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Silver Threads: The early days of feminism

The other day I got to thinking about the moment I became a feminist.

The memory was triggered by a story in last Wednesday’s Times-Picayune Living section about FestiGals, a meeting here of women from around the country for “talks, tours and a good time.” This second annual event kicks off tomorrow, with former WWL-TV news anchor and current “Today” show host Hoda Kotb delivering the keynote address at a benefit luncheon on Friday. For details about the schedule, check out

During this event, women won’t be burning their bras; they’ll be bidding on Bodacious Bras for a Cause, donated and decorated by folks such as Chris Owens, Lena Prima, Susan Spicer, Emeril Lagasse and zydeco star Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. Money from the auction will go to the Cancer Association of Greater New Orleans.

I’m not trying to label the FestiGals as feminists, a description that I’ve noticed isn’t willingly embraced today by many women. But the bra burners of 40 years ago paid some of their dues for them, and if you don’t believe that, just look at the females on the rosters of medical and law school graduates, check out the photos of lady CEOs in the Wall Street Journal, look at Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condi Rice.

We’ve come a long way, baby, even though hard-core feminists, like cigarettes, don’t get much respect anymore.

In the early ‘70s, the National Organization of Women (NOW) sent three crusaders down to New Orleans to rally support for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). For the information of those who weren’t born at the time, this was needed mostly because women’s paychecks were so much smaller than those of men who did the same jobs.

The women from NOW were kind of kooky by the standards of those of us who weren’t given to marching in the streets, although we knew things were wrong. Opportunity to actually get into any high-paying professions was limited, too; my best friend from the cradle was told as a college freshman that her math skills were so formidable she could have been some kind of engineer — if she were male.

Oh sure, there were the few who went into professions anyway, but it was very tough and most just settled for something lesser, like another friend whose dad wouldn’t send her to medical school so she became a lab tech in a big hospital instead.

I was fortunate; I got to live my dream of working for a newspaper when girls who had higher GPAs than I accepted jobs as secretaries at Houston oil companies. But I knew all along that gender had determined the size of my salary.

I think I had been born with the journalist’s disinclination to join groups or get involved in crusades, a characteristic that I wish cable TV reporters possessed today. So perhaps that’s why the NOW women seemed over the top. But on the way back to the newsroom after an interview with them for the States-Item Women’s section, the photographer who’d gone along on the assignment treated me to his opinion of feminists. He was vituperative, condescending, chauvinistic and full of crap. His tirade was mid-wife to the birth of a brand-new feminist, riding in the shotgun seat in his car.

Oh, when Betty Freidan and Germaine Greer came to town I kept my reporter’s cool objectivity. When I wrote up an interview with Phyllis Schlafly, doyen of those who would perhaps repeal the 19th Amendment if they could, I was especially proud of my skills. I got a letter thanking me for “hanging up that (w)itch to dry” and another praising my glowing account of her “important” agenda.

And the next year at work, I got three generous pay raises in the space of three months. Tell me I don’t owe the bra-burners.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at


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