, among other things, that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The Nevada senators passed a measure sent to them by the state Assembly, which had already approved it, according to NPR.
There were profiles in courage at the get-together as some attendees arrived with their canes and walkers and met old friends. Yolanda Bako, 70, from the Bronx, rolled up in her wheelchair to the microphone. She explained how she founded the “first” New York City shelter for abused women in 1976 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. An activist in the movement against domestic violence, Bako was coordinator of the Rape Prevention Committee of the New York City chapter of NOW. She helped coordinate the 1976 Women’s Walk Against Rape at night in Central Park.
DeSaram told The Villager later that Bako “took on a project that no one else wanted to touch because society at that time treated rape victims like it was their fault or they asked for it. The police were terrible.”
And so it went as the speakers chronicled and celebrated some of the accomplishments of second-wave feminism. One of the last at the mic was Alix Kates Shulman, 84, author of the bestselling 1972 “Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.” Shulman was active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the early 1960’s before she became a radical feminist.
“Most of us didn’t know [much] about the first wave of feminists,” she said, alluding to the suffragists who fought for passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920. “Now the young women who are newly calling themselves feminists and who joined the women’s march after Trump’s [inauguration] look at us like we looked at the first wave. We’re separated in time because we’re from the 1960s.
“That’s something they want to correct,” Shulman continued. “Their history is us. We made history, we tried to change history but now we are simply history. I think that is one of the goals we always had. I’m just very grateful that at my age I’ve lived long enough to see that happen with a generation of feminists coming up.”
When the speak-out ended around 4:30 p.m., painter Diana Kurz, an 81-year-old Soho resident who first joined a women’s march for peace in 1967, remarked that she was “very moved” by the words of the second-wave feminists who keep on keeping on.
“I think being active and committed to a cause keeps you young,” she said.
Manhattan attorney Emily Jane Goodman, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, e-mailed this reporter on Sunday: “It’s great to see that the energy is still with us and our revolution continues.”