As a 1971 newspaper article reported, a group of women held their first local feminist workshops in the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1971. Each attracted about 75 women and was held in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Moorestown. At the meetings, discussion groups were held on job discrimination, divorce, women and the law, and abortion.
Women of South Jersey were being introduced to consciousness-raising (CR), which the article called the “non-structured strand of the feminist movement” as opposed to the “structured activist arm exemplified in NOW.” Although each local geographic area had its own group but the combined groups sent out a newsletter to 300 women. The Moorestown CR Group found free meeting space on the second floor of the First Baptist Church annex at 15 W. Main Street, presently the home of Burlington County Family Services. Besides holding group meetings, the building also housed a feminist reading room. The battle with NJ Bell to get the phone installed was a story in itself.
Women Eat with Businessmen
On June 2, 1971, the Courier-Post carried a story entitled, “Women Break the Sex Barrier, Eat with Businessmen.” The women in the article (Dr. Judith Wible, Ruth-Ellen Karklin, and Mrs. Schatten) were described as “mothers who claimed to be part of a women’s liberation movement.” They asked the hostess to seat them in the “businessmen’s lunch grille” instead of the large dining room of the Cherry Hill Inn, located in prominent Cherry Hill, NJ. The Inn manager said that the policy was to only serve men in the grille at lunchtime but added that “there may be a meeting of the management to discuss changing this policy.” The article ended with a comment to reassure readers that Dr. Wible’s husband cared for their two children and another member of the “women’s lib” group cared for Mrs. Karklin’s son during the luncheon, and that Mrs. Schatten’s two children were attending school. (See Judy Buckman for copies of the above-mentioned articles.)
In October 1971, two members of the Moorestown CR group who had helped to create the commotion at the restaurant – Judith Wible, a psychiatric resident physician at Ancora Hospital and former Philadelphia NOW member, and Ruth-Ellen Karklin, a law student and former member of Syracuse, NY NOW – went on to convene South Jersey NOW – Alice Paul chapter at the same church annex. This building was later the home of the Burlington County YWCA, which copied the NOW newsletter on its mimeograph machine.
At the first meeting of the chapter, Wible and Karklin invited speakers from the Philadelphia and Delaware NOW chapters. (There were about 50 chapters in the country at that time.) The women from Delaware told the 11 people who showed up – an unexpectedly high turnout – that NOW was established on the belief that someone must look out for women’s interests and if it wasn’t women who did it, it might not get done.
NOW Creates Structure
Unlike the unstructured CR groups, NOW was structured with officers, dues ($10 at the national level) and specific goals. The article gave NOW’s statement of purpose which could have just as easily been written today:
“We reject the current assumptions that a man must carry the sole burden of supporting himself, his wife, and family, and that a woman is automatically entitled to lifelong support by a man upon her marriage, or that marriage, home and family are primarily women’s world and responsibility – hers to dominate, his to support.
“We believe that a true partnership between the sexes demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of the responsibilities of home and children and of the economic burdens of their support.
“We believe that proper recognition should be given to the economic and social value of homemaking and childcare.”
New Goals Set
The goal at the national level of NOW was to actively push for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution that had been authored by Alice Paul in 1923. Individual NOW chapters set up committees based on members’ interests. Issues being researched by the Moorestown group could have once again been written today: equal opportunity in employment, divorce, abortion, the masculine mystique, and women in education and religion. The group also planned to become very active in the 1972 elections.
Between the time of the first chapter meeting and May 1972 when the first newsletter was sent, chapter membership grew from two to seven to 15 to 33. In the mid-70’s the chapter busied itself trying to get a state ERA passed to guarantee equality for NJ women, but despite a lot of support for it in South Jersey, the measure was defeated as a result of organized opposition in North Jersey.
Chapter planning meetings at this time were held around the president’s kitchen table. When more people got involved, planning meetings rotated on a monthly basis to different members’ living rooms. The chapter newsletter was collated by placing the mimeographed sheets on a dining room table and having people walk around it picking up sheets and stapling them together.
Push for ERA Ratification
Shortly after Alice Paul’s death at a Moorestown nursing home in 1977, Velma Brown, who had served as president in 1975, learned that she was gravely ill with cancer. At one of her last planning meetings, Velma moved that the chapter add Alice Paul to its name in order to honor our local hero.
In the late-70’s, the biggest chapter push was to get the national ERA ratified. Although NJ had defeated the state ERA, it was one of the 35 states that had ratified the federal ERA. Leaflets were printed up and distributed. Letter-writing sessions were held every Sunday afternoon around someone’s dining room table (frequently with small children crawling under it) in order to bombard legislators in the 15 unratified states. Phone banks were set up to obtain permission for Public Opinion Messages to be sent to the same legislators. Women gave up (relatively) well-paying jobs and disrupted their lives for months and years to become “missionaries” in unratified states such as Utah, Florida, and Illinois. A boycott of unratified states was organized to discourage people from vacationing or buying products produced by the unratified states. Debates were held. But on June 30, 1982, the time limit for the ERA expired without the ratification of the necessary three more states.
Elect More Women to Office Momentum
The momentum created by an all-out effort, as well as the bitter realization that members were “banging our heads against a brick wall to try and get through to these guys” led to a push to “Elect More Women to Office,” which continues today.
In November 1982, two chapter activists, Shirley King (who was going to be one of the 1983 co-presidents) and Judy Zitter, were killed in an auto accident while traveling to a NOW Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference in Maryland. The aftermath of funerals and memorial services led us to organize a “Dealing with Death and Making Your Wishes Known” conference.
In the late-80’s, the chapter organized a Clinic Defense group. The Clinic Defense Task Force (now called Clinic Escorts) has had a presence at local women’s centers every Saturday morning since, and was responsible for both drafting and pushing for legislation to create a protester-free barrier around the clinic, which was later used successfully as a model at the state level.
Today, the South Jersey NOW – Alice Paul chapter is the largest in the state, both in terms of members and geographical coverage, serving a southern New Jersey region from Trenton to Cape May.