Fighting for women’s (and human) rights: Brenda Feigen’s Not One of the Boys

by Claudia Moscovici


If young women today harbor any doubts about whether or not the feminist movements in the sixties, seventies and eighties were necessary, I would urge them to read Brenda Feigen’s memoir, Not One of the Boys originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2000, which appeared in a new edition in July 2020. This book, as well as the entire history of the feminist movement, starting with the National Organization for Women (NOW) feminist movement, organized in 1966 by Betty Friedan, and the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in 1971 by Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and Brenda Feigen herself, has once again become very topical not only because of the resurgence of political conservatism that endangers many of the values–and gains—feminists had fought so hard to obtain for women, but also because of the new interest generated in this subject by a popular series, Mrs. America. This show, which premiered in April, 2020 on Hulu and FX, finds inspiration in the efforts of second wave feminists (particularly the National Organization for Women) to get Congress to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the conservative countermovement against the ratification of the ERA bill, led by Phyllis Schlafly (who is magnificently portrayed by actress Cate Blanchett), to counter those efforts.

The ERA bill itself is not a product of the feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s. It was born of the suffragist movement that started in 1848 and continued to the 1920’s and it encountered resistance not only from men but also from some women as well, even among feminists. The leading feminist of the times, Alice Paul (leader of the National Woman’s Party) declared women should be regarded as equal to men in all regards, and no sex discrimination should be legal. But another feminist current led by Doris Stevens, the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, argued that women should have special protections—such as in labor laws–because of their physical differences and different social responsibilities from men. Arguing in this vein, during the 1920’s, Mary Anderson and the Women’s Bureau maintained that regarding women as equal and identical to men was most detrimental to working class women. They claimed that women needed special legislation that mandated safety regulations, restricted working hours and gave them maternity leave, since they were primarily responsible for childcare. Ironically, because the Democratic party was very attuned to working class issues, it was the Republican party that was the main supporter of the ERA bill from the 1950’s until the late 1970’s, when Phyllis Schlafly’s intervention turned conservatives against the bill. This was quite a feat. By the early 1970’s, both Republicans and Democrats were on board with the ERA bill. Thanks in large part to Betty Friedan’s bestselling feminist book, The Feminine Mystique (W.W. Norton & Company, 1963) and the powerful women’s movement that NOW inspired, the ERA bill was gaining momentum, passing both in the House and in the Senate, and was expected to be ratified by the end of the 1970’s in 38 states. In fact, it almost was. By 1977, the ERA had received 35 out of the 38 needed ratifications. Phyllis Schlafly and her conservative women’s group, originally underestimated by the NOW movement, was able to turn this momentum around and even get some states (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota) to revoke their ratifications. The language of the ERA bill is so simple and minimalist that it is difficult to see what one can object to in it: unless, of course, one believes that sex discrimination is desirable and should be legal. It has three basic parts: “Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.” (Wikipedia)

Feigen played an integral part in the NOW movement and in supporting the ERA, as the National Legislative Vice President of the National Organization for Women. It was a propitious time to militate against sex discrimination. By the 1970’s feminists were no longer split on the ERA bill, as they had been during the 1920’s. In fact, most men and women in general, of both political parties, tended to support a constitutional amendment against sex discrimination. But some women, particularly “housewives”, were nervous about how the ERA bill could be interpreted and applied. Once women were treated as equal to men, would they lose their right to alimony or to primary custody of their children in case of divorce? Would widows lose their Social Security payments? Many of these women had no work experience outside the home and feared that they would not be able to find jobs. Moreover, if the ERA were to be ratified, would women be subject to the draft just like men? Phyllis Schlafly played upon these fears—the fears of mostly middle class widows and divorcees–even though the language of the ERA bill didn’t stipulate that men and women would be treated identically or that women would lose all of their gender-based privileges (such as privacy in single-sex bathrooms and prisons) Schlafly managed to convince a significant portion of conservatives—both women and men—that the ERA bill would be detrimental to their values and to the interests of middle-class women who didn’t work outside the home and had no independent source of income. While this may have been just fear mongering, the feminist movement, focused as it was on women gaining ground in the workforce on a par with men and eliminating sex discrimination, couldn’t allay these growing fears. Facing criticism from conservatives and from a significant segment of women themselves, the ERA lost support.

And yet, as Brenda Feigen herself was to discover in her own life, such an anti-discrimination bill was not only timely, but also absolutely necessary in American society during the 1960’s and 70’s. In fact, Brenda probably did not view herself as a feminist in college, when she majored at Vassar College with a degree in mathematics, which few women majored in at the time. But once she chose to turn down a full scholarship for a joint J.D./M.B.A. at Columbia University in order to attend Harvard Law School, she started to see the need for feminist activism. In the mid 1960’s, women comprised about 6 percent of students at Harvard Law School. They were explicitly discriminated against and made to feel unwelcome in class from the very first day. Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold greeted the incoming class by stating that the few women in the group were “taking up valuable spots needed by men who, unlike their female counterparts, would have to support families” (Not One of the Boys, 4). This presupposed, falsely, that women weren’t breadwinners or didn’t have families—and, most importantly, their own selves–to support financially. Adding insult to injury, many chauvinistic professors—reflecting the dominant patriarchal values of the times–treated female students like second-class citizens. Feigen recounts that her property law professor, James Casner, designated only one day a week—dubbed “Ladies’ Day”—when female students would be asked questions or encouraged to offer comments during discussions. If women tried to participate on any other day, Casner essentially ignored them and called on male students. Even in that demeaning context of “Ladies’ Day”, Casner took steps to discriminate further against women and make them feel unwelcomed and inferior by narrowing the discussion to so-called feminine topics. As Feigen recounts, “Ladies’ Day in property-law class was spent on two issues: the dower rights to which a widow would be entitled in her deceased husband’s property and who actually owns the engagement ring when an engagement is called off” (Not One of the Boys, 5).

Made acutely aware of sex discrimination at Harvard, in her personal life Feigen made feminist choices. She chose to date a fellow law school student, Marc Fasteau, who shared her values: namely, that women were equal to men and should not be discriminated against or made to feel like second-class citizens. In fact, when they married in 1968, the couple went against the patriarchal tradition of the woman erasing her last name (and, along with it, a big part of her past and identity) upon marriage. They chose an innovative and egalitarian naming option: each of them kept their own last names and adopted each other’s last names. She became Brenda Feigen Fasteau and he became Marc Feigen Fasteau. Together they took on Harvard Law School’s notorious sexism when Feigen noticed a “NO LADIES ALLOWED” sign at the entrance to the library of the Harvard Club of New York. Initially the couple lost the battle, as the board voted to reject their proposal. The newlyweds didn’t give up, however. They took the case a step further, initiating a class action lawsuit against the Harvard Club of New York, suing them for sex discrimination. Five years later a judge ordered the Club to take another vote. This time, in January 1973, the social climate had changed and male students had different views from the board. The Club members voted 2,097 to 695 to admit female students. While this wasn’t a legal victory—since the case never got adjudicated in court—it was a significant social victory for Harvard University alumnae, who now had the same access to the Harvard Club of New York City as their male colleagues.

One of the most interesting aspects of Feigen’s book covers her collaboration with the incomparable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (Ginsburg insisted that Feigen be called Director as well instead of Co-director). In a recent interview with the ACLU, as well as in her memoir, Feigen describes Ginsburg as “a soft-spoken, thoughtful woman, with large, intelligent eyes” who was extremely mission driven in advancing women’s equal rights. She wasn’t into small talk, delving right into discussions of the most interesting legal cases: “Ruth, as far as I could tell, talked, thought, and probably even dreamed about the law any time she wasn’t spending with her husband or children” (ACLU interview, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Me”, Brenda Feigen, May 27, 2020). Interestingly, perhaps due to their awareness of the implicit biases of male judges when considering cases involving sex discrimination against women, they introduced the issue of gender-based discrimination via a case about discrimination against a man: Frontiero v. Richardson. As Feigen recounts in her ACLU article, “Sharron Frontiero, a married Air Force officer, was denied the same housing and medical allowance for her husband that her male cohorts in the Air Force automatically received for their wives. The federal statue providing such allowances for spouses of military personnel stated that while all wives were automatically entitled to such funds, husbands had to prove that they were more than half dependent on their wives for support. Sharron and her husband thought this was unfair.” Ginsburg was allotted ten minutes by the Frontiero lawyer team to argue in favor of equal rights. She not only made a strong case for treating Frontiero’s husband equally as a spouse, but also showed “how men have traditionally viewed women and their role in society by quoting Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Blackstone, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henrik Ibsen, Gunnar Myrdal, and Grover Cleveland, among others.” Feigen, along with the Justices, it seemed to her, were spellbound by the eloquence, force and depth of her arguments. The Frontieros won the case, which would eventually pave the way for many other cases combatting systematic gender discrimination in society and the workplace.

In the conclusion of her book, Feigen considers the important legacy of feminism, which enabled new generations of women to study, work and live as (more) equal to men. There’s still much work left to be done in achieving gender parity (meaning equal power not just equal rights), an issue that has been exposed as very complex. Third wave and, now, fourth wave feminists reminded us that women are never just women: ethnicity, race, class, sexual orientation all play a major role in women’s identities. Keeping this in mind, at times, third wave feminists have argued for cultural relativism, accepting practices in other countries and cultures that would be considered demeaning to women in our society. Feigen, however, rightfully reminds new generations of feminists in the U.S. not to neglect the focus on women in our own country: “Feminism, to me, is about helping ourselves, women, first. It’s not about us women using our power to save others before we save ourselves. Why is it that most women will fight to save anyone with less power than they have—which is very little? Why is it that many feminists today spend time worrying about the plight of women in other countries, from very different cultures and traditions, but they do not also worry that the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, is still totally dominated by men? (285). As the Me Too movement has shown, there’s still so much sex discrimination and harassment in the U.S., even in areas of society and culture—such as the entertainment and news industries—that, for the most part, proclaim liberal egalitarian values. But let us never forget (or take for granted) previous feminist achievements: without the groundbreaking work of second wave feminists like Brenda Feigen, Gloria Steinem, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women would probably still be second class citizens in America today. It is upon their legacy—and thanks to their struggles and gains–that we continue to build a more equal society for women and men.

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