Women’s Equality Day: Revolting in Yakima WA

The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.

In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first monthly pay check–$409–radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.

Big Rally
Our NOW group’s poster from 1970

At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.

cigar2 copy (2)
Me at the news desk “smoking” a cigar and reading the paper, wearing a sleeveless dress, a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and black-rimmed glasses

In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.

I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.

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My grandmother, Gerda Wick (R), sorting cherries. Late 1930s?

When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.

flo and molly
Me and Flo in about 1978

Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.

Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.

In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.

While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.

We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.

Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.

We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? We refused to leave but we did take up a table during the lunch hour while we were refused service. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.

That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).

Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.

In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.

I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!

Epilogue: We went on to change our world.

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Author: tradeswomn

I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector. I live in San Francisco, CA. I also share a travel blog with my wife, Holly: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.

11 thoughts on “Women’s Equality Day: Revolting in Yakima WA”

  1. Ah, the good old days! Bravo for your “sit-in.”

    I was in high school in 1970, but already fairly radicalized.
    I became a feminist in 1960 at age 5. At the huge family Thanksgiving, my grandmother asked all my cousins (5 girls from 2 families) what they were going to be when they grew up – I really don’t remember what the girls (aged 7 – 13) said, it wasn’t noteworthy in my mind.
    My grandmother got to me – the youngest (except for my 2 year old brother) – and asked.
    I said, “I am going to be a doctor.”
    My grandmother said, “Don’t you mean you’re going to be a nurse, dear?”
    I said, “No. A doctor.”
    Our family doctor was my hero – he was also a serious nerd. He put together Heath Kits in his garage. Another neighbor was a Ham (yes, I have my ham radio license).
    Two years later I would ask for a chemistry set for my birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In 1970, I was working in a sweat shop making Hot Pants–earning $50 a week! That is one of the differences between unionized and non-unionized work places. But when we tried to organize into the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union), the male-dominated local union leadership was only interested in organizing the pressers, who were all men–and as a result, I got fired in short order!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Molly.

    I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your musings. You’re a good writer, and can tell a good story. Now that I read that you went to journalism school, I understand where you learned this skill and how far back your love of writing goes.

    I was about to go out of town last month when I read your piece about your memory. I didn’t get a chance at the time to tell you how much I appreciated you being so open about it. I’ve had difficulty with my memory for decades, and it’s been interesting to have other women “catch up” as they age and begin struggling with names, dates, etc. I also had head injuries (for different reasons) as a child and have always assumed this has had something to do with my memory.

    Just so you know, I haven’t forgotten the lesbian history project! I very much enjoyed our long talk and appreciated all the time you spent with me going thru your magazines. As I think I told you later, for a variety of reasons, my film project morphed from a documentary on auto mechanics to doing a series of video and/or audio interviews (depending on people’s comfort level with being filmed) with as many lesbians as I can get to who were active in any way in the Bay Area women’s community in the 1970s and 1980s.

    At the moment, however, I’m completely engrossed in working on getting the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project off the ground. I’m working with Lenn Keller who founded this project, on getting nonprofit status and a board organized, locating a space, getting the documents together, etc., so people can start donating their materials and preserve local lesbian history. I’ve been cutting back my hours as a therapist to work on this, and so that I can also find the time to start the filming/audiotaping project. I’m going to donate my tapes to the Archives, and they will be available as part of the history of the lesbian community.

    I will definitely speak to you when I’m further along in my project. In the meantime, I’ll contact you about the archives from time to time, in case you’d like to know more about it. We’ve got a workshop coming up in September, a basic on how to prepare your materials for an archive.

    Hope all is well with you. My phone if you’d like to get in touch: 415-203-8826.

    Warm regards, Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this. Quite courageous to start a NOW chapter and do all you did in such a conservative town. This story needs to get out to the thousands of 20 somethings who are proudly stating they are “not feminists”.How little they know of herstory!

    Liked by 1 person

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