Monday, May 11, 2009

On Activism--Part #3--The 60's and Secular Activism

Some of the key elements in the activism of the 60's were the Civil Rights Movement, The Feminist Movement and the Vietnam War. There were other times in our history that concern and public outcry about the first two were seen, but all three coalesced in the 60's.

College campuses were suddenly looked at, not as conservative bastions dedicated to turning out model citizens, but as hotbeds of radicalism. College students were letting the world know that they had ideas of their own. In addition, there would be others who would be actively involved in promoting change. Certainly Martin Luther King stands out as a prime mover in the Civil Rights Movement. There would be others, many others.

Some of this activism played on the national stage; some of it was more localized. Some of this activism made national headlines. Other examples stayed locally. Nothing, it seemed, was sacrosanct anymore. Ideas that had been accepted, at least publicly, for decades were being consigned to the trash heap. No longer would quota systems be used to disenfranchise whole segments of our population. No longer would minorities and women bow their heads subserviently. No longer would silence be the answer to injustice. No longer would our government be allowed to give only lip service to the idea of "of the people, by the people, for the people." Activism was on the march, and it was a juggernaut to behold.

If you want to know more about these three key elements in the activism of the 60's, there's a lot that has been written--go out and read. What I'd like to talk about is the activism that may not have made the national news, that was smaller in scope, but no less effective than the national concerns.

The activism of the 60's took on more than just the big picture problems; it went after the more localized problems as well. Some of the protests involved particular practices and policies of colleges and universities; others were outer political/social in nature. But whatever it was that was being protested, the protests were not limited to heated discussions in locked rooms. The protests were "out there" and "in your face."

I was attending Queens College when one such activist protest was launched. Unknown to many, City University had a dress code that was still in existence in the early to mid 60s. Women, except in gym classes, were forbidden to wear pants on campus. Even if you had a coat over your pants on your way to your gym class, the security guards could refuse you entrance to the campus.This mirrored the world outside of school as women were not allowed to wear pants to work and did not wear pants except for very casual activities, usually involving sports of some kind, or for working in the garden and those types of activities. But change was in the air. A small group of women activists decided to stage a mass demonstration on all the CUNY campuses against the ban on pants. They contacted students on every campus to contact as many other students as possible. News of the protest went by word of mouth--remember there was no Internet then. There were a number of MO female students at Queens at the time and yes, they organized groups of students and participated in the protest. On the day of the protest every woman was asked to come to school dressed in pants.

The response was overwhelming, certainly to CUNY. Female students and faculty members arrived in the thousands all dressed in pants. The school had basically two choices available: close down for who knows how long or give in. It gave in. The dress code was abolished that day.

Some times the activism concentrated on small matters. I had registered for a course in Romance Philology that I was excited about taking. When I mentioned this to another female student, her answer was basically "Good luck if you think you're going to get an 'A' in the course." It seems that the only female students who got those 'A's' were expected to, how to put this delicately, "put out" for the teacher. This seemed to be open knowledge, but challenging a tenured male professor and expecting the University to do something about it just wasn't done. Only the time was ripe to change the status quo. This was not the only male professor who was preying on women students, nor the only campus. Nor was it all sexual problems. Many of the male professors didn't think that women belonged in college, that educating them was a waste.

Over coffee in the student caf we planned strategy and we got our volunteers in place. One group of about 20 women went to the Dean of Students' office. Another group went to the President of the College's office. Yet another group went to the head of the department this professor was in. And yet another group was busy getting signatures on petitions from students around campus. We presented the school with an either/or request: either they got the professor in line with acceptable educational practices or we were going to call a school-wide strike. Either they took us seriously now or they would have to take us seriously later. And we came back every day for a week, with a few more students in tow each time. We presented them with the signed petitions, including signatures from faculty members.

Yes, I ended up taking that Philology course, but not from the original professor. He, for some unaccountable reason, had decided to retire.

Not all of the activism of the 60s was rabble rousing, confrontational and militant in nature. A lot of it was simply saying "Here is the problem, here is the solution, let's do it."


Anonymous said...

You make the activism sound all pure here except it wasn't. The 60s was when our drug problems started here in this country. Those peoplke you credit with being so good for the country were also bad for the country. That group didn't like moral rules any more then they liked other rules. And we are still suffering for the sexual revolution they forced on the country.

I'm not impressed that any frum girls were involved in the dress protest. They should have been protesting against the pants not for them. You think the world is any better a place becuz women can wear those horrible pants they wear with no shame in the streets and in the stores and in busines?!

And did anyone really have any proof that the teacher expected payment for an A mark or was that just more of the feminist baloney?

The 60s were more of a shandeh then anything else. to ask frum people to be like those people is also a shandeh.

Anonymous said...

Fucking hippy.