A new vision of civil rights -- including women's rights
Washington — Twenty years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. described his dream of equality , few if any of the vast audience saw equality of the sexes in that vision. Author Betty Friedan had only just published her seminal book ''The Feminine Mystique.'' Women's rights groups were virtually nonexistent.
''Women didn't understand in 1963 that they had any rights,'' recalls Eleanor Holmes Norton, who worked on the staff of Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 march on Washington.
''It certainly didn't cross my mind,'' says Mrs. Norton, now a Georgetown University law professor, and who headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Carter.
Now, as marchers prepare to converge on Washington in commemoration of the historic civil rights rally 20 years ago, the mood is different.
March director Walter E. Fauntroy, the District of Columbia's Democratic congressional delegate, maintained this week that every marcher will be a supporter of women's rights. Beside him at a press conference was an official of the Women's Equality Action League.
Among the major speakers at the rally tomorrow will be Judith Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a co-chairman of the march.
''They definitely have reached out,'' said the NOW president of the march organizers. She added in an interview that her group sees the march as an opportunity to reach out to minorities.
''I will talk about women and the fact that women come in all colors and backgrounds,'' she says of her upcoming speech. ''Every movement comes in both sexes, and the success of our movements depends on not fragmenting ourselves in ways that we have in the past.''
As with many feminists, Mrs. Goldsmith came into the women's movement by way of her civil rights and peace activities of the 1960s. ''It was a reasonable extension,'' she says, because women had been fighting for human rights only to discover that those very movements often degraded women.
''We really were, by and large, more in coffeemaking than policymaking positions,'' she says, noting that this irony led women to begin their own liberation movement.
''We were treated the only way men really knew how to relate to us 20 years ago,'' Mrs. Goldsmith says. But she adds, ''We learned a great deal from the work in the civil rights movement. I think all of us who were involved felt a powerful commitment.''
One lesson, she says, is that ''we will do (civil rights work) on an equal basis this time.''
Mrs. Norton, noting that her interest in women's rights dates to the late 1960s, also points to the tie between the two movements. Now that women's rights have been articulated, ''it's abundantly clear that these issues cut race lines and are naturally allied to civil rights,'' she says.
The women's movement ''drew much of its ideology and techniques from the experience of black people in seeking civil rights,'' Mrs. Norton says, and it often uses the same legal points to win cases in court.
For its part, the women's movement, despite its lily-white origins, has made inroads among minorities. ''There are no women at any level or race that do not count among them vocal feminists,'' Mrs. Norton says.
''There's been a growing awareness'' among Hispanic women, says Lourdes Miranda, a businesswoman who owns a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., and who helped found the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women.
She took a path from Puerto Rican civil rights to the women's movement. ''I saw it . . . as a human rights movement which encompassed the rights of women and the rights of minorities and any and all people who were disenfranchised,'' she says.
Law Prof. Douglas Laycock, who recently testified against sex discrimination in pensions before a congressional committee, also equates civil rights and women's rights. ''In terms of the underlying reasons that make racial discrimination so offensive, they are all applicable to sex discrimination,'' he says, although he concedes that his view is disputed by others in his profession.
''For one thing, you can't change a race,'' says the University of Texas law professor. ''There's no way to escape it. . . . Obviously it's the same thing with sex.''
He also maintains that sex, like race, is hardly ever a relevant criteria for legislation.
''Finally, we care so much about race discrimination because there's been so much of it,'' he says. ''The history of restricting women's options and holding them to certain defined and subordinate places is just as pervasive.''