by Len Lear
Karen Bojar, a former professor of English and women’s studies at Community College of Philadelphia and a 30-year member of the 9th Ward Democratic Committee, is a Mt. Airy resident and former Temple University undergrad who also has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Temple and a Master’s in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.
After nine years of preparation and writing, she offers her personal recognition of feminism in Philadelphia during the glory years through her book “Feminism In Philadelphia: The Glory Years: Philadelphia NOW, 1968-1982.”
According to Elliott batTzedek, Outreach Coordinator of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mt. Airy, “Karen Bojar has done political organizing a great service with her history of Philadelphia NOW. While national offices and players get the headlines, change has always come from people working together where they are to effect their lives and the lives of others.
“The women of NOW, based in Philly neighborhoods and using their friends, their professional networks and the city’s institutions, did the hours of meeting, planning, negotiating, flyering and protesting that are necessary for social change. Karen’s book is their story, their passions, setbacks, failures and many successes.”
Following is an interview we conducted with Ms. Bojar last week:
Do you mind if I ask your age?
I have been having a hard time admitting it, but it’s time to come out of the closet and own up to being a septuagenarian. I recently turned 70.
Where are you from originally?
I’m a Philly native. I’ve lived in Mt. Airy all my adult life. I love the diversity, the greenery, the sense of community.
What inspired you to write the book?
I wanted to honor the contributions of the wonderful women who founded Philadelphia NOW. The second wave feminist movement is largely remembered in terms of its national leaders, but it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities working tirelessly for gender justice. I wanted to document and honor the contributions of the women who built the feminist movement in Philadelphia.
My commitment to recording the history of Philadelphia NOW was motivated in part by my regret at having missed the glory days of second wave feminism. I have heard many statements of regret from those who “missed the ’60s” — sometimes because they were too young, sometimes because they were focused on careers or family responsibilities. I did not miss the ’60s. I had the misfortune to get involved with some left-wing fringe groups who thought of feminism as “a petty-bourgeois deviation.” I never believed that but did not have enough confidence in myself to mount an effective challenge. Although I considered myself a feminist, my identity as an anti-war, anti-racist activist was more powerful than my feminist identification.
Writing this history has given me a glimpse of what I missed and a sense of how different my 20s and 30s would probably have been if I had been spending my time with wonderful women like the founding members of Philadelphia NOW. Ironically, I became a feminist activist in the 1980s when I no longer desperately needed feminism to help me sort out my personal life. In some ways, writing this history is my compensation for being missing in action in the 1970s.
How would you describe “second-wave feminism?”
The term “second wave” has been used to distinguish the explosion of feminist activism that occurred in the late 1960s/1970s from the “first wave,” the 19th century suffrage movement. The “second wave” feminist movement that emerged in the U.S. in the late 1960s was far more diverse both ethnically and regionally than is generally acknowledged.
Most of the published material documenting the second wave feminist movement focuses on a few major urban centers — New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Historians of the feminist movement have begun to complicate the story of second wave feminism, which has often been viewed as largely white, middle class and centered in a few major urban areas.
How did the feminist movement develop in Philly compared to other major cities?
Most historians of second wave feminism define it in terms of two strands often characterized as the earlier liberal reformist strand associated with hierarchical, structured organizations like NOW and the somewhat later, generally considered the more radical “Women’s liberation” strand consisting of small, loosely organized non-hierarchical collectives.
The radical feminist strand was not as powerful in Philadelphia compared to New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. My book focuses on NOW, on organized feminism. Many NOW members saw themselves as the real radicals, using mainstream tactics to achieve radical ends and pushing through legislative/ institutional changes which transformed our society. My book is not the full story of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records … NOW left a paper trail!
During your 8 years as Phila. NOW president, what were your proudest accomplishments?
Reaching out to a diverse group of women to build a chapter which reflected the diversity of the city. In 2006 we sponsored a Women of Color and Allies Conference chaired by now Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who at the time was one of our Vice-Presidents. We have finally achieved the goal of building a chapter which is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and age under the leadership of Nina Ahmad, who was elected president in December, 2013. Also, I started a political action committee in 2002 which has helped NOW members to develop political skills and to elect more feminist candidates, including our members, to political office.
— Continued next week