Today in Feminist History: The National Women’s Political Caucus (July 12, 1971)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 12, 1971: The birth of a new and potentially powerful women’s political organization has just been announced at a press conference!

Left to right: Gloria Steinem, Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY), Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), and Betty Friedan at today’s press conference.

The National Women’s Political Caucus, formed by 300 women from 26 states and the District of Columbia at a two-day meeting that ended yesterday, intends to increase the proportion of political offices held by women to 50%. That’s quite an ambitious goal. There are only 12 women (9 Democrats and 3 Republicans) in the 435-member House, which works out to 2.8% of the membership. There is only one woman, Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, in the 100-member Senate. The more immediate goal is to triple those numbers in next year’s General Election.

But equalizing raw numbers is only a means to an end, and not the goal itself: “Our aim would be to humanize society by bringing the values of women’s culture into it, not simply to put individual women into men’s politics,” was the way Gloria Steinem put it. Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY), reinforced that view by declaring: “It is certainly not our purpose to replace or supplement a white male middle class elite with a white female middle class elite.” The Caucus will not support a woman solely on account of her sex, and has passed a resolution specifically excluding any racist candidates from support.

The N.W.P.C. Policy Council is a prestigious group of women. In addition to Gloria Steinem and Representative Abzug there are: Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-NY); Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and founder of the National Organization for Women; Shana Alexander, Editor-in-Chief of McCalls magazine; Virginia Allen, who heads President Nixon’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities; Nikki Beare, President of the Dade County, Florida, National Organization for Women; Joan Cashin, National Democratic Party of Alabama; Mary Clarke, of California Women’s Strike for Peace; Civil Rights activist Myrlie Evers; Jo Ann Evans Gardner, Republican nominee for the Pittsburgh City Council; Elinor Guggenheimer, Chair of the New York Democratic Advisory Council; Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, currently a candidate for the Mississippi State Senate; La Donna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity; Wilma Scott Heide, Chair of the National Organization for Women’s National Board; Olga Madar, Vice President of United Automobile Workers; Vivian Carter Mason, Second National President, National Council of Negro Women; Madge Miller, Wisconsin State Representative, and Beulah Sanders, Vice President of the National Welfare Rights Organization.

The new group intends to rally national support for women candidates who declare themselves ready to fight for the needs of women and all under-represented groups as well. It will confront existing party structures, and, when necessary, cross party lines or work outside formal political parties for such candidates.

The N.W.P.C. demands that each state delegation to the Republican and Democratic national political conventions in 1972 be no less than 50% women. The group wants the Equal Rights Amendment passed by Congress, then ratified by the required 3/4 of the states, and the repeal of all laws that affect a woman’s right to decide her own reproductive and sexual life. It will work to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that it will eliminate discrimination against women in public education, public accommodations, public facilities and all Federally assisted programs.

The N.W.P.C. also wants to end both the war in Indochina and the Arms Race. The use of physical violence as a “traditional masculine way” of resolving conflicts was denounced. Comprehensive and preventive health care for all Americans is also on the agenda, as is preservation of our natural environment, and fair treatment of women who work outside the home, regardless of their marital status.

There is no doubt that a long struggle lies ahead, but the entry of this new organization into the fight will bring the day of political equality closer. As Representative Chisholm said: 

“No one gives away political power. It must be taken. If women and minorities ever got together on issues and on their own tragic under-representation in the places of power, this country would never be the same. I believe we have taken a step in that direction. We understand the problem of overcoming the false standards that have been used to divide us for so long – race, age, political party, economic class and even physical. But we are all second class, and now we are united.”


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.