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Northwestern University

Has the Battle for Women's Rights Been Won?

In 1971, when Terry O’Neill was a freshman at Northwestern, the first issue of Ms. magazine hit the newsstands. When she was a sophomore, Title IX banned sex discrimination in schools. Her junior year, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion. Those were heady times for the women’s rights movement. But O’Neill had other preoccupations: clocking long hours in the library as a French major, waiting tables in Rogers Park, and having fun with her friends. She called herself an activist and marched against the war in Vietnam, but she didn’t call herself a feminist.

Now she does. She is, in fact, president of the National Organization for Women. In her current position she still clocks long hours, but is busy working for legislation fair to women and pushing for greater representation of women in government and business.

“In the ’60s the conversation was: Should women have equality with men?” said O’Neill recently. “Now we need to reach that equality, get to that 50 percent of law partners, CEOs and Supreme Court justices.”

Along with one of NOW’s founders, Karen DeCrow, Medill ’59, O’Neill was on campus recently to speak at a forum sponsored by the Northwestern University Women’s Center and the University’s Library and Archives. During an interview with Crosscurrents, O’Neill noted that much progress has been made since the days when married women couldn’t get credit cards in their own names and could be fired for pregnancy. But much is still at stake, she said. A burning issue for NOW is economic justice.

She is particularly concerned with what she considers the attack on social security. And why is that a women’s issue? Because it disproportionately affects women, she noted. Admitting she sounds “wonky” when discussing policy, she is also passionate:

“Here’s the reality: far more women are likely to be poor in old age than men. The three-legged stool of retirement involves pensions, personal savings, and social security. Women disproportionately work in jobs that have no pensions, so that leg of the stool is not there. Women get paid 77-cents on the dollar compared with what men are paid; over a lifetime, that means no personal savings. The third leg is social security. Literally millions of women are kept out of poverty and in the middle class only by social security, so it’s hugely important.”

She testified recently on Capitol Hill against cuts to social security as a way to reduce the national deficit. She fears that the new bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility will cut the benefits by raising the retirement age. “Age discrimination, although illegal, is rampant. People are losing their jobs and being forced into early retirement at 62; [if you have to opt for benefits at that age] that’s a 25 percent cut in [monthly] benefits for the rest of your life,” she said. “The Commission has proposed to make even deeper cuts by raising the normal retirement age to 70, so we are doing everything we can to raise awareness.”

O’Neill’s own awareness of women’s issues came about through personal crisis. After graduating from Northwestern, she made use of her French by working for an insurance company in Belgium. She came back to New York, did interpretation and translation work, and married. The couple moved to New Orleans at her parents’ urging—they didn’t trust her husband and wanted to keep an eye on him. After six months, it was clear to O’Neill that the marriage needed to end.

“Like a good ’70s young woman, I sat [my husband] down and said, ‘We don’t have kids, we don’t have furniture, and we are fighting. We should get a divorce.’ And he just exploded. He was beating the crap out of me and I was screaming my lungs out.” Fortunately, a co-worker convinced her to call her parents, who then protected her in their security-conscious apartment building. The beating changed the course of her life.

“I ended up going to law school because I found myself needing a divorce at the age of 23 due to domestic violence. I felt that if I were a lawyer, people would have a reason to listen to me. I could be a leader in the community and I could make a difference in the world.”

She brought her drive and work ethic to Tulane University Law School, graduating magna cum laude. Then came 12-15 hours days in corporate law, at a time when firms were opening their doors to women to improve their gender diversity. She returned to Tulane full-time for a long-held goal, teaching law in classes including feminist legal theory and international women’s rights.

She might have stayed there happily were it not for David Duke—the white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—and his run for governor of Louisiana in 1991.

“My daughter was eight months old and I thought, I can’t raise my daughter in a state that has this governor. I thought someday my daughter would ask me, ‘Mom, what were you doing when [Duke] was taking over Louisiana?’ And that’s when I decided to stay active.” O’Neill had previously dabbled in Democratic party politics, where, she says, women were nowhere to be seen, and a friend had introduced her to non-profits that did service work.

“It was ladies who lunch,” she recalled. “It was ‘whenever you travel you can get toiletries and make little baskets.’ And I thought, ‘A poor woman doesn’t need a basket. She needs a job'.”

Then she attended a NOW meeting in New Orleans. “There was a sign on the wall which read, ‘Sexism, racism, homophobia. Connect the dots.’ And I thought, ‘This is where I belong'.”

In addition to defeating Duke, the Louisiana NOW chapter was working against racism and domestic violence. O’Neill had indeed come home. She has since served as president of Louisiana NOW and New Orleans NOW and as a member of the National Racial Diversity Committee. She was NOW’s membership vice president from 2001 to 2005 and was elected president of NOW in June 2009. A skilled political organizer, she has also worked on historic campaigns: Hilary Clinton’s for the Democratic presidential nomination and Barack Obama’s for the presidency.

O’Neill credited her Northwestern days with schooling her in the kind of independence that is evident in her career choices.

“I had a wonderful apartment on Foster Street near the “L”. I desperately wanted to be a grownup and my parents wanted me to stay in the dorm. ‘If you want to live off campus, we’ll pay your tuition and you pay your own room and board and books and travel.’ ‘Deal!’ I told them.”

But that decision meant waiting tables at the Loft, a small restaurant in Rogers Park, where liquor was served and tips were more generous. It also meant foregoing the chance to get involved in campus activities. It didn’t preclude forming deep friendships with classmates, some of which have lasted to this day.

Like an earlier version of O’Neill, today’s young women don’t often call themselves feminists. But O’Neill thinks that’s largely because they don’t like to be labeled.

“They don’t like to be teased,” she said. “I watched my daughter go through this in high school. You might be a great scientist, an incredible musician, or really good at fashion, but if you’re a feminist, that’s all you are.”

Young people are engaged in the political process, she said, especially when politicians speak about the issues they care about—like equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. “Ten years from now, gay marriage will be normal throughout the country,” she predicted. “But women will still not have equality, I guarantee.”

And so O’Neill keeps fighting the battle she insists is not yet won. Not surprisingly, her daughter—now a young adult—calls herself a feminist, too.

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