The movement for women’s equality in public and private life did not begin in the 1970s. Though, those of us who participated in it might have thought so. History, we had been told, was the story of men: explorers, founding fathers, warriors. We did not learn about American women’s struggles for the right to speak, to preach, and to vote.
Feminism of the seventies has been caricatured, mistaught and misunderstood. To correct the stereotypes, we need case histories of how feminism flowered in small towns like ours, where women met to share experiences of oppression that had silenced them for centuries. The emergence of Ms. Magazine, and of collections such as Sisterhood is Powerful, mesmerized some women of the baby boomer generation. Other women simply looked at their own lives as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers – an equally valued testament.
The twenty-six memoirs in a new book, A Rumbling of Women, edited by Anne Grenn Saldinger and Napa County Historical Society’s Nancy Levenberg, present a portion of Napa history that has until now been unrecorded. The project was borne out of Sudie Pollock’s determination to document that period, a longing she has felt for decades. Last year, on International Women’s Day (March 8), she invited a group to gather and consider how to proceed. Eventually the book contributors would include Margaret Kelly Ballou, Margo Arcanin, Judy Nelson, Susan Sandler, Chenae Meneely, Ana Kowalkowska, Jan Svoboda, Ann Schwartz, Felicia Shinnamon, Sudie Pollock, Jan Molen, Patricia Kraepalin, Carol Whichard, Evie Trevethan, Lauren Coodley, Paula Amen Judah, Susan Lane, Carol Lilleberg, Betty Hopperstad, Nancy Manahan, Ruth Baetz, Bonnie McCombs, Charlene Steen, Susan Wilkinson and Sue Dee Shenk.
When the Napa Valley Women’s Center opened in 1971, some of these women walked in. None ran corporations, banks or the government. They began to untangle inequities that ranged from sexism in education and employment, through body hatred and self-destruction, to the invisibility of battered women, and began to work diligently on all of these issues. Among the women who contributed to this volume, readers will discover teachers, lawyers, women in the trades, musicians and nurses.
The Women’s Center created a Speaker’s Bureau which helped push feminism into the mainstream of Napa. Some spoke about feminism and child rearing at the St. Helena Kiwanis Club Ladies Night, while others were featured on KVON radio. Members of the Women’s Center battled successfully to create both the Women’s Re-entry Program and the Childcare Center at Napa College. Some of my students and friends initiated a volunteer hotline for victims of “domestic violence.” Housewife Carol Raahauge Grant was inspired to return to college where she received her M.A. in Sociology, becoming one of the women’s studies teachers at Napa College. She provided a class on marriage and the family while Serena Cochran created and taught a class on The Single Parent. One of the most popular courses, taught by Evie Trevethan, was Assertiveness Training.
Napa High teacher Mary Ellen Boyet organized a vibrant chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which helped elect women to local and state office. Their efforts helped Dorothy Searcy become one of the first women on the City Council and Ginny Sims to become the first woman on the Board of Supervisors. In 1981, after years of collecting signatures at shopping centers a petition was presented to the Board of Supervisors, resulting in the opening of a home for battered women and their children.
By the end of the eighties, Geraldine Ferraro had been defeated in her quest to be the first female Vice President, and President Ronald Reagan had refused an extension for the states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Despite the shock of those losses, the women’s shelter and women’s studies classes—which helped hundreds of women recover from abuse—continued to exist. The National Women’s Political Caucus had reached out twice to striking women workers at Carithers department store and Silverado Country Club, providing critical support. The efforts of Sudie Pollock and others resulted in the founding of a Planned Parenthood clinic, and the AAUW began a program to interest girls in math and science. Some of my students, dressed as women in history, and visited elementary schools every March. A thriving Commission on the Status of Women reported to the nearly all-male Board of Supervisors, and a handful of women were elected to local and statewide office.
This book ends in 1989. In the decades to come, much would be lost, and differently gained. The Teen Parent program created by Sudie Pollock is no more, and the bevy of women’s studies classes once offered at the college are gone. While Napa’s population has grown, there is still only one shelter for battered women and it has a long waiting list. The problems that make the shelter necessary, remain unsolved.
A Rumbling of Women is a collection of memoirs—the unfiltered memories of some of the women who founded the Women’s Center and benefitted from its existence. Future scholars may seek interviews with more of the hundreds of Napa women and girls whose lives were changed by the interventions of this movement, and should certainly also consult newspapers and periodicals of the era. Incredibly, most towns in America have no records of their own social movements. Congratulations to Sudie Pollock and the Napa County Historical Society for making a start on all the untold stories of the women’s movement in our region.