Tuesday, 11 March 2014 02:52

Lehigh Valley feminists waged campaign in schools, prison

Written by  Margie Peterson | The Morning Call

One of Mary Larkin's prized possessions is a beat-up, old, wooden cutting board in the shape of a mushroom, but you can't tell by looking at it that it is the product of a revolution.

It was made by Larkin's daughter Debbie, who was one of the first girls to take shop in Parkland schools after the district relented in the mid-1970s to allow them to forgo home economics and do woodworking instead.

The episode was one of the many battles — big and small — that women such as Larkin fought during the heyday of the women's rights movement in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Larkin, 82, of Allentown, Judith Ruhe Diehl, 87, of South Whitehall Township, and Jan Forse, 85, also of South Whitehall, talked about those struggles in the run-up to this month's celebration of National Women's History Month.

They were active in the movement in the Lehigh Valley and are donating their buttons, posters, photos and documents from that era to Lehigh University's Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. The university is planning to preserve the material for future generations.

"It's important to have that history," said Jackie Krasas, a Lehigh associate professor of sociology and anthropology and director of the women studies program. "It's the day-in, day-out, very hard work on the ground that often doesn't get recorded as history."

Krasas said the program still has to figure out how best to archive and use the seven or so boxes of material in the collection.

Though they started out as homemakers living conventional lives of marriage and motherhood, Diehl, Forse and Larkin became part of a social revolution that would spread like a wave across the country. They raised eyebrows in middle-class communities, where their attempts to change social mores met with resistance. But in the end, the women's movement overturned many of the barriers that had kept women out of some clubs, colleges and professions.

Diehl, Forse and Larkin look back on those days as among the defining moments of their lives.

The three women are hoping that by talking about the movement, others who were active locally will consider contributing their own photos, documents and memorabilia to the Lehigh University collection.

"The young girls now have no idea what it was like," Larkin said. "And the only way they're going to know is if these things are preserved."

Mrs. John Smith
Standards did change, but slowly. It wasn't until the 1980s, for example, that The Morning Call's obituaries stopped listing a married woman by her husband's name — Mrs. John Smith — rather than her actual name.

It took a Supreme Court order for newspapers to stop segregating help-wanted ads. For decades, those ads were divided by gender: Traditional women's jobs such as hairdressers, secretaries and nurses would be listed under Female Help Wanted, while positions in traditionally male fields were under Male Help Wanted. The practice stopped after a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Pittsburgh Press.

Movements are often recounted in court cases and events on a grand scale, and indeed Diehl, Forse and Larkin marched on Washington for the unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment, and Forse and Larkin attended landmark National Organization for Women conferences. But they also performed the less glamorous nuts and bolts of activism.

Diehl was one of the first female Lehigh County commissioners and the board's first chairwoman. She was active in everything from women's prison reform to working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church's Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod on the changing roles for women in the church. Larkin and Forse, whose last name at the time was Leander, worked on issues ranging from parity in school activities such as intramurals to programs for survivors of domestic violence and for displaced homemakers.

For Diehl, activism was in her DNA: Her mother was a suffragist.

Larkin, as a young mother, read Betty Friedan's groundbreaking book, "The Feminine Mystique," and identified with it immediately.

"That was my awakening," she said.

Forse said she was a feminist in kindergarten.

"I saw all the things that the boys did, and I wanted to do those too," she said.

Diehl is a Lehigh Valley native but she moved with her husband, William Diehl, as his job took him to other states. In 1969, she returned to the Lehigh Valley with her husband and children. And Larkin and Forse arrived here that year with theirs.

Larkin and Forse were neighbors who bonded over children and activism.

They lobbied the Parkland School District in the mid-1970s to raise the pay of girls sports coaches and open up more courses for girls to take as electives.

"We knew that the law said that girls could take shop and boys could take home ec," Larkin said. "So I went to call on the principal of Springhouse [Middle School], which was a brand new school, and asked if they were offering shop to the girls and he said, 'Oh no, we can't do that.' And I said, 'I think you better check on that with the state.' He came back and found out he was wrong, so they completely changed the program to allow our two daughters to take shop."

Larkin said she and Forse were concerned about how their daughters might be treated in class, but the school staff "bent over backward" to treat them well.

Still, there were a few unintended consequences.

"My daughter, when I told her she had to hem a dress, she got the stapler out and hemmed the dress with a stapler because she hadn't taken home ec," Forse recalled, chuckling.

The women got used to push-back from both men and women who felt threatened by the feminist agenda. Larkin remembers being interviewed by Parkland School Board members looking to fill a vacancy on the board.

"They all knew about my involvement with NOW and that we had come and asked about intramural sports and they weren't happy about it," Larkin said. "This one gentleman asked me, 'Mrs. Larkin, if you dropped your handkerchief, would you be offended if I picked it up?' and I was stunned. And finally I said, 'No, I wouldn't be offended, but at the same time I am perfectly capable of picking my handkerchief up myself.'

"I didn't get the position," Larkin said, laughing. "Too radical."

In the mid-'70s, several women in the Lehigh Valley saw a need for an organization geared toward helping victims of domestic abuse. What started as "May Day Anonymous" became Turning Point of the Lehigh Valley, which has since provided shelter, counseling or education to 80,000 victims. Larkin served two terms on its board of directors.

She divorced in 1979, went back to college and became a financial planner. Moving into a traditionally male field, she recalls contending with lots of dirty jokes and being mistaken for a secretary.

That was before no-fault divorce, and Larkin learned how devastating divorce could be for a woman's financial situation. She started a support group for women who were separated and taught a class on money management for women.

"If the property was in the husband's name, she wasn't considered an owner," Larkin said. "If the cars were in the husband's name, she had to buy a car from the husband."

Forse got a job as a social worker at Allentown State Hospital and went to Temple University for her master's degree. As part of her course work, she organized the Women's Council of the Lehigh Valley.

The council held a hearing in the mid-'70s at what was then A-B-E Airport in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, on issues affecting women. Forse had invited lawmakers and officials from state and federal agencies to hear area women talk about discrimination and obstacles to employment and education. It was there that Forse and Larkin first met Diehl, who was among the 200 people in attendance.

'I guess you can come'
One of the earliest issues Diehl took on was reform of the women's section of the old Lehigh County Prison. She joined a group taking a tour of the women's part of the prison in the early '70s and found deplorable conditions, she said.

The cell blocks were overcrowded and the recreation area was the landing of a staircase, Diehl said. At night, vermin would come up from the toilets, she said.

"I would go lobby the three commissioners and they would be rolling their eyes and say, 'Now, you're exaggerating.' And I would say, 'It's unfit for human habitation,' because it was. So we organized a group, and it took us five years, but the county finally did build a new unit for the women inside the walls."

In 1980, Diehl also worked with others to help found the Program for Female Offenders of the Lehigh Valley, which helped women leaving prison gain skills and find work to support themselves and their children. The program was renamed The Program for Women & Families in 1993.

Diehl decided she could accomplish more if she worked within the Lehigh County government, so she ran for commissioner in 1977. The county Democratic Party didn't tell Diehl when the various clubs met so she could speak at meetings, but a sympathetic man in the party passed her the information.

"There was a meeting of the men's Democratic Club," Diehl said. "I called up the president and I said, 'I'm Judith Ruhe Diehl and I'm running for county commissioner.' There's a pause, and he said, 'Who did you say you are?' And I repeat the whole thing. Then there's another pause and he says, 'Well, I guess you can come. That other one is coming.' "

"That other one" was Linda Rosenfeld, who was the only woman running for Allentown City Council.

"Well, we had great fun with this," Diehl said.

Diehl lost that year but ran again in 1979 and won. She was re-elected for another four-year term, serving until 1987. She still has political buttons that say, "Re-Elect a Good Diehl."

She said she continued to face sexism in politics but was buoyed by reinforcements. Diehl recalls a hearing in which a fellow commissioner introduced each of the male board members as "commissioner" but introduced Diehl and Commissioner Jane Baker as "Mrs. Diehl" and "Mrs. Baker."

After the hearing, "Jane let him have it," Diehl said, gleefully.

In 1984, Diehl, Larkin and Forse campaigned for Jane Wells Schooley, who challenged Congressman Don Ritter for the 15th Congressional District seat. Schooley, who lost to Ritter, had been president of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of NOW and NOW's national vice president for legislative affairs.

They still have buttons from Schooley's campaign, which are part of their collection going to Lehigh University. Others include "A woman's place is in the House and in the Senate," "A man of quality is not threatened by a woman for equality," "Adam was a rough draft" and "Every mother is a working mother."

Diehl said her husband and others had trouble with many of the changes, because it had been part of the unspoken contract of marriage that the husband would be the head of the household and the wife would put his career first and stay home taking care of the house and children.

"Well, suddenly we're breaking the contract," she said.

But Diehl, Forse and Larkin have also seen opportunities open up for women, including their children and grandchildren, thanks to the work of thousands of activists like them, and they feel proud to have been a part of it.

Forse recalls hearing from a woman who attended local NOW meetings in the 1970s and learned there that she could apply for jobs that had previously been reserved for men. Decades later. the woman thanked Forse for her advocacy work, saying she had become a power plant equipment operator for PPL, earning good pay and benefits.

The world Diehl, Forse and Larkin helped create for women who entered college and the workplace in the late '70s was one of choices and opportunities. Diehl's daughters became a lawyer, a nurse and a science teacher; Forse's daughters worked in the military, corrections and security. Larkin's daughter, Debbie Rizzetto of Dubuque, Iowa, works in sales for a publishing company.

But for years, Rizzetto — who created Larkin's beloved cutting board in shop class — was a stay-at-home mom.

"But she has that choice," Forse pointed out.

"Yes," Larkin said. "She has that choice."

Margie Peterson is a freelance writer.

1848: At a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., 68 women and 32 men sign the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, demanding equal status for women.

1857: Congress passes The Married Women's Property Bill, giving women the right to sue, be sued, make contracts, inherit and bequeath property.

1866: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association with the goal of suffrage for all regardless of gender or race.

1869: Stanton and Anthony found the National Woman Suffrage Association to achieve the vote through a constitutional amendment. Also that year, Wyoming is first to give women the right to vote.

1920: The 19th Amendment is ratified, giving women the right to vote.

1963: The Equal Pay Act passes, requiring women be paid the same amount as men for the same work.

1965: The Supreme Court strikes down anti-birth control law as a violation of privacy.

1966: The National Organization for Women forms.

1972: Title IX passes, prohibiting discrimination in all areas of education, including athletics, on the basis of sex. Also that year, the Equal Rights Amendment affirming constitutional rights regardless of sex, passes but fails to get ratified by enough states.

1973: In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court finds a woman's decision to have an abortion during the first trimester a right of liberty.

1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act passes, prohibiting discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

1993: The Family and Medical Leave Act allows working women to take leave after giving birth.

Sources: National Organization for Women, National Park Service, Feminist Majority Foundation, National Women's History Museum, Sewall-Belmont House & Museum

Copyright © 2014, The Morning Call

Link to original article at The Morning Call

Read 3742 times Last modified on Tuesday, 11 March 2014 03:02

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