Feminist recalls time at NOW

Carole De Saram, former president of the New York National Women’s Organization, cautioned students not to be complacent about about gender equality.
Carole De Saram, former president of the New York National Women’s Organization, cautioned students not to be complacent about about gender equality. Photo by Lorraine Abdulahad.

From marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue to fighting for a bill that banned credit lenders from discriminating on the basis of sex, Carole De Saram is a feminist on the front lines of the battle for gender equality.

De Saram, the former president of the New York City chapter of the National Women’s Organization (NOW), spoke about her participation in the fight for women’s rights to a group of six at a Pierson Master’s Tea on Wednesday. De Saram encouraged her audience to take an active role in raising awareness about discrimination.

Before organizations such as NOW began providing a forum for women to get together and discuss their personal struggles in the late 1960s, most women never knew how much they had in common with each other, De Saram said. It made De Saram determined to help ease the plight of women all over the country, she said.

When De Saram helped to organize a march down Fifth Avenue in 1970 for women’s rights, she said she never dreamed that so many women would participate. She said she was amazed as hundreds of women, many in nurses’ uniforms, from all over the East Coast poured out of buses to join the march. Men on the streets jeered as the women marched, and policemen even began attacking some of the marchers, but the women pressed forward, she said.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about that march,” De Saram said.

One of the most influential causes that De Saram has fought for has been ending credit discrimination. Until 1974, women were not allowed to open any credit lines in their own name, making it impossible to purchase a car, home or even to open a checking account without their husbands’ — or fathers’, if they were unmarried — approval. This system made women entirely dependent on men for all forms of financial support. A woman could not even call Sears to have her washing machine fixed unless the request was placed in her husband’s name, she said. Divorced women lost all their assets, she added, which were put in their husband’s name, and the men were not required to provide alimony or child support.

But around this time, women’s magazines began giving publicity to NOW’s efforts to raise awareness, and De Saram said the organization received hundreds of heartfelt letters from divorced women who had been left destitute. Eventually, De Saram and other members of NOW attended public hearings and read those letters to members of Congress in an effort to “shame them,” De Saram said.

In 1974, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that made it illegal to deny anyone credit on the basis of sex.

De Saram encouraged students in the audience to speak up about injustice. Subtle discrimination still happens today, she said, and she emphasized the importance of forming groups to address this. She also warned against letting all the progress that women have made thus far slip away by thinking that equality has been achieved.

After her presentation, De Saram engaged the students in discussion, where audience members spoke about their perceptions of women’s rights and discrimination in society today.

Three of the audience members said they were amazed by all De Saram had accomplished in the fight for women’s equality.

“She was really empowering,” Alexa Chu ’11 said. “People don’t take women’s rights seriously enough.”

The talk was sponsored by Pierson College and the Women’s Leadership Initative at Yale.

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