There is a wholly unheralded builder of American democracy who invites a special New Year’s salute. I am referring to the woman homemaker who sees an injustice done to her children or community and mobilizes the citizenry to do something about it.
Example: In the late Seventies two young mothers found their infants harmed by a deficient infant formula. They then discovered that there were no required health standards for nutritional content that had to be met by the formula manufacturers. So they proceeded to build a movement that resulted in the Congress passing such legislation instructing the Food and Drug Administration to set such standards.
Example: Gale Cincotta, a 50 year old Chicago mother of six boys, was dismayed ten years ago when she saw the poor quality of education her sons were receiving in school. That concern led her to analyze the various impacts which were weakening and undermining the community. Now she heads National People’s Action, a coalition of neighborhood groups in several cities dedicated to diminishing bank redlining, inequitable property taxes and home-destroying high interest rates through a process of direct group negotiation with banks and city halls.
Example: Carol van Strum one day saw her four children accidentally sprayed by a truck doing routine chemical weed control. She began to learn about these chemicals and soon formed Citizens Against Toxic Sprays which is opposing certain herbicide spraying in Oregon’s national forests. She has just finished a book on herbicides for the Sierra Club publishing group.
Example: Ruth Desmond began delving into nutritional issues and food safety 25 years ago when her husband came down with bladder cancer. In 1959 she started the Federation of Homemakers in Arlington, Virginia with thousands of members from around the country. The Federation has testified and litigated on many food issues against powerful companies and their law firms. A Daughter of the American Revolution (DAR), Ms. Desmond chuckles when she recalls the battles with the industry’s male lawyers: “They thought we’d go back to bridge,” she says, “but we didn’t.”
Example: Ada Vladimir went from New York to Florida in 1973 to retire. But she did everything but that. She organized her retirement community into an association called Consumers Against Higher Prices. She is a champion petition gatherer. And can she ever rally a huge audience of elderly people against “these rip-offs that are gouging you.”
Women as people of power in a community go against the stereotypes conveyed by the word “homemaker” or “housewife.” Yet in area after area–toxic wastes, nuclear power, water pollution, Appalachian poverty, the arms race, neighborhood displacement–women as homemakers are emerging as the leaders, the strategists, the motivators of determined community or national action.
It is important for our society to broaden the definition of what is heroic beyond wars, athletics and the cinema. The unassuming heroism of these aforementioned women and many others like them deserves highlighting as role models and as pathways to understanding how democratic action leads to a more just society.
Becoming a community leader, without the conventional political or professional credentials, is not easy. It is only imperative. As Gale Cincotta says: “Most people are raised to believe that there’s somebody ‘professional’ who’s going to deal with all their problems. You find out you’re pretty smart and the people around you are pretty smart, and the so-called professionals aren’t that smart. Plus the difference is that you care and they don’t.”
Writer, Anne Witte, is looking for descriptions of women who, under strong provocation, step forth from their home to become community activists. If you have any names or suggestions, send them to her at P. 0. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036.